Angus MacLise is best known as the first drummer for the Velvet Underground. According to some accounts, he quit the Velvets of his own volition, in 1965. Others suggest that Lou Reed might have kicked him out; MacLise, who played various hand drums – including bongos – during his stint in the Velvets, had no interest in playing by the rules. ‘He withdrew when he found out that at a paying job he had to start and stop playing when told to,’ wrote Reed. ‘No one told Angus to stop playing.’ For MacLise, drumming was a cosmic, ritualistic experience; he once said that he learned how to drum by listening to the sound of falling rain, in stark contrast to Moe Tucker’s dry, metronomic pulse.
MacLise also played in the Theater of Eternal Music, the influential drone collective that included Tony Conrad, LaMonte Young and John Cale. After MacLise died in Kathmandu in 1979, aged 41, a suitcase of his possessions was left in Young’s basement in downtown New York for safekeeping. Recently, this suitcase was retrieved, and opened, for the first time in three decades. The contents of the suitcase – paintings, poetry, posters, diaries – formed the crux of ‘DREAMWEAPON: The Art and Life of Angus MacLise 1938–1979’, the intriguing first major retrospective of his life and work, curated by Johan Kugelberg and Will Cameron.
MacLise was a gifted drummer but also a painter, a poet, a dreamer. His visual and literary output was prolific, highly variable and often frustrating. In the 1960s, he created his own improvised, freeform handwriting that resembled Tibetan script, which he often incorporated into his paintings. MacLise’s paintings and experiments with handwriting parallel Brion Gysin’s experiments in Morocco at around the same time; Gysin also improvised his own form of handwriting, which appeared to be inspired by Arabic calligraphy.
MacLise wrote stream-of-consciousness poetry, inspired by his friend Ira Cohen and the Beats; with the poet Piero Heliczer, MacLise established Dead Language Press in 1958. But his literary forays are less compelling than his music, and of MacLise’s voluminous writings, the ones that relate to music are the most transfixing. On one handwritten chart on yellow legal paper, MacLise lists instruments in one column, colours in the other (‘magenta’, ‘greens’, ‘reds + vermilion’) and a list of various natural sounds (‘insect/hurricane’, ‘waterfall’, ‘thunder’) in another column, lending a sense of his tremendously synaesthetic approach to music. In another handwritten note titled ‘Sounds’, he writes of combining loops, synthesizers, harmoniums, poetry, a tape of the Indian drone instrument known as the tanpura, and several other things, including a ‘mix of waters: ocean, waterfall, spring, rain, etc’. In 1971, MacLise and his wife Hetty edited the ninth edition of the ‘multimedia in a box’ magazine Aspen, which included writings by LaMonte Young on ‘dream music’, musical scores and glyphs inspired by ancient Mayan art, and a haunting, meditative recording titled ‘The Joyous Lake’ with MacLise on drums and Hetty on organ.
In addition to Boo-Hooray’s pop-up show at Steven Kasher Gallery in Chelsea, an additional space on Canal Street showcased several hours of MacLise’s music, much of it previously unheard, continuously playing on a set of speakers set up on a table as a sound installation, of sorts. But there are limitations to what we can hear. For one, there are no recordings of the Velvet Underground that include MacLise on percussion. The other obstacle is that the vast majority of recordings by the Theater of Eternal Music never received proper release, due to a snarl of complex reasons, and many of these recordings could not be included.
In the 1970s, MacLise moved to India and then Nepal, and published magazines on handmade rice paper. He seemed to lead at least two or three separate lives. In Nepal, he ostensibly led a monk-like existence, following a strict practice in the Buddhist tradition, but his life was cut short by ‘hypoglycemia and drug abuse’, according to Ira Cohen, who died earlier this year. The Velvet Underground may have talked a good game about heroin, but it was MacLise who took those drugs to their limits, and to his own.
In the retrospective, we see a photograph of MacLise in the 1950s, a strapping, earnest-looking young man in a pressed blazer and khakis. Then there is a photograph of MacLise in the late 1970s in Nepal, shortly before his death, looking nearly unrecognizable – his face wasted away, his hair long and matted. Following his work chronologically along the walls of this ambitious exhibition, it’s impossible not to notice a tragic narrative arc – the story of a relentlessly idiosyncratic spirit who seemed shackled to nothing but the drugs that led to his own untimely demise.