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Sunshine of Your Love - Cream

Poet and rock lyricist Pete Brown died on May 19th earlier this year, in Hastings. Pete will be remembered as half of the songwriting team that wrote legendary British sixties rock band Cream's best known tracks. Pete Brown wrote the lyrics, bassist and vocalist Jack Bruce, the music. A true troubadour, Pete Brown is best recalled by fellow poet and friend Nicholas Johnson as published in the May 30th edition of the Hastings Independent Press:

"Things May Come and Things May Go, but the Art School Dance Goes on Forever"

A Farewell to Pete Brown.

THE night after Pete Brown died I woke to a dream. Of the Northumbrian poet Basil Bunting sat by a small round table on a velvet backed chair in a bistro quieting down after lunch. Bunting kept a wineglass still on the table and a quick eye on the door. He was, here, a slender heavily spectacled man in his mid sixties, rejuvenated by friendship of poets, many young in practice, who looked up to him. That encouraged him to write his late masterpiece in part a paean to a love sustained a half century for a Peggy Greenbank, Briggflatts [1966]. I said during our clipp'd conversation that I'd tell Tom I'd seen him well.

Yet Bunting died a long time ago; and Tom it was – that is the poet Tom Pickard - showed his film on poet and jazz pianist Roy Fisher at The Black Huts. When Tom's film Birmingham's What I Think With [1991] ended a man with searingly hazel green eyes turned from the stall and said “Hi man, I'm Pete Brown. Great film.” And from that day I began to know Pete.

I realized pretty smartly the dream was an adieu between Pete Brown and the many who loved him, and his poetic milieu. But the dream is also telling, about what I believe to be economy. In Bunting's creed to condense and strike out adjectives superfluous to the essence of the poem. You'll find that in Pickard's poetry; and you find that in Pete's poems.

There's no word you could remove from a Pete Brown poem – they are like small stones pitted into a poem's scarp brow. These poems, becoming published when he was teenage, in 'Evergreen Review', or 'Outburst', 'New Departures' and in his first chapbook, Few [1966] were deft and pithy, laced with hilarious absurdity. But in their address, there was a sense that these- frequently four liner – poems were like billboard notices; despatches from a Jewish only child born on Christmas Day in the Surrey blues delta [1940]. From roads and thoroughfares of our cities and their ludicrous suburbs Pete wrote flâneur bulletins and mysterious songs with a far-reaching European sensibility coupled with African and American artistic modernism - observing the behaviour of people with an empathy that imbued them with elements animal and animate.

These poems embodied satire, a warmth that didn't bear sentiment. Perhaps they were a long rope from the hulk of the container ship lugging Dud and Pete, The Goons, and Brown's cousin Marty Feldman to the harbouring places, 'shadow clubs' where Pete and cohorts so intuitively meshed jazz, and poetry.


Alone tired halfdrunk hopeful

I staggered into the bogs

at Green Park station

and found 30 written on the wall

Appalled I lurched out

into the windy blaring neon Piccadilly night

thinking surely,

Surely there must be more of us than that.

One of the principal passions of Pete's, forming conduits of memory and quotation, was cinema. He had a vivid abiding knowledge of the sequence of western films made by Anthony Mann or Budd Boetticher, and obscure film by Douglas Sirk. An image that he'd noticed of the newspaper blowing on the rainy dock in the Greg Toland shots of John Ford's 1940 film The Long Voyage Home emerged in sinuous wordplay of his lyrics to Cream's first single, 'Wrapping Paper'[ 1966].

In visits to Pete in his panoramic family kitchen or in a garden deckchair - a pub or a bistro [Pete was teetotal since '67] the conversation circumnavigated music, writing and film; sparse on gossip rich on story. And within the story, even if wistful on teenage passion while working at a Devon coast cider orchard, near Stoke Gabriel; when the passion became a mirage he went, subdued, back to his tent, and drank two bottles of Whiteway’s. Pete woke imagining he was climbing a rockface and had pulled his tent around him.

He was quietly proud of writer Alasdair Gray's suggestion that he busk his poems for money. This showed a way of doing only what he loved and making money. Here in Glasgow he slept on Alasdair's floor in Sauchiehall Street. A man who also lived there held soirees so Pete read his poems. Pete's imaginary band and his name – as poet – feature in Gray’s Lanark [1982]. There’s a Gray short story too that features Pete, ‘The Great Bear Cult’.

It was natural then to learn that Pete had been the first act booked at the Morden Tower a room used by a pipe band in rehearsal that instigated a renaissance and development of poetry as heard, in the boozy spliff and roll up bucolic of the Tower's unique acoustic, perceptive audience, generously convened by Tom [aged 18] and Connie Pickard in 1964 at Newcastle upon Tyne's back Stowell Street. The following week, on Bloomsday – was Bunting's first airing of Briggflatts.

Going back to the dream then; that blue morning, I realised that I would miss the conversations, always his wit, and musical word play. Equally I saw that I'd no way of continuing conversations on revenant poets; - Roy Fisher – who wrote 'Pete Brown's Eggs Still Hatch' neither Gael Turnbull nor Robert Creeley or Bunting whom he read with - let alone his peers, Stuart Montgomery, Gillian Barron, Kevin Coyne, Spike Hawkins, Ted Milton, Michael Horovitz, Libby Houston, the Liverpool poets or Alan Jackson, whose The Grim Wayfarer [1969] he lent me.

Another poet he performed with in the sixties was the American Carlyle Reedy. They shared a harmonious double bill at the Beacon at Black Huts where she read - and then played him and us, at the piano, 'My Funny Valentine'.

For Carlyle, 'Pete had a yearning for people who were mysterious. He possessed no artistic jealousy, no bias against language. He had a unique creative process – with his language you can feel it and see it. Pete can throw everything upside down in a line. He could really use words you wouldn't normally find.'



Praise be to Christ the mackerel

She died so that we could live

Pete Brown

Sitting on the terrace pre-gig with Pete's wife Sheridan we sat by shore at The Angling Club, surrounded by fetid crab and dab – dead – and saw herring fished by hand and a boat lazily turning around to survey its prey. Hastings jazz club was run here by Agatha Coffey [daughter of genius Irish poet Brian Coffey], and pianist John Donaldson who is producer and musical director of Shadow Club, Pete's valedictory LP.

That night Pete read a poem within concert, about a barbwire wedding dress then a lament for Birmingham having no interesting places to go. The first half ended with an improvised band performance of his epic 'Blues for the Hitchhiking Dead', written with Michael Horovitz. The second half closed with his co-write with Jack Bruce – and Eric Clapton [who plays on Shadow Club], Sunshine of your Love.

Pete's imaginary bands were real enough – as he wrote pivotal songs with Cream, principally with Jack Bruce, whom he would – one hiatus aside – collaborate for almost a half century. One song Cream refused he often sang here, in concert at the Kino, at benefits for the Jazz Club, or the hospice; 'Theme for an Imaginary Western'. This, and the Bruegelesque 'White Room' he incorporated into the title of his 2010 autobiography, White Rooms & Imaginary Westerns. Jack Bruce sang this on Songs for a Tailor [1969].

Pete's arrival in Hastings from Crouch End in 2014 coincided with refugees veering to our shore where before their destination was Kentish, and so he resurrected with a welcome to voyagers, to sufferers, the song 'Thousands on a Raft.'

That he told the audience this was slang for 'beans on toast' does not mock trauma or conflict. As image close to his love of pop art and collage he conveyed the peril of an overcrowded dinghy.

Pete formed the Hastings All Stars, sang r'n'b with Buick Six and improv double bassist Olie Brice; and sat on the Stade beach with singer Shirley Collins talking on film about song guitarist Davy Graham.

The late sixties saw Pete's second – final volume of poems for a half century, Let 'em Roll Kafka. The bands he fronted, Pete Brown's Battered Ornaments, and Piblokto! led to him re-pairing with Graham Bond for their LP, Two Heads Are Better Than One. [1972]. Songs, like 'Scunthorpe Crabmeat', 'Colonel Fright's Dancing Terrapins' shunted Pete's imagination into previously unprospected sidings.

Such songs remind you how deftly funny Pete was. He'd worked with a removal firm, headed by his friend who took people's belongings onto the early motorways wearing a gorilla mask on both sides of his head. Again, in the early 70s gigging in France with Robert Wyatt; they paused on the night road for a slash in front of a deserted factory fence – challenged by 600 garden gnomes.

After the sixties poems ceased to occur. Readings also went to the wall. Pete produced and scripted film, he wrote and recorded songs; took singing lessons. He played the trumpet, talking drums, Tunisian drum, and on moving to Hastings took piano lessons.

When I met Pete, I asked him now he wrote poems once more; how could he decide which to pursue, the poem - or the song. “If the poem tries to get into the song I have ways of heading it off.”

In 2016 Mundane Tuesday & Freudian Saturday was published. These poems carried a note from Ginger Baker:

“In 1961, we used to do gigs on Sundays at Sea Bank Town Hall with three poets: Spike Hawkins, Pete Brown and Michael Horovitz; that was the beginning of rap.”

Pete joined the London train from Guildford one summer evening, and said when we shared a table, that he was writing songs for Procul Harum’s album, Novum.

“They're a pretty conservative lot, so I decided to slip in a handful of left-wing concepts into the lyrics.”

“Didn't they notice?”

“No. They didn't spot them. Maybe they were subtle. But - they sang them happily enough.”

Conversations with Pete at home near Keppel Road could touch on film makers, from Pawel Pawikowski's Ida at the Electric Palace to watching Dennis Hopper's Out of the Blue, in a nigh empty cinema at Edinburgh Festival, having all the twisted radiance of this raw, broken film falling in front of him from the projector like hypnotic shards.

He had worked with John Krish, the great documentary film maker, and written to Sight and Sound extolling Krish's feature - Unearthly Stranger [1963], and he wrote obituaries for fallen musicians in the Guardian's 'Other Lives'.

If projects failed because of his humour he seemed happy he'd had the pleasure of the laugh. There had been a script he said, an idea concocted with Vivian Stanshall for a film extolling Keith Moon, as if Moon was in the afterlife, being called

'Mo---ooo, n. Are you there, m-ooo-nn?' Developing this didn’t pass muster with the Who's powers that be.

One winter evening I visited him in his lair crammed with books and films, posters and art works, his mug of Marty Feldman full of herb tea. He was looking at a bank of six monochrome screens.

“Are you looking at x rays?” I asked.

“No. Security cameras.”

He shrugged, and loped as he always did, wiry and leaning forward, scruffy yet elegantly dressed, his t shirt red patterned under a thick cardigan his eyes brightly green to brew a tea.

Pete returned to his study. He spoke of his favourite work by John Coltrane, live, from the Village Vanguard “When Coltrane begins to play on 'Psalm' it is like watching the dawning of the world.” he said.

And like the wisdom inherent within Brown's poems, written by a kind and deeply funny man, gifted, canny, who worked and watched movies into the night to rise after noon, such vivid dawns can be recalled as well as be timely.

- Nicholas Johnson


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