Book Reviews

Rose Simpson – Muse, Odalisque, Handmaiden: Book Review

Rose Simpson gives a fascinating insight to the life, times and adventures of the psychedelic folk pioneers – The Incredible String Band

Publication Date:  23rd February 2021

Publisher: Strange Attractor Press

Virtually everyone with a serious interest in music (and that, I assume will include all At The Barrier readers) will have an opinion on The Incredible String Band.  And that opinion will undoubtedly be one of the following:

  • I’ve heard of them but I’ve never heard their music – what are they like?
  • Yes, I know about the Incredible String Band.  Can’t stand them – whimsical, fey hippies.  I just don’t get them. 
  • I love them – there’s never been another band like them, and I can’t get enough.

Thanks to an introduction from the singer in the band that I was with in the mid-seventies, I fall squarely into the latter of the above three camps, so I was delighted when I read that Rose Simpson, a central figure in ISB ideal between 29th June 1968 and 14th December 1970 was to publish her memoir of her Incredibly Strung experiences.

Muse, Odalisque, Handmaiden is subtitled A Girl’s Life In The Incredible String Band and it tells a fascinating story of how Rose first encountered band stalwarts Mike Heron and Robin Williamson, how she came to be involved in the band’s stage presentations, how she matured as the musician she is at pains to emphasise she never was, her involvement in recording, the band’s immersion in the Scientology cult and finally, her own gradual disengagement from the whole thing.  The book’s title is well chosen – Rose freely accepts that her role within ISB encompassed all three aspects of the title, and that admission is made without any bitterness – she was in a situation of her own choosing that enabled her to experience the extreme highs as well the sometimes mind-numbing boredom of late 60s hippie life.

The story starts with a chance meeting between Rose, President of the Mountaineering Club at York University (where she was studying English) and the outlandishly free-living Heron and Williamson at a walkers’ refuge in Scotland.  Enticed by the medieval minstrel personae of Heron, Williamson and William’s female companion, Licorice McKechnie and, more particularly, by Mike Heron’s “wide dark eyes,” she abandoned university to climb on board, and so began a tale of travel, communal living and remarkable creativity, all the while, dressed in the types of rainbow clothing most of us can only dream of.

And what a tale it is!  Rose pulls no punches in her detailed, lucid account.  Her descriptions of breadline living, in damp, mouldy cottages and flats, the constant invasions to privacy that is the reality of communal life and the sheer tedium of touring are vivid in the extreme.  Laudably, she avoids any sensationalism or moral judgement when the subjects of drug consumption (copious, at least in the pre-Scientology days) and casual sex (a “given” in the communal environment) are covered, nor does she express any regrets in relation to her participation thereof.  The rise of the ISB from a cult folk duo to an international and lasting phenomenon is told with vivid accuracy and a humour that avoids any placement of tongue within cheek and the description of the conditions, facilities, weather and anarchy that was the Woodstock festival is simply the best that it’s ever been my pleasure to read.

The Incredible String Band at Woodstock. from left: Rose Simpson; Mike Heron; Licorice McKechnie; Robin Williamson
Rose Simpson Incredible String Band
The 5000 Spirits or the Layers Of The Onion

The music of the ISB is given a fairly light touch.  Rose is never less than utterly respectful and awestruck by the musical talents of Mike and Robin, and she makes shrewd assessments of the duo’s very different approaches to composition.  It’s made very clear that Rose’s own musical preferences, as far as ISB were concerned, was with the whimsical, usually earlier pieces from The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion and The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter (both, incidentally are my own favourite ISB albums) and songs like Koeeoaddi There, The Hedgehog’s Song and Painting Box still clearly remain close to her heart.  Conversely, whilst she expresses lasting fondness for some of the band’s longer pieces such as Creation and White Bird, she gives short shrift to some of the band’s more indulgent ideas, notably the U multimedia project.

Rose is also completely self-effacing with regard to her own contribution to the band.  ISB critics often cite the presence of Rose and Licorice as a reason for disliking the band. “They’re not musicians – why are they there?” is a common criticism.  Well – don’t expect Rose to argue with the musical assessment.  She defines herself almost stubbornly as a non-musician yet she patiently explains the contribution that she and Lic made to the visual and aural impact of the band, as a unique stage presence, as a supplement – with their bass, percussion, violin and keyboards et al to Mike and Robin’s unquestionable musicianship and, crucially, as a means of delivering the studied naivety that made ISB so appealing.

Rose Simpson Incredible String Band
The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter

ISB’s absorption into Scientology takes a mild, but firm, hammering.  Rose recounts how Mike, Robin and Licorice all became enraptured by the cult after attending sessions at its London HQ.  Rose, at first, went along with it but soon became disillusioned, and her slow drift away from the band was put into motion.  She’s particularly scathing of how, in her view, involvement in Scientology diminished the freedom of thought that was such a feature of Mike’s and Robin’s music and life philosophy, but does acknowledge the sense of order and purpose the doctrine brought, particularly to the unpredictable, unguessable Licorice.

Elsewhere, the are informative and amusing recollections of how, under the guidance of producer, manager and mentor Joe Boyd, ISB approached the recording process and of their dedication to staying ahead and apart from the crowds in their choice of clothing.  There’s an informative insight into the moods and lifestyle of the enigmatic Licorice (a lady who, it seems, despite their close engagement within ISB, remained a fairly distant figure, even to Rose) and the stories of the gigs – in Europe and, particularly the USA – Robin’s stagecraft and the interminable tuning that the band’s array of exotic instruments required are entertaining and encapsulating.

Rose Simpson Incredible String Band
Rose: Then and Now

Rose Simpson left ISB after a final gig at San Francisco’s Fillmore West in December 1970.  She became a mother, worked in a variety of jobs, was, for a period during the mid-90s, Lady Mayoress of Aberystwyth and went on to gain a PhD in German Literature.  This memoir of those halcyon days when everything and anything did, indeed, seem possible is a great read – exceptionally well written and well illustrated with both black and white and colour photographs.  Rose has managed to give the impression that the reader is peeping into her personal diaries – I loved reading this book, and I heartily recommend that anyone with any interest in late 60s culture generally, or The Incredible String Band specifically, seeks it out.

Watch The Incredible String Band, featuring Rose Simpson (in the blue dress) perform Empty Pocket Blues in 1970 here:

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