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HERE TO GO & BACK AGAIN

The Lives & Arts of Brion Gysin

If Brion Gysin had not existed, it probably would have been necessary to invent him, as the
saying goes. Pre-eminent multimedia psychedelic shaman of the latter-half of the Twentieth
Century, Gysin was something of a jack-of-all-trades: Artist, Calligrapher, Entrepreneur,
Kinetic Sculptor, Novelist, Performance Artist, Photographer, Poet, Raconteur, Restaurateur,
and Traveller in This-and-Other Worlds. Brion did it All. And even a brief list of the names
he crossed paths with sounds like a veritable Whos Who: Laurie Anderson, Francis Bacon,
David Bowie, Paul Bowles, Ira Cohen, Ornette Coleman, Max Ernst, Marianne Faithfull,
Leonor Fini, Jean Genet, Keith Haring, Billie Holliday, Brian Jones, Timothy Leary, Iggy
Pop, Genesis P-Orridge, Patti Smith, Gore Vidal and, of course, his long-term friend and
collaborator, William Burroughs are among the friends, fellow-travellers and sometimes
collaborators that have spoken of their admiration for the Man and his Work. As his
biographer, John Geiger, wrote:

Brion Gysin may be the most influential cultural figure of the Twentieth Century that most
people have never heard of.

Brion Gysin was originally John Clifford Brian Gysin, born 19 th January, 1916 in Taplow,
Buckinghamshire. He never knew his English-born father, who had emigrated to Canada, just
in time to marry and father a child, before joining up and getting sent back to Europe to die in
the First World War. After moving back to Edmonton in Canada with his young widowed
mother, Gysin always preferred to stress his Swiss ancestry via his paternal grandfather, but
even then he would complain later in life concerning the delivery of his birth:

Wrong address! Wrong address! Theres been a mistake in the mail. Send me back.
Wherever you got me, return me. Wrong time, wrong place, wrong color.

The young Gysin wanted to have adventures and see visions and figured that Paris was the
place. Moving there at 18, his career as a painter should have got off to a spectacular start: a
chance encounter with Marie-Beth Aurenche then still the first Mrs. Max Ernst gave
access to the hottest scene in town, the Surrealists. Without formal Art Tuition, Gysin got
some basic tips from the Argentinian spitfire, Leonor Fini, but the main lesson came from
visiting Ernsts studio and seeing that the objective was to make the paint make the
painting. Barely 19, Gysin was soon invited to exhibit alongside Ernst, Fini, and Valentine
Hugo as well as Dali, Magritte and Picasso but before the shows Opening his work was
taken down by poet Paul Eluard, on orders of the Pope of Surrealism, Andr Breton. Gysin
never really found out why, but he was sure the fact he had just Come Out as homosexual had
something to do with it. Whatever the reason, it was a crushing blow.

Disillusioned, Gysin took off travelling, first to Greece and then Algeria. On his return to the
States in 1939, he met a number of former Surrealists who had fled War in Europe. He shared
a studio with the Chilean Roberto Matta, the beginning of a lifelong friendship, and also
worked on Broadway as a Scene Painter, befriending the successful Songwriter John La
Touche. A lifelong enthusiast of Cannabis, Gysin also started to hang out and Turn On with
Black Jazz Musicians, such as Billie Holliday. Another significant connection was with
Eileen Garrett, celebrated Society Medium and Psychic, whose abilities had landed her in
trouble with the authorities. During a sance, Garrett had apparently been contacted by the
spirit of the captain of the British dirigible R-101, who gave such convincing details
concerning the airships terrible crash that she was arrested under the Official Secrets Act on
suspicion of espionage!

Serving during World War II, Gysin became a Naturalized American, changing his name
officially from Brian to Brion. In the Army, Gysin was sent on an 18-month course to
learn Japanese, including Calligraphy, which would later have a major impact on his Art. He
also met Tex Hanson, grandson of Josiah Hanson inspiration and basis for Harriet Beecher
Stowes 1852 bestselling novel Uncle Toms Cabin. Through this friendship and the access it
gave him to the world of Black Canadians, Gysin wrote To Master A Long Goodnight,
which was published in 1946 thanks to Eileen Garrett. This and the related text, A History of
Slavery in Canada, won Gysin one of the first-ever Fullbright Scholarships. He used the
money to travel to Tangier with his new friend, composer and novelist Paul Bowles. Together
they would explore the Trance Music of the Ecstatic Brotherhoods, and one day in 1950,
attending a festival on the beach outside Tangier, Gysin had what would be for him a decisive
encounter:

. . . it was the first time Id seen large groups of people going into trance [that in itself]
was enough to have kept my attention, but beyond and above all of that I heard this funny
little music, and I said: Ah! Thats my music! I just want to hear that music for the rest of
my life. I wanna hear it every day all day.

It turned out to be the music of the Master Musicians of Joujouka, a collective of Berber Sufi
trance musicians originating from the small village of that name, south of Tangier in the
foothills to the west of the Rif Mountains. As Gysin would later write in respect of his first
encounter with the stirring, primal, hypnotic music of reeds, pipes, and goat-skin drums:

Magic calls itself The Other Method for controlling matter and knowing space. In Morocco,
magic is practiced more assiduously than hygiene though, indeed, ecstatic dancing to music
of the brotherhoods may be called a form of psychic hygiene. You know your music when you
hear it one day. You fall into line and dance until you pay the piper.

After managing to attend the Festival of Bou Jeloud up in Joujouka for the first time, Gysin
recognised that:

Their secret, guarded even from them, was that they were still performing the Rites of Pan
under the ragged cloak of Islam.

Gysins interpretation was that Bou Jeloud was an avatar of the Greek god Pan that had
survived from pagan times, as had been put forward by the pioneering socio-biologist,
Edvard Westermarck, in his 1933 study, Pagan Survivals in Mohammedan Civilization. So,
the magical music of the Master Musicians was, quite literally, a manifestation of the Pipes
of Pan.

In Tangier, Gysin would also meet the American writer William S. Burroughs who would
later become his greatest friend and collaborator but at first neither made a particularly
favourable impression. Burroughs was still in the throes of a full-on heroin addiction, and had
not yet written the monstrous masterpiece, Naked Lunch, that would make his name. He
dismissed Gysin as catering quite literally to Tangiers expat community of uppity
queens with his restaurant, The 1001 Nights. It boasted Arab dancing boys and an in-house
residency by the Master Musicians of Joujouka, as well as Gysins friend Hamri The
Painter of Morocco was main cook. It all ended in tears, though. Brion would later tell how
he he had been the target of a curse intended to oust him from his business:

. . . while getting the restaurant ready I found a magic object, which was an amulet of sorts,
a rather elaborate one with seeds, pebbles, shards of broken mirror, seven of each, and a
little package in which there was a piece of writing, and the writing when deciphered by
friends who didnt even want to handle it, because of its magic qualities, which even educated
Moroccans were not anxious to get in touch with, but it said something like, an appeal to one
of the devils of fire, the devil of smoke to take Brion away from this house: as the smoke
leaves this chimney may Brion leave this house and never return . . .

Relocating to Paris, after briefly enjoying the hospitality of the Princess Ruspoli, Gysin
moved to completely the other end of the social spectrum, moving in to the nameless fleapit
hotel at 9 Rue Gt-le-Cur in the Latin Quarter. It was here in Paris that Gysin would run into
Burroughs again, and this time they hit it off. Burroughs would likewise move into the so-
called Beat Hotel and the two of them would embark on their own equivalent of the poet
Rimbauds sustained and systematic derangement of all the senses the psychic fusion
they would come to refer to as The Third Mind. Gysin helped to steer his new friend
through the emotional rapids of heroin withdrawal, and allowed him to watch him at work on
his art. Burroughs was wide open without the safety blanket of junk, and Gysin felt
vulnerable and exposed working in front of his new friend. He rarely if ever let people see
him paint, saying it was a more private act than masturbation. It must have been an incredibly
raw bonding indeed. It was as if the first cut-up that they created together, this project for
disastrous success as they called it, was with their very souls: and it was out of this
commingling that all their subsequent collaborations would proceed. The very notion of The
Third Mind was itself a kind of psychic cut-up, named for the idea in Napoleon Hills 1937
self-help book, Think and Grow Rich, that :

No two minds ever come together without, thereby, creating a third, invisible, intangible
force which may be likened to a third mind.

The atmosphere around Burroughs and Gysin in those early days at the Beat Hotel was
steeped in the Occult, with daily experiments in mirror-gazing, scrying, trance and telepathy,
all fuelled by a wide variety of mind-altering drugs. Scrying is the very old and almost
universal practice of gazing into a crystal ball, mirror, or other reflective surface, so as to
access a form of spirit vision, usually for the purpose of Divination. Brion conducted scrying
marathons, sitting cross-legged in front of the mirrored armoire in his tiny room for up to 36
hours, tears streaming down his face from unblinking eyes, as friends passed the occasional
cigarette, cup of coffee, or joint to help keep him going. He described how:

. . . you see great galleries of characters, running through . . . scientists . . . in their sort of
19th century labs . . . whole events or whole scenes sort of frozen . . . And faces which never
existed, and great chieftains of unknown races, and so forth and so on, going back and back
further and further in time and history . . . after certainly more than 24 hours of staring . . .
where there seemed it was a limited area that one could see only a certain distance into, uh,
where everything was covered with a gently palpitating cloud of smoke which would be about
waist-high . . . that was the end, there was nothing beyond that . . .

From tales of Hassan-i Sabbh, Old Man of the Mountain and Master of the Assassins, to
magic and music in Morocco, Brion was a spellbinding storyteller. As psychedelic guru
Timothy Leary would later write:

Brion dispenses blessings, visions, communications, poetic sermons, and wicked gossip
the world of the occult is his planet. Gysin is one of the great hedonic mystic teachers.

September 1959, and Brion Gysin was using a Stanley knife to cut through paper to make
mounts for some drawings he was working on. In the process, Gysin had sliced into copies of
the New York Herald Tribune spread out as a cutting mat. Seeing the various strips of paper
and reading the chance combinations his blade had produced, he laughed so uproariously the
neighbours were concerned for his sanity. When Burroughs returned, Gysin showed him the
results almost as an afterthought, an amusing Surrealist diversion but Burroughs was
immediately struck by the technique and its potential:

The cut up method brings to writers the collage which has been used by painters for fifty
years. And used by the moving and still camera . . . And photographers will tell you that often
their best shots are accidents . . . writers will tell you the same. The best writing seems to be
done almost by accident but writers until the cut up method . . . had no way to produce the
accident of spontaneity. You cannot will spontaneity. But you can introduce the unpredictable
spontaneous factor with a pair of scissors.

Gysin himself felt that, ultimately, he was unable to make the cut-ups work for him the way
they worked for Burroughs. Instead he focused more on Permutations: he would take short,
simple phrases and run them through every conceivable combination and juxtaposition,
producing hypnotic, mantra-like formulae, such as:

Come to free the words

To free the words come

Free the words to come


The words come to free

Words come to free thee!

But even with such an apparently impersonal process as this, Brion the self-mythologizer was
able to see occult forces at work, claiming:

The permutations discovered me because permutations have been around for a long time;
in the whole magic world permutations are part of the Cabalistic secret . . .

The notion of Cabalistic secrets also applied to the latest developments in Gysins Visual
Art: he had begun painting Calligraphic works, based on the writing of Japanese in vertical
columns and Arabic to be read right-to-left, overlaid in grids inspired by the very magic
square that had been used to curse him in Tangier. The results ranged from the subtle to the
truly complex, each uniquely his own. As the painter George Condo would later remark:

[Gysin] built up an authentic Eastern painting in an authentic Western manner.

A startling visionary experience Gysin had in the back of a bus in December 1958 would lead
to the next experimental revelation. As he recorded in his diary:

Had a transcendental storm of colour visions today in the bus going to Marseilles. We ran
through a long avenue of trees and I closed my eyes against the setting sun. An overwhelming
flood of intensely bright colors exploded behind my eyelids: a multidimensional kaleidoscope
whirling out through space. I was swept out of time. I was out in a world of infinite number.
The vision stopped abruptly as we left the trees. Was that a vision? What happened to me?

When Burroughs later read The Living Brain by W. Grey Walter, he made the connection
with his friends strange visionary experience immediately. Walter, an American-born British
neurophysiologist, had been researching the effect of controlled flicker on states of
consciousness via the use of precisely calibrated stroboscopes, and with the help of early
EEG equipment had put forward a model of varying brainwave frequencies corresponding to
different states of consciousness. Apparently a flicker rate of 8-to-13 cycles a second induced
what Walter dubbed alpha rhythms which predominantly originate . . . during wakeful
relaxation with closed eyes and, interestingly, also during REM sleep (i.e. during dreaming.)
Obviously Brion had experienced a spontaneously-occurring flicker experience, no doubt
caused by the exact rhythm of the sunlight flickering through the trees as the bus drove past,
thought Burroughs. The question was, though, how to reliably reproduce the flicker effect?
The answer came from their young friend, Ian Sommerville, a gifted mathematician, who had
also read Walters book, and wrote:

I have made a simple flicker machine; a slotted cardboard cylinder which turns on a
gramophone at 78 rpm with a light bulb inside. You look at it with your eyes shut and the
flicker plays over the eyelids. Visions start with a kaleidoscope of colours on a plane in front
of the eyes and gradually become more complex and beautiful, breaking like surf on a shore
until whole patterns of colour are pounding to get in . . .
Gysin was quick to promote both the Dreamachine and his discovery of it going so far as to
register a patent, Procedure and apparatus for the production of artistic visual sensations
(although many later felt that the credit really should have gone to Sommerville.) Ever the
charismatic raconteur and self-mythologizer, Gysin would spin a web of wonder about his
flicker device, creating a suitably esoteric and esteemed pedigree, telling interviewers:

. . . one knows of cases in French history, Catherine de Medici for example, had
Nostradamus sitting up on the top of a tower . . . and he used to sit up there and with the
fingers of his hands spread like this would flicker his fingers over his closed eyes, and would
interpret his visions in a way which were of influence to her in regard to her political powers
. . . they were like instructions from a higher power . . . Peter the Great also had somebody
who sat on the top of a tower and flickered his fingers like that across his closed eyelids . . .

Of course, it was too good to be true. For all that the cosmonauts of inner space of the Beat
Hotel thought that the Dreamachine could be the drugless turn-on of the 60s illuminating
the world for the price of a light-bulb, it was never really going to have the kind of mass
appeal they might have hoped for. Marianne Faithfull who would meet Gysin for tea in
Mayfair during her lost years recalled her first impressions of the Dreamachine, and her
answer gives some sense of the associations that probably stopped the device from catching
on commercially:

I remember going to an exhibition of Brion Gysin, and there was the Dreamachine . . . I
mean I knew it was really special cos I think I was tripping . . .

Only a magical creature could think up something like that it is like a wonderful idealistic
idea, but you know its never gonna fly . . .

In his 1969 novel The Process, Gysin, had declared rather grandly:

Of course the sands of Present Time are running out from under our feet. And why not? The
Great Conundrum: What are we here for? is all that ever held us here in the first place.
Fear. The answer to the Riddle of the Ages has actually been out in the street since the First
Step in Space. Who runs may read but few people run fast enough. What are we here for?
Does the great metaphysical nut revolve around that? Well, Ill crack it for you, right now.
What are we here for? We are here to go!

In 1974 Gysin was hit badly by a diagnosis of Cancer, followed first by unsuccessful cobalt
treatment and then a colostomy. He returned to Paris to die he said but eventually began
to rally, and with the help and encouragement of friends resumed work. He wrote to William
Burroughs:

. . . I have decided to come back and finish my lifes work. Like the Old Chinese Painter I
intend to work on to the point where I can bow three times and disappear into my picture.

At the recommendation of David Bowie, Iggy Pop looked up Brion in Paris, later
remembering: Brion Gysin what a beautiful guy. His painting is beautiful. He was a real
human being. English Cut-Up writer Terry Wilson recorded interviews with Gysin for what
would become his definitive statement, Here To Go: Planet R-101, and also helped to edit
The Last Museum. New York Graffiti Artist Keith Haring visited Brion and later paid this
moving tribute:

I feel honoured to have known Brion and shared a short but timeless moment of our lives.
He was my teacher, a role he took on with great passion. Perhaps the greatest teacher I will
ever have, for he taught by example . . .

Others that made the pilgrimage to Paris to see Gysin included Genesis P-Orridge and Peter
Sleazy Christopherson of Industrial Music pioneers Throbbing Gristle. They had been vocal
about the influence of Burroughs, Gysin, Cut-Ups and the Third Mind from the beginning,
and would continue to pay tribute in successive projects Psychic TV and Coil. P-Orridge
would later write Gysin was a transmediator, a 20 th Century renaissance man, a multi-media
explorer and innovator and also that he and Burroughs were cultural alchemists and
practicing magicians, while Christophersons partner in Coil, John Balance, simply
acknowledged Brion Gysin is a Teacher. After his death, in a video tribute recorded for the
Dublin Here To Go Show in 1992, Burroughs stated unequivocally:

Brion Gysin is the only man I have ever respected, the only person of either sex. He was
completely enigmatic because he was completely himself.

In the final analysis, Gysin was perhaps right to complain that, as well as being born the
Wrong Colour in the Wrong Place, he had also been born in the Wrong Time: what becomes
more clear with each passing decade is that the single biggest misfortune of his various Lives
and Careers was to have been born Too Soon. Brion Gysin is a prime example of the 21 st
Century Magical Multimedia Artist, Psychedelic Explorer, and Techno-Shaman, and he
belongs to the Future. His Time Is Now.

I talk a new language. You will understand. I talk about the springs and traps of inspiration.

Who Runs May Read.

Brion Gysin

(1916 1986)