Acouple of years ago, I couldn’t sleep, so I got up and turned on the telly, on which Channel 4 was showing something weird and wobbly that caught my eye. Had it been any other hour, I would surely have zapped ahead to a more legible offering, but you know how it is with late-night television. It takes you somewhere else. So, I found myself staying till the end with something called The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda, directed by someone called Ira Cohen.
It is difficult to describe what happens in Thunderbolt Pagoda – not because I have forgotten, but because the action is pretty much indescribable. Against a background of throbbing Moroccan trance music, punctuated by the occasional screech of what seems to be a Formula One car going too fast around a bend, strange people dressed in strange robes loom in and out of focus in a strange and bendy way as the camera moves strangely among them and into them. The director appeared to be on acid, the actors on angel dust, the make-up artists on opium, the costumiers on methedrine and the set designers on speed. Ninety-nine times out of 100, I would have hated it. But The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda, in the preferred parlance of its time, blew my mind, man.
Which does not mean I would ever seek to see it again. Certainly not in daylight. But I made a mental note to remember the director’s name and find out more about him. Then immediately forgot to do so – until a missive from the October Gallery plopped onto my mat, inviting me to an exhibition of photographs produced in the 1960s in the Mylar chamber of the poet, photographer and film-maker Ira Cohen. The press puff describes these pictures as “perhaps the most awesome body of surrealistic photographs ever”. To tempt you further, it reproduces an eerie portrait of William S Burroughs in a plumed hat and extravagant snakeskin tunic cut in the Renaissance style, holding a rearing cobra.
I straightaway googled “Ira Cohen”. The man turns out to be a true one-off. And, although I am not one who usually bandies about the phrase “forgotten genius”, I see no shame in employing it here. For instance, I have viewed scores of portraits of Jimi Hendrix that make clear what a handsome and exciting man he was. But Cohen’s vision of him, reclining on some pasha’s day bed in vivid red oriental robes, fingers entwined, eyes staring meekly at eternity, is the first I’ve seen that discovers a problematic seriousness in him, some genuine thoughtfulness. The swirling repetition of Jimi’s image is a typically trippy 1960s effect that would sit happily on a great album cover, but, for once, the psychedelic distortion seems warranted and useful. It’s as if we’ve gotten into Jimi’s mind, isn’t it?
Cohen was born in the Bronx in 1935. So he’s a New Yorker of the old school – the school defined by fierce issues of immigration and identity. Both his parents were deaf and mute. So, young Ira, who could hear and speak, began teaching himself to spell on his fingers when he was one. This strange struggle to acquire ordinary communication skills seems to have awakened in him a taste for extraordinary communication.
In 1961, he set off for Tangier, on board the same Yugoslavian freighter that took Jack Kerouac to Morocco. In Tangier, he fell in with the resident American beats and wackos who were smoking themselves silly on the local bhang, yet somehow producing revolutionary literature in the intervening moments of relative lucidity. It was in Tangier, at exactly this time, that Burroughs wrote The Naked Lunch.
Cohen began publishing a magazine devoted to exorcism, called Gnaoua, in which he collected Burroughs, Brion Gysin, Paul Bowles and the rest of the stoned Moroccan Yankees known as the Interzone Mob, after the main location of Burroughs’s masterpiece. If you look carefully at the cover of Dylan’s seminal 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home, you’ll see a copy of Gnaoua propped up on the mantelpiece behind Bob. When I googled “Ira Cohen” and “Tangier”, I was directed also to an online antiquarian bookshop selling a rare copy of The Hashish Cookbook: a set of recipes for dope candy, dope soup and so on, written in Tangier by a certain Panama Rose, who turned out to be Cohen in a paper-thin disguise.
It was on his return to New York, slap in the middle of the 1960s, after four years in Morocco, that Cohen got serious about photography and began producing the fantastical Mylar portraits. Mylar is the trade name of a type of thin plastic film that reputedly forms the most reflective surface known to man. You’ve probably seen balloons made of the stuff being handed out at festivals. It wobbles and distorts at the lightest touch. Cohen covered a room with Mylar in his loft on the Lower East Side and began inviting assorted friends and fellow travellers into it. He photographed their elusive reflections, and filmed his “phantasmagorical” epic, The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda, in the room in 1968.
The film has its moments, as I said, and everyone should see it once, but it is the photographs produced in the shimmering and scintillating Mylar chamber that surely constitute Cohen’s finest contribution to the art of the 1960s. The cast list lured into the bendy chamber is itself a masterpiece of sorts. Burroughs and Hendrix we have already noted, but even these two hardcore psychedelics are made to look prosaic by the naked and fully out-there Jhil McEntyre, who thrusts out her chest and takes up the pose of a ship’s figurehead as she points human destiny towards the promised land.
Or what about Vali Myers, the unlikely Australian who lived in the Chelsea hotel in the winter and a 14th-century cottage in Positano in the summer, and went on to tattoo a lightning bolt on the knee of Patti Smith? Myers’s fabulous final words are worth repeating: “The illness doesn’t bother me at all,” she snorted from her deathbed. “I put all my effort into living. Any dope can drop dead.”
Then there’s Angus MacLise, “percussionist, composer, mystic, shaman, poet, occultist and calligrapher”, best known for being the original drummer of the Velvet Underground. His music includes the score for Brain Damage in Oklahoma City and Inside the Dream Syndicate Volume 1: Day of Niagara. He appears in one of Cohen’s strangest photographs, asleep and shimmering in a bed of satin, a picture El Greco might have come up with had he, too, dabbled in acid.
Hendrix described the Mylar effect as “like looking through butterflies’ wings”. It’s a druggy, unstable vision that offers none of the clean-cut certainties of the pop portraiture Warhol was producing at the same time. It’s as if we have regressed a century or so to
a parallel America, swirling with darkness, instability, evil and madness, that Edgar Allan Poe might have recognised. Either Cohen saw something in his times that most people couldn’t, or he’d spent too long in the kitchen with The Hashish Cookbook.