By Matthew Levi Stevens
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.
Even a brief list of the names he crossed paths with sounds like a veritable who’s 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 January 1916 in Taplow, Buckinghamshire, England. 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! There’s been a mistake in the mail. Send me back. Wherever you got me, return me. Wrong time, wrong place, wrong colour.
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 Ernst’s 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 show’s opening his work was taken down by poet Paul Eluard, on orders of the ‘Pope’ of Surrealism, André 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 Eileen Garrett, celebrated society medium and psychic, whose abilities landed her in trouble with the authorities. During a séance, Garrett had apparently been contacted by the spirit of the captain of the British dirigible R-101, who gave such convincing details concerning the airship’s terrible crash that she was arrested under the Official Secrets Act on suspicion of espionage!
“That’s My Music!”
Serving during the Second World War, Gysin became a naturalised American, changing his name officially from ‘Brian’ to ‘Brion’. In the army Gysin was sent on a 18-month course to learn Japanese, including calligraphy, later to have a major impact on his art. He also met Tex Hanson, grandson of Josiah Hanson – inspiration and basis for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 bestselling novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Through this friendship and the access it gave him to the world of Black Canadians, Gysin wroteTo 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, Morocco 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: