The Book of AM musicians March 1978
The Book of AM was recorded on a Teac 4-track reel-to-reel Daevid Allen sold to the musicians. Working almost non-stop, the group managed to record 90 minutes of music in less than two months. The first 45 of these were released as the original album.
“Juan had already started to put rudimentary chords together and he could sing,” Jerry Hart says. “Carmeta turned out to be a very gifted vocalist who could improvise over almost anything and was eminently capable of taking the lead vocal role, as you can hear on the album. What I brought to it was discipline, some basic intuitive skill as an arranger and a bit more technical ability on the guitar.”
Once he’d told me his part in the story, Jerry asked if I’d like to talk to Juan Arkotxa. I agreed, of course.
According to Juan Arkotxa
Originally from the Basque Country, Juan – somewhat bizarrely to me – studied Automatic Control Theory, the basis of computer and telecommunication systems, at Edinburgh University in 1966/7. Here, he met Leslie who was studying Political Science.
The Book of AM was born out Juan and Leslie’s travels in America, India and Europe and their developing worldview.
For both Juan and Leslie, “Buddhism was the unifier – it was like the awakener into the Void and the Mind. No other religion gives such a clear study of the mind and its tricks. From Islam we loved the music. Christianity had the most overlays for us. Robert Graves firmly opened that door – and it keeps on opening. In India we were deeply impressed by the Indian Saddhus because theirs is a living tradition. The ancient Egyptians had power over the cosmology of Time. They were ready for it and lived their lives accordingly. Then we loved the Northern Icelandic poetry since it was such an opener into the land of dreams and ice and wit and violence and magic. We did not become religious practitioners as such. We wanted to be at the creative centre of our own world. That was why we created the Book of AM.”
So, what is the book of the Book of AM?
The Book of AM is a collection of inspirational songs, poems and stories relevant to the meaning and direction of our lives in those wide-open times. It follows the cycle of day from early Dawn to late Evening.
The written and graphic material is drawn from different parts of the world and spans thousands of years. It expresses core themes from Eastern and Western philosophical and religious traditions. The book has 25 copperplate engravings with graphics and text. They are set in an engraved border of medieval Islam and Christian design. Accompanying these engravings are 64 hand-written and water-
coloured pages set within the same engraved border. These contain longer versions of the same and related songs. 19 pages of sources and explanatory notes bring the book to a total of 108 pages.”
The Book of AM is nothing less than the attempt to create a universal work that Juan and Leslie hoped would cross the East-West divide and move the world beyond sectarianism.
It is, as Juan puts it, “a big heavy kind of medieval book”.
Arriving in Deia
In 1977, when Juan and Leslie had completed the handmade version of the actual Book of AM they tried to have it published in Barcelona. They were unsuccessful and, on their way back to Ibiza where they lived, they decided to visit Robert Graves in Deia and show him the parts of the book that related to his The White Goddess, “The Song of Amergin” and “Under the Apple Tree”.
“Robert and his family were very welcoming,” Juan says, “and the Deia artists and musicians were so enthusiastic about our Book of AM project we decided to record the music there. I think we managed to arrive at the right place at exactly the right time. Deia provided the setting for where our plans were realised”.
Graves also allowed Leslie to do research on the Moon Goddess in his library for the couple’s next project, the Book of Intxixu. “Sometimes Robert would appear at our house on the Puig,” remembers Juan, “and we would talk of trees, Amergin and muses”.
The original album release
The original album was released on Jean Karakos’s Disques Labo Lab label, who released Daevid Allen’s albums, and distributed by Musique et Communication of Paris. Daevid had told Karakos all about Juan and Leslie and the Book of AM. Armed with Karakos’s address, Leslie went to Paris and finally found Karakos’s house on the outskirts of Paris.
“Leslie gave him the master tape, the artwork with the three etchings along with the lyrics and the musicians credits,” Juan explains. “Three months later we received four boxes containing 500 copies of the album. Karakos was as good as his word! And all of this without a contract! Those were the times!
Asked what he thinks of the Book of AM album now, Juan says “We knew that the theme was quite exceptional and universal as well, but we were not professional musicians so it was hard to judge what we were doing. But, there’s no doubt that when you deal with Quality, in this case Universal Quality, something is produced that touches the inner core of quite a lot of people and since it’s Timeless its afterlife could go on forever.”
Which, I guess, is how and why the Book of AM became a cult.
Tune in next week for Part III: An Astonishing Afterlife.