Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Magick Circle - John Dunbar

Not Drooper from the Banana Splits its John Dunbar

John Dunbar Indica Gallery

Whilst researching the Beatles and their circle of friends it is amazing to uncover the numerous connections between the players and how their stories all seem to interlock. It truly is a case of circles within circles. In the latest instalment of the Magick Circle series we investigate the highly influential John Dunbar.

In the careers of the Beatles and the Stones certain figures loom large. Hanging around in the background, manipulating certain events, acting as introductory agents and, in the process, playing huge roles in the careers of these seminal bands.

John Dunbar was one of these people. Dunbar was born in Mexico City in 1943, the son of the British filmmaker and former cultural attache to Moscow, Robert Dunbar. In 1965 he would go on to found the Indica gallery and bookshop in London with Barry Miles. Although the gallery only lasted for two years its influence has lasted considerably longer.

Dunbar seems to be connected to anyone who was anyone in the sixties. In 1965 he married Marianne Faithfull with Peter Asher as his best man. Peter Asher is the brother of Jane Asher, Paul McCartney’s then fiancée, and naturally, the perfect introduction to the fab four.

Dunbar and Faithfull on their wedding day
Marianne Faithfull would go on to leave Dunbar for Mick Jagger, a heroin addiction and a starring role in a Kenneth Anger movie, Lucifer Rising. Her co-star in this movie was Donald Cammell who would go on to produce the notorious film, Performance, starring Mick Jagger and the other serial Stone shagger, Anita Pallenberg. Cammell’s father would have been a name well known to Kenneth Anger, given that he had written a biography on Anger’s, and later the Beatles and Stones hero, Aleister Crowley. As a footnote, Lucifer Rising featured a soundtrack recorded by the ex-Manson acolyte Bobby Beausoleil, Angers former lover.
Indica Gallery

It was at the Indica bookshop that John Lennon would discover the book, the Passover Plot by Hugh J. Schonfield, that would enlighten the Beatle and ultimately lead to the infamous ‘bigger than Jesus’ quote and the furious furore in the American bible belt that saw Beatles records burnt in huge numbers and death threats from the KKK. Here also, he purchased his copy of the Tibetan Book of the Dead which inspired the song ‘Tomorrow never knows’ and discovered the work of Nietzche. 

Meanwhile, it was at the Indica Gallery that Yoko Ono would display her ‘Unfinished Paintings and Objects’ exhibition and where, on the 9th November 1966, John Dunbar would introduce her to John Lennon and, in so doing, alter irrevocably the direction of the Beatles.

It was also at this Robert Fraser sponsored exhibition that Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski would visit the show several times late at night, spending hours playing with Yoko’s white chess set until they could no longer keep all the pieces in their minds and had to abandon their game.

It was, reportedly, during that same sojourn to London, that Tate was initiated into the practice of witchcraft by Alexander "King of the Witches" Sanders. A man who, apparently, received 'training' as a child from, none other than everyone’s favourite occultist, Aleister Crowley. 

Tate, it will be remembered, was famously murdered by members of Charles Manson’s ‘Family’ when eight months pregnant. She was slaughtered alongside, amongst others, Abigail Folger, who had helped fund movies for Kenneth Anger.
Miles, Dunbar, Faithfull, Asher and McCartney
John Dunbar would also play a significant part in the life of Paul McCartney. It was through John that Paul met the art dealer Robert Fraser, became involved in starting Indica Bookshop and Gallery, and was introduced to a demi-monde of writers, jazz musicians and junkies. 

It was also from the Indica that Paul helped fund and launch the underground newspaper, International Times. Paul would be listed under the editorial staff using his pseudonym Ian Iachimoe, the name he used when writing the song ‘paperback writer’.

The following is from a Guardian interview with Dunbar...

 Playing to the gallery

It's 40 years since Indica set London swinging. Kate Bernard catches up with its founding gallerist John Dunbar to talk about John and Yoko, and Mick and Marianne

London, spring 1966. In the unlikely surroundings of St James's - more accustomed to bowler hats and bearskins than new art - a cultural revolution is in progress. Indica, the happening experimental art gallery that is the brainchild of 22-year-old Cambridge graduate John Dunbar, first opened its doors last year. Tonight, it's showtime. 'Swinging London' starts here. The private view has attracted all the right people: Dunbar's wife Marianne Faithfull, Paul McCartney and his girlfriend Jane Asher, Eric Burdon of the Animals, photographer Gered Mankowitz, producer Michael White, John Pearse of the King's Road clothes shop Granny Takes a Trip, a pretty boy called Mark Feld who's about to change his name to Marc Bolan, beat poets, art critics and the in crowd. William Burroughs hates parties but stuck his nose in for a few minutes before retreating to his flat round the corner. The flamboyant art dealer Robert Fraser, in his tight pink suit, and various Ormesby Gores and McKewens represent high society's hip vanguard. The classes are colliding, having fun, taking lots of drugs and using the energy from the social bustle to create art of many kinds.

Guests spill out into the yard with their glasses of white wine. Later, Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate will tap on the window for a gossip. And in a matter of months, John Lennon will arrive in a chauffeur-driven Mini at the behest of John Dunbar, who thinks his friend should see the work of a young Japanese artist called Yoko Ono before her show opens.

'It was a wonderful time,' declares Marianne Faithfull today from Paris, in her rich rock'n'roll contralto. 'The opening night of Indica was complete chaos. Everyone was trying to get the place ready - John, Barry Miles [who ran the bookshop side of Indica], Paul McCartney, Jane Asher, our friend David Courts, so many people ... but nobody had thought to clean the lavatory, which was, of course, filthy. I remember I was wearing a beautiful dress and very pale tights, and there I was, on my hands and knees, scrubbing the loo. Because of John, I was very much a part of it all, and I'm so proud that I was.'

In pop-cultural terms, Indica (its name, wouldn't you know, taken from Cannabis indica), which opened and closed within just two years, is up there with the Sex Pistols's gig at the 100 Club or the opening of Damien Hirst's Freeze. You only had to be there to feel artistic, forward-thinking and cool. John Dunbar's exhibition list is pored over by modern art anoraks - he pushed the boundaries of art in Britain, preparing the ground for the YBA explosion in the early Nineties and the diversity of work made and shown here today. Miles's bookshop was the hub of the underground scene. (He later ran Zapple, the spoken word division of the Apple label, and became a music journalist and biographer.)

Now, 40 years later, Indica has inspired Riflemaker, a gallery that showcases the work of young artists in a former gunsmith's shop in Soho, to go back to the future. On 20 November, Riflemaker 'becomes' Indica, and shows work by Yoko Ono, the sculptor Takis, 'kinetic poet' Liliane Lijn, Mark Boyle and Joan Hills (of the Boyle Family), etc, who all exhibited at Indica. Over the three months it's on - it is an exhibition of museum-like proportions - there will also be gigs, talks, screenings and new art to see. Tot Taylor of Riflemaker hopes that the show 'will make people reconsider the aspirational, product-based art of today. Dunbar never compromised in his choices of what he exhibited. It's very unusual to find someone with that integrity.' With that in mind, Riflemaker has asked young artists such as Conrad Shawcross and Jaime Gili to make work for the show as though they had been commissioned for Indica by John Dunbar himself.

Dunbar's not famous these days and he's certainly not rich. His eye for art and the ability to connect and direct creative people were never converted into cash. Instead he greets you with the broad grin of a man who's never had a desk job or its attendant anxieties. His hippy-cockney delivery makes children 'saucepans', the paparazzi 'flish flish' and most things 'no problemo'. He's dapper (if stuck in a sartorial time warp) in jeans, collarless shirt, waistcoat and granny glasses, and is still very much on society's inside track. Going out usually means a private view, posh party, Soho's Groucho Club - 'Groupies' as he calls it - or the Colony Room next door, which has always been art central. He always sees Marianne Faithfull when she's over from Paris, and during Frieze week he was spotted at a party with Anita Pallenberg, given by their young friend Dan Macmillan. David Courts - an artist who made the fantastic skull jewellery for Keith Richards, and who met Dunbar in Greece in 1964 - points out John's ability to make friends. 'He immediately finds out what you're interested in and because he's so well informed he's bound to know something about it.' Tot Taylor says throughout his Indica research that he hasn't met anyone who dislikes Dunbar. He's a social relaxant.

The sketchbooks in which he records the evening's events are his nocturnal rogue's gallery, and allow him to observe from the sidelines of Groucho's or the Colony Room. 'I used to carry bits of paper on me in case anyone needed something to draw on - so I have a couple of sketches by [the British pop artist] Colin Self and John [Lennon].' Entire shelves in his overstuffed magpie's nest of a flat are dedicated to these journals - full of faces from the past 40 years. These days he includes photographs. 'I have a few nice shots of Damien [Hirst] and Kate [Moss]. I don't go around trying to capture famous people, but they sometimes happen to be around.'

Today he seems vaguely amused by the sudden buzz around him, while trying to remain low-definition. 'Being a minor celebrity myself for a while put me off all that forever,' he says. 'Journalists knocking on the door ... Anita and Keith and Marianne getting busted.' Keith Richards's country house, Redlands, was the scene of the infamous drugs bust that put Robert Fraser and Mick Jagger into custody and allegedly found Faithfull wrapped in nothing more than a fur rug. 'It was absurd. But press attention in those days was nothing compared to now. Kate Moss can't meet someone for a drink without being chased by motorbikes or having to change plans at the last minute.' He should know. Kate and John have been friends since they met through Keith Richards at a wedding 10 years ago. He attended her infamous 30th birthday party.

John Dunbar was born in Mexico City in 1943, but his first memory is of Moscow, where his father, a Scot, was the British Embassy's cultural attache. By the time he was four, the family had moved to England. He was sent to Bryanston. 'But at 17 I was chucked out for getting pissed. I did my entrance exams for Cambridge from Harrow tech, started going to Hampstead parties and met lots of cool people.'

Dunbar's parents moved to Mayfair. Peter Asher (of the pop group Peter & Gordon) lived with his family in nearby Wimpole Street and the two became friends. 'Then Peter's sister Jane started going out with Paul McCartney and we got to know him.' At Cambridge he met the artist Rory McEwen. 'He introduced me to his family and all their cousins and Lord Thingummybob ... oh, you know, that whole posh crowd.' At one Chelsea party, Princess Margaret informed Dunbar he had a hole in his jeans, putting her finger through it as she did so. He rolls his eyes at the memory.

Poets, painters, half of Chelsea and a few dodgy geezers soon made up the Dickensian sweep of Dunbar's world. And then there was Marianne Faithfull. Dunbar met Faithfull, who at 17 was still at school, in his last year at Cambridge, where he studied natural sciences and fine art. She describes the moment as 'meeting my catalyst, my Virgil. A world opened up when I met John.' He was the artistic intellectual who would show her the world. She was his beautiful and eager muse.

Dunbar has always been a facilitator - great when it comes to advising people on their careers. In 1964, the Rolling Stones's manager Andrew Loog Oldham announced he was 'looking for a girl who could sing'. Dunbar introduced him to Faithfull - 'You can sing a bit, can't you Marianne?' he said. But just before 'As Tears Go By' came out, the couple had a row and Dunbar went to Greece for the summer. When he returned, Faithfull was famous. 'Fame wasn't what either of us wanted,' she says now.

They married in May 1965 when he was 21 and she was 18, spending their honeymoon in Paris with Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. 'That really was amazing,' says Faithfull. 'Ginsberg and Corso were famous - not us!' Before the wedding, when Faithfull was already pregnant, she met Bob Dylan, who developed a huge crush and tried to put her off marrying Dunbar. 'You can't marry someone who wears glasses. He's the eternal student,' crowed Dylan. 'He was quite wrong,' says Faithfull today. 'John's the eternal teacher.'

With her newfound pop wealth, Faithfull had rented a flat in Lennox Gardens. With John Mayall, Donovan, Paul McCartney, Robert Fraser and Christopher Gibbs as regulars it became something of a salon. Dunbar and his friends embraced acid culture. 'It first came, in about 1965, as drops on sugar cubes.' Dunbar's first trip was at Lennox Gardens in the company of David Courts. Marianne was pregnant with their son Nicholas. 'I'm resting in the bed, and suddenly there's John, gleaming-eyed, and he wants the pillows.' Afraid of 'bringing him down', she gave him bits of bedding as he asked for them, and eventually the mattress. When her mother found her lying on the bed springs, she lamely explained that Dunbar was doing an experiment.

'Marianne was sometimes our "designated driver" in the early days - acid was a bit doolally for her back then,' says Dunbar. Faithfull says that Dunbar wouldn't let her take drugs at the time. 'I was dying to have a go,' she laughs today. 'I was only trying to keep her out of trouble,' he retorts. While Dunbar was writing art reviews for the Scotsman, he and Miles attended the Albert Hall Poetry Festival. 'Quite a lot of the poetry was shit, but 7,000 people had turned up for it,' he says. 'There was obviously a thirst for alternative entertainment. The art scene at the time consisted of West End galleries where the public weren't encouraged to linger. It was pretty dull. We decided on a shop. Miles would do the books and I'd do the gallery.'

Dunbar found the premises, Peter Asher put up the £2,100 it took to get started, lending Dunbar and Miles £700 each so all three had equal shares. 'Then I took lots of speed, painted the whole place white and put the shelves up ...' Paul McCartney, Indica's first customer, merrily mucked in. Dunbar had to smear Windolene over the glass because workmen kept peering in, hoping to glimpse a Beatle doing manual labour. Jane Asher donated an old-fashioned till she had once used as a toy. McCartney designed Indica's wrapping paper. Dunbar and McCartney haven't met recently but McCartney obviously remembers him fondly; when approached by Miles,he put a few quid towards the John Pearse suit that was Dunbar's 50th birthday present from his friends. He is expected to take part in the Indica celebrations.

In the summer of 1966, Indica put on a group show - mainly South American artists living in Paris, including Julio Le Parc. Dunbar drove a Mini across Europe to the Venice Biennale, where he got to know Robert Fraser, who had left London wearing a white suit and carrying a large briefcase filled with drugs. 'We had cocktails at Peggy Guggenheim's palazzo - and a great time,' says Dunbar. On the way home he heard that Julio had won the Grand Prize for painting.

Miles picks up the story. 'A few days later a large man burst through the door of Indica, saying, "I'm a big American collector! Let me see your Le Parcs!" Dunbar polished his glasses and said, "I'm a little English art dealer and the Le Parcs are all downstairs."'

The Observer Magazine of May 1967 stated: 'Indica organises some of the most avant-garde shows to be seen in London - anything from kinetic art, where sculptures move or rattle, to "happenings" and "events" by a Japanese artist called Yoko Ono.' Dunbar, who had been hanging out with John Lennon, suggested he drop in to see Yoko's show before it opened. 'They didn't get off together then - he was still with Cynthia and she was married to Tony Cox - but he'd never met anyone like her, that's for sure. She's a very powerful lady.'

When Dunbar introduced Lennon to Yoko, she handed him a card which read 'Breathe'. He panted like a dog. 'Indica gave me a space where I could be free and express my ideas,' says Yoko Ono today. 'It was a comfort zone in an otherwise cold and snobby art world that didn't get me yet.' Part of the Beatles tour in London today is to visit Indica's original home in Mason's Yard, where John met Yoko. John Lennon remembered the moment in an interview: 'There was an apple on sale there for £200, I thought it was fantastic - I got the humour in her work immediately.'

Nicholas Dunbar was born in November 1965, 10 days before Indica opened for business. 'We were just kids, you know,' says John Dunbar. Marianne agrees. 'I wouldn't recommend being married and having a baby at 18, but I wouldn't have missed it for anything.'

By early 1967, with the pressures of Marianne touring, arguments over money and too many drugs, the Dunbars felt trapped in their marriage, a tangled web in which they both felt trapped. 'We drifted apart, until I couldn't bear being around and had to leave,' John says. 'John was perfect for me and if the Sixties hadn't blown up so much dust we would have stayed together,' says Marianne. 'But we were so young. And I think for both of us there was the allure of another life ... then this glamorous, dangerous figure called Mick Jagger turned up and swept me off my feet.'

After the split, Dunbar took a flat opposite his parents, where McCartney and Lennon would descend - often adding to the psychedelic mural Dunbar had started. Brian Jones hung out there. 'He was a good friend and used to stay a lot,' says Dunbar. 'One night he turned up with Toni Basil, a dancer who would become a pop star herself.' She ended up living with him for six months. 'The idea for Apple started at that flat,' says Dunbar. 'It was just John, Paul and me chatting,' he says. He remembers it being 'a very acidy afternoon'. Dunbar and Lennon had lots of similar times together, in the psychedelic Roller or hanging out at Lennon's country pile in Weybridge. The pair turned up at the 14-hour Technicolour Dream - a major happening at Alexandra Palace - and then forgot all about it, until they saw a clip on the news.

Back at Indica, Dunbar was only interested in making enough money to put on the next show, and as Miles admits, 'John and I were completely useless at the business side of things.' The bookshop moved to Southampton Row in 1966, and the gallery folded in November 1967. For a while Dunbar worked as exhibitions officer for the British Council, introducing them to happening artists Barry Flanagan, Colin Self, Bruce McLean and Clive Barker. 'So I drove a desk, briefly,' he laughs.

When Faithfull split with Mick Jagger and became a heroin addict, Nicholas was sent to live with her mother Eva in Berkshire. 'When he was six, Eva tried to top herself and I took care of him,' recalls Dunbar. One Friday, Eva 'kidnapped' Nicholas from school. Dunbar tried to kidnap him back but failed. By the next Monday the case was being heard in court. 'Marianne was out to lunch at this point and lots of mud was slung about in court ... it was awful.' It was decided that Dunbar's parents should have custody of their grandson and, gradually, over the next few years, Nicholas moved back in with his father. These days Nicholas has two sons of his own and is editing a magazine. 'He's a very talented artist and musician,' says Dunbar, 'but having had two children he found himself needing to earn proper money.' John, Nicholas and Marianne have a good relationship. As Marianne says, 'However difficult it's been for us as a family, it's all OK now.' Dunbar had another son, 23-year-old William, with Jill Matthews. William is now editing an English-language newspaper in Georgia.

Dunbar has just finished the roof of his pet project for the last few years, a studio in Scotland - a living sculpture, indeed - that he's been building from scrap. 'All thanks to a very old friend who has a bit of land up there. It has been pretty hard work,' he says. With that in mind I tell him that Tot had originally hoped he would 'run' Riflemaker on a daily basis for the duration of the Indica show. 'Hmm, no, that's not going to happen - but of course I'll kind of hang out there a bit.' Same as it ever was.
UPDATE: For more information please read my book The Sgt Pepper Code