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Lower East Side Artist, Ira Cohen: 1935-2011

This past Monday a most thought-provoking and remarkable poet and visual artist, one of the last few greats of the Lower East Side Avant-Garde 60s Beatnik scene, quietly sneaked out–by the back door–of the great theater of life.

Ira Cohen, raised in the Bronx by his deaf parents, was 26 when he did a very daring thing; he boarded a Yugoslavian freighter heading for Tangier, Morocco in 1961. At the time Tangier had become the ultimate place for non-conformist writers, including many American Beat Generation writers, poets and artists. It was where William S. Burroughs was inspired to write his “Naked Lunch”; a book even more controversial than “Catcher in The Rye”. Cohen was eager to get inspired and spent the next four years there, where he published the exorcism magazine GNAOUA, which featured Beat Generation Poetry, introducing such greats as William S. Burroughs, Brion Gysin, Harold Norse, Jack Smith, Irving Rosenthal, among others. And he produced a recording of Dervish trance music, recorded by Paul Bowles, titled Jilala. He also published under the alter-ego pen-name Panama Rose.

Before returning to New York City in the mid-1960s he lived in the Costa del Sol, Spain and went on to spend some time in Paris and London.

Back home he began to evolve a new form of visual art which he created using what he called “mylar images” using bendable mylar mirrors, billing himself as a “mythographer”. These involved creating a somewhat psychedelic translucent-like colour-filtered alterations of the photographic images of people, including Jazz musician John McLaughlin, his friend William S. Burroughs, and the legendary Jimi Hendrix. Ira’s works reflected his own shamanistic, spiritual and tantric explorations.

In 1968 he directed an Avant-Garde film titled Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda, inspired by the works of Sergei Parajarov and Kenneth Anger. He also produced a film on the experimental theatre Living Theatre’s historic tour of America: Paradise Now.

In the 1970s he left his ‘Mylar Chamber’ in New York and headed off to The Himalayas, and after many months travel, stopping over in Morocco, Tunisia, Afghanistan and India, accompanied by Petra Vogt, the two arrived in Kathmandu (Nepal), where he began to write his “Starstream” poetry series and publish these and the works of other poets, such as Charles Henri Ford, Paul Bowles and Gregory Corso. Not only were the poems great, but so was the way Ira printed these books, using traditional rice paper and wood block printing, Tibetan and Indian style, techniques taught to him by the local craftsmen.

In 1972 he spent almost a whole year reading his poetry and doing improvisational performances in the wilder venues of San Francisco.  After that he returned to New York for a series of exhibitions of his photography and photographic art-works.

By the 1980s he was on his way to Ethiopia, Japan and India. And it was then that he documented in video the Kumbh Mela Festival, a Hindu tradition dating back millennia, which is not only the largest gathering of spiritual Yogis, Shamans and Fakirs in the World, but the largest cyclical gathering of people on Earth, bar none.

During the 1990s and 2000s Ira not only had his poems published, but he became a contributing editor for Third Rail Magazine, a prestigious international arts and ligature review based in Los Angeles, California. In 1994 Sub Rosa Records released his first CD titled The Majoon Traveller, readings of his poems, edited by Cheb I Sabbah with assorted musical bits by Lights In A Fat City trio, Kenneth Newby, Eddy Sayer and Stephen Kent, Angus MacLise and The Tribal Orchestra quatro with Angus MacLise, Loren Standlee, Hetty MacLise, Raja Samyanna, as well as Ziska Baum, Don Cherry, Ed Blackwell, Ornette Coleman, Robert Palmer and The Master Musicians of Jajouka.

He was a staunch critic of Reactionary politics, and spoke out against War and Socio-Economic exploitation. He was a most eccentric individual who will be missed by quite a few of the world’s most creative people!

And I only met knew him briefly; when he was my guest at my apartment in Budapest in the Winter of 1998. Two eccentric Philosopher-Poets and a couple of mice!

If you would like to read a Poem I wrote in Tribute to Ira, you may do so by going to my website.  The poem will be put to music and visual art here.

(Photo of Ira Cohen by Gerard Malanga)

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