John Starr Cooke gave this image of himself to Michael Bowen to use as a talisman.
What, then, is the significance of the word “Begin”?
Why is it written “BE G IN”, with the G bigger than the other letters?
Why did Cooke choose such a hideous photograph of himself?
And what the hell is that thing on his forehead??
To explore all of this we must (of course), begin at the beginning.
John Cooke’s mother died in 1933 when he was 13. Soon after this, his father took him on an ocean cruise to the Far East. On this trip, Cooke met Cole Porter. Porter says he wrote Begin the Beguine on this trip after seeing some shamanic dancers on the Pacific island of Kalabasi. Cooke always asserted that Porter had written the song for him. Given his already-lengthy experience as a shamanic Pacific Island dancer, it is tempting to imagine Cooke joining in with the natives and Porter being so impressed that he completed a song for which he had no more than a title for eight years.
Cooke considered the song talismanic; a song dedicated to his “far-out” abilities. It could not have escaped Cooke’s attention that Begin the Beguine was covered by dozens of top artists and was a repeated hit throughout his life.
As a mystic, Cooke found the word “Begin” important both personally and universally.
Part of Cooke’s mystic method was to meditate upon the deeper significance of ordinary letters of the English alphabet. He travelled widely on mystic quests, seeking out mystic truths behind the letters.
Cooke found the mystic importance of the letter G was that of a circle with a line leading inwards, signifying an inner search. He considered it the most “masonic” of the letters for the reason the letter G hangs from the ceiling of most masonic temples. Cooke signed his letters with a stylised G from at least late 1965, although one letter from that time is signed with the arrow leading outwards.
Cooke also associated the letter G with the Way-Shower card (below) of his Word of One tarot deck.
The Way-Shower card was first published as a poster by East Totem West in the Haight Ashbury in 1967.
The Way-Shower depicts Aquarian enlightenment descending upon a city. The upturned cup shows the end of the Age of Pisces, while the rooster heralds the coming dawn of the Age of Aquarius. A God-Man high above the city apprehends the coming sun long before dawn, and the city is illuminated in the surrounding darkness by the light that this Way-Shower draws from the sun and beams down to the city. The city would remain in pre-dawn darkness if not for the Way-Shower.
According to some authorities on tarot, the Star card is secretly representative of the Messiah. The Way-Shower is the progressed successor of the Star, and with its God-Man in the sky appears in accord with this Messianic doctrine. Who is the Messiah? YOU are!
John Cooke and Michael Bowen worked together for several years, with Cooke directing events from Mexico. Their work involved quietly fomenting the psychedelic counter- culture and grappling with the 22 images of the recently-given Word of One tarot cards. Bowen took these images to Leary, Alpert and an enthusiastic Metzner at Millbrook. It was here that Bowen stood on a bridge throwing pebbles in the pond, watching the ripples and considering the development of the psychedelic counter-culture. He observed that in order for the ripples to reach the furthest shore, a big splash was required. A big-splash event was therefore required for the psychedelic counter-culture to go down in the historical record and for the new archetypes in the 22 images to be recognised.
When it became apparent that the Haight Ashbury district was where such an event might take place, Cooke sent Bowen to San Francisco. Ultimately, Bowen was able to draw together many notable people to make this event a reality. The event took its name from a remark Bowen made at the conclusion of the Love Pageant Rally, an earlier event held to peacefully mark the proscription of LSD.
As he walked away from the LPR, in response to an observation that the rally was people just “being”, he described the day as a “Be-In”. This is a humorous observation which compares the Love Pageant Rally to the Civil Rights Sit-In protests of the late fifties and early Sixties.
The name stuck as a new and larger version of the LPR was planned. This event would prove to be the “big splash” Bowen had envisioned, and that he and Cooke sought to manifest – the First Human Be-In.
Bowen asserted “For ten years a new nation has grown inside the robot flesh of the old. Before your eyes, a new free vital soul is reconnecting the living centers of the American body”.
And so it was. The Be-In is universally recognised as a watershed moment; an ineradicable historical marker , not just in the psychedelic counter-culture, but in wider society itself.
After the Be-In, Bowen phoned Cooke to report on its success. At some later point, Cooke sent the first image (see above) to Bowen. He explained BE G IN as symbolising the inner search of one at the Be-In, as well as being instructive. It was a talisman of the work he and Michael had achieved and which had now been crowned with success.
John Starr Cooke was a guru to many and Michael Bowen was not the only person to receive this image. Cooke deliberately chose an unattractive picture of himself for his disciples to remember him by – this is the only guru image of himself he ever authorised – so that he would not be viewed with rose-tinted glasses nor offered sanctimonious, uninitiated praise.
The thing on Cooke’s forehead turns out to be a transfer of a caterpillar. This is a reminder to keep it light and to not take things too seriously.