Friday, April 3, 2009

Psychedelia: A 'Potted' History

Cover of "Beat Generation (Oneworld Class...Cover via Amazon

For What It's Worth (Psychedelia Revisited) by Tim Cantey

For days now I've been scouring YouTube for old TV and film clips to study the transition from bubblegum pop to psychedelic art rock. Now I just may be stoned and drunk enough to summarize my findings to date. What I witnessed was the emergence, not firstly but importantly, of the Beatles. This occurred around 1964, flooding the psyche of the American teenager and subsequently the consciousness of the world.

Prior to this, seminal events had already occurred. Jack Kerouac and the so-called Beat Generation had galvanized the mainstream culture of advertising and pulp literature into two distinct factions. On the mainstream side was, surprisingly, rock and roll, the music of rebellious youth. The fifties (actually the post-WWII forties) produced both rock and roll and the method acting of Brando, Monroe and Dean; charismatic; vital and life-like but at an impossible impasse with convention and tradition. Music after the swing era continued to swing, swing being a product and form of jazz, jazz conventionally considered an offshoot of the blues, ala Gershwin, et al, and gospel music, of which the blues can perhaps be considered a derivative. That was the mainstream.

Alternatively, literature had been charged up by a string of poets and writers, most all of whom were recalcitrant, lifelong alcoholics. Hammett, Faulkner, Hemingway, Crane, Fitzgerald, etc. whose works and aesthetic vision were transferred to film, often with jazz and later rock and roll scores. Up through this, or in spite of this, emerged Kerouac and the Beats. The beats listened to jazz, beatniks in movies listened to rock and roll. Interesting transition. Teenagers in movies began listening to rock and roll in emulation of beatniks in movies. This set up the dynamics of the coming decade, but adding to the cultural mix was Vietnam, the space race, the nuclear arms race and the CIA.

It was in CIA laboratories that LSD-25 was first synthesized, conceived of as a weapon of mind control to be used on enemy soldiers in the battlefield. What were they thinking? Probably something like, "we're fighting Asians in Vietnam when we just defeated the Japanese with the A-Bomb and fought the North Koreans and Chinese to a standstill. How can we follow that up and defeat these yellow bastards in the jungle?" Of course! Create a weapon whose effects are strangely similar to, you guessed it: Opium, heroin, marijuana, cocaine, all rolled into one. It would be irresistible and the enemy would demand to be dosed! This psychological napalm was to be sprayed over the countryside in the crop dusting fashion of napalm and Agent Orange. But instead of lighting the enemy's ass on fire, their brains would fry and the bastards would think they were at peace! Hmmm....

That the stuff would get all over our own troops seemed to be the operative idea behind scrapping the project. However, ever ambitious, LSD25 continued to be manufactured. It was thought wise if the project was ever to get off the ground to test what effects it might have on our own people. Therefore scientists, philosophers and artists were recruited from academia to conduct controlled experiments with low doses of the experimental weapon.

This was done during the late fifties and early sixties primarily in San Francisco, California, ironically the center of the nation's largest Asian population. Music at this time was staid and safe. Jazz had become incomprehensible be-bop; Broadway musicals were actively made into successful films complete with ballet derived choreography and classically derived scores. Often jazz was incorporated in the manner of early twentieth century composers Satie, Dvorak, Debussy, Rimsky Korsakoff, Ravel and Gershwin, et al. sometimes known collectively at Impressionists.

The beats were enthusiastic marijuana smokers, and the hippest among the hip were also heroin addicts. Now consider that many in the older generation were spurred into alcoholism by their own generation's rebellion.

Taking that into consideration, we have alcoholics who'd gone through their teen years (note: teenagers were 'invented' in the fifties by marketing firms as a consumer demographic upon seeing the rate at which pop records were consumed. Teens thus replaced housewives as a target audience for advertising, "Designer" products still years off), listening to, necking to, growing up with, the music of Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Rudy Vallee, some of the hipper elders turned onto Woody Guthrie who played regularly on the radio with his band the Weavers.

Kids were smoking pot because that's what real beats did. In the movies they were more often portrayed as alcoholics for some reason, and occasionally a junky would be presented as a hipster or vice versa (notably the films "Phantom Lady" and "The Man With The Golden Arm", one a pulp novel, the other 'serious' literature, as it were).

The older and inevitably business suited men who had inherited their position, power and education from a prior generation of staid womanizing alcoholics, saw the youth growing their hair and generally drift. So when some among the young formed rock and roll bands along the lines of the pioneers of the fifties it was seen as a logical continuation of the youth trend and thus ripe for commercial investment.

So the Beatles appeared, followed by the so-called British Invasion. Then American bands began to emerge fashioning themselves along what was seen and now accepted as the perceived commercial template. Many of these bands were from California; many also had access to LSD and really good weed. Bands that been playing safe, happy rhyming chorus and guitar music for squealing and giggling girls began to play what they saw and heard in their minds. The sound became psychedelic and the lyrics philosophical and surreal. The girls were stoned too and dug it.

Therefore, what was bland and safe music deriving from Broadway, jazz and early rock and roll shot through with the hyper imagined clichés of pristine versus rebellious youth (let's say "Gidget" versus "Rebel Without A Cause") became something out of William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch, Ginsberg's Howl and Kerouac's On The Road; a druggy swirl of hip noise that was to coalesce at a later date into heavy metal and Glitter Rock, which as by-products of the psychedelic movement then progressed into art rock and punk rock.

But before all that, the psychedelic movement infiltrated mainstream culture to such an extent that long haired psychedelic bands were regularly featured on prime time television and soon even appeared on kiddy shows and in cartoons (along with what had become prototypical beat clichés), the kid's shows themselves, ostensibly aimed at those younger than teens taking on a decidedly psychedelic feel.

Evening sit-coms aimed at adults but watched by entire families pursued this cultural turn and in a final irony, the musicals Hair and Godspell (a psychedelic interpretation of the Gospel of Saint Matthew) brought the psychedelic movement to Broadway becoming the source for several mainstream pop songs.

Again, one might say that it was the Beatles that legitimized this adoption of such obviously drugged induced fantasia by the commercial media. But the Beatles did not create the psychedelic movement nor did it end with them. They were simply its most prominent cultural proponents. We have moved on.

Note: The psychedelic Mexican-American band? & The Mysterians, strongly influenced by surf music, are often cited as the first punk band.

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