Acid Rock: A Flashback
Nick Bromell is a brave man. At a time when "zero tolerance" is inscribed on the national currency, when you can go to prison for twenty years if some jailhouse snitch says you were part of a drug-selling operation with him, Bromell argues that "there was something rigorous and instructive in getting stoned and listening to music as if it really mattered." He points out that millions of people have listened to rock music with the help of psychedelics, and that this is something that remains unresolved in American culture, something at the heart of today's culture wars and the war on drugs. Rock and psychedelics together, he argues, mark "the crossroads where the sixties meet the present."
Bromell, who teaches English at the University of Massachusetts and whose previous book was a scholarly study of "Literature and Labor in Antebellum America," is one of those people who grew up in the sixties, convinced that something important happened then--and he's still trying to figure out what it was. (I'm another.) We have many good books on the events and movements and ideas of the sixties, most of which agree that the music was important in expressing the spirit and energy of the times. Bromell wants to do something else--to put the music of the sixties at the center of the story. Moreover, he doesn't focus on the musicians who created it--as does the current bestselling Beatles Anthology volume--or on critics' responses. Instead, he seeks to recapture what he calls "the primal scene" of listening to rock music: in the dorm room or the bedroom, alone or with friends, listening with intense concentration--smoking dope or dropping acid--seeking to understand loneliness and injustice and the fundamental instability of everything.
He readily concedes that there was a lot of foolishness and hedonism in that era but insists that those young people were also involved in a serious quest to understand themselves and their times--when the "times" were sometimes thrilling, sometimes terrible. "So much life, so much death; so much possibility, so much impossibility" (that wonderful line comes from the documentary Berkeley in the Sixties). Music and psychedelics, he writes, "could help you make sense of the senselessness of it all by helping you come to your senses, heightening them."
Millions of kids are still turning on today. The best research shows that in 1997, 14 percent of all high school seniors had tried LSD and 50 percent had tried marijuana. The figures have been surprisingly consistent since 1975. For young people then and now, marijuana and LSD are much more popular than heroin, cocaine and crack cocaine. Bromell asks a question the war on drugs fears: Why these drugs? That question leads him to another the drug warriors cannot ask: How does it feel?
"How does it feel? To be on your own?...Like a complete unknown?" Bob Dylan asked those questions in his glorious and ruthless song "Like a Rolling Stone" in 1965. He had taken LSD, given up explicit protest and begun considering the explosion of consciousness, and his Highway 61 Revisited, more than any other album, spoke to the quest of the emergent counterculture for meaning. And he was only 23. Dylan's answers were not comforting. With all the songs on Highway 61 Revisited, Bromell says, "we tumbled down the side of a ravine, falling from safe, distanced, middle class awareness of wrongdoing 'out there' to knowledge of something more terrifying 'in here.'"
The next year--1966--the Beatles released Revolver. They had already established an "uncanny rapport" with their fans; they "affected...the quality of life--they deepened it, sharpened it, brightened it," Bromell writes, quoting Greil Marcus. They didn't repeat themselves; as Warren Zevon said much later, "everything new they did was supposed to challenge you. The Beatles continued to be new as long as they were the Beatles." Revolver was the "breakthrough experience" for taking psychedelic drugs seriously--especially the last three cuts. First George Harrison sang "I Want to Tell You." This echoed "I Want to Hold Your Hand," but it was something else they wanted to do now--in Bromell's words, "to break the codes and the bullshit, to make genuine contact."
Then came Paul McCartney singing "Got to Get You Into My Life." At first it seemed like a song of typical teenage passion, but on closer listening the lyrics spoke unmistakably about LSD: "I was alone, I took a ride/I didn't know what I would find there./Another road where maybe I/Could find another kind of mind there." And then came the blissful part: "Ooh, did I suddenly see you?/Ooh, did I tell you I need you,/Every single day of my life?" Bromell's gloss: "McCartney isn't satisfied to be a solitary, misunderstood mystic. He's a showman to the core, not a shaman"--so he wanted to tell us about his breakthrough in consciousness.
Then came the culmination: Lennon's "Tomorrow Never Knows"--which Bromell made the title of his book. At the time it was an enigma, nothing like pop music, something that took many listenings in those dorm rooms. The lyrics provided explicit instructions for tripping: "Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream/It is not dying"--sung in what Bromell describes as "an incredibly far-away" voice, "compressed almost beyond recognition" and emerging from a "thicket of incomprehensible noise." "Tomorrow Never Knows" presented an electronically distorted swirling sound mixed with tape loops and sound running backward (including, we now know, parts of McCartney's guitar solo on "Taxman" slowed down and played backward).
This music might be understood as an evocation of the psychedelic experience, but Bromell hears it differently--the song represents a decision to "explore and exploit the electrical essence" of rock music, which after all started with the electric guitar and Elvis's voice in an echo chamber. It represented precisely the opposite of the view that the natural was the authentic and thus the best. This new product of recording technology was radically unfamiliar. The Beatles wanted to turn away from the comfortable and reassuring familiarity that is the essence of pop music and stardom, and instead confront their audience with strangeness and a kind of depersonalization. Psychedelics gave them the vision and the energy for this effort.