Friday, November 4, 2016

When Did the 60s Begin? - The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

It’s an esoteric question (technically they began January 1, 1961 – it's a math thing), but for rock music, the 60s arguably began when Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann stumbled across lysergic acid diethylamide, LSD 25. Hofmann, having first inhaled the fumes to find them intoxicating, intentionally took a larger dose to further his experiment. Known as "Bicycle Day" (April 19, 1943), Hofmann asked an assistant to take him home on his bicycle (cars were unavailable due to war-time restrictions). While on the bike's handlebars, (can you see it?) Hofmann began experiencing the psychedelic nature of the drug, becoming increasingly paranoid before entering into a state of heightened sensory awareness.

In the late 1940s, the scientific community began to explore LSD's potential to cure a variety of diseases from alcoholism to post-traumatic stress syndrome (and even homosexuality). By the 60s, doctors, including Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, began experimenting beyond the medical community, particularly for recreational purposes, and LSD began to inspire cultural icons, such as Cary Grant, Ken Kesey and the Beatles. The drug influenced genres of art and music including Andy Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable, the Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd. The Beatles began using LSD as early as 1965 when they pioneered many of the major elements of the "psychedelic sound" (using guitar feedback and sitar). Drug references began to appear in Beatles' songs as early as "Day Tripper," but Revolver is the pinnacle musical psychedelic trip of the era.  By 1966,The Yardbirds, as well, with Jeff Beck on guitar, increasingly moved into psychedelia, adding up-tempo improvised "rave ups," Gregorian chant and world music. They were quickly followed by bands like The Moody Blues and Cream.

Between 1963 and 1966, rock music took three decisive breaks from its initial three chord structure and lyrical simplicity: Bob Dylan introduced an explicit socio-political message; British bands like the Rolling Stones and the Who (heirs to the JD image of the 50s) personified an eternal and universal attribute of youth: rebellion; the Beach Boys, the Beatles and the Byrds focused on studio techniques and eccentric arrangements. The convergence of these wildly different threads yielded a music genre that reflected the spirit of the time, that experimented with studio sound and that embodied the frustration of youth. 

The psychedelic lifestyle had already developed in California by the mid-60s, most notably after The Byrds "plugged in" to produce a chart-topping version of Bob Dylan's "Tambourine Man" in 1965. A great number of California-based folk acts followed suit creating a particularly Californian sound. Prominent new California bands on the scene included The Grateful Dead, Country Joe and the Fish, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Moby Grape, The Jefferson Airplane and, of course, The Doors. Albums with lengthy, free-form tracks began to flow out of London, New York and Los Angeles. Frank Zappa's double-album Freak Out, the Rolling Stones' Aftermath, The Velvet Underground & Nico, the Doors' first album, Love's Da Capo; the list is endless. Rock'n'roll had been born at the confluence of blues and country music, but after 1966 blues and country/folk became mere ingredients of a far more complex recipe. The lengthy "acid" jams of The Velvet Underground, of Jefferson Airplane, of The Grateful Dead and of Pink Floyd relied on a loose musical infrastructure that was no longer related to rhythm 'n' blues (let alone to country music). 

Chronicling this, essentially the first Rock novel, was Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, in which "You're either on the bus...or off the bus." Wolfe brilliantly blends stream of consciousness with a journalistic sense of description as Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters test the boundaries of consciousness. Wolfe effortlessly immerses the reader in Kesey's freak-du-jour landscape where the Pranksters trek across America in a day-glo school bus with pitchers of acid and a video camera keeping an eye on it all. Who could resist a chance to find out what it was like to spend a quaint evening of altered states with a group of Hell's Angels, or take a peek inside the world of budding hippie Gods led by Jerry Garcia? The novel is the perfect companion to Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and Jack Kerouac's On the Road.

But don't be fooled. Wolfe is obliquely critical of 60's hippiedom with its false ideals and unrealistic expectations (we look back fondly at AM toward The Trip and The Doors, forgetting that simultaneously there were Manson and riots). There's an underlying conservative attitude to this novel that only Wolfe could convey with cool irony and detached humor. Wolfe, however, has an obvious admiration for Kesey, a counter-culture icon who generated awe and enthusiasm from his Flower Power constituency. In the novel it's clear that Kesey was a pioneer of 60's hedonism, one who pushed the boundaries of the hipster world. Coming out of the 50's beatnik era, scamming LSD from part-time jobs at psychiatry wards and organizing "freak-outs," Kesey created his own legend and established his own "cult," The Merry Pranksters. Part of Kesey's appeal to Wolfe is the traditional qualities of a prophet or cult-leader, Buddha-like in his ability to rouse enthusiasm and create an ideal image of self to which others are willing to conform. "On the bus, off the bus," and " "Nothing lasts" become Merry Prankster mantras intended to spread the hippie ideal. This is what Wolfe excavates - the power of a personality and how it contributes to a movement. Acid Test does so with a classic, razor-wit style. The question remains: can YOU pass the acid test? Would you want to?