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The Psychedelic Series

Hippies-60s

Let me tell you about the first and only time I dropped acid.

I had always been somewhat curious about it, because my parents would sometimes reference acid trips they took in their hippie primes. What held me back was a very conservative attitude when it comes to drugs: I prefer to keep my mind clear so I can understand what I am experiencing. I had smoked marijuana a couple of times and didn’t like the way it made me feel: stupid and lazy. I tried cocaine once at a party and found the process of snorting uncivilized and disgusting, to say nothing of the outrageous expense for what turned out to be a fifteen minute buzz. I avoided ecstasy entirely on the principle that “if everyone one is doing it, it must be a pretty lousy experience.” What intrigued me about acid was its power to alter perception, and I like experiences that challenge my perceptions.

I asked my dad if he knew where I could get some, but he’d been out of the scene for too long and didn’t have a clue. I asked around at high school and eventually wound up talking to a guy named Freddy who lived in a flat near St. Luke’s. I bought two little blue pills for twenty bucks, because in the course of my detective work, a guy I’d fucked a couple of times said he’d like to try some, too. We set the date for 6 p. m. on a Saturday night, and I insisted that we do it at my house for two reasons: my dad would be there (Maman was visiting her parents in Nice) and he would know what to do if we freaked out; and two, my dad didn’t care what I did in the privacy of my room and my parents were used to me having my fuck partners over from time to time. I did not tell my dad what I was planning because I wanted him to have deniability in case something (or someone) went wacko.

My friend arrived on time and we immediately went into my room, turned on some music and swallowed the pills. Here’s what I remember:

I woke up alone some time the following afternoon, feeling a strange sense of accomplishment and total exhaustion. I went to the kitchen and made some coffee, sat at the kitchen table and had about five cigarettes in a row, thinking about the experience. I guess my dad had been out and about, and when he came home the first thing he said was, “So how was the trip?” My first question was, “Did you say ‘extra innings’ five times last night when I came in?” “No, only once.” “Shee-it,” I said, “That stuff was powerful.” We then spent the rest of the evening talking about my experience while watching a real baseball game played on beautiful green grass.

*****

In the 1960’s, the word psychedelic took on far greater meaning than its original application in the world of psychology. It was the aggressive rejection of everything The Establishment stood for and the aggressive pursuit of the new and/or different. The folkies and civil rights marchers of the early 60’s were sincere but rather drab-looking people who focused on specific issues and tried to work within the system; the hippies took on the entire socio-cultural structure from family to fashion to fascism. The psychedelic period was about the elimination of limitations and assumptions of all kinds. It was a time when anything was possible and everything was up for grabs. Only a few years before the era was recognized by the national media, Joe Pepitone was playing first base for the Yankees in the World Series and lost a throw in a solid background of fans wearing white shirts. Contrast that visual with the radical neon pinks, oranges and greens, or the strange effects of black lights and strobes, or the patterns of tie-dye and paisley that psychedelia brought into fashion. Although people poke fun at the hippies today—and I’d rather hang myself than wear a tie-dye t-shirt—the cultural earthquake they created simply had to happen. America was way too uptight before the hippies: any culture that had to train people when to laugh through the insertion of laugh tracks on TV sitcoms needed all the free love and marijuana it could get.

I am fortunate to have impeccable sources of background information on this era: my parents. My father grew up a few blocks from the Haight and could stumble into the epicenter of the earthquake any time he wanted; one day he stumbled a couple of blocks north to the Panhandle and met the beautiful French exchange student who became my mother. For my dad, adopting the emerging norms of hippie culture happened organically; for my mother, it was total culture shock of a most welcome kind. I asked her to write me a paragraph about what psychedelia and the hippie movement meant to her:

You have to remember that from the time I was seven years old my life was study, practice and recitals. My parents had big dreams for their child prodigy, and those dreams required a very structured life of school, music lessons, practice, performance, sleep. I had no life outside of that cycle, and very few friends. And as you know, the French have very definite ideas of how one should behave in public, so I lived a very structured life inside a culture of many expectations. When I received offers to study in America, my parents were very resistant but I stood my ground and they finally allowed it. They wanted me to go to Julliard but I did not want to live in the snow and San Francisco had always seemed a magical place to me. And that was the first step, wasn’t it—to defy your parents? I came to a place where people my age had decided enough was enough and they wanted to be free from all the rules and explore new things. Although I admit I was appalled at the lack of hygiene, I embraced the spirit of the times and let myself revel in the celebration of new ideas, of new ways of relating to each other and to the world. The music was very important because it was the antithesis of all I had learned: it had no specific destination, no preconceived notions. Yes, I did drugs with all the rest but never to excess; I still had a sense of self-discipline and judgment that many of my new friends lacked—they wanted to gorge themselves on the experience, for they had been starved for so long. But you must remember it was about much more than drugs—it was an attempt to replace the old, dead world with a new one that embraced life; to replace tired ideas with fresh ideas; to replace social exploitation with social justice; to replace war with peace; to explore any path you chose. It was a very wonderful, very exciting time to be alive.

 *****

In the tradition of breaking free from parental paradigms, I developed into a Summer of Love skeptic, and except for Surrealistic Pillow, I have tried to avoid reviewing albums classified as psychedelic. Although I’ve always found 60’s history exciting and endlessly interesting—and I have yearned to live in an era characterized as groundbreaking and defiant—I’ve never been impressed with hard-core psychedelic music. Given the abundance of 60’s reviews I’ve done, I obviously adore several albums from the 1966-69 period, many of which are timeless masterpieces that reflect psychedelic influences. But the permissiveness of the times often threw aesthetic judgment to the winds, allowing dozens of lame bands to make several very bad records during that period. It wasn’t just a time of unlimited experimentation, it was a time of unlimited and often stupid experimentation by people who had no business calling themselves musicians. There are more “you had to be there” records (or “you had to be stoned” records) from that period than any other, and much of the music, the literature and even the humor is lost on people like me who grew up in the 90’s. I could never get into Richard Brautigan or Ken Kesey, and try as he might, my father has never been able to get me to crack a smile when he plays The Firesign Theater for me. I’ve also noticed that current reviews of psychedelic albums—both professional and fan reviews—are seriously over-the-top in their praise: all the artists are either “legendary” or “immortal” and all the albums were the greatest fucking advance in human evolution since group sex. That kind of blind love always brings out the skeptic in me, which is never far from the surface anyway.

Still, I love a challenge, so I’ve decided to temper my skepticism and take a virtual acid trip this summer to challenge my perceptions about psychedelic music, now that it seems to be enjoying a sort of resurgence. I screened something like forty albums and narrowed the list to seventeen that I suspect have some kind of value. I will admit up front that there are several albums on this list that I thought were positively dreadful during my screening, but I chose them because of historical significance or because they demonstrated something about the period that I felt I had to capture. I’m even including artists from my no-fly list like Janis Joplin. We’ll see if my standard three-full-spins changes any of my unfavorable opinions.

Here is the full series:  the albums I reviewed, in chronological order:

Wow! I’m creating my own Summer of Love here! Hope you join me on the trip!

GO TO THE FIRST POST IN THE SERIES: PART ONE BY THE WEST COAST POP ART EXPERIMENTAL BAND

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