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Acid Rock: A Flashback

Nick Bromell's book, Tomorrow Never Knows, is a glorious cultural history of '60s rock & roll that captures the "primal scene" of listening to rock music.
 
 
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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.

The phrase "Tomorrow Never Knows" is rich with meaning. On the one hand it conveys the tragic sense that back in 1966, we didn't know that "tomorrow" would bring not liberation but two decades of Reaganomics. But "Tomorrow Never Knows" can also be understood in a very different sense: Now that it is "tomorrow," we must concede that we don't really know what happened in the sixties -- we are stuck with distorted ideological images. In particular, we tend to view the sixties with ironic detachment, consider the utopian hopes of the decade with embarrassment or with "a sardonic smile." In thinking about the sixties, Bromell wants us to resist the "irony-plated armature of academic discourse" -- a wonderful phrase in its own right.

Of course, many writers have resisted ironic detachment. Historians and others have described the sixties as an explosion of democracy, a youthful challenge to established authority in the state, the university and the family, a renewal that, in its sweep and intensity, ranks beside the eras of Andrew Jackson and the New Deal. SDS occupies the center of this history for many because it articulated the crucial concept of the decade, "participatory democracy." But the personal quest for a meaningful life is typically not emphasized in these studies -- a quest that Bromell suggests was often experienced not simply as liberation from traditional restrictions but as a burden, a weight.

"The Weight," the song The Band sang, is also full of meaning in Bromell's reading. The song concludes "She put the load right on me." But what was this weight? Was it the consciousness of the historic responsibility young people had taken on to speak truth to power, to throw themselves against the gears, to stop the war machine and the machinery of racism? Bromell suggests that it was also something deeper: the weight of the discovery that psychedelic drugs weren't necessarily so benign and blissful -- that they unearthed, in Bromell's words, "something fundamentally malign at the very heart of things."

Jimi Hendrix, we are told, spent weeks working on his version of Dylan's 1968 song "All Along the Watchtower," another key to the era -- especially the opening line: "There must be some way out of here." The line referred of course to Vietnam, but more broadly to many evils in the world: "businessmen they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth." It's tempting to conclude that "life is but a joke," but Hendrix and Dylan didn't want us to. Instead they said "let us not talk falsely now, the hour's getting late." That sense of urgency is not unique to the sixties -- today, Bromell writes, teenagers still feel trapped in an evil world they didn't make; they still yearn for a meaningful life; they "still stand there on the watchtower and wait and wonder."

Luckily for his readers, Bromell is a historian, and he knows that young people in many generations have asked similar questions. Emerson, for example, described youthful slackers in the 1840s, who dropped out of "common labors and competitions of the market" because they had had a private experience that transformed their consciousness. Emerson quotes one saying he realized "I had played the fool with fools all this time" and had been "a selfish member of a selfish society." He realized that "my life is superficial, takes no root in the deep world." And he concluded, "I wish to exchange this flash-of-lightning faith for continuous daylight."

What made the 1960s different from earlier generations, Bromell observes, is the tremendous broadening of the number of participants engaged in this quest. This broadening -- facilitated by the commercial world of rock music -- was fundamentally democratic. Just a decade earlier Allen Ginsberg spoke of "the best minds of my generation," but they were only a handful of people. Now Bob Dylan sang with warm good humor, "Everybody must get stoned," and tens of millions asked how to transform a flash-of-lightning insight into continuous daylight.

Of course, cultural conservatives have devoted considerable energy to attacking this cultural politics. Allan Bloom thought Woodstock resembled Nuremberg; Francis Fukuyama argued that the counterculture did the most "harm" to "the weakest members of society...the black community"; and Daniel Bell wrote that rock music, like the Beatles' later work, made it "impossible to hear oneself think, and that may indeed have been its intention."

At the same time the forces of commercial culture continue to colonize the sixties. VH-1, the music video cable channel owned by Viacom, just named "Revolver" the greatest album in the history of rock. Sixties rock provides the soundtrack to countless TV ads -- I still haven't recovered from Michael Jackson selling the sound of John Lennon singing "Revolution" to Nike for a sneakers commercial more than a decade ago, or from Bob Dylan himself selling the rights to "The Times They Are A-Changin'" to the accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand. (We do have a few holdouts: Springsteen, R.E.M., Tom Petty, Neil Young, U2, Pearl Jam, Phish and Tom Waits -- here's hoping they never "stare into the vacuum of his eyes/And say, do you want to make a deal?")

Meanwhile, in academia, Emerson and Whitman have been admitted to the pantheon, but you better not write a serious book about Dylan until you're tenured. Nick Bromell's "Tomorrow Never Knows" brings us closer to the heart of what we call the sixties than any other book I know.

Read an excerpt from "Tomorrow Never Knows."