Psychedelia – The Bad Trip

In the previous chapter, we saw how some Hippies abandoned the idea that the revolution should be carried out in the realms of the mind, and went over to play in the political field. We saw also how this shift made them devolve into adopting Marxist thought, and from there into violence and terrorism.

It should however be reiterated that most of the people discussed in the previous chapter were not Hippies, and did not emerge from the spirit of rock’n’roll, even if they idolized the rock star and saw them as their role models. Most Hippies stayed true to the idea of revolution of the mind, and kept on seeking enlightenment through drugs, music and mysticism.

But here, too, things were devolving fast. The possibility that a trip could be bad has always been known. It featured in some early psychedelic records as well. In the Beatles track ‘She Said, She Said’, John Lennon tells us what happens when your preparation for the trip is bad. The inspiration came from a time when actor Peter Fonda came by to visit him.

Lennon just dropped acid, getting ready for a groovy trip, but Fonda just had to tell him about a near death experience he had during surgery. This was not what Lennon needed to hear as his mind was getting into the psychedelic twirl, and he told Peter to go to hell, but it was too late. The result was this record, which has an important insight about the nature of hallucinogenic drugs: while they can generate a joyful experience, making you feel like you are at the heart of your existence, so can they generate a terrifying experience, making you feel like you don’t exist at all, making you lose your sense of self.

And the more the sixties neared their end, the more the euphoric feeling of happy existence got replaced with the existential dread that Lennon expresses here. At the end of 1967, with the sunlight beams of the Summer of Love still dancing in the background, Lennon once again provided a different type of psychedelic experience.

In ‘I am the Walrus’, Lennon takes the stance of someone who knows best, and mocks all those who can’t understand him. We’ve met this attitude in Beatles records before, but here it is being deconstructed. At the same time that he mocks others, it seems that his own consciousness is falling apart, alternating wildly like a radio needle that is out of control, hearing voices, and once again imagining itself to be dead.

Instead of the confident man we met in ‘Rain’, here it feels like we are dealing with a schizophrenic. In the beginning of 68, the Beatles travelled to Rishikesh, in India, and stayed there for a month as guests of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who taught them his technique of transcendental meditation.

They also wrote many songs there, which ended up on the double white album that they released at the end of that year. Meditation, said Lennon at the time, is a way to get what the psychedelic drugs give you, while avoiding the dangers of the drugs. But Lennon was disappointed and disillusioned by what he experienced in Rishikesh, and some of the white album tracks give expression to this feeling.

‘The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill’ is a satirical song about an American who was there with them, learning from the Maharishi, but in the middle he took a break to go hunting tigers in the jungle, and then came back to continue his studies of a philosophy that preaches non-violence towards any living being.

‘Dear Prudence’ was inspired by one of the women in the group, who suffered a panic attack after meditation, and it took them hours to persuade her to get out of her room. But Lennon reserved the most venomous song for the Maharishi himself, after he heard a rumor that he sexually assaulted the actress Mia Farrow, who was there with them.

Lennon wrote a song that incriminated the Maharishi and accused him of being a fraud, but to avoid legal issues he changed the lyrics, and made it a song about a movie starlet who fools the world into falling in love with her. Luckily so, because the rumor was probably false. But the track ‘Sexy Sadie’ preserves the feeling of bitter disillusionment, and can be heard as a representative of the late sixties spirit.

The white album, officially called simply ‘The Beatles’, also contains Lennon’s parting shot from psychedelia. ‘Glass Onion’ references some of the Beatles psychedelic era records, emphasizes the sense of confusion and detachment from reality expressed in them, and throws them all into a psychedelic cauldron to make something even more confusing.

In the previous records, the confusion was just a side-effect, and the prevailing feeling was that of self-confidence, but here Lennon reinterprets them, and asserts that it was all an illusion. Psychedelia didn’t make reality more transparent, but rather into a glass onion, something that looks clear and transparent, but is actually multilayered and curvilinear.

This is the only track on the album where you still hear the psychedelic sound. Most other tracks provided by Lennon convey a feeling of loneliness and depression. Following the descent from the peaks of the Summer of Love into the hate drenched reality of 1968, and after meditation did not live up to its promises, Lennon feels lost.

In this mental state, drugs were no longer the way to get from an ordinary existence to a joyful existence, but to escape a depressing experience into oblivion. For that, other drugs are more suitable, but also demand a higher price. By 1969, Lennon was addicted to heroin, like many others in the counter-culture.

Many lost their lives as a result, but Lennon managed to gather himself in time and kick the habit, doing it cold turkey. The hell that he went through in order to do it, a hell that many went through at the time, was immortalized in this record. Heroin is a drug for people who experience life as suffering and want to escape it.

It makes you forget all your worries and sorrows, neutralizes all urges and ambitions. This is not what the Hippies were after, and heroin was a drug that they ideologically rejected. But there was one rock band at the time which made heroin and other hard drugs part of its art, and gave us a window into this world.

The songs that Lou Reed wrote for the Velvet Underground were filled with characters that hated their existence and wanted out, and the band turned every song into a little theatre play that dramatized the escape. Some of these records were about drugs. “I have made a big decision”, announces the junky in this record, “I’m gonna try to nullify my life.

” The temptation to turn to nothing, to dissolve into the euphoria of the drug, is what we hear in this classic track. The Hippies were perturbed by the Velvet Underground’s music. At the basis of their way of life was a strong conviction in the power of the human soul, a confidence that the drugs will purify it only from what is unessential, and will leave the essential core.

The Velvet Underground’s music suggested that there is no pure core, that the only thing awaiting at the end of the road is complete self-annihilation, and enslavement to the drug. This is not what the Hippies wanted to hear, and since they were now the dominant force in the rock world, the Velvet Underground was marginalized, remaining underground for the next decade, but constantly undermining Hippie optimism.

But there were also many Hippies who lost themselves to hard drugs, either because they wanted to escape the harsh reality of the late sixties, or because they took the sex-drugs-rock’n’roll ideology too far. The belief that the dominant culture is evil and only wants to prevent us from having fun, along with the belief that drugs are the road to salvation, led many youngsters to the thought that the warnings about heroin are just a fabrication.

From there, the road to hell was open. That’s not to say that only heroin is bad, and only heroin had a destructive effect. The hallucinogenic drugs did a lot of damage as well. Let’s let the Pink Floyd tell us about it. The record ‘Astronomy Domine’ is another psychedelic space trip, under the guidance of our captain, Syd Barrett.

When the record starts we are already in the spaceship, travelling among the planets, and a voice over the communication system is informing us of our location. But rather than helping us, the voice only disorients us – actually, there are two voices here, each providing different information, and together they form an unintelligible mix.

When the singing begins, we encounter the familiar themes of floating and acquiring a different view of reality, but it sounds more scared than euphoric. Nevertheless, there is a sense of progress, as we are gradually getting further away from Earth, going through Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, but then we retreat back to Titan, a Jupiter moon, and are frightened of the stars.

Then again, Oberon, Miranda and Titania, mentioned as the Uranus moons we pass by, are also Shakespearean characters, from two plays that exist between reality and fantasy. In both plays, there is a scene in which people fall under a spell, either from a potion or from beguiling music, which makes them not see reality as it is and leads them to unwelcomed results.

Smack in the middle of the Summer of Love, then, the Floyd already warn us that the psychedelic trip, which is supposed to show us the truth, might be just an illusion. The spaceship then goes into warp speed, growing increasingly out of control. The voice over the com system returns, once again spewing urgent but meaningless information.

When the singing resumes it sounds more like a series of onomatopoeic explosions, with words that express paranoia. Finally, the music slows down, and it seems like we are landing back in reality, but we are still trapped in the mental state we’ve put ourselves into, and who knows if we can ever escape it.

Barrett was the central figure of the British psychedelic scene, and did everything to be worthy of his crown. That meant that he remained switched on at all hours of the day, ingesting copious amounts of LSD pills. In chapter 7 we witnessed the switch he made from a stylish Mod into a disheveled Hippie, who cares only about what’s inside the mind.

But soon enough, the drugs ate his brain to an extent that there wasn’t much left inside. The handsome and talented young man became a total wreck, and his eyes, which always sparkled with an impish twinkle, became black holes in the sky, as Pink Floyd would sing years later. In the record ‘Vegetable Man’, Barrett comes full circle and once again sings about his external look, and he claims that his stinking rags are an expression of what’s left of his soul.

Actually, they are all that’s left of him. He became a soulless creature, a vegetable man. No less disturbing is this record, in which it sounds like Barrett’s personal hell is screaming in our ears in a variety of scary voices. These two amazing records were so perturbing that Pink Floyd decided not to release them, and they saw light only years later.

Barrett made a modest contribution to the band’s second album, but in the beginning of 1968 it was obvious that he was gone, and he was cut from the band. In the next few years his condition went from bad to worse, and he retreated into a shadow world. He tried to develop a solo career, and released several albums full of weird tracks, sung in a bent way that never remained faithful to any tempo.

Eventually he went back to his hometown and lived with his family as a welfare case. He never regained full sanity. While Barrett was sinking slowly, several other heroes of the psychedelic era fell in a more dramatic fashion. We’ve mentioned Brian Jones, the man who founded the Rolling Stones, and also the man who pulled it towards psychedelia, until his drug addiction got him kicked out of the band.

Jones tried to rehabilitate, but in July 69 he was found floating dead in his swimming pool, a death that remains shrouded in mystery to this day. A year later, three blows landed one after the other. In September of 1970, Jimi Hendrix took a large dose of sedatives, threw up in his sleep and choked to death on his own vomit.

Less than a month later, following a period of self-destruction, Janis Joplin was found dead in her hotel room, of a mixture of alcohol and heroin. And in July 71, bloated from alcohol and drugs, Jim Morrison went the same way. This is where the way of life of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll ended up.

Nothing manifests the shattering of the Hippie dream better than the four great rock festival movies of the late sixties. First, the Monterey Pop Festival of June 67, which was, as we recall, the first rock’n’roll festival in history, the first time when musicians from all over the world gathered to celebrate the new generation of popular music.

The beginning of the movie shows us that apart from that, it was a regular entertainment show, in which the audience paid for admittance and sat in rows of chairs, while the police was running things – back then there wasn’t yet talk of the counter-culture, of an alternative way to run a show.

At least not anywhere outside of Haight-Ashbury. But once we are done with this procedural stuff, the movie takes us into a magical place, a historic joy capsule that transpires in our ears and in our eyes. We hear folk-rock, acid-rock, British rhythm ‘n blues, soul, jazz, and classical Indian music, all coming together to create a new musical kaleidoscope, around which a new culture is being formed.

We see all the festival patrons still dressed in the dapper Mod style of the mid-sixties, but already affected by the psychedelic rainbow colors, with everyone trying to add something original of their own. Throughout the movie we see people smiling and having a good time, and when the music begins, we see them melt with pleasure with the lovely harmonies of the Mamas and the Papas and Simon & Garfunkel, sent to ecstatic heights with the mighty soul of Otis Redding, staring agape at the breakthrough performances of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, and going into trance with the enchanting sitar sounds of Ravi Shankar.

You can even see the artists themselves mingle with the crowd, and enjoying the performances of their peers. I don’t know of any documentary that has the same feeling. Two years later, in August 69, came the Woodstock festival. This wasn’t in the warm Sun of California, but in the rain and mud of New York, but that did not deter hundreds of thousands of youngsters from flocking to the place, to take part in a three day festival of sound.

Unlike Monterey, which was organized by a professional producer, here the organizers were young Hippies, and when they realized that the attendance is much larger than the number of tickets, they decided to go all out and announced that the admittance is free. The financial loss was massive, but it was worth it for the experience.

The counter-culture got mobilized to help make it work, and the Hippie communes provided food and other services. Here is where the Woodstock myth was born, the myth of a utopian society in which hundreds of thousands of young people can coexist in fraternity and cooperation, and live on constant high from listening to great music.

The movie shows it very well, shows a society in which everyone contributes to the whole. “We’re all feeding each other! We must be in Heaven, man!” exults one of the speakers on stage. But when the cameras pan out a little, the illusion is revealed. The festival attendants may have felt that they are making it on their own without the authorities, but the authorities were actually involved all the way, and if it wasn’t for the massive help that they provided in food, sanitation and healthcare, the event might have been a large scale disaster.

Musically, we see that rock music now became the sea that all musical rivers meet in. All of the sixties musical styles are represented, but they all now express themselves through the flexible sound of electric guitars. There is still a feeling that the rock nation is united and all styles are in dialogue with each other and feed each other, and there’s also still a lot of Hippie idealism.

The music is fantastic, but the bad vibrations of the last year and a half can already be felt. Here’s Jimi Hendrix performing the Star Spangled Banner, incorporating air raids, anguished screams and funeral music, and perfectly capturing the ambivalent feelings that the American youth had towards their country at the time.

But the myth of Woodstock as a symbol for a new utopian world, for getting ourselves back to the garden, as Joni Mitchell sang, took hold, and became an ideal that every other rock festival would be judged by. The Rolling Stones, who didn’t perform at Woodstock, wanted to be part of that myth as well.

A few months later they started a tour of the States, and announced that they will end it with a free concert in San Francisco. The ambition was to organize a concert based entirely on the means of the counter-culture, with no dependence on the authorities. The movie shows them trying to arrange the concert, which turned out to be a much harder undertaking than they thought.

Once again, the counter-culture mobilized to help, and the local acid-rock bands confirmed their participation, but they still needed to find a place big enough and willing to host the event, not an easy endeavor when you can’t offer the possibility of financial gain. Finally they rented a race track in Altamont, which wasn’t exactly suited for a rock concert, and for security the hired the Hell’s Angels, the biker gang that was considered, as we recall, part of the counter-culture.

We mentioned that the Angels enjoyed taking part in the Hippie love-ins and partake in all the sex and drugs, so they generally behaved themselves, a fact that enabled the counter-culture to ignore their violent side. But hiring them to be in charge of security was asking for trouble, and trouble didn’t fail to arrive.

The movie is called ‘Gimme Shelter’, and it begins with the same sights we’ve seen in the Monterey and Woodstock movies: multitudes of youngsters, dressed in freaky outfits, flocking to Altamont, expecting an unforgettable night. But when the music begins, so do the troubles. As the Jefferson Airplane are playing, the crowd starts to get rowdy, as usual in rock concerts.

Professional security guards would show tolerance, but the Hell’s Angels handle it the only way they knew: with brutal force. The crowd, in large parts tripping on hard drugs, reciprocates in kind, and the situation escalates. Once the Stones take the stage, playing their wild satanic music, all hell breaks loose.

Jagger stops the music several times and tries to put things back in order, reciting the Hippie slogans about peace and love that by then already sounded corny, but his words fall on deaf ears – once the music starts again, so does the violence. Things come to a head when a young man, standing just meters away from the stage, draws a gun and aims it at the Angels, and they immediately pounce on him and stab him to death.

Many other youngsters came out battered and bruised from the event, which, as we recall, was supposed to “create a microcosmic society which sets example to the rest of America as to how one can behave in nice gatherings”. This happened in December 1969, in the same month that the Manson Family took the headlines, and the combined effect of Manson and Altamont terminally destroyed the Hippie pretensions to present an alternative world of peace and love.

Britain had its own rock festival, an annual summer event held since 1968 in the Isle of Wight, organized by a company run by three young brothers. The brothers were driven by a true passion for the music and the values of the youth culture, and in the first couple of years it was a modest event, but after Woodstock, they were inspired to try to arrange a similar event for the British youth.

For the 1970 event, they announced that this time the festival will be a large scale gathering, lasting five days, and serving as a role model for a self-sustaining society. They fenced a large area in the island, booked more than fifty artists, and with much love and care they managed to overcome the complicated logistical problems.

And the youth did indeed show up en masse, coming from Britain, America and Europe, in numbers that were estimated to surpass even Woodstock. But this youth was also driven by the myth of Woodstock, and many refused to cough up the nominal sum that they were asked to pay for a ticket, which was particularly ridiculous considering the amount of money they had to pay to get to the event.

Maintaining the ideal of a free festival was more important to them than compensating the organizers, and not let them go broke. Instead, they stood outside and started banging on the fence, demanding free admittance. The movie shows how the slogans of the counter-culture, that were supposed to represent enlightened values, are twisted and used to justify the most selfish and barbaric behavior.

The artists try to sing above the ruckus, but the bad vibrations spread to every corner of the venue, and affect them as well. Several of them look sullied from too many drugs, and no one is willing to give up part of their pay to help the organizers. There is still a lot of good music, but we already see the rock nation splintering into many styles – heavy metal, progressive rock, fusion, singer-songwriter, country-rock and more – with not much uniting them.

Eventually, the organizers decide to open the gates and let everyone enter for free, and one of them announces it from the stage and speaks in the utopian rhetoric taken from Woodstock, but there are tears in his eyes. Only three years have gone by since Monterey, but that spirit was dead. But the most symbolic thing that happened in 1970 was the collapse of the band that epitomized the sixties, the band that was the heart of youth culture.

In 1968 this heart began to break, because the bundle called the Beatles could no longer contain the personality differences between its four members, and every one of them began to pull in his own direction, and work on projects outside the band. After they completed the white album, they tried to find a way to renew the fun, and thought that maybe it’s time to get back to some live playing.

Their next project, called ‘Let it Be’, was supposed to be based on recordings that will make no use of studio technology, to recapture the spontaneous feeling of their early days. They also hired a film crew to document the process, and the resulting movie shows that there were indeed moments of fun, but also moments when the tensions bubbled up to the surface.

To end it, they decided to try to do a live performance, something they haven’t done in more than two years, and they ascended to the roof of the studio to throw a surprise concert. And so, on the 30th of January, 1969, the Beatles gave what turned out to be their last performance. It was a brilliant idea, which did bring back the spontaneous thrill of their music, and the movie shows the crowds slowly gathering, looking at the wonder happening above their heads.

But after half an hour, the police stop the concert, for disturbing the public order. A glum ending to the performing career of the greatest band of all. The final song in the performance also reflects the changing mood. ‘Get Back’ was written in response to growing xenophobic emotions in Britain, following the arrival of waves of immigrants.

The dream of a new world that will overcome the racism of the past crashed against the rocks of reality, and Paul McCartney wrote the song from the point of view of a person demanding from the immigrants to get back to where they came from, to satirize such people. But the Beatles were afraid that the irony will be lost on the public, and the lyrics were changed to something rather prosaic.

True, this self-censorship characterized the Beatles from the start, but in the early years it made their records more sophisticated, with their hidden meanings smiling behind the innocent mask. In 1969, the ugly events transpiring around them meant that the subjects of their songs were so harsh that in order to maintain innocence, they had to emasculate their records to the point of banality.

The original spirit of the band could no longer exist in the reality of the time. The next Beatles project was the album Abbey Road, for which they once again closed themselves in the studio. But not together. Most of the parts were recorded by every member on his own, and later put together. They are hardly a band here, but four individuals with not much connecting between them.

The only track that somewhat preserves the feeling of togetherness is ‘Because’, with its vocal harmonies. The lyrics are full of puns which turn natural phenomena into feelings, once again creating a sense of unity between Man and nature. But the atmosphere is melancholy – the melody is actually Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata played backwards, and the effect is just as sad.

The last verse – “because the sky is blue, it makes me cry” – pretty much sums up the mood. The music of the Beatles represents pure unadulterated joy, the happiness of everyday life when you’re having fun in your existence. But the late sixties were no fun, and gave them no happy things to sing about.

Without this joy to hold them together, the inner tensions and frictions within the band surfaced. From a group that was once four lads united against the world, they became separate individuals who conversed with each other through lawyers. Once this happened, things just went uglier and uglier. And, as it was throughout the decade, what happened to the Beatles was reflective of the culture around them.

The counter-culture was falling apart, losing the joy of life and sense of purpose that held it together. It used to be about liberation, about expanding your horizons, about achieving harmony, about creating a better world. The entire Hippie identity was constructed around these ambitions. But now, these ambitions lay in tatters, and the identity was in a lost state.

Without this inner core, most of it didn’t make sense anymore. And for the Beatles to remain true to themselves, this left only one viable option. On the last day of 1970, after a bitter fallout, they announced that they are disbanding. The dream was over.

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