Saturday, January 5, 2008

Friday, January 1, 1960

To fathom hell or soar angelic
Just take a pinch of psychedelic.

--Dr. Humphry Osmond, in a 1957 letter to Aldous Huxley (quoted in Acid Dreams, by Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain, Grove Weidenfeld, 1985, p. 55)

According to John Tobler's book, This Day In Rock (Carroll & Graf, 1993, p. 6), Johnny Cash gave the first of his many free concerts at Folsom State Prison, Folsom, California, on January 1, 1960. He continued to give these free concerts there and elsewhere (San Quentin, for instance) in the years after; eventually these concerts would be recorded and become the basis of hit albums in the late 1960s. At five years, six months, and a few days old on New Year's Day, 1960 (I was most likely tucked into bed long before midnight on New Year's Eve, unless we'd gone to my paternal grandparents, who lived about two blocks away, to celebrate) I'd heard neither of the singer nor the prison--at least that I can remember. By this date, Cash had, a few years earlier, had a hit record with "Folsom Prison Blues" (recorded 1955, released as Sun 232 early in January 1956), but the song was inspired not by his experience or knowledge of the actual Folsom State Prison, but instead by the Hollywood movie Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison (1951), which, according to most accounts, Cash had seen while stationed in Germany in 1953 as a member of the U. S. Air Force. Art had inspired art.

In 1973, slightly over an unlucky 13 years later, Dr. Timothy Leary, one of the primary advocates of psychedelic drugs and a figure forever associated with the tumultuous 1960s, would be imprisoned at Folsom State Prison and became one of its most infamous inmates, certainly as infamous as another inmate also incarcerated there at the same time, and a figure also indelibly associated with the 1960s, Charles Manson. So, as it turns out, on the first day of the year 1960, Folsom State Prison was poised to become a potent signifier in the decade of the 1960s, a decade that, considered in this light, was not so much about "peace, love, and freedom" but about drugs, violence, and imprisonment, all of which find their emblems in Johnny Cash (whose drug problems have been well-documented), Folsom Prison, Timothy Leary, and LSD-25 (declared illegal in 1966). Moreover, as Lee and Schlain observe in Acid Dreams, LSD itself is duplicitous, as it has been used "both as a weapon and a sacrament, a mind control drug and a mind-expanding chemical" (Acid Dreams, p. xxi).

The year 2008 represents the 70th anniversary of the discovery, by Dr. Albert Hofmann, of lysergic acid diethylmide, popularly known as LSD-25, a drug which would influence--and change--so many lives in the second half of the twentieth century, including, especially, Dr. Timothy Leary, whose life took a big swerve after being introduced to LSD around 1960. Dr. Hofmann discovered the drug while working at Sandoz Pharmaceuticals in Basel, Switzerland, in 1938. His 1938 discovery was shelved at the time, but retrieved by Hofmann five years later, and in April 1943, he ingested a dose of the drug and experienced an hallucinogenic experience, later immortalized in "psychedelic rock" (or rock music which used electronics to aurally simulate an hallucinogenic experience) in psychedelia such as the British band Tomorrow's "My White Bicycle."

By January 1, 1960, however, drug researcher Dr. Humphry Osmond (pictured above) in a 1957 letter to Aldous Huxley, had already coined the term "psychedelic" to describe the effects of hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD-25, a neologism suggesting "mind manifesting." (See the epigraph to this blog entry.) It was under Dr. Osmond's supervision that Aldous Huxley first ingested mescalin, on 4 May 1953, at Huxley's home in Hollywood (around the time Johnny Cash saw Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison?) I hadn't even been conceived at the time Huxley took mescalin, although I had been by the time Huxley published The Doors of Perception, early in 1954, philosophic speculations prompted by his drug-taking experiments. I suppose I'm attracted to these dates in part because my birth, in late June 1954, occurred about four months after Huxley had published The Doors of Perception and about two weeks before Elvis Presley, while at Sun Records, recorded "That's All Right (Mama)." A little over a year later, Johnny Cash would record "Folsom Prison Blues."

What, then, was the link between drugs (and, especially, halluncinogenic drugs) and rock music? How and why did these two independent developments converge in the 1960s?Certainly drugs had been a part of the jazz scene for decades (Charlie Parker's addiction has been well-documented, and Louis Armstrong was a life-long smoker of marijuana), and perhaps became part of the rock scene through the interaction of jazz and (what would become) rock musicians. But rock musicians would seem to have been drawn to hallucinogenics, perhaps because they were perceived as more contemporary and perhaps because they were associated with the philosophic speculations of authors such as Aldous Huxley. Moreover, drugs such as mescalin (and therefore hallucinogenics in general) were associated, rightly or wrongly, with Native American ritualistic practices, and hence perceived as more "authentic" (in the Modernist mind associated with the "primitive") as opposed to the inauthentic, civilized (industrialized) world.

Serendipitously, the two movements converged in 1960, in the form of The Gamblers' 45 rpm single issued that year, "Moon Dawg," which contained, on the flip side, the instrumental "LSD-25."

Friday, January 4, 2008

What is 60x50?

"A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them. That is, he does not draw on a reservoir; instead, he engages in an activity that brings to him a whole process of unforeseen stories, poems, essays, plays [and] laws..."
--William Stafford, Writing the Australian Crawl

60x50 isn't so much of a blog as it is an experiment in invention. By "invention" I mean something similar to what invention has always meant, "discovery." William Stafford means much the same thing in the quotation above, taken from his book Writing the Australian Crawl. The existence of this blog is dedicated to Stafford's insight that a writer "is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them."

It is this idea which informs 60x50. So what, precisely, does the title of this blog, 60x50, mean? "60" refers to the year 1960, and "50" is the approximation of my age. Saying it out loud, you'd say "sixty by fifty." I was originally going to call my blog "60x60," but since I'm closer to 50 years of age at the moment than to sixty years, I called it 60x50 instead.

The year 1960? Why the year 1960? What's so significant or important about the year 1960? Is this an "historical" blog? What possibly could be so compelling about a blog devoted to the year 1960? The answer is, I don't know yet. This is a blog devoted to discovery.

My goal isn't to document the year 1960 so much as to make the year 1960 a means of invention, a way of inventing things to write about. Frankly, it's as good as any other year (or method of invention, for that matter) to write about, and while I was a five year old boy who turned six years old in June 1960, I don't remember it well, so it's not a year I know much about--which, I'm happy to say, violates a conventional rule about writing, that you should know something about the subject you're writing about. I'm not much interested in having the mass media choose my topics for me (sometimes called "newsworthiness"), so I decided to invent another.

Actually, I'd like to take credit for inventing the idea of using a specific year as a means of invention, but I can't. The famous Surrealist, André Breton (pictured above) pioneered the method, as he thought the initials of his name, AB, written in longhand, resembled the numbers in the year 1713 (imagine the letter A written like the letter H except closed on top, or the number 1 and the number 7 written with a strike-through). Intrigued by the resemblance, he began to research extensively the year 1713, believing that in the course of his investigation he could find out something about himself and his identity. Another Surrealist, Salvador Dali, called this form of research "paranoid-critical." So this blog is, as it were, based on the Surrealist method of being paranoid-critical. There's nothing in my initials that suggests a specific year to me, although the number 6 has always been highly significant to me in a Bretonian way, since each of the names that form my complete "proper name" has 6 letters in it, or 6-6-6. Spooky. I turned six years old in the 6th month (June) of 1960. Six years from 1960 is 1966 (double 6s) when I turned 12 years old (6 + 6), and six years after that, in 1972, I graduated from high school. 1972=1(9) + (7+2) or 9 + 9 or 18, or 6 + 6 + 6. I'd like to say I graduated high school at age 18, but I didn't. I was only 17--but very close to 18!

But again, why 1960? The inspiration for the method of 60x50 came from Breton, but the year itself is, in part, indebted to two books about Elvis Presley, who recorded his first, historic songs the summer I was born. (In fact, the first records at Sun were recorded only about two weeks after I was born.) One book, by Megan Murphy, is entitled Elvis is Back (Elvis Unlimited Productions, 2007), a day-by-day reconstruction of the year Elvis returned from Germany and was discharged from the Army--1960. And, as all Elvis fans know, there's a book by Peter Guralnick and Ernst Jorgensen entitled Elvis Day By Day (Ballantine, 1999) that's more ambitious in scope than Megan Murphy's Elvis is Back in that it tries to render Elvis's entire life day by day, not just one year in his life. Elvis was born in 1935, or 1 + 9 + 3 + 5=18 (or 6 + 6 + 6). I was born in 1954, or 1(9) + (5 + 4)=18 (or...).

So my idea is not entirely original, although perhaps my specific inventive method--using the year 1960--is so. I would like to emphasize, however, that I am not a Positivist, in the sense that if I merely accumulate enough data (in this case, dates and events), the world, miraculously, becomes meaningful. It is only the narrative--the cause and effect relationships--that one puts on these dates and places that makes all this data meaningful, although I hope to illuminate more about myself (and the world) than simply a novel way of constructing a narrative of recent history.

Will I stop once I reach December 31, 1960. I don't know. Perhaps I'll never reach that date at all in this blog. But if I do, perhaps I'll continue on into 1961, or maybe begin with a different year, I don't know, but in any case, I hope the results of this experiment in invention are not uninteresting.