Thursday, June 26, 2008

"For What It's Worth"

Perhaps one of the best-known songs of the decade of the 1960s is Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” released as a 45 rpm single in January 1967 (not included on the first pressing of the band's first LP, it became such a huge hit that later pressings of the album replaced one track and included it instead). It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that "For What It's Worth" appears on the soundtrack of just about every documentary one can find about that tumultuous decade. I think a good, concise interpretation of the song--the complete discussion of which can be found here--is as follows:

The . . . song . . . manages to warn of increasing polarization and violence in American society, without taking any stand other than that of acceptance of diversity and free speech. In other words, it comments on politics without itself being political.

I believe this to be a standard interpretation, but I find the claim that the song "comments on politics without itself being political" to be extremely revealing. Interestingly, the historical origins of the song don’t especially shed light on its meaning, although it clearly partakes of what was referred to at the time as “youth culture.”

The song was inspired by an event in November 1966, the year during which Buffalo Springfield started playing as the house band at the famed Whiskey A Go-Go on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. At the dawn of the psychedelic era, on Saturday, November 12, 1966, near a club at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Crescent Heights named Pandora’s Box (pictured), supposedly 1,000 youthful demonstrators (I say “supposedly” as the number strikes me as dubiously high) erupted in protest against the perceived repressive enforcement of recently invoked curfew laws. As I understand it, these curfew laws were passed in order to get a handle on underage drinking going on at some of the Sunset Strip clubs catering to a youthful clientele (a painfully banal explanation, to be sure). Apparently some business owners wanted the authorities to pass laws that would help rid the Sunset Strip of vast numbers of loitering teenagers as well as the growing number of "hippies," the pan-handling presence of which were discouraging patrons from attending their drinking and dining establishments.

Referred to as the “Sunset Strip Riot”—inspiring the movie Riot on Sunset Strip (1967)—apparently the event was characterized by some rather typical youthful expressions of outrage: rock throwing (where did the rocks come from?), an attempt to set fire to a city bus filled with terrified passengers, and various other acts of destructive vandalism. The event was referred to in the L. A. press as a “riot,” perhaps to link the disruptive moment to the more destructive and socially significant Watts riots of the year before. The net result was that within the year—by August of 1967—Pandora’s Box was demolished and paved over to make an easy access road to Crescent Heights off of Sunset Boulevard. That's one way to solve a problem.

As is widely known, the so-called “Sunset Strip Riot”—and perhaps the Watts Riots the year before—inspired then Buffalo Springfield band member Stephen Stills to write “For What It’s Worth,” recorded about three weeks after the so-called "riot," on December 5, 1966. The lyrics are so well known it hardly seems necessary to reproduce them, but I do so below for the sake of convenience:

There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware
I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down

There’s battle lines being drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
Young people speaking their minds
Gettin’ so much resistance from behind
It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down

What a field day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
inging songs and carrying signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side
It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
You step out of line, the Man come and take you away
We better stop, hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down

Although famous, and strongly associated with the decade of the 1960s, I find this a hard song on which to get a critical handle, especially as any sort of trenchant "social criticism." For one thing, what’s the level of intellectual commitment to the so-called issue of freedom of expression (a value that is, of course, never actually named)? It seems more like a sum of commonplaces strung together rather than expressing any deeply felt social outrage. The title, especially, doesn’t help: the colloquial expression, “For What It’s Worth,” offers only a minimal commitment to an idea; it seems a strangely noncommittal title for a song that putatively contains acute political insight. A better title might be, “My Two Cents’ Worth,” as that phrase more accurately suggests the level of extent of the emotional engagement with the issue(s). No doubt it was influenced by the overt political protest characteristic of 1960s folk music, but it lacks the clear statement of a political position that these songs make explicit. In this sense, we can see that it positions itself somewhere between outright polemic and disinterested social observation: “Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.” The line reminds me of something a fence-riding high school guidance counselor told me in response to the Kent State campus shootings in 1970. If it is considered, narrowly, merely as a response to the so-called "Sunset Strip Riot," then it amounts to nothing more than an argument insisting that teenagers ought to be able to have fun when they want to have fun.

In retrospect, the whole song smacks of fence-riding. In Canto III of Dante’s Inferno, the fence-riders—named "Neutrals" in J. D. Sinclair's translation to desribe those who never took a position in life—are situated in the vestibule to Hell, Hell refusing to let them in because they never made a decision on anything during their lives.

To properly understand the song, I think, we need to focus elsewhere than on politics, and recognize that it owes something to the ideas in Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962), and Kesey’s use of the mental institution as a metaphor for everyday life: “You step out of line, the Man come and take you away.” Think of the 60s novelty song “They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!”—that was, incidentally, released in July 1966, four months before the Sunset Strip Riot, and about five months before Buffalo Springfield recorded "For What It's Worth." One of the novelty song’s lyrics refers to the “funny farm,” which is, of course, a colloquial reference to an asylum. The narrator of Cuckoo’s Nest, Chief Bromden, uses the phrase “the Combine” to refer to the large, invisible system of coercion that society uses to control and manipulate individuals. I’ve written a great deal, recently, about Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, so I don’t think that his fame and notoriety during this period in the 1960s needs rehearsing. The way authority is referred to only in the abstract--"man with a gun," "resistance from behind," "the heat," the Man"--also supports the idea that the song refers to the repressive operations of "the Combine."

If nothing else, a close analysis of the song warns against any attempt to transform pop songs into agitprop.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Pinch of Ridicule

In yesterday's blog, I said that nothing could appear a less promising topic than the movie career of Elvis Presley. Observing that movies in general have always been culturally ambiguous because they blur clear distinctions between art, commerce, and mass communication, I then immediately suggested that the films starring Elvis Presley are an exception to this culturally ambiguous status: they are not considered ambiguous at all, but rather as artless mass entertainment. In its most negative formulation, they are used as an example of Elvis’s tastelessness, made simply for crass commercial reasons: although nothing but tripe, they remain, nonetheless, quite profitable. What I didn't discuss yesterday are the reasons for this widespread cultural perception, and it's not clear to me that the reasons are due to the actual films themselves.

The reasons for this perception are best explored in a remarkable essay written by a former teacher of mine, Linda Ray Pratt, titled "Elvis, or the Ironies of a Southern Identity," which can be found in Kevin Quain, Ed., The Elvis Reader (St. Martin's Press, 1992). In one of the best pieces ever written about Elvis, in the essay, writing as a Southerner herself, she discusses Elvis with the kind of understanding and empathy that those outside the culture often lack. I remember having brief conversations with her about Elvis--this back in the early 1980s, just a few years after his death, probably while she was thinking about the issues that ultimately emerged in this particular essay. She makes so many acute insights that it is impossible to list them all here, but here are a few insights that may help explain why Elvis's films are held in such widespread contempt, even by those who perhaps have never seen but one or two of them, and perhaps even by those who have never seen them at all--to see them would demonstrate a noticeable lapse in taste. Writing about Elvis in the context of Southern culture, she says:

C. Vann Woodward has said that the South's experience is atypical of the American experience, that where the rest of America has known innocence, success, affluence, and an abstract and disconnected sense of place, the South has know guilt, poverty, failure, and a concrete sense of roots and place.... These myths collide in Elvis. His American success story was always acted out within its Southern limitations. No matter how successful Elvis became in terms of fame and money, he remained fundamentally disreputable in the minds of many Americans. Elvis had rooms full of gold records earned by million-copy sales, but his best rock and roll records were not formally honored by the people who control, if not the public taste, the rewarding of public taste.... His movies made millions but could not be defended on artistic grounds. The New York Times view of his fans was "the men favoring leisure suits and sideburns, the women beehive hairdos, purple eyelids and tight stretch pants".... (96-97)

Observing that Elvis "remained an outsider in the American culture that adopted his music," she goes on to say:

Although he was the world's most popular entertainer, to like Elvis a lot was suspect, a lapse of taste.... The inability of Elvis to transcend his lack of reputability despite a history-making success story confirms the Southern sense that the world outside thinks Southerners are freaks, illiterates . . . sexual perverts, lynchers. I cannot call this sense a Southern "paranoia" because ten years outside the South has all too often confirmed the frequency with which non-Southerners express such views. Not even the presidency would free LBJ and Jimmy Carter from the ridicule.... And Elvis was truly different, in all those tacky Southern ways one is supposed to rise above with money and sophistication. (97)

Regarding the deification of the dead Elvis, she observes:

The apotheosis of Elvis demands . . . perfection because his death confirmed the tragic frailty, the violence, the intellectual poverty, the extravagance of emotion, the loneliness, the suffering, the sense of loss. Almost everything about his death, including the enterprising cousin who sold the casket pictures to National Enquirer, dismays, but nothing can detract from Elvis himself.... Greil Marcus wrote in his book Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music that Elvis created a beautiful illusion, a fantasy that shut nothing out. The opposite was true. The fascination was the reality always showing through the illusion--the illusion of wealth and the psyche of poverty; the illusion of success and the pinch of ridicule; the illusion of invincibility and the tragedy of frailty; the illusion of complete control and the reality of inner chaos.... Elvis had all the freedom the world can offer and could escape nothing. (103)

Her final, acute insight is painfully true: by saying that Elvis could escape nothing, she means escape Southern mythology, both what he inherited as a Southerner by birth, and what someone from the South is perceived to be by non-Southerners (think: Deliverance). In a sense, his movie career failed because he was never allowed by the general culture to be a movie star. Even Jimmy Carter as president couldn't escape the stigma of being from the South: the mass media was brutal on him, his brother Billy, and even his daughter Amy. Although Dr. Pratt corrects an observation made by Greil Marcus in his essay "Elvis: Presliad," Marcus nonetheless cited portions of the above passage in his scathing review of Albert Goldman's biography Elvis (1981), a biography I've cited on a few occasions. Her essay helps immensely to explain why so many were offended by Goldman's biography of Elvis: his (perhaps unconscious) contempt for the South and for Elvis's Southern identity taints almost every page.

But rather than fixate on the mote in our neighbor's eye, perhaps we ought to examine the sources and motivations for our own perceptions, in this case why Elvis's films are widely considered jokes, even by those who may have never seen them, or seen very few. To extrapolate a bit on Linda Ray Pratt's essay, we might say that those perceptions may largely be determined by factors that have nothing to do with the films themselves.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Harder They Fall

Movies are so familiar to us that they are widely considered nothing more than “entertainment.” Naïvely, we assume that movies are easier to understand than literature--literature being regarded as "serious," and therefore "art." The fact is, movies are entertaining . . . and they are also complex. As a result, they are culturally ambiguous, because they blur simplistic distinctions between art, entertainment, and mass communication.

Strangely, though, movies starring Elvis Presley are the exception to this culturally ambiguous status of the movies: they are not considered ambiguous at all, but rather as artless, and therefore mass (as in “mind-numbing”) entertainment. In its most negative formulation, they are used as an example of Elvis’s (or the Colonel’s) tastelessness, made because of his (or the Colonel’s) desire for the “fast buck.” Because they are considered tasteless, they are, therefore, as a consequence, benign, an exception to much of the writing about Hollywood that focuses on Hollywood’s (bad) influence on American life and values. Elvis's films are nostalgic, innocuous (formulaic), and therefore harmless (non-controversial).

As a topic, therefore, nothing could appear less promising than the movie career of Elvis Presley. But, as Robert Ray writes, the

situation probably has less to do with Elvis’s own contributions to his movies that with the films themselves, most of them specious, formulaic representations of what the pre-rock generation of producers, writers, and directors who made them thought was “youth culture.” (“The Riddle of Elvis-the-Actor,” p. 102)

Of course, the general criticism of Elvis’s movies is largely directed at the films he made in the 1960s, after his stint in the U. S. Army: G.I. Blues (1960) through A Change of Habit (1969). So, for the sake of convenience, let’s consider the four films Elvis made in the 1950s: Love Me Tender (1956), Loving You (1957), Jailhouse Rock (1957), and King Creole (1958). The year 1956, of course, marks the year Elvis emerged as a powerful cultural force—in America and elsewhere (think of John Lennon’s remark, “Before Elvis there was nothing”).

Jean-Luc Godard’s one explicit film about the influence of American culture on the rest of world is Masculine-Feminine (1966), the famous film exploring the lives of "the children of Marx and Coca-Cola." But long before Masculine-Feminine, there was, of course, Breathless (1960). Regarding Breathless, I’ve always wondered why, given Michel Poiccard’s (Jean-Paul Belmondo’s) apparent age (Belmondo was 26 at the time the film was made, although he looks younger), he idolized Bogart, when the more obvious figure, it seems to me, should have been Elvis. (Belmondo was born in 1933, Elvis in 1935.)

For many critics, the key scene in Breathless that is structured to reveal how Michel Poiccard imitates the character (“image”) of Humphrey Bogart is the moment when he encounters Bogart’s face on a movie poster. Here, Poiccard approaches the large poster:

The poster in which Bogart’s image appears is the French poster of The Harder They Fall (1956), Bogey’s last film (he was to die in January 1957), set in the boxing world. After studying the poster, Poiccard moves to his left, to study a display of 8x10 movie stills:

In particular, he studies an image of Bogart . . .

. . . captivated by it, the cigarette hanging from his lips just as the cigarette does from Bogey's in the large movie poster. Meanwhile, he continues to study Bogey's image:

. . . as Bogey returns his gaze . . .

The cigarette, of course, is a signifier closely associated with American culture, particularly the American G.I. during WWII (and Bogey in Casablanca). The scene concludes with Poiccard's imitation of Bogey's characteristic gesture, the thumb raking across the upper lip, indicating contemplation, and, occasionally, indecisiveness:

The standard interpretation of this scene is that we are to understand Michel Poiccard consciously models his life on the figure of movie star Humphrey Bogart—he wishes to live a life like his (or at least, his life in American films noir). For some critics, Michel Poiccard’s criminal behavior serves as a sort of Godardian self-inscription, given that Godard, apparently, was a delinquent as a youth. But what happens to this sequence if we substitute the more obvious (at the time) figure of American cultural influence, movie star Elvis Presley in this sequence? Poiccard approaches the marquee . . .

. . . but instead of the poster of The Harder They Fall, it's the poster of Jailhouse Rock:

There's no cigarette of course, and there isn't the large image of Bogart's older, chiseled face, but there is the image of Elvis as both jailbird and as seductive sex symbol. In this revised sequence, Poiccard moves to his left, just as in the original . . .

. . . but instead of Bogey's image, it is Elvis's image from Jailhouse Rock:
He studies the image as before . . .

. . . while Elvis returns his gaze . . .

Without the cigarette, Poiccard's (Belmondo's) facial expression seems remarkably closer to Elvis's than it does Bogart's:

Of course, this imaginary sequence would conclude without the expressive gesture of the thumb across the lip to suggest the implicit identification Poiccard has with Bogey, and hence the loss of all the meanings compressed into the image of Bogart.The question is how and in what way the sequence is altered by the substitution of one American icon with another.

The gesture of the thumb across the lip recurs at different times in Breathless, but what if, instead of the lip gesture, Poiccard/Belmondo imitates, say, Elvis's gesture (sans hat) of flipping the head backwards to clear the hair from his eyes? He can't, because Poiccard is an anti-hero inspired by the characters of an older Hollywood than the Hollywood in which Elvis arrived for his first film in 1956. The fact is, Michel Poiccard is a doomed Hollywood anti-hero, but a charmingly nostalgic one. Elvis wasn't appropriate for Breathless because, ironically, he was too contemporary (a fear realized by the ambiguous figure of Patricia Franchini/Jean Seberg, the hip, promiscuous American girl who is also the film's femme fatale). The charm of Michel Poiccard is that he remains a comfortably familiar figure, even for French audiences. The irony is that in 1959, when Breathless was being made, Elvis, on leave from the U. S. Army, visited Paris. I like to imagine that in those cinéma-vérité scenes shot on the Champs-Élysées, Elvis was one of those figures standing in the background. Robert Ray argues that Elvis's style of acting would have been appropriate for Godardian cinema, imagining him, for instance, in a sequel to Masculine-Feminine. The idea is not as silly as it sounds: imagine the possibilities of Elvis starring in a Godard film. It would have been something to see.

Monday, June 23, 2008

George Carlin, 1937-2008

I heard the news this morning that comedian George Carlin died yesterday of heart failure at the age of 71. Although popularly associated with the so-called liberal "counterculture" of the 1960s and 1970s, it seems to me that comedians of the satirical sort like George Carlin always have to be fundamentally conservative, a theory born out by comments made by his friends in this obituary. The wicked humor of comedians like Carlin is premised on an acute understanding of his culture's fundamental hypocrisy. Example: his response to the question posed to him about the Super Bowl halftime show ending with Janet Jackson's breast-baring "wardrobe malfunction." Said Carlin: "On that Super Bowl broadcast of Janet Jackson's there was also a commercial about a 4-hour erection. A lot of people were saying about Janet Jackson, 'How do I explain to my kids? We're a little family, we watched it together ...' And, well, what did you say about the other thing? These are convenient targets." I couldn't have said it better, George: every weekday on the evening news one can hear repeated advertisements for drugs that might help solve "erectile dysfunction," but nary a word is raised in protest by the vast and so easily outraged middle-class, that great defender of bourgeoisie values and genteel sexual morality.

The greatest comedians have always been keenly aware of language, and hence it is entirely appropriate that George Carlin is perhaps most famous for his "Seven Words You Can Never Say on TV" routine, a sketch not so much about proscribed words--that is, obscenity--as it is about the Orwellian nature of the media to control both thought and reality. Carlin said he learned a lot about his craft by observing comedian Lenny Bruce, a comedian continually harassed by the authorities over charges of "obscenity" whose routines were also frequently premised on an examination of language; in this sense "Seven Words You Can Never Say on TV" owes much to Bruce's influence.

But while Lenny Bruce was clearly an influence on him, Carlin always said his idol growing up was comic Danny Kaye. Years ago on the radio I heard an interview with George Carlin in which he talked about how as a kid he very much adored and admired Danny Kaye, perhaps the preeminent comedian of his era. He said as a teenager he stood for hours in the rain outside a theater where Kaye was to appear, wanting to meet the great maestro in person and hoping to get his autograph. When Danny Kaye appeared, chauffeured to the spot in his grand automobile, Carlin (and others) rushed out to greet him--but the great comedian pushed by them and strolled silently on into the building, ignoring them and not saying a word, as if they were invisible. George Carlin's child-like silliness--a strength, actually--and his characteristic facial contortions no doubt owed a lot to Danny Kaye, but I think his iconoclasm, and the powerful hatred of hypocrisy so evident in his best comedy, came from that moment when he was so coldly pushed aside by his idol.

Because of that second or two of callousness, one of the best American comedians of his generation came into being. In any case, he and his idol are both equal now.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Elvis & His Guru

Improbably, this morning’s Los Angeles Times contained an article on the resurgence of interest in spiritualist Manley Palmer Hall (1901-1990), mentioning that a clip from the one film in which Hall made an appearance--the astrological murder mystery When Were You Born? (1938)--was shown as part of an “Occult L.A.” film program curated by Erik Davis. “Occult L.A.” was a program devoted to exploring what is, apparently, an ongoing fascination with the occult that has a long history in, and around, Los Angeles. Although skeptical at first, I decided there may be some merit to the idea that Los Angeles is peculiar in its obsession with the occult, if for no other reason than the way these occult ideas were transmitted by means of Larry Geller (pictured above, with Elvis), whom Elvis met in Los Angeles in 1964 when Geller became his hairdresser. Regarding the so-called “high priest” of the occult Manley Palmer Hall—subject to a newly published biography by L. A. Times staff writer Louis Sahagun—the article avers that “even Elvis was a fan, sending Priscilla Presley to one of the world renowned orator’s lectures because he was afraid of getting mobbed himself.”

There may be some truth to this anecdote. Elvis’ interest in Manley Palmer Hall’s writings dates from 1964 or after, when he fell under the influence of Larry Geller, who introduced Elvis to any number of occult writings over the next few years. According to Albert Goldman, in his controversial biography Elvis (1981), Larry Geller introduced Elvis to the following books, among others:

Vera Stanley Adler, The Initiation of the World
David Anrias, Through the Eyes of the Masters
Alice A. Bailey, Esoteric Healing
McDonald McBain, Beyond the Himalayas
Anne Besant, The Masters
H. P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine; The Voice of Silence
Paul Brunton, The Wisdom of the Overself
Richard Maurice Bucke, Cosmic Consciousness
Joel Goldsmith, The Infinite Way
Manley Palmer Hall, The Mystical Christ; The Secret Teachings of All Ages
Max Heindel, The Rosicrucian Cosmo-Conception
C. W. Leadbetter, The Inner Life
The Leaves of Morya's Garden
Nicholas Roerich, Flame in Chalice
Dane Rudhyar, The Life and Teachings of the Masters of the Far East
Tibetan Book of the Dead
The Urantia Book

As Goldman points out, most of these books pre-date Elvis's birth by many years, many of them dating back to the days before and after World War I, when books on spiritualism were tremendously popular. Indeed, Manley Palmer Hall arrived in Los Angeles in 1919, the year after the first World War ended, and soon his career as a student of esoteric and occult religions began. In fact, books on spiritualism were received so enthusiastically around this time period that T. S. Eliot used it in The Wasteland (1922) as a symbol of degradation of myth and ritual in the modern world.

Elvis read these books with great care, writes Goldman, as was evident

from the appearance of his copies, dog-eared, travel-stained, heavily underscored on almost every page. Elvis committed many of the key passages to memory and would recite them aloud while Larry Geller held the book like a stage prompter.... The particular tradition of spiritualism from which stem most of the writings to which Elvis Presley devoted himself for the balance of his life was established in the 1870s in New York City by the notorious and fascinating Madame Blavatsky.... one little volume puporting to be translations by Blavatsky of the most ancient runes of Tibet, The Voice of Silence, was such a favorite of Elvis's that he sometimes read from it onstage and was inspired by it to name his own gospel group, Voice. (Avon paperback edition, 1982, p. 436)

An autodidact, Elvis became especially fascinated by a book titled The Impersonal Life (1917) which carries the name Joseph Benner as its author, although the author purports merely to be the amanuensis of the Divine Being--in other words, the vehicle through which God speaks. According to Goldman, Elvis gave away "hundreds of copies of this book, like an eager evangelist distributing a favorite tract" (p. 439).

Note that the word "spiritualism" as I'm using it does not mean formal religion (orthodoxy). To be "spiritual" does not mean "religious" in the orthodox sense. If you have the occasion to listen to some of Elvis' later live recordings, pay attention for his references to the ideas in these old and sundry books.

Incidentally, Erik Davis' "Occult L.A." program apparently screened an extremely rare film by Curtis Harrington that I'd never heard of, titled Wormwood Star (1956), an early short by Harrington featuring the poetry and painting of occultist Marjorie Cameron, who appeared in Kenneth Anger's Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954) and, later, in Harrington's fine film Night Tide (1961), featuring Dennis Hopper.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66

Just as television in the 1960s helped popularize science fiction, by means of shows such as The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and Star Trek, so too did television help popularize the road story. Last time I wrote about the world’s first acid road trip that took place in 1964, undertaken by Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, and how Tom Wolfe’s first, New Journalistic accounts of that journey, eventually published in 1968 as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, subsequently influenced the Beatles’ film, Magical Mystery Tour, which aired on British television in December of 1967.

But before the Merry Pranksters began their road trip, there appeared on TV a show titled Route 66, a weekly series about two itinerant non-conformists traveling around the country—this almost a decade before Easy Rider (1969), also a road story featuring two itinerant non-conformists journeying across America. Starring Martin Milner as Tod Stiles and George Maharis as Buz Murdock, Route 66 ran from 7 October 1960 to 20 March 1964, ending its run just about three months to the day before the Merry Pranksters set out in a 1939 school bus on their cross-country acid road trip on 14 June 1964. Celebrating both liberal values and the value Americans call the open road, Route 66 was the first television show that was filmed on location in an entirely different geographical place each week. Writes Katie Mills:

The visual excitement of Route 66’s innovative car cinematography, combined with its narrative attention to progressive politics and marginalized communities, helped position Route 66 as a thematic and aesthetic link between the Beats and the “New Frontier” envisioned by presidential candidate Kennedy.... When Route 66 went off the air in 1964, the format of the road story was squarely part of popular culture, already generating yet another phase of remapping in the hot rod and biker films shown at the drive-in theaters. (pp. 69 & 84)

While the Pranksters’ road journey foregrounded drug consumption in the form of LSD—their exploits contributing to the popularization of the pun on the word “trip” to suggest both sorts of activities, travel and the ingestion of acid—Route 66 was not without occasional allusions to drugs. In the second season episode, “Birdcage on My Foot” (13 October 1961), Buz (George Maharis) admits to having been once a drug addict, and later on in the second season, in the episode titled “A Thin White Line” (8 December 1961), Tod (Martin Milner) is given LSD (or something like it) at a party. Although inspired by the huge success of Jack Kerouac’s Beat road trip, On the Road (1957) (although a show which Kerouac purportedly hated), no television show set on the road since has been so successful or enjoyed such longevity, perhaps due in part to the huge historic interest in Route 66 itself.

In October of 2007, Infinity/Roxbury Entertainment released Volume One of Route 66's first season, a box set consisting of 15 episodes spread over four DVDs. This initial release was followed in February 2008 by Volume Two, likewise consisting of 15 episodes on four DVDs. The splitting of a single TV season into two volumes is an awkward, unhappy arrangement in the first place, but Infinity/Roxbury's releases had additional problems in the form of poor source materials in some cases and, in the instance of episode 11, "A Fury Slinging Flame" (first airing on 30 December 1960), included on disc 3 of Volume One, a severely truncated print source. However, according to a report published by David Lambert just last week, due to the harsh feedback of disgruntled fans, Infinity/Roxbury has announced plans to re-issue the first season in one volume with all of the episodes remastered, presumably derived from better source materials as well. A complete series of reports on the fiasco surrounding Season One can be found here, while an examination of the problem with the transfers, with frame grabs, can be found here. In preparing this blog I came across an interesting interview with George Maharis that can be found here, which dispels many of the (false) rumors surrounding his and Martin Milner's working relationship and also the real reason behind why he left the show.

Despite the mediocre transfers found on the two volumes of Season One of Route 66, recently I thoroughly enjoyed renewing my relationship with the show and watched the entire first season in sequence. A fine show, it is indeed an illustration of "classic TV."

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

World's First Acid Road Trip

A couple of blog entries ago, I wrote on the waning of the Populuxe era and the early days of the psychedelic era, discovering the transitional linkage between the two eras in the image of the New York World's Fair that opened in April 1964. The New York World's Fair, the mediocre reception of which marked the end of the Populuxe era (1954-1964), was also the final destination of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, who started out on the world's first acid road trip headed for New York on 14 June 1964. The linkage between these two events was unexpected but revealing, providing us a convenient means to date the beginning of "a new era."

As Katie Mills has observed in her fine book, The Road Story and the Rebel (2006), it was a consequence of the Merry Pranksters' cross-country excursion that the word trip "took on a double meaning that was part of the era's playfulness with language--to travel as well as to take LSD or blow one's mind. In the Prankster's league, the two became one" (86). For novelist Ken Kesey--by 1964 famous as a result of the publication of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) and the about-to-be published Sometimes a Great Notion (1964)--part of the explicit purpose of the bus (to be entirely accurate, a 1939 school bus) trip was to make the record of a transformative journey, which is why the Pranksters took along with them film cameras and tape recorders. As Mills observes, "One goal of the Pranksters' road trip was to expand their expressive possibilities by making a film while on the road, to push further than the novel in order to break through to new expressive and artistic forms" (85). Of course, this film, which Tom Wolfe refers to as The Merry Pranksters Search for the Kool Place, was never completed, despite Ken Kesey spending years (and many thousands of dollars) trying to finish it. Hence, the only record we have of the Pranksters' journey is in the form of Tom Wolfe's New Journalistic account, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968). But... fortunately for both scholars and for posterity, footage of the Pranksters' trip has been released on video through Zane Kesey's (Ken Kesey's son's) website, What this footage reveals is the remarkably accurate account of the journey Tom Wolfe made in his book.

In my previous blog on the subject, I made mention of the possible influence the Merry Pranksters' bus trip had on the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour, first aired (in black & white, for some strange reason) on British television in December 1967. As Tom Wolfe observed in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, the Pranksters had serious artistic ambitions in mind with their film. The Merry Pranksters, according to Wolfe, wished to make

the world's first acid film, taken under conditions of total spontaneity barreling through the heartlands of America, recording all now, in the moment. The current fantasy was . . . a total breakthrough in terms of expression . . . but also something that would amaze and delight many multitudes, a movie that could be shown commercially as well as in the esoteric world of the heads. (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Bantam, 1981, p. 122)

But Wolfe also notes, sixty-seven pages later in the same book:

Early in 1967, the Beatles got a fabulous idea. They got hold of a huge school bus and piled into it with thirty-nine friends and drove and wove across the British countryside, zonked out of their gourds. They were going to . . . make a movie. Not an ordinary movie, but a totally spontaneous movie, using hand-held cameras, shooting the experience as it happened--off the top of the head!--cavorting, rapping on, soaring in the moment, visionary chaos--a daydream! A black art! A chaos! They finished up with miles and miles of film . . . which they saw as a total breakthrough in terms of expression but also as a commercial display. . . . (Wolfe, Acid Test, p. 189)

As Katie Mills observes, by means of the deliberate redundancy in the diction between these two passages, Wolfe explicitly links The Merry Pranksters Search for the Kool Place with the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour. Although no indubitable connection between the two films has been definitively established, Bob Neaverson, in The Beatles Movies (first published 1997), suggests that Paul McCartney, flying home from America in April 1967, very easily could have read Tom Wolfe's first articles on the Merry Pranksters' bus trip, published in the World Journal Tribune in January and February 1967 (not to be confused with the book publication of Wolfe's account, which was August 1968). Magical Mystery Tour was filmed in September 1967. There are no hard feelings, apparently: according to Mills, the Pranksters "like to claim credit for this inspiration--they seem genuinely happy for the Beatles' success with what may well have been their idea" (103).

The idea? The world's first acid road trip. That Magical Mystery Tour was widely panned by the critics when it first aired on December 26, 1967, reaffirms an insight I made a few blogs ago on why early psychedelic albums failed--the audience didn't yet exist. The psychedelic aesthetic, largely non-narrative, more lyrical and abstract, and prone to making startling, sometimes surreal juxtapositions, had to be learned. Taste is not innate; it has to be developed.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Stan Winston, 1946-2008

The Los Angeles Times announced this afternoon that Oscar-winning visual effects artist Stan Winston died of multiple myeloma yesterday, Sunday, June 15, at his home in Malibu, California, after several years of suffering from the illness. He was 62. For those who love the cinema of the fantastic, his death is a great loss. I need not rehearse the number of characters and effects the Stan Winston Studio contributed to the horror and SF cinema (one particularly memorable one is pictured above), music videos, and numerous commercial spots. In addition to contributing visual effects to motion pictures, Winston directed the feature film Pumpkinhead (1988), a cult favorite. In addition to producing a number of genre feature films, he produced a series of horror films for HBO and also created a line of toys based on some of his iconic creations.

Please click on the link above for his obituary. His family is requesting that donations be made to several charitable organizations that can be found listed on the above webpage, among them the Institute for Myeloma & Bone Cancer Research.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Ode to Doomed Youth

In response to yesterday's blog on the Zombies' album Odessey & Oracle--one of the great albums of the 1960s--my friend Tim Lucas wrote a comment in which he asked me about my thoughts on what I think is one of the most important cues on Odessey & Oracle, "Butchers Tale (Western Front 1914)," written and sung by the band's bassist and one of their chief songwriters, Chris White. Tim wrote:

Situated in the middle of the second side of such a melodic and love-oriented album, I find it essential to the album's strength and character. I admit that it took some getting used to, but now I feel musically moved by its shrill, dissonant qualities as the singer describes the French response to the coming first World War at ground level.

Rather than reproduce them below, the lyrics to "Butcher's Tale (Western Front 1914)" can be found here. The short answer is that I think the meaning of the song can be found in the lingering influence of the poetry of British poet Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), perhaps the best of all the War Poets and a major poetic figure killed in action in 1918 just before the World World I Armistice. Owen, who hated war but who acted with heroism on the battlefield, had a special gift for being able to grasp the individuality and the reality of selves totally distinct from his own, a famous poetic example of which is his poem "Strange Meeting," about the meeting in some strange afterlife of two dead soldiers who had fought as enemies on opposite sides. I think "Butcher's Tale" also has a contingent connection to Owen's fine poem, "Anthem for Doomed Youth," as well (Owen's reference to boys "who die as cattle" may well have served as one of the inspirations for Chris White's lyrics). In the context of the 1960s and the Vietnam War, anti-war songs were not unusual, and in this sense "Butcher's Tale" is typical. "Butcher's Tale" is musically similar to songs such as the Association's fine anti-war tune, "Requiem for the Masses," the final cut on side 2 of Insight Out (1967), although I'm not sure whether this album had been issued when "Butcher's Tale" was actually recorded. But I agree with Tim that "Butcher's Tale" is one of the essential cuts on a very fine album.

What I find remarkable is that both Tim and I have concluded that Odessey and Oracle is one of the finest albums of the 1960s--this without any prior discussion of the album, hence without any intersubjective influence. But what is the origin of this shared subjective impression? Why do great albums seem so difficult to find in the first place?

Where we differ at all, I suppose, is in the subjective emotional impression the album leaves us, which while being love-oriented as Tim observes, nonetheless leaves me as being overall the expression of a deep longing. If the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds (1966) is, as Brian Wilson has characterized it, "a teenager's hymn to God," then Odessey & Oracle is an invocation of the Grail Myth, that is, its vision is not that of a cornucopia, but rather a deep longing. Listen to the album while contemplating these famous lines by W. H. Auden:

The glacier knocks in the cupboard
The desert sighs in the bed
And the crack in the teacup opens
A lane to the land of the dead

Perhaps they weren't named the Zombies for nothing.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Mondegreen Pt. 5: Time of the Season to Trace

Some months ago I embarked upon an ambitious, if somewhat self-indulgent project of listening to all the rock and R&B albums released during the year of 1968, in the order, as closely as I could determine, in which originally they were released. Of course, such a project is riddled with problems: release dates are difficult to determine and many sources are hopelessly inaccurate, many of the albums released in the early months of 1968 were recorded in some cases over many months and different times in 1967 so that the release dates don't match the order in which the records were recorded (not that I assumed this would be the case), and there is the additional problem of different release dates of albums in the US and the UK. However, this project happily has led me to make a discovery that I had to include under my ongoing series of blogs on the mondegreen.

To fully explain to those who may have only recently begun reading my blog, I also, a few months ago, began to explore the mondegreen, the unintentional mishearing of a verbal utterance enabled by homophonic ambiguity. The first venture, "Dead Ants Are My Friends, A-Blowin’ in the Wind," was followed by a second entry, "Betty and the Jets." The third, which I wrote on Easter Sunday exploring the implications of the Biblical mondegreen, I titled "Melon Calling Baby." My fourth entry on the subject was about John Fred & His Playboy Band's wonderful #1 hit of early 1968, "Judy in Disguise (With Glasses)," in which I argued that this particular song is one instance that we can definitively point to as a song actually invented or created through mondegreen deformation (John Fred misheard the Beatles' lyric "Lucy in the sky with diamonds" as "Lucy in disguise with diamonds"). So... as part of my self-imposed listening regime, a couple of months ago, in April (April being the release date of the album in the UK) I began listening to The Zombies' Odessey & Oracle, and on that album I discovered a second instance of a song created through mondegreen deformation--"Time of the Season." I say "began listening" because in fact I haven't stopped listening to it, and I have to say it is not only one of the best albums of 1968, but may in fact be one of the best albums of the 1960s. It was precisely this sort of renewed appreciation for records that I hadn't listened to in a long time that was, in large part, the motive for my year-long listening project.

I have insisted throughout my discussions of the mondegreen that I'm not so much interested in it as a form of "error" as I am in the way it is a sort of creative interaction with the song's actual lyrics. In my “Betty and the Jets” entry, for instance (on the mishearing of Elton John's "Bennie and the Jets"), I’d suggested the existence of the mondegreen, at least insofar as lyrics are concerned, is a consequence of a message being deformed once it is subject to electronic transmission, a technology which emphasizes the received nature of messages.

Some years ago I happened to purchase the excellent 4-CD import box set titled Zombie Heaven (Big Beat), and having found myself returning to Odessey & Oracle over and over again the past couple of months, I pulled out the box set in order to study its rather detailed liner notes written by Alec Palao. Subsequently I found a second instance of the mondegreen leading to the invention of a new song, this time with Rod Argent's "Time of the Season."

Apparently the Zombies for some time had performed Smokey Robinson & the Miracles' song, "The Tracks of My Tears" (1965) as part of their live act. In "The Tracks of My Tears," Smokey Robinson sings, "If you look closer, it's easy to trace/The tracks of my tears." In the liner notes to Zombie Heaven Rod Argent says:

With my faulty hearing, for years where Smokey sings 'if you look closer it's easy to trace' in 'Tracks of My Tears', I thought was 'it's the time of the season to trace'. I felt cheated when I found out the real words, but I thought I'd use that phrase. Then you've got the weird choral part, the 'loving' bit, so the song has a weird hybrid of influences.

It's interesting to speculate about the meaning Rod Argent gave to "The Tracks of My Tears" given he thought the lyric was, "it's the time of the season to trace." Here are the partial lyrics to "The Tracks of My Tears," with the mondegreen substituted for the proper lyric:

People say I'm the life of the party
Cause I tell a joke or two
Although I might be laughing loud and hearty
Deep inside I'm blue

So take a good look at my face
You'll see my smile looks out of place
It's the time of the season to trace
The tracks of my tears

I need you, need you

Since you left me if you see me with another girl
eeming like I'm having fun
lthough she may be cute she's just a substitute
Because you're the permanent one

So take a good look at my face
You'll see my smile looks out of place

It's the time of the season to trace
The tracks of my tears

For the man who wrote the Zombies' two biggest hits, "She's Not There" and "Tell Her No," both songs about an unnamed femme fatale, the mondegreen deformation of "The Tracks of My Tears" transforms the singer's life into an interminable hell, suggesting years have gone by since his break up. The song consequently is all about his morbid obsession with his lost beloved--just as are, interestingly, the songs "She's Not There" and "Tell Her No." I'd always imagined the time frame of the Miracles' song as referring to a recent break up ("My smile is my make up/I wear since my break up with you"), but by transforming "If you look closer, it's easy to trace" into "It's the time of the season to trace," the break up was apparently years and years ago, and seemingly his life has been destroyed. Hence the song suggests the singer is caught in the circularity ("time of the [cyclical] season") of an overwhelming obsession.

Having come across this recent instance of a mondegreen, it's become impossible for me to listen to Odessey & Oracle in the same way as I did before. Songs such as "Care of Cell 44" and "Maybe After He's Gone" now seem more sinister (in the former case) and morbidly obsessive (in the latter). Indeed, the album has a great deal more gravitas than I at first imagined. I've come to realize that the mondegreen not only represents a creative interaction with the original song, but also, inevitably, transforms how we subsequently hear it.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Trip

In my last blog entry I noted the fact that 1966 saw four LPs released bearing the word "psychedelic": Timothy Leary et al.'s LP recording The Psychedelic Experience (a spoken-word condensation of passages from his co-authored 1964 book of the same title), the Deep's Psychedelic Moods (perhaps the first rock album released with the word "psychedelic" in the title), The Blues Magoos' Psychedelic Lollipop, and the 13th Floor Elevators' The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators. Serendipitously, later that day, after posting my blog on the subject, I took a little time to watch Warner's latest DVD issue of Elvis Presley's 22nd film, Spinout (MGM, 1966; 92m 43s), the soundtrack to which I realized was released in October of that year, that is, about the same time as the aforementioned "psychedelic" rock albums. I was struck by the odd juxtaposition it might have made, the soundtrack to Spinout sitting side-by-side in the record bins with albums bearing titles such as Psychedelic Lollipop and Psychedelic Moods. And yet, the more I've thought about it, the less odd it has become. I've concluded that the juxtaposition is not so much odd or strange as it is an illustration of one of those proverbial moments in history when one world was not yet dead and the other not yet born.

I happen to be reading Thomas Hine's very interesting book Populuxe (Alfred A. Knopf, 1987), a study of the unprecedented decade of mass consumption in America--for mass-produced houses, furniture, and machines--that occurred during the decade 1954-1964. Elvis, of course, first recorded for Sun Records in 1954, and 1964 was the year the Beatles "invaded" America, Elvis and the Beatles serving as bookends for that watershed decade. For Thomas Hine, one of the key moments that defined the end of the Populuxe era was the assassination of President Kennedy on 22 November 1963; the Beatles arrived in New York on 7 February 1964, seventy-seven days later--the one event signaled the end of American optimism, the other the end of American cultural dominance in the world. By the time the New York World's Fair opened in April 1964--which "should have been a Populuxe extravaganza" according to Hine--"the feeling of bland self-satisfaction with material comfort that had been so characteristic of the Populuxe era was gone" (167). He writes:

In 1959 Nixon could use a washing machine to symbolize America and it was a masterstroke, but in 1964 it would have been ridiculous.... In its story on the opening of the 1964 World's Fair, Life, that perennial cheerleader for the future and celebrator of the promise of America, called the fair "all candy-bright and gay in a world that is in fact harsh." This was a drastic piece of revisionism, asserted with such casualness that whole hierarchies of editors must have assumed its truth. Although the World's Fair planners could never have anticipated it, the fair came during a period of national atonement. (169)

Elvis can be considered the supreme symbol of America's Populuxe era, moribund by 1966. A highly visible public figure, Elvis in some sense was the very epitome of the American consumer of that era, avidly accumulating material things, including those two things so essential to American life, cars and homes. A movie such as Spinout, so obsessed as it is with the symbol of the fast car, money, and the trappings of privilege, seems more ideally suited to the Populuxe era, not the mid-60s era characterized by foreign "invasions," represented (for instance) by the Beatles and the Volkswagen. Elvis was sexually provocative, erotic, vigorous and energetic, but most importantly, American. In contrast, the Beatles were cute, nice (but not serious), ironic--and foreign. I tend to agree with Hine that 1964 marks the end of one era and the beginning of another; I wouldn't necessarily call the post-Populuxe era the psychedelic era, although it is a remarkable historical coincidence that on 14 June 1964, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters--among them Timothy Leary and Beat figure Neal Cassady--embarked in the bus named "Furthur" (a portmanteau containing the words "further" and "future") on a cross-country journey headed for the New York World's Fair.

As the supreme symbol of the Populuxe era, it is therefore perhaps not coincidental that Elvis starred in It Happened at the World's Fair (released in April 1963, near the end of that era), that used as a setting the Seattle World’s Fair, otherwise known as the Seattle Century 21 Exposition, held 21 April-21 October 1962, the unofficial symbol of which became the Space Needle. Nor is it entirely coincidental that the Merry Pranksters, in the early days of the psychedelic era, took off on a trip in June 1964 in a bus painted in Day-Glo colors headed toward the New York World's Fair, an event that, while not a total bust, did not have "the kind of overwhelming enthusiasm for such a grand excursion into the future that might have been found only a few years before" (Hine, 168). Writes Hine: "Americans seemed to be getting a bit jaded about the future; it had been around for too long a time" (168). Hence it is a mistake to see a film such as Spinout as a sort of quaint, "innocent" museum piece from the 1960s: it was an anachronism even when it was made.

As for the film that Ken Kesey started making at the time (that remains unfinished), to have been titled The Merry Pranksters Search for the Kool Place, Katie Mills thinks it quite possibly influenced the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour in 1967 and perhaps even, later, Easy Rider (1969). I'll explore that in a future blog.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Psychedelic Psounds

Yesterday's blog entry on late guitarist Jerry Cole prompted me to revisit the issue of the popularization of psychedelic music. I say psychedelic music because to be perfectly accurate I think the word "psychedelia" names a larger movement than simply a musical one, that is, "psychedelia" would refer to trends not only in music but in the popular arts (such as poster-making), live concert performance (synaethesia), and so on. Since posting yesterday's blog, my thoughts have been preoccupied not only with how we have gone about defining psychedelic music but with how and in what way it came to be recognized as a distinctive kind of (serious) music in the first place. I've come to the conclusion that our own desires have much to do in forming the musical form we have come to call "psychedelic."

I raise these questions because in yesterday's blog I mentioned that Jerry Cole's MySpace page indicates that the musician was "an architect of psychedelia," citing his "proto-psych albums" The Inner Sounds of the Id and The Animated Egg as indications of his contributions to the popularization of this form of music. But the more I have thought about it, the less satisfied I am with this claim, not because I wish to diminish his contributions to popular music, but because to my knowledge these albums were not recognized as seminal contributions at the time of their release. The problem is that we tend to piece together a history comprised of figures and works which largely reflect our own desires--and little else. Numerous websites exist extolling the virtues of rock albums--perhaps unfairly--that have been neglected in popular musical history, but we should remind ourselves that when we write our own history as a "corrective," we do not resurrect a "pure" past, but a past composed of imperfect memories, both on an individual level and on a collective level. Rewriting history to fit our own desires does not, alas, correct what is already an imperfectly written history.

Surely there must be something more distinctive and more singular about what we call "psychedelic music" than the kinds of sounds resulting from "non-linear amplification," meaning that the sounds that come out of the speaker are not the sounds that go in. I'd suggested that Jerry Cole represented an important link between the West Coast surf/hot rod "reverb" guitar and the distorted (“fuzz”) guitar characteristic of early psychedelic music, but surely, I thought, there must be more to it than the role of the guitar. Obviously, developments in non-linear amplification contributed to the development of psychedelic music--the Leslie speaker and the ring modulator being examples of such technology--but there has to be more to its invention in the 1960s than the role of technology. Personally, I often find it hard to distinguish between what some enthusiasts name "garage band" music and what some name "psychedelic"; if "garage" and "psychedelic" both refer to a sort of recording engineered in a particular fashion, containing lots of guitar feedback, fuzz tones, and reverb, then we're inexorably entangled in a daunting language game in which our words are, literally, meaningless.

It also occurred to me that psychedelic music itself was not immediately accepted (as in, "became popular overnight"); the audience for it had to be developed. Despite the great reverence we have for the music now--and the high prices some of these "historic" albums now fetch on eBay and elsewhere--early instances of so-called psychedelic music failed, largely explaining why so much early psychedelic music can only be found on obscure 45s, issued by independent labels, and budget LPs issued by Crown, Custom, and Alshire, to name a few such labels. In the 1960s, just as now, the major labels were only interested in the sort of product that adhered to the wall--the economics driving this procedure being to throw a lot of stuff at the wall and see what sticks, then package and sell the kind that sticks--and, frankly, very few early albums putatively containing psychedelic music sold very well at all. Why else are they now so hard to find and why else were they issued on minor or budget labels?

According to (by no means definitive), the first use of the word "psychedelic" in popular music was on the Holy Modal Rounders' single "Hesitation Blues" (1964), hardly a best seller. The harsh fact is, if it weren't for the soundtrack to Easy Rider (1969), the music of the Holy Modal Rounders would never have been known beyond a small coterie of enthusiasts and musicologists and students of the arcane. Of course, simply because the word "psychedelic" is used in a piece of music doesn't make the music itself "psychedelic," which is certainly the case with this song. I strongly suspect that Stampfel and Weber encountered the word as a result of the publication, earlier that year, of Timothy Leary's, Ralph Metzner's, and Richard Alpert's book, The Psychedelic Experience (New Hyde Park: University Press, 1964); whether they took its insights seriously is beside the point. A couple of years later, in 1966, excerpts from Leary et al.'s The Psychedelic Experience were issued on LP as a spoken word album by Folkways/Broadside Records (album cover pictured), which I suspect was the first use of the word "psychedelic" on an LP record. Although it is of trivial significance, the first use of the word "psychedelic" on a rock/pop record was probably on the Deep's Psychedelic Moods, apparently issued in October 1966 (according the CD re-issue's liner notes) on Cameo-Parkway, just a week or two before the Blues Magoos' Psychedelic Lollipop (Mercury), and about a month before the 13th Floor Elevators' The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators (International Artists). Mercury is perhaps the only "major" label represented here.

Gregory L. Ulmer has observed that any form of unconventional or radically new knowledge is at first perceived to be a bad joke--Freud's theory of psychoanalysis, for instance, and Darwin's theory of human beings evolving from monkeys were, in fact, both considered bad jokes. It is clear that popular music's initial appropriation of Leary et al.'s drug-enabled psychedelic experience--somewhat derisively referred to as "mind-expanding"--took the idea of a "psychedelic experience" as a joke: the deliberate mis-pronunciation of the word psychedelic as "psycho-delic" in "Hesitation Blues," for instance, or as evidenced by the titling of the Blues Magoos album as "Psychedelic Lollipop." Even referring to music as psychedelic (as in "psychedelic sounds") is a joke. Likewise, the records didn't sell well because they, too, were perceived as jokes. Indeed, the idea of the joke permeates early albums claiming to be psychedelic, for instance, Friar Tuck and His Psychedelic Guitar (1967), The Animated Egg (1967), Hal Blaine's Psychedelic Percussion (1967), and so on.

It is clear that there are widespread misperceptions about what is often called "psychedelic music": how it was initially perceived, both by its audience and its practitioners, and about its subsequent influence. I find it strange that the psychedelic era is now popularly associated with San Francisco, even though the Deep's Psychedelic Moods was recorded in Philadelphia (and its brainchild, Rusty Evans--a pseudonym for artist Marcus Uzilevsky--was from New York), the Blues Magoos were from the Bronx, and the 13th Floor Elevators were from Texas. Moreover, I wonder if a majority of the members of the so-called "counterculture" ever perceived Timothy Leary as anything but a joke. I'm reasonably certain that "psychedelic," as a term used to described a certain type of rock music, had no credibility in 1967; in fact, at the time it was probably only used pejoratively. The word probably did not have any positive connotations in 1968 or 1969, either. Was it ever used positively at the time? Certainly not until it began to be used as a term through which individuals expressed their own desires, and began to identify themselves with the music and the culture surrounding it. In previous entries I've argued that what is called "Bubblegum" music emerged out of psychedelic music, and I think this is correct, but one has to remember that "Bubblegum" was not a term invented by those who liked and listened to the music, but those who disliked, and perhaps even despised it.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Space-Age Surf Guitar And Hot Rod Inner Id Music

Jerry Cole (born Jerry Coletta in 1939), the so-called “King of the Hot Rod Guitar” and allegedly one of most frequently recorded session guitarists in American popular music, died on Wednesday, June 4 at his home in Corona, California, at age 68. In the Sixties Cole was a highly sought-after session player, lending his talents to records by the Byrds (“Mr. Tambourine Man”), Nancy Sinatra (“Boots”), the Beach Boys (Pet Sounds; one of the Leslie'd guitars on the instrumental "Pet Sounds" track was Cole's) and Paul Revere & the Raiders (“Kicks”) among others. With his own group, the Spacemen, Cole released four albums of “space-age surf music” beginning with Outer Limits (1963). More often, though, Jerry Cole was an anonymous member of a faux band, playing on numerous hot rod, drag strip, surf, go-go, rockabilly, and psychedelic albums for Capitol and Liberty but more often for budget labels such as Crown, Cornet, Custom, and Alshire. I did a rather quick web search and apparently all of the following one-offs were either Jerry Cole using a pseudonym or Jerry Cole as a member of the band. Many of these records are instrumental albums, dating 1960-67.

The Scramblers, Cycle Psychos
Billy Boyd, Twangy Guitars
The Blasters, Sounds of the Drag
Eddy Wayne, The Ping Pong Sound of Guitars in Percussion
The Winners, Checkered Flag
The Hot Rodders, Big Hot Rod
The Deuce Coupes, The Shutdowns
Mike Adams and the Red Jackets, Surfers Beat
The Id, The Inner Sounds of the Id (RCA)
The Animated Egg
The Mustang, Organ Freakout! (apparently Jerry Cole and the Id backing keyboardist Paul Griffin aka “The Mustang”)

Cole’s Myspace page avers that he “was an architect of psychedelia with his proto-psych albums The Id and The Animated Egg." If so, he represents an important link between the West Coast surf/hot rod "reverb" guitar and the distorted (“fuzz”) guitar so characteristic of early psychedelia. According to the Acid Archives at, Jerry Cole indicated that "the original tracks [used on The Animated Egg] were laid down during sessions for the Id Inner Sounds LP on RCA in 1966, then later sold to Alshire." Collectors and musicologists have identified these tracks, and others from the same sessions, as appearing on several LPs credited to different artists: Young Sound '68; 101 Strings, Astro-Sounds From Beyond the Year 2000; Bebe Bardon & 101 Strings, The Sounds of Love; The Haircuts and The Impossibles, Call it Soul; Black Diamonds, A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix [re-titled Animated Egg album with songs re-titled in order to invoke Hendrix song titles]; The Generation Gap, Up Up and Away; The Projection Company, Give Me Some Loving; and other budget label LPs. One critic referred to these tracks as "B movie trash psych with fuzz, reverb, and cheesy go-go organ." If you're interested, “Ah Cid" (get it?) from The Animated Egg can be found here.

Sundazed has re-issued on CD the albums by Jerry Cole and the Spacemen, but according to Cole's Myspace page, Sundazed also plans to re-issue The Animated Egg, Astro-Sounds From Beyond the Year 2000, The Inner Sounds of the Id, and other recordings.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Memory and Forgetting

Forty years ago today was one of those days that I remember all too well. In the early morning of Wednesday, 5 June 1968, Robert F. Kennedy was shot by an assassin shortly after finishing the victory speech he gave upon winning the California Democratic Presidential primary. He survived the day, but would die the next, on June 6. I say I remember the day (bits and pieces), although I don't remember the moment itself. The funny thing is, I remember watching the news report about his primary victory and privately celebrating it, but in those days television stations signed off at midnight, and hence I'd gone to bed a couple hours before the shooting happened (Central Time). At the time, my parents owned a business, a bowling alley, and normally they weren't able to close much before 1 or 2 a.m.--very late. I remember my father waking me up when he and my mother arrived home after closing the place, and told me the terrible news (apparently hearing about it on the radio). Although it was highly unlikely that my father would have voted for Robert Kennedy--he was a "staunch" Republican--I think he and my mother (who probably would have voted for RFK) were both very upset by the event. The memory of John F. Kennedy's assassination was not all that far distant in the past, and two months earlier, of course, Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated; although King's and Kennedy's assassinations were two months apart, my memory has collapsed the time between them into contiguous events, one right after the other.

I was just a teenager at the time, but I remember the summer of 1968 being a terrible one--the Democratic Convention in Chicago, likewise a disaster, was just two months away. For reasons I no longer remember, Robert Kennedy was a very powerful figure for me (the figure of the martyred JFK perhaps a reason, but certainly not the only one), and hence I cannot explain the reason for it, but I do remember how badly I took the news of RFK's death. I remember the day after he died, I was sitting by myself at the front counter of the bowling alley--it was open for business, but there wasn't a soul in the place except for me--and sobbing over the news of his death. Again, I can't tell you precisely why. I no longer remember. Youth, naïvete, the historical moment, the power of the media.

The location of his assassination, the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, is now gone, and with it, of course, the pantry off the Embassy Room, where the actual shooting took place. The Ambassador Hotel opened in 1921, designed by renowned architect Myron Hunt, who also designed the Rose Bowl Stadium, among other famous buildings in L.A. Located at 3400 Wilshire Boulevard, it was about four miles south and east of Sunset and Vine in Hollywood. Six Academy Award ceremonies were held there--including the ceremony the year Gone with the Wind swept the Awards. The Hotel’s Cocoanut Grove became famous for live entertainment on the West Coast for decades. Amid controversy, the Ambassador Hotel was pulled down in 2006.

One can't imagine the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas being pulled down, but then Robert F. Kennedy, despite his popularity at the time, hasn't captured the public memory like John F. Kennedy. The location of one assassination is memorialized--become part of the official cultural memory, while the location of the other has been erased. These disparities reveal the writing of history itself, which is always both an act of remembering, and forgetting.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Gunslingers and Guitarschlongers

Last time I wrote about the significance of the album cover to Bo Diddley's Bo Diddley is a Gunslinger (Checker, 1960; pictured in the blog entry below). I observed that Bo Diddley wasn’t the first black musician to appropriate the iconography of the American West for an album cover; as Michael Jarrett has pointed out, jazz great Sonny Rollins did that, with Way Out West (Contemporary, 1957). Subsequently, the association of the popular musician with the myths of the American West--in particular, the musician as outlaw hero--became a significant one in the 1960s. I suggested that by appropriating the image of the outlaw hero for a generation of rock ‘n’ roll musicians, Bo Diddley became an iconic figure of rock 'n' roll, not simply a musical inspiration. Bo Diddley's album was released at the beginning of the 1960s. During the decade of the 60s, through a process that Robert Christgau calls a "barstool-macho equation of gunslinger and guitarschlonger," the musician as outlaw was formed, and his image, formerly associated with the values of the bohemian subculture, became, according to Michael Jarrett, "an icon recognized by all and embraced by many" (200). According to Robert Ray, the musician as outlaw stood for "freedom from restraint, a preference for intuition as the source of conduct, a distrust of the law, bureaucracies, and urban life" (255).

Outlaw iconography became a metaphor for individuality, integrity, and self-reliance. In addition to albums such as The Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968) and the Eagles' Desperado (1972) that I mentioned last time, we can also add the following albums and songs. Perhaps a key album in the development of the popular musician as outlaw hero was Bob Dylan's John Wesley Harding (1967), in which he merged his own biographical details with the figure of the notorious Texas outlaw. Hence Jimi Hendrix's decision to cover "All Along the Watchtower" is much more deliberate than it at first may seem. The following list of albums with frontier imagery is not intended to be an exhaustive list, merely an indication of how widespread was the appropriation of the imagery of the American West.

Duane Eddy - Have 'Twangy' Guitar, Will Travel (1958)
Bo Diddley - Have Guitar, Will Travel (1959)
Duane Eddy - Songs of Our Heritage (1960)
Bob Dylan - John Wesley Hardin (1967)
Quicksilver Messenger Service - Happy Trails (1968)
The Flying Burrito Brothers - The Gilded Palace of Sin (1969)
The Jimi Hendrix Experience - Smash Hits (1969) (back cover; pictured)
Mason Proffit - Wanted! Mason Proffit (1969)
The James Gang - Rides Again (1970) (and numerous other album titles)
Mason Proffit - Movin' Toward Happiness (1971)
War - The World is a Ghetto (with "The Cisco Kid") (1972)
Bob Dylan - Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973)
Willie Nelson - Red-Headed Stranger (1975)
Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Tompall Glaser, and Jessi Colter - Wanted! The Outlaws (1976)

Reggae musicians adopted the image of the outlaw hero as well: the late Jimmy Cliff with The Harder They Come (1972) and The Wailers with "I Shot the Sheriff" (1973). The so-called "Outlaw" movement in country music picked adherents as well, such as David Allan Coe, with his album Rides Again (1977). And, eventually, even a rock band from the American South named itself the Outlaws. The eponymous first album of the Outlaws was released in 1975, by which time the musician as outlaw was well over a decade old.