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.