Showing posts with label Spinout. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Spinout. Show all posts

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.