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.