Life in the Stone Age 4

The classic case of this sort of thing is “Lucy in the Sky with Di¬amonds,” also on the Sgt. Pepper’s album. When the press got the idea that the title encrypted the initials LSD, John Lennon, who had written the song, expressed outrage. “Lucy in the Sky with Dia¬monds,” he allowed, was the name his little boy had given a drawing he had made at school and brought home to show his father; and this bit of lore has been attached to the history of Sgt. Pepper’s to in¬dicate how hysterically hostile the old culture was to the new. No doubt the story about the drawing is true. On the other hand, if “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is not a song about an acid trip, it is bard to know what sort of song it is.
Drugs were integral to sixties rock ’n’ roll culture in three ways. The most publicized way, and the least interesting, has to do with the conspicuous consumption of drugs by rock ’n’ roll performers, a subject that has been written about ad nauseam. Lennon eating LSD as though it were candy, Keith Richards undergoing complete blood transfusions in an effort to cure himself of heroin addiction (“How do you like my new blood?” he would ask his friends after a treatment)—these are stories of mainly tabloid interest, though they are important to rock ’n’ roll mythology, since addiction and early death are part of jazz and blues mythology, as well. The drug consumption was real enough (though one doesn’t see it mentioned that since the body builds a resistance to hallucinogens, it is not surprising that Lennon ate acid like candy: he couldn’t have been getting much of a kick from it after a while). Some people famously died of drug abuse; many others destroyed their careers and their lives. But overindulgence is a hazard of all celebrity; it’s part of the modern culture of fame. That rock ’n’ roll musicians overindulged with drugs is not, historically, an especially notable phenomenon.
Then there are the references to drugs in the songs themselves. Sometimes the references were fairly obscure: “Light My Fire,” for instance, the title of the Doors’ biggest hit, was a phrase taken from an Aldous Huxley piece in praise of mescaline (as was the name of the group itself, taken from the title of Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception [1954]). Sometimes the references were overt (Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” or the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin”). Most often, though, it was simply understood that the song was describing or imitating a drug experience: “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “Strawberry Fields,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” The message (such as it was) of these songs usually involved the standard business about “consciousness expansion” al¬ready being purveyed by gurus like Allen Ginsberg and Alan Watts: once you have (with whatever assistance) stepped beyond the veil, you will prefer making love to making war, and so forth. Sometimes there was the suggestion that drugs open your eyes to the horror of things as they are—an adventure for the spiritually fortified only. (“Reality is for people who can’t face drugs,” as Tom Waits used to say.) The famous line in the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” was meant to catch both senses: “I’d love to turn you on.” It was all facile enough; but the idea was not simply “Let’s party.”
What was most distinctive about late-sixties popular music, though, was not that some of the performers used drugs, or that some of the songs were about drugs. It was that late-sixties rock was music designed for people to listen to while they were on drugs. The music was a prepackaged sensory stimulant. This was a new devel¬opment. Jazz musicians might sometimes be junkies, but jazz was not music performed for junkies. A lot of late-sixties rock music, though, plainly advertised itself as a kind of complementary good for recreational drugs. This explains many things about the charac¬ter of popular music in the period—in particular, the unusual length of the songs. There is really only one excuse for buying a record with a twelve-minute drum solo.
How the history of popular music reflects the social history of drug preference is a research topic that calls for some fairly daunt¬ing held work. It was clear enough in the late sixties, though, that the most popular music was music that projected a druggy aura of one fairly specific kind or another. Folk rock, for example, became either seriously mellow (Donovan or the Youngbloods) or raucous and giggly (Country Joe and the Fish), sounds suggesting that mari¬juana might provide a useful enhancement of the listening experi¬ence. Music featuring pyrotechnical instrumentalists (Cream or Ten Years After) had an overdriven, methedrine sort of sound. In the 1970s, a lot of successful popular music was designed to go well with cocaine, a taste shift many of the sixties groups couldn’t adjust to quickly enough. (The Rolling Stones were an exception.)
But the featured drugs of the late sixties were the psychedelics: psilocybin, mescaline, and, especially, LSD. They were associated with the Beatles scene through Lennon, who even before Sgt. Pep¬per’s had apparently developed a kind of religious attachment to acid. And LSD was the drug most closely identified with the San Francisco scene, especially with the Grateful Dead, a group that had been on hand in 1965 when Ken Kesey and the Merry Prank-sters took their “acid test” bus trips, and whose equipment had been paid for by Timothy Leary himself. It would seem that once a per¬son was on a hallucinogen, the particular kind of music he or she was listening to would be largely irrelevant; but there were bands, like the Dead, whose drug aura was identifiably psychedelic.

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