A Love of Music

The Sixties

Paul Szabady

8 October 2003

I was ten years old at the beginning of the 1960’s, twenty at its end.  Like most whose coming of age coincided with that decade’s music revolution and renaissance, the spirit of its best music left a permanent imprint.  An entire generation went on an odyssey of discovery and liberation, of which music was a central inspiration and chronicle.  The love of music cemented during that decade has stayed with me ever since.  How many other music lovers of that generation first turned to audiophilia in quest of better hearing that era’s music?

I was already a fledgling music lover at the decade’s beginning, precociously aware that the first outbreak of rock ‘n’ roll had been gelded and turned into white-bread pabulum.  Rock and Roll had become safe and vacuous: Top 40 pop-schlock aimed at filching the baby-sitting money of teenage girls.  Pat Boone singing “Tutti Fruity?”  Frankie Avalon?  Fabian?

What was about to flower, signaled first by the emergence of Bob Dylan, then by the tidal wave of the Beatles (and the subsequent British Invasion,) and peaking in the Renaissance/Revolution from mid-decade on, was a revelation of the immense power of music.  Not only its beauty, but also its power to exalt and to heal; its power to change one’s life, to expand one’s experience of the world and of one’s body, to transform one’s consciousness.  All great art is supposed to do that.  That it occurred in the realm of popular music, controlled by a music business whose primary motives were venal and antithetic to the music’s vision is all the more remarkable.

“May you live in interesting times” runs the Chinese cliché, and while supposedly a curse, my own life experience of the ‘interesting times’ of the Sixties can only see them as a blessing.  For despite the almost overwhelmingly dark and ominous events that occurred—paranoia, hate, fear, murder, war and madness—somehow an unconquerable joy and optimism erupted.  Not only was it possible to change oneself and the world, it was happening under our very eyes, inexorable and unstoppable.  One could hear it in the wind, an echo in the music.

The arbitrary marking of history by decades strikes me as misleading: history tends to be more of a river than a series of signposts.  The sources of the 60’s originate back in time, just as its flow was not bounded by the calendar changing to 1970.  Musically, the Revolutionary 60’s emerged from the underground circa 1965, and despite the efforts of the straight society and media to continuously and desperately declare that “The Sixties Are Over!” the spirit of that era’s music has been an inspiration for musicians and music lovers ever since.  In exception to American pop culture’s never-ending obsession to re-cycle past eras in imbecilic nostalgia, the Revolutionary 60’s have remained taboo.  “Mankind cannot bear much reality,” T.S. Eliot once wrote.

Nor do I find the pop sociology media analysis of the driving force of the movement, both then and now, convincing or consistent with my own experience.  Considering the almost overwhelmingly kaleidoscopic nature of the times, perhaps distortions are inevitable, but superficial explanations trivialize and distort what occurred.  For the spirit of the time was radical: the roots of every dogma, assumption, value, institution and point-of-view were deeply challenged during the decade.  What was clear about the uprising was that it was youth-led and music-fed, spontaneous and grass roots in origin, international in scope, communal yet intensely individualistic, with neither leaders nor hierarchical structure.  Its central vision was a life affirming and liberating “Yes!” to what life could be.  This necessitated shouting a resounding “No!” to the social and political reality in America: one that feared true freedom, denied and repressed Nature, the body and sexuality, worshipped war, conformity and greed, and whose continued path could only lead to annihilation.  The revolution for human liberation that resulted was a watershed.  Frightened and desperate reactionaries spent their entire energies then and since trying to destroy, discredit and deny what occurred.

It is impossible to understand the 60’s without comprehending the revolution in consciousness that erupted through the use of psychedelic drugs.  Carl J. Jung had noted that the only frontier of discovery left to modern Westerners was the exploration of their own Unconscious; Timothy Leary encouraged all to turn on, tune in, and drop out.  These psychedelic agents – marijuana, LSD, mescaline and psilocybin – opened the user to different kinds of consciousness and to the experience of different levels of reality, experiences that placed consensus ‘reality’ into an arbitrary and relative cast.  The psychedelic adventurer experienced what had previously been the esoteric province of the sage: “When the doors of perception are cast open, the world appears as it truly is, infinite, “ wrote Blake.  Not accidentally, one of the most potent of 60’s bands took their name and inspiration from that passage.  The anti-revolutionary drugs, the ones that contracted consciousness – alcohol, barbiturates, amphetamine, cocaine, and heroin - were to be shunned precisely because they were the “coping” drugs used to tolerate the status quo repressive society.  It is significant that the self-destruction and premature deaths of some of the most brilliant musical figures of the time occurred because of abuse of these anti-revolutionary drugs.  No one ever died from an overdose of marijuana.

While the content of psychedelic experience was idiosyncratic and varied, certain archetypal experiences became common, influencing both the production and perception of music.  Marijuana slightly altered the mental critical filter, releasing the imagination and encouraging fantasy, bringing a new openness to beauty.  Increased sensory intensity, added to changes in the perception of time and the ability to enter an almost trance-like state of attention, led to deep listening and intense response to music.

The more potent psychedelics blew the doors of perception off their hinges: a frequent comment by users was that they were seeing the world as if for the first time.  Common themes were the experience of universal love, transcendence of the ego and the self, phantasmagorical riots of color and pattern, and the experience of sound and music as powerful physical phenomena.  If marijuana allowed one to stop and smell the roses, the psychedelics allowed one to become the rose, and to be aware that one was united with the ground of being that allowed the rose to happen.

Except for the recently discovered LSD, use of these drugs had long non-European cultural traditions dating back to pre-history.  The 60’s psychedelic explorer was operating in a vacuum with no cultural aids to understand the significance of the experience.  While this allowed an unconditioned response to these agents, it also led to a non-appreciation of the visions:  “We had the experience, but missed the meaning,” in T.S. Eliot’s words.  Immediately, there arose an interest in non-Western religious and cultural traditions: worldviews that gave context, understanding and valorization for the psychedelic experience.  Instinctively sacramental was the familiar ritual sharing of the marijuana joint, passed around a circle while sitting on the floor by candlelight, incense burning and music playing.  The interest in exotic ‘primitive’ religious traditions along with those of Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam brought not only metaphysical grounding but also an exposure to different music and instruments and to the cultural and spiritual roles that music has played through the ages.  It was a long road from the triviality of an AM radio hit to the notion expressed in Zen Buddhism that a single note played at the right moment could educe Enlightenment.

The psychedelic adventure was not without its dangers.  Because the rending of the illusion of cultural and social conditioning was so direct, immediate and powerful, many were simply overwhelmed and frightened to the core by the revelations.  Inherent in the drug was a built-in metaphysic: try to control and manipulate the experience, use the agent to ‘escape’ from one’s problems or otherwise ‘abuse’ it and the visions turned demonic. Yield, let go, and flow with the ‘trip’ and they became again angelic.  As The Youngbloods sang in “Get Together”: “You hold the key to Love and Fear/There in your trembling hand. /Just one key unlocks them both/It’s there at your command.”  The experiences occurred beyond language, beyond even description.  Talking about them led to the ubiquitous “like” prefacing every spoken sentence fragment, a frustrated attempt to find the metaphor and simile that could somehow communicate the experience.  What did one do about an experience that revealed that one’s ego and personality, the very notions of Western identity, were illusory and manufactured?  What was the point of the Judaeo-Christian tradition when one discovered that one was always in the Garden, indeed, that it was impossible to leave it?  Having directly experienced a Cosmos whose underlying Reality was Love and in which All was One, how could one go to war?

The Beatles, of course, were seminal, but still only the tip of the iceberg.  Though I was immune to Beatlemania (my own tastes were geared towards the rhythm and blues of the Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Them and the Animals at the time,) the dominance of the Beatles could not be denied.  They (and those following them in the British Invasion) reflected America’s music back to it through the prism of their own British sensibility.  The new perspective was both revitalizing and refreshing.  The Beatles brought a youthful exuberance and irreverence to the pop music world and restored a sense of childhood innocence to a generation whose own had been crushed by the threat of nuclear holocaust.  When asked in Hard Day’s Night if they were Mods or Rockers, George Harrison deadpans, “Mockers.”

Immediately obvious on their premier US television appearance on Jack Paar’s Tonight Show in the summer of 1963, and then on their legendary Ed Sullivan appearance in February 1964, was their utter deviance from Hollywood-style teen idols.  Skinny, pasty-faced, and with crooked teeth, they offered an image of the power of group effort: their individual weaknesses as musicians ameliorated by the power of group participation.  Their individual strengths were magnified by a collective synergy that became a model of aspiration.  Every adolescent male by late 1965 was resisting cutting his hair and was either in a band or wanted to be, not the least because of the sight of millions of screaming girls, hysterical with aching puppy love that masked an incipient and soon to erupt sexuality.

While the Beatles’ early music fell freshly on the ear, it did not deviate far from Pop Idol fluff.  Still, there was a depth and staying power to them that allowed them to transcend the prison of pop idol-dom, aided in great part by their bemusement at the mania happening around them.  We watched them develop as artists, as we ourselves developed; we watched them turn on as we did; we watched them become radicalized as we did.  By the time they were officially canonized by the Establishment media with the release of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, they were serving as cultural arbiters, their imprimatur guaranteeing an immediate mass cultural awareness.  A Beatle had only to show up in San Francisco during the Summer of Love to further inflame the media frenzy about the emerging hippie movement.  A group trip to the Himalayas to study meditation mirrored and sanctioned what was happening all across the world.  Their enormous record-selling prowess opened the door for numerous bands throughout the decade.  Record companies, horrified that they might be missing out on the “next” Beatles, signed bands whose music and message they didn’t understand and whose worldview often challenged the companies’ very existence.

Narrow categories of musical genres dissipated and were merged into a broad river into which any tributary could flow.  Strains of blues, jazz, rock and roll, country, folk, classical, electronic, raga—any music—met and commingled, resulting in an eclectic mix of striking and affecting depth.  It was all just ‘music.’  One listened to the Rolling Stones and the Beatles; Bob Dylan and Donovan; Buffalo Springfield and Them; The Byrds and the Yardbirds; Jeff Beck and Tim Buckley; Jethro Tull and the Grateful Dead; The Fugs and the Kinks; The Incredible String Band and Pink Floyd; Led Zeppelin and Pentangle; The Mothers of Invention and Fairport Convention; The Youndbloods and The Animals; Procul Harum and the Moody Blues; The Doors and Jefferson Airplane; Ravi Shankar and John Coltrane.  There were no boundaries, categories, or contradictions; it was the apotheosis of the melting pot.

Living with the music was nothing short of magical.  Each song or band seemed to come along at just the right moment, each musical peak and epiphany leading to a newer, higher and more intense one.  The exploration of the electric guitar’s potential was a striking example.  From the accidental feed-back buzz in the intro of the Beatles “I Feel Fine” to the Stones’ fuzz tone on “Satisfaction” to the chiming bell-like sound of Roger McQuinn’s electric 12-string, to Jeff Beck’s pyrotechnics with the Yardbirds and the Jeff Beck Group, to the Who and Blue Cheer experiments with sheer loudness, to the electric guitar hierophany of Jimi Hendrix—each electric guitar innovation opened a path and the music evolved as if guided by an inner hand.

Similarly enchanting was the incorporation of non-traditional instruments to the rock pallette: harpsichords, flutes, sitars, hand-drums, electronic instruments.  The 2-minute AM Radio Hit format was transcended by the emergence of the LP as the medium of creation.  Improvisation and virtuosity exploded, inspired by jazz and non-Western musical traditions, resulting in pieces that were musical trips, paralleling the psychedelic adventure.  Pure electricity and energy reigned, a Dionysian expenditure of Blake’s “Eternal Delight.”

Magical too, was the way the music spread.  By the late 60’s music was spreading through a kind of underground web, largely bypassing the conventional Top 40 formula and the control of the Establishment music business.  It was as if the music was created in response to some demand from the Personal Unconscious.  Rooted so, it became the Collective Consciousness of the time, the music expressing the path of discovery upon which the emerging counter-culture trod.  Live performances were incandescent and ecstatic communal and revolutionary rituals, the performers dissolving the boundary between audience and musicians.  Indeed, the musicians became less performers than transmitters of the music, crystallizing and articulating what was lying inchoate in the minds and hearts of themselves and their audience. The music was always there, seemingly growing without effort, and succeeding despite the record companies and the conventional music business.

And the music was important.  More than important, it was primary: many who had neither possessions nor a permanent abode somehow had access to records and some sort of ‘stereo.’  One could travel across the country during the movement’s underground heyday and hear the pulse of the music everywhere.  It wasn’t a soundtrack; it was the focal point of daily life, a life of euphoria and ecstasy.

Living through any intensely innovative period tends to make what follows seem flat and pedestrian in comparison.  Perhaps this is the meaning of the curse of interesting times.  Though the spirit of the music continued to flow well into the next decade, it was clear that the energy was waning.  Perhaps it was unrealistic to expect the enormous discharge of energy to sustain itself indefinitely.  And in many ways the music was the victim of its own success.

The record companies, thrown somewhat for a loop by what had happened in the 60’s, began to reassert their cynical control and manipulation of the music.  Underground FM radio was quickly commercialized and became the new tool for selling the masses.  The all-encompassing river of music was segmented and fragmented into increasingly narrow and mutually exclusive categories.  Increasingly vicious and violent political repression took its toll.  The Establishment effectively sought to divide and conquer, pitting elements of the revolutionary movement against itself.  Increasing co-option of the movement’s and music’s energy after Woodstock led to a muddying of motive and vision.  Many bands of the 60’s continued to produce great work throughout the 70’s, but by mid-decade my interest in pop music was largely over.

But what had inspired me in the music of the 60’s, continued undiminished after the force was spent.  A renewed sense of discovery led me to deep explorations of ethnic, jazz and folk music.  The music of Africa, India, Persia, Central Asia and the folk music of Europe, offered true music without the taint of US pop culture.  The thousand-year-old canon of Western Classical music promised an almost inexhaustible treasure of exploration.  While the loss of the vision and energy of the 60’s rock revolution was disillusioning, and each new fad in pop music turned increasingly counter-revolutionary, Blake’s wisdom again served to clarify: “He who binds himself to a Joy/Doth the Wing’d Life destroy. / But he who kisses the joy as it flies/ Lives in Eternity’s Sunrise.”  The odyssey of musical discovery, nurtured and fed by the 60’s renaissance, has continued for me ever since.