Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy
Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.
Author Index | Title Index
Tomorrow Never Knows:
Rock and Psychedelics in the 1960s.
Bromell, Nick (2000)
New York: Seven Stories Press.
Description: x + 225 pages
Contents: Acknowledgments, 6 chapters, afterword, Appendix 1: Music, Form and Meaning, Appendix 2: The Form and Work of the Blues, chapter notes, index.
front jacket flap
"There was something rigorous and instructive in getting stoned and listening to music as if it really mattered," writes Nick Bromell in the first book to take seriously the "drugs and rock 'n' roll" side of the 1960s - a side too often eclipsed by oversimplifications of that decade's hedonism or political idealism. To truly understand those years, Bromell argues, we must go back to the primal scene in which listening to rock - the Beatles, Dylan, Doors, Hendrix - was fused with the experience of being high. What did young people hear? What did they feel and think and learn?
Tomorrow Never Knows focuses not on the stars who produced the music or on the leaders of the counterculture, but on those who sat in their dorm rooms and group houses, smoked dope, and played albums. Weaving together memoir and musicology, history and politics, Bromell shows how millions of listeners mixed rock and psychedelics in a quest to make sense of themselves and their times. This combination was not mere escapism, he argues, but a vital public philosophy, one that we must do justice to in order to comprehend not just the past but the present.
For the most enduring legacy of the 60's - and the reason we both celebrate and revile them today - may be that they inaugurated a profound instability, a sense that foundations are fictions and culture itself "just a lie." Indeed, psychedelics helped confirm the way adolescents already saw the world, Bromell argues, and that is why they were intrigued by the strange sounds of Revolver long before most of them had even heard of pot or acid. Bromell also suggests that the '60s rock drew heavily on the blues not just because white kids admired African American styles of existence, but because the blues gave musical expression to the double consciousness most of them felt as both insiders and outsiders in their own culture. Deftly teasing out the layered meanings of such sings as "All Along the Watchtower," "Ballad of a Thin Man," and "Strawberry Fields Forever," Bromell forces us to rethink what "pop music" can be and what listening to music can do.
Introduction: "Living to Music"
According to anthropologist Benedict Anderson, the impulse to connect past and present is experienced whenever change has seemed too abrupt and a culture's consciousness transformed. Out of what he calls "amnesias" and "oblivions" spring narratives that close the gap between what was lived and what can be remembered. But for the '60s that consisted mainly of "living the music," oblivion has not yet yielded such narratives, stories that would weave together political commitment and cultural dreamwork, theory and carnival, student movements and psychedelics and rock 'n' roll. Is this because the change in consciousness was too profound? Or because it was too trivial? In the '60s were any kind of revolution, were they a break from the past or from the future, an inauguration or a culmination? Do those times fail to measure up to narrative, or do the narratives we have fail to take the measure of those times?
Another way of putting these questions is to ask whether we're forgetting this '60s or failing to escape them. These possibilities blur into one another. In 1994, Newt Gingrich celebrated the election of a new Republican majority by being perfectly explicit about his agenda: "There are profound things that went wrong starting with the Great Society and the counterculture and until we address them head-on we're going to have problems." For Gingrich, the Great Society represents the political disasters of affirmative action, feminism, community organizing, environmental activism, and the like. But the deeper object of his fear and loathing is "the counterculture," which represents something everybody knows about and nobody talks about (except by fulminating in vague terms about "right and wrong," "the work ethic," and the like). It's the river that runs steadily and silently through American life these days, the river that welled out of the American psyche thirty years ago, spilling through the fissure blasted by rock 'n' roll and psychedelic drugs. This is Gingrich's real enemy; a way of seeing and being in the world that underwrites the possibility, indeed declares the inevitability, of rapid and ceaseless social change.
... Not simply big government, universal health coverage, and stronger antipollution laws but this vision of a radically destabilized ontology is what the conservative imagination most fears and despises. "Cultural relativism" is the blandly inadequate name conservatives give their hydra-headed foe, and they fight it, furiously and often futilely, on every front - except, of course, in the corporate boardroom. (pages 6 - 8)
... Rising and dipping only slightly ever since the study began in 1975, these rates make clear that ever since the 1960s, pot and acid have remained popular drugs - significantly more popular than heroin, cocaine, and crack cocaine. The obvious question to ask, it would seem, is why these drugs? What is the synergistic connection between psychedelics and middle-class adolescence? But this seems to be a topic most adults, including the drug war's top analysts, would rather not think about. Apparently no one wants to reflect on the inscape of the experience of getting high or of tripping, to ask How does it feel? And so no one wants to go back through amnesia to the obvious starting point of any historical analysis of the subject, back to the moment, now lost in oblivion, when middle-class kids in large numbers first heard about and started using pot and acid: back to the '60s.
What I have tried to write is a book that deals with something fundamental and unresolved in American culture. The fusion of rock and psychedelics that John Cunnick called "living to music" lies at the heart of a '60s that was experienced by millions; indeed, it's what many people are pointing to when they say "the '60s." Far more influential than art, film, literature, and other forms of cultural self-expression about which hundreds of studies are written every year, the fusion of rock and psychedelics either inaugurated a way of being in the world, or simply coincided with it, and in either case helped articulate and objectify it. Let us grant right away that when young people listened to rock and smoked pot and dropped acid they were being foolish and hedonistic, and that their attempts to explain whey they found these drugs valuable were crude and naive. But let us admit also that they produced something that mattered very deeply to them - something we are still living with. Living to music is on MTV every day, it's an essential activity of almost every junior and senior high school, and it's an indelible part of the outlook of tens of millions of adult Americans. It's at the very crux of our domestic wars: the "culture wars" and the war on drugs. and it stands at the crossroads where the '60s meet the present. (pages 9 - 10)
Chapter 1 "Something That Never Happened Before"
The Beatles came from Liverpool. they did not descend from the heavens with a roll of thunder in a chariot of fire. But they did create an experience that cannot be adequately described if we are afraid to think of the miraculous or the divine. Words like "divine" are just metaphors in any case. They point toward something that can be experienced but not named. They simply indicate that, alongside explanations of the Beatles phenomenon that emphasize the proclivities of capitalism and the ramifications of technology we have to add one that acknowledges the human thirst for transcendence. Human connection without transcendence (if there has ever been such a thing) does not satisfy. Loneliness is also cosmic loneliness. It is not just from ourselves and our culture that we feel alienated, but from Being. This sense of estrangement from everything that might give life meaning is what the writers of the Port Huron Statement were trying to articulate as a political problem when they claimed that people are "infinitely precious and possessed of unfulfilled capacities," and when the opposed "the depersonalization that reduces human beings to the status of things." And for a brief time the Beatles loomed as a gigantic counterforce to this emptying out of life and this reduction of human beings that seem so intrinsic to modern life. This is what Greil Marcus was getting at when he made the claim, so hard for us to take seriously now, that "the Beatles affected not only the feel but the quality of life - they deepened it, sharpened it, brightened it."
John Lennon was intending to outrage when he remarked that the Beatles were "more popular than Jesus." But he was also naming something that was true for me and, I suspect, for many others as well: not just that the Beatles were "popular," but that their popularity had something to do with a sustenance they provided. To me, at least, they offered something I felt I had a right to be getting from my culture. It was a feeling of connection, social and cosmic. (pages 32-33)
Chapter 3 "Something's Happening Here"
The truth lies somewhere between these two takes. Psychedelics are powerful. Psychedelics are distinctive. As research in the fields of psychopharmacology, religion, and anthropology makes perfectly clear, psychedelics do something no other drugs can, and that mysterious something lies very close to the human sense of wonder that is formalized in the world's religions. When psychedelics are taken out of specific cultural practices and rituals and disseminated indiscriminately to adolescents coming of age in a modern (or postmodern) world, consequences will follow. Half the difficulty of understanding those consequences is to get past today's prevailing attitudes of fear and dismissal and to take seriously the experiences of getting high and tripping. No account of the '60s or of rock music in the '60s can afford to evade this swampy issue. At the same time, no historian of the period can risk venturing into it without making clear at the outset that discussion does not mean endorsement or, worse, a foggy nostalgia. (page 62)
James's words point to the fact (and problem) that the psychedelic experience is not so much an object of knowledge as an alternative form of consciousness that is entirely different from that rational mode through which we customarily believe that we know the things we know. For this reason, an account of the psychedelic experience is more difficult than, say, an account of an especially elusive life form dwelling at the bottom of the ocean. The psychedelic experience, itself a way of knowing, rises up as an alternative to, not as an object within the purview of, our usual ways of knowing. To reduce it to an object that can be known is to lose sight of it altogether. (page 68)
Brought into the world's radical pluralism, the user of psychedelics can respond in any number of ways - from ecstasy to terror - but what underlies any and all responses is a profound redefinition of the relation of one's self to the world. Your inside is out, and your outside is in. This feeling of being brought into life, of experiencing one's self as a part of the manifold streams of existence, was commonly understood as an experience of the divine. Tim Leary made this claim ad nauseum. So did many others, "God is in everything," declared Paul in a 1967 interview. "God is in the space between us. God is in the table in front of you." (pages 69 - 70)
... And if that world [adult consensual reality] seems oppressively "unreal" to youth, psychedelics offer a way not just to escape, which suggests flight into unreality, but to return home to the way the world really is. "Up until LSD," George Harrison remarked, "I never realized that there was anything beyond this normal waking state of consciousness. But all the pressure was such that, as Bob Dylan said, 'There must be some way out of here.'" The power of psychedelics to release users from this here - from their inherited history and their cultural training - is why they appealed with such force to the youth of the '60s. Psychedelics offered a vision that uniquely met the needs of young persons looking for a radical reconfiguration of the relation of their self to the world. (pages 71 - 72)
The famous "death of the ego" was experienced sooner or later by anyone who tripped - and some trippers never recovered from this experience, never regained their precarious grasp of the "normal" way of being in the world. Psychedelics, even mirthful marijuana, are dangerous drugs, taking you to strange places where railway men might drink up your blood like wine. Yet precisely because it was so terrifying, for those who did survive it the death of ego was a tempering experience. It was a vision quest in which the seeker, having passed through a hellfire that annihilates the ego, emerged on the far side more reconciled to the fate of being without a genuine self. The tripper saw that this is how it is: no one has a genuine self, and everyone must somehow go on nonetheless. ...
This is why the insight into the world's instability provided by pot, acid, and rock had political consequences even while it failed to specify a particular agenda. After getting high or tripping, '60s users realized that their belief in a core self was naive, that their faith instability was foolish, and so they were fully prepared to see through everything, including truth, justice, and the American way. Acid and pot seemed to corroborate their adolescent certainty that they knew, saw, and understood an inner emptiness adults pretended was replete with meaning. What users had earlier felt as an unconscious suspicion or intuition - that was just a lie - became, when high or tripping, a verity. Yet it seemed that the deeper loss was their parents'. For while psychedelics corroborated the social self's fear of its own contingency, its dependence on the gaze of others, they also revealed a world saturated with significance. They revealed potential forms of consciousness in which the empty self was a sufficient space to dwell in, and in which the other-directed self was cosmically connected. ...
... Psychedelics confirmed the crucial adolescent accusation just at the moment when public figures were being caught telling enormous lies to others and themselves. We said to them you must leave your neighbors in peace. Psychedelics and politics thus ran together in one strand, both of them dramatically confirming the adolescent's conviction that grown-ups are by choice deceitful, that culture is fundamentally false, and that rebellion is therefore an existential right, even a duty. Everywhere you looked, you saw that something was happening. (pages 70 - 80)
Afterword "Our Incompleteness and Our Choices"
In the 1840's, as in the 1960s, young people dropped out of the "common labors and competitions of the market" because they had been surprised by a private experience that they could sustain and that left them once again selfish members of a selfish society.
Yet there is an important difference between the '60s and those other periods. In the '60s, the self-willed breakthrough to alternative states of consciousness (what Emerson here calls "flash-of-lightening faith") was much more widely publicized and consequently much more commonly experienced. When Ralph Waldo Emerson or William James or even Allen Ginsberg wrote about the private experience of breakthrough, their work was available to a relatively small circle of cognoscenti. When Virginia Woolf developed a prose style that conveyed these other states of consciousness with breathtaking force, she found an audience (small, cosmopolitan, educated) that understood and appreciated her achievement. But when Bob Dylan proclaimed with mocking good humor that "Everybody must get stoned" and proceeded to unfold songs that constructed a play-space for the altered consciousness, he reached an audience of tens of millions, and the vast majority of these were kinds - teenagers, adolescent. The audience that gathered around the Beatles was even larger. In turn, this extraordinary publication of the breakthrough experience briefly created a wild paradox: it created a culture that defined itself as a "counter" culture, as a "benign climate" where "flash-of-lightening" experiences of transcendence, flux, and radical self-redefinition were honored and sustained. ...
In turn, though, the unprecedented publication of the breakthrough experience, which entailed an anarchistic antipathy to all cultural conventions, and to traditional politics of both Left and Right, helps explain the vehemence with which the '60s have been rejected and the diligence with which they are oversimplified and distorted. While the writers of the 1840s and 1920s have now been included in the mainstream of American culture, the radical vision of the '60s remains outside the pale of what can be accepted. Even Americans who lived through the 60s and remember them with respect are likely, in some recesses of memory, to be deeply afraid of the. I know I am. (pages 153 - 154)
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This compilation by Thomas B. Roberts & Paula Jo Hruby, © 1995-2002 CSP