Are You Experienced? Jimi Hendrix & the Countercultural Politics of the Uncategorizable

a riff on hendrix for “love & then some: 1960s protest & liberation” @ blake & the age of aquarius exhibition panel, block museum.

Are you experienced?: Jimi Hendrix & the countercultural politics of the uncategorizable

Delivered at the “Love and Then Some: 1960s Protest and Liberation, Civil & Human Rights” Panel Discussion, William Blake and the Age of Aquarius exhibition @ Block Museum, with subsequent revisions.

The Blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy, but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism. — Ralph Ellison, “Richard Wright’s Blues”

We must also see how he managed to overcome tradition’s constraints, twisting them into creative opportunities, electrifying them, blending and bending them into different registers of protest and affirmation. — Paul Gilroy, “Bold as Love? Jimi’s Afrocyberdelia and the Challenge of the Not-Yet”

The way I write things, they are just a clash between reality and fantasy. — Jimi Hendrix

Can you squeeze liberation from an electric guitar string? This is a question that might be worth asking when it comes to the Age of Aquarius, since rock music and its electric guitars were central to that era in so many ways. The simplistic answer was yes, it did: rock liberated millions of people, especially young people, from the constraints and alienations of conformist postwar America. Others, from the time period itself to today, resolutely say no: rock was not liberating, it was, instead, the sound of a faux-revolution; decadent, commercialized, juvenile, coopted if not produced by the very systems it sought to protest, rock was ultimately only sound and fury, signifying nothing. These debates rage on, often framed by how to measure rock and the counterculture’s worth within conventional politics of the 1960s and thereafter.

But rock and roll was hardly conventional as an art form. Nor was the counterculture that arose from it, around it really a conventional kind of politics. No one speaks more to this unconventionality than the guitarist, songwriter, and visionary Jimi Hendrix. Born in Seattle, Washington, in 1942, to a mixed-heritage family, mostly African-American but also with Native American and European American ancestry, Hendrix made some of the most quintessential countercultural music. If we take Hendrix himself as a quintessential countercultural personality, we might picture him as a seeker of spiritual enlightenment in the secular forms of rhythm and blues, a technical wizard interested in the pastoral and primitive, an engineer of Gnosticism, an antinomian with a major-label recording contract, a cybernetic feedback systems analyst of sound who didn’t seek to put the machine in the garden so much as see if there was a garden to be found in the machine—and what kinds of sins lurked there as well as an Edenic paradise. Here was no simple project of political emancipation or ideological protest. We are into something far richer, more complex, more fraught.

Could you squeeze liberation from an electric guitar string? Maybe that’s not quite the right question to ask. Take what is perhaps Jimi Hendrix’s most famous riff, from the start of his song “Purple Haze,” which became a big hit and countercultural anthem in the summer of 1967, the Summer of LoveThe riff most certainly does not wear flowers in its hair. This is no call for peace and love here. It’s a fuzzed-out, nasty snarl, a sneering announcement that something is not right. It features a flatted fifth note, suggesting what in Western musical traditions is known as the devil’s tritone or diabolus in musica, the “devil in music.” It’s a dissonant interval that I think William Blake would have liked. If this is liberation, it’s a disorienting, seething, ominous kind, terrifying not soothing, troubling not freeing.

As the song propels us forward, it uses overdrive and a flanger effect to smear its distorted dragon’s breath of a guitar tone across Mitch Mitchell’s ominously pounding snare drums and Noel Redding’s heartbeat skipping bass runs. The song arrives at the so-called Hendrix chord, another gnarly dissonant one, an E dominant seventh with a sharp ninth that creates a clashing sound in between major and minor keys, conveying a sense of precarious suspension over a chasm. This is not the sound of liberation, at least not to my ears, but of trauma, fear, a mixed-up confusion.

“Don’t know if it’s day or night,” Hendrix sings. “Don’t know if I’m climbing up or down.” “Is it tomorrow or just the end of time?” “Help me, help me.” There may not be liberation here, but there is engagement. Does that engagement involve protest? On the surface, “Purple Haze” is just a protestation about love, about a girl who “put a spell on me.” But the fact that the girl in “Purple Haze” put a spell on Hendrix hardly seems like enough of a problem for the onslaught of psychedelicized power that the tune unleashes. His guitar sounds loud enough to peel paint as he runs across vaguely oriental modal scales that rise and fall out of the song’s main riffs and its pentatonic chord changes. It crunches and bends, metallic overtones wrung from pinched strings, little blurred vibrations hitting the pickups, transformed into a flood of electrons as Hendrix fingers the fretboard, in search of breakthrough, but never getting there. This song seems to encompass so much more than just lost love. As a countercultural anthem, “Purple Haze” aims for something much more immersive, much more ideologically destabilizing. Its theme is not justice and rights, but the groundings of self and society in which justice and rights take place. This is a song that, like so much of Hendix’s oeuvre, like so much of the counterculture’s energies, probed what exactly constituted the human in human rights. The question was not “why isn’t this fair?” so much as, to quote one of Hendrix’s heroes, Bob Dylan, “how does it feel?”

And how does “Purple Haze” feel? What is this song, resonating at high noon during the Summer of Love, about? It is not so much a song of peace and love, but much more of war, the Vietnam War in particular. Hendrix takes us to a sonic realm somewhere between the Mississippi Delta and the Mekong Delta, as if one were a machine gunner at the open door of a chopper in Vietnam, only spraying blues licks instead of bullets. While Hendrix did not serve in Vietnam, he was a former paratrooper in the “Screaming Eagles” of the 101st Airborne. And many at the time, both in the theater of war and back at home, did think he had done a tour of duty in Southeast Asia. Although Hendrix claimed “Purple Haze”‘s lyrics came from a nightmare of walking underwater into a purple cloud after reading a science fiction magazine story about a purple death ray, there is good reason to believe he also was aware of the US Army’s M-18 colored smoke grenade, which in Vietnam and elsewhere spread a thick cloud of purple cover. So too, American servicemen often referred to going on patrol in the muggy Vietnam countryside as getting “hazed.” Hendrix was very aware of the pervasive presence of Vietnam in American culture, including the counterculture. By 1970, he would dedicate the song “Machine Gun” to, in his words, “all the soldiers that are fighting in Chicago, and Milwaukee and New York. Oh yes, and all the soldiers fighting in Vietnam.” “Purple Haze” was not a song overtly about Vietnam, not in any explicit way; but psychically, associatively, Hendrix conveys a mood of war, turmoil, conflict, anger, perturbation, disconcertment, fragmentation, anguish, dissociation.

Even back in 1967, it wasn’t only the flower power love scene at places like the Monterey International Pop Festival that inspired Hendrix. It was something more war-like. After all, he lit his guitar on fire in a ritualistic sacrifice of auto-destructive pop art at that event. Hendrix brought dark and light, flames of love and of hate, together in intensely complex music. It was this quality of confronting the world’s woes with a bluesy ferocity that fired the countercultural imagination. We might remember, for example, that while many thought that “Purple Haze” was inspired by the “Monterey Purple” LSD made by Owsley Stanley III and distributed at the festival, it was in fact the opposite: Owsley named his potent batch of acid after the Hendrix song, which had been recorded earlier the year and was emerging as a hit that May and June of 1967. Which, if you think about it, is to say that the supposedly most liberating drug of all in the counterculture, LSD, a drug that we should remember was secretly researched and perfected by the CIA, aimed to deliver the hallucinogenic confusions of Hendrix’s sonic evocations, not the other way around. “Monterey Purple” was about the power of “Purple Haze” as a song, not the reverse. If the counterculture was all about the drugs, as many claim, then the drugs were, perhaps, all about the music.

And the music in this case was not liberating so much as about entrance, exploration, investigation, engagement. If it protested anything, it protested the idea that liberation itself would be easy or straightforward. Instead “Purple Haze” was the opening salvo in Hendrix’s efforts to imagine what he sometimes called an “electric sky church,” a sonic space of fluid and uncategorizable identities in which music might be able to, in his words, “save the kids…to help them realize a little more what their goals should be.” Not deliver the emancipation, not force liberation upon them, but serve as a resource for the difficult task ahead of even figuring out what they were fighting for.

Refusing to be pinned down to any conventional ideology or political position—Hendrix variously resisted being narrowed down to a Black Panther, New Leftist, former Army paratrooper, guitar-god, a hippie utopian, or any other recognizable position—he instead fingered the limits of freedom, its jagged edges of distortion and electricity. In Hendrix’s musical performances, he landed on dissonant irresolution as his truth and amplified it for all to hear and feel.

Maybe, then, Hendrix…and the counterculture of the Aquarian Age as a whole…were less interested in The Doors’s sophomoric call to “break on through to the other side.” Maybe they were after something else, something more Blakean, still not entirely understood even today, something funkily devilish yet also transcendently angelic, something alive to the moment at hand yet also capable of dreaming of futuristic alternatives. Not liberation so much as engagement—the capability, through music, to explore Blake’s “two contrary states of the human soul,” innocence and, especially, experience.

That seems to have been where Jimi Hendrix wanted to get to when he asked, on the title track to his first full-length album, in a groove close by “Purple Haze,” the question not “have you ever been liberated?” or “have you ever been protesting?” but rather, rising up to the tonic chord on a wave of electronically manipulated, backwards guitar strums and a steady, marching-band drum rudiment, “Are you experienced? Have you ever been experienced? Well, I have.”

One thought on “Are You Experienced? Jimi Hendrix & the Countercultural Politics of the Uncategorizable

  1. So much to say about all of this (not just what’s here), but I’m a merciful man. You appear to be inching somewhat toward a more metaphorical / poetic perspective on the music, which I think fitting given that it was an artistic movement that struck San Francisco and environs in the early to mid ‘60s. At first it was without politics; those, for the most part. Those were artificially injected later. I think your continuing in a more “literary” direction will better serve you in answering the questions you have posed about the music. But hey what do I know.

    T.S. Eliot’s essay on “Metaphysical Poetry” is the best thing I have read in terms of helping me understand the ‘60s and psychedelic music.

    • “The simplistic answer was yes, it did: rock liberated millions of people, especially young people, from the constraints and alienations of conformist postwar America.”

    This was certainly Bruce Springsteen’s view as he verbalized it in his Hall of Fame introduction for Bob Dylan when he said: The first time that I heard Bob Dylan, I was in the car with my mother, and we were listening to, I think, WMCA, and on came that snare shot that sounded like somebody kicked open the door to your mind, from “Like a Rolling Stone” . . .Dylan was a revolutionary – the way that Elvis freed your body, Bob freed your mind. He showed us that just because the music was innately physical, it did not mean that it was anti-intellect. He broke through the limitations of what a recording artist could achieve.

    • These debates rage on, often framed by how to measure rock and the counterculture’s worth within conventional politics of the 1960s and thereafter.”

    This is impossibility. As far as the value of rock (or any art such as poetry, painting, etc.) is concerned, its worth can’t be measured nor can it be expressed in words. Besides rock is not even a conventional form and should not be treated as such.

    • If we take Hendrix himself as a quintessential countercultural personality, we might picture him as a seeker of spiritual enlightenment in the secular forms of rhythm and blues, a technical wizard interested in the pastoral and primitive, an engineer of Gnosticism, a cybernetic feedback systems analyst of sound who didn’t seek to put the machine in the garden so much as see if there was a garden to be found in the machine—and what kinds of sins lurked there as well as an Edenic paradise. Here was no simple project of political emancipation or ideological protest. We are into something far richer, more complex, more fraught.

    I find this (“as a seeker of spiritual enlightenment in the secular forms of rhythm and blues, a technical wizard interested in the pastoral and primitive,“) to be quite ironic in the sense that what follows is ironic:
    Despite all the seeming progress that had been achieved since the end of World War II., the world had grown cold and bodiless, and man was “no longer sure where his body ended and the machine began, where man ended and the extensions of man began.” It was becoming apparent that man’s technological servants had begun to define his world and to control him. He was losing his sense of self along with his ability to feel. There was, it seemed, a price to be paid for the luxury of these innovations and inventions and that price was man himself.

    To some, however, that price seemed too high.
In what has to qualify as one of history’s greatest ironies, the world was going to be “turned on” and brought back to life by “electrifying” it courtesy of some of the world’s most advanced technologies, including electric instruments, state-of-the-art concert sound systems, advances in recording technology, home stereo systems, and laboratory-produced drugs.

    So, if on the one hand, technology served to create gaps between and within men, it also could be used to bridge those gaps. Technology could, ironically, be turned into art itself or be used to create or communicate that art – or both simultaneously.

    • “As the song propels us forward.”

    Propulsion and high speed were musical strategies to enable people’s lift-off and in breaking free of earthly bonds to soar toward their ultimate spiritual destination. They were typist was a tool. There was an Einsteinian element in this use of speed. It is evident in many songs. including: “The Other Side of This Life,” Break On Through,” “Light Is Faster Than Sound,” etc.

    Jefferson Airplane’s live performance of Fred Neil’s “Other Side of This Life” on Bless Its Pointed Little Head pushed the listener so hard as to actually hurtle him or her into another dimension.
    A similar sense of musical whiplash is produced in the Airplane’s live performance of “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds,” also on Bless Its Pointed Little Head. The listener feels, with the music and the shouted magnetically resonant vocal of Marty Balin crashing over him like waves, that he is actually traveling that fast through space and time. This quality also appears in the Doors’ “Break on Through,” which seeks to deliver the listener to some state on the other side of reality as we know it.

    For Big Brother and the Holding Company, “the velocity was something too – it would just shift into overdrive.” (Obrecht 76) Those who listened to the group performing the song “Light is Faster than Sound” probably were convinced that the band had managed to close the gap between those two speeds by the time this careening high-speed mass of flying jagged metal came to a stop. Sam Andrew said of the band’s typical “insane, free-jazz, speedy clash jam” that “it is difficult to exaggerate how fast we played then. . .The metronome setting was around Charlie Parker . . .300 plus quarter notes per minute. . .prestissimo! The music was a blur at that fast clip and it took on a different reality rather as a series of visual stills do when they are moved quickly enough to make a motion picture.” (bbhc website)

    • The riff most certainly does not wear flowers in its hair. This is no call for peace and love here. It’s a fuzzed-out, nasty snarl, a sneering announcement that something is not right.

    What you see is what you get. It couldn’t be any other way.

    With most of the musical poets of the mid-‘60s having worked as folk musicians and absorbed the teachings and philosophy of that world, these poet-musicians would use what they found in their external and internal worlds as the basis of their musical poetry. The music of these poet-musicians would be a reflection and a representation of the world as they saw, felt, and otherwise experienced it. It would encompass and comprise a sound that synchronously matched their external and internal realities and that attempted to bring those two divergent worlds together. It was to be the sound of themselves and the sound of America. As a result, the “songs of today [would] sound like today – with bombs falling on Vietnam, faces getting lifted by the thousands, blacks hurting for change in fetid ghettos, and amps turned up so high they’d burst your eardrums.”

    Robbie Robertson, who as lead guitarist for the Hawks backed Dylan on his world tour of 1966, also sensed that Dylan’s music needed to be pushed further if it was to accurately mirror the world at-large, saying, “In the very beginning, I didn’t know if it was going to be special. Just making electric folk music wasn’t enough, it needed to be much more violent than that.
    As acid helped to move the poet toward god, it also enabled him to speak with “the divine fury” of the true poet. Fitting then that “Dylan went electric at almost the very moment that Lyndon Johnson began bombing North Vietnam and escalating the war in the South. The increasing violence and intensity of Dylan’s work mirrored the expanding violence in the country.”

    • This is not the sound of liberation, at least not to my ears, but of trauma, fear, a mixed-up confusion.

    Mixed-Up Confusion
    Bob Dylan

    I got mixed up confusion
    Man, it’s a-killin’ me

    Well, there’s too many people
    And they’re all too hard to please

    Well, my hat’s in my hand
    Babe, I’m walkin’ down the line

    An’ I’m lookin’ for a woman
    With a head mixed up like mine

    Well, I’m too old to lose
    Babe I’m too young to win

    And I feel like a stranger
    In the world I’m living in

    But I’m walkin’ and wonderin’
    And my poor feet don’t ever stop

    Seein’ my reflection
    I’m hung over, hung down, hung up!

    • Could you squeeze liberation from an electric guitar string?

    Maybe that’s not quite the right question to ask.

    Or maybe it is the right one. Depends on what is meant by liberation.

    • “Don’t know if it’s day or night,” Hendrix sings. “Don’t know if I’m climbing up or down.” “Is it tomorrow or just the end of time?” “Help me, help me.” There may not be liberation here, but there is engagement. Does that engagement involve protest? On the surface, “Purple Haze” is just a protestation about love, about a girl who “put a spell on me.” But the fact that the girl in “Purple Haze” put a spell on Hendrix hardly seems like enough of a problem for the onslaught of psychedelicized power. This song seems to encompass so much more than just lost love.

    Ken Kesey also believed that viewing the psychedelic phenomenon solely through the lens of drugs did it an injustice by providing too limited a view. As he wrote in the introduction to the 40th anniversary edition of his novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, psychedelia “was about much more than drugs,” although he conceded they are as good a starting point or frame of reference as any from which to begin a discussion of the subject.
    And the music in this case was not liberating so much as about entrance, exploration, investigation, engagement. If it protested anything, it protested the idea that liberation itself would be easy or straightforward. Instead “Purple Haze” was the opening salvo in Hendrix’s efforts to imagine what he sometimes called an “electric sky church,” a sonic space of fluid and uncategorizable identities in which music might be able to, in his words, “save the kids…to help them realize a little more what their goals should be.” Not deliver the emancipation, not force liberation upon them, but serve as a resource for the difficult task ahead of even figuring out what they were fighting for.

    • “Don’t know if it’s day or night,” Hendrix sings. “Don’t know if I’m climbing up or down.” “Is it tomorrow or just the end of time?” “Help me, help me.” On the surface, “Purple Haze” is just a protestation about love, about a girl who “put a spell on me.” But the fact that the girl in “Purple Haze” put a spell on Hendrix hardly seems like enough of a problem for the onslaught of psychedelicized power. This song seems to encompass so much more than just lost love.

    It has all the earmarks of being about tripping or a trip. The girl who put a spell on him may very well be the drug itself or the girl who gave it to him. See Bob Dylan’s “Sitting on a Barbed Wire Fence”:

    Well, here’s a Arabian doctor comes in, gives me a shot
    But wouldn’t tell me, what it was that I got

    Well, this woman I’ve got, she’s killin’ me alive
    Yes, this woman I’ve got, she’s killin’ me alive
    She’s makin’ me into an old man
    And man I’m not even twenty-five

    As to “Purple Haze” the song seems to encompass so much more than just lost love.
    Purple Haze,” This is in keeping with much of psychedelic music:

    This involved “not just the tribulations of love, transcendentally poignant though that could seem on LSD, or even the fear of nuclear destruction, which resonated in songs like the Grateful Dead’s “Morning Dew” and Quicksilver’s “Pride of Man.” After all, folk musicians had already done all that. Their bizarre-sounding songs dealt with psychic exploration: how to deal with emotional changes in that vulnerable state, where you stood in the universe, what life and death really meant. LSD raised questions about the nature of ultimate reality and tantalizingly half-suggested answers. It seemed that a radiant solution to every problem, personal or philosophical, was just around some indescribable corner. By singing about the situation, the musicians proclaimed themselves brothers in the quest. People even imagined that the musicians might have part of the answers.” (Charles Perry 95-96)

    • The question was not “why isn’t this fair?” so much as, to quote one of Hendrix’s heroes, Bob Dylan, “how does it feel?”

    Dylan’s question is the crux of the ‘60s.

    •And how does “Purple Haze” feel? What is this song, resonating at high noon during the Summer of Love, about? It is not so much a song of peace and love, but much more of war, the Vietnam War in particular. Hendrix takes us to a sonic realm somewhere between the Mississippi Delta and the Mekong Delta, as if one were a machine gunner at the open door of a chopper in Vietnam, only spraying blues licks instead of bullets.

    I like your metaphor. And the fact you are going for feeling. It’s a hard thing to do – damn near impossible..

    “In an interview, When Carlos Santana found himself struggling to quantify Jimi Hendrix’ genius, like the rest of us, he initially was at a loss for words and promptly fell “back on visual metaphors, first from painting and film and then falls further back to the word mystical. Ultimately, he concluded – as we found we must as well – that the solution is “to learn how to articulate emotion.” (Kennedy)

    That’s still true.

    In his essay “The History of Rock and Roll in 1 Song,” James Parker tells us what the price of learning to articulate emotion would be. He explained: “To write about the sound of Jimi Hendrix, the actual noise of him? Wow. There’s a theme to beggar your lexicon and freeze you at the frontiers of sense. Still, what’s writing for, if not to fling it at the unwriteable?”
    • But rock and roll was hardly conventional as an art form.

    So we can’t deal with it in a conventional way. That’s anachronistic. We need a commensurate method. It remains unknown, however, which is no reason to stop looking for it.

    • ” This is a song not about escapism, not about liberation from the war to a world of peace; it’s a song about going mad in a war zone of the psyche.

    Which is everywhere and he is taking the madness in and transmogrifying it.

    • Which, if you think about it, is to say that the supposedly most liberating drug of all in the counterculture, LSD, a drug that we should remember was secretly researched and perfected by the CIA, aimed to deliver the hallucinogenic confusions of Hendrix’s sonic evocations, not the other way around.

    • Uncategorizable

    There may be a better word than this. To me it’s magic, a mystery, or unknowable.
    Todd Gitlin said of the music:

    “We are momentarily present at what looks like, sounds like, smells like the spirit of the “60s incarnate, the promise of some hitherto unmined, unsuspected depth of heart.”

    Or as described by Jack Kerouac in On the Road:

    Here’s a guy and everybody’s there, right? Up to him to put down what’s on everybody’s mind. He starts the first chorus, then lines up his ideas. . . and then he rises to his fate and has to blow equal to it. All of a sudden somewhere in the middle of the chorus he gets it. . . .Time stops. He’s filling empty space with the substance of our lives, confessions of his bellbottom strain, remembrance of ideas, rehashes of old blowing. He has to blow across bridges and come back. And do it with such infinite feeling soul-exploratory for the tune of the moment that everybody knows it’s not the tune but IT-

    • Refusing to be pinned down to any conventional ideology or political position—Hendrix variously resisted being narrowed down to a Black Panther, New Leftist, former Army paratrooper, guitar-god, a hippie utopian, or any other recognizable position—he instead fingered the limits of freedom, its jagged edges of distortion and electricity. In Hendrix’s musical performances, he landed on dissonant irresolution as his truth and amplified it for all to hear and feel.

    This is quite Emersonian

    • If the counterculture was all about the drugs, as many claim, then the drugs were, perhaps, all about the music.

    Ken Kesey also believed that viewing the psychedelic phenomenon solely through the lens of drugs did it an injustice by providing too limited a view. As he wrote in the introduction to the 40th anniversary edition of his novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, psychedelia “was about much more than drugs,” although he conceded they are as good a starting point or frame of reference as any from which to begin a discussion of the subject.

    We need a new definition of psychedelic/psychedelia, think–the same way we need a new definition of counterculture. Though I must confess I’d be happy if the word counterculture is dropped from the lexicon. There can be no drugs involved something can still be psychedelic. It’s what’s happening that matters.

    Jerry Garcia recalled: “Phil defined it pretty good once. He said ummmmm. . .Oh, somebody asked him once what acid rock was – [and] which [kind] is psychedelic music. Okay, whatever, we’ll use those two as an equation – and he said, ‘Acid rock is music you listen to when you’re high on acid.’ Psychedelic music is music you listen to when you’re psychedelic. I think that’s what its real definition should be because subjectively I don’t think that there really is any psychedelic music, unless except in the classical sense of music which is designed to expand consciousness.”

    Lesh later clarified his thoughts on the matter when he said: “Psychedelic music is music that increases your awareness, your consciousness. It’s that simple.”

    • Which, if you think about it, is to say that the supposedly most liberating drug of all in the counterculture, LSD, a drug that we should remember was secretly researched and perfected by the CIA

    Also tested by the Army and the Navy (MK-ULTRA, Bluebird, Chatter, Artichoke). Kesey and Robert Hunter were guinea pigs in some of these tests. It was perfected by Sandoz,

    LSD might be liberating but that wasn’t always a pleasant experience. It’s very hard thing to talk about and to understand.

    Again Kesey speak the truth on a subject he knows well: KESEY: When people ask me about LSD, I always make a point of telling them you can have the shit scared out of you with LSD because it exposes something, something hollow. Let’s say you have been getting on your knees and bowing and worshiping; suddenly you take LSD, and you look, and there’s just a hole, there’s nothing there. The Catholic Church fills this hole with candles and flowers and litanies and opulence. The Protestant Church fills it with hand-wringing and pumped-up squeezing emotions because they can’t afford the flowers and the candles. The Jews fill this hole with weeping and browbeating and beseeching of the sky: “How long, how long are you gonna treat us like this?” The Muslims fill it with rigidity and guns and a militant ethos. But all of us know that that’s not what is supposed to be in that hole.

    After I had been at Stanford for two years, I got into LSD. I began to see that the books I thought were the true accounting books–my grades, how I’d done in other schools, how I’d performed at jobs, whether I had paid off my car or not–were not at all the true books. There were other books that were being kept, real books. In those books is the real accounting of your life. And the mind says, “Oh, this is titillating.” So you want to take some more LSD and see what else is there. And soon I had the experience that everyone who’s ever dabbled in psychedelics has. A big hand grabs you by the back of the neck, and you hear a voice saying, “You want to see the books? Okay, here are the books.” And it pushes your face right down into all of your cruelties and all of your meanness, all the times that you have been insensitive, intolerant, racist, sexist. It’s all there, and you read it. You can’t take your nose up off the books. You hate them. You hate who you are. You hate the fact that somebody has been keeping track, just as you feared. You hate it, but you can’t move your arms for eight hours. Before you take any acid again you start trying to juggle the books. You start trying to be a little better person. Then you get the surprise. The next thing that happens is that you’re leaning over looking at the books, and you feel the lack of the hand at the back of your neck. The thing that was forcing you to look at the books is no longer there. There’s only a big hollow, the great American wild hollow, which is scarier than hell, scarier than purgatory or Satan. It’s the fact that there isn’t any hell and there isn’t any purgatory, there isn’t any Satan. And all you’ve got is Sartre sitting there with his momma–harsh, bleak, worse than guilt. And if you’ve got courage, you go ahead and examine that hollow.

    • “Are you experienced? Have you ever been experienced? Well, I have.”
    A number of ways to read and answer this.

    Watch some grunts pounding the ground, etc. to Pipeline by the Chantays. Wicked.

    Peace

    As always, thanks for the audience. I might just have to attend one of these soirees some time. I think I could liven things up. It’s been about 15 years.

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