What Does Psychedelic Rock Have To Do with Citizenship?

Vietnam GI with bandolier and peace sign. Photo: Tim Page.

Peace sign and bullet bandolier on marine at Khe Sanh, Vietnam, 1968. Photo: Tim Page.

a response to review of the republic of rock in journal of popular music studies.

Another pairing of The Republic of Rock and Devon Powers’ wonderful Writing the Record, this time by John McMillian in the latest issue of Journal of Popular Music Studies. I appreciate John’s review and respect his critiques. For instance, he wants plain-spoken language and less metaphor, which for him amounts to words without ideas; I think history could use a good dose of more metaphor, which to me is chock full of ideas and pushes language to access the full interpretive possibilities of the past—particularly when it comes to something as wild and strange and weird as psychedelic rock. Fine, we disagree about this. He thinks this kind of “high-falutin” language is directed at academic elites within the profession (maybe, though my experience is that academic historians in particular still favor a more dull and workmanlike prose); I think his argument that we need to write about rock ‘n’ roll in faux-populist rhetorics masks a kind of condescension to readers, assuming that they can’t handle or won’t like weirder and stranger prose. Hey, c’mon, we’re talking about people who might actually sit through all of Bathing at Baxter’s here! Again, fine, we disagree.

But I think there is one major flaw with his analysis that leads the review quite astray. He implies my book argues that, in his words, “It’s true that for many youths in the late ’60s, a predilection for Jimi Hendrix or the Jefferson Airplane could serve as an identity marker, or totem, through which a person could telegraph certain beliefs and attitudes.” This assertion allows him to contend that “it’s not always clear what this has to do with citizenship.” But the point of my book is precisely the opposite from describing rock as an “identity marker, or totem.” In the sense that when I looked at evidence from the psychedelic rock heyday of the 60s counterculture, rock was precisely neither of these. This is the hackneyed interpretation of rock as a stable, subcultural style—a kind of psychedelic badge of music and fashion that you could simply purchase and don with pride (or brandish with infantile rebelliousness). Of course rock and its accoutrements could be used this way—and often were.

But what I found in my source materials was something else that is far less commonly recognized: psychedelic rock also destabilized and undermined identity markers for many listeners. It disoriented. It de-totemized. We tend to conceptualize sixties rock either as meaningless, indulgent hedonism, escapism, and “blowing your mind,” or that it was all about putting on bell bottoms, buying a few Crosby, Stills, and Nash albums, and going to the Fillmore on the weekends to feel that you were part of what was “happening.” It was negationist, even nihilistic—or it was naively affirmational (and hence easily commodified) and dope-ily (in all senses of the term) optimistic. Yes, it was all those things. It was also about something else, something rather more sophisticated in its way: the music became, for many, a tool, even a technology, certainly a medium and a kind of access point, for thinking—and deep deep thinking at that. It sparked critical inquiry, and did so with a far broader and more integrated understanding of what constitutes “thinking” (body as well as mind, concrete and experiential as well as abstract, dystopian as well as utopian, etc.).

In particular, my evidence suggested that many used rock most of all to ask themselves questions about self and society. Who am I and who are we? These were the central questions that rose up from the fun—the serious fun in all senses of the term—that rock provided. And they were exactly what made the music about citizenship. But not citizenship narrowly defined through state power (which is how McMillian wants to define it). Rather, citizenship as it linked to culture—not only to a Cold War consumer culture that shifted during the 1960s toward niche marketing and the new marketing approaches of hip capitalism, but also to notions of public belonging and membership within these economic and cultural transformations. These were notions of citizenship that might, in an almost anarchistic way (in the political theory sense of anarchism as a vision of society without the state), push beyond the state to a sense of democratic solidarity constituted—through music— diversely, pluralistically, with multiplicity, from the bottom up, if not exactly organized against the state, then circulating through the apparatus of the state (and market for that matter) with other energies of social life.

Not that this was a utopian form of citizenship, nor an achievable one practically. It was problematic on many counts, which many participants in the counterculture quickly realized and (again) used rock to address (precisely because it was part of the very system against which it generated opportunities for critique; also because it was at once ideational and embodied, blurring the lines—getting closer to the intersections—between thought and action, reasoning and experiencing). It’s a picturing of a citizenship of the multitudes that resounded in psychedelic rock, that made it not just a music that appealed to affluent American youth yearning to enter the borders of Woodstock Nation (and to US GIs in Vietnam who certainly were directly implicated with questions of citizenship and state power as members of the military who longed to join Woodstock Nation as well!), but also a sound that had tremendous meaning for young listeners around the world who wanted to join a kind of stateless Woodstock Transnational.

What I think of as the ultimate failure of this alternative construction of citizenship as a stateless, anarchistic “imagined community,” one that was felt and thought through sound, makes it no less fascinating as a historical phenomenon. And we should get it right in terms of what that phenomenon was historically, even if that means following the historical record—through metaphors that, with hope, hit the groove—to its oddest, most uncanny and strange dimensions of truth.

Here’s the review online and as a pdf.

Click to access McMillan-JPMS-Review-RoR.pdf

6 thoughts on “What Does Psychedelic Rock Have To Do with Citizenship?

  1. In his study of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Cleanth Brooks asserts that:

    “Most important of all, however, Absalom, Absalom! is a persuasive commentary upon the thesis that much of “history” is really a kind of imaginative construction. The past always remains at some level a mystery, but if we are to hope to understand it in anywise, we must enter into it and project ourselves imaginatively into the attitudes and emotions of the historical figures.”

    I think Brooks makes an important point here concerning how history should and needs to be written if it is to provide the fullest rendering possible of the past. Writing history becomes painting in the spaces that exist between facts.

    I have no problem with writing that pushes the envelope and seeks to become commensurate with and equivalent to what it is describing. It would be akin to the style developed in the sixties and seventies when New Journalists such as Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Hunter Thompson, etc., began using novelistic techniques to tell non-fiction stories as a way of getting closer to the reality they were describing and more fully communicate it.

    It’s kind of like what Jack Kerouac did in the original scroll version of On the Road, according to Douglas Kennedy:

    “The second thing you should understand is that reading a 299-page text without paragraph breaks can induce vertiginous feelings – as if you are the passenger in a car being driven at high speed across a switchback highway without limits. Come to think of it, plunging into the unscrolled On the Road is exactly like that – but what surprised me most about this raw, undistilled version is that the sheer wild exuberance of its road-trip prose manages to keep you constantly engaged.”

    I’m with you as far as your thought goes that “history could use a good dose of more metaphor, which. . .is chock full of ideas and pushes language to access the full interpretive possibilities of the past – particularly when it comes to something as wild and strange and weird as psychedelic rock.”

    But, as McMillian points out “that’s not easy to do.”

    It’s sure enough not easy but it can be done as books such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, On the Road, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Armies of the Night, etc., show us.

    On another major issue, though, I must confess that I have some trouble linking citizenship and psychedelia (including music) and have difficulty with the idea that psychedelic music led to some amorphous form of citizenship within an undefined republic. I have to agree with McMillian that some fuzziness remains concerning the definitions of these concepts. As he also suggests, perhaps different terms are needed to deal with something more esoteric than what these loaded political terms are able to produce.

    Your take on the Acid Tests is a prime example of my difficulties with the idea of psychedelic rock and citizenship. (The following is from a previous response of mine):

    “Attendees at the Acid Tests wanted to have fun, but their pleasures were linked to trying to understand the American ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness within the setting of Cold War American power, abundance, and, more ominously, the ever-growing shadow of Vietnam.”
    Not only does this passage evince a lack of understanding about what the Acid Tests sought to achieve it also bespeaks a basic unfamiliarity with the LSD experience.

    Certainly, “fun” was part of the equation – there was a band or two and dancing, all kinds of cool gadgets to play with, interesting offbeat people, and an open invitation to freak freely and do whatever one wanted to do – but it didn’t always work out that way. LSD could be a very volatile experience and one was never sure where he or she was going to be sent. Ecstasy could descend into horror within minutes or even seconds. I doubt, however, that anyone went in the hopes of experiencing terror.

    I don’t think the general madness of the tests lent itself to any kind of deep thinking about matters such as the “American ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness within the setting of Cold War American power, abundance, and, more ominously, the ever-growing shadow of Vietnam.” Instead, acid exploded and imploded such concepts and made them irrelevant if not non-existent. All of this was something new and unexpected and people had to develop new ways of living with and in this new reality. The old ways were no longer sufficient.

    The Acid Tests with their LSD, amplified music, microphones, and other electronic gadgets such as tape recorders with loops and delays, early video cameras, thunder machines, participatory sculptures, movies, lights and light shows, films, and slides were conceived of as “attempts to engage people in their senses so totally as to make it a transformational experience through overload. It was an attempt to overload one dimension so much that it forced people into another dimension.” What that dimension was to be like, however, was unknown.

    Still there was something more and of a different order to them as Bob Weir suggests:

    “The Acid Tests are, I think, by and large, misunderstood. They were a lot like parties but it was much more than that. People would take LSD but that was back when LSD was really an adventure rather than a diversion. Back then LSD wasn’t a drug, it was something else. People would call it a sacrament.” This moved participants in the Acid Tests like Sara Garcia to call them the place where “we’re just brothers and sisters and join God here on earth.”

    This also points out that getting a full and accurate picture of something like psychedelic music requires more than knowing its historical truth. We must also get after the poetic or spiritual truth of the phenomenon as well. But that’s another discussion.

    Just my two cents and mine alone. Available for questions. I know this is rough and rushed and incomplete.

    And as far as After Bathing at Baxter’s is concerned I have listened to it all the way through hundreds of times. It’s a masterpiece. Even better are some of the outtakes such as the 27- minute (full) version of “Spare Chaynge.” The voice that launched a thousand trips, indeed.


    Ragshag Bill

    There was Ragshag Bill from Buffalo, I never will forget

    He would roar all day and he’d roar all night and I guess he’s roaring yet

    One day he fell in a prospect hole, in a roaring bad design
And in that hole he roared out his soul, in the days of ’49

    In the days of old, in the days of gold
How oft’times I repine for the days of old

    When we dug up the gold, in the days of ’49.

    1. Hi Ragshag Bill from Buffalo —

      My main response is this: I put together all the flag-wearing by Kesey and the Pranksters with Vaclav Havel’s Power of the Powerless (http://vaclavhavel.cz/showtrans.php?cat=eseje&val=2_aj_eseje.html&typ=HTML).

      Which is to say the things you mention as essential to the Acid Tests–fun, religious experience, community, the uncanny, the unknown, and imploding and exploding reality–my only point is to say (really to ask): what does that tell us about citizenship? One thing it tells us, as you suggest, is that citizenship is down below on the tiny earth, and the Acid Tests reached up into the celestial spheres…which is to say, citizenship is some tiny little pointless thing compared to what some experienced (and remembered) about the Acid Tests.

      But also this: everyone has to come back to earth in the end, gravity and all. And what then? That’s where I wanted to try to write about this stuff. Where they launched into outer space from, and what happened when they returned (thinking of Mr. Kesey in his spaceman helmet costume disguise). And that, I think, was some kind of expanded version of what citizenship was…and what it could be.

      “They were a lot like parties but it was much more than that.” – Mr. Weir, lead singer of the United States national anthem at Fillmore Acid Test (way before recent SF Giants games).

      So not really disputing our perspective here. Only that I wanted to fit together the super-weird parts with the quotidian, everyday parts. The border crossing between those too territories.

      Thanks as always for your great comments!

    2. I think I need a nickname to keep up with Ragshag Bill. Maybe call me Tom Paine, the original one, but also the one from As I Went Out One Morning. All best, Culture Rover/Tom Paine

  2. Dear Mr. Paine and the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee:

    Even with as infinitesimally fine as they might be those lines between realities can be difficult to negotiate and you’ve got to be careful not to trip on them.

    When you walk the streets you’ll have no cares,
    If you walk the lines and not the squares,
    As you go through life make this your goal
    Watch the donut, not the hole

    The question I have is what to do if one has jelly donuts?

    You wrote: “[E]veryone has to come back to earth in the end, gravity and all. And what then. That’s where I wanted to try to write about this stuff. Where they launched into outer space from, and what happened when they returned. And that, I think, was some kind of expanded version of what citizenship was…and what it could be.”

    Were I taking on this challenge – and here’s the crux of the matter for me – I would have kept the focus on music, in particular the music of man’s becoming earthbound again. Not only would this have been a more apples to apples approach – for me psychedelic music and citizenship is the proverbial square peg and round hole – it would have integrated the myth of Daedalus and Icarus.

    Having landed and then, like the Byrds on the back cover of Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde, changed into cowboy garb from space gear, and mounting horses, we would have heard Bob Dylan snap “turn that off” when he heard Sgt. Pepper’s for the first time.

    Dylan and most of the Hawks would then have headed down the basement to invent Americana. Dylan would go on to record the stripped-down John Wesley Harding, and the Band (formerly the Hawks) would conquer and convey their vision of America with their Music From Big Pink and eponymous second album.

    The musical payload would also include the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo and Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. Jerry Garcia would begin sitting in with the New Riders of the Purple Sage and Gram Parsons would start his quest to produce what he called “cosmic American music” as a member of the Flying Burrito Brothers. SDS’ Carl Oglesby would laud Dylan’s Nashville Skyline for being the music of the common man in America as the movement also turned in that direction.

    Flatt & Scruggs’ albums – Nashville Airplane, Changing Times and Final Fling – were full of the work of contemporary songwriters such as Dylan, John Hartford, Buffy St. Marie, Pete Seeger, and Shel Silverstein among many others. We’d hear as well the first blue-collar anti-Vietnam War song – Don’t Take Your Love to Town – by Kenny Rogers and First Edition. The Dillards would cover Dylan, Lennon & McCartney and Tim Hardin.

    Dylan would cut an album with and appear on Johnny Cash’s TV show. He’d jam with Earl Scruggs and sons as would the Byrds with the great Clarence White. The Byrds would play the Grand Old Opry while Ian and Sylvia got on the Great Speckled Bird.

    A rich vein, I’d say.

    Anyway, time for me to stop beating the horse of citizenship. Let’s leave it at “You’re right from your side and i’m right from mine, we’re just one too many mornings and a thousand miles behind.” But that’s all right.


    Ragshag Bill

  3. Peace indeed Ragshag Bill and good to talk with and listen to you about these matters. I’d be glad to sit beside the record player playing that collection of recordings any time. To me it’s undeniably a part of the sonic terrain I want to call The Republic of Rock, in which anyone with open ears and the right spirit can get their passport stamped and, even more the case from my perspective, permanent visa status granted. Stay in touch! Riding the (dead?) horse of citizenship into the sunset and all best, Tom Paine

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