Republic of Rock Reviewed in The Sixties Journal

the republic of rock reviewed by nick bromell in the sixties: a journal of history, politics, & culture.

Honored to have The Republic of Rock reviewed alongside Devon Powers’ Writing the Record by Nick Bromell, whose book Tomorrow Never Knows: Rock and Psychedelics in the 1960s was a big influence on my own study. I also highly recommend the consistently great The Sixties journal.

Nick Bromell, “‘You Can Tell Right Away at Letter A’: The Public Sphere of Sixties Rock,” The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics, and Culture, 7, 1 (2014), 59-63. (PDF)

Click to access Bromell-RoR-Review-The-Sixties.pdf

The Sixties Journal Cover

1 thought on “Republic of Rock Reviewed in The Sixties Journal

  1. First off, congratulations on the review.

    Next let’s get out of the way the fact that I’m no fan of Bromell’s. What gave me the greatest pause in the piece, however, was the following statement about the Acid Tests that gave me the greatest pause:

    “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 description 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.

    The Acid Tests and 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, however, was unknown as all wildernesses are.

    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.”

    Masters and Houston explained that new “new altered-consciousness rite[s] (such as the Acid Tests) represented a freeing, a ritual openness that assumes the death of the old demons and repressions. As with the archaic rites of transition, [their] aim is the renewal of consciousness, not just a catharsis. The use of color, light, and motion for such purposes is coming back in our time because, for one thing, we have lived out the usefulness of the ritual surrogates (old church and analysis) and need the “true rites” of renewal and rebirth for the new ordering of our lives.

    These religious overtones were to herald the appearance of a new church/religion without dogma as Phil Lesh observed: “I’ve always felt. . .that we could do something extra musical, but something where the music would be only the first step, something even close to religion, not in the sense that the Beatles are more popular than Jesus, but in the sense of the actual communing.”

    The impact of that communing often could be profound as the Dead’s manager Rock Scully explained: “We’ve seen the audience all stop, stand dead still, two thousand people in a little old theater not flinching, not moving a muscle because what was going on was so electrifying. I remember after those wonderful shows at the Fillmore East where it would be almost a spiritual thing and people wouldn’t even be clapping. I’ve seen audiences get up and walk out without saying a word.”

    What was there to say?

    Not a whole lot

    The Acid Tests were not, however, “a kind of Habermasian public sphere, a gigantic coffee-house of the mind where fans of rock music from all around the country – indeed from all around the world – could reflect on the meaning of their civic identity, alone but also with a sense that others were doing likewise.”

    This was not what the Tests were intended to be. (Apples and oranges. Barking up the wrong tree. Square pegs and round holes.) Neither their uncontrolled nature nor LSD lent themselves to quiet contemplation and thinking about such things. I’d have to say these concerns were pretty low on the list of priorities for acidheads to begin with. They were concerned with other matters. Politics was not their “thing” as they would have said.

    But the Dead, the Airplane, or Quicksilver now that was a different story.

    One might say as Allen Ginsberg did that LSD was “electricity connected to itself” or that it was “real life in Cinemascope” as John Lennon described it but the truth of the matter is that it is an experiential reality that is unknown to the one who does not participate. It’s incomparable among drugs as well.

    Ken Kesey gave describing the LSD experience a shot in the Paris Review. (Who better to attempt that impossible task.):

    “After I had been at Stanford two years, I was 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 real 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, So you want to see the books. OK, 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. That’s what you’re really stuck with. 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 or 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. That’s the wilderness that I’ve always wanted to explore, and it’s connected to the idea of freedom, but it’s a terrifying freedom.”

    Take that for what it’s worth (and I think it’s worth a lot). Being at the Acid Tests, however, is beyond my imagining.

    This has got me in the mood for some Pigpen and Signe.


    Happy to discuss any of this.

    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.

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