Concepts of Pain: The Stuff of the Sixties
This chapter is an excerpt from Naked Mind: On Music and Power, a work in progress by All About Jazz contributor Gordon Marshall.
It is said that the '60s ended in 1974, with Richard Nixon's resignation. On the one hand, there was nothing left to believe in. On the other, there was nothing left to protest. Early in the decade, Timothy Leary preached acid politics, thinking that Mao and John F. Kennedy should be sitting in a conference room tripping on LSD, and all the problems of the world would be solved. As it happened, it was Mao and Nixon who finally met, and they just had too much in common. They were stars, beneficiaries of the very liberal rock ethos that promised a life of unbridled freedom for those who opened up freedom for others. It certainly appeared this way when Nixon visited China. A staunch rightwing conservative was appealing to the better instincts of communists. This was a way of appealing to the kids as much as anything else, showing he was on their sidethe side of wide-eyed idealism. Meanwhile he was plotting to deny John Lennon American citizenship in New York.
When Bob Dylan went electric at Newport in 1965, he had become aware of the complex Embroglios into which an artist gets himself when he positions himself to be the spokesman of a generation. Any act of protest is subject to reprisal, and an artist has to decide if it is worth fighting to the death, or whether his own life is more important, so he can go on preaching. Dylan went on preaching, but became cryptic. This had already started with Bringing it All Back Home (Columbia, 1965), where he realized that to become self-conscious as an artist is the best way to negotiate complex political issues. As much as he created an intense solidarity at Newport, he also created a rift. It is this imbalance that created the greatest explosions of '60s rock.
The Byrds understood Dylan even before Dylan did. By mixing their Beatles-flavored jangling sound with Dylan's lyrics, They brought a new quality out of Dylan that was implicit in his surrealist-inspired words, but took a marriage with The Beatles' sound to really start a revolution. The Byrds' sound alternated between a mellow country, almost muzak-like at times, and an insidious psychedelia that often became hardcore. In the end, however intense they got, they always landed on their feet again, all the debris of the wild party cleaned up the next morning. Now, the medium was the message. The radical ideas of the time no longer needed the respectable mantle of traditional folk. What's more, they could be deposited into innocent indulgences of pleasure which, in the long run, are the most revolutionary of all. The Byrds became catalysts of their own catalysts, and although The Beatles' Revolver (Capital, 1966) was the toxin for the psychedelic revolution, they planted the seed.
The American psychedelic acts always had this political edge to their work, derived from Dylan's more openly political early work which ultimately proved their nemesis. In Europe, the tone of pyschedelia was more philosophical and ironic. American psychedelia was largely stopped by hard drugs and the police around 1968. The European version lasted well into the 1970s. That said, it was always the bold confrontations with conventions Stateside that spurred the Europeans ever on, and as a result there is an ultimate oneness to all psychedelia, wherein the later acts complete the story of the earlier ones. Psychedelia goes back to the old country blues singers, and the way they would howl and bend notes on their guitar. It would come to subsume all kinds of unconventional international music, from Indian raga to medieval English songs. In the languid intensities it releases, these histories are implicit, with their own pockets of political reality, microcosms for a new society. Again, after glorious revolution and protest and civil rights in the US, this led to much tragic confrontation; while in Europe, while the music got less attention, it was allowed to grow more organically and evolved into the sounds of the '80s and beyond.