Everybody Must Get Stoned
In April of this year, the Department of Education announced that it will enforce a law passed in 1998 that denies financial aid to any student who has been convicted of selling or possessing drugs. The draconian quality of this legislation is quite obvious, particularly in that it makes no distinction between the nature of the drug or the amount either possessed or sold. It is also quintessentially ironic that the prosecution of this statute has gone forward under the administration of a chief executive who refuses to admit whether or not he ever used illegal drugs. Moreover, it reminds us that young people in America rarely cross the public consciousness until or unless they constitute a problem and their consumption of illegal substances remains a dilemma, particularly to politicians. Laying claim to the bogus image of a hyped-up generation of stoners has never gone out of style or lost its function as a fund-raising tool.
On the other hand, what if we were to take the consumption of drugs seriously, as, among other things, an avenue into an alternative form of consciousness? One that is “entirely different from that rational mode through which we customarily believe that we know the things we know”? What if we consider how “If there’s something all too like wow man’ about this experience, there’s nonetheless something appealing about it—and consistently appealing, for more than thirty years now, to the middle-class adolescent psyche”? Such is the proposal made by Nick Bromwell, Associate Professor of English and American Literature at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in his engaging and thought-provoking work Tomorrow Never Knows: Rock and Psychedelics in the 1960s. The notion that a stoned consciousness possesses the key to the cosmos might seem juvenile, and it is hard to imagine that “One Toke Over The Line” might alter one’s life, but Bromell instead pursues the more productive question of how the interaction between drugs and some of the most provocative music being produced during the 1960s produced a genuine and life-enhancing transformation of a generation’s consciousness. For him, the songs of the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones among others provided access to “the only gospel that has ever broken through my shell of cynicism and my distrust of hope.” These artists did not, he adds, proclaim a simple-minded mantra of pharmacological transcendence. Their music expounded upon both the celestial and demonic energies unleashed by the psychedelic experience. It offered “an experience of hope that is smart because it knows irony and dares to go beyond it.”
The approach Bromell adopts is rooted in phenomenology. He attempts, through personal recollection and quotations from period sources (including a number of underground newspapers and music publications), to outline the “spontaneous public philosophy” contained in the popular music of the period. That philosophy is dualistic in nature, he argues,for both rock and psychedelics allow one to inhabit “two worlds simultaneously, the physical and the mental, the meaningless and the meaningful.” More importantly, their intersection permitted young people to feel like both insiders and outsiders, members of a generational mindset opposed to the actions and attitudes of their parents, yet paradoxically so like-minded in its opposition to conformity as to constitute, in Harold Rosenberg’s memorable phrase, “a herd of independent minds.” Bromell believes a parallel exists between this adolescent self-division and the “double consciousness” inherent in race espoused by W. E. B. DuBois. At first, the equation of racism and middle-class privilege seems outlandish, yet the commonality between the two perspectives of the complex combination of promise and disappointment at the core of American society is provocative. Bromell’s assumption, however, that those same young people heard in blues “the power to express and to explore the condition of double consciousness” fails to be situated to the context of the blues revival of the 1960s and the manner in which the genre was received by white youth.
More persuasive and powerful is the section of Tomorrow Never Knows in which Bromell assesses the dark side of the decade, the manner in which “the psychedelic experience of radical pluralism so often includes a rendezvous with the devil.” His reading of Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited and the Beatles’ “White Album” underscores how, when the counterculture broke on through to the other side, it was not always prepared for what it encountered. Alternate realities are not always benign or give birth to an enlightened consciousness. What appears on the surface to be liberating can turn at a moment’s notice to the malevolent and diabolic. Bromell sensitively assesses how Dylan’s album presents “a consistent vision in which grief and rage merge to bear witness to evil.” One hears Dylan, with humor and a deep dose of bitterness, attempting to come to terms with what the SDS leader Mark Rudd pungently called “this weird liberal mass of nothingness.” The Beatles’ overwhelming double album similarly endeavors to make sense of the decade as it nears a conclusion. Referencing their own music and that of the many others who had influenced them, the number of references in the songs struggle to make a sequenced story not only of the period but also the music that gave it voice. The fact that neither the group nor Dylan was able to formulate a coherent narrative or create a neat and easily digested recording is bound up, Bromell believes, with the fact that music could no longer provide a form of resolution: “So much of their music now told them that they’d never get out from under the weight their history had dropped on them.” It was all Helter Skelter.
That lack of resolution troubles Bromell, but it illustrates as well the best qualities of the period and its music in being “both troubled and smart.” While not all of America participated in the acid test of psychedelic experience, all of the nation got stoned in the 1960s. We can ignore the ramifications of that trip, but then lose the vision it inspired. Listening to the music of the times permits one to remember, Bromell believes, “the loneliness, the breakthroughs, the vertigo of radicalization, and the awareness of a fundamental instability that looked like ecstasy at one moment, like evil the next.” Meanwhile, we are stuck, our ears glued to our mobile phones with the Memphis blues again, fantasizing about transcendence as we watch the worth of our 401Ks dwindle by the hour.