The Tomorrow Show: Tom Snyders Electric Kool-Aid Talk Show

[21 September 2006]

By Sean O'Neal

Tom Snyder was an unusual talk show host in that he often booked guests he didn’t like, just for the opportunity to poke fun at them. The previous Tomorrow Show compilation focused on punk and new wave contained some of Snyder’s prickliest moments ever, including his legendarily disastrous interview with Johnny Rotten and a segment where he repeatedly berates punk godfather Kim Fowley for looking “ridiculous”. The irony, of course, is that despite Snyder’s obvious distaste for the material, he ended up introducing these things he abhorred to the nation, giving them a forum they may not have achieved otherwise. Snyder may have had fusty notions about what music is and isn’t, but his show was often hip almost in spite of its host.

No such duality of purpose exists on this compilation of ‘60s counterculture figures, as Snyder clearly has a reverence for the decade. The DVD begins, in fact, with him declaring it “one of the most extraordinary eras of the 1900s.” Pity, then, that this collection of interviews alternates between the standard self-congratulatory tributes to all that the hippie generation achieved and Snyder’s rampant anti-drug agenda. One wonders why, at the dawn of the ‘80s, Snyder wasn’t eager to poke some larger holes in the ‘60s counterculture movement besides chastising them for their drug use. After all, this was when hippies turned to yuppies, and—as guest Tom Wolfe points out—Americans in the post-Watergate world were content to watch political drama unfold on television rather than taking it to the streets. Snyder showed himself to be a man opposed to mythologizing youth culture as it related to the punk movement.  Why then couldn’t he apply the same cynicism to the hippies, whose ideals were turning out to be more and more of a sham?

It’s a missed opportunity and one that makes watching the interviews contained within a frustrating experience. Snyder appears to be unaware of his own hypocrisy when he asks aloud of the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia:

“Remember back in the ‘60s, when all the parents were afraid that the kinds of music their children were listening to would somehow corrupt them and make them forevermore not worthy of living in American society? What was going through people’s minds back then?”

In nearly the same breath he commends Garcia and his band for playing acoustically, referencing a performance earlier in the season by The Plasmatics where they exploded a television onstage. The idea is apparently lost on Snyder that the Grateful Dead in the ‘60s was seen as just as potentially harmful then as a band like the Plasmatics would have been in the ‘80s. Lost, too, is any appreciation of the irony of a “counterculture” band like the Grateful Dead becoming a mainstream act, by this point playing to stockbrokers at Radio City Music Hall. The relatively spry Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir that appear here are dressed in polo shirts and jeans, looking every bit the marketing entrepreneurs they were about to become.

Though they still insist they are practicing “misfit power: misfits making music for misfits”, it comes off more like a branding than a slogan — fitting, considering the scads of Dead merchandise they turned out in the next decade and beyond. Garcia touches briefly on the band’s past dalliance with drugs, but remarks that “these days, there is too much responsibility, and we have to fulfill the expectations of the ticket holders and everyone who works for us.” Spoken like a true rebel.

The Dead come off as a thoroughly business-minded bunch, and their performance of four songs from Reckoning lacks any hint of the ‘60s freak flag philosophy that the show is supposedly celebrating. Both Snyder and the Dead, in fact, look back on their drug-fueled beginnings with total bemusement. Author Ken Kesey, by contrast, who sits in with Garcia during the first part of the interview, is set up as the poster child for LSD experimentation, and as such he is there mostly as a target for Snyder’s barbs. When Kesey stammers to answer Snyder’s abrupt, borderline insulting questions about his past drug use, Snyder is quick to wag those famously arched eyebrows and ask, “Are you in full command of yourself?” Despite Kesey’s considerable contributions to literature as the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, he is marginalized to the point of ridicule. Snyder is interested only in his past involvement in the “LSD scene”, and even then only as the butt of his jokes.

At one point, Snyder dips his toe in interesting waters by pointing out that the government, who supplied Kesey — and thus, the San Francisco hippie scene — with his first acid, was therefore responsible for introducing LSD culture to America. However, any talk of the MK-ULTRA experiments or the connections between the CIA and LSD is glossed over in favor of Snyder’s condescending chuckling about the drug culture. A later interview with Dr. Timothy Leary is similarly one-sided, with Snyder introducing Leary as a man “who isn’t in jail for the first time in a long time”, and then gleefully remarking, “Oh, I hear a few boos!” after the audience applauds. Leary, like Kesey, is affable, and responds to Snyder’s loaded questions with his typical gentle good humor, but the brief interview is little more than a front for Snyder to once again push his anti-drug agenda. He chastises Leary for “leading people astray and ruining lives”, using painfully out-of-touch hyperbole, at one point saying, “Children might have listened to you when they should have been reading Little Red Riding Hood.”

The DVD is marketed towards anyone who embraces the psychedelic, packaged as it is with a candy colored faux-concert poster cover and promising interviews and performances from some of the heroes of acid culture, but Snyder’s dominance makes for a real buzz-kill. Unlike contemporary talk show hosts, who are there mostly to prop up their guests and make with the funny wherever they see a window, the Tomorrow Show was all about Tom Snyder, and in this collection we once again see his palpable contempt for anything he doesn’t understand. The exception that proves the rule are the two interviews with Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test author Tom Wolfe—though both of his appearances here are well after Wolfe’s involvement with that book and include absolutely no talk of anything relevant to acid culture, which is supposedly the DVD’s theme. Instead, Snyder and Wolfe bemoan the crumbling of America’s morals, discuss the unfortunate slackening of societal dress codes, and trade anecdotes about air travel while Wolfe promotes his books The Right Stuff and In Our Time. The interviews are hardly germane to the topics at hand, and considering they comprise more than half of the DVD’s running time, most of its target audience will be sorely disappointed.

Along with the shortcomings of content, the DVD itself is a lazy effort, compiled with no sense of chronology or context. A programming error has Tom Wolfe’s interviews reversed and mislabeled, with his appearance from ‘80 preceding the one from 1979, despite what the menu says. There are no special features, save a “songs only” option where one can watch all five of the Dead’s performances alone. For the Deadhead completist, this may make the DVD a worthwhile addition to their library. For everyone else, it’s useful only as an example of arrogance run wild.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/the-tomorrow-show-tom-snyders-electric-kool-aid-talk-show/