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Feast of Excess: A Cultural History of the New Sensibility

George Cotkin

George Cotkin's engaging and accessible portrait of "The New Sensibility", which sought to push culture in extreme directions: either towards stark minimalism or gaudy maximalism.


Feast of Excess: A Cultural History of the New Sensibility

Publisher: Oxford University Press
Author: George Cotkin
Publication date: 2015-11
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Reprinted from Feast of Excess: A Cultural History of the New Sensibility by George Cotkin with permission from Oxford University Press, Inc. Copyright © 2016 by George Cotkin. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.

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“How Does It Feel?”

John Coltrane and Bob Dylan

1965

Both Dylan and Coltrane were rolling stones that gathered no moss. Yet they were in many ways disparate figures. Coltrane was thirty-eight and Dylan just twenty-four in the summer of 1965. From a poor but respectable black family in North Carolina, Coltrane had migrated north to Philadelphia and then, in 1945, begun service, soon playing in the band the Melody Masters. Deeply intelligent and well read, a bit self-contained, Coltrane was obsessed with mastering the saxophone, beginning with alto then moving to tenor. His playing initially was sketchy, but through practice, hour after hour, always aware of what others were doing on the instrument, he became something special.

Dylan, born to a middle-class Jewish family in Hibbing, Minnesota, was from an early age a maker of myths, imagining himself as a vagabond, a country rebel, and more. He was described, at the moment he was becoming famous, as an amalgam of possibilities, a combination of “Harpo Marx, Carol Burnett, and the young Beethoven”; in “appearance, the Ultimate Beatnik; cowboy boots, jeans, wrinkled work shirts and dark glasses, plus frizzy, unkempt hair and a lean, pale and haggard face.” A fair description, but by the time the piece appeared in the New York Times in 1965, he had already dropped the beat look for the style of a rebel in motorcycle jacket.

Details of biography matter little with Dylan and only a bit more with Coltrane. Both were sui generis. Dylan the weaver of tall tales, mask and myth maker; to track down the truth about Dylan, his wild claims and shuffling of facts, is a fool’s errand. Coltrane, saintly in his dedication to sound, was a man who spoke his soul in his music, the rest of him was effaced.

Both of them, however, were sponges, absorbing influences aplenty. It has been widely suggested that each of them filched material or borrowed style too readily from others. But part of their genius was their openness to new possibilities, their unwillingness to rest comfortably with what they had already mastered. When asked in the summer of 1965 about the next direction his music might take, Coltrane replied: “I don’t know yet. I’m looking for new ground to explore.” Realizing that change is of the essence, Coltrane stated, “We have to keep on cleaning the mirror.” Dylan wanted escape from the stranglehold of protest songs. It was second nature for Dylan to rebel against expectations. Critic Anthony DeCurtis wrote that Dylan had an “inherent discomfort with absolute positions,” hence his rather cagey and confusing responses to generations of interviewers about his political, religious, and philosophical views. Dylan treasured few things more than his autonomy.

It was creative necessity rather than opportunism that forced them down new, sometimes extreme paths. Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler may have pioneered the Free Jazz style before Coltrane, but he made it his own form, expanding its borders—sometimes to ear-shattering extents. He pushed their ideas. Critic Ira Gitler once referred to Coltrane’s music as constituting in and of itself “a sheet of sound.” It “could have powered a spaceship.” Dylan borrowed melodies and styles of folksinging from Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson, Chuck Berry, and Dave Van Ronk, but he transformed material, thanks to his odd phrasing and emotional bite.

According to a distinguished historian, 1965 was “the inaugural year of the 1960s.” A bold statement, certainly. It possesses a grain of truth, especially in terms of politics and race. In that busy year, hope wagged a happy tail. The economy was booming. In October the Dow Industrial Index peaked at the highest level in its eighty-year history, and gross national product shot upward. Unemployment at the close of 1965 was a scant 4.1 percent. For those caught in poverty, change seemed in the offing through President Johnson’s Great Society programs. Having won a landslide election in 1964 over Republican Barry Goldwater, and with a hefty Democratic majority in both the Senate and Congress, Johnson was delighted to sign off on Medicare and Medicaid, the Office of Economic Opportunity, and much more. Anything seemed possible.

Even on the torturous terrain of race, progress appeared to be forthcoming. At Johnson’s behest the Voting Rights Act passed—promising to guarantee the right to vote for African Americans in the South. But progress was opposed by reaction. White police in Selma, Alabama, on “Bloody Sunday” brutally beat civil rights marchers. A few weeks later, however, a march to Montgomery, Alabama, twenty-five thousand strong, was peaceful and attracted wide support. The government, with Johnson under pressure, was moving in the direction of greater racial equality, but it was a tough push.

The war in Vietnam, however, cast a foreboding shadow. With each passing month, its tentacles tightened around Johnson and his foreign policy advisors. By February, bombing of areas in North Vietnam had begun, soon morphing into the program called Operation Rolling Thunder. Agent Orange (a highly toxic defoliant) and napalm were authorized—and employed in copious amounts. American troop levels jumped upward: 40,000 more in April, another 21,000 in June, 50,000 more in late July, ballooning by the end of the year to a presence of 184,000. US casualties inched toward two thousand, with Vietnamese deaths staggering. The ideal of the Great Society, predicated on government spending, came into conflict with the costs of the war in Vietnam, and the deficit rose accordingly.

Protests against the Vietnam War quickened. By the fall of 1965, nationwide events had become common, and, beginning at the University of Michigan, teach-ins educated a generation of college students about the problematic history of the war and our ally South Vietnam (which had undergone a military coup in June).

More startling to many Americans was the mid-August explosion of violence in Watts, a black ghetto in Los Angeles. Years of discrimination, unemployment, and heavy-handed police tactics (almost all the police in the area were white) exploded out of a mundane arrest into a riot. Over the next five days, a total of thirty-four people were killed, thousands were arrested, and many businesses and homes burned to the ground. For white Americans, the road to racial progress became hazy in the smoke of Watts. For white Americans antagonistic to black rights and protest, the Watts riots made segregationist governor of Alabama George C. Wallace popular as a maintainer of law and order—taken by many to be a code term for clamping down on African Americans.

In a pluralistic culture, hope and anxiety, sweetness and anger, received cultural expression in 1965. The film The Sound of Music, based on a Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway hit musical from 1959, was a story of hope—about the triumph of love and music over evil. It featured seven adorable children. And the sound of music emanating from their mouths was sufficient (along with the allure of actress Julie Andrews) to unknit even the tightly furrowed brow of Captain Von Trapp. Critic Pauline Kael dismissed the film: “It’s the big lie, the sugarcoated lie that people seem to want to eat,” especially in America, where sentimentalism reigned supreme. American audiences were unfazed. The film grossed more than any other in the history of Hollywood (more than Gone With the Wind), and it won five Academy Awards. The soundtrack of the film was also an immense success.

In a very different vein, the song “Eve of Destruction,” a song beholden to Dylan in content and singing style, was a big hit in 1965. Sung with gruff sincerity by Barry McGuire, the tune was a cri de cœur. The song spoke to the historical moment—from the anxiety of the Cuban Missile Crisis to the paranoia about madmen with an itchy trigger finger on atomic weapons. McGuire bemoaned the violence “flarin’ ” all around him: “Can’t you feel the fear that I’m feelin’ today?” He even referenced the hatred in Selma, concluding: “And you tell me over and over and over and over again, my friend / You don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction.”

The Sound of Music and “Eve of Destruction” were symptomatic of the tensions and contradictions of the historical moment. But they were not the works from 1965 that sung out with creative force. They were anchored in the past. This was the moment for the New Sensibility, with its hard-driving experimentalism and sharpened poetry, to explode on the musical scene, thanks to Dylan and Coltrane.

Both Dylan and Coltrane were concerned with civil rights and human destruction. Coltrane’s “Alabama” commemorated the four black schoolchildren killed by a bomb in Birmingham planted by members of the Ku Klux Klan in September 1963. Coltrane’s main melody was based on the rhythms that he discerned in Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech about the murder. From auspicious silence to explosive tempo, over and over again, Coltrane and his band made sound into musical oration. One critic remarked that Coltrane’s music expressed “all the emotions and expressions of the human being.” Coltrane “tells a story,” as he “laughs, screams, whispers, cries, dances, groans, caresses begs, demands.”

The Black Arts Movement, led by Amiri Baraka, Larry Neal, and Archie Shepp, arose in tandem with the civil rights and black liberation movements. They believed in something called a black aesthetic, a sort of consciousness rooted in the shared heritage and experience of African Americans. Cultural creation, done in this manner, would raise African Americans to a nationalist and perhaps revolutionary consciousness. Problems arose, however, when black artists depended upon white culture and a white audience. This led to inauthentic and polluted art. Music, according to some in the Black Arts Movement, was the purest expression of a black aesthetic. Free jazz appeared to be the newest manifestation of black identity, a music consisting of shouts and improvisational anarchy, pain and honesty that would lead to black liberation. Just how this was to be accomplished by a sound that was perhaps unintelligible to most listeners remained something of a mystery.

Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray ridiculed the black aesthetic, claiming that African-American and white experiences were historically intertwined, incapable of separation. Great art had to be receptive to the best and most vibrant in any cultural milieu, to practice a sort of amalgamation, shunning cultural exclusivity. The black aesthetic for them was merely a haughty term for a nonexistent and dispiriting artistic ideal—the attempt of political radicals “to impose ideology upon” the complexity of cultural creation.

In 1965 Coltrane was performing in a free jazz style, often collaborating with its leading practitioners. But there is little indication that he bought into the ideology that surrounded it. Instead, as with so much of his work, his interest was musical more than political—it was a mode of playing that enthused him. Coltrane’s music increasingly challenged traditional jazz categories, confounding his critics and audiences alike. All Coltrane wanted was to keep moving in unexplored dimensions of sound.

Dylan had gained fame for his protest songs. “Blowin’ in the Wind” became a civil rights anthem of sorts, especially when he performed it at the March on Washington in 1963. Another song from that period, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” told the story of a black hotel worker killed by a savage blow from the cane of William Zantzinger. The white murderer received a slap-on-the-wrist six-month jail sentence. This outraged Dylan, so he penned the haunting refrain:

And you who philosophize disgrace

And criticize all fears


Take the rag away from your face

Now ain’t the time for your tears.

As Andrew Sarris observed, the song “is the only memorial Hattie Carroll is ever likely to have.” Other Dylan songs had targeted American militarism and fanaticism, as in “Masters of War,” “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” or “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues.”

And yet, in the midst of the social turmoil and change—perhaps because of it—Coltrane and Dylan embarked on inward musical journeys. Dylan, as biographer Ian Bell put it, entered his “apolitical phase.”

Coltrane, by 1965, was following an increasingly spiritual path, reaching out for transcendence, for acknowledgement of some sort of divinity. He had in the 1950s been a heroin addict and alcoholic, finally quitting heroin cold turkey in 1957. By the mid-1960s, he started using LSD, which impelled him more deeply into mysticism in music and philosophy. He wanted his music to possess “strong emotional content”—to reflect the times and his desire to be at one with the universe.

Dylan’s songs became more personal and pointed, filled with poetic reverie and undiluted anger. Their lyrics were confessional but without easy markers for the audience to engage. He was now backed by rock musicians, making his music even more jarring and extreme. “You got a lotta nerve to say you are my friend,” he sang harshly. He strove to be his own man. As his girlfriend from his early years in the Village put it, “Bob always did as he saw fit.” But he did so in a masked manner, so that the particulars of his confessional style were transformed into something more formidable, something more universal.

The year 1965 was a crucial and busy one for both artists as they moved in new directions. Coltrane’s A Love Supreme (recorded in December 1964) was released. In that year alone, in addition to The John Coltrane Quartet Plays, released in June, he recorded three other works, Kulu Sé Mama (recorded in May and June), Ascension (recorded in late June), and Meditations (recorded in October). Dylan opened the year by recording Bringing It All Back Home (released in March), followed by Highway 61 Revisited (released in late August), with the hit single “Like A Rolling Stone.” After a world tour, and taking time off from a US tour, Dylan recorded his haunting “Visions of Johanna,” which would be part of his next work, Blonde on Blonde (released in 1966).

The idea for A Love Supreme came to Coltrane around four in the morning on a fall day after he had completed his daily meditation. He felt God’s presence more fully than ever before and believed that God commanded him to compose a work of commemoration. According to his wife, Coltrane went into seclusion for four or five days, finally emerging “like Moses coming down from the mountain.” He seemed beatific and enthusiastic: “This is the first time that I have received all the music for what I want to record, in a suite. This is the first time I have everything, everything ready.” Transposed onto paper, the score called for nine musicians, their instruments to sound out that “all paths lead to God.” With the final notes, as he wrote on the score, the bass players were to “say Amen symbolically.”

A Love Supreme appeared in February 1965. Coltrane contributed the liner notes, which revealed his state of mind to be in perfect consonance with the music. He acknowledged that in 1957 he had “experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening” that had granted him “a richer, fuller, more productive life.” As most jazz aficionados had grasped, for four years up until 1957, Coltrane’s life seemed to be on a downward spiral because of his use of heroin. Redemption had put him on “Straight Street.” He intended A Love Supreme to be an offering of thanks to God. Not only was he enjoying professional success (Down Beat magazine named him Jazzman of the Year for 1965), but he and his wife had greeted a second son in August. The recording, about a half an hour in length, consisted of four parts, “Acknowledgements,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance,” and “Psalm”—in effect, Coltrane’s version of a pilgrim’s progress.

The liner notes were accompanied by a poem that Coltrane had composed, appropriately titled “A Love Supreme.” Coltrane’s was ecumenical, suffused throughout nature and the self, in “thought waves—heat waves—all vibrations—all paths lead to God.” And, most importantly for Coltrane, God in any guise—Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, or some other representation—was “gracious and merciful.” Jazz music, with its pulse and vibrations—dropping down to a blues register or soaring as high as a note could climb—seemed to Coltrane the perfect vehicle to praise God and to express “ELATION—ELEGANCE— EXALTATION.”

Homage to God had certainly long been central to the African American experience, especially in gospel and, in some cases, the blues. It had only recently begun to assert itself in the jazz repertoire. In 1961 Grant Green had recorded a mellow album, Sunday Morning, and Duke Ellington had been composing for a few years in the early 1960s a series of works called Sacred Concerts, the first of which was finished in 1965. There was also Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity, which was roughly contemporaneous with A Love Supreme. Ayler, along with bassist Gary Peacock and percussionist Sunny Murray, offered an explosion of divine sound. Sections of the work were titled “The Wizard,” “Spirits” and “Ghosts,” with the latter two offered in different variations. What made the squeals of Ayler’s sax and the band’s unhinged rhythms holy were the brilliant pauses. It seemed as if, in the midst of chaos, God had breathed perfect calmness into the lifeblood of the music.

Coltrane knew exactly what he wanted from the score for A Love Supreme. It was to offer listeners a tale of his own journey to transcendence and belief, and, perhaps just as importantly, to suggest that “all paths lead to God,” which he equated with “Ultimate Reality.” This Kierkegaardian and mystical perception was consistent with Coltrane’s own spiritual inclination. Although he came from Baptist roots, his reading regimen was voracious and eclectic. He read about African religion and delved into the Kabbalah, as well as Buddhism. Astrology, scientology, Kahlil Gibran, and Edgar Cayce—he dug into all of them. At first, the diverse emanations of the Divine “screwed up” his head—could there, then, be but one God? After much soul searching, he concluded that all religions were essentially the same, however different their rituals and theology. Religion was simply about faith and redemption. In A Love Supreme, as Coltrane stated, “I just wanted to express something that I felt; I had to write it.”

The musical brilliance of A Love Supreme was in its ability to build a mood, a sense of security in the raucous banter of the various instruments, rollicking extremes of experimentation (pushing notes to their limits), and abrupt shifts in chords. Saxophonist Joshua Redman’s characterization of jazz in general as being built around “tension and release” applies perfectly to the spiritual journey in A Love Supreme. The tension that day in December, when all of the musicians were working on the album, must have been immense; perhaps because of this, and because of the need for release, they completed the work in a single, long session—a departure from Coltrane’s common practice of recording sessions extending for days.

The lights in the recording studio were turned down low to create the proper atmosphere for an album that chronicles movement from the darkness of a lost soul to the light of transcendence. Coltrane had written only a sketch of the score, and he offered the musicians little guidance, preferring to rely on their familiarity with one another’s styles and “keeping the form in mind.” Drummer Elvin Jones approached the music as he normally did—willing to “just follow” Coltrane’s lead.

Reminiscing almost four decades after the recording, Jones acknowledged that while “the quartet never really talked about the spiritual aspect,” it lurked in the music and the camaraderie of the musicians. The result was an album Jones felt was “not even jazz. It broadened the concept of what music was. It’s totally spiritual.”

The recording begins in unusual fashion, with Jones hitting a Chinese gong. As the tingle faded, Coltrane enters with tenor saxophone, playing the notes as if reciting a prayer. The opening passages are of great beauty and magnificent syncopation—as if he is taking listeners to church. As he intended in his score, the music riffs on the blues and features typical Coltrane touches. In the words of Ashley Kahn, Coltrane “starts to hang on phrases, playing long tones, nudging the music into a more meditative pocket.” There is the repetition of the piece. As Kahn further explains, “Coltrane blows the four-note pattern thirty-seven times in methodic succession.” In the section “Acknowledgment,” Coltrane does something striking. He begins to chant “A Love Supreme” away from the microphone. Luckily, producer Bob Van Gelder had changed the microphone level so that the words could be recorded in full. Nineteen times Coltrane utters the phrase, but on the fifteenth repetition, his “voice drops a whole step from F minor to E-flat minor.” He had achieved a work that blurred the lines between jazz improvisation and spiritual salvation, one that took notes to extremes as the only manner in which to pay homage to spiritual truth. It is a holy record.

George Cotkin is Emeritus Professor of History at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. His previous books include Existential America, Morality's Muddy Waters, and Dive Deeper: Journeys with Moby-Dick.

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