Tomorrow Never Knows: Rock and Psychedelics in the 1960s

Tomorrow Never Knows: Rock and Psychedelics in the 1960s

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by Nick Bromell

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Tomorrow Never Knows takes us back to the primal scene of the 1960s and asks: what happened when young people got high and listened to rock as if it really mattered—as if it offered meaning and sustenance, not just escape and entertainment? What did young people hear in the music of Dylan, Hendrix, or the Beatles? Bromell's pursuit of these


Tomorrow Never Knows takes us back to the primal scene of the 1960s and asks: what happened when young people got high and listened to rock as if it really mattered—as if it offered meaning and sustenance, not just escape and entertainment? What did young people hear in the music of Dylan, Hendrix, or the Beatles? Bromell's pursuit of these questions radically revises our understanding of rock, psychedelics, and their relation to the politics of the 60s, exploring the period's controversial legacy, and the reasons why being "experienced" has been an essential part of American youth culture to the present day.

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Tomorrow Never Knows

Rock and Psychedelics in the 1960s

By Nick Bromell

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2003

University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-226-07553-2

Chapter One

"Something's Happening Here"
The Fusion of Rock and Psychedelics

On August 30, 1964, a Sunday, Manhattan lay swathed in the heat of a
summer afternoon. In their air-conditioned luxury suite high above the
intersection of Park Avenue and 59th Street, the Beatles could hear the
faint screams of fans who had gathered reverently on the sidewalks around
the Delmonico Hotel, hoping to catch a glimpse of Paul, George, John, or
Ringo peering from behind a curtain. Those screams had rung in the
Beatles' ears for seven months as the cresting wave of Beatlemania rose
higher and higher with no end yet in sight. In April the top five places
in Billboard Magazine's Top One Hundred chart were Beatles songs. On
August 12, the film A Hard Day's Night had opened in more than 500
theaters nationwide, earning more than $1.3 million its first week and
making Beatlemania a performance for millions of fans to watch and join
vicariously. In late August, the Beatles had five singles on the American
charts and were winding up a triumphal coast-to-coastconcert tour of the
United States. Now, as they rested from their performance at Forest Hills
Tennis Stadium the night before, they talked to their guest, Bob Dylan,
who had driven down from Woodstock to see them. Without fanfare, Dylan
pulled a couple of joints from his pocket, put a match to the twisted end
of one, and passed it over. For the first time ever, the Beatles were
about to get high.

This was, without doubt, one of the most consequential moments in the
history of twentieth-century American popular culture. But it was also
just five guys getting stoned. It was the birth of a cultural sensibility
that would one day colorize Pleasantville, but it was also the first shot
fired in the War on Drugs. Within a year, Dylan would release Bringing It
All Back Home
and Highway 61 Revisited, albums that introduced many
thousands of American teenagers to his peculiarly mordant version of the
psychedelic sensibility and forever altered the ambitions of rock 'n'
roll. More slowly and more elaborately, and ultimately reaching a far
wider audience, the Beatles would follow the path marked out by getting
high, an experience Paul McCartney called "really thinking for the first
time." Over the course of the next two years, long before most American
teenagers of the '60s had even heard of, much less taken, psychedelics,
millions would find themselves stumbling after the Beatles as they raced
from the innocent enthusiasms of Beatles for Sale to Lennon's murky
encouragement to turn off their minds, relax, and float downstream. By
1969, according to a Gallup survey of fifty-seven college campuses, 31 per
cent of students said they had smoked pot, and between 10 and 15 per cent
had experimented with LSD. That is, at least 10 to 12 million smoked
marijuana and between 1 and 2 million dropped acid. (As noted earlier, the
'60s are still with us: In 1997, 49.6 per cent of high school seniors said
they had smoked pot, while 13.6 per cent said they had taken acid.) But
the long-term cultural consequences of this moment in history cannot be
measured simply in terms of such numbers. Rock 'n' roll brought
psychedelics into popular culture even for the millions of Americans who
never knew what marijuana smelled like. For better and for worse, the
fusion of rock and psychedelics helped change fashion, art, politics, and
social attitudes about everything from sex to schooling.

But changed them how? The largest and wealthiest and best-educated
generational cohort in American history stood on the brink of maturity
with rock music pounding in its veins and power at its fingertips. The
blues, albeit in diluted form, gave much of this power. (Of the twelve
songs the Beatles routinely played on this concert tour, five were
unmistakably blues-based: "Twist and Shout," "You Can't Do That," "Roll
Over Beethoven," "I Want to Hold Your Hand," and "Long Tall Sally.") But
now these millions of kids were about to lay their hands on another power,
a power the historian of the '60s approaches with some trepidation because
two dominant cultural attitudes toward psychedelics work in tandem to
repress serious thinking about them. On the one hand, there is fear and
distrust: psychedelics are lumped together with all other drugs, including
heroin, cocaine, crack cocaine, and amphetamines. All are the same and all
are evil. On the other hand, there is a bemused and knowing
sophistication: psychedelics are merely psychochemical entertainment.
They're just fun. Groovy, man.

The truth lies somewhere between these two takes. Psychedelics are
powerful. Psychedelics are distinctive. As research in the fields of
psychopharmacology, religion, and anthropology makes perfectly clear,
psychedelics do something no other drugs can, and that mysterious
something lies very close to the human sense of wonder that is formalized
in the world's religions. When psychedelics are taken out of specific
cultural practices and rituals and disseminated indiscriminately to
adolescents coming of age in a modern (or postmodern) world, consequences
will follow. Half the difficulty of understanding those consequences is to
get past today's prevailing attitudes of fear and dismissal and to take
seriously the experiences of getting high and tripping. No history of the
'60s or of rock music in the '60s can afford to evade this swampy issue.
At the same time, no historian of the period can afford to risk venturing
into it without making clear at the outset that discussion does not mean
endorsement or, worse, a foggy nostalgia.

* * *

In the Sunday New York Times that was delivered to their door that
morning, an innocent, prepsychedelic Times, the Beatles might have read
about the riot that had occurred Friday night in Philadelphia's north
side. A full-page spread of photos showed burned-out shop fronts and black
men and women surrounding a beleaguered police car. On the next page
Governor Ross Barnett of Mississippi vowed to "deter integration of
schools in Mississippi," while in a nearby column Princeton University
proudly announced that "at least 13 Negroes," rather than the usual 1 to
5, would be in its arriving freshman class. (Which among Princeton's
exclusive eating clubs those thirteen Blacks were asked to join?)

In Connecticut, the Times reported, a new Pesticide Control Board,
"established largely as a result of the Rachel Carson book, 'Silent
Spring,'" had recommended that the state ban the use of DDT. According to
another article "the blue whale, the biggest animal in the world, is
believed to be close to extinction." A British scientist was quoted as
saying that "'conservation of whales has failed ... because, like other
life resources, the whale belongs to no one and therefore it is in no
one's direct interest to look after them.'" In Houston, a "reproduction
expert" named Professor Erwin O. Strassman informed the world that in
women "the bigger the brain, the smaller the breasts, and vice versa....
There is a basic antagonism between intelligence and the reproductive
system of infertile women." Why are smart women "denied this privilege" of
having children? "In some instances," claimed Strassman, "it is their own
fault. I am referring to those who marry late [because] they want to
finish their education. They hate to give up their careers."

Meanwhile, and perhaps not coincidentally, Beatlemania raged on around the
Delmonico. That morning's paper described the "more than 1,000 teen-age
girls" who "stood behind police barricades on the east side of the avenue
shrieking like starlings as a deployment of 40 foot patrolmen and a dozen
mounted policemen struggled to keep order." The Times review of the
Beatles' Saturday evening concern at Forest Hills, echoed the refrain:

An overflow audience of more than 15,000 persons, mostly teen-age girls,
shrieked their approval. They continued their frenzied, nearly
hysterical screaming as the quartet sang a number of their fabulously
successful hits. It was virtually impossible to hear the singing over
the shrieking, which often reached the threshold of pain.

The not-yet-hip Times reporter (Robert Shelton) went on to fret that

the Beatles have created a monster in their audience. If they have any
concern for anything but the money they are earning, they had better
concern themselves with controlling their audience before this contrived
hysteria reaches uncontrollable proportions.

Those shrieks were a sign that something "uncontrollable"-some
"monster"-was about to terrorize the nation. So was the pungent smoke
curling up from the joint Dylan had just lit inside a New York luxury
hotel. Something was happening here ... but no one knew exactly what.
The American middle class, soon to be dubbed "Mr. Jones" by Dylan, was
complacently confident in itself, its power, and its future, for there
seemed to be no limit to what its America could achieve. It had won two
wars and put a man in space. The gross national product had averaged 5 per
cent annual growth for more than thirteen years, and the real income of
the average American worker had risen steadily for more than a decade.
Clearly, things were getting better all the time. Compared to his
counterpart in the mid-1950s, Mr. Jones could afford to welcome change,
but only because he was certain that the rational, technical,
disinterested minds of business, government, and academy could control the
scope and force of that change.

Yet this very faith in rationality produced a counter-current that licked
at its foundations. The book at the top of the Times bestseller list that
Sunday, John LeCarre's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, invited
Americans to ponder the Kafkaesque amorality of the Cold War. Standing in
the Berlin rain with the collar of his trench coat turned up, Leamas was a
hero whose inner dignity appealed to countless commuters waiting on the
platform for their train to take them home to the suburbs. As these
Americans benefited from their position in an order that was
systematically standardizing the home, the workplace, the school, and the
market, their appetite for romance and risk grew stronger year by year.
Some of this need was met by the Kennedy mystique, especially after his
death. (The bestseller list this week included Tribute to John F. Kennedy
and The Kennedy Wit.) Readers flirted with the likelihood of nuclear war
when they read Fail Safe and with the possibility of a military coup
deposing the President when they read Seven Days in May. They drank Veuve
Cliquot champagne with James Bond and drove off in his restored Bentley to
do battle with the nefarious agents of S.M.E.R.S.H. At its fringes, this
romance of risk shaded into a newly acceptable pornography. Candy was on
the bestseller list that day and titillated thousands of middle-class
readers with descriptions of Candy's "lithe round body arching upward,
hips circling slowly, mouth wet, nipples taut, her teeny piping clitoris
distended and throbbing" as she cried "'Your hump, ... GIVE ME YOUR
HUMP!'" to a deranged hunchback beating her with a coat hanger. Meanwhile,
just down the list a few notches, Mary McCarthy's The Group frankly
described a woman's first attempt to insert a diaphragm: "the slippery
thing, all covered with jelly, jumped out of her grasp and shot across the
room." Nipples. Clitoris. Such words had never been spoken so publicly
before, and their utterance was a sign-like Dylan's joint-of a new
inclination to experiment with forbidden pleasures and risky subjects.
Something was happening here. Dangers and delightful transgressions

And so did something else. On the bestseller list that week were two books
about white racism (Crisis in Black and White and Mississippi: The Closed
) and two exposes of the massive federal and corporate espionage
presence in American life (The Invisible Government and The Naked
). Echoing David Riesman's worries about the disappearance of
privacy and the erosion of self in America, the author of The Naked
wrote that "it is increasingly assumed that the past and present
of all of us-virtually every aspect of our lives-must be an open book; and
that all such information about us can be not only put into files but
merchandised freely. Business empires are being built on this
merchandising of information about people's private lives. The expectation
that one has a right to be let alone-the whole idea that privacy is a
right worth cherishing-seems to be evaporating among large segments of our

As these tiny doubts about the American way of life seeped into the
consciousness of the American white middle class, they were shockingly
reinforced by a sudden renewal of African American rage which, after two
decades of relative quiescence, flared up again in cities up and down the
East Coast. Suddenly Mr. Jones found it more difficult to ignore that the
entire postwar boom had simply swept around, or papered over, the
conditions of millions of blacks hemmed in by white racism. The liberal,
technocratic approach to national problems had had little impact on the
historical legacy of slavery or on the contemporary fact of white racism.
Meanwhile, the word "Vietnam" was appearing with increasing frequency in
the news, sometimes accompanied by yet more doubts: was this a winnable
war? was it a rational war? On August 28, 1964, with only 17,000 U.S.
troops stationed in Vietnam at a cost of just $2 million a day, the war
was still just a faraway skirmish with recalcitrant peasants duped by
their Communist rulers. But in an article titled "New Crisis in Vietnam
Poses Large Questions for U.S.," the Times that Sunday worried that

the awesome, and perhaps invincible, problem of inspiring a
disintegrating society to pursue with determination a patriotic
defensive war is facing the United States in Vietnam.... The
underlying fact that has been brought home to U.S. policy-makers this
week with the latest Saigon political crisis was that successful war can
hardly be fought in the vacuum of a society that no longer seems to care
about winning and that, out of the frustration of many war years, seems
to be turning on itself in fratricidal fury.

This was the America-confident, stable, risk-taking, with tiny fissures of
doubt opening here and there-in which the Beatles, for the first time, got
high. In which McCartney, according to a firsthand account of the
afternoon, "seems to have had an out-of-body experience"; he "declared
that he was 'really thinking' for the first time and ordered road manager
Mal Evans to write down everything he said."


Excerpted from Tomorrow Never Knows
by Nick Bromell
Copyright © 2003
by University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Nick Bromell is a professor of English and American literature at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, as well as the author of By the Sweat of the Brow: Literature and Labor in Antebellum America, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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