Psychedelic rock easy to see, tougher to hear Exhibit: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame shows that Lucy's sky had diamonds -- and a whole lot more.

September 07, 1997|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Psychedelic rock.

It's a term even those who don't pay much attention to music immediately understand. Just say the words, and a host of images floods to mind: Tie-dyes. Love beads. Day-Glo colors. Posters with letters warped to illegibility. Peter Max illustrations. R. Crumb comics. Nehru jackets. Paisley prints. Granny glasses.

Funny thing is, each of those associations is visual, not musical. Understanding psychedelia as a design concept is easy; defining it in musical terms is trickier. Heavy metal can be described in terms of volume and riffage, while funk is an easily identifiable rhythmic trait.

But what makes a psychedelic record psychedelic? The Beatles' shimmering, technicolor "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" is a classic of psychedelic rock, as is the Count Five's raging, grungy Psychotic Reaction." What is it they have in common? Is there an obvious stylistic link between Pink Floyd's trippy "Interstellar Overdrive" and the Great Society's punchy "Someone to Love"? If not, then why does the term seem to fit?

These are some of the questions that faced the curators of "I Want to Take You Higher," an exhibit devoted to the psychedelic culture of 1965-1969, currently on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland.

And even after putting the exhibit together, the experts continue to disagree about what defined the psychedelic era.

Certainly, psychedelics themselves played a part. Hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD (which had been outlawed in 1966, a year before the "Summer of Love"), mescaline and psilocybin were used by many musicians, and some even performed while tripping.

But interest in drug-fueled music didn't end with the '60s. George Clinton and Funkadelic brought psychedelic silliness to R&B in the '70s, bands like the Teardrop Explodes and the Softboys brought a trippy sensibility to punk rock, and psychedelic revivalists like the Long Ryders and the Three O'Clock carried on into the '80s. Psychedelia today ranges from the grungy roar of the Flaming Lips to the ambient buzz of Aphex Twin.

How, then, did the Hall of Fame approach the question: What is psychedelia?

"We took a fairly broad definition of it," Jim Henke, the museum's chief curator, says diplomatically. "I guess in some ways it would be the whole experimental element of it."

What sort of experimental music, though? Mickey Hart, drummer with seminal San Francisco band the Grateful Dead, suggests that, in a certain sense, John Coltrane could be considered psychedelic, because his music was questing and spiritual in the same way the Dead's was.

On the other hand, San Francisco Chronicle critic and book author Joel Selvin reports that, when he joined a committee the Hall of Fame convened to help focus its psychedelic-era exhibit, the experts spent much of their time arguing over what was trippy, and what wasn't.

"One that kept coming up between me and [English critic] Jon Savage was, 'Was the Velvet Underground psychedelic?' " Selvin recalls. "I maintained that they were outside the psychedelic spectrum, because they weren't directly using LSD and weren't celebrating it. All they did was play long songs, and that was the only psychedelic element to it. But this would come up from time to time. The Doors were another disputed item."

Lively debate

Even the exhibit's title caused problems. Certainly the title "I Want to Take You Higher" (taken from Sly & the Family Stone's classic 1969 song) conveys some of the era's attitude. It doesn't hurt, either, that Sly's performance of the tune was one of the highlights of the original Woodstock festival -- definitely a psychedelic event.

Still, that doesn't make Sly & the Family Stone psychedelic. "I just finished [writing] a book on Sly & the Family Stone, and they ain't psychedelic at all," says Selvin. "They had a look. But they were gangsters and soul band veterans. Nobody took any LSD. I mean, there's nothing psychedelic about their scene whatsoever. There's something mod about it. But mod was not psychedelic, necessarily."

In fact, Selvin says, the original title for the exhibit was "The Summer of Love," but once the Hall of Fame found out the phrase had been copyrighted, it opted for something that was still in the public domain.

Because defining psychedelia was so difficult, Henke and his team instead chose to focus on two specific scenes: San Francisco and London.

The beat poets

"There were differences and similarities," he says. "In London, everyone I talked to referred to this beat poetry reading [featuring Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Christopher Logue] at the Royal Albert Hall in '65 as really being the beginning of the whole underground movement over there. And, obviously, the beat poets played a big part in the whole San Francisco scene. So that was a similarity.

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