In 1951, disenchanted former Columbia University football star Jack Kerouac traveled around the country with Neal Cassady on a tour of self-indulgence and self-discovery. On the Road, the literary retelling of that trip, established Kerouac's place in underground literature. Two years later, beatnik poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti opened City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, and the late Allen Ginsberg took up residence in the same city. William S. Burroughs, heir to the Burroughs Adding Machine Company's wealth, turned against his parents' social register in a scathing denouncement called Naked Lunch. This 1950s Beat Generation set the stage for the 1960s Psychedelic Scene.
Szatmary suggests that the term "beat" came from three sources: (1) a quest for beatitude (bliss) that could be found in Zen Buddhism, (2) an admiration for the drifters on the city streets who appeared to be "beat down", but who were in reality wonderfully free from material want, and (3) a respect for the beat of modern jazz (be-bop) and its sensuous effect at their poetry readings (1996, 140).
The "nik" comes from a Yiddish suffix, which, roughly translated, means "a person who…" The suffix gained popularity in the 1930s as part of the word "no-goodnik", and later in the 1950s as part of "Sputnik", the first manmade satellite to orbit the Earth.
By the early 1960s, the beatnik approach to music included whatever would expand the mind and magnify the sensory load. To achieve this they took all the old mind altering drugs – marijuana (and its relatives bhang, cannabis, and hashish), morphine/heroin, amphetamines, and various other traditional uppers and downers – but they also took a new one, lysergic acid diethylamide, the famous and deadly LSD, often called "acid".
First formulated in 1938 by Alfred Hoffman in Switzerland, LSD lay neglected until the early 1960s when the CIA asked Stanford University to run some experiments to see if LSD might be useful in the destabilization of foreign governments. College students and other free-spirited types were paid $20 for taking part in weekly clinical tests. Among them were poet Allen Ginsburg and novelist Ken Kesey.
The CIA discontinued the project when LSD proved to be ineffective as an agent for covert or psychological effects, since the drug's effects were too unpredictable. Ginsberg, Kesey, and several others had become fond of those unpredictable experiences, however, and, making their own formula, they decided to throw LSD parties in San Francisco's bohemian North Beach (Palmer 1995, 156).
Beatnik musicians on drug trips began using newly available electronic gadgets and techniques – early synthesizers, high decibel amplification, feedback, fuzztone, ring modulators, and anything else – to manipulate musical sensations in an attempt to achieve an intense hallucinogenic experience.
HEPCATS, HIPSTERS, AND HIPPIES
Back in the 1920s and 1930s a "hepcat" was a person who was street smart in matters of nightlife, drugs, jazz, and such. Bandleader Cab Calloway had a big recording of a tune called "Are You Hep?" Through the 1940s and 1950s, "hep" became "hip", but kept the same meaning. "Hipster" replaced "hepcat" as the term of choice. In the early 1960s, to be "hip" meant to be "savvy", generally an OK thing to be.
By the end of the 1960s, however, the word "hip" began to pick up a strong negative meaning as journalists wrote in anger not of "hipsters" but of "hippies", who were demonstrating in the streets of the nation. By this time, the term "hippies" had replaced the term "beatniks", referring to highly intelligent, but unstable, social activists, artists, musicians, addicts, and the like.
Psychedelic rock, also known as acid rock, began in Los Angeles when Capitol Records released a documentary recording on which the studio musicians were said to be under the influence of LSD. Behind the narrator, a weird blend of fluttering flutes and verbal moaning can be heard. Soon there were several L.A. groups with odd names like the Mushrooms and Ever Pretending Fullness (Shaw 1982, 4).
The Byrds arrived on the scene in March of 1965 with a strong album, Mr. Tambourine Man, containing a nicely harmonized version of the title song, written by Bob Dylan. Their 12-string guitar sound was called folk-rock, and it was well received. Jim McGuinn (also known later as Roger McGuinn, b. 1942) was on vocals and guitar, Chris Hillman (b. 1944) on vocals and bass, Gene Clark (1944-1991) on vocals and tambourine, David Crosby (b. 1941) on vocals and guitar, and Michael Clarke (1946-1993) on drums. They released a second album, Turn! Turn! Turn!, in November of the same year, and they seemed to be on their way.
Another album, Fifth Dimension, in the summer of 1966, contained the controversial "Eight Miles High", supposedly referring to a trip on LSD. Musically the tune was quite innovative – with unusual chord progressions, use of the Dorian mode (which, on a piano, uses only the white keys from D to D), and a repetitive bass line, along with the unique sound of McGuinn's 12-string guitar.
Looking back, it seems clear that the Byrds might have challenged the Beatles and the Beach Boys for originality and creativity. Constant personnel changes, however, destroyed any kind of sustained growth and development. By 1968, the group had lost its focus. There were many stylistic changes as well, with a foray into the country music realm, led by Gram Parsons, who was only with the band for a short time in 1968. In 1973, the original band members, along with Clarence White (1944-1973), who had joined the band in 1968, and Skip Battin (1934-2003), who had joined the band in 1969, reunited briefly in 1972 and put out an album in 1973, but things fizzled out quickly. Since then, various members have gotten together for occasional reunions, and Rolling Stone listed the Byrds at No. 45 on their list of 100 Greatest Artists of All Time in 2004.
Singer Jim Morrison (1943-1971) started the Doors while enrolled in the film department at UCLA. He got together with keyboard player Ray Manzarek (1939-2013) who recruited jazz drummer John Densmore (b. 1944) and guitarist Robbie Krieger (b. 1946).
The name of the group came from a line in a poem by William Blake: "There are things that are known and things that are unknown, in between the doors." Aldous Huxley later referenced the line in the title of his book on mescaline experimentation, The Doors of Perception (Dolgins 1993, 71).
The music of the Doors was dark, blues-based, mainstream rock, usually set in a minor key and heavily loaded with lyrics on death, violence, drugs, and sex. The picture was anything by upbeat (Stuessy 1994, 248).
One of their big hits, "Light My Fire", ran nearly seven minutes, but it caught on when a shorter version was released in July of 1967. Another hit, "People Are Strange", went to No. 12 in 1967.
By 1969, Morrison's alcohol and drug addiction was catching up with him. Quite often, he was nearly incoherent on stage, and his behavior was getting more bizarre all the time. In March 1969, he was arrested for exposing himself on stage. Still, the band turned out several more albums, one of which, The Soft Parade, had strings, brass, and a backup vocal group.
By the early 1970s, however, Morrison's health was so bad that he went to Paris for rest and rehabilitation. He allegedly died of a heroin overdose in 1971 at age twenty-seven. By that time, San Francisco had already become the center of acid rock.
One of the high moments of early acid rock was orchestrated by Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, when he and his Merry Pranksters hosted the Trips Festival in January of 1966. Music was provided by the Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company, who set up five movie screens, onto which were projected continuous combinations of mind boggling colors and shapes. The punch was spiked with LSD, a concoction called "the Kool-aid acid test" (Szatmary 1987, 111).
Almost immediately, the intersection of Haight and Ashbury streets in San Francisco turned into a gathering center for a crowd of alienated youth. Thousands of adolescents from middle-class families somehow felt compelled follow Timothy Leary's advice to "turn on, tune in, drop out" in defiance of all that their parents had worked to achieve.
They rejected the nine-to-five work ethic and the conventional American dream of a steady job and a home in the suburbs. Searching for a greater depth and range of human experience, they plunged into mind-blowing drugs, Eastern mysticism, meditation, and the exotic cultures of various Native American tribes.
Musically, they ignored the world of jazz, Broadway musicals, and mainstream pop, and they went back to the simple, and, for them, more sincere musical styles of folk, country, and blues. An army of rock bands settled in San Francisco, with possibly five hundred groups rehearsing and working in the acid drenched scene (Shaw 1982, 156).
In 1965, singer Marty Balin (b. 1942) left his San Francisco folk group called the Town Criers, and took over a small club on upper Fillmore Street. He renamed the club The Matrix and recruited guitarists Paul Kantner (b. 1941) and Jorma Kaukonen (b. 1940) and female vocalist Signe Toly Anderson (b. 1941) to be the house band (Stuessy 1994, 239).
As they searched for a name, Kaukonen told of a white blues musician who had a dog he called Blind Thomas Jefferson Airplane – sort of like Blind Lemon Jefferson (the famous pioneer bluesman) with a twist (Doglins 1993, 112). Kaukonen had no explanation for the "Airplane" part of the dog's name. Still it had an off-the-wall feeling to it, so they named their new group Jefferson Airplane.
As the group became famous, fans gave the name Jefferson Airplane to roach [marijuana] clips made by splitting a paper match at one end. Balin insisted that the dog inspired name came first, acknowledging, "It was kind of nice that people named their roach clips after us" (Doglins 1993, 112).
Balin went through several drummers and bassists, then settled on Skip Spence (1946-1999) and Jack Casady (b. 1944). In 1965 RCA released Jefferson Airplane Takes Off. The album didn't sell much. Signe Toly Anderson left and was replaced by Grace Slick (b. 1939). Drummer Skip Spence was replaced by Spencer Dryden (1938-2005). With the new personnel, Surrealistic Pillow came out in 1967 and went to No. 3 on the rock album charts with two hit singles, "Somebody to Love" (No. 5) and "White Rabbit" (No. 8) (Stuessy 1994, 240).
In the 1970s, the group went through more painful and nearly continuous personnel changes. By 1974, the remaining members took the name Jefferson Starship, which eventually (with more personnel changes) spun off another group, Starship, in 1984, which is best known for the hits "We Built This City" (1985), "Sara" (1985), and "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" (1987).
For all their complex shifting around in musical styles and professional identities, Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship/Starship had its moment in the sun, from acoustic folk-like charm to overpowering psychedelic hard rock. Their performance of "Volunteers" at the Woodstock festival was a highlight.
The Grateful Dead
Bassist Phil Lesh (b. 1940) called the band to his apartment one afternoon to explain that they should no longer call themselves the Warlocks, because there was another band with the same name. After many silly suggestions and increasing frustration, they chose the "Grateful Dead." Official publicist, Dennis McNally, told the story often.
…there was a dictionary lying there, and Jerry Garcia opened it, stabbed a finger in, and landed, honest to God, on 'grateful dead.' The entry was a reference to a motif in folklore.
In English folk literature, there was a grateful dead ballad… a traveler is going along the road, finds a man who hasn't been given a proper burial because he owed money – he was an indebted man. The traveler pays off the man's debts, and puts the body to rest, as it were. The body is then given a proper burial, and the traveler goes on his way.
Later in his journey, the traveler encounters a representation of the dead man's spirit, usually in the form of an animal that helps him in his own quest.
The whole meaning of course, is the notion of the resolved spirit of the dead and the idea of good karma and a cycle – death and life and rebirth and such (paraphrased from Dolgins 1993, 92).
With guitarist Jerry Garcia's (1942-1995) bluegrass roots, organist Ron "Pigpen" McKernan's (1945-1973) passion for the blues, guitarist Bob Weir's (b. 1947) love of the Beatles, and bassist Phil Lesh's interest in classical music, the Grateful Dead came up with an eclectic mix that didn't fit into any convenient style category. Drummers Bill Kreutzmann (b. 1946) and Mickey Hart (b. 1943) rounded out the group, which remained together until Garcia's death in 1995.
Into drugs from the very beginning, they became the world's most famous acid band, and that anti-establishment reputation kept them in demand even though their records didn't match their on-stage excitement.
When they signed with Warner Records in 1967, they refused to be molded into any kind of career path. Indeed, their loyal fans, the Deadheads, are proud that the band never caved in to the commercial facts of life.
Most fans and rock critics consider their 1969 live double album, Live/Dead, to be their best album of the 1960s. It contains a twenty-one minute version of "Dark Star", and "Turn On Your Lovelight". In the 1970s, the Grateful Dead moved toward country-rock when Garcia began to play pedal steel guitar. In 1975, the Grateful Dead released Blues for Allah, with strong jazz influences at work throughout. They added horns, strings, and a vocal chorus in 1977 on Terrapin Station.
The Dead went blissfully on their way for twenty years without ever racking up big hit singles or chart positions until 1987s "Touch of Grey", their first of only three singles to chart in Billboard's Top 10.
Big Brother and the Holding Company
Though known as Janis Joplin's backup band, Big Brother and the Holding Company predated her and continued on after she left. San Francisco music promoter Chet Helms (1943-2005), organized the group in 1965, and the guys called him "big brother", a conscious reference to Big Brother in George Orwell's 1984.
"Holding" was a well-known euphemism for possessing drugs. "Are you holding anything?" meant "Do you have any stash?" Also, big corporations are often holding companies, and the members of the band (all cynical anti-establishment types) believed that megacorporations would someday rule the world (Dolgins 1993, 24).
Joplin joined the band in 1966. The August 1968 album, Cheap Thrills, made them instant celebrities.
…[the album] is a masterpiece of utterly raw psychedelic blues-based rock from the peak of the '60s San Francisco rock scene. Anyone who thinks Guns N' Roses mastered hard electric blues grunge hasn't heard Big Brother's James Gurley and Sam Houston Andrews duke it out on tracks like "Ball and Chain", "Summertime", and "Combination of the Two" (Rick Clark, reviewer, in Erlewine 1992, 45).
When she first appeared with Big Brother and the Holding Company at the Monterey International Pop Festival, Texas born Janis Joplin (1943-1970) got as close as a white girl could get to a genuine blues emotion. Albert Grossman, Bob Dylan's manager, was impressed by her passionate singing, and persuaded her to go solo.
She left Big Brother and the Holding Company in November of 1968 and formed a band called Full Tilt Boogie. They recorded the album Pearl, but before it came out, Janis Joplin was dead from a heroin overdose. When the album was finally released, it went to No. 1 for nine weeks. Over her brief but brilliant career, there were several memorable singles "Me and Bobby McGee", "Down On Me", "Summertime", "Get It While You Can", "Ball and Chain", and "My Baby" among them.
Her voice was rough, raspy, and raw, and her life was the same. She destroyed herself at age twenty-seven, but had made her indelible mark in the world of psychedelic rock and roll.
The mixture of drugs and decibels known as psychedelic rock began to change as the music assumed more and more importance over communal political posturing. Two groups led the way from acid rock to hard rock and heavy metal.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience
James "Jimi" Marshall Hendrix (1942-1970) was born in Seattle, Washington, to an African-American father and a Cherokee mother. His parents gave him a guitar at age 12. As he was left-handed, he turned the guitar upside down and taught himself how to play by listening to recordings of Muddy Waters, B. B. King, Elmore James, Chuck Berry, and others.
At age nineteen he joined the Army but was honorably discharged in 1962. He was hired immediately as a guitarist for Sam Cooke, Little Richard, Ike and Tina Turner, Wilson Picket, Jackie Wilson, and several similar blues based groups.
In 1964, at age twenty-two, Jimi Hendrix relocated to New York where he played the club circuit with the Isley Brothers, King Curtis, and John Paul Hammond. Chas Chandler, who left the Animals to go into the field of artist management, heard Hendrix in 1966, and persuaded him to go to London to form a new group. They arrived in England, and soon recruited jazz drummer Mitch Mitchell (1947-2008) and bassist Noel Redding (1945-2003). The new trio was called the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
In no time at all, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, and other top level European guitarists became Jimi Hendrix fans and followers. He inspired them with his raw talent, enormous imagination, deep blues roots, technical skill, and creative stage innovations. A Jimi Hendrix concert was outrageous theater, to be sure, but the central focus was always a huge musical experience.
And shocking as they were, Jimi Hendrix's performances grew out of his early career.
In late 1966, Hendricks formed the Experience and amazed European audiences with an act modeled on such former employers as Little Richard and James Brown.
At the Paris Olympia he twisted, rolled, shook, and writhed in perfect time to every half-note of his thunderous electric blues. During the next few months, he staged similar shows for spectators at Stockholm's Tivoli, the Sports Arena in Copenhagen, and the Saville Theater in London (Szatmary 1996, 178).
At Woodstock in 1969, Hendrix turned "The Star Spangled Banner" into an exploration of pure sound as a musical artistic component. The tune was filled with "evocations of bombs falling and exploding, with screaming sirens, and with the howls of victims as Hendrix whipped up an entirely sonic conflagration" (Palmer 1995, 228).
Earlier, Hendrix had begun to close some of his shows by smashing his guitar, pouring lighter fluid on it, and setting it afire – all the time, however, keeping his amplifiers at full volume.
The sound of guitar strings vibrating and uncoiling as the instrument crumpled and went up in flames wasn't just showmanship, as in the Who's instrument smashing rampages, it was MUSIC (Palmer 1995, 228).
Jimi Hendrix lived a short, fast life and died of drug complications in London on September 18, 1970. His important recordings live on, however "Hey, Joe", "Purple Haze", "The Wind Cries Mary", "Wild Thing", "Like a Rolling Stone", "All Along the Watchtower", "Third Stone from the Sun", and many more.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience also provided "the principal model for the 'power trios' in particular and for the development of heavy metal in general" (Palmer 1995, 229).
Among those power trios was Cream, consisting of emerging superstars Eric Clapton (b. 1945) on guitar, Jack Bruce (b. 1943) on bass, and Peter "Ginger" Baker (b. 1939) on drums. Each had much experience going into the group, and each had an illustrious career when Cream dissolved.
During its brief existence, from June 1966 to November 1968, Cream captured the attention of the purists. With Clapton's passion for the blues and his jazz tinged improvisation skills, Bruce's inventive ostinato patterns (repeated riffs) on bass, and Baker's long and brilliant drum solos, Cream served as a bridge, a transition, between the fields of acid rock and heavy metal.
"I Feel Free", "Sunshine of Your Love", "Toad" (with a ten-minute drum solo), Robert Johnson's "Crossroads", Willie Dixon's "Spoonful", and many more great singles can be found on Cream's four ATCO albums Fresh Cream, Disraeli Gears, Wheels of Fire, and Goodbye.
Time now to turn our attention to another development in the story of American popular music, the fusion of jazz and rock into a style that is different from either. It was, and is, called by that very name, fusion.