Any occasional user of hallucinogens knows that every happy vision has its dark side, where vertigo and anguish swarm together to the point of madness, and one senses the morbidity hidden at the heart of a psychotropic drug trip. Behind the hippie clichés of sunshine, love and Californian warmth, qualities sung in chorus by Flower Power, lurks the dark night of the soul that runs through the music of the sixties.
We can feel the intimate fear felt in the face of the infinite spaces that open up during a trip through Dorothy Moskowitz (The United States of America), the atonal guitar of Neighb'rhood Child'n, and in the desolate landscapes of Hal Blaine and Jefferson Airplane. Leaving the solid ground of blues, the Rolling Stones also plunged into these disquieting waters, lightyears away from earth. The border between psychedelia and madness becomes more and more confused when coming down from a high (Ultimate Spinach, Twin), until it evaporates into the delirium of Syd Barrett (Pink Floyd), who’d later be sectioned. Depression also lurks. You can hear it clearly in a song written by George Harrison. Or when Alexander ‘Skip’ Spence recorded a wobbly and beautiful folk song before entering into a psychiatric hospital.
Some practiced a peaceful opening of the chakras while others meditated on the problems of life. The dark cello of Pentangle, far from the clichés of love and brotherhood, evokes the cold and destructive selfishness of men towards women. Lou Reed’s guitar reminds us of violence on the streets. Neil Young pulls us into feverish delirium, where the meaning of existence flees as though we were in a nightmare. This feeling of bewilderment is spoken wordlessly through Robbie Basho’s raga-blues, as well as being sung by that genius with a tragic destiny who mourned his fate as a wandering soul, Tim Buckley.
Others thought they were magicians playing with dark forces. When night sets in, Jim Morrison (with the Doors) thought he was a shaman, the moon is summoned into a pagan waltz (Incredible String Band), witch stories are told through swing (Strawberry Alarm Clock), a black mass is sung on a sinister violin (Stooges and John Cale) and voodoo spirits populate the air (Dr John). When Hendrix thought he’d found love by playing tapes backwards, it was the chanting of subterranean beings that revealed itself to him. Worn out by excesses from embodying the hippie dream, the guitarist improvised a dreary blues in the middle of the night, before spitting out an abrasive solo, like a final cry before his impending death.
"In life, I had the choice between love, drugs and death. I chose the first two and the third chose me…" How many musicians of the sixties could have echoed Jim Morrison’s words? Looking death in the face is what a fifteen year old named Jay Kaye of J.K & Co accomplished by composing music so ethereal that it can move listeners to tears. There is no need for regret. In any case, according to the Mothers of Invention, our psyche is doomed to function strangely. The dark side is part of us, and the musical legacy of that era is a sublime testimony to that. As Jimi Hendrix once said, "you have to go on and be crazy. Craziness is like heaven."