Into the Mystic: The Visionary and Ecstatic Roots of 1960s Rock and Roll

Into the Mystic: The Visionary and Ecstatic Roots of 1960s Rock and Roll

Christopher Hill
Rochester, Vt.:Park Street Press, 2017. 294 pp., paper, $16.95.

Christopher Hill is an intelligent and insightful critic, and his enthusiasm for his subject tends to be infectious. In his eclectic survey, he characterizes sixties rock and roll as a Dionysiac tradition and likens rock and roll concerts  to religious rituals. This tradition, he says, taking hold in an Apollonian power structure that is collapsing under its own neocolonialist weight, has transformed what he calls “the postwar American consensus.”

I suspect that in this case, he is attributing too much significance to the power of art. Whether you accept his thesis or not, he charts many hitherto little-traveled byways and offers up many intriguing theories. For starters, he suggests that “ecstatic” rock and roll has roots in the writings of the English Romantics, the French Symbolists, and especially “the black church liturgical tradition,” not to mention psychedelics. In his enthusiasm, however, he tends to stack the deck. For instance, in seeking to restore the historic influence of gospel music upon the formation of ecstatic rock and roll, he either downplays or ignores influences such as the jump blues practitioners, not to mention the electric-guitar influence of country and western and Western swing music.

Hill can be very persuasive, however, when he pinpoints the appeal of the Beatles, and the rest of the (admittedly often mushy and twee) British Invasion bands as in part a return to the “magical . . . history” of a fabled Albion. Hill states, “It was as if the new hip culture was finding a frequency which had been broadcasting for centuries . . . an alternative narrative.” In California, meanwhile, amid the Rosicrucians, the practitioners of yoga, and followers of the teachings of Manly P. Hall, a “transcendent” teen culture  began to emerge, as epitomized by bands such as the Byrds, the Beach Boys, and, of course, the Grateful Dead. Hill claims that “while it was the culture of the East Coast . . . that in a sense thought up the sixties, when it came to putting it into practice the West was the only place that was still open enough.”

One can question such extravagant claims and still greatly enjoy Hill’s further forays into tracing the somewhat obscure and  eclectic influences on the syncretic rock genre. Hill highlights the reemerging importance of the mystic concept of romantic love in songcraft by discussing, at great length, Michael Brown and his nearly forgotten “chamber rock” band the Left Banke. (But he omits any mention of the Jaynettes and their equally epically produced single “Sally Go Round the Roses.”) The author also offers a somewhat plausible explanation of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper as an acid-tinged “song suite” which follows the journey of everyman figure Billy Shears into a “visionary realm,” a “dreamscape” which “could contain the world.”

The Rolling Stones, on the other hand, supposedly represent, at the apex of their career, the old culture of a carnivalesque “festive perception of the world” (in the words of critic Mikhail Bakhtin). In Hill’s telling, they are the Lords of Misrule, “who spoke with a kind of dark merriment” in a world which “needed to be turned upside down.” And Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks is the “most profound meditation on suffering in pop music.” But Hill also claims that the album is also “a kind of rite of passage . . . the journey to the land of the dead and the return to tell the tale.” Hill also makes the controversial claim that the “perverse” Velvet Underground’s first four albums constitute a monomythic “full cycle” with “four phases”: “contention for the soul of the hero”; “the hero . . . descends into the demonic world”; “the hero’s purgation/purification”; “the hero is reintegrated into the world.” Maybe Hill is on to something. But I don’t see it. The explanation is simply too pat.

No discussion of the transformative psychedelia of the sixties can be considered complete without mention of the Incredible String Band. Hill claims that the faithful listener will be “rewarded by moments of strange loveliness, mad invention, [and] dark magic that do not exactly have a useful comparison elsewhere in pop music.” He also links their appeal to that of the Victorian children’s literature exemplified by Frances Hodgson Burnett’s (somewhat treacly) novel The Secret Garden. Like a great many of Hill’s theories and suggestions, this seems more than a bit overdetermined.

Hill concludes by asserting that the MC5, the hippie agitprop band from Detroit, were actually avatars of “the ecstatic rock and roll moment,” who worked their “enthusiastic” stage magic by drawing upon the Holiness church convention of “testifying,” while at the same time their “acid-Marxist” rhetoric offered “experiential confirmation of a type of energy and consciousness that would require a new society to embody it.” In his afterword, Hill argues that the “development of vision” that took place among certain select British and American rockers may, over time, provide “political ramifications [which] can be earthshaking.” He unabashedly hopes that this music might ultimately provide “a way marker, a pointer to the work ahead, to the next convergence of the two worlds, inner and outer.”

To quote Hemingway, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Francis DiMenno

Francis DiMenno is a humorist, historian, and long-time music journalist based in Providence, Rhode Island.