Constellations of thought rotate around like the cover of Led Zeppelin III or the wheel of a rotary telephone, an object common to domestic space during the era of my childhood, replaced over time by cellphones. Thinking of the Led Zeppelin album, I kneel beside my unalphabetized, unsystematized wall of vinyl whispering, “Come out, come out, wherever you are!”
There it is, a psychedelic thing of beauty. “Visual Creations by Zacron,” reads the circular stamp beside the credits on the inner sleeve. I guess this device I’m imagining is a volvelle, a wheel chart featuring concentric circles with pointers. Volvelles were used in medieval Europe to calculate the phases of the sun and moon. “While at the Royal Academy Schools,” I learn, “Zacron produced a rotating book” called One Line and a Box.
Users could ask the book “questions about their interaction with the environment,” as they might using devices like the Tarot or the I Ching. From this earlier work, Zacron derived the idea for the design of Led Zeppelin III. My courses begin to shape up into elaborate nested allegories.
Tap on Relatively Clean Rivers. Flash that archetypal Dayglo river-road landscape on the album cover, hint of the mid-1970s privately pressed Marin County-rooted psychedelic folk-rock contained therein. The record includes odd instrumental hollows, exudes a sweet blend of joy and melancholy: “weight off one’s mind,” as the band sings on “Hello Sunshine.”
To encounter it is to encounter a psychedelic beacon, the acid equivalent of the holy spirit, beaming a signal to fellow heads across time. What is it that we’re trying to tell one another, I hear myself asking, we who have had psychedelic experiences? Where did we find ourselves before, in the midst of, and after? The lyrical persona in “A Thousand Years” speaks as one frustrated by subjecthood and identity, disappointed to find itself left again with a face—but the voice persists in its attempt to communicate. It’s an Orphic persona: one who attempts to realize and comprehend the totality, one who bears news from the other side. The news seems to be that all that is Good is trying to win us to its side. Songs are credited to band member Phil Pearlman, a name that recalls past parables as well as poems from the beginnings of English literature. Pearlman’s two incarnations prior to Relatively Clean Rivers were called The Electronic Hole and The Beat of the Earth. After a conversion of sorts involving a bible on a beach, however, Pearlman changed his name to Seth Philip Gadahn. Quite a story there, for those who wish to look.
Since we’re creating the universe (you and I!) we might as well have some fun, as do the members of the Incredible String Band in their film Be Glad for the Song Has No Ending (1970). (An essential psychedelic artifact, communicating secret knowledges from heads to fellow heads across time. The sections on band member Robin Williamson feel particularly otherwordly.)
Dancing down the sidewalk singing from lampposts, Oyster card in hand, we make our way, beach beckoning from beneath the pavement. In just a few short days I take leave of the States for a month abroad. The story at this point is one of spontaneous grandular progress, self-actualization into a grand unknown. Who will we be on return from this journey? I search old notebooks for clues. A head speaks to me across time, knowing perhaps that a future me would eventually get the message.
I want my Age of Aquarius! “Grab passion,” sings the radio. “Make it happen.” Next thing I know, I’m listening to “Ride My See-Saw” by The Moody Blues and digging it, entering through doorways new states of mind.
Thinking truly is the best way to travel. Floating like a kite and then grounded again, eyes open, the world brighter, sharper, and superimposed atop it a corridor of integral concepts. That album of theirs, In Search of the Lost Chord, allows for quite an experience. I follow it with Moby Grape’s Grape Jam — a relaxing listen, though a bit sloppy and indulgent. But that’s what’s so wonderful about it: “This music happened,” as the group says on the back cover of the LP, “when we could escape for awhile the intimidations of the virtuosity and perfections demanded by posterity. Relaxed, free, unselfconscious — Just laying down some music when the mood struck.” Bellbottomed legs leap and spin among a tribe of hippie whirling dervishes in Milos Forman’s Hair, which I watch afterwards while I practice breathing.
I start it right with World Psychedelic Classics 3: Love’s a Real Thing, a compilation from 2007 that has me up on my feet ready to march to the sound of Moussa Doumbia’s “Keleya.” Next thing I know, I’m watching an African movie from Senegalese writer and filmmaker Ousmane Sembène called Ceddo (1977). Like Huxley’s mynah birds, my students help to bring me to attention. I flower, I bloom. I pick up and thumb through a copy of Edward Espe Brown’s The Tassajara Bread Book. Among the rich assortment of cookbooks tossed into being by the counterculture, Brown’s is one of my favorites. Definitely a book written to and from “heads” — those of us who speak to each other throughout the ages. Sarah and I plan to create a print to hang in our kitchen based on the book’s opening poem, “A Composite of Kitchen Necessities.”
How is it that both the United States and China hosted movements of urban youth to rural areas, “back to the land” in the one, “down to the countryside” in the other, to such vastly different effects? Let us care for life in all its forms, including the form it took in Dirt Road to Psychedelia, a film about Austin, TX in the 1960s. The radical comix artist Gilbert Shelton emerged from that scene, as did Roky Erickson and Janis Joplin. The documentary reinstates in consciousness lesser-known classics, like Take Me to the Mountains by Shiva’s Headband. My pedagogy begins by offering students collective power-sharing and shared ownership in the classroom. Once a class collaborates on revision of the syllabus, they’ve become co-creators of reality. Class consciousness foments and rises. They witness their vast and previously unrealized collective capacities.
Tune in to White Noise’s hippie modernist masterpiece, An Electric Storm, an album of utterly distinctive and sometimes deeply creepy recordings from 1969.
Pitchfork refers to the album’s “widescale psychedelic mayhem,” and that sounds about right. An Electric Storm originated from a unit of composers and engineers at BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop (best known for the theme music to Doctor Who). Julian Cope’s review of the record is so frightening, I never even made it to side two. Busied myself instead with Cope’s website Head Heritage, part of which he describes as “a Gnostic Odyssey through lost and forgotten freakouts.” The Roman emperor Julian, remember, was raised as a Christian, but after studying Neoplatonism apostatized and attempted to revive paganism. He wrote a polemic in Greek titled Against the Galileans, but the text was anathematized by subsequent rulers and lost to history, its arguments known only second-hand through work that sought to refute it. Perhaps Cope is some sort of rock ‘n’ roll re-embodiment of the Julian Ur-spirit dredged from the collective Id.