RIP, Syd. And RIP, 'Cid.
Syd Barrett, perhaps the world's most famous acid casualty, has died, over 30 years after he withdrew utterly from the world. And as tempting as it would be to say that his influence was still being felt far and wide, it's just not true. Popular and even most underground music today just ain't that psychedelic anymore, at least among the youth.
And there are some that would say this is a good thing. They would point out the tragic examples of Barrett, Roky Erickson and Tommy Hall of the 13th Floor Elevators, Brian Wilson, Daniel Johnston, Skip Spence, and Jeremy Spencer and Peter Green of the original version of Fleetwood Mac, and they would say that LSD was a drug to be avoided at all costs, even before they got around to remembering the Manson "family." And if they pointed out that inherently creative people had the most to fear from taking LSD, I would have to agree.
And yet I would have to say that the anti-acid crowd is dead wrong, at least as far as aesthetics are concerned.
Look, musicians are going to do drugs. They always have and they always will. And sure, acid has claimed a few prominent people. I think there's a certain threshold we all have within us for acid, and when you cross it, you have successfully destroyed your ego. Which may or may not be fine for you, but it sure is hell on those who love you. But in any case, you could come up with longer lists of musicians destroyed by any number of other drugs. Hell, there are probably more musicians who died through the abuse of prescription drugs -- Hank Williams and Elvis, to name two -- than there are acid casualties. And heroin, booze and cocaine have claimed a few too, as I seem to recall. What's more, the acid-heads tended to leave prettier musical corpses than the junkies or drunks.
We're in uncharted waters now. Very few of the younger bands on the Billboard modern rock charts, groups like Taking Back Sunday, Angels & Airwaves, Panic! at the Disco and 30 Seconds to Mars, sound like they have ever dabbled with acid, or anything else that truly bends the mind.
Nope, this is music by and for the Ritalin Generation, from their over-amped central nervous systems straight to yours. The dry-mouthed singers all whine about their parents, bosses and lovers, and the list of adjectives you would use to describe the music of these bands is uncannily similar to a list of the side effects of Ritalin use: "jittery," "irritable," "depressed," "anxious," "paranoid," "repetitive."
None of which are too terribly pleasant-sounding for those of us who lack Ritalin scrips.
Contrast that with acid, the cornerstone on which much of rock and roll has been based from about 1965 through about 1974. That music, as well as that which still follows in its wake, soared and vaulted. And as stupidly nave as it seems today, the singers in those bands wanted you to think great thoughts about the cosmos, saving the planet and your immortal soul.
"Ritalin and Adderall and those drugs are all about focusing," says Kurt Brennan, a co-owner of the psych music-friendly record store Sound Exchange. "Acid is more about unraveling."
Without LSD, there would have been no Pet Sounds, no Revolver, and no Are You Experienced. There would also have been no MC-5, no Parliament-Funkadelic, and no Sly and the Family Stone. And of course, no Pink Floyd or 13th Floor Elevators either.
And think about what wouldn't be were it not for those bands. Were it not for MC-5, there would be no punk; were it not for Sly Stone, there would be no Prince; were it not for Floyd, there would be no Radiohead. And a world without Revolver and the recordings of Jimi Hendrix scarcely bears thinking about.
This is not to argue that LSD is some kind of panacea. Great music exists outside its orbit, and its own excesses can be documented not only in the burnouts it helped along on the road to madness and/or hermits' lives, but also in music. The interminable noodling of the Grateful Dead comes to mind, as does the ridiculous bombast of bands like Yes, the Moody Blues and King Crimson, all of whom contributed mightily to the rise of punk.
I don't mean to say they contributed directly to punk, of course. What I mean to say is that acid-drenched slabs of ludicrous musical pomposity such as "Nights in White Satin," "Yours Is No Disgrace," and that "Tarkus" malarkey from Emerson, Lake and Palmer fairly cried out for a short, sharp kick in the nads from the likes of the Ramones, New York Dolls and Sex Pistols, one that came too late, alas, to save us from the likes of Kansas and Styx. And yet even the art-rock movement also laid the foundation for New Wave and electro-pop through disciples like Brian Eno, Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream.
But in about 1975, rock started shifting from an acid-oriented music to one influenced by other drugs. Simon Napier-Bell, in his fascinating book about the symbiotic relationship between pop music and drug fashions, put it this way:
"Amphetamine sulphate came as pinkish-white crystals that had to be chopped fine enough not to scrape the nose when they were sniffed through the plastic casing of a ballpoint pen. It was a drug of pure aggression, the high came quickly and made you want to charge like a bull, but it was also disgusting, even the people who used it said so.
"To complement its foulness, sulphate users needed to find a new type of music as rough-edged and disgusting as the drug itself. What they came up with was punk rock -- simple, fast and angry. Leftover acid-heads were still telling us to love the world. Newly amphetamised punks demanded that we trash it. The names of the new groups seemed endless -- the Stinky Toys, Siouxsie & the Banshees, the Slits, the Vibrators, the Damned, the Clash, the Buzzcocks -- all driven by buckets full of foul speed sniffed through unpleasant little tubes. The best known, of course, were the Sex Pistols...After the group got into a fight during a gig at the Nashville and beat up a member of the audience, Johnny Rotten told a reporter, 'Actually, we're not into music. We're into chaos.' The truth was even simpler. They were into amphetamine sulphate, like everyone else."
At about the same time, other, prettier people in far more glamorous surroundings were sticking gold-plated coke spoons up their noses and boogie-oogie-oogiein' down to the sounds of KC and the Sunshine Band, Gloria Gaynor and the Bee Gees on one side of the musical spectrum and glam rock and hair metal on the other. At its best, this coke music had the same euphoric rush the drug had, but like cokeheads, the music was also smug and ignorant. It talked loud and didn't say much.
Along came ecstasy and crack in the '80s, and Ex combined acid's love of the world with coke's shallowness and gave us bands like Wham -- well-meaning, but vapid. And crack gave us primal rap like "It Takes Two" -- the ultimate manic crack anthem. It sounded like disco on, well, crack. And at least around here, codeine has emerged in a big way, and as with all opiate drugs, the music is slowed down and not too concerned with what's going on around it.
But none of those drug booms had anything like the scope or power or beauty of the LSD boom, which continued to echo in the '80s and early '90s and was still fairly widespread in the underground, as can be heard in the comedy of Bill Hicks, Sam Kinison and Steven Wright and the music of bands like Nirvana, the Butthole Surfers and many more of the left-of-the-dial legions. Most of them gave either their bands or their albums some kind of trippy name -- think Rembrandtpussyhorse, Camper Van Beethoven, the Jesus Lizard. And then there was acid house, acid jazz, trip-hop and the whole rave movement where disco used to be a couple of decades before.
And that was where it came to a screeching halt. In 2000, the feds arrested two chemists -- William Leonard Pickard and Clyde Apperson -- who were said to be the kingpins of acid distribution worldwide. According to the DEA, since those arrests, LSD sales are down a full 95 percent, and speaking from my experience in hanging around lots of bands during that period, that number seems about right. You just don't hear about the stuff as much as you used to, though it just so happened that I was at a club and heard about some for sale the night after Syd Barrett died. The asking price was $20 -- four times the going rate back in the early '90s.
And you can definitely tell it's gone from the music. Pop today is just as vapid as it was in 1961, albeit better produced. Mainstream rap is bottoming out in a nadir of hedonistic, materialistic stupidity -- and hell, you could say the exact same thing about most radio-friendly country these days, too. So-called alternative rock speaks only to prescription-drug-addled suburban mallrats, while far too much indie rock is made by sober and polite kids whose idea of a cosmic experience is to quaff two or three Pabst Blue Ribbons and stand and listen to a DJ mash up Neutral Milk Hotel with Ciara.
"There's a definite lack of expanding from indie rock in the last six years," Brennan agrees. "A definite lack of progression."
Nope, Syd, today's world is one you never made.
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