Book Reviews

INTO THE MYSTIC

The Visionary and Ecstatic Roots of 1960s Rock and Roll. By Christopher Hill. Park Street Press, paperback, 294 pages.

Review by Francis DiMenno

Christopher Hill is an intelligent and insightful critic, and his enthusiasm for his subject tends to be infectious. He writes here an ambitious but not overly broad commentary on the emergence of a Dionysiac tradition of sixties rock and roll taking place in the midst of an Apollonian power structure collapsing under its own neocolonialist weight. It is possible; it is, in fact, likely, that Hill attributes too much significance to the power of art to transform what he calls “the postwar American consensus.” However, whether you accept his thesis or not, he charts many hitherto little-traveled byways offers up many intriguing theories. Hill suggests that rock and roll concerts are similar to religious rituals. He further suggests that rock and roll has roots in the writings of the English Romantics, the French Synmbolists, and, especially, “the black church liturgical tradition.” Add psychedelics, and voila! A new consensus is born!

If only it were that simple. But Mr. Hill, in his enthusiasm, is inclined to stack the deck when it comes to explicating the Dionysian nature of the type of rock ’n’ roll which was popular in the mid-to-late sixties. For instance, in persuasively seeking to rightfully restore the influence of rock ’n’ roll, call and response, and the ring shout upon the formation of what he calls “ecstatic” rock ’n’ roll, he either downplays or ignores influences such as the “honkers and shouters,” guitar boogie specialists, and other jump blues practitioners, not to mention the influence of Country and Western and Western Swing music, with their electric guitars.

Hill can be very persuasive, however, when he pinpoints the appeal of the Beatles, and the rest of the (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… a subversive treasure.”

In California, meanwhile, amid the practitioners of Yoga and the Rosicrucians and the teachings of Manly P. Hall, a “transcendent” teen culture also began to emerge, as epitomized by bands such as The Leaves, The Byrds, The Beach Boys, and, of course, The Grateful Dead. Hill claims that “While it was the culture of the East Coast – rogue Ivy league academics, eccentric Episcopalians, renegade establishment scions, CIA tricksters, raving beat poets – 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 reject such extravagant claims and still greatly enjoy Hill’s further forays into highlighting somewhat obscure eclectic influences upon the syncretic rock genre. Hill highlights the reemerging importance of the mystic concept of “Romantic love” in song-craft 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 plausible, if rather far-fetched 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 Mikhail Bakhtin). In Hill’s telling, Mick and Keith 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.” This is arguably true (though what about Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom?). But then Hill makes an even more exaggerated claim: Astral Weeks is also “a kind of rite of passage, a version of the oldest story there is – there and back again, 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 right. But I don’t see it. The explanation is simply too pat. (And I find it rather odd that there is no mention of the actual influence the visionary poet Delmore Schwartz had upon Lou Reed.)

No discussion of the transformative psychedelia of the sixties can be considered complete without mention of the Incredible String Band, and Hill gives them no less than their due, claiming 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.” So far, so good. He also links their appeal, such as it is, to the type of Victorian children’s literature exemplified by Frances Hodgson Burnett’s (somewhat treacly) novel The Secret Garden. It is, he admits, a somewhat subjective opinion. It is an interesting point, and I can understand what he is getting at, but, like a great many of Hill’s theories and suggestions, it seems more than a bit overdetermined.

Hill concludes his interesting and eclectic survey of sixties rock and roll 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.” (This hardly explains, however, the band’s failed bid for mainstream success on their follow-up album, Living in the USA.)

In his afterword, Hill argues that the “development of vision” which 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, imagination and history, ecstasy and politics, heaven and earth.”

To quote Hemingway, “Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so.”

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LEO FENDER: THE QUIET GIANT HEARD AROUND THE WORLD

By Phyllis Fender and Randall Bell. Leadership Institute Press, 2017. Hardcover, 182 pages.

Review by Francis DiMenno

This is a negligible book about the man who pioneered the invention of the electric guitar. Not that I didn’t enjoy reading it. But it’s being marketed as children’s book, for those who are ten and up. This is, perhaps, being done to gloss over the fact that this memoir is essentially just one over-long and rather repetitive valentine to the now-deceased Leo Fender from his second wife.  It’s not particularly edifying. It is full of anecdotes about Leo’s eccentricities which, I suppose, people are meant to find amusing. His fixation on white cars. His love for fast food eaten at places like Carl’s Jr. and (as a special treat) The Sizzler. His obsessive work habits. The fact that he didn’t smoke, seldom drank, and had a glass eye. And the (somewhat alarming) fact that (according to his wife) Jesus came to him in a vision and told him to make guitars for musicians, who are actually angels. But there are very few technical details about the guitars the man built. A few of his associates are name-checked; that’s about it. If you are looking for tangible details about the man’s accomplishments, look elsewhere.

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