Psychedelics: The 1960s Soundtrack
A Review of Tomorrow Never
Knows: Rock and Psychedelics in the 1960s
Born in 1950 in rural Virginia, Nick
Bromell received his Ph.D. from Stanford University,
in American antebellum literature and culture and American
intellectual history and popular culture. He taught at
Harvard and Princeton and currently teaches English and
American Literature at the University of Massachusetts,
He wrote By the Sweat of the Brow: Literature and Labor in
Antebellum Culture and is writing another book.
Historians have written inaccurate accounts— accounts that
were inaccurate because they were incomplete. Usually,
historians extensively explained political events but
omitted cultural events. Omnipresent, culture shaped the way
people viewed these events, both as they occurred and after
the fact. During the 1960s, youths’ awareness expanded; a
purple haze increased the baby boomers’ appreciation of
alternative states of consciousness available to them through
the use of pot and acid. They completed their journeys to
other realms not just by listening to, but by “living to
music.”1 Nick Bromell’s Tomorrow Never Knows:
Rock and Psychedelics in the 1960s chronicled the history of
the adolescents who created the counterculture.
Viewing a photograph that was taken of himself as a college
freshman in 1968, Bromell remembered his restlessness and
fearlessness and how he thought the same of his
contemporaries. Instead of describing “music and drug
negatively, Bromell explained “what was really happening” to
this generation: they were sitting in their dorm rooms and
deciphering their identities to a backdrop of smoke and The
White Album.2 Bromell paradoxically started the
book at the end of the decade and described the prevalent
feeling of hopelessness that was compounded by news of the
Bromell postulated that the Beatles drew mobs of fainting
fans because their songs allowed the masses to accept
innocence—for the first time in pop culture’s history—as a
sign of power instead of weakness. Approving of the naiveté
embodied by the Beatles, adolescents likewise modeled
themselves—as evidenced by the prevalence of men’s long
The Beatles broke out of the mold of “stoic masculine
silence” and embraced “the risks and joys of reciprocal
communication.”3 To distance themselves from
their parents, the youths of the 1960s behaved and thought
differently from those of previous generations; Bromell felt
that the Beatles furthered this transformation by implying
in their songs that “hope is smart because it knows irony
and dares to go beyond it.”4
To help the reader better comprehend the counterculture,
Bromell explained how pop music shaped the culture of the
fifties. Elvis’s wildly popular songs articulated his fans’
suppressed desires to rebel against their surreal
lifestyles. Bromell believed that young middle-class whites
subconsciously defied their parents by choosing music that
was based upon African-inspired blues; for the first time
ever, the majority embraced the preferences of a minority.
“Heartbreak Hotel” directly catered to the inherent
loneliness in all adolescents. Listeners in the
listeners in the fifties—sought to prevail over this
loneliness through “shared music,” through “the pharmacology
Hoffman (inventor of LSD), and through the cult of love and
connection musicked by the Beatles.”5 Bob Dylan
shared a joint with the Beatles on August 30, 1964. The fab
four never again wrote innocent ditties about young
romance. Bromell thought that because the Beatles defined
pop culture, “ever since the 1960s, pot and acid have
remained popular drugs,” especially among teenagers who
listened to their music.6 Many people used these
drugs so much that they lived in a state of duality: they
experienced both the “physical and mental, the meaningless and
meaningful” worlds.7 A new attitude gripped
America’s youths: they saw society’s deceit and pitied people
who supported the machine.
On August 8, 1967, millions of adolescents listened
confusedly to the first candidly psychedelic album,
the end of 1967, this album had persuaded most of the rock
audience to use psychedelics. Drugs—as Bromell put it—made
youths feel free, as if they were in control of their own
destinies. The widespread use of psychedelics created “a new
social order more tolerant of alternative visions of
reality.”8 After their first trip, teens never
blindly accepted the validity of a stable middle-class
existence. Revolver changed a generation’s values: it caused
teen society to take “the private experience of breakthrough
and go public with it.”9 Basically, drugs were
not only okay, they were ‘bitchin’! Seven months after
Revolver, Bromell declared rock officially
“psychedelized.”10 This new music genre allowed
more experimental artists such as Jimi Hendrix to succeed.
Thinking that it was a tragedy for humans to be bound in the
common world, Hendrix wrote music that centered around this
theme; he longed to be free in another—presumably
psychedelic—reality. The highly experimental album Sergeant
Lonely Hearts Club Band introduced the reinvented Beatles
and demonstrated their ability to adapt to the changing times.
Although the record gave into the adolescent assumption
that life only got worse from here, it also acknowledged that
love is all there is; love would solve humanity’s problems.
The Beatles assured people that the world wasn’t so
terrible because things were slowly getting better and
because love helped redeem mankind for its evils.
Evil—Bromell thought—increased in power with the increased
use of psychedelics in the late 1960s. As “Helter Skelter”
roared in his head, Charles Manson and his ‘family’ began
their reign of terror on August 9, 1969. Although the White
Album was far from Manson’s vision of purification, it did
showcase the evil inherent inside every person. Bromell
believed that because psychedelics caused people to
experience both love and evil simultaneously, evil and love
equally important to the counterculture. The Rolling Stones
“most consistently voiced the counterculture’s realization
that alternative realties include evil and
violence.”11 Other artists, such as Bob Dylan,
encouraged the use
of caution when dealing with evil; Dylan believed that being
cruel towards one’s fellow man was the worst crime a human
could commit. In Highway 61 Revisited, Dylan—like the
Beatles before him—reinvented his sound. Instead of
folk album, Dylan presented an electric “vision in which
grief and rage merge to bear witness to evil.”12
Dylan “tunneled through the psyche rather than mounting a
frontal attack with logical analysis,”and “this stealthy
assault on middle-class complacency was devastating and
delightful.”13 Appealing to a much wider audience
than before, Dylan addressed humanity’s fall to evil with
white boy’s blues. Because evil was apparent in the White
Album, the Beatles separated themselves from truly evil
people by taking their listeners to the edge of violence and
then pulling back and explaining in the lyrics that they did
not condone violence. The record was the “first major
postmodern work of popular culture” and it made the baby
boomer generation realize that evil was everywhere and that
they could not escape history: someday they, too, would be
the evil ones.14 Bromell ended with the sentiment
that tomorrow will never know, but it will remember; this
generation will never truly know what happened in the sixties,
but it will remember what is believed to have happened.
Tomorrow Never Knows hypothesized that “the ‘60s fusion of
rock music and psychedelics was a way of coming to terms with
the future we now inhabit.”15 Bromell’s thesis
was a valid postulation. The baby boomers knew that their
world was changing because they were constantly exposed to
disturbing images from Vietnam, Kent State, and the urban
riots. Thus, the adolescents of the 1960s adopted new
attitudes about what they considered socially acceptable. The
young adults realized that with modernization came an
unprecedented amount of evil. They mocked their parents’
for prosperity and materialistic visions; they found comfort
in pot leaves, in sheets of acid, and in wavelengths of
Bromell’s thesis, however, rested upon a foundation of
personal experience. Many times, Bromell’s frequent use of
personal anecdotes made the reader wonder if he based the
book around his personal feelings or whether the book took an
obscure section of history and exaggerated it to an extreme
hyperbole. Conservative politics of the late 1990s greatly
influenced Bromell’s book; he was so negatively effected by
the historiography of the time that he repeatedly glorified
the counterculture and criticized America’s war on drugs.
He explained that Nancy Regan and her supporters targeted
kids growing up in suburbia; these teens were also the
targets in the 1960s. Bromell commented that the older
generation’s fear that “millions of American kids are still
smoking pot and dropping acid, turning on and tuning in” was
based upon their necessity to keep their own children away
from drugs.16 Bromell all but sneered at these
people, not only because they were forgetting their
heritage, but also because they saw drugs as the root of
nothing more. Bromell was influenced by the prevalence of
the New Right before the turn of the twenty-first century and
wrote a reactionary book that seriously considered the
psychedelic scene in the 1960s without the stigmatism that
in all forms are fundamentally evil.
Bromell’s approach was commended by his colleagues, Dr.
David Sanjek, a professor of English Language and a member of
multiple music culture boards, and Jon Wiener, a writer for
The Nation. They applauded his attempt to write the first
book that impartially examined the relationship between rock
and drugs and the counterculture of the 1960s. Because he
did not automatically dub drug use unholy, they thought he
was “a brave man” for attacking the conventional wisdom of
the era.17 They loved his attempts to explain
what happened to the middle-class youths during the age of
psychedelic rock and agreed with his opinion that no one can
or will ever really know what happened in the sixties. All
three authors implied that the question of “what happened in
the ’60s?” was rhetorical and could never be objectively or
completely answered. Although these glowing reviews
emphasized Bromell’s strong points, they did not mention his
Achilles heel: Bromell relied heavily on his background in
English and hence, instead of covering the topic in a
chronological manner, he jumped from idea to idea. Thus
Bromell first wrote about the Beatles’ demise and the end of
the sixties at the beginning of the book and then in the
second chapter explains that Elvis paved the way for
psychedelic rock with his highly successful career from the
1950s to the 1960s. Though this approach confused the
reader at points, Bromell’s transitions were smooth enough
to allow the reader to view the sixties as more than just a
series of events. Tomorrow Never Knows emphasized that the
counterculture was a way of thinking and that making the
movement into a timeline would rob it of all the values it
stood for. Bromell made another adept stylistic decision
when he addressed the reader in the first person. In doing
this, Bromell shunned the “irony-plated armature of academic
discourse” and instead allowed himself to engage in a
partially logical and partially persuasive conversation with
reader.18 Bromell’s ability to engage the reader
and in turn educate the reader made Tomorrow Never Knows a
highly enjoyable and enlightening book.
Bromell viewed the 1960s as a massive turning point in
American history. The counterculture indeed played a
role in shaping the attitudes of 21st century Americans.
Instead of searching relentlessly for stability and prosperity
like their parents, the children who matured in the 1960s
wanted more than “the paper-mâché of middle-class
split-levels.”19 They wanted meaning—a higher
purpose. They searched for this purpose by enlisting the help
of rock and psychedelics. By the end of 1967, America was
forever altered by “the fusion of rock and psychedelics”
which “helped change fashion, art, politics, and social
attitudes about everything from sex to
But with this higher state of consciousness, the adolescents
of the 1960s discovered that the world—especially the
political world—was always lying. In the 1960s, this
finding was disheartening because “this trick had not been
learned,” and thus the baby boomers were jaded by their
previous respect for authority figures.21 Bromell
believed that the 1960s counterculture shaped the postmodern
world and its attitudes toward the actions and activities
of all subsequent generations of adolescents to come.
Today’s countless conspiracy theories and adolescents’ general
distrust of anyone in a position of power were direct
effects of the attitudes of the sixties.
Bromell was absolutely correct when he explained that
Tomorrow Never Knows took an “oblivion as its
subject.”22 The counterculture movement meant
infinitely many things to as many as seventy-five million
adolescents. They participated in this movement as
individuals and as groups. This generation of young people was
different from all the others because it forced its elders
to seriously consider it as a viable consumer, intellectual,
and political force. Because they made up such an enormous
percentage of the American population, the baby boomers set
a precedent that would allow future generations to enjoy
some of the same power and influence as their counterparts did
in the 1960s. The counterculture changed forever how older
generations would treat young people.
The idea of a counterculture is a paradox. How could one
generation pull away from American society, create its own
society, and then still consider itself different from the
rest? The answer arose from the feelings of sixties
teenagers: “we were the privileged heirs of society, yet we
were also outcasts relegated to its margins. We were
simultaneously insiders and outsiders. We were powerful and
powerless. We were in-between. We were nowhere, looking
for a place to dwell that was ours.”23 These
people simply wanted to make the world less evil. Upon
realizing that it was impossible to stop the machine from
fulfilling its inherent capacity for corruption, however, the
supporters of the counterculture made a new goal: if they
could not change the system they could at least acknowledge
its flaws and accept its imperfections. With this
sentiment, the flower children grew up but did not give up.
And you’d better start swimming
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times
They are a-changin.
review by Becca Mason
- Bromell, Nick. Tomorrow Never Knows: Rock and
Psychedelics in the 1960s. Chicago: The University of
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- Bromell, Nick 6.
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- Wiener, Jon “Acid Rock: A Flashback.” The Nation 5
September 2002: 56.
- Bromell, Nick 10.
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- Bromell, Nick 10.
- Bromell, Nick 46.