Psychedelics: The 1960s Soundtrack

A Review of Tomorrow Never Knows: Rock and Psychedelics in the 1960s
by Nick Bromell

Author Biography

Born in 1950 in rural Virginia, Nick Bromell received his Ph.D. from Stanford University, specializing 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, Amherst. 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 consciousness” 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 Beatles’ demise.

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 haircuts. 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 sixties—just like listeners in the fifties—sought to prevail over this loneliness through “shared music,” through “the pharmacology of Dr. 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, Revolver; by 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 again 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 Pepper’s 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 were 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 producing a 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’ search for prosperity and materialistic visions; they found comfort in pot leaves, in sheets of acid, and in wavelengths of rock.

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 evil and 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 drugs 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 the 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 substantial 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 schooling.”20 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. As Bob Dylan declared:

And you’d better start swimming
Or you’ll sink like a stone For the times
They are a-changin.

review by Becca Mason

  1. Bromell, Nick. Tomorrow Never Knows: Rock and Psychedelics in the 1960s. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000, 6.
  2. Bromell, Nick 6.
  3. Bromell, Nick 26.
  4. Bromell, Nick 34.
  5. Bromell, Nick 42.
  6. Bromell, Nick 9.
  7. Bromell, Nick 75.
  8. Bromell, Nick 86.
  9. Bromell, Nick 92.
  10. Bromell, Nick 104.
  11. Bromell, Nick 127.
  12. Bromell, Nick 132.
  13. Bromell, Nick 133.
  14. Bromell, Nick 142.
  15. Bromell, Nick 2.
  16. Bromell, Nick 9.
  17. Wiener, Jon “Acid Rock: A Flashback.” The Nation 5 September 2002: 56.
  18. Bromell, Nick 10.
  19. Bromell, Nick 89.
  20. Bromell, Nick 61.
  21. Bromell, Nick 80.
  22. Bromell, Nick 10.
  23. Bromell, Nick 46.

© 2006 Irvine High School

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