Forty years ago it was not uncommon for teenagers, in the shifting winds then blowing, to believe the miraculous was about to happen. You didn’t need a weatherman, as the song said, to know which way the wind was blowing. The world was changing for the better, many, young and old, believed, the proof of it seemingly at hand.
Few gave a thought to, or even knew about, the many Jews in the mid 1600s, certain that the Messiah was among them, who’d sold all of their possessions and waited excitedly to be delivered to the World to Come. The Messiah, a charismatic mystic named Shabbtai Tzvi, faced with a sword, chose forced conversion to Islam over completing his proclaimed mission, and so, instead of the blissful End of Times, the Jews endured hundreds more of years of persecution. (footnote in following post). Nobody in those heady days before the dream collapsed was dwelling on the death of idealism that so often follows the intoxicating flush of inspiration.
The reader will forgive, perhaps, the depressing digression. Such digressions were commonly forgiven at the time I am writing about, the very early 1970s, the days of excess we think of now as the 60s. If you were to take a time machine looking for the sixties, you’d probably want to go to around 1970 to find those colorful days in full flower. Set the machine to 1962, say, and you’d find most white males still had crew cuts. The songs played on the radio in 1963 would provide another shock. In 1964, to give but one example, you could still be killed for advocating integration in parts of the country that insisted they had the right to treat their Negroes as they saw fit and to hell with the Supreme Court and the so-called Department of Justice.
Now we smile or smirk at the quaint beliefs that animated the hippies, the rejection of materialism, the belief in peace and love, the embrace of brotherhood. When we want to mock people we speak of them sitting down with people who hate them to sing “Kumbaya”. Back then, large groups of people sat around a singer with a guitar, their voices rising in a chorus to sing the African song of friendship and brotherhood. We no longer speak of “brotherhood”, except ironically. It’s a word from a bygone era, quaint as a windmill.
The bummer I am thinking of was a bad LSD trip I witnessed in around 1972. The house was empty of parents, the trip had been planned out, the drug secured. The acid was dropped. The potential of this drug to open the doors of consciousness, to expand the mind, was well known and in those days many pursued it avidly. Robert Crumb is among many who attribute their radical shift in consciousness to LSD. Crumb reports that he ate it regularly in the late 60s and he describes it as fueling his mad creativity. Jimi Hendrix is another who credited LSD with unlocking his consciousness. Purple Haze was a love song to the psychedelic named for a popular form of LSD.
The drug reputedly unlocked creative centers of the brain, disinhibited the mind in a way that led to amazing discoveries, revelations, enlightenment. Of course, it had a famous downside: the bad trip, or bummer, hours of intensely painful suffering instead of a transcendent opening of the doors of perception. The CIA had used this feature of the drug to derange the thoughts of people it suspected of being spies and more than one of these deranged suspects leaped through plate glass windows not caring whether they could fly or not. There was a tent at Woodstock where empathetic people quietly talked down people suffering from bad trips. Bummer, a word still in common use, and with good reason, is a relic of those days.
As this bummer I am thinking of progressed, the young man in hell, a hell as real as any, desperately turned on the TV and began staring at an insipid program. He sat close to the screen and watched the show intently. The insipidness of the program, and the desperation of watching it, were more than I could bear at the moment and I went over to flick the TV off.
“No, please…” the young man bumming out said, reaching forward to cling to the television set. “Please,” he said with an abjectness difficult to describe, “I need it.” Nothing I said could persuade him otherwise. I don’t recall how long he sat there, literally hugging the TV. It may have been only moments, but in the memory of a man with a proneness to metaphor, it is a deeply seared metaphor.
We live in a culture narcotized by TV where drugs are now routinely prescribed to treat every ailment known to man, woman and child. Higher consciousness is no longer a subject of discussion, except winkingly, in air quotes. Literally millions of children are given drugs like Ritalin to make them calm the fuck down after a quick diagnosis of “pain in the ass”. It is for their sake, and the common good, that they are medicated. Some of them no doubt benefit from it. Others, well, there will always be others. We are no longer sitting around singing Kumbaya, my friend.
A final note on the bummer, the nature of our minds and our minds on drugs, from an address given by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., physician father of the famous jurist. The quote has been rattling around my mind as I wrote this entry, and I provide it here for the wise to ponder, although, of course, one is equally free to enjoy a childlike laugh over it:
Here is an extended excerpt from the 1870 lecture of Holmes which was published in 1879 [OHMT]:
I once inhaled a pretty full dose of ether, with the determination to put on record, at the earliest moment of regaining consciousness, the thought I should find uppermost in my mind. The mighty music of the triumphal march into nothingness reverberated through my brain, and filled me with a sense of infinite possibilities, which made me an archangel for the moment. The veil of eternity was lifted. The one great truth which underlies all human experience, and is the key to all the mysteries that philosophy has sought in vain to solve, flashed upon me in a sudden revelation. Henceforth all was clear: a few words had lifted my intelligence to the level of the knowledge of the cherubim. As my natural condition returned, I remembered my resolution; and, staggering to my desk, I wrote, in ill-shaped, straggling characters, the all-embracing truth still glimmering in my consciousness. The words were these (children may smile; the wise will ponder): “A strong smell of turpentine prevails throughout.”