Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on March 25, 2019
“Turn off your mind and float downstream…” are the words beginning the Beatles song Tomorrow Never Knows, on the album Revolver. The following is a review of 6 fairly recent books centered on these 7 words and the music that accompanies them. They are, listed from wide to narrow focus:
How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence by Michael Pollan, Penguin Press, 2018
The Gospel According to the Beatles by Steve Turner, Westminster John Knox Press, 2006
Revolution in the Head: The Beatles Records and the Sixties, 3rd ed. by Ian MacDonald, Chicago Review Press, 2007
Tomorrow Never Knows: Rock and Psychedelics in the 1960s by Nick Bromell, University of Chicago Press, 2000
Rock: The Primary Text: Developing a Musicology of Rock, 2nd ed. by Allan F. Moore, Ashgate Publishing Company, 2001
The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by Allan F. Moore, Cambridge University Press, 1997
I will provide a brief bio of your reviewer so you can see where I’m coming from (and maybe where I’m going to):
I first heard Tomorrow Never Knows at age 12 in 1974, when my uncle had given me Rubber Soul and Revolver to add to my burgeoning private record collection. When the Beatles hit America, I was 2 years old, had young hip parents who always had pop radio on, and even then had absconded with my grandmother’s 5 transistor (proudly displayed) “pocket” radio. It became mine, and even television didn’t supplant the importance of the music I was listening to on the radio.
When my uncle gave me Revolver, I had already possessed the White Album (my dad bought it in 1968 when I was 6, and strangely enough, bought John and Yoko’s Two Virgins LP, as an investment I suppose), Abbey Road, and the 1962-1966, 1967-1970 compilations. But, I had never heard anything like Tomorrow Never Knows, and was endlessly fascinated by the music and then the lyrics which were imploring me to listen to the colors of my dreams. Huh?
Four years later, 1978, age 16, I began a decade long spiritual quest beginning with a query into Christianity I was familiar with through cultural osmosis, compared to the ideas expressed in Tomorrow Never Knows.
For ten years I searched for someone I could trust to give me a psychedelic. My first of four magic mushroom trips started on my 26th birthday. I was intellectually primed for an experience having read books from the Electric Koolaid Acid Test to the Tao of Physics and The Cosmic Code. Digesting what I had just experienced, it was my great fortune to discover on PBS special featuring Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers in “The Power of Myth,” and through him, the psychology of Carl Jung. (Freud had turned me off in college and I hadn’t yet given Jung a chance, silly me.) The rest, as they say, is history.
I’ve been most focused over the years on what now can be called psychedelia. (I had aspired to be like the professor of applied narcotics in the hilarious Rutles movie All You Need Is Cash. “Listen, lookit, very simply…”) In particular, I’m most interested in the years of 1966-1968.
From the outset, one cannot understand, naturally, psychedelia without knowing something about psychedelics in general. A new book, as of this writing, is Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind.
I have long been in the habit of reading the bibliography and index of books, and sometimes notes and references, before even opening up to read the first page. I find it’s a good habit, and Pollan’s bibliography doesn’t disappoint. It alone is worth the price of admission.
He divides the history of psychedelics into two periods: the first ending with the prohibition and disfavor of psychedelics (and hippies in general) in the backlash during the 70s. The second period is the resurgence of psychedelic research, almost all underground initially, that started a few years later.
I am intimately familiar with the texts of the first period, and almost completely ignorant of the second, despite having joined MAPS in the early 80s. (I remember in the early 70s finding a urine soaked box of sugar cubes in our apartment parking lot with the adults present saying it was a dreaded drug. Scary. I had no idea then, but know know, that LSD laced sugar cubes are not yellow, usually.)
Pollan comes to psychedelics from a traditional journalistic/scientific worldview: “My default perspective is that of a philosophical materialist who believes that matter is the fundamental substance of the world and the physical laws should be able to explain everything that happens.” (pg.12)
A mystic or proselytizer (think Timothy Leary) he is not, and it is his generally skeptical approach which should help elucidate the subject for those with an “objective” worldview on the subject of psychedelics. For example, by someone considering only scientifically measurable phenomenon worthy for study or exploration.
A most excellent introduction to psychedelia as a whole.
John Lennon, 1968: “If this scene is (around) in 2012 . . . the masses will be where I am today and I should be as groovy as Jesus by then.” (pg. 1) When I read this quote on the first chapter of The Gospel According to the Beatles, I thought to myself, oh this should be good.
Having already scanned the sources at the back of the book, I knew that the author, music journalist Steve Turner, had many interviews he personally had about religion with the major characters involved, including John Lennon in 1969 and a whole host of people who were there.
Add in a deft analysis from a Christian author, as he defines himself, and you get an insight into the Beatles particular brand of spirituality as it developed through the years. He writes: “In what follows I won’t be endorsing everything they said. I will simply be arguing that they had things to say and that these things were taken seriously at the time by a large proportion of young people, many of whom are still affected by those views.” (pg. 11) Indeed.
And yet, Turner only mentions Tomorrow Never Knows specifically and in passing only 3 times. For me, this leaves much to be desired. Read on:
Next comes Revolution in the Head by Ian MacDonald. One of those most cited books in the Beatles canon, and for good reason. (The first edition came out in 1994.) A book that analyses each song, and also has a very good introduction (an essay really) which begins with a quote by Aaron Copland: “If you want to know about the Sixties, play the music of the Beatles.” (pg.1)
In his essay, MacDonald, a British music critic, places the Beatles’ spirituality (expressed via their songs) in a broader sociological context. He writes in 1997, “the destabilizing social and psychological evolution witnessed since the Sixties stems chiefly from the success of affluence and technology in realizing the desires of ordinary people. The countercultural elements usually blamed for this were in fact resisting an endemic process of disintegration with its roots in scientific materialism.” (pg. 36) And, “The Sixties seem like a golden age to us because, relative to now, they were.”
On the plus side, for my purposes, MacDonald devotes 8 pages to the Tomorrow Never Knows track. In it, he discusses the recording process (in much less detail than Mark Lewisohn’s book) and also a bit of musicology (but less than Allan F. Moore, see below). His best observation is, “... yet it is easy, thirty years later, to underestimate its original cultural impact.” (pg. 191) Indeed yes.
But MacDonald has an exceedingly dim view of psychedelic drug use, calling it “Russian roulette played with one’s mind” (pg.186) To each their own opinion, I say. In support of his argument, he cites several times that his source of the effects of LSD on Lennon’s life is Albert Grossman’s biography of John. (I decline to comment here.)
Such opinions are why I started this review with Michael Pollan’s book. The truth of the matter is much more nuanced than MacDonald or Grossman’s account.
It’s true that there were so-called “acid-casualties” like Syd Barrett and Peter Green, they being two famous examples. Both, however, suffered from schizophrenia, which can be triggered by psychedelic use. Says David Gilmour (from Wikipedia): “In my opinion, (Syd’s) nervous breakdown would have happened anyway. It was a deep-rooted thing. But I'll say the psychedelic experience might well have acted as a catalyst. Still, I just don't think he could deal with the vision of success and all the things that went with it."
Clearly, we will have to go somewhere else to get perhaps a more balanced view:
In the introduction to his wonderfully titled (in my opinion, anyway) book Tomorrow Never Knows, a professor of history, English, and American Literature, Nick Bromell, states: “This book isn’t conventional history or cultural studies or popular culture analysis or musicology or memoir, but a hybrid of all of these.” (pg. 6) Now we’re talking! A short but packed book, I wish I could have read it long ago. Impossible to describe in fewer words than the text itself, so I shan’t even try.
After noting (and agreeing) that many critics regard Tomorrow Never Knows as the most important rock song of the decade, Bromell takes that as just the starting point in his discussion. I myself have had over the years a rotating list of favorite Beatle songs (Strawberry Fields, A Day in the Life, I am the Walrus, Dear Prudence) but Tomorrow Never Knows was the most influential in my life.
Bromwell writes: “Yet we must also remember that to the millions of young persons who, innocent of Leary and LSD, eagerly unwrapped the new Beatles album and sat back to see where it would take them, Tomorrow Never Knows was an enigma they would understand only gradually, through many listening and over many months.” Or years, in my case. “They heard it first and foremost as a place to dwell, not as an answer or a deliverance.” (pg. 93)
Need I say more? A most excellent read and a wonderful book to create more avenues for exploration. (For example, he references Heidegger in his explanation of the song’s significance. I did not know that. Off to Wikipedia I go…)
As mentioned in his introduction, Bromell includes the discipline of musicology in his analysis. For those who are very interested in this topic, I recommend two books by musicologist Allan F. Moore.
Rock: The Primary Text is a great introduction to a serious analysis of rock music. Although there were exceptions (like Twilight of the Gods by Wilfred Mellers), there was precious little analysis of rock music in academia for a long time. Presumably, many scholars didn’t think there was much to this simple rhythmic (at least at the beginning) music of the unwashed masses, made up of people like me. Such attitudes are hopefully not as strong these days.
Moore stresses the sounds of rock music. He writes in his introduction, “We can, however, evolve an understanding of what ‘rock’ is, in musical terms, by treating it as structured by multiple-evolving but coherent set of rules and practices.” (pg. 7) If this sounds at all interesting, this book is for you.
Moore also wrote The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which begins, quite rightly, with Strawberry Fields/Penny Lane (the finest single ever made, so says I) and then onto Sgt. Pepper proper. A bit denser than than the book above, but much shorter, I personally understood only some of it. (I did take music theory in college, but the class didn’t speak to me. The academy didn’t seem to care about the music I was interested in.)
“Trust your divinity, trust your brain, trust your companions. Whenever in doubt, turn off your mind, relax, float downstream.” - The Psychedelic Experience (pg. 6) by Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, and Ralph Metzner, University Books, 1964
In one of those rare moments of synchronicity (aka meaningful coincidences), as I was writing this review I learned that Ralph Metzner had recently died, and, further, that I unknowingly was a neighbor of his for the past 20 years, in a small hamlet called Sonoma, California, in wine country. Small world, huh?
Best Wishes for his family.
- March 2019