3 February 2018

ROCK AND ROOTS

Christopher Hill. Into The Mystic: The Visionary and Ecstatic Roots of 1960’s Rock and Roll. Park Street Press (2017)


For those hoping for a scholarly examination of the 'visionary and ecstatic roots of Rock and Roll', this book will prove to be a disappointment. There is very little attempt to delve into the complexities of Eastern or Western mysticism, whether by reference to the origins of Buddhist or Hindu mysticism in the Vedas, or Christian mysticism originating in the writings of St. Dionysus the Aereopagite, and maintained in the monastic meditative tradition to the present day.
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More surprisingly there is very little examination of more modern strands of twentieth century mysticism, where principally one thinks of Aldous Huxley’s writings; in particular The Doors of Perception was only noted en passant. Perhaps a greater omission is Herman Hesse, many of whose works (notably Steppenwolf) written earlier in the century, proved a hit with the 1960’s generation whose acid-fuelled trips seem reminiscent of the experiences of Steppenwolf himself. Also some mention could, perhaps should, have been made of the Indian gurus of the century, so that an idea could have been given of their influence.

However if you want to be entertained by an often knowledgeable exegesis of the ecstatic and mystic content of the music of the 1960’s, then this is the book for you. Helped by a flowing style, the author has an excellent feel for the music, which, somehow, he manages to convey into words (no mean feat). You will be taken on an enjoyable romp through the British Invasion, and there are excellent treatments of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Van Morrison. The author goes back to their roots, and I particularly enjoyed the lengthy examination of the Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; here the language is spot on, with fine descriptions of the background to the song Penny Lane, which somehow convey the feeling the song has of both the ethereal and the mundane. 

The rise of Van Morrison in Northern Ireland has a similar treatment, with an in-depth look at the album Astral Weeks; its roots are seen as arising in the contrast between the industrial smoke of Belfast and places of calm and beauty, such as Cyprus Avenue (inspiration of the eponymous song). With the Stones, we get a snippet or two of information from the band itself; for example an entertaining tale is given about the origins of Jumping Jack Flash (both the song and the persona). 

The author returns to home waters with his treatment of MC5, but the raucous nature of the band’s music seems to fit less easily into the author’s general thesis: that the Rock and Roll movement belonged, or claimed to belong, to a new consciousness, which has proved to be a watershed moment in the history of mankind, and that this moment “is not a lost golden era, it’s a way marker, a pointer to the work ahead, to the next convergence of two worlds, inner and outer, imagination and history, ecstasy and politics, heaven and earth”. Robin Carlile

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