Creativity and psychedelia
The BBC’s series ‘The Seven Ages of Rock’ opened last night with a programme about the music of the second half of the sixties built around the short and explosive career of Jimi Hendrix. Almost everything about it – clothes, music, visual style – was a reminder of the extent to which cultural style is linked to the preferred stimulants of a generation (in this case LSD).
The programme followed others in suggesting that the decade and the music turned sour as drug use damaged people’s behaviour and judgment, nowhere more sharply than at the Rolling Stones’ Altamont concert in December 1969, where the Hell’s Angels hired as security beat a fan to death.* (It also argued that of the 60s bands only the Stones survived that transition into darkness.)
Of course, that generation is now the boomer generation – 60s plus (“If you were really there, you won’t be able to remember it”), but the film maker John Maybury has also suggested (in Nick James, ‘Medium Cool’, Sight and Sound, August 1998) that the visual and musical culture of the late 80s and early 90s was defined by his generation’s experience of Ecstasy. If it’s impossible to imagine psychedelia without LSD, then the same is true of trance, rave, and electro and ecstasy. The ecstasy generation, of course, is now approaching its 40s, or has reached it.
Which raises a possibly depressing question about what the current relationship might be between stimulants and creativity: many of the widely-used drugs seem most likely to generate suspicion and paranoia (even clinical paranoia). Which may also be an appropriate response to the times.
* The singer Pete Atkin has a memorable lyric about this in his 1974 record The Road of Silk:
That big-mouthed dude in the flash duds Preached fighting in the streets But the crowd of kids held an angel with a knife Who carved himself a slice of another guy's life.
Words by Clive James – yes, that Clive James.