Jan 18, 2013

1969: Live/Dead vs. Beethoven


In the early 1960’s, the Merry Pranksters discovered LSD. The Pranksters, a band of heads led by novelist Ken Kesey, proceeded to use the mind-gronking micrograms in the worst way – they invited the youth of Los Angeles, feckless, footloose, or just L.A. freaky, to an Acid (hee hee) Test, spiked the Kool Aid with the ol’ mind expander, and ad-libbed from there.
After all, once you’ve smashed in the door of perception, you can’t just stand there in the infinite. You’ve got to learn how to live under these new conditions, with your synapses agog, and your Mind slobbering on the cosmos. If you can bring together the energy of hundreds of individuals in one monster collective Trip, and live to tell, you’ve graduated.
And so it was that, on February 12, 1966, in a Youth Opportunity Center warehouse in, of all places, Watts, while scores of minds merged into one Mind, a girl sat on the floor and freaked out. They gave her a microphone. It was all part of the Trip...
...including the band that played the accompaniment to all this. Equipped with more variable-lag tape-recorders, feedback-equipment, and amplifiers than had ever been seen before, all paid for by Owsley, the Charles Pfizer of lysergic acid diethylamide, the band was the Grateful Dead. The music they played was to become known as acid rock.
Along with the music came a new criterion for judging music. Since the Dead’s music was supposed to whip the mind into the consistency of butterscotch pudding, the sounds were deemed to be good if they raped the listener’s head, and catalyzed spaced-outedness.

Was all this so new? How far back does drug-inspired music, or, more generally, freaky music go?
Berlioz billed his Symphonie Fantastique as an opium vision. Scriabin meant his music to be accompanied by light shows, although his Poem of Ecstasy is tepid (to be kind) in fulfilling the orgasmic promise of its title. Liszt turned out a Death-Dance, Rachmaninoff an Isle of the Dead, Geminiani an Enchanted Forest way back.
But these are obvious cases. If you go through the Schwann catalog, you can come up with quite a few freaky titles to pieces of music that are often little better than lousy. A freaky title does not a freaky piece of music make.
However, we are ignoring music that, in emotion or in spirit, rather than merely in name or “program,” turns out to be freaky. In fact, a great deal of classical music evokes moods that are unusual, grotesque, weird, or downright bizarre. Some is mystical. And even the most moving, profound of music sometimes, in strange ways, verges on freakiness.

If music is the highest form of artistic expression, and art the noblest human endeavor, then Beethoven is the greatest human being this earth has seen thus far. He is the greatest freak as well.
From the Scherzo of the Seventh (the walk through the catacombs), to the entrance of the tenor in (O Heresy!) the Ninth (sounding like a syncopated interior decorator, backed by tam-tam and garbage-can covers, as he sings of universal brotherhood), to his last composition, the Sixteenth String Quartet, whose final movement was inspired by the tone and inflection of his landlady’s voice, demanding the rent. Beethoven wrote grotesqueries, put-ons, and produced some of the freakiest, in the sense of macabre and/or sardonic, moods ever heard.
The Eighth Symphony is possibly the freaky Beethoven at his most obvious: the bassoon is unable to do more than croak out octaves, the Scherzo’s tick-tick-tick rhythm is a hack on the newly invented metronome, the symphony refuses to conclude, going through five or six false endings, a misplaced coda, and finally stopping at a beat which is not entirely satisfying.
But this is the way Beethoven composed in general, carrying theme inversions, key changes, and false finishes to an extent so far above ordinary playing-with-thematic-material that his pieces are practical jokes on the performers and the audience.
And yet, these hacks are, paradoxically and simultaneously, the most profound, transcendental statements ever made by man. The later in Beethoven’s work one looks, the more obvious it becomes that this greatest of artists wrote cosmic jokes, tried in his music to evoke the greatest, deepest, most moving emotions in his listeners, and then punt them.
For those who doubt, consider this reminiscence by Carl Czerny in Cock’s London Musical Miscellany of August 2, 1852, describing the piano technique of Beethoven at a mere 26 years old: “His improvisation was most brilliant and striking. In whatever company he might chance to be, he knew how to produce such an effect upon every hearer that frequently not an eye remained dry, while many would break out into loud sobs; for there was something wonderful in his expression in addition to the beauty and originality of his ideas and his spirited way of rendering them. After ending an improvisation of this kind he would burst into loud laughter and banter his hearers on the emotion he had caused in them. ‘You are fools!’ he would say.”

It may be freaky in some sense to arouse deep metaphysical and emotional states and then hack them, but, to say the least, Beethoven and Grace Slick are not freaky in the same way.
Any analogies drawn in trying to compare freaky rock and freaky classical are necessarily loose, especially since so much rock is more mind-flattening than mind-bending. Rock musicians do it mainly by battering the chemically altered head into submission via sheer volume, screams, and reverberation (i.e. by sensory overload); very little research goes into discovering what varieties of sound other than “loud” and “electronic” are freaky. Rock may have discovered a few freaky noises, but has yet to come up with a freaky melody line, for instance, with the possible exception of Frank (Those Kids Wouldn’t Know Music If It Bit Them In The Ass) Zappa.
And it is on these grounds of freaky musicianship versus freaky noise that, even if Beethoven’s perverse sense of humor is far from the current vogue in freakiness, something like Solti’s reading of Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta should have it, in subtle freakiness although certainly not in decibels, over Pink Floyd, Airplane, et al, for anyone with half an ear. And for grosser effects, Berg’s Wozzeck, a paranoid opera, ravishes the listener...
...which brings us back to the Grateful Dead, and, in particular, Live/Dead (Reprise), their new album (finally, a record review). There is no mind flattening by way of sound level. Even “Feedback” on side four is subdued.
Yet the album is really excellent. The two records contain seven cuts, all almost entirely instrumental, which is fine seeing that none of them can sing well. At first, they sound like pleasant enough improvisations – rambling, ever so slightly disjointed, rarely what a rock listener would call loud. Certainly not freaky in the sense of Pink Floyd.
With a bit of time they metamorphose into subtle experiments in freakiness, with feedback and reverb gently intruding into the listener’s consciousness.
Surviving the Acid Test has improved the Dead’s music (although their chromosomes have yet to be heard from). The numbing tendency of the acid rock of the past might be lessening as freakiness moves, albeit with the swiftness of a glacier, towards the sophistication of Beethoven, and the compositions of what he himself termed his “Unbuttoned Period.”

(by Michael Feirtag and Rex Begonia, from the MIT Tech, February 10 1970)


Here is the tape of the girl freaking out at the Acid Test:

1 comment:

  1. This interesting (if condescending) article compares the Dead to what might be called "freaky classical" - it's a good start, but doesn't go quite far enough, I think. But 1970 was still very early for anyone to be comparing the Dead to classical composers!

    The writers probably took the Acid Test details from Tom Wolfe's book. Of course, they couldn't have known what the Dead actually sounded like in those days (not exactly head-raping stuff).
    They also didn't know about Lesh's classical training, and that he was very much inspired by 20th-century avant-garde & classical composers; and some of that influence entered the Dead's music in this period. (Weir would also later be taken with the same Bartok piece mentioned here.)

    This piece expands on some of the themes touched on by the article: