Courtesy of Wes Wilson

April 14, 2021

PONTIN | The Burning Soul of Psychedelia

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A few days ago, I was staring up at my ceiling fan and watching the blades chase themselves around each other. Some “Psychedelic Chill” playlist was seeping out of my computer as I let myself become submerged in the sensations of the sedative synthesizers. Seeing as the only mildly psychedelic thing I’ve ever done is tie dye a t-shirt, I couldn’t help but think that the whole picture was slightly preposterous. While this may be true, I’ll be the first one to acknowledge that the story behind modern psychedelia is a fascinating one. It’s a tale stitched from sundry centuries that culminated in an era of unrestricted lust for distraction, spawning an ageless musical style as a byproduct.

It can be tempting to trace the roots of psychedelic culture back to the plant-eating, headband-wearing hippies of the 1960s, but doing so neglects an extensive and riveting past. Historical accounts tell of smoking hemp seed in Ancient Greece, consuming mushrooms in the Aztec Empire and the Viking cultures of Scandinavia and chewing peyote in Native American societies across the United States. These examples are mere fragments of a more pervasive tale, as using psychoactive substances endured as a popular conduit for religious and spiritual pursuits. 

By the time our fabled hippies came knocking on the psychedelic door, the game had changed considerably. What had originated with pure, natural materials had morphed into something nearly unrecognizable — lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD. Swiss researcher Albert Hoffman is credited with uncovering LSD back in 1938, leading to significant speculatory buzz about its capacity to assuage a range of mental health afflictions. Roughly two decades later, the drug’s fame had swelled to something powerful enough to dictate the soundtrack of an entire generation.

Many of the most memorable musical icons of the 1960s were clearly inspired by the mysterious world of the trip. Take The Beatles’ “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” for example. With mentions of “kaleidoscope eyes” and “rocking horse people eat[ing] marshmallow pies,” not much is left to the imagination. Beyond lyrics, the influence of psychoactive drugs is easily discernible in the work of artists like The Doors, The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd. Chaotic and seemingly nonsensical song structures, absurdly long instrumental interludes and dreamy guitar or keyboard riffs are all hallmarks of the genre. 

To put it bluntly, the entire philosophy behind creating music was shifting in the Sixties. Mass production on the radio was no longer an artist’s primary objective, having been replaced by an urge to unveil what lay behind the exterior of the mind. Careful, relatable choruses were swapped for detailed accounts of experiences on the border of consciousness. The predictable bounce of 1950s staples like Bobby Darin and Dean Martin had been, at least for a moment, overshadowed.

Soon, however, LSD itself became inextricably tied to the hippies’ push against generic society, leading the federal government to step in and take control. (LSD was not the sole reason for this intervention, although the fact that it was fueling a culture that scorned the American way certainly didn’t help.) In 1962, they enacted amendments to the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act that tightened the reins on human testing. The big kahuna came eight years later with the Controlled Substances Act, which set LSD as a “Schedule I” drug. Under this policy, individuals could be punished for producing it or having it on hand without certain specifications. 

Even in the wake of these restrictions, it’s hard to overstate the weight of psychedelics’ mark on the music of the 1960s — music that, today, is seeing a revival that spans generations and genres. These days, “psychedelic” is a major buzzword in the music industry. On one hand, we have the hard-hitting, cosmic tracks of Kid Cudi or LCD Soundsystem; on the other, we find the more lush, understated work of Cigarettes After Sex or Yellow Days. With offerings like psych pop, psych rock, psych indie and even psych rap, it’s not always clear where the demarcation lies between what has only a couple of synthesizer layers and what is actually part of psychedelia. 

While this is a genuine concern, it largely misses the point. Psychedelia isn’t meant to be exclusive. Oftentimes, it isn’t meant to be anything at all, filling a space that is more empirical than exact. It’s flexible by design, or perhaps by lack of design. Whereas several other genres rely on a certain sound to govern distinctions, psychedelia is defined entirely by the feeling that emerges when listening to it. The entire concept is suspended by this idea of the intriguingly unfamiliar. It hinges upon the sensations and impressions that we can recognize as human yet can’t quite manage to uncover further.

Humans have forever been tempted by the desire to transcend, to escape, to eclipse. Our modern epoch is no exception. The music of our day, much like the music of the 1960s, is strikingly reflective of this urge. 

Megan Pontin is a sophomore in the School of Industrial Labor Relations. She can be reached at mpontin@cornellsun.com. Rewind runs alternate Wednesdays.