On the 'tube

Incense & Peppermints

26

PREFACE to DEAR READER: I certainly didn't wake up this morning intending to write this, but it insisted. I've been at it for 13 hours, minus an hour or three for life itself, and I apologize for the length. If I wanted to devote another day, I'd make it shorter. • Note that much of the content is in the Digressions. You can take in Digressions 1, 2, & 3 where they come in the text, as expanding on the main flow - but may opt to wait till you've finished the rest before taking on Digression 4.


It's curious how some songs, likely heard no more often than any number of others, sink so much more deeply into the psyche - as Jack Bruce appropriately put it a few months after "Incense and Peppermints," carving deep blue ripples in the tissue of your mind.

The Alarm Clock's anthem is unquestionably one of those songs for me. Everything about it made a strong first (and enduring) impression: the thick fuzz guitar's thematic, almost orchestral lines; both the sound and the movement of the organ; the chord progressions and short but distinct bridgey interludes; the way the verses, choruses, and bridges work together musically. All of these musical elements now seem predictive, not only of music to come, but of my own aesthetic (which may owe much to the song). [See Digression #1, below.]

The quality of the lead vocal caught me - that wide stentorian baritone with its prophetic resonance, miles from the typical pretty pop voice of the era - and the lyrics, of course, in all their comprehensive psychedelic inclusiveness. [See Digression #2]

Altogether, the music and lyrics are in perfect marriage in producing the song’s effects. More than simply a marker of the era, I think the song survives (like the contemporary “Whiter Shade of Pale”) because all the parts do hang together to create a whole greater than their sum - and a whole that not only presents an enduring mystery, but which makes unexpected sense under its surface. That’s one attribute of vital art.

Still, that’s not enough to explain how the song has stuck with me, or the space it takes up in my mental baggage. I hadn’t heard of Strawberry Alarm Clock before I heard the song, I didn’t follow the band afterward, and hadn’t listened to their albums till several years ago. “Incense & Peppermints,” though it became their marquee song, isn’t predictive or typical of the rest of the band’s work. [See Digression #3]

To parse its impact on me, I have to consider where the song fell in my development both as a 12-year-old kid on the cusp of … well, whatever it is that 12-year-old kids face … and as a listener-musician.


When I assemble that personal timeline of psychedelia [see Digression #4], I think it begins in early 1966 with “Shapes of Things” and “8 Miles High,” both songs with unusual (for the time) hypnotic textures and novel guitar sounds - but also songs that were not about boys and girls and whatever their hormones made them do. Christ in the temple notwithstanding, I’m not sure 6th-graders have Deep Thoughts - but these songs did make me wonder just what the hell they were on about.

In May came the Beatles’ “Rain.” (To a lesser extent, “Paperback Writer.”) But especially “Rain.” I didn’t know at the time about the backward masking, the drone effects, or that Ringo’s drums were “trippy” - but I responded to the overall effect. Again the lyrics were not pap pop fare. It didn’t dawn on me then that the words were not just as plain-spoken, literal common-sense as they self-evidently were - but were also a deep lesson in practical philosophy. (It has since.)

I wasn’t buying albums yet, or several other Revolver cuts would have provided more signposts to what was coming. But the double-sided “Eleanor Rigby” / “Yellow Submarine” single - coming from that album and released in August - bent my ear, the two songs in different ways. Neither was a silly love song, and it would be years before I connected the childish sing-song, literal sound effects, and faux-orchestral interlude in “Submarine” with psychedelia. (It would take the movie to clarify that.)

But considering it now, it's practically astonishing that “Eleanor” was released, either on LP or as a single. No drums, no rhythm section, nary hint nor glint of mop-top Beatle cheer. Maybe the success of "Yesterday" encouraged the Beatles, Martin, and the record company to release something at such fundamental variance with all good sense in marketing teen pop. And of course the song is gorgeous. The string arrangement and recording are consummate. The painterly lyrics mange to be both Dickensian and severely economical in rendering scenes from lives the lyric finally concludes were wasted.

And no one was saved? Paul! Depressive, desolate, funereal, an ode to essential human loneliness so starkly presented that even a kid would get the point. It’s practically nihilistic - and it’s patently dismissive of religion (though haunting and elegaic about its failure). That it was a hit is, among other things, enduring testimony to McCartney’s brilliance: no one has ever provided more melodic spoonfuls of sugar to mask bitterer medicine. (Or, as Auden said of WB Yeats, he “sings of human unsuccess / In a rapture of distress.")

Well, but is it psychedelic? Perhaps not in form or intent - but it was essential in my gradual artistic and intellectual “awakening” to much that was lurking under the surface of life, and to the notion that music could do more than I knew. (A couple years later, when we got a Lowery organ with horrid percussion and “bandbox” accompaniment, I developed an improv version that droned on interminably. I now do the same thing with massively effected guitar.)

What next? How about October 1966’s “Good Vibrations?” Again, not always associated with psychedelia. But what else was it? It’s a sort of love song, an ecstatic paean of praise to an idealized hippie flower girl, and it captures the rapture and electric dislocation of being that far in love (talk about yer chemicals). But how’bout them vibrations, huh? I think it was the first I had heard of interpersonal vibes, those perturbations in the psychic fields around people to which most of us are to some degree sensitive. And certainly the disjointed (but oh-so-right) suite-of-pastiche construction, the textural and colorful richness of the progressions, arrangement, orchestration, and recoriding - and, most especially, that theremin - clearly point the way to the coming psychedelic wave.

(I feel like I should include December 1966’s “For What It’s Worth” in this litany - but this is my chronology, and I wasn’t aware of the song till years later.)

Come 1967, and the wave begins to break.

January: The Doors’ “Light My Fire” - and that whole first album. How did I not get the message of mind-expanded transcendence, the Morrison manifesto announced on the first track in “Break On Through”? I like to think I would have - but I didn’t buy the album till the fall. (And isn’t it cute that Ed Sullivan tried to prevent Morrison from singing “girl we couldn’t get much higher” because it could have been read as a drug reference - when apparently nothing in “Incense & Peppermints” caught in the ear of guardians of morality? Or was it that “Light My Fire” made arousal and passion too clear, and sex was more offensive than drugs?)

February brought “Penny Lane” / “Strawberry Fields.” On a cold, late-winter pre-dawn I delivered the morning Citizen Journal to a small eatery on Main Street - where the spoons were greasy, and mingled bacon and cigarette smoke wreathed the stained-smock cook, the white-dressed waitress, and the two or three early diners. One of the new Beatle songs had been playing on the transistor radio bolted to my handlebars, and in the diner the same station was tuned in. A conversation was ongoing about the Beatles’ new direction, and the prevailing opinion on Main Street was that they didn’t understand it, they didn’t like it, and the Beatles had lost it.

I liked it fine - but either I, as a kid, pretty much accepted whatever the Beatles did, or the Beatles just kept doing good stuff. I did recognize that the songs, again, were not love songs (of the usual sort). The lyrical details, especially in “Penny Lane,” were so specific - and at once so familiar and so foreign in their undiluted Liverpudlian focus - that they seemed to me novelistic. And I had no idea what “Strawberry Fields” meant. This was, to me, something new: impressionistic autobiographical observation so intense as to seem fantastic (in the literal sense). We were now inside the Beatles' heads - and had I been thinking deeply enough about it, I might have noted that one plan for a disorienting and mind-expanding trip would simply be to see through another's eyes.

Mostly, in the diner, I registered eye-opening surprise that actual adults cared enough about this music to dislike it for aesthetic reasons. (My parents were opposed strictly on generational and tonsorial principles.) Again: something was happening here, though what it was…wasn’t yet clear.

In April came the extraordinary Animals single “When I Was Young” / “A Girl Named Sandoz.” The Animals had been on my radar since the dark, brooding, and tortured “Rising Sun.” For reasons I can’t plumb, dark and brooding (at least in music) are properties which have always attracted me, and The Animals brooded well. And at least in single releases, they’d done a series of songs on subjects far beyond boys-n-girls-n-luv, full of psychological conflict straining for relief. “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” and “It’s My Life” had all had my attention for their glimpses of the mysterious terrain of adulthood. (As these all came by 1965 and had begun to pull back the veil, maybe I should start my timeline earlier.)

“When I Was Young” followed these songs like another chapter, and I bought the single. But it was the B-side’s “Sandoz” that stands out now. You got the distorted rolling drums of doom in a loping trancey groove, a booming and disorienting what-the-hell-IS-that fuzz-bass, and the contrasting but complementary counterpoint of the fuzz guitar. You also get vibes (like, literal vibraphone, man - not, like, good vibes, man), and a droney one-chord verse (with just one more chord for the chorus). It was hypnotic, and for the time very very heavy - that is, except for the light, sweet interlude with its lilting sing-song (but modally exotic) melody. Musically, this was burgeoning psychedelia in full flower; I just didn’t know it yet.

And all that is without considering the lyrics - indeed the title. A hot sunny morning when “snow lay on the ground,” a very old (but very young) girl who teaches things, many things, strange things...whose kiss initiates, who gives wings to the mind. I had no idea what the contradictions meant, what the kiss released. Between that puzzle and the fuzz-droning groove, I played it over and over. And not till years later did I learn that Sandoz was the Swiss pharma company where Albert Hoffman worked when he synthesized LSD in 1938 and first discovered its mind-bending properties in 1943 - and which marketed the drug until 1966.

May brought the wave to a crest. It was a monumental month for music of this sort.

“Whiter Shade of Pale” was released on the 12th (along with Hendrix’s Are You Experienced, but I didn’t get to that till later in the summer), “Incense & Peppermints” on the 19th.

Then the wave broke with Sgt Pepper on May 26. (Nuff said?)

Waves formed right behind it with Pink Floyd’s Piper at the Gates of Dawn (which I didn’t hear till years after) and the Airplane’s trancey minor-major “White Rabbit” - which starts off explicitly enough with pills in the first line, continues by ironically (and even a bit angrily) equating childhood fantasy and the sensory distortions of the psychedelic experience, and ends after a relentless build with the wailed advice to “feed your head.”

Much more would follow.

But sometime in 1967 - though I’d yet to hear the word “psychedelic” - I began to hear the connections and commonalities among the music I’ve mentioned, and to lump it together into a sort of ad hoc curriculum of discovery. Of just what, I didn’t really know. But it taught me, above all, to keep my ears open and go on the journey.

And when I look back, “Incense & Peppermints” seems a catechism which clarified the canon. The music encapsulated much of what would become formulaic in psychedelia. There was in the lyrics an (obliquely presented) rationale for spiritual quests for meaning in the chaotic, contradictory elements of “modern life.” There was also the specific advice to turn on, turn in, and look inward. (Be that a pharmaceutical or meditative prescription.) There was the hint of a method (parse the cockeyed world, overcome pride). There was the radically ambiguous conclusion: there’s little to win but nothing to lose, so who cares what games we choose, a kind of despairing (but liberating) nihilism which characterizes our choices as no more important than entertainment. (Or that entertainment may be the point.)

The song stops short of clarifying that, once we recognize our radical freedom, we can get about the business of creating meaning for ourselves - that we can take it as a responsibility to do so, or we can let others define us, or we can choose not to choose and thereby waste the privilege.

But to wrap it up, there’s the drifty, dreamy, Major 7th postlude suggesting resolution, acceptance, and harmony - and the intimation that, sometimes, that’s as good as we get.

It's almost the whole psychedelic recipe.

Other music would present and explore kaleidoscopic infinitudes of each element “I&P” codifies. It will present and explore aspects of the diagnosis, the prescription, the treatment, and the results in more detail. But “I&P”, in retrospect, delivered a concentrated version of the whole package. Maybe I sensed that at the time. In any case, it was for me an early door to perception; the grooves of the 45 were - given the way the brain works, probably literally - carved like ripples in the tissues of my mind.


Digression 1: How Does the Music of Incense & Peppermints Work?

The verse melody bounces along in a sing-song but vaguely minor-ized cadence, which contrasts with the chorus and its relentlessly logical descending/ascending chorale of doom against the descending minor chords - all of which resolve unexpectedly (but equally inevitably) in the IV major.

There's a tension in verse chords and melody courtesy of the C# and the C, neither of which occur in the dominant Em tonality - but are instead the minor and major thirds of the A Major which takes turns with C Major in alternating between E Minors. It’s a bit whimsical, but also unsettling and ambiguous (or maybe unsettling because ambiguous). In simple emotional terms, we don't know if the progression is major or minor, happy or sad. In a facile - but, I think, real - way, that contradiction, and the song's refusal to resolve it for us, is part of the underlying theme of the song: reality is a confused welter of contradictions, all of which are simultaneously true.

The (pop-unusual) Major 7ths at the end do provide a kind of resolution. The Maj7 is by far the "prettiest" dissonant chord, with that clashing half-step from the root suspended far above it in a kind impressionistic cloud. It's the most pleasing harmonic way to accommodate dischord - and, to me, suggests a kind of psychological acceptance of contradictions and complexity. Everything's broken, everything's fine. All things are. Accept it and harmonize: sha la la.

Whether or not intentional, musically speaking - in harmonic structure, part juxtaposition, and pacing - this is sophisticated songcraft for young guys. I tend to think that, blessed with the innate musical sense you recognize when you listen to the band's album cuts, they recognized the psychological rightness of the unusual progressions when they assembled them. Somehow a haunted and mysterious - yet self-evidently "true" - vibe emerged naturally from organist Mark Weitz's Em-A-Em-C progression, which Ed caught and both extended and re-contextualized with his chorus progression. (A progression which also usefully throws into stronger relief Weitz's Maj7th sha-la-la resolution in the fadeoutro.)

Not to mention that here's a song, ostensibly in Em (and including sections in its relative major), which never gets to the V chord. There's not a B to be found.

Overall, it's a fascinating and pretty masterful study in light and shade - creating them, contrasting them, and resolving them within the confines of a pop song.

(All of which I could only have responded to instinctually, as in the spring of my 7th grade year I certainly wasn't deconstructing theory).

Also, for the record, Weitz maintains that there no drugs involved in the composition - nor was the band even aware of such drugs. (OK, really?)


Digression 2: Deconstructing the Lyrics

So how bout them wacky words, huh? It's possible to read them as jabberwockian nonsense, the stringing together of the self-proclaimed "meaningless nouns" lyricist John Carter teases. Most listeners (when not stoned) have likely considered the song a poster child for tripped-out acid-drenched hallucination.

It's also possible to read in a (possibly literal) invitation to partake: "Turn on, tune in, turn your eyes around." Well yeah, this is Tim Leary's manifesto, almost verbatim. But almost is significant here: “drop out” is not included. As it happens, “turn your eyes around" is also a good summation of the ancient wisdom and one method of meditation (trendy at the time and thus associated with hippiedom, but wisdom nonetheless). That line is followed immediately by four "look at yourself"s, just in case we missed it.

An invitation nonetheless to dropped-out self-indulgent navel-gazing? It’s easy enough to take it that way, given the weight of over 50 years of hindsight in which hippie-era trends, interests, and motivations have become fodder for ridicule.

But what's lost in that dismissal of psychedelia is that early experimenters with the compounds were not hippies - there was no such thing - and were struck by the similarities between psychedelic experiences and the visions and spiritual revelations reported by mystics.

1967 was still early in the timeline of psychedelia's cultural impact. LSD had escaped the CIA's labs (mostly through the stories of "test subjects," both volunteer and unwitting), and was in experimental use among academics, spiritual seekers, artists, and musicians in the still-"underground" counter-culture. I think it’s unarguable that these early experimenters made better use of them than did Sidney Gottlieb’s utterly mad and indefensible Project MKUltra.

But psychedelics hadn’t yet hit prime time. “Incense & Peppermints" was surely one cog in the machine which would disseminate the message over the next couple of years, but at the time the song was released, LSD was still technically legal everywhere (and I don't recall ever hearing of I&P being censored for drug lyrics).

It's equally possible to take Carter's lyrics as encouraging self-examination as a tool for personal "enlightenment" / expansion of consciousness, whether or not actually mediated by drugs. (As experienced meditators, mystics, chanters, and penetrators of koans will attest, drugs are not the only route to such experiences.) Understanding and insights thus attained become tools for coping with the contradictions and ambiguities of reality as she is lived - the "meaningless nouns" (they weren't) catalogued in the verses.

In that context, the seeming existential nihilism of the chorus punch line - who cares what games we choose / little to win but nothing to lose - seems ambiguous. Is the lesson that, once the nature of reality is accepted as a confused and dynamic mass of contradictions, nothing matters? Or is the line a re-statement of one of the key principles of existentialism: that there are no universal grounds of meaning, and that, consequently, redemption is to be found in making meaning for oneself?

Coherent with the overall intellectual vibe of the song, the answer may not be either or. It could be either and.

At any rate, that's what I find in the lyrics when I consider them now. And when I do, I no longer find the verses collections of meaningless nouns.

Good sense, innocence, cripplin' mankind / Dead kings, many things I can't define
Isn't this clear enough as a topic heading for an implied list of considerations which trouble the thoughtful?

Occasions, persuasions clutter your mind
Right? Well, don't they? So far, the lyrics read something like the standard description of the chaotic, distracted and distractible monkey mind, the state that must be overcome in mindfulness.

Incense and peppermints
The titular "nonsense" companions show up for the first time, along with a seeming bit of gratuitous nonsense. Maybe the incense is intended to suggest smoke, intoxicating smoke, ritual and sacramental smoke, exotic climes and cultures. And why peppermint? Candy become a pill? How about the alternating swirl of two colors spiraling into a central singularity? Works for me.

The color of time
OK, but this is psychedelic freakout nonsense, right? Well, yesnomaybe. In a purely poetic sense, it is possible to cast a color over times: the golden or sepia past, the dark ages, a blue period. But beyond that, the phrase is a koan: time is a phenomenon which does not have a literal chromatic property, and contemplating the illogical impossibility of assigning one might lead the mind into a state similar to that of imagining one hand clapping. It's also an example of synesthesia - experiencing one sense through the faculties of another. Seeing sounds. Feeling colors. Hearing scents. Sensing time in color. These are not only drugged-psychedelic experiences, they are also mystical experiences.

To divide this cockeyed world in two / Throw your pride to one side, it's the least you can do
As part of a prescription for personal intellectual growth, it seems pretty clear. Analyze. Get yourself out of the way. See the other point of view. Be the other point of view.

Beatniks and politics, nothing is new
Both subjects that must have been tiresome, then as now.

A yardstick for lunatics, one point of view
Should there be an "is" in place of the comma? What is the yardstick? Do we recognize a lunatic because he can only see one point of view, because he hasn't thrown pride, looked inside, recognized the superimposition of contradictory states? Or is it simply just one point of view that considers the song itself and its concerns nonsense?

To me anyway, the song does not now read as any kind of nonsense. It hangs together. Not only does it work as an attempt in music to embody some of the weirdness and sensory dislocation of an acid trip (as did a few songs before and many songs after), but it makes discursive and poetic sense.

Am I reading too much into a throwaway hippie ditty, casually improvised and tossed off as a pop confection to take advantage of the tenor of the times? I once thought so - but the more I consider the lyrics, the more convinced I am that the themes, the effect, and the embedded lessons were purposeful.

Then I learn that John S Carter, who is credited (sometimes along with Tim Gilbert) for the lyrics - was at the time a 21-year-old senior majoring in English at the University of Colorado. I can well believe he carefully crafted the lyrics, and quite intentionally built in everything I get out of it. Having been a 21-year-old English major, I can attest that it’s just the kind of thing English majors do.


Digression 3: Every Song Has A Story - and Most Are Simpler Than This

When you learn about the song’s (and the band’s) genesis and evolution, it seems the song had a kind of life of its own - that, metaphorically, it willed itself into being.

Musically, “I&P” began as a jam between band members Mark Weitz (keyboardist) and Ed King. It was recorded as an instrumental by the band (at almost 5 minutes long) for their producer Frank Slay. Slay in turn sent it to Tim Gilbert and John S Carter, both associated with the Denver band The Rainy Daze (whom Slay also produced), for a melody and lyrics.

[Sub-Digression 3A: The Denver Connection.] The Rainy Daze formed in 1965, then had a small hit in 1967 with their pro-marijuana anthem “That Acapulco Gold.” Tim Gilbert was guitarist and singer; in some references, John Carter is mentioned as a member of the group, but it seems from the band’s scant wiki article that he was “just” Gilbert’s (presumably college) roommate.

He may have been a member of the group in the same way Peter Sinfield was member of King Crimson, or Robert Hunter of the Dead, or Bernie Taupin with Elton John: ie, a crucial and frequent collaborator whose domain was lyrics. In any case, given “That Acapulco Gold,” in sending the unnamed instrumental “I&P” to Carter and Gilbert, producer Flay may have been purposely soliciting a drug song - or simply a lyrical treatment he thought those writers would give the evocative instrumental track, and which he thought the band itself would not have come up with.

Carter's later musical career (as producer and A&R guy) included Bob Seger, Steve Miller, and Tina Turner. It’s worth reading his bio here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wi.... [End Sub-Digression 3A]

When the band then convened to record the vocals, none of the singers in the band (and it had a number of good ones, who harmonized as well as, say, The Association or The Mamas and Papas) sounded “right” delivering the lead vocal. That’s when a 16-year old guitarist, Greg Munford (also produced by Slay, and a guest at the session) gave it a shot, and the band agreed it worked, and to keep the vocal on the song.

So far we have a song penned by two members of “the group,” with melody and lyrics by one (or two) non-members, with the lead sung by yet another non-member. That’s reasonably convoluted. But let us also now consider that, when the song was recorded, there was no Strawberry Alarm Clock: the band was known as Thee Sixpence. They had released three previous singles on the All American label; “I&P” was released in April ’67 under that name as the B-side of their fourth single “The Birdman of Alkatrash.” “Birdman” didn’t reach escape velocity, but DJs in the LA area started playing the B-side, and the song began to take off.

Smelling gold, MCA subsidiary Uni Records picked up the record for national distribution, flipped the A & B sides, and re-released the record just a month later - by which time the band had gone through numerous personnel changes and, because there were too many bands named Sixpence, changed its name to Strawberry Alarm Clock. (According to Weitz, “strawberry” was inspired by the Beatles' forever fields, and “alarm clock” immortalized his Baby Ben - random word combinations then being trendy as band names.)

[Sub-Digression 3B: What’s In A Name?] How cool is it - and how appropriate to the everlasting marriage of “Incense and Peppermints” and Strawberry Alarm Clock - that the “nonsense” name combines the notion of a sweet red treat with the notion of a wake-up call? The song itself is both. [End Sub-Digression 3B]

Neither Weitz nor King were credited as songwriters, and (quoting Weitz) “never received a dime for [their] efforts.” Instead, it was credited to the two non-members Carter and Gilbert (and I suspect Gilbert may have been more the connection between Slay and Carter than an active co-writer).

Singer Munford neither got credit for his vocal contribution nor was asked to join the group. This must have rankled when the song took off, and especially when he saw the group lip-synch to his recording. (Shades of Merry Clayton on “Gimme Shelter” and Clare Torry on Floyd’s “Great Gig in the Sky” - but at least they got credit. Torry was paid £30 for the Sunday session, then sued in 2005 for co-writer status, settling out of court in an undisclosed deal. Clayton fared better, frequently touring with the Stones and being well known and celebrated for her contribution.)

Thus “I&P”’s life of its own: Strawberry Alarm Clock’s child, but by way of multiple artificial inseminations. It’s like the song itself assembled the creative talents it required to come into being. (Which is another way of saying that everyone involved - including producer Slay - must have an intuition about how the song would best be served.)

It’s a commentary on the state of the music biz in 1967 that the primary writers of the music were not credited and paid, and that the lyricist (who also drew the melody out of the chord progressions) - and someone who may have little hand in any of it - got the songwriter royalties. From what I read about it, a fairer writing credit would have been Weitz-King-Carter. And no doubt someone made the money the record generated: 16 weeks on Billboard, peaking at number one, 500,000-selling gold certification in December ’67, #23 for the year in Billboard’s Hot 100. My bets are on producer Slay and MCA.

On the other hand, the song did make SAC’s career, bringing them at least the degree of fame accorded one-hit pop wonders in the day (including TV appearances and performances in several movies) - and ensuring their touring viability for several years into the future (both at the time and in later revivals).

Without “I&P”, would SAC have toured with Lynyrd Skynyrd, and would Ed King have had the opportunity to immortalize the 12 notes in D, C, and G that paved the way for the rest of his career - and paid for the house with the giant 45 rug and swimming pool?

Far beyond that personal impact, and Skynyrd’s subsequent place in pop culture, “I&P” itself endures, not just as a cultural marker, but as a work of art that still delivers the goods, and deserves its longevity.


Digression 4: What does “psychedelic” even mean?

Before it was applied to a musical style, and a decade before there were hippies, the word was coined by Humphry Osmond, a British psychiatrist working in Canada in the 1950s. He had introduced writer Aldous Huxley (of Brave New World fame) to mescaline in 1953. Huxley’s 1954 book The Doors of Perception subsequently explored his mescaline experience and the psychological and spiritual insights he felt it had provided, as well as its ritual uses in various cultures to facilitate numinous religious experience. (Mescaline was at the time a research chemical, not a “drug.” available without legal restraint through the Parke-Davis catalog.)

Psychedelic as a word is a portmanteau of two Greek words, which translate more or less literally as “soul reveal,” more commonly rendered as “mind-manifesting.” The sense was that a psychedelic experience penetrates, plumbs, makes available expansive dimensions of the subconscious mind - and/or, depending on your belief system or willingness to indulge metaphorical connections, mediates a communication with a greater “divine” or spiritual reality, trans-personal and trans-dimensional.

In an early-50s letter to Huxley, Osmond penned a line that could have summed up the advice which would later appear, in more veiled form, in dozens of psychedelic-era songs: “To fathom hell or soar angelic / Just take a pinch of psychedelic.”

While the word itself unquestionably arose from, and has consequently been associated with, the drugs (first mescaline and psilocybin, then LSD as well), the experiences it describes - principally sensations of self-transcendence, variously described - don’t necessarily have to be mediated by drugs. They are available (to varying extent) also through meditation and chant, intense aesthetic experiences, religious rituals and practices, sex, dance, and undoubtedly many things (I can't define).

Huxley had for decades been interested in these mechanics of personal psychological/spiritual growth, and his initial interest in mescaline grew out of this. There’s no doubt that he subsequently saw it as a kind of shortcut to enlightenment.

Responses to his book varied from curious, cautious approval and increased interest in the psychotherapeutic uses of the substance to condemnation of drug-mediated aesthetic hedonism, self-indulgence - and the very notion, abhorrent to religious initiates, that there could be a chemical shortcut to transcendence. (While Huxley’s opinion on those matters changed over time, he used mescaline periodically for the rest of his life. He seems never to have encouraged young people, or anyone else, for that matter, to use it.)

Those early responses to the use of psychedelic compounds predicted the complete range of attitudes users, critics, and society in general would have over the next two decades. Was it a self-indulgent, lazy high - or did it open the doors to sacred truths? Was it a party, or was it church? Were shaman, poets, mystics, medicine men, monks, divines - and contemporaries tripping - all tapped into the same phenomenon? Was there a “genuine” religious experience - or just the random misconnection of synapses? Was the experience purely private and subjective, or did it attach to some objective truth?

Half a century later, I don’t think any of those questions have been definitively answered. Science generally begs off entirely when forced to weigh in on matters void of empirical evidence. But pushed hard enough, most scientists are skeptical of the notion that the sensations of religious transcendence access some deeper, more expansive (but objective) dimension of reality. It tends to consider such as subjective psychological states - triggered more intensely and reliably by the drugs than other mediators - which just happen to produce similar sensations and insights in different people because all humans, after all, have similar physiology.

[Sub-Digression 4A: Irresponsible Speculation] I believe some scientists, when willing to hypothesize about objective phenomena which could mediate such experiences, haven't ruled out the possibility that there is a mechanism. No one who's contemplated the quantum domain doubts that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies. The most fundamental underpinnings of what we consider "reality" seem stranger all the time. I suppose it's possible that the chemistry and structure of the brain, in some people at some times, become extraordinarily sensitive to quantum fields, with entanglements that connect all of space-time past and present. Or something like that (or not at all like that - but equally “real,” however difficult to detect and quantify.) [End Sub-Digression 4A]

At bottom, the question posed by the ability to induce “religious” experience with chemicals asks “is it God - or is it chemistry?” I personally reckon it could be both, and don’t know if it matters: not unlike drugs and rock & roll, the brain is all about chemistry and electrcitiy. More than one researcher has noted it’s impossible to discriminate - on the basis of the accounts - between the reports of those who have “non-chemical” religious experiences on one hand, and psychedelic drug experiences on the other.

In the end, the experiences share the inviolable subjectivity of stuff that happens inside someone else's head. Thus their “artificial” availability through drugs is understandably unsettling and off-putting to any traditional priesthood which holds both that heaven/nirvana/transcendence/redemption/Valhalla/enlightenment are objective realities - and that their own disciplines are the only way to get there.

Further, the conversation is complicated by the fact that for millennia, intoxicants of all sorts have been used, in various ways by various cultures, as an integral part of religious rituals. Some archaeologists and anthropologists even wonder what came first: chemical intoxication or the religious experience. Some go so far as to suggest that religion itself arose from the sense of wonder attached to the seemingly magical properties of the primitive brews and herbs.

Anyway, “psychedelic.” It’s a fraught term.

It may have been coined to characterize the effects of a consumable, but - to the scientists, scholars, and creatives who experimented with the compounds and ultimately brought them to public awareness - those effects were not unique to the drugs. They’d already sought them in other ways, and with some success. The compounds just got them there more easily, more reliably, and in degrees which could be calibrated.

The accounts they wrote, the themes and concepts and insights they explored, in turn inspired music, literature, art, and discourse which incorporated those elements of the experience which leant themselves to aesthetic expression - engendering, in some degree, similar experiences in audiences for that art. These artists and writers were able to communicate something of the essence of their experiences.

I’m confident of this, because I lived it. The music of that era, the sounds and the lyrics, the subject matter, the themes and attitudes, even the album art, all changed my consciousness, awakened or stimulated something in me that sent me searching beneath the appearances of day-to-day life as it was available to a kid in small-town late-60s America for something more, for deeper connections.

I began studying the Indian and eastern religions referenced in some pop psychedelia. I used the “nonsense” lyrics - the jarring juxtapositions of seemingly unrelated words and ideas - as puzzles to solve, maps of subterranean connections to uncover. Trying to make sense where there seemed little was a useful exercise in both aesthetic and intellectual growth.

Certainly the sounds of psychedelia drew me in and opened up wide vistas of color and texture that deepened my understanding and appreciation of music. The generally literate (often self-consciously so, and sometimes pretentious) lyrics appealed to my interest in language, and helped inform it (in ways not always to the good, I suppose). Most of the other attributes of musical psychedelia appealed to me: the portrayals of childlike innocence and whimsy, the exotic instruments and rhythms, the improvisation, the electronic experimentation, the incorporation of pre-rock musical forms, the wider ranging lyrics and themes. Before and above all, the music sounded different from the norm, fresh and inventive.

Along with my innate interest in science and science fiction - and what has become my bedrock faith in the scientific method itself - maybe I was inherently a bit of a mystic. (On the other hand, maybe that mystical appetite itself was mediated by the codeine-and-phenergan concoction our family doctor prescribed for cough and sore throat through my childhood.)

Either way, I suppose I was innately open to the psychedelic proposition, particularly as it intersected notions of religious experience. I’ve had innumerable religious and/or ecstatic experiences throughout my life, mediated by any number of non-chemical catalysts. I had some of these experiences long before I had my handful of chemically-induced psychedelic adventures (all between 1973 and 1975, none involving LSD). I’ve had them since. (Though, dammit, they get fewer and further between as I age. Maybe I'm looking for them in pedals.)

My point is that “psychedelic” need not refer just to the chemicals. It might also be employed to characterize any state of mind in which deeper and wider connections - between all people, between cultures, between human enterprises, between us and all creatures great and small, throughout the web of life on this planet, between past and present, between distant events, between our lives here and the stars, between the mind and the universe - become more apparent. They are epiphanies, moments of revelation which not only “feel” true, but which nourish and sustain.

Musical psychedelia (and the prog it evolved into) has had far more to do with my intellectual and “spiritual” development than any drugs. (I avow it’s possible that some of that music came out of the artists’ drug experiences. In that sense, they were the priesthood, the shamans who communed with the divine on my behalf.)

“Incense & Peppermints” is far from the most influential exemplar of that music - but it came at just the right personal and cultural time to confirm hints I’d been getting from the music that there was more going on than I knew. It condensed and precipitated cloudy notions that had been gathering for months, preparing me for the coming deluge.


Useful reads;
https://en.wikipedia.org/wi...
https://www.songfacts.com/f...
https://en.wikipedia.org/wi...

27

Wow, you should submit that to Rolling Stone!

28

Great read, Tim. I learned a lot. You have a unique skill in writing that explores hidden details in a way that educates (subject and structure) without a hint of self-importance. Ya make learnin fun.

29

Heck of a read Tim, excellent stuff. I had a Rally from when Incense and peppermints hit it big. The Alarmclock had some pretty cool tunes through their career Barefoot in Baltimore is a cool one and the music they did for the soundtrack for beyond the valley of the dolls I'm coming home is a real rocker. I did a little ode to the alarmclock on my rally. Check it out

30

I wonder if Proteus has any thoughts on this tune? But I'll tell you what I think. Total ripoff. I downloaded it and took a listen. Know what? It's not at all about either incense or peppermints, two of my very favorite things in the world. Also, color is not a property that time possesses. I shouldn't have to point that out.

31

Hmm. More, seemingly definitive (because more complete) details here on the histories of SAC and "I*&P." Well worth the read...and I suppose the new information should be incorporated in the above essay. Maybe later.

https://devorahostrov.blogs...

32

Interesting posts. Thanks

33

Great read, Tim. I learned a lot. You have a unique skill in writing that explores hidden details in a way that educates (subject and structure) without a hint of self-importance. Ya make learnin fun.

– NJBob

Right?

34

Nice write-up, Uncle Tim! Thanks.

Say. Can you teach me about magnets?

35

In your own words, you've captured the experiences of a great many people of a "certain age" who were discovering new music in those heady years. Though my own experiences were not the same as yours, the emotions and memories your essay stirred up brought back my own first tentative steps into the music of the era.

Thank you for writing this.

36

....Too Long....DID read...GREAT essay. Loved it!

To me, the best "hook" in I&P is that little drum break, that ends with the high hat going "swoosh-swoosh".....as you can tell, I am a much simpler man than Tim.

37

RIP, Ed.

Who ever wound up with the bizarr-o world Mosrites that Strawberry Alarm Clock had at some point?

– crowbone

"We never played them. My wife bought me a guitar book (forget what it's called) and it claims a band members said we used them on all our records and on tv. We didn't. Mosrite guitars may have been good surf guitars...but, when it's all said & done, you still can't beat a Fender. I look at these 'clothes pin guitars' and I get the heebie-jeebies!!"


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