Love's Secret Ascension: Coil, Coltrane & The 70th Birthday Of LSD
, November 13th, 2013 05:03
Author and new Quietus writer Peter Bebergal celebrates the original synthesis of LSD with a thoughtful look at acid and transcendent, magickal music
You have to be patient. It can take a while to settle in. You grit your teeth a bit. At first you think you might not make it, that the whole thing is going to fall apart. Do you hold on or let go? It's hard to tell which is the right approach. But then, just when it seems like all control has been lost, something transcendent happens. I'm not describing an acid trip, but I could very well be. I'm instead listening to John Coltrane's Ascension. Right around the 2:40 mark it lifts off and you are glad, for a moment, that you got on board. It's not an easy trip, to be sure. Coltrane seems to be struggling himself a bit, putting together disparate elements in a kind of alchemical distillation in the hopes of a transmutation. It is a spiritual alchemy, to be sure, but Ascension is not a plea to an angry God or a Psalm of thanksgiving. Rather, it's a vision of Jacob's Ladder; an acknowledgement of the ways in which the divine ascends and descends.
This year is the 70th anniversary in which a humble chemist - simply doing his normal work researching the medicinal properties of plants - synthesized the compound lysergic acid diethylamide (or LSD) from ergot fungus. He tested the substance on animals, but there didn't appear to be anything remarkable about it. The chemist, Albert Hofmann, returned to it five years later and on April 16, 1943 not thinking he needed any special precautions, accidentally absorbed the compound through his skin. It might have set anyone else into a panic, but Hofmann, ever the curious scientist, regarded what happened next with a mix of cautious wonder and trepidation.
Hofmann was having the first LSD-induced hallucinogenic experience, which he described as an "uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colours".
He was fascinated. A few days later he deliberately ingested the compound (having first dissolved it in water). In what must have been a moment of pure psychedelic inspiration - that moment during almost every trip when a judgment is made that may or may not be regretted later, but seems perfectly reasonable at the time - Hofmann left the lab and rode his bicycle to his home. Hofmann would later describe the short pedal to his house as a nightmarish journey, a continual vacillation between losing his shit and catching glimpses of the divine. But once in the safety of familiar surroundings, he had a better time of it:
"Kaleidoscopic, fantastic images surged in on me, alternating, variegated, opening and then closing themselves in circles and spirals, exploding in coloured fountains, rearranging and hybridising themselves in constant flux."
He immediately recognised the possibilities for psychology, medicine, and maybe even religion. What he could never have known was that he changed the world. The amount that has been written on Hofmann, on LSD, and on the nature of the LSD experience, could seemingly fill the universe that one often imagines is in their fingernail when tripping on the very same drug. Certainly important work has been done, and the recent collapse of fearful prohibitions on research of psychedelic drugs could prove beneficial in exactly the ways Dr. Hofmann had hoped. But psychedelic drugs, despite their contribution to the spiritual revolution of the 1960s - a revolution that essentially changed the course of American culture and beyond - have become something of a drag on any attempt to understand altered consciousness.
It started with Aldous Huxley, who had once understood mystical-oriented experiences as being rare, requiring spiritual exercises, philosophical introspection, and maybe even a little bit of luck. In his writing on the mescaline experience in his now infamous but slight manifesto The Doors Of Perception, he became a kind of mystic turncoat, arguing that the experience was available to anyone. More damning, however, was his view on the primacy art once held to be the key to transformative experiences. After his own night sitting comfortably in his drawing room grooving on the patterns in the curtains, Huxley came to see art as a pretender to the throne of direct experience, calling it the method for "beginners".
The subtle but lasting damage this idea did to the role of art in the understanding of the psychedelic experience is profound. While we certainly, and thankfully, have a giant cultural catalogue of music, film, fine art and literature that has taken inspiration from or tried to come to terms with psychedelic experience, the emphasis on the experience rather than how that experience gets transmitted dominates the literature on LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs. The ease by which LSD is obtained, the ubiquity of it in not only the counterculture but the mainstream as well, has turned using it into both a parlour game and an overly valued source for enlightenment. Its use as a method for exploring consciousness as a means to build something, or even as a way to reflect creatively on synthetic altered states, was lacking from the beginning.
There are, of course, extremely important examples of LSD as a catalyst for creative experiments in both literal and figurative ways. Terry Riley, for example, has not been shy in explaining that his compositions during the 1960s were an investigation in trying to contain the mystical experience - via drugs - in a musical form (such as repetition). At the heart of something like Riley's In C is how closely it expresses the sense of control and chance that are essential attributes of an altered state. In C describes more about non-ordinary states of consciousness than any trip report could come close to. And even if the listener is a teetotaler of the highest order, there is a quality to In C that is inviting, that crosses the event horizon from the purely subjective to the universal. It is, after all, also about readily conceivable ideas; time, structure, chaos, rhythm, eternity.
So now, during this anniversary of profound significance, I have come to a transformative idea. If you're not going to make music out of it, I don't want to hear about your last acid trip.
Yet within the overarching story of LSD and its various manifestations along the topography of culture, there is something to be gleaned here. LSD can possibly provide the key to an idea, or better, to an experience. It has to do with how music not only shapes consciousness, but how music can alter it. And more than that, just as LSD has been tied into ideas of spiritual and mystical experiences, how music can allude to these states, riff on them, get to some essential truth about them, without leaving the grounded reality of technique or the ears of the audience.
I am starting with Coltrane because his later works - Ascension and the often disparaged Om - came alive when most of rock & roll's pretenses around spirituality were mainly of glamour, a dressing up of rock's rebellion with sitars and chants. Anecdotes by various biographers allude to his interest in the occult, in hermeticism and kabbalah. In interviews about his spirituality Coltrane gives vague and mostly generic platitudes, not much different than you would hear out of thousands of different mouths in 1966. The music itself contains something far exceeding cliché. Coltrane's artifice, or rather what might have been artificial, is only because Coltrane was a product of his time and place, when the word "Om" was an incantation on everyone's lips.
The opening of Om, recorded in 1965, consists of Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders reciting from The Tibetan Book Of The Dead, a popular Buddhist text in the 1960s, and made relevant to the burgeoning hallucinogenic drug culture with the release of the book The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based On The Tibetan Book Of The Dead by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert (later known as Ram Dass). The Psychedelic Experience was published in 1964, but whether Coltrane read it is impossible to know. What we do know is that rumors abound about LSD use during the recording of Om, as well as about Coltrane's own use of the drug.
Whatever the case, it was a moment when artists and musicians were leading the charge of the commingling of psychedelic drugs and Eastern spirituality. To imagine that Coltrane was somehow immune to this seems naive, and it is more likely that he wanted to participate in the conversation. Om is his contribution.
After the passages read aloud, Coltrane and his compatriots start chanting "om" as if they are caught on fire by it. It's not meditative, but rather honors the actual meaning of the Sanskrit, "to shout." But the word "om" is also a vibration, a reflection of the unity of all things before creation. It is the manifestation of the truth essential to Hindu philosophy that Brahman (God) and the Atman (Soul) are one; their separateness is an illusion. The acknowledgement of this truth, or rather the attempt to get inside of it, is what Coltrane seems to be doing with Om.
The strange thing about altered states of consciousness in regards to music is that the vehicle is also the means by which one stays tethered to the world. Even the Gregorian Chants are a result of intensive voice training, and happen in the body. No matter the transcendent intention, music is a deeply physical act. After the call and response of "om", Coltrane's saxophone becomes the vessel for this divine shout. The fierceness of Coltrane's playing indicates that he knows the divine cannot be contained in a thin tube of molded brass. But this is all he has. This is all anyone of us really has. Music binds us to the body. It is where we hear it and where we make it. With Om, Coltrane often plays as if he is trying to escape the bonds of the instrument, but his feet won't leave the Earth. After Jacob sees the ladder of angels he says "How awful is this place", and anoints the spot with oil. Coltrane is trying to give us a glimpse of his heaven, but the noise of his saxophone contains its own holiness by virtue of it being the vessel through which the divine reveals itself.
If Om really is a mystical yearning, or possibly the tense energy of an acid trip before or even during the recording, and not just a bunch of great musicians pushing the limits of their own playing and maybe even the patience of their fans, does it reveal anything essential about the relationship between altered consciousness and music?
As a listener, getting to an altered state of consciousness with Om is somewhat of a chore. What is transcendent might be something more for the musicians who appear to enter a trance-like state. Om is as demanding a piece of music as you will hear, but the intense listening and focus that is required makes it hard to let go. It never really transports you. This is not a quality inherent in Coltrane's later works, as there are moments on Ascension that are absolute bliss. It is a quality of the desperate sense that is behind Om. And when your art is about your own transformation, the audience's is less important. Watching someone else work through the pendulum swing of terror and ecstasy of their own trip is kind of a drag, but nevertheless, there is also something infectious about it. We can't help but get caught up in what Coltrane is evoking.
In this way, just being a witness is a kind of altered state of consciousness. Coltrane might be trying to render a mystical experience musically out the sheer muscle of his breath and the LSD fueled visions that inspire it. And while Om might not easily alter the consciousness of the listener, it still comes awfully close to revealing the intense spiritual desire of Coltrane that shapes the almost desperate mood. It is, however, also a glimpse into the vast spectrum of non-ordinary states of consciousness.
Mysticism has long been intimately tied into notions of altered consciousness, and this was solidified during the 1960s when an interest in occultism, Eastern religions and LSD use collided. It's often difficult to parse them anymore at all. The generation that came of age in the 1960s was having mystical experiences in the middle of the day in an urban park. What was once the rare privilege of saints and madmen became available for anyone. Zen and Yoga, Tarot Cards and neo-pagan idealism charged everyone's acid trips with high voltage notions of what a spiritual experience could or should like. After a while the path you took to get there was relative. It was light at the top of the mountain, the divine beacon shining in the darkness that was the goal. Acid, meditation, chanting, sex and magick came to be seen as tools to work away at the edges of the physical world until the cracks appeared.
But even before all these various attempts at merging Brahman with Atman, as it were, mixed into a big New Age stew, one tension continued to grow in the heart of the divine quest: are magick and mysticism one and the same, or are the two completely different paths, leading to very different places? They each contain various symbols of opposites (heaven/earth, above/below, ascent/descent). This is because they both need to exist within the most essential dichotomy of all: human/divine. It's folly to even suggest that there is some approach to either a magickal or mystical practice that is fully transcendent. Even the experience of transcendence is mediated by whatever intention, fear, or desire that is brought to it. This is precisely why music serves as an authentic place to explore these opposites, because even when music strains towards transcendence, the truth of its limitations is in the ink on the sheet music, the vibrations of the strings, the spittle on the reed, the magnet pushing and pulling on the paper cone.
Despite all the writing by mystics and magicians, what magicians think about magick and what mystics think about mysticism is not nearly as interesting or evocative as how musicians have attempted to use composition to engage with these two approaches in search of meaning.
The literary critic George Steiner wrote that all art, when authentically manifest, is a search for transcendence. There are of course entire musical traditions that are deliberate attempts to apprehend some notion of the sacred. But this impulse can be heard in even the most "profane" of music.
Nevertheless, the place where magick and mysticism found their truly common ground is in their relationship to altered consciousness, but this also reveals their truest distinction. For the most part, magickal practice serves as a method for achieving an altered state of consciousness, whereas mysticism is a path that often evolves out of an experience with altered consciousness, and even more importantly, is a kind of altered state itself.
If Coltrane's rapturous Om and Ascension function as representations of the mystical impulse fueled by LSD, I have chosen the music of Coil to explore the magickal, specifically their 1991 record Love's Secret Domain, probably the most fully realised magickal record in the context of rock & roll. And just as Om's mystical desires are not only about a union with the divine, what is magickal about Love's Secret Domain has nothing to do with the conjuration of demons or the binding of angels. What makes Love's Secret Domain magickal is that it inhabits perfectly Crowley's dictum that magick is the "Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will".
Many musicians have played with occult ideas and images, most often in the form of glamour or artifice; the ubiquitous upside down pentagram during the 1980s heavy metal devil craze. As listeners and critics, we often impose intention where song titles or album covers or even the personal lives of the musicians inspire our own spiritual desires or, as the case may be, fears and prejudices. Pentagrams on heavy metal albums used to raise the blood pressure of both teenage boys and their parents decades ago, but the symbol was more often than not an empty gesture, an attempt to start a rumour, the proverbial bat head bitten off and spat out. There was little magick there, infernal or otherwise, just a powerful occult symbol that no matter its context somehow managed to key into an unconscious third eye that is always on the lookout for deeper meaning in the songs we listen to. Rarer still are those who understood their music to actually be a magickal working, an attempt to crack open consciousness and see what kind of star stuff might actually be inside.
Love's Secret Domain is not a product of magickal acts, but of a magickal temperament born out of a magickal milieu. Coil's glamour is a magick spell in the original use of that word, which once meant an enchantment. It is even related to the word "grammar" which was sometimes used to denote occult language, the verbal weaving of a spell, and eventually becomes "grimoire," a book of magick. Glamour is an illusion, and in music it has functioned as part of the relationship between the audience musicians since the maenads who worshipped Dionysus led their congregants in trance-like frenzy.
Coil's music forces the listener to destroy that distinction between art and artifice, because their magickal sensibility comes out of an actual location, a place. Coil draws their inspiration from an England haunted by the artist and magician Austin Osman Spare, and the "great beast" Aleister Crowley. While Crowley always seems to loom large in matters of magick, his spirit is particularly evident here because he insisted on creating a glamour around his own spiritual workings and magickal practice. The magician Crowley wrote dense tables of correspondences and complex rituals. The personality Crowley handed out business cards that read "The Wickedest Man Alive".
Nevertheless, Spare is the true Holy Guardian Angel of Coil, and in numerous interviews John Balance cites him as a kindred soul, whose art and magick were inextricably bound. In a 2001 interview with Mark Pilkington for Fortean Times, Balance describes his relationship to Spare as something akin to ancestor worship, where Spare is a spirit mentor that offers advice and inspiration. Of Spare's art, Balance gets to the root of understanding both Spare but also Coil. "Although they're [Spare's artwork] often decorative, the intention behind the decoration often hits you first."
Intention. This is what I am seeking here all along. In both Coil and Coltrane the intention is what calls to you, the desire for transformation made manifest in the artifice. They are both working with boundaries of some convention, either by scaling along the walls and building higher and higher like Babel, or digging underneath while at the same time unearthing something new.
Coltrane's Ascension and Om, despite their challenges, are rooted in extremely conservative ideas about jazz, whereas Coil are deeply transgressive but still (purposely) constrained by pop. Their heterodoxy is less about a challenge to religious orthodoxy than it is to culture itself. And whether or not Coltrane was actually using LSD during the recording of either record, both Jhon Balance and Peter "Sleazy" Christopherson were in no way shy about describing their drug use, particularly when talking about the Love's Secret Domain sessions. In fact, their drug use took on such epic proportions that it's become the stuff of legend. And herein lies the rub, when we are trying understand music and LSD in a commercial sense. How much do we impose in the act of listening? How much does knowing about the drug use that went into creating the album inform the way we hear it and how it changes our own state of mind?
This is also why there is no unmediated non-ordinary state of consciousness. Even the very act of listening to music is loaded with what we want from it. We might be let down, or we might achieve something akin to having our minds blown, but in either case the music itself is not a magick hypodermic needle that injects an experience directly into one's bloodstream. We fill the syringe with the drug we want.
None of this is to say that there is not something extremely powerful about Love's Secret Domain that does somehow get past the filters, and bring us closer to what Aldous Huxley called "the antipodes of the mind". Coil discussed being visited by spirits during the recording of Love's Secret Domain. Can those spirits find their way to the listener through the artificial process of dropping a needle into a groove, like a stone tape?
Is the use of LSD a method or the goal itself? The same can asked of the mystical experience, or of magick. For Coil, this distinction might be meaningless. The goal of the music is to impart an experience that only a state of altered consciousness can conceivably create. For an interview with Brainwashed, Balance explained the intention of Love's Secret Domain as music to impose your own desires on, but only insofar as the limits of the music will allow: "We took away the sense and left the sensation. We took away the meaning and left the feeling. Listeners have to really involve themselves, much more than on anything we've ever done."
The electronic musician Kim Cascone explains it like this: "I think both 'methods' and 'goals' are artificial constructs, rigidly defined by some as distinct and separate. To me, in the context of creation, they are one and the same. Essentially, art is a flow from a source of illumination." (To highlight this idea, Cascone has just released his own acknowledgment of Hofmann's little synthetic marvel, the 2CD set 70 Years Of Sunshine, with the Polish label Monotype Records. The set includes twenty tracks of electronic, ambient and other soundscapes, all with a nod towards their own individual interpretation of the LSD experience.)
There is a great tradition of seeking God in excess. It's a kind of asceticism. Altered states as a path towards God is on the surface about self-denial, but is more often than not a trap into even greater kinds of self-imprisonment. LSD promises a kind of self-abnegation, but part of the drug experience is the physical manifestation of pleasure and pain. It's often impossible to not be aware of yourself having the experience. There is the danger of a recurring desire to experience oblivion, but to know that you are experiencing it.
It usually takes a violent shift in consciousness to get out of our own way long enough to be open to the something we might define as holiness. But we no longer have immediate access to the communities and their rituals that once made these experiences part of a larger religious system. The modern drug-induced spiritual experience, while often communal in its setting, is still largely a subjective experience. Without teachers and shamans, our own desires usually get in the way. There is the danger that the experience would be nothing but an object of our own desires, not a way deeper into the holiness external to us.
The psychedelic experience is often one of wavering between bliss and terror, between touching the fire of the holy and in turn being burned up by it. In all the great myths and religious traditions, there are stories of mortals being warned to not try to get too close to the gods. Yet, almost all these traditions include stories of face-to-face encounters with the holy, what the theologian Rudolf Otto calls the mysterium tremendum, and which, according to Otto, is the only truly authentic relationship one can have with God. It is Moses coming down from Sinai as "the skin of his face was shining". The very essence of the mystical experience is one that is fraught with danger. Ezekiel sees the chariot and all its glory, but Moses is told by God: "No one shall look up upon me and live".
Coil's music expresses no concern for getting too close, whereas Coltrane can't ever seem to get close enough and, knowing he is on dangerous ground, holds a sense of devotion in his heart, something he learned during A Love Supreme, a fully devotional album, devoid of any attempt to crack open hidden doors. LSD promises more than mere devotion, more than just praise and worship. It says you can have the direct experience. Coil weren't interested in entertaining the possibility of limits. Love's Secret Domain is a stone soup of magick and mysticism, with a leather boot thrown in for spice.
My generation had to take its acid behind the strip mall and in the abandoned construction sites, furtive little gatherings of hopeful devotees at an altar that was falling apart from misuse.
The 1970s and 1980s were dark times in a special sense. The Aquarian promise of the 1960s, during a time of artistic explosion fueled by LSD and revolution, gave way to crystals, Terrence McKenna's frustrating psychedelic-scientism, pseudo-shamans, and acid of deeply inferior quality than that of the 1960s. We knew nothing of the San Francisco Oracle, Soft Machine, or The International Poetry Incarnation at the Royal Albert Hall. I have always been trying to find that elusive something-or-other that we were cheated out of. There is danger in that as well.
So here, 25 years after a personal expedition into those elusive antipodes, and 70 years after the fateful day that set this whole thing in motion, I keep going back to Coltrane. Coil are deeply effective at transporting you to that place of perfect tension between Heaven and Hell, but that middle point is not Earth, to be sure. It's the limbo state of the magician's magick circle, somewhere here and not here, where the music is the chalk keeping the circle intact. But it's also synthetic, just like LSD. It is born of something organic, a little bit of fungus on a piece of grain, but manipulated into something more potent, something that could leave you with nothing but the experience. Coil were lucky to be geniuses at what they did, despite their own personal tragic results. Listening to Love's Secret Domain reminds me that the experience is not enough. Coltrane's ache to break through is humbled by the living organism of the band and the session itself. The instruments are not cut-up, are not processed in any way. There is a strange and frightening purity here, one that you don't want to get too close to, but demands respect. Coil are the coming down after the terrible archangels have tossed you out of heaven, and loving the fall all the way to the bottom. Coltrane is the ever-building ascension, over and over again, wanting nothing more than for God to open the gates, all the while begging him to please keep them closed.