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That Katz Something I Can't Explain! My Lifelong Love Affair with '60s British Psychedelia

Before I was Deadhead. Before I was a Funketeer. Beforein retrospect, quite incrediblyI'd even discovered the respective genius virtuosities of Dylan or Hendrix. I was a Head; utterly obsessed with mid to late '60s British psychedelia. The objects of my desire, the things around which my entire obsession revolved, were two records: Cream's Disraeli Gears and The Pink Floyd's (as they were known at the time) debut LP, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, both from 1967. The wonderful satisfaction of discovering these two albums, the euphoria of delving into their backgrounds, finding out everything about them, served as the proverbial spark that launched not only my lifetime love affair with music, but fueled my enduring passion for the arts, specifically literature and cinema.

The first two records I ever acquired were the aforementioned Disraeli Gears and Jethro Tull's Aqualung (1971). I confess for a fifteen year old boy, it was love at first sight. The feel, the smell, the size, the trippy cover art. Of course I had seen records before, but the Russian classical records (half a dozen records accompanied us on our escape to the US from the the Soviet Union) shelved in a dun basement closet couldn't hardly compete with the original power trio: Jack Bruce, Eric Clapton, and Ginger Baker. A friendly guy at the nearby synagogue, hearing that I had a mild interest in classic rock and in a true act of generosity, dropped them off at my house one morning before school. But, whoa there! let's hold our horses. How did I get into classic rock in the first place?

I was then and I am today fortunate enough to have an older brother who has always looked out for me, be it protection from foolish youthful inclinations or introducing me to novel and exciting things. In that fraternal spirit, at twelve years old my brother took me in his room, turned off the lights, turned on his blacklight, and put on Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon on the stereo. "Don't leave until it's over," he barked before shutting the door. The anticipation became almost unbearable as at first there was no sound. I looked around at the familiar posters that suddenly appeared alive with three-dimensionality in the ultraviolet light. Was it working? I looked at the stereo face of the '90s era Sony receiver/tape-deck/CD player, the play clock was running. After half a minute I began to hear faint pulses and it hit me: they were messing with me/you/us. This was cool.

Those first electrifying moments set the tone for the rest of the next forty-five minutes in a young child's fragile eggshell mind. The brooding, provocative themes, the sharp, satirical lyrics, the searing guitar solos, all came together in perfect harmony. But, candidly speaking, by the time that friendly neighbor came by with those Cream and Jethro Tull records three years later, the extent of my classic rock exposure was limited to Dark Side, Led Zeppelin's greatest hits, and a few of The Doors' greatest hits. I needed something to light my fire.

With the two really cool looking records in hand, I faced a major obstacle. How would I listen to them? Despite those old Soviet LPs, we didn't have a record player in the house (it had been too bulky to transport). Compromising, I saved up and bought a Discman, a major technological innovation at the time. Instinctively, one of the first CDs I got was Dark Side. Listening to "Breathe" into "On The Run" while looking out the window on the school bus made me realize how Pink Floyd wasn't just great in a blacklit bedroom, they were ideal music to drive to. It fit the suburban scenery with startling appropriateness. The mid '90s also happened to be the birth of the internet age and after extensive late night clicking, I figured out the album was about Pink Floyd's original songwriter and lead guitarist, Syd Barrett, who had gone crazy and had all but disappeared from the public life after the first album. Boy, now I was really intrigued.

That very first Pink Floyd album? The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, named for a chapter in Kenneth Grahame's beloved children's classic, The Wind In the Willows (1908). I now had a direct and immediate goal: acquire all but at the very least of one of the CDs, Disraeli Gears, Aqualung, Piper. Specific goods (like thirty year old albums) weren't as easy to procure then as they are today. Also, at sixteen I did not possess a credit card. Eventually I found the Piper CD at a local record store. Fiendishly unwrapping and opening the case, I crammed the disc into CD player. I can only describe the experience as revelatory. Here I had found my kind of people, my kind of sound, like it was made solely for me to discover. It was one of those rare moments when the anticipation of a thing was exceeded by the wonderfulness of the thing. It felt like the birth of a truer, more authentic me.

"Astronomy Domine," the opening track, begins with a muffled radio transmission of cosmic objects, planets, and stars. Suddenly there's a beeping that intensifies until that first note of the distortion heavy guitar arrives with cutting immediacy. The intention is clear: musically recreate the experience of being launched into outer space, inducing cosmic-based hallucinations. Then the mind-bending lyrics kick in. "Lime and limpid green, a second scene / Now fights between the blue you once knew." Later, you can distinctly make out "Oberon, Miranda, and Titania," moons of Uranus (named after characters from Shakespeare's plays). This was pure artistic audacity! What kind of person could write such an amazing piece of music? I quickly found out: Syd Barrett.

There have been numerous books written about the incomparable man who founded The Pink Floyd, Syd Barrett, so I won't rehash what most already know. But I would like to point out that discovering the existence of such a person, learning about him, came at the ideal formative moment in my life. Here was an intrepid, unique voice speaking to me and I had unearthed it all on my own. Barrett's profound influence on my life was immediate. At sixteen, I wrote a poem, essentially alternate lyrics for Piper's third track, "Matilda Mother," which I submitted to the Baltimore Sun Writing Competition for poetry. Months later I received news that it had won honorable mention, acknowledged by renowned poet Nikki Giovanni, a proud achievement for me to this day. Discovering Piper imbued an insecure and shy teenager with a fearless self-possession by recognizing that being different was not only okay, it actually made a person more interesting.  Here, I knew I had stumbled upon something brilliant. In the record's magnum opus, "Interstellar Overdrive," which uncoincidentally happened to be the basis for my first AOL screen name and hotmail email address, the central riff blares the incipience of a new dawn, ushering in hard rock and metal.

To this day, I'm particularly tickled by the second track, "Lucifer Sam," whose chorus goes, "That cat's something I can't explain!" In my mind, I amend it to, "That Katz something I can't explain!" Laughable for sure, but allow to me to indulge myself this frivolity.

What really drew me to '60s British psychedelia was the sense of explorative wonder as a central theme. Although both movements shared many commonalities, British psychedelia contrasted from its American cousin because it revolved around its captivation with, to paraphrase music critic Ian MacDonald, nostalgia for a child's innocence. While the American hippies were focused on flower power, peace, and free lovebasically spiritual outgrowths of the Beat Generationtheir British counterparts were looking inwards and backwards to their childhoods and their country's history. It's true the Grateful Dead's lengthy initial sonic freakouts most resemble early Pink Floyd's hallucinatory jams, but the Dead didn't really come into their own until 1968/69 by which time psychedelia had already peaked and was beginning to spawn subgenres like prog rock, hard rock, and funk. Besides a return to a childlike wonder, '60s British psychedelia is also characterized by the embracing of Britishness and British mythology, space travel, the countryside, and Eastern mysticism. All these elements forged through liberal application of lysergic acid. 

For an immigrant teenage boy growing up in suburban Baltimore, Piper represented something exceedingly foreign and exotic yet familiar, affording me the private luxury of having a secret no one else seemed to know about. Needless to say, I hadn't met anyone else listening to Piper (not that I had met more than a few dozen people or I had more than a small handful of friends but who needed friends when I had Syd Fucking Barrett?). Check out this live version of "Interstellar Overdrive" recorded for Peter Whitehead's (who only agreed to direct because he was having an affair with Syd's girlfriend, how rock 'n roll is that?) 1967 film, Tonite Let's All Make Love in London (named after a poem by Allen Ginsberg who also appears in the film). Syd shows off his unusual and revolutionary at the time guitar techniques, some of which were adopted by none other than Jimi Hendrix himself.

These wondrous elements of '60s British psychedelia resurfaced upon my finally finding Disraeli Gears. A more rock-blues oriented record, Gears features a young Eric Clapton as a supporting player in a trio dominated by bassist Jack Bruce, who wrote and sang most of their songs. It doesn't approach the cosmic transcendence of Piper but it's funky grooves complement acid-dripped lyrics, "Tiny purple fishes run laughing through your fingers / And you want to take her with you to the hard land of the winter." Contrived, but if you don't take it too seriously it's pretty fun. (Side note: although I can't recall them now decades later but I almost certainly wrote alternate lyrics for this song, "Tales of Brave Ulysses," too.)

But it's not the lyrics that make this record. Cream's formation in 1966 introduced the terms super group and power trio to the rock lexicon; bassist Jack Bruce, guitarist Eric Clapton, and drummer Ginger Baker were considered the 'cream of the crop' at their respective instruments. The record is mostly renowned for "Sunshine Of Your Love," a rock song for the ages featuring the guitar riff that launched a thousand ships, while presenting the first signs of Clapton's imminent rock god status. But the real star of the record is Ginger Baker. His work on "We're Going Wrong" and "Outside Woman Blues" is an extraordinary blend of jazz, African, and rock drumming that has become Baker's hallmark. On the latter, he absurdly plays drum fills on pretty much every measure for the entirety of the song.

Besides Pink Floyd and Cream, notable '60s British psychedelic groups include Soft Machine, The Pretty Things, The Creation, Tyrannosaurus Rex (before they became T. Rex), Caravan, Traffic, Fairport Convention, and Family. They followed in the path set down by these two records. Naturally, heavyweights like The Who, Beatles, Rolling Stones, made major contributions to popularizing the genre. On Rubber Soul, The Beatles first got weird.  Then Revolver elevated things further, particularly with the highly experimental closing track "Tomorrow Never Knows," which features their first use of overdubs and tape loops. Then came Sgt. Peppers, which is undoubtedly a psychedelic masterpiece, and it being no small wonder that Piper's recording sessions overlapped with the Beatles at EMI Studios (now known as Abbey Road Studios). But it was Syd Barrett's Pink Floyd that set the pattern for British psychedelia and then Cream used that ethos to synthesize acid rock, which would eventually morph into what we now identify as the classic Classic Rock sound (ie. late '60s Hendrix and early '70s Zeppelin). 

My immersion into the worlds of these two records launched me into a never-ending, labyrinth of musical exploration. From these double north stars, I discovered Hendrix, learning along the way that it took the Brits to discover the genius of a Black American guitarist, rejected and ignored by his own homeland. England's embrace made for the awkward dynamic of English musicians introducing one of America's greatest musical geniuses back to American audiences (see Monterey Pop Festival 1967). Pretty soon Bob Dylan, Grateful Dead, and the Stones followed. Piper and Gears were the triggers that sparked the ensuing avalanche. Through Hendrix, I arrived at George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic. These experiences led me to adopt a motto for my life: when I love something I want to know everything about it. I've been finding out everything I can since then, and it all started for me with Syd Barrett, The Piper At The Gates of Dawn, and Disraeli Gears.