Thursday, December 27, 2018

Right through the haze

l-r. Michael Pollan, Walter Benjamin, Pete Townshend
"One of me best songs I've ever written. Quite a fiery Wagnerian piece."

That's Pete Townshend on "I Can See For Miles," the masterpiece that the Who released as a single on October 13, 1967. Recorded during the fall in studios in London, Manhattan, and Los Angeles— accessing Gold Star Studios's echo chamber at the latter for the proper menacing reverb on Roger Daltrey's vocals—"I Can See For Miles" is recognized as one of Townshend's greatest songs, and one of his biggest personal disappointments when the single didn't move in the numbers he'd envisioned (he had to wait for Tommy for such success). I've been obsessing about this astounding song for many years, an obsession renewed while reading Roger Daltrey's new memoir, which off course sent me back to the band's catalogue, which sent me back to Dave Marsh's excellent biography Before I Get Old: The Story of the Who, which sent me back to YouTube, which sent me back to the records, etc..

I was also put in mind of the song while reading Michael Pollan's recent piece in the New York Times, an account of the profound difficulties Pollan experienced while attempting to write about his drug-induced psychedelic experiences for his latest book How To Change Your Mind. In "How Does a Writer Put a Drug Trip Into Words?" Pollan lays bare the problem: while it was clear that he would have to trip in order to write his book, "it wasn’t at all obvious how I would write about that experience, one often described as, well, indescribable."
William James famously wrote that mystical experience—perhaps the closest analogue we have of a psychedelic trip—is “ineffable”: beyond the reach of language. I couldn’t count on a common frame of reference, since not all of my readers would be familiar with the exotic psychic terrain onto which I wanted to take them. Boring readers was another worry. Perhaps the second closest analogue of a psychedelic journey is the dream, and there is no surer way to drive people off—even your loved ones!—than to tell them your dreams. I’d also read enough “trip reports” online and in books to be acutely aware of the literary risks—what Arthur Koestler, a skeptic after his own psychedelic experiments, described as “pressure-cooker mysticism” and “cosmic schmaltz.”
Reading his next-day notes and journals, Pollan recognized with a sinking feeling something many of us have experienced: the lameness, sometimes embarrassment, of the drug epiphany. What sounded—what felt—solemnly profound and insightful at 3 a.m. in the dorm, at the party, in the bar, alone at home, read the next morning as trite, and often indecipherable. Famously, when Paul McCartney first got high with his bandmates in New York City, he asked ol' reliable Mal Evans to write down a head-clearing insight that Mccartney, liberated by the marijuana, had been vouchsafed: There are seven levels. McCartney may have indeed perceived something profound, even accurate, that we can't access in our clean and sober hours. But life-changing it wasn't.

Pollan continues: "What I realized, reading over my own dubious epiphanies, is that there is an inside and an outside to a psychedelic experience, and that one way to write about it would be to honor both perspectives more or less simultaneously. I wouldn’t take sides, in other words, but would instead attempt to cultivate a measure of intellectual generosity, a kind of negative capability, toward my mental doings, however bizarre, and at the same time frankly acknowledge the reader’s skepticism, which in fact I shared. I would be of two minds." This duality of perspective allowed Pollan to render, as best he could, the weirdness and irrationality of a trip. As he puts it, "Multiplying my authorial persona—or was I dividing it?—in this way allowed me to capture at least some of the paradoxicality and sheer weirdness of the psychedelic experience as no single, stable narrator could hope to do."
By this point in my story there were three distinct “I’s” telling it: the voyager reporting from inside the experience; the I who observes that first-person poof into Post-its (who is also “inside” the experience but at a remove); and, finally, the “outside” narrator who, acutely aware of just how crazy this all sounds and of the demands he is making of the reader, tries to assure her that it is only the limitations of language that make it hard to see there’s something here worth taking seriously. The acknowledgment of doubt is precisely what allows us to suspend it.
Pollan goes on to cite two books about drug experiences, one well known, The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley, the other obscure, Miserable Miracle by Henri Michaux. Huxley's book "is a seamless, confident, elegantly written travelogue of a psychedelic journey that the author found astonishing but entirely comprehensible." Michaux's account "took the opposite tack, refusing the offer of metaphor to make sense of an experience he believed was beyond the power of words to convey." Pollan attempted to locate his writing somewhere between those two poles, between beauty and chaos, rational and irrational. "I can see now that I was charting a path between Huxley’s Scylla of neat interpretation (I had none to offer) and Michaux’s Charybdis of incoherence."
But even though the anarchy of my experience bore a closer resemblance to Michaux’s, it seemed to me that to give up on language and metaphor, inadequate to the experience though they might be, would constitute a breach with my reader, who had already come some distance with me in my psychedelic journeying. Could I now abandon the reader in order to preserve some ideal of literary integrity?
Reading Pollan's struggles reminded me of Walter Benjamin's killer essay "Hashish in Marsailes," in which Benjamin recounts a night he doped-up and walked the streets, part lab analysis, part kicks. (He called these experiences in the late 1920s and early '30s “protocols of drug experiments.”) There's a subtle thread of comprehension and insight that runs through Benjamin's generally wacky experiences on that night involving the miraculous oneness he achieved with strangers, the strong sense of empathy and recognition he felt for his fellow men and women, and the indeed mind-blowing, and valuable, discovery that there is beauty to be found in the ugly, worth to be discovered in what was considered hitherto worthless. Benjamin ends the essay with a brilliant passage that I love to try and parse with my writing students because, for as many times as I've read and taught the essay, I can never quite get to the bottom of it: "When I recall [the state of being high] I should like to believe that hashish persuades nature to permit us—for less egoistic purposes—that squandering of our own existence that we know in love," he writes. "For if, when we love, our existence runs through nature's fingers like golden coins that she cannot hold and lets fall to purchase new birth thereby, she now throws us, without hoping or expecting anything, in ample handfuls to existence."

That feels like a foreign language that I only semi-understand. That's also the language of a changed man.


The Who at Monterey Pop, 1967
The Who played the Monterey Pop Festival on June 18, 1967. On the flight home to England, Townshend took a hit of STP, and the unnerving experience, a ghastly four-hour high with intense mind-body divide, profoundly affected him and drove him away from hallucinogenics, "and it was on an airplane over the Atlantic," he marveled later. "I said, ‘Fuck this, I can’t stand any more.’ And I was free of the trip. And I was just like floating in midair looking at myself in a chair, for about an hour and a half. And then I would go back in again and it would be the same. And I was just like, zap, completely unconscious as far as the outside world was concerned. But I was very much alive, crawling alive."
Eventually, it tailed off and then. you get like, instead of a night’s lovely planing out, nice colorful images, you get about a week of it and you get a week of trying to repiece your ego, remember who you were and what you are and stuff like that.
For his part, fellow passenger Daltrey remembers Townshend "staring fiercely at my caftan coat. God knows what was going on inside his head but he kept gibbering on about rainbows." Daltrey meaningfully added: "Two good things came from that journey." One was Townshend's new-found antipathy to hard drugs. The other? "Pete got the idea for 'I Can See For Miles'."

Chris Charlesworth has observed that "I Can See For MIles" is "psychedelic without being trippy," and others have remarked on the song's hallucinatory vibe, but Townshend has always denied that the record's a drug song. "I swoon when I hear the sound," he acknowledged in 1971, but added, "The words, which ageing senators have called ‘Drug Oriented‘, are about a jealous man with exceptionally good eyesight. Honest." Elsewhere he said, "It was [originally] written about jealousy but actually turned out to be about the immense power of aspiration. You often see what it is you want to reach, and know you can't get at it and say, ‘I'm gonna try.' Those words start to move you in a direction, as long as you say, ‘I can see what I want, but there's no way I can get it'."

Perhaps through tabs? I want to believe Daltrey, though he might be mistaking "...Miles" for "I Can't Reach You." I've always heard the heady grandiloquence in "I Can See For Miles" as, shall we say, chemically assisted. It sounds and feels that way: the song rises to the surface as if it has eternally existed in some form and needed the acid to reveal it; the guitar drones, the airy spaces in the arrangement, the menacing, smugly knowing reverb, Townshend's famous one-note guitar solo (which he'll revise a dozen complicated years later in the opening to "Empty Glass") that's both aggressive and passive, boring down yet complacent in, pleased with, its own distracted inertia. Keith Moon rumbles on his toms throughout and then snare-attacks the song in places as if awakened from a narcotic daze, his blissy galloping in the choruses chasing Townshend's ascending, vapor trail Stratocaster leads. The key change at the line "The Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal" feels like nothing less than the epiphanic next wave of the drug kicking in, our eyes open again to the newness and nowness of the song's discoveries. The wide-screen self-assurance in the song feels like newly-won insight, its arrival so surprising yet familiar that it could've only come from previously untapped channels.

Townshend, quoted in Marsh's bio: "You can tell what is and what isn't rock & roll. To be the real thing, a song has to have an awareness of rock history. It has to have the beat, that undulating rhythm. Even while it feels like history, it has to say something new. And most important, it has to have crammed into it all the poignancy and excitement of youth, because that's what it's really all about." 
John Dougan, in his 33 1/3 book on The Who Sell Out: the band's performance on "I Can See For Miles" "strains against the confines of the song itself, as if the band knew full well that maintaining control was impossible and, more importantly, beside the point.... As much as anything they‘d recorded to that point, 'I Can See for Miles' articulated the band’s uncontrollable desire to smash rock and roll to bits and start all over." 
Just turn it up.

"I Can See For Miles" psychedelic poster designed in 1967 by Michael English and Nigel Waymouth, known as Hapshash and the Coloured Coat. Via V&A.

No comments: