The Age of Aquarius

This is apt to be the most free-ranging letter I'll pen, treating both syntax and semantics, while looking for connections all over the place. The reason should be obvious if you've read any other of these entries. I've always considered myself a child of the Aquarian Age, from day-one right on up to today. It lives in me and I in it, despite what the rest of the world is up to. As such, quite a bit of this essay is personal, although I certainly hope to touch on some of the broader musical associations applying to culture in general. Though I've mentioned elsewhere that I seek neither to explain nor defend, merely to describe, what follows comes dangerously close to offering both an explanation and a defense. All because of music.

Beginning in junior high, I sensed something was changing in the social order. Rock and roll was the telegraph. That parents feared it, some even going so far as to throw up a shield round their progeny, only added to its power and mystery. For whatever reason my part of town (populated mostly by academic types) was heavily Presbyterian and many of its members were of that stern "spare not the rod" mindset, maybe not physically but worse, mentally. Children were expected to grow exactly the same way as the parents had done and never open Pandora's box. Preserving society, not raising kids, was the main goal.

Naturally, I was quite interested in Pandora's box, or anyone's box, for that matter. Moreover, I had completely misinterpreted which rod was not to be spared.

In such a constrictive environment, it was inevitable that rock and roll bands would become the codetalkers, much like the Navajo soldiers of World War II.

My gang and I heard and understood.

The Dave Clark Five, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, the Association (remember
Enter the Young?), and then later Steppenwolf, the Fugs and Arthur Brown, even later Janis, Jimi and Jim, all these and others were telling us to be bold. To take a gamble. To grow.

And the entire time nagging in the background like a tooth which has just dropped its filling was Viet Nam. Lyndon, Hubert, J. Edgar, and then especially Richard, became the real enemies, not the Viet Cong. We felt helpless at first, but then some courageous individuals like McGovern, McCarthy, Chomsky, and Leary stepped forward and all of a sudden we no longer felt alone or destined to pave America smooth with Presbyterian concrete.

I'm not claiming the acolytes of the Age of Aquarius were cowardly (anything but if you caught the coverage of the Democratic convention in 1968 or followed the consequence in the Chicago Seven trial or consider the brave unsung conscripts who headed to Sweden and Canada). But certainly, having like-minded supporters decked out in business-like gray suits offered just a bit of legitimacy. No longer was the revolution localized to the tiny district of Haight-Ashbury. The Age was now being trumpeted from the Senate, Harvard, MIT and elsewhere. Hah! I still remember gawking at the FBI posters hanging in the post office; the majority of the "Most Wanted" fugitives emanated from Madison or Palo Alto or Berkeley, guilty of subversion, a synonym for hating war. Colleges, once seen as the best way to maintain the previous order, had finally become dangerous--exactly what the Moors envisioned them to be when created in the 1100s.

So, first it was the music, then the war, then academia. But one mustn't forget narcotics. And, of course, the Pill or that it no longer mattered who crawled on top. All told, it was a confluence beyond belief. I feel very lucky to have been there.

But back to the performing arts which in many ways formed the very heart of the Age. Perhaps one of the most important events was the staging of
Hair. But first consider its progenitors.

While a Puccini opera or a Stravinksy ballet hinted at the power of multimedia, surely the combination of story, song and dance became the most potent way to shoot an arrow from the stage. As the Greeks knew, appealing to the mind alone is not enough. The surest path to the soul is by an amalgam of intellect, movement and tone.

Like rock and roll, the theatrical musical is a stealth weapon. I sensed this very early on, way back in junior high. While quite a few prior entries had progressed little from the fluff of London music halls, all of a sudden we had something like
West Side Story. Not only was dance for the very first time so accurate you could set your watch by it, but the insanely evocative score by Bernstein made it obvious he was on our side, not our parents. The syncopation inherent in the words, the movement and the music combined to create something greater than the sum of the parts.

Dead serious: a number of scenes in West Side Story give me, to this day, a very definite lump in the throat, an ache in the midsection or a hollowness in the heart. The story by itself, from Shakespeare, never had that effect. Very clearly it's the interpretation via dance and song which transforms this from a purely intellectual exercise.

Even in my teenage years, I recognized the artform of the musical as something akin to the Eleusinian Mysteries, not representational but presentational, a far stronger idea. Its audience consists of participants not spectators.

Which brings us back to Hair, in many ways a direct descendent of West Side Story. My comments below apply to the film version and other popular interpretations, not necessarily the stage version which I've never seen.

I became aware of it in 1969, forever the year of magick for me. That's when the Fifth Dimension assembled two of the major songs from Hair into a pop package, and a fine job they did. That it instantly went to #1 suggested the world might be a little different from that of just a year earlier. And I kid you not: from then to now, every time I hear this rendition, I cry. Oscar Wilde's "mere words" rarely have that effect, so it must be the uncanny chord structure which always reminds me of what we had and what we lost. Let's hear it now.

I just got the shivers as I listened to it again.

May I draw you attention to a few details? First, and foremost, that bass part is perhaps the finest ever in the history of rock. I recommend you go back and hear it again. It was played by Joe Osborn, a member of the storied and mostly anonymous Wrecking Crew. I assure you, though: you've heard more from this hidden collection of instrumentalists than any other musicians, in your life. Look 'em up on the Web and you'll see what I mean. Rather interesting is that Osborn used a plectrum, a moderately rare occurrence among bassists. (The only other ones who come to mind are his colleague Carol Kaye, and Rick Huxley from the Dave Clark Five).

Once again, we see a musician understanding how important the holes are. In particular, it's clear Osborn could play the complete Flight of the Bumblebee in under thirty seconds if he really wanted to. Instead, notice how during the verses he goes into drone mode, one tone only, essentially walking in quarter notes, but with syncopation naturally. Contrast this with Ted Nugent who blabs as much on guitar as he does with his noxious voice.

I still contend, tacits are the most underrated part of sexy music.

Next, one of the things that always boggles me about this piece is the key change (modulation) down a whole step to commence the chorus. What gets me is that it doesn't seem like a key change at all. I only know of one or two other such instances in all of rock and roll, where the modulation slides by completely unnoticed. In this case, it comes across simply as an intensification of emotion. In particular, when the male voices enter, note how they bob above and below the female voices--damped oscillatory it's called in mathematics--before finally clustering around the lead line for the powerful start of the chorus.

I usually weep at that point: always have, always will. In so many ways, that little bridge from verse to chorus so typifies what I think of when pondering the wonderful Age of Aquarius.

And then the Fifth Dimension segues into Let the Sunshine In. Wow! What an incredible idea! Very clearly, the basis is old spirituals or perhaps native African folk music and harmonies. But all wrapped around another insane bass part. Here Joe Osborn really cuts loose and if you didn't know better, you'd swear he wrote the entire song. I love the hammer-ons which occur when least expected.

Can I urge you to play it one more time while focusing exclusively on the bass line? It will repay your scrutiny. While doing so, try to see how the tune was sending an encrypted message back in 1969. That's the way I'll always see it.

Back to the stage for a few moments. The musical Hair was incredibly successful. Consider these statistics:
  • 1750 performances on Broadway
  • 1997 performances in the West End of London
  • original cast LP sold over 3 million copies
  • the most successful score in history, based upon royalties generated
And then there were the nine regional (U.S.) productions running simultaneously, more than any play before. Do you see that this had become much more than "just" a musical? It was an event, reflecting and shaping an era.

Apart from Viet Nam, it was having other effects. Like the vindication of D. H. Lawrence's
Lady Chatterley's Lover not many years earlier in the world of literature,  Hair brought about the end of Britain's repressive theater censorship law. Works of art are always far stronger than prison houses, but sometimes you have to be patient.

More: touring productions of the play were banned in many states of the Union, the Supreme Court got involved twice, bombs were lobbed at venues. Best of all, in my pacifist Minnesota, a concerned church minister set 18 white mice free in the lobby of a St. Paul theater, hoping to frighten patrons away with scampering rodents.

Hair and the Age of Aquarius were the De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium of our day. 

After the fact, a decade later, the film version of
Hair came out. While too late to effect any change in the madness of Washington and America in general, it certainly made me look back with great fondness of from where I had come. I sort of knew at the time I was in the midst of a revolution and was on the noble side, but the movie helped ease my conscience.

Older now, with more schooling and more thought, I saw bigger issues at play which might not have been noticed earlier. Let's see how the film starts, with
Aquarius of course. 

Whoa! So much to comment on here.

First off is the opening sequence of the Oklahoma father, who clearly somehow still believes in America, putting his son on the bus to head to Viet Nam. But both scared shitless. I was scared shitless in 1971. When Julie Andrews sang "My Favorite Things" in the Sound of Music, killing people I didn't even know was curiously missing from the list.

The bus taking off from lonely Oklahoma leaving a head-scratching father behind is one of the saddest things I've ever seen in a movie.

And then the bass comes in. Ah, it's always the bass, isn't it? Much like the eyes of a lover, the bass guitar is the one which really seduces. In this case, the amazing score is played by Wilbur Bascomb. What's so cool is how the original rendition takes on a more Latin American calypso feel, almost in the vein of Girl from Ipanema. It's enough to make a  pelvis undulate, which no doubt was intentional. The bass part is staggering.

I bumped into an insanely talented amateur performing it on YouTube that you really ought to hear (on decent speakers or headphones). Being able to see as well as hear what's involved really reveals just how advanced the technique was and what the bass part was doing to corral the remaining parts. It's almost as though the other instruments and voices were wild horses with the bass guitar being a lasso.  Check it out:

Back to the movie. Next up, is the scene of Berger burning his draft card. Yeah, I understand that now. I would have understood it back in 1971. But that's just not me. Instead, I had fully intended to employ my draft card as lavatory paper if it came down to brass tacks. Fortunately, Tricky Dick never put me in the position of making that decision, my lottery number falling toward the middle in the midst of a pointless war.

And then something which really caught my eye. As the hippies are burning draft cards in a barrel, a couple mounted NYC cops arrive on the scene, one on a coal black steed, the other on pure white. Get it? This is what the Age of Aquarius was all about, I think. Those two horses are most assuredly Plato's pair from his Chariot Allegory. The cops, representing traditional authority, were suggesting you needed both to grow. Just like Oscar Wilde's
To cure the soul by the senses, and senses by the soul...
Like Lady Chatterley (and yes, the Allegory really does appear in the novel), the black horse was always most appealing to me.

I mentioned earlier how important the terpsichorean aspect is to a well-crafted musical. In
Hair we have Twyla Tharp as choreographer, who must have been a real taskmaster, for indeed this is dance at its most complex. It's the old lump in the throat routine all over again, now by mere movement. First the words, then the music (still that bass pumping monotones, leaving holes all over the place) and now movement to match.

Specifically, when the Central Park scene commences, look for the joint mudra between the black guy and the white girl. What a brilliant idea on the part of the choreographer! Back then, people knew yoga comes in many flavors, something forgotten nowadays when it's reduced to hatha only, worthy of little more than a YMCA fitness course.

Anyway, the mudra in that scene was so well done and a clever addition to modern dance. And that the participants cross races, well...

Then the song,
Aquarius, begins. Oh my. That beautiful girl, singing one of the most beautiful songs ever, about one of the most beautiful eras ever.

Now Claude, the Okie, arrives bewildered by the hippies and their freedom, wondering if maybe the world is larger than at first expected. I identified with that at once. The actor really gets across that perhaps what he learned on the range isn't the full extent of what's out there. The hippies, in all manner of dress, men and women, of all colors, freely exchange love in that dance sequence (around the 3 minute mark if you want to review). The choreography there, particularly, is highly suggestive. And brilliant.

And then, after almost being seduced by the hippies, the shy Claude averts his eyes from the liberation they offer, but has no trouble focusing on the mounted cops, and a little later, the society girl on a Central Park hack. He, much like me in those days, was enticed but still unsure whether to believe it. It all seemed too good to be true.

Building to a climax, the hippies go gangbusters in perhaps the most intense (both physically and emotionally) dance sequence ever. Aleister Crowley should have waited a few decades, for around the 4 minute mark is a clear terpsichorean interpretation of
Liber Oz. Catch my drift?

I have mentioned the importance of precision in dance if it is to add to the story. Well! Kindly watch how the Asian girl launches the guy into a flying somersault, and then later ascends the shoulders of another hippie as an act of growth.  The physical interpretation is magnificent and Tharp raised the clarity of communication several notches in the art.

And now we skip to the end of the film for the moving anthem, Let the Sunshine In.

The hesitation and fear in Berger's body language is so truthful; I felt the same way back then.

The gigantic queue of marching men--boys, really--being swallowed up by the troop transport airplane, needs little explanation of course. An entire generation is about to be broken for no good reason. It's a visual interpretation of Allen Ginsberg's,
What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?

Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks
The gaping mouth of the transport is Moloch. In the Age of Aquarius, individuals dreamt of life, while society was still centered on preparing only for death.

Finally, after a slow build, the musical chords attain ascendency at the cemetery.  The dance is static now, a tableaux of a tribe simply gazing at the tombstones, wondering what America means. Though motionless, it's dance no less. The story line, of course, forces one to consider what we had and how we lost it. But the music cuts through all the rhetoric, piercing the heart with unforgettable harmonies, reminding us how important it is to make good use of the only life we've been given.

Previously, musicals were completely dominated by the diatonic scale. (They don't get any more diatonic than "Doe, a deer, a female deer...). Now, possibly for the first time in the history of the stage, the pentatonic scale assumed prominence, making this truly a rock musical. Hence my claim that Hair captured both the syntax and the semantics of the Age of Aquarius.

And the personal side of things? Well, what caught my attention at the outset is that in my astrological chart, the Moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter is aligned with Mars. 

Pareidolia? Maybe, but you'll have a hard time convincing me, having come of age in the Age.

Anyway, there are worse things to believe in. 

Next installment: Ed, Tuli, Ken and Naked Bill

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