Sunday, November 16, 2003

Time I think for the first of our Barbelith book reports:

Turn Off Your Mind: the Mystic Sixties and the Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius, by Gary Valentine Lachman

(NB - this review deals with the first edition of the book published by Sidgwick & Jackson, rather than the recent revised edition published by Disinformation)

I'll firstly admit that this is the first new book I've bought for full price (extortionate, natch) for a long time, such is the appeal of the subject matter. I'll also admit straight off that more or less everything covered by this book truly fascinates me, and a lot of my tastes in art and literature are based directly on the comings and goings of some of this book's principal movers. Thus, this review is likely to be somewhat less than objective I'm afraid. But no matter, let us continue..

The whole 'dark side of the sixties' mythology, and the bad trip aesthetic of the seething depths of psychological fucked-up-ness boiling away beneath the veneer of flower power has of course emerged in pop culture numerous times before, but it's never been subjected to anything like the kind of investigation carried out by Gary Valentine Lachman (former Blondie bassist, fact fans) in this breathtakingly thorough tome.

Beginning, predictably but no less effectively, with a chilling 'just the facts ma'am' account of the Manson murders, Valentine's book (I like 'Valentine' better than 'Lachman', so that's what I'll call him) henceforth defies all expectations by diving headfirst into a range of subject matter, and a morass of vaguely interconnected threads of thought and synchronicity, wide enough to give even the most dedicated counterculture historian headaches. Before introducing the more obvious '60s coverage (Manson, Altamont, Leary, Kenneth Anger etc.), Valentine spends the first half of the (lengthy) book outlining the entire history of the various streams of twentieth century occultism, mysticism and alternative literature that fed into the sixties counterculture. He focuses primarily on personalities over wider social movements, and the index represents a veritable who's who of the pantheon of magicians, mad scientists, gurus, charlatans, visionaries, maniacs, artists, fantasists, criminals and freaks who created the world of, well .. weirdness that we of the Barbelith / Disinformation / Fortean Times generation tend to take for granted.
Extensive digressions from the book's primary theme provide introductions to everything from hardcore occultism (Levi, Blavatsky, Crowley) to the vaguer scattering of mysticism (Steiner, Jung, Krishnamurti) to the development of fantastic literature (Lovecraft, Tolkien, Howard) to the strange variety of previously overlooked authors resurrected by the hippies (Hesse, Huxley, Miller) to the beat generation (Burroughs, Kerouac and Alan Watts) to quack religion and the development of cults (Hubbard, LaVey, the DeGrimstons) to the new age paperback boom (Von Daniken, John Michel, Colin Wilson) to, inevitably, psychedelic drugs (Leary, Hoffman, Hollingshead). Endless other unusual personages gather in the cracks of the book’s text.. basically, you name them, they'll be in here somewhere.. probably getting high with Allen Ginsberg at a Golden Dawn meeting and talking about flying saucers..

Although the writing style is unashamedly anecdotal, highly readable and far from academic, the book nevertheless gives the impression of being almost encyclopaedic. Valentine's research has clearly been vast and the sheer amount of information contained herein is staggering. It's always fascinating, even when it’s covering old ground, and as a primer for anyone remotely interested in the areas mentioned above, it's perfect, endlessly assaulting the reader with ideas, mysteries, legendary exploits and unexpected connections, and providing ample recommendations for further reading. Crucially, Valentine avoids writing from the point of view of either a wide-eyed convert or a total cynic - he outlines the big ideas and achievements of the people involved whilst also taking care to draw attention to their frequent egomania, prejudice and disreputable conduct, leading to a uniquely straightforward and trustworthy journey through the frequently dim and labyrinthine halls of.. this sort of thing. Again it's the 'just the facts' style of presentation - almost unthinkably rare in publications dealing with occultism, psychedelia and general weirdness - which makes this such an essential read. Was Tesla really off his nut? Was the Maharishi really that much of a nice guy? Did Henry Miller really give a shit about the hippies? What the fuck was Crowley on when he wrote 'the Book of Lies'? – look up the appropriate page ref. and Gary Valentine'll give ya the FACTS!

It's in the second half of the book however that the 'dark side of the sixties' theme really begins to take hold, as Valentine narrows his field of investigation and begins to build a far from scientific, but nevertheless fairly sturdy, memetic/magical narrative, tracing certain motifs and elements of thought through various notable events of the 1960s, covering, in no particular order;
The still unbelievable antics of the Hollywood O.T.O faction led by Jack Parsons, L. Ron Hubbard and Marjorie Cameron. The vague but strangely persistent rumours of the Rolling Stones occult dalliances, leading up to the making of 'Performance' (scripted by Crowley-ite Donald Cammel) and, of course, Altamont. Tim Leary's unconscious encounter in the Indian desert with the spectres of Crowley and John Dee and the re-emergence of the demon Chronozon. The apocalyptic and fascistic Church of the Final Process and their supposed influence upon Charles Manson. Kenneth Anger's monumentally foreboding and bad vibe attracting 'Lucifer Rising' project. Abbie Hoffman and Allen Ginsberg's exorcism of the Pentagon and the momentary melding of magick and politics. And above all the inevitable collapse of the 'hippy movement' into confusion and entropy.

All of which is cracking stuff. Despite the 'dark side' theme, this book does little to deflate the insidious nostalgic view of the '60s as a legendary, unreal space in which anything was possible (in which "you could kick up sparks anywhere.." - Hunter S. Thompson is notable by his absence from the gargantuan index), and in fact it enhances it immeasurably for those of us for whom the promise of dangerous energies, dark mysteries and wild rumblings of superhuman occult patterns still hold an endless fascination.

By far the least satisfying part of the book however is Valentine's short concluding chapter, a rather rushed and/or lazy piece of writing in which he draws together various disparate elements of modern culture - the goth/industrial scene's fascination with Manson and Hitler, the solipsism and violent elitism of the Matrix, the Waco massacre and Tokyo sarin gas attacks etc. - and relates them to themes that have been addressed in earlier chapters, concluding that the ideological legacy of the '60s counter-culture has been twisted into "the gnostic motif of breaking through to the other side.. coupled with a Gestapo-like dresscode, shades and plenty of guns."
An apt critique of the Matrix maybe, but an extremely strange conclusion to a piece about the impact of the '60s, and one which I'd imagine more than a few environmentalists, feminists, left-wing academics and political activists, neo-psychedelic rock bands, 'new age' practitioners and advocates of communal living may feel like taking issue with.

Leaving that aside though, this is an endlessly informative book that deserves to attain classic status within its field and is a truly essential read for all you magickians, alt-culture connoisseurs, heads, mystics, "cool eggheads and stoner motherfuckers" (thanks to Grant Morrison, who'd surely feature prominently in 'the dark side of the '90s', for that one) out there.

Review by Ben at 11:17 pm
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Gary Valentine Lachman - Turn Off Your Mind: the Mystic Sixties and the Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius
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