Dreams Unreal introduction

My book, Dreams Unreal: The Genesis of the Psychedelic Rock Poster, was released in January of this year, published by UNM Press. The idea began as merely a catalog to accompany an exhibition I was curating at my then museum job. Circumstances allowed the project to expand, and resulted in a stand-alone, 400 page, hardback, five-pound coffee table behemoth. As I proceeded to single-handedly get this project through to production, I learned that dozens of other attempts had been made to create something along these lines, but due mainly to complex copyright issues, they’d all failed. Somehow, the project was blessed, and squeaked through. I think it is near selling out what I hope is only the first printing. I tried to not only provide an overview of the art that would satisfy neophytes and aficionados alike, but appreciatively tell the story of the period this art encapsulated and illustrates. This introduction was the last thing I wrote. In it, I wanted to also clearly underscore the ambivalence the era should evoke for us, looking back. Usually this material gets the full nostalgia treatment, with boomers waxing rhapsodic about their trips, the sex, and all the groovy vibes. I think they also unleashed much of the hell that currently threatens to unravel our entire civilization.

I wanted to include an example of contemporary design that shows the influence of these psychedelic posters. I immediately thought of La Cumbre brewery in Albuquerque. It turns out their original graphic designer was indeed directly inspired by these posters. I specifically wanted to use a label from a beer that had since been discontinued. It shows masked and hooded anarchists hurling molotov cocktails at police in riot gear. The design was made years ago. I even chose it before “peaceful riots” were daily occurrences across the nation. It perfectly illustrates what I was alluding to in this short essay, which if I had written today would probably hit a bit harder. I also would likely have mentioned Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, which is easily my favorite film of his, and maybe my favorite movie released this century. He gives hippies and the counterculture the lambasting they richly deserve. I was born at the end of that decade, and grew up in its wake, pushing back against its excesses. Most of the music is absolutely dreadful. The art is better. Still, it still often pulsates with the nauseating hangover of too many drugs, too much debauchery, and the hubris of young people who didn’t properly appreciate “them that brung them to the dance,” and the sacrifices made on their behalf. It’s only gotten worse.

“Without Contraries is No Progression.” 

– William Blake

It can be hard to believe that the Summer of Love and the social transformations it augured occurred over half a century ago. The changes since have been extraordinary, yet many aspects of the tumultuous late-1960s feels eerily resonant today. Most people alive now weren’t there to see it first hand, and only a tiny minority then were really on the front lines. We all nevertheless live today in its inescapable wake. We simply can’t imagine a world without the social equalities, magical tech, and endless creative genres the protean 1960s “counterculture” directly affected. None of these things would exist, or exist in the same way, without psychedelic substances having exerted their influence on millions of individuals who detoured civilization onto their own magical mystery tours, and long, strange trips. That said, we also face the era’s long shadows.

Interest in psychedelics is resurgent today with a force unprecedented since desperate blanket prohibitions were instituted fifty-plus years ago. Recognition for the potential of this class of psychoactive drugs for therapeutic use has never had more traction, and personal implementation proliferates despite controversial illegality. Medical researchers are finally getting the permissions necessary to again investigate these most illicit of substances. Voters in Denver, Colorado recently decriminalized “magic” mushrooms. With hopefully less precipitous risks, over three dozen American states have legalized cannabis for medical or recreational use, and industrial hemp is now permitted federally. A hippie in 1968, told most states (along with a growing number of whole nations) would have legal weed by 2020, would probably first ask, “what took so long?” They’d likely be unable to imagine how rough the road has been in the interim. The body count (literal and figurative) of the drug wars is incalculable. In this context, a look back at what its most influential artist/messengers discovered and expressed under the influence feels especially timely.

After a period of skepticism (if not outright snobbery), the general attitude of arts and cultural establishments today has drifted decisively toward acceptance if not outright plaudits for the countercultural rebels who defined the tenor and tone of the psychedelic era. But these artists certainly didn’t set out looking for that kind of approval. They were social outsiders, who saw themselves as spiritual insiders. They aspired to be cowboys, explorers, pirates, Zen sages, and primordial nomads more than businessmen, scholars, or cultural elites (although they sometimes ended up being those, too.) Earlier modern fine artists — Realists, Impressionists, Symbolists, Cubists, Surrealists, Expressionists, et al. — also defined themselves as rebels, fringe dwellers, and pioneers. The high modern ethos was predicated on restless development and challenge. But modern artists largely rejected populism, catering instead to a burgeoning connoisseur class who collected their transgressive masterpieces. Psychedelic poster artists made commercial art for the literal street, and for fellow “freaks” who in some cases lived on it. 

Grateful Dead Fare Thee Well photographed at Soldier Field in Chicago, IL July 5, 2015�Jay Blakesberg

These outsiders have long since been mainstreamed, and institutional gatekeepers have more-or-less caught up. When The Grateful Dead gave a series of farewell concerts at Soldier Field in 2015, the true victors of the culture wars were obvious. The shaggy remaining members of the Dead, more than just gently touched by gray, sold out that gargantuan Chicago stadium for three straight nights; 210,000 attended in person, while millions more watched pay-per-views and replays. Hundreds of books have been written about this one band, dozens of movies made, thousands of products marketed, catering to the most devoted fan cult of any group ever. Likewise for their contemporaries: The Airplane, The Who, Janis, & Jimi. Not to mention The Beatles, those timeless pop demi-gods for whom whole industries of reverence have been constructed. It’s safe to say that American if not global culture has already for decades been rock-and-roll culture, whether one likes it or not.

From our vantage in this incomprehensibly more complex and skeptical time, it’s easy to puff up previous generations of trailblazers with a certain awe, maybe even envy, necessarily leavened with a pinch of suspicion. They appear a daring lot, those rebellious Beats and Hippies, willing to risk family, society, even madness and death, in pursuit of something resembling spiritual enlightenment, or elusive egalitarian utopias. Many were driven by a longing to return to something, or heal something intangible but deep, just as many are today. These noble impulses were sometimes hijacked by hedonic escapism: the urge for mere kicks, one more high, another trip. Violence and abuse regularly accompanied this openness to experience; ideals were sometimes traded for cash, or manipulated by the powers that be.  In the 1970s and ‘80s, free love turned out to have real costs. This is just to say that plenty of dark was cast by the dizzyingly bright lights of psychedelic insight. Both are amply evident in the art.

With twice as many people on the planet today as in 1967, each of their voices potentially augmented (or drowned out) by increasingly intrusive technology, the stakes feel higher, the threats spookier; deep meaning, reality, and truth ever more intangible. American social cohesion is certainly at its lowest ebb since that time, with fabled student protests and civil rights marches on the evening news replaced by much uglier and more mindless scenes in a perpetual chyron of data, and (too often) disinformation. Other media contrasts are just as mind-bending. Back then, out-there TV looked like The Twilight Zone, or the Starship Enterprise going where no man had gone before. The titular character in I Dream of Jeanniecouldn’t show her belly button. In retrospect, it all appears achingly campy and quaint. Today, we recognize darker possibilities in shows like the aptly named Black Mirror, or the conspiratorial Stranger Things. Last vestiges of “square” social propriety are assaulted daily on the largest media platforms. Super Bowl halftime shows and music award performances subversively serve as disturbing mass ritual initiations. With such things in mind, the cartoonish Satanism and Luciferian Illuminism often evident in the psychedelic era can appear less dismissible or benign, if nevertheless distinctly prophetic. Thanks, Aleister Crowley?

Waves of psychic adventurers since the 1960s have documented their psychedelic insights in readily available books and films. Popular comedian, MMA fight commentator, and podcasting behemoth Joe Rogan reaches hundreds of millions of listeners worldwide with his prodigious weekly output of online content. To his youthful audience, while he and his guests (including a who’s who of current mind-altering enthusiasts) openly imbibe copious quantities of cannabis, Rogan persistently sings the praises of magic mushrooms and the drug DMT, extolling them as panaceas for most of society’s ills. Thousands of bliss-seeking YouTubers share their trip reports in videos available to anyone, anytime on demand. Skeptics don’t just include the Christian fundamentalist Church Ladies “hip” comedians have relentlessly mocked for decades. They include scientists, psychologists, addiction specialists, sociologists, even parents who’ve been there, done that, and wouldn’t recommend it to their own kids.

With such issues increasingly intruding into social and political consciousness, what do we make of the art that illustrated the Psychedelic Revolution 1.0? Even forgetting about the instinctual fondness for the bands and music so often invoked, these bright, exciting concert posters are irresistible to contemporary sensibilities well accustomed to their cacophonous dissonances and occult symbologies. Seductively shocking in their time, they can appear downright tame compared even to contemporary children’s cartoons, much less adult media and graphic design American audiences consume daily. The intention of this publication is to frame these posters as art, placing them in a “secular” critical context rather than one of mere cultish celebration, encouraging focused attention on the pure power of these undeniably savvy designs and the artists who produced them. Yet we can’t lose sight of the posters as propaganda. They were quite literally selling something. Sure, there were the specific events they were intended to promote, but they also sold a lifestyle, an attitude, and an ethos. Art in our society is often considered little more than an afterthought, a negligible by-product of economics or politics; a civic good at its best, but optional. This view fails to recognize that aesthetics includes everything: thought and feeling, past and future, eros and logos, life and death. Of most interest is what these posters and their aesthetic say to us today about ourselves, not just as relics of a bygone age. Every culture, and individual in it, has their shadows. It is not the purpose here to underscore either the light or the dark, but rather to foster a curiosity about both, and an open inquiry into how the psychedelic era continues to inform our own, for good and ill.

-Titus O’Brien

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