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December 3, 2010

Book Notes - Peter Conners ("White Hand Society: The Psychedelic Partnership of Timothy Leary & Allen Ginsberg")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

White Hand Society: The Psychedelic Partnership of Timothy Leary & Allen Ginsberg explores the friendship between two of the psychedelic movement's most prominent figures, while also painting a vivid history of the culture of the times. Exhaustively researched and always well-written, this is one of the most informative and entertaining books I have read about the 1960s as well as the Beats.

The San Francisco Chronicle wrote of the book:

"Conners writes like a poet and researches like a scholar. He pored over hundreds of letters, FBI files and other primary sources to shed new light on these two avatars of altered consciousness."

In his own words, here is Peter Conners' Book Notes music playlist for his book, White Hand Society: The Psychedelic Partnership of Timothy Leary & Allen Ginsberg:

"The Golden Road (to Unlimited Devotion)" by the Grateful Dead

Well, I'm a Deadhead. And a Deadhead will always start any song list with the Grateful Dead. It's part of the contract. That said, this song speaks most clearly to White Hand Society on all sorts of levels. The song title says it all. This sort of unbridled optimism and the sense of abandoning oneself to a larger calling evokes the brightest side of the 1960s counterculture. This isn't the Kennedy assassination-Vietnam War-Charles Manson-burnt-out-speed-freaks-on-Haight Street 1960s. This is the paint-your-face-and-go-down-to-Golden-Gate-Park-for-a-free-show-by-the-Good-Ole-Grateful-Dead 1960s. This is the 1960s that baby boomers get nostalgic for and every generation since has chased into some ever-dissolving kaleidoscopic morning. This is the high before the comedown. "Everybody's dancing in a ring around the sun/Nobody's finished, we ain't even begun." When I think of the culmination of Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary's "partnership" as traced through White Hand Society, I picture them on stage together at the 1967 Human Be-In at Golden Gate Park; an event that was arguably the largest scale and purest hippie gathering. In my head, I hear the Grateful Dead playing this song behind Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg as they sit cross-legged on the stage adorned with flowers and beads. It didn't happen that way, but you dream your dream and I'll dream mine.

"Legend of a Mind" by the Moody Blues

This may very well be the only song that will ever make me yearn to hear "Nights in White Satin". A full two minute flute solo? Really? It's like smoking a joint with a kinda-cool guidance counselor while he alternately counsels you on the dangers of drugs and tries to convince you of his hipster bona fides. In short, it's enough to make you want to quit drugs altogether. Of course, I'm obligated to add this song to the list because it's all about Timothy Leary. You know the one. It's that "Timothy Leary's dead" song. It actually contains the lyrics "he'll fly his astral plane,/take you trips around the bay/Brings you back the same day/Timothy Leary." It's apparently illegal to make a documentary about Timothy Leary without using this song – which works out well for the Moody Blues' licensing arm. And, hey, don't get me wrong, it's pretty badass to have the Moody Blues pimp your shit like Bob Marley pimped Haile Selassie. But in the world of 1960s psychedelic rock this tune has held up slightly better than Strawberry Alarm Clock's "Incense and Peppermints". And there's nothing groovy about that.

"In the Presence of the Lord" by Blind Faith

Back story: Steve Winwood, Ric Grech, Ginger Baker, and Eric Clapton get together in 1968 and form the first proper super-group. They make one album, stay together for one year, and make one of the richest, most textured blues-based rock opuses of all times.

Front Story: During the writing of White Hand Society, I decided I needed to convert my basement junk room into a little writing space of my own. I scraped the old cat puke off the linoleum, rolled some greenish paint onto the walls, and unpacked a few boxes of small, talismanic items that mean something only to me. I was almost ready to work. The last thing I needed was tunes. So I brought down my cheap I-pod dock and one of those original full-size white I-pods stuffed full of music I hadn't listened to in years. I put the I-pod into the dock, started scrolling alphabetically, and quickly found myself at Blind Faith. Shortly thereafter "In the Presence of the Lord" became the soundtrack to my writing of the White Hand Society.

"Gotterdammerung" by Wilhelm Richard Wagner

I've never personally listened to Wagner on mushrooms, but I can see the possibilities. 
Allen Ginsberg selected this opera by the late 19th century German composer as the soundtrack to his first trip at Leary's house at Harvard. Always a great chronicler of such transformative events (and lots of small ones elevated to the level of transformative), Ginsberg described the experience like this: "Suddenly out of the window saw image as of the Bethlehem star, heard great horns of Gotterdammerung-Wagner on the phonograph I'd arranged to hear in the room. Like the horns of judgment calling from the ends of the cosmos—called on all human consciousness to declare itself the end of consciousness. Seemed as if all the world of human consciousness were waiting for a messiah, someone to take on the responsibility of being the creative god and seize power over the universe. Milton's Lucifer flashed through my mind. Paradise Lost, a book I'd never understood before—why Milton sided with Lucifer the rebel in heaven. I got up out of bed and walked downstairs naked Orlovsky following me curious what I would do and willing to go along in case I did anything interestingly extravagant. Urging me on in fact, thank god."

The ball is in your court Moody Blues.

"Come Together" and "Tomorrow Never Knows" by the Beatles

Fun Beatles Fact #1: "Come Together" started out as a spontaneously composed campaign song for Timothy Leary's 1969 run for Governor of California.

Fun Beatles Fact #2: Timothy Leary was in the hotel room for John and Yoko's Bed-In for Peace. The day after the big event, Lennon asked Leary what he could do to help him with the governor campaign. Leary replied that Lennon could write a campaign song for him. Tim was already using the slogan "Come Together, Join the Party." Lennon picked up his guitar and started singing, "Come together/Right now/Don't come tomorrow, don't come alone/Come together/Right now/Over me/All that I can tell you is/You gotta be free." The rest, as they say, is history.

Fun Beatles Fact #3: Despite the help of a genius campaign songwriter, Leary didn't win the race. Ronald Reagan did.

Fun Beatles Fact #4: "Tomorrow Never Knows" was inspired by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and Ram Das' (né Richard Alpert) translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead into a tripping manual called The Psychedelic Experience. As did thousands of other LSD-dropping spiritual seekers, John Lennon used the book as a guide for his own trips. He would later say, "I got a message on acid that you should destroy your ego…and I did, you know. I was reading that stupid book of Leary's (the psychedelic manual based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead) and all that shit. We were going through a whole game that everyone went through, and I destroyed myself… I destroyed my ego and I didn't believe I could do anything."

Author's Opinion: I'll take "Come Together" over "Tomorrow Never Knows" any day. Listening to Lennon's soul-frying delivery of lines like "Here come old flattop/ He come grooving up slowly/ He got joo-joo eyeball/He one holy roller" is as good as rock-n-roll gets. Maybe even worth temporary ego death.

"Kraj Majales" by Allen Ginsberg (off The Lion for Real album)

Wanna hear Allen Ginsberg at his mojo-strongest but just don't feel like doing the same old "Howl" thing everyone else does? Of course you do. You're an individual. So check this out. Journalist Steve Silberman hipped me to it at just the right time and it is now and forever the track I'll play for anyone curious about Allen Ginsberg. Steve says this about The Lion for Real, "This album lays moody, resonant readings of Allen's poetry into atmospheric and haunting jazz soundscapes played by NY's best and brightest: Arto Lindsay, Marc Ribot, Bill Frisell. The recording of "Kral Majales" is perhaps the best musical setting of Allen's poetry ever done -- all of this is passionate, intelligent music, with Allen's Jovian Blake voice the dark jewel at the center."

There's more back-story to the poem "Kraj Majales" than I could possibly do justice to here, so let's just say it involves a true story about Allen being crowned "The King of May" by thousands of Czech students and then being immediately expelled from the country for being a corrupting influence on its youth. Oh yeah, he was also expelled from Cuba on the same trip for the same reason.

Peter Conners and White Hand Society: The Psychedelic Partnership of Timothy Leary & Allen Ginsberg links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book (at Reality Sandwich)

The Daily Beat review
DoseNation review
Kirkus Reviews review
The Psychedelic Press UK review
The Rag Blog review
San Francisco Chronicle review
Washington City Paper review

Booklife interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

Online "Best Books of 2010" lists

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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