For many of his vintage, Bob Dylan's 60th birthday was an event full of resonance: the hero of a generation that never wanted to grow old is approaching senior citizen status. Sixty may be the new 40, and this was a moment that called for reflection. "It's not dark yet," Dylan sings on his most recent album Time Out of Mind, "but it's getting there."
Dylan was one of the key figures in a cultural wave inspired by the visions and rebellion of adolescence and that, for a brief while, promised to sweep greyness from the world. Many have always believed that the culture of the 1960s was bound to come down with a crash from the high to which so many had climbed with the help of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. It has been argued that the call, both apolitical and ahistorical, to "be here now" and drop out from society, inevitably marginalised the 1960s generation. Youth culture might have fuelled new departures in capitalism, but the revolution was little more than a head trip. To others, on the right, the counterculture made possible the tragic decay of social and political institutions and the breakdown of values essential to civilised life.
Nick Bromell, who teaches English and American literature in New England, has attempted to rescue the period from the common interpretations - from both right and left - of this moment in western cultural history as little more than a misguided and at times dangerous manifestation of hedonism and idealism. Bromell claims to have written "a book that deals with something that began 30 years ago and is still going on, something fundamental and unresolved in American culture".
He argues that the fusion of rock and psychedelics helped prepare us for a postmodern world, weary of dominant narratives posing as gospel or scientific truth and a view of history as the progress-driven ascent of western civilisation. For all its rejection of intellect, Bromell argues for a serious re-assessment of the 1960s counterculture as a phenomenon that radically changed the way that we see and talk about the world.
Bromell admits that attempting to make sense of a cultural movement that was hell-bent on "dispensing with the narrative of coherence" is going to be difficult. But in a book that is much enhanced by brevity and conciseness, the author provides a stimulating take on the 1960s. For an academic work that trades on current ideas about cultural change, Tomorrow Never Knows is surprisingly free of jargon and very well written.
Bromell deftly combines personal reminiscences - for he got high in the 1960s and thought about it - with a personal account of his generation's collective journey of discovery. He writes about the odyssey from a particularly American point of view, appropriating aspects of British culture as if they were his own. He remembers drawing deep significance from The Beatles' "She was just seventeen/ You know what I mean", transforming the second line's very British bit of light sexual innuendo into something far more meaningful, and betraying the way in which a stoned mind could read all kinds of things into the most banal lyrics. Many of Bromell's readings are thought provoking, but others smack of over-interpretation. Some images are best left to work their magic without the dubious benefit of analysis.
Bromell's subjective approach has strengths as well as weaknesses: the first-person stance is engaging and enlightening, as when he describes looking at a photograph of himself in 1968, "the possessor of an adolescent wisdom I've forgotten or mislaid". True to his postmodern pluralist agenda, Bromell argues for the co-existence of divergent wisdoms, rather than a single route to certainty. Throughout the book - and this is one of the things that distinguishes it from other studies of the period - he explores the shift in perspective that time forces on us and the difficulty of retrieving the feel of the past from the point of view of the present. This, as he argues, is all the more true of experiences that were so much about "being here now" and thus elusively ephemeral.
Tomorrow Never Knows brings to life the high points of the countercultural experience: the discovery of various drug highs, the radical shift in consciousness that these induced, the communal experience of music as binding and meaningful, the guiding, almost priestly role of musicians such as The Beatles, Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, and the realisation that the psyche's dark side could not be escaped by getting stoned.
The adolescent experience, at odds with the lies and broken promises of the established order, is central to Bromell's thesis - in this case, American teenagers of the 1960s, the first generation of beneficiaries as well as victims of consumer affluence, and members of what sociologist David Riesman described as the "lonely crowd".
Adolescents, according to Bromell, reacted to modernity with a "feeling of betrayal, a bruise". They were both of it and outside it. He also acknowledges the ideas of Kenneth Keniston and his Young Radicals: Notes on Committed Youth, which describes "post-modern youth" as ambivalent about the world they inhabit, acutely aware of the world's fluidity and uncertainty and needing to transcend that chaos through intimate and open personal relationships.
Bromell describes how white teenagers discovered a paradoxical empathy with the blues: not as exotic novelty, but as the expression of a condition that mirrored their own. "We were discovering," he writes, "what the blues had for decades offered to African-Americans: a medium in which the inner and the outer changed places, in which private misery became public ritual."
He is right in identifying the blues as central to rock, but he does not explore the connections widely enough. He recognises the teenager's quasi-mystical insights - poised between the magical world of childhood and the harder-edged structures of adulthood - as well as a privileged contact with "being", but he does not see how this aptitude for trance-like vision was touched by the spiritual core or "soul" of African-American music, a spirituality traditionally expressed through dance and rhythm. It is surprising that Bromell should miss this, not least because of his interest in revealing the continuing presence of the 1960s in the present-day world: for dance continues to be central to the rituals of the young, with the rave and club scenes as tuned in to African-American beats and as turned on by psychedelics as the counterculture 30 years ago.
Bromell points to the day when Dylan introduced The Beatles to pot in August 1964 as "without doubt, one of the most consequential moments in the history of 20th-century popular culture". Marijuana, then LSD, made possible the creation of a new kind of music - playful, experimental and alert to social and political issues. Being high was discontinuous with rational consciousness: it encouraged an experience of existence as fluid and the world as unstable. Given what William James had described as the "radical pluralism" of the drug vision, there was not just one way of looking at the world, and getting stoned allowed, at the very least, for the re-visioning of the American Dream.
Bromell writes very well about music's role in this process: as a tool for consciousness expansion, as the carrier of non-verbal but essential meaning and as a binding force between isolated individuals. But although he acknowledges a debt to the writings of John Blacking and Christopher Small, both of whom drew their evidence from non-western music, Bromell does not make enough crucial connections with the ritual and community-building aspects of African-American music and the pursuit of what another ethnomusicologist, Charles Keil, called "soul and solidarity".
Rock created its own communities of fans: not least the Dead Heads, who remained for decades committed followers of The Grateful Dead, an anarchistic drug-abetted cult, more literate than many, that is chronicled exhaustively in The Grateful Dead Reader.
The Dead contributed to the Californian Acid Tests - carnivalesque gatherings that anticipated the rave parties of the 1990s. With authors ranging from Tom Wolfe and Al Alvarez to dedicated fans, this book provides many insights into the world of a band that lived on into middle age as if the 1960s had never ended. As a widely drawn source book, representative of various approaches to writing about rock, it is invaluable.
Although Tomorrow Never Knows does not explore this, it may have been the rejection of conventional social groupings and tradition, forms so present in the African and African-American contexts, which encouraged the counterculture's slide from dream to darkness: from the innocent optimism of the Summer of Love to the horrors of Altamont and the Manson murders.
Bromell does argue that 1960s rock was not just about putting flowers in your hair but acknowledged, from early on, the psyche's most shadowy recesses. He does not, however, adequately explain the tragic and premature deaths of so many rock stars, casualties of a desire to plunge into creative chaos as much as of drug overdoses. Losing one's mind, as Bromell seems to suggest, may prepare one for postmodernist pluralism. But what Rimbaud called "le dereglement de tous les sens", for all its romantic appeal, is a perilous journey if unsupported by cool detachment or the weight of traditional forms.
It was this lack of rigour that shocked the Indian classical musician Ravi Shankar when he was drawn into the maelstrom of the 1960s. Whatever his reservations, the philosophy and music of the East had a lasting influence on the youth culture of the time. In his short book, Bromell says little about the counterculture's discovery of other worlds, which helped deconstruct the West's received ideas and ideologies. These tools of revolution were, paradoxically, mostly the products of ancient and tradition-bound cultures.
The Indian raga was not as important in this context as the blues, but Indian music's world of microtones, and cyclical rather than continuous rhythmic structures, suited the shape-shifting times of the counterculture. They helped change, at the very least, the way in which music and the passage of time are experienced by western audiences.
Mark Kidel is a writer and film-maker. He has just completed a film about Ravi Shankar.
The Grateful Dead Reader
Editor - David G. Dodd and Diana Spaulding
ISBN - 019 512470 7
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £17.99
Pages - 330