Opening the Gates of Dawn

Gates of Dawn

Responding to a Facebook posting earlier this month, when Jason Lamb invited Grey Havens to identify music inspired by Tolkien, I naturally thought back to my youth.  I still hear echoes of the hours I spent reading Tolkien – hours intermingled with the evocative music of that time.  Today the total spectrum of Tolkien-themed music is extensive and diverse.   But thinking back to the soundtrack of my youth, sorting out the songs that actually mentioned Middle-earth, I can identify only a handful.

Whatever Tolkien thought of hippie culture during the late 1960s, his work fostered an explosion of fantasy and science fiction in both music and literature.  Even with the paucity of explicit references to Tolkien, the psychedelic sixties was awash with the magic of Middle-earth.  As I see it, The Lord of the Rings and other imaginative literature infused psychedelic music with mythic enchantment, and in return this psychedelic music fertilized the literature that grew in the years that followed.

In contrast to this cross-fertilization, the science fiction and fantasy literature which predates Tolkien seems to have had little comparable impact on popular music.  Plenty of jazz emerged alongside pulp science fiction and pre-Tolkien fantasy, but these forms of artistic expression followed trajectories that didn’t overlap very much.  Blues, soul, doo-wop, and other forms of popular post-WW2 music come to us similarly impoverished, almost entirely lacking in fantasy magic.  There was little mutual artistic enrichment.  But even the most casual skimming of the late sixties rock catalog reveals a distinguishing focus on fantasy and science fiction.  And the heights of psychedelia gave rise to a rich spectrum of fantasy-themed compositions.

Jimi Hendrix became a key architect of electrified sonic fantasy.  His vision of music in late 1966 powerfully influenced the emerging international psychedelic culture.  Hendrix’s first album, Are You Experienced, appeared in England in May 1967 and set forth a definitive articulation of the new psychedelia – a definition infused with science fiction and fantasy.  “Third Stone from the Sun,” for example, explicitly referenced Star Trek in its opening dreamlike intonations, while “The Wind Cries Mary” wove surreal fantasy imagery into a gentle ballad.

The mid-1960s rock scene became powerfully shaped by the Beatles and Rolling Stones, and both bands drew heavily upon American music traditions that had little interest in fantasy imagery.  This began to change in 1966.  In songs like “Yellow Submarine” and “Strawberry Fields Forever,” the Beatles drew upon childhood themes for imaginal flavors.  The next year saw the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour.

Their Satanic Majesties Request

The Stones followed suit with Their Satanic Majesties Request, an experimental foray into psychedelic magic featuring a 3D fantasy cover.  The first side of this album transformed New York into a fantastic citadel and took us to another land.  The second side opened with a fairytale ballad and spiraled on from a “lake with lily flowers” to the Stones’ cosmic odyssey, “2000 Light Years from Home.”  I spent all of 1968 replaying this album and reading Tolkien.

I wish I had known that year about Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, issued in mid-1967.  For this album title, Syd Barrett borrowed from an unusually poetic chapter in The Wind in the Willows.  Moving from unicorns in foggy dew to celestial epic journeying, this magic music gave us wonderful fairytale glimpses.  Hip Londoners appreciated the Beatles and Stones, but gathered late at night in Middle Earth – a famous underground club – to float away with Pink Floyd.

A late flowering of fantasy rock music followed in King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King, released in October 1969.  The orchestral dramatics of “Epitaph” and “In the Court of the Crimson King” found balance in the delicate spell-weaving of “Moonchild” and “I Talk to the Wind.”  Tolkien is nowhere to be found in the lyrics on this album, and yet he seems everywhere.

These records defined the aural soul of psychedelic music during the late 1960s.  I would argue that even though Tolkien references are sparse in the psychedelic sixties, Tolkien-inspired music is so common today in so many forms and genres because psychedelic rock set forth such a substantial foundation for it.

The psychedelic sixties fused surrealism, fantasy, science fiction, and psychedelic imagery into a special genre of popular music that inspired and affirmed a thriving literature.  The Beatles and Stones moved back to their roots, but they left us with a taste for the artistry of the fantastic.  We became “experienced.”  And many of us forever after treasured our mystical passports to the mythic realms that can be found beyond the fields we know.

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