by David Schwittek
Remember when you thought the Grateful Dead were edgy because they used to close out shows with And I Bid You Goodnight?
Remember when you were first heard New Riders of the Purple Sage and snickered fondly to yourself, “hippies…”
Remember when you first heard Charles Manson’s Lie: The Love and Terror Cult, and, though outwardly disgusted, secretly you were all, “oh wow, this is actually amazing”?
Ever feel kind of dumb for not knowing the provenance of all that mid-century coolness? You should. But please, read on…
With its rambling tunes, introspective mantras, and transcendent lyrics, an argument could be made that The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter is simply too challenging for twenty-first century ears. And it would be easy to relegate The Incredible String Band to that dustbin of mid-Sixties psychedelia that our parents were too square, or too Republican, to properly digest. This is the ultimate difficulty of Sixties music, for one could even make the case that the more unlistenable embellishments found in this album, or in this band’s oeuvre, are enough to set aside both as mere oddities of that erstwhile decade.
But if you would suspend for a moment your unsophisticated tendency to equate woodland peoples, valiantly brandishing sitars and fiddles, to the overly caricatured mise-en-scène of Sixties counterculture that Western cinema has shoved down your throat, then you may glimpse but a parcel of what I’ve discovered in this incredibly important album. In much the same way that mid-Sixties American psychedelic folk was erratic and counterculture, The Incredible String Band was soft-spoken and elegant, offering a sublimity of subject and delivery that only the UK could have adequately delivered.
Indeed, this album’s reach is still felt today, attesting to how richly vested we are in the British psychedelic movement. So much so that it’s almost as if Devendra Banhart, Will Oldham, Vetiver, the entire Elephant Six Collective, Joanna Newsom, and other emissaries of the millennial anti-folk movement skipped right past American psychfolk stalwarts The Grateful Dead, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Tim Buckley, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Flying Burrito Brothers, and the 13th Floor Elevators, and instead (perhaps subconsciously) took their cues from Sid Barrett, George Harrison, Donovan, Nick Drake, and, of course The Incredible String Band.
Turn your quivering nerves in my direction
Turn your quivering nerves in my direction
Feel the energy projection of my cells wishes you well
neatly adjoining the following:
May the long time sun shine upon you
All love surround you
And the pure light within you
Guide you all the way on.
Since the time that Mike Heron penned the above words, the thirteen minute A Very Cellular Song has been tackled by many a music writer for its weirdness, radiance, brilliance, and the inclusion of entire passages from the Bahamian folk tune And I Bid You Good Night, even claiming that the last passage I mention above was perhaps some ersatz reference to Sikh poetry (which it is not). I myself was sure it was from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. But, as one reader of this blog has already pointed out, I do have a penchant for the macabre…
But listen to A Very Cellular Song, for its most dominant subject – the humble amoeba – subtly toys with our primordial selves, even as it heartily tugs at the deepest roots of the subconscious. And yet still with a somber playfulness and high-mindedness that would be welcome at even the most chic of hippie get-togethers.
Other songs to consider when you find yourself trying to prove me wrong about this masterpiece include Mercy I Cry City, Waltz of the Moon, and, for those quiet times, Witches Hat. But I won’t lie to you, friends: this album is weird…really fucking weird. If you’ve spent your youth and young adulthood listening to, I don’t know, anything on the radio or MTV, then this could at first illicit outright aversion on your part.
But if your brain is capable of even a modicum of parallel thinking, imagine yourself in the warm glow of late-Sixties Wales, ensconced in felt and corduroy, emerged in the sound of sitars, flutes, and a gimbri or two, and you will find me there, your ever-loyal correspondent, with a joint, a flagon of wine, a wool blanket too…listening to The Hangman’s Beautfiul Daughter.