Friday, June 15, 2012

Hippie in a Hypnotic Place and Time: Songs that Made Sense

Early Fleetwood Mac: Bob Welch, Mick Fleetwood, (back row), John McVie and Christine McVie

“It’s the same kind of story that seems to come down from long ago...”

With news of Bob Welch’s death last week, I was transported back to 1974. That’s when I first heard his former band, Fleetwood Mac, while living in the theoretically sleepy Vermont village of Huntington Center with my young daughter Jennie and a part-collie named Red Cloud. Our small red cabin in the woods was up a steep, twisting dirt road at the foot of a 4,083-foot-high mountain called Camel’s Hump. Local people were wary then of counterculture types, like me, who came to the area seeking a back-to-the-land existence in their midst. Undaunted, we newcomers were busy letting our freak flags fly, in the parlance of the 1960s.

First, Jennie and I planted a circular vegetable garden intended to evoke the shape of a yin-yang sign. I was always consulting the I Ching, so everything around me simply had to be fraught with relevant symbolism. As someone who had grown up in cities and suburbs, I also was keen on exploring nature and began to examine every weed in bloom around the cabin. With a newly purchased wildflower guide and a compendium of medicinal herbs, I was able to identify each plant before determining if it had any healing properties. Bunches of them were soon hanging from a rough-hewn wooden beam in my rustic kitchen.

Herbs hung up to dry
Before long, I was experimenting on friends. Got a headache? I would happily pinch off a few dried comfrey leaves to brew a strong tea, watching with immense satisfaction as the patient/victim sipped the foul-tasting concoction, tempered only by a spoonful of honey. After a while, visitors would deny their ailments rather than submit to my bitter cures. Undeterred, I plunged onward through the herbal frontier. The same friends who feigned good health to avoid my potions were sometimes a bit superstitious. One guy surveyed the dangling herbs in the kitchen. "Be careful or the townsfolk might burn you as a witch," he advised, arching an eyebrow as if he half-believed it himself.
Witch or not, I often smoked the most magic weed of all when my daughter was not with me. High much of the time, I couldn't always distinguish between what was real and what was drug-induced. But, beyond any psychedelic, mysticism became a fact of daily life in the vicinity of Camel's Hump, which looks less like a ruminant than a craggy human face gazing up at the sky.
This majestic visage spoke to me late one night via the Live Earl Jive Show on Montreal’s FM radio station CHOM in kind of liturgical chant with organ accompaniment. "Behold the mountain of the Lord," the sylvan deity proclaimed, later commanding: “See that ye do all things according to the pattern shown you on the high mountain."         
Years later, I learned that this dispatch from the heavens actually was a song by the Incredible String Band, a Scottish folk-rock group partial to music with spiritual messages. In those days, FM radio was subversive, geared to offering sounds that would “feed your head,” as Jefferson Airplane defined the spirit of the era in Grace Slick’s “White Rabbit.”

The Live Earl Jive a.k.a. Vaughn Filkins
The other platter frequently spun by Live Earl Jive (Real name: Vaughn Filkins, an alum of the legendary Firesign Theater) that blew my malleable little mind during that time was “Hypnotized,” written and sung by Bob Welch. He later acknowledged that it referred to his interest in the writings of Carlos Castaneda, the reveries of peyote use, astral projection and even alien abductions. The paranormal-themed lyrics are preceded by a long drum intro, then the jazzy propulsion of guitar and keyboards. This haunting melody takes up four minutes and 48 seconds of  Fleetwood Mac’s 1973 album, Mystery To Me, and four decades ago seemed to speak directly to my witchy ways.
It's the same kind of story that seems to come
down from long ago/ Two friends having coffee
together when something flies by their window/
It might be out on that lawn which is wide,
at least as half of a playing field/ Because there's
no explaining what your imagination can make
you see and feel

Seems like a dream/ They got me hypnotized

Now it's not a meaningless question to ask if they've
been and gone/ I remember a talk about North Carolina
and a strange strange pond/ You see the sides were
like glass in the thick of a forest without a road/
And if any man's hand ever made that land then
I think it would've showed

Seems like a dream/ They got me hypnotized

They say there's a place down in Mexico where a man
can fly over mountains and hills/ And he don't need an
airplane or some kind of engine and he never will/
Now you know it's a meaningless question to ask if
those stories are right/ 'Cause what matters most is
the feeling you get when you're hypnotized

Seems like a dream/ They got me hypnotized

This body means nothing/ You just float around

Yeah, that’s when they got you hypnotized

“This body means nothing.” Yes and no. At 65, Welch was reportedly in poor heath – something involving spinal surgery – and shot himself at his home near Nashville. But the death might be viewed as a way to escape into peaceful nothingness from a body wracked with pain. How can any of us ever know what we would decide until faced with only dire choices? There’s an I Ching hexagram that resonated for me – someone in pursuit of tranquillity – when I periodically got it after tossing the requisite three coins in 1974. The title is “Keeping Still, Mountain.” One passage observes: “Keeping his back still, so that he no longer feels his body.”

Bob Welch in 1979
His brief stint with Fleetwood Mac (1971 to 1974 ) was the band’s most authentic, grassroots-yet-transcendent period. He quit for a variety of reasons, before embarking on a solo career full of ups and downs. Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks replaced him, leading the group in a more flashy direction toward show-business success. In a 2003 newspaper interview, Welch said:  "Music is disposable now. It doesn't have the emotional impact anymore." With several worthy exceptions, I tend to agree.

Bad feelings must have prevailed in the aftermath of Welch’s departure from Fleetwood Mac. Yet, it’s unthinkable that he was excluded from their 1998 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. No matter why, that’s an awful thing to do to a man who invested so much heart in vinyl releases such as Future Games, Bare Trees and Heroes Are Hard to Find. I can’t forgive them for denying recognition to an artist who brought so much heart into the life of a total stranger trying to find herself at a cabin in the woods.

Although I now live elsewhere, my perception of that sojourn has been affirmed. Hearing the Incredible String Band’s tribute to “the mountain of the Lord” may have been no coincidence. I’ve since learned the Abenakis of Vermont had a different name for Camel’s Hump: Ta-wak-be-dee-esso, which means Resting Place. A Native-American friend once told me the tribal elders believe this is where, after fashioning the Earth, the Great Creator chose to spend all of eternity as an alpine formation overlooking his magnificent handiwork. 
While it’s all still a mystery to me, I continue to know that what matters most is the feeling you get when you’re hypnotized.

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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