AMHERST, Mass. - It was nearly 20 years ago today that John Lennon was murdered in New York City, but he, and the rest of the Beatles, will soon be more in the news than ever. In the coming weeks, a documentary, made-for-TV film, and new album will be released, while already the latest installment in the Anthology series, the Beatles “tell-all” autobiography, is in stores.
What makes all of this particularly noteworthy, says University of Massachusetts American studies professor Nick Bromell, is that the Beatles are far from a mere nostalgia act. “There is something about the Beatles in particular, and ’60s rock in general, that still speaks to people as powerfully today as it did 40 years ago,” Bromell says. “Bands like Phish and Dave Matthews routinely cover songs like the Beatles’ Let It Be and Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower.”
In his new book, Tomorrow Never Knows: Rock and Psychedelics in the 1960s, Bromell looks at this phenomenon, exploring the Beatles both as cultural icons, and as arbiters of a new, still-evolving era. Unlike other studies of the band, however, Bromell’s does not focus on the Beatles themselves, but on their audience. His goal is to turn the camera around, so to speak, making the kids who listened to the music, rather than the musicians, the story’s real subject.
In doing so, Bromell delves into that most controversial of ’60s issues, the importance of psychedelics in apprehending reality. Neither condemning nor condoning drug use by ’60s youth, he argues that millions of listeners mixed rock and psychedelics in a quest to make sense of themselves and their times. This combination was not mere escapism, “but a vital public philosophy, one we must do justice to in order to understand not just the past but the present,” says Bromell. “What I have tried to write is a book that deals with something that began more than three decades ago and is still going on, something fundamental and unresolved in American culture.”
Ultimately, Bromell argues that “the enduring legacy of the ’60s, and the reason we both celebrate and revile them today, may be that they inaugurated a profound instability, a sense that foundations are fictions and culture itself ‘just a lie.’” Or to quote John Lennon at his most psychedelic, “I think I know, I mean, ah yes, but it’s all wrong, that is, I think I disagree...”
NOTE: Bromell will sign copies of "Tomorrow Never Knows" Fri. Dec. 1 at 6 p.m. at The Black Sheep Deli and Bakery in Amherst.