It is a crisp Fall day in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Long-haired shirtless guys are playing frisbee on the lawn, women in long homespun dresses sit under the oak tree. I am 18 years old, just stepping through the door into an emerging adulthood. It’s a time to try out different identities and each one is accompanied by a soundtrack. And such a rich musical tapestry in that year 1969 to walk down the aisle with me— The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Crosby Stills and Nash, Simon and Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, James Brown, Smokey Robinson, Beach Boys, Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane. Rolling Stones, not to mention Beethoven and Brubeck. Each a world unto themselves— some for joyful dancing, some for quiet romance, some for political inspiration, some for poetic flight. A remarkable time filled with change, hope, visions of a better world and a growing and glowing determination to turn the world upside down, give it a good shake and settle down to the peaceful co-existence we deserve.
Just as a smell transports me instantly to Grandma’s kitchen or the house at the seashore, so does the music of the time lift me out of my screen-glowing Walmarted Romney-infested world into that time of innocence and bright eyes and a world sung into being with poetry riding on song. All that music has that time-machine power to bring me back, but none so deeply and so meaningful as the music of The Incredible String Band. I listened to them this morning, remembering each note and word and the feeling in the air when I first heard them weaving an entire mythology that gave meaning and magic to my day.
Do they hold up? Well, musically speaking—and here with some 43 more years of musical experience, I can claim a sophisticated palette— they were…well, incredible. Sometimes the singing seems out of tune or the melodies too hippy-meandering, but in terms of instrumentation, form, structure, tempo, meters, rhythms, harmonies, subject matter, poetic imagery, they reveal a prodigious imagination. They used instruments like the sitar, the gimbri, the tinwhistle and assorted percussion from Morocco, India, Ireland and beyond long before any were popular, borrowed influences from folk music of the British Isles, rock, blues, spirituals, parlor music, the Near East and beyond. The pieces ranged from 16 seconds to 16 minutes, the forms consistently original and unpredictable, the lyrics profound, metaphorical and filled with inspired imagery. They wove an elaborate mythical universe, peopled with spiritual inspiration without religious dogma, a celebration of the natural world and forces, the power of fellow journeyers, a childlike playfulness and humor, and of course, love.
They recorded five extraordinary albums, each one a separate universe—The Incredible String Band, The 5,000 Spirits, Wee Tam, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, The Big Huge. Then came the prophetic Changing Horses, where (from my point of view) they lost the thread of inspiration and took off in another direction and never quite came back to the home territory they populated so beautifully. (Some attribute this to their encounter with Scientology.) So is the life of the artist, responding to particular times and places and social energies and spiritual energies and then the outside forces change or they change from the inside and the moment is gone. Happens all the time.
I wonder if I played them for you now whether you would be intrigued. Would they seem too weird, too hippy-dippy, too hard to place in any familiar musical style? Would the words seem poetic or just obscure and obtuse? Was this a “you just had to be there” musical taste belonging to a particular era? I don’t know. But it doesn’t matter. I was there and I am there again listening to them now and it was/is beautiful, remarkable, and yes, incredible. Thank you, Robin Williams and Mike Heron, Licorice and Rose for your company, then and now. You gave me a world and I cherish it.