The Bad Trip

James Riley

Icon Books, £14.99

Review by Keith Bruce

A FEELING of profound sadness is probably exactly what hirsute Cambridge academic James Riley is aiming to produce in the reader through his very individual re-telling of the familiar story of the end of the hippy dream, when the hopes of the Age of Aquarius were dashed by the brutality of Charles Manson’s Family cult and the Hells Angels security detail at a Rolling Stones concert at Altamont speedway stadium.

But he would be less pleased to know that much of that sadness comes at his own expense, in seeing a substantial piece of work (350 pages of original research and another 50 of appendices detailing that homework) fall at small hurdles and a simple twist of fate (as Bob Dylan would coin it, less than five years later).

To begin with the unfortunate coincidence: there is no “Tarantino, Quentin” immediately preceding “Tate, Sharon” in Riley’s index in those latter pages. Yet Riley’s paperback account of The Bad Trip has the misfortune to appear at the same time as the latest, and perhaps final, film by the director, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, which turns his distinctive gaze on exactly the same era. Given that a Riley specialism is film, if particularly the more avant garde or experimental cinema of the time, it is an omission that dates the book before it even hits the shelves.

Inclusion can turn out to be just as dangerous, however. In the final pages of the book Riley writes: "Watching Woodstock 50 on whatever streaming service gets the rights will offer a brief respite from the horror of Donald Trump, the resurgence of far-right politics, the chaos of Brexit and the general state of economic and ecological disaster that constitutes life in the 21st century.” Alas, the collapse of plans to mark the 50th anniversary those three days of peace and love in upstate New York make it just a small codicil to that list of contemporary ills.

There are some unexpected mistakes and exclusions in the Prologue, too, including the rather odd omission of Abbey Road (the 50th anniversary of which is currently being marked) between The Beatles (aka The White Album) and Let It Be as The Beatles’ final recordings. Only a few pages on, in his account of the Manson gang’s assaults on the wealthy homes in LA’s Cielo and Waverly Drives on August 9 and 10, 1969, Riley fails to make clear that Linda Kasabian, who become a key prosecution witness, was the getaway driver and not in the house when Sharon Tate and three of her friends were brutally killed.

These lapses are important, because Riley aims to be quite meticulous with detail, and very careful with dates, even when they reveal that he is trying to shoehorn into his theory a film or an album that actually did not appear until a few years into the 1970s. He has co-edited a much more academic (and expensive) book on the literature of the 1960s, and undertaken definitive work on filmmaker Peter Whitehead. Whitehead’s documenting of the era, alongside the films of Kenneth Anger and the rather more frivolous arty shorts made by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, give Riley his structure for the book, and supply much of its original train of thought.

Joan Didion’s book The White Album is one of the prime literary reference points to which he also finds it useful to return at regular intervals. This gives The Bad Trip a fresh take on an altogether over-discussed, if rarely very carefully analysed, era. His chapter The Omega Men (in Part Two, Lucifer Rising) is particularly good at steering a path through cinema and publications that predicted a bleak future, or suggested how that might be averted. He writes: “Particularly in cinema of the period, images of exhaustion, disillusion and destruction proliferated.” This precedes an excellent exploration of exactly that, but often only that.

Riley’s research on relevant film and (some) literature which can help us understand what happened in society half a century ago is sound, but of course those were not the only areas of creative activity at the time. There was a boom in theatre that fed into filmmaking, of course, although perhaps more in the UK than America, which ranged from agit-prop political polemic through to absurdist drama, and radical re-inventions of Shakespeare. The profoundly anti-hippy style of Glasgow Citizens’, which flirted dangerously with fascist imagery and pioneered punk gender fluidity, found its first flowering in the same post-1960s era. Riley is disinclined to look much outside of London and the south of England in his British references, however, despite the fact that he knows the film-makers he cites had their work premiered at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. A little more delving into that connection might have brought him into fruitful contact with characters like Jim Haynes and Tom McGrath, and the link between the Traverse Theatre and International Times.

Nor do his musical references take a broad enough perspective. A consideration of the wary documentation of Swinging London by Whitehead sees no need to mention its retread at the height of Brit Pop in the 1990s, and that Liam and Patsy (Gallagher and Kensit) Vanity Fair cover. More directly pertinent to the time is contemporary composition and electronic music experimentation that fed directly into the pop of the time, particularly that of The Beatles, and often through the enthusiasm of McCartney rather than the more “radical” Lennon, with his confused politics and drift towards the visual art world of his new wife, Yoko Ono. The glorious cynicism of Lennon’s Come Together (from that “missing” album, Abbey Road) is also unaccountably un-mentioned. In his seminal Beatles book, Revolution in the Head, Ian MacDonald calls Come Together “the key song of the turn of the decade”. Enough said.

Riley is at his best in his closing chapter, The New Jerusalem, where his admiration for Whitehead butts up against his suspicion of Tom Wolfe’s easy condemnation of the Seventies as “The Me Decade.” Alongside that he quotes French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s pertinent observation, a decade or two later, that the actuality of the 1960s had been entirely overtaken by a collectively agreed idea of “The Sixties”. Answering his own question, “what do we do now the orgy is over?”, Baudrillard, who was already aged 40 in 1969, says we simulate and make of that golden age (if it ever really existed) what Riley calls “a hippy theme park”.

Although I don’t recall Baudrillard being mentioned, I think his question lurked behind the first stage show I saw by New York’s experimental Wooster Group, which used the words of William Burroughs, Aldous Huxley, Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary (and, more controversially, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible) to delve into some of the ideas in The Bad Trip. It was entitled, with rather more wit, L.S.D (. . . Just the High Points . . .).