Humans tell stories to try to understand themselves and the world around them. Eons ago, at our most primitive, when every waking hour was spent trying to find food and stay alive, we did not make art. Later, when we acquired hunting and farming skills, and learned to cooperate as a community, we had more free time, which gave us time to think, which led us to ask questions, which required art – and its close cousin mythology – to provide answers.
And what topic could be more confusing, more mysterious, more in need of understanding than human sexuality? From The Trojan Women to Romeo and Juliet to Dracula to Rent, many of our most lasting, most universal stories have tried to explain sex. Today, Americans are more afraid of sex than ever, probably because we’re still so confused by it, or perhaps more to the point, because we’re even more confused by it than we used to be. Sex used to be pretty simple; it’s only as we became "civilized," as we imposed rules and expectations and taboos on sex, that it became complicated. Explicit artistic expressions of sexuality were considered entirely normal throughout most of human history, until the Victorian era when expressions of sexuality were labeled for the first time as pornography and locked and legislated away. An enormous collection of sexual art from ancient Pompeii, discovered in 1879, was immediately sequestered away from public view in a secret museum in Naples, Italy (no kidding!), lest it disturb or excite those of weaker constitution.
Today, sex is changing faster than ever before. Filmmaker David Cronenberg, writer and director of the provocative Videodrome, says, "We don’t need sex anymore. We can create babies without sex. So what is sex? It’s up for grabs. It’s up for reinterpretation. Sex has always been many things. It’s always had a political element, a power element, a social element and an aesthetic element." When sex is no longer primarily about procreation, when it has become recreation, entertainment, commerce, art, how do we understand it, and how do we understand ourselves as sexual beings?
We tell stories.
And we also tell stories about drugs and other intoxicants. From Sleeping Beauty to A Midsummer Night’s Dream to The Wizard of Oz to Hair to Requiem for a Dream, we have always been fascinated by altered consciousness. Cannabis (marijuana) was the first crop humans ever cultivated, more than 5,000 years ago. Every culture on earth has explored altered consciousness, usually in connection to religious rituals. The ecstasy that fundamentalist Christians talk about in their religious rituals (speaking in tongues, seeing or hearing God, etc.) is very much like the altered consciousness that Native Americans experienced through the use of peyote. But since the 1960s, there has been a great debate in the "civilized" world about whether or not altered consciousness is a good thing, whether opening the mind that wide is beneficial to society. According to Freud, humans exhibit three main coping mechanisms to counter their experience of suffering in the world: the deflection of pain and disappointment (through planned distractions); substitute satisfactions (replacing reality with art); and the use of intoxicating substances. Allen Cohen wrote about the 1960s in his book Summer of Love, "Tripping was common in every area of society from the wealthy and politically powerful to the arts, sciences, and the media. LSD was trendy, exotic, ecstatic, messianic, and dangerous. It promised psychological healing and spiritual transcendence and often delivered." Some of the greatest art of the 20th century was born of altered consciousness.
And rounding out the cultural trifecta is rock and roll, in existence only fifty years yet already the most powerful cultural force in the history of the world. In 1965, the Beatles began experimenting with psychedelic "acid rock" for the first time with their album Rubber Soul. For the first time, popular music began to deal overtly with drug use, as psychedelic or "acid" rock – rock music inspired by or recreating the experience of taking LSD – began to evolve, with songs like Jimi Hendrix’s "Purple Haze," Simon and Garfunkel’s "Hazy Shade of Winter" and "The Sounds of Silence," Jefferson Airplane’s "White Rabbit," the Byrds’ "Eight Miles High," the Rolling Stones’ "Get Off My Cloud" and "Mother’s Little Helper," the Beach Boys’ "Good Vibrations," the Shondells’ "Crystal Blue Persuasion," Donovan’s "Mellow Yellow," the Doors’ "People Are Strange" and "Light My Fire," and the Beatles’ "Strawberry Fields Forever" "I Want to Tell You," "Got to Get Your Into My Life," "Tomorrow Never Knows," "Paint It Black," "Rain," "She Said She Said," and of course "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," among others. Fans of psychedelic rock claimed that if they listened to this music while on LSD they could actually see the sounds as colors. This connecting of different senses, in this case sound and sight, is called synesthesia. A few people have this condition naturally, in which tastes register as textures, sounds as colors, and so on. LSD seemed to unlock those mystical connections that may dwell inside us all.
Many musicians in the sixties refused to play unless under the influence of hallucinogens. The Charlatans were one band that frequently played while tripping on LSD. Other psychedelic oriented bands (mostly in San Francisco) included Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Big Bother and the Holding Company, Country Joe and the Fish, Sopwith Camel, Moby Grape, and Quicksilver Messenger Service. British bands Cream, Pink Floyd, and Yes later followed in the psychedelic tradition. And radio stations hated it. The songs were getting longer and longer, sometimes cracking five or six minutes, and their lyrics were getting weirder and weirder, crossing over into poetry and metaphor dense enough that radio station owners couldn’t always be sure if they were violating their own decency standards by playing a song.
After repeated acts of censorship by radio station WMCA in New York, and a Village Voice column denouncing it, a massive letter writing campaign to the station was organized. Poet Allen Ginsberg wrote, "We are perhaps in an impasse of racial history spiritual revolution wherein, with electronic networks linking consciousness together, divine lyric statements do emerge from individual souls that move youthful hearts to an understanding deeper than hysteria. It is inhuman and unworthy of record broadcasters to ignore this noble democratic impulse and shy away from moments when the art approaches its archetypal heart and serves as a medium for moral statement." He went on, "Miraculously, intentions and lyrics of popular music have evolved to include true Poetics. At such a stage, business as usual against so-called ‘controversial’ works of Poetry are not ‘neutral’ acts, they are aggressive and vile attacks on human liberty and beauty." But it wasn’t just pop music – the theatre was exploring similar territory, with shows like Hair, Viet Rock, Dionysus ’69, and hundreds of others.
Your Babies Will Be Next!
Today, we live in a time when people with power want very much to "clean up" and dumb down American culture, to make everything safe for kids and palatable for adults who are afraid of their own human impulses. For centuries there has been adult culture and child culture, separate from each other, each one designed to deliver what its audience needs. Children learn about sharing and cooperation, adversity and courage from their stories. Adults learn about complexity, the darker human urges, the destructive power of love, the corrosion that comes with power. Adult culture teaches us about the truth of the adult world. But the New Crusaders, conspicuously self-appointed, would rather adults don’t learn about these things and instead live in happy ignorance. Luckily for the human species and despite the Crusaders, some of us still want to understand more. Some of us want to learn as much truth as we can in the time we’ve got. And some of those truths come in the "dangerous" form of films like Pink Flamingos and Blue Velvet, novels like The Story of O and The Subterraneans, and musicals like Hedwig and the Angry Inch, The Rocky Horror Show, and Hair.
There are so many questions that need answering. What does sex mean to America? Why are most people so uncomfortable talking about it? Why do we use it to hurt each other? Can our hang-ups about sex be traced all the way back to the Puritans? Are we still laboring under the oppressive and short-sighted moral constructs of four hundred years ago? And if not, how else can we explain it? When America saw a tenth of a second of Janet Jackson’s bare breast during a Super Bowl half time show a couple years ago, the reaction was so crazily out of proportion to the event. People were angry. They huffed and puffed that their children had been watching! So the government got involved. The talk shows couldn’t stop talking about it – and pixelating it. And all over a fraction of a second of a woman’s breast. It was like America had slipped back in time to the 1950s. Or the 1870s. Even in today’s era of internet porn, Cinemax, and video game vixens, this tiny glimpse of a woman’s breast threw America into convulsions of sputtering outrage.
The same thing happens when marijuana comes up in the news. Though cancer and AIDS patients tell us that marijuana reduces their pain, eliminates their nausea, and increases their appetite, we still tell them as a society that we don’t care if it does that or not; pot is bad! Even though every study ever done on marijuana – including those done by the government – tells us that pot is not addictive, does not lead to using other drugs, has no lasting effects, and most significantly, has never been connected to a single crime (other than the crime of smoking it), still most people believe it is a profound social evil that must be fought ferociously. Can that fear really be traced back to Harry Anslinger in the 1930s and his original campaign against pot? Even though nothing Anslinger ever said about pot was true, even though he made up all his case histories, even though he invented every frightening statistic – and even though scientists all contradicted him – he still created America’s War on Drugs, a stunning failure if ever there was one. But are we as a nation so oblivious to objective truth that seventy years later, those clumsy lies from the 30s still strike fear into our hearts?
How can the most over-medicated culture in the world overreact so ferociously to the use of drugs like marijuana? How can it be that we as a culture are so afraid, so repulsed by sex, and yet every new technology we create – film, video, the internet, YouTube – we use first and most enthusiastically for sex?
And then there’s the fear of rock and roll, now largely focused on hip-hop music. (We have to wonder if Janet Jackson’s breast would have caused such an uproar if she hadn’t been a pop singer…) When rock and roll appeared on the national scene in the middle 1950s, adults were terrified by it. Most of them honestly believed that rock and roll would bring about the downfall of America. They believed it did all the things they were told drugs did – that it would lead to laziness, crime, sexual addiction, you name it. Americans were as afraid of rock and roll as they were of the Communists. The funny part about rock music is that every time America gets comfortable with it, it reinvents itself – through acid rock, glam rock, punk rock, grunge, and now hip-hop – to scare the establishment all over again. All the pronouncements of gloom and doom and the end of civilization that we now hear about hip-hop, we heard fifty years ago about Elvis Presley. And the specifics are all the same too: That’s not music, that’s just noise; You can’t even understand the words; The kids are going to go deaf; It will encourage sexual promiscuity; It leads to disrespect of authority. The truth is that the abuse of authority is what leads to disrespect for authority. Early rock and hip-hop couldn’t sound more different, but listening to the Crusaders, you’d think they were one and the same.
So why produce a show about these three things? First because sex, drugs, and rock really are the most powerful cultural forces in America, far beyond anything else. And that alone is reason enough to explore them in a piece of theatre. That’s what art is for, after all. But there’s a second, more important reason. All three of these forces engender such irrational fear – much like race (and by extension, immigration) – and it’s time we dial down the fear and take an honest look at all this.
It’s a Truly Romantic Story…
Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll is just an evening of songs from musicals, most of them unrelated in a literal sense. But it’s also more than that. If this show has models, they are probably Songs for a New World, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, and a show produced at the Rep years ago, Songplay. It doesn’t tell a narrative story but it does tell the story of American culture in the 20th century, through the lens of four powerful cultural forces – sex, drugs, rock music, and the American musical theatre. Musical theatre has always reflected American cultural more than any other art form (and no, television is not an art form; it’s a medium). Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll is in some ways an abstract piece of musical theatre, not at all a conventional book musical but more than a concert. Its continuity comes not from plot or story but instead from social (and more subtly, political) exploration. Its structure comes not from a series of logically connected events, but from a famous American phrase that evokes rebellion, anarchy, fear, and fascination. A search for that phrase on Amazon.com yields almost 2,300 items.
This isn’t a show that provokes for the sake of provocation, or that throws around controversial content for the sake of sensationalism. These are songs written by accomplished artists attempting to find answers to Big Questions. Even the funnier songs have surprising depth. "Perky Little Porn Star," for example, describes the singer’s unhappy, repressive childhood which has led him into the porn industry. We can laugh at his jokes, but there is some very painful truth there that most moralists would probably rather not think about. When gay kids are still often kicked out of their homes by their parents, it’s hard to brush this song aside as either offensive or harmlessly naughty. It’s more than that. "Nobody Needs to Know" is a song of an adulterous husband blaming his wife for his infidelity. "Maybe I Like It This Way" offers us a woman in an abusive relationship who knows she won't leave her abuser. We know both these things happen. Do we just ignore them because they involve sex? Do we just look the other way because we’re uncomfortable talking about it?
Act I of the show – "Sex" – focuses on a young man navigating the treacherous terrain of sex and love, a journey he's clearly not prepared for. It begins with the Prologue from the musical Baby, in which the cast musically recreates the emotion of the act of sexual intercourse, and a narrator explains the biological process of human fertilization in the form of a fairy tale. Next, a young couple finds out they're having a baby, in the song "What Could Be Better?" But making a baby no longer means an automatic lifelong commitment in our culture. There are lots of young women getting pregnant and being abandoned by the young men who impregnated them. Why is this? We look at several answers. First, several married men appear and warn the young man against the trap of marriage, in "Have I Got a Girl for You." Then another woman calls the young man on his cell phone ("A Call from the Vatican") and engages him in phone sex. Who is she? Is she already having an affair with this guy? And why doesn’t he hang up? Two of the married men return and encourage the young man to get more adventurous ("By Threes") and the other woman continues her seduction ("I Cain’t Say No"). The world torments and tempts this young man, daring him to bail on his obligations to the mother of his child, daring him to follow his sexual urges. A Greek chorus of sorts appears to ironically celebrate the "joys" of venereal disease in "I Got It from Agnes," at the end of which the young man crumbles and leaves with the other woman, leaving behind this young woman who's carrying his child. It's not a story in the conventional sense, but it does take the audience on a journey and it does reveal truths about the real world.
As Act I continues, we similarly explore adultery, the nature of love and sex, and finally, pornography. We meet an older couple. He’s sleeping with someone else ("Nobody Needs to Know"), she knows she’s losing him ("The Where-Has-My-Hubby-Gone Blues"), and he knows what his actions are doing to his wife ("If I Told You Now"), but that doesn’t stop him. After he leaves his girlfriend, she acknowledges the terrible toll the situation takes on her ("Maybe I Like It This Way"). Another married man appears. He’s been tempted as well but has resisted those urges ("One of the Good Guys") and now lives in deep regret for never having had the adventure. Can fidelity really lead to happiness if the impetus to be faithful comes from outside forces (religion, social pressures, upbringing) rather than from a genuine desire for monogamy?
The act ends with a series of commentaries on what has gone before – on "The Origin of Love," on homosexuality ("If You Were Gay"), on pornography ("Smut"), and on human sexual impulses ("Sexually Free"). These songs remind us that the Sexual Revolution of the 60s and 70s brought about changes both good and bad, and looking back on the end of the 20th century it’s hard to think about the Sexual Revolution without thinking about one of its unintended and darkest consequences: the AIDS pandemic.
Walking in Space
Act II explores both the right and wrong reasons for using drugs, the human aloneness we all know, and the joy and healing of community. We explore one of the most harmless of drugs, marijuana ("Pitch for Pot"), the mindless hysteria over marijuana still thriving in America ("Reefer Madness"), and the darker side of the drug culture ("The Old Dope Peddler"). Again, the comic songs in the show all have a dark side; in "The Old Dope Peddler," the lyric reminds us that:
He gives the kids free samples
Because he knows full well
That today’s young innocent faces
Will be tomorrow’s clientele...
This is not a black and white world we’re exploring here; it is a world of dangerous gray areas. The lyric is funny, not because it’s a cheerful thought but because we know it’s true and we’re shocked that someone has said it out loud. Why do kids want drugs (and alcohol and tobacco)? What is the appeal? What are they missing that they think they’ll find in substance abuse? Is it just that they want to act like adults (and if so, what other questions does that bring up)? Or does it go deeper than that? Teenagers have been using drugs in large numbers since the 1920s – that’s why they made all those drug "scare films" in the 1930s and 40s.
The second act of Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll continues by looking more directly at drug use, from pot brownies ("The Brownie Song"), to the spiritual, mind-expanding properties of some drugs ("Cannabis Dei"), to the hypocrisy of many anti-drug adults ("Hashish"), to the use of drugs for mere escape ("The Morphine Tango"), to the use of drugs for higher purposes ("Walking in Space"):
My body is walking in space.
My soul is in orbit
With God, face to face.
. . .
On a rocket to the fourth dimension,
Total self-awareness the intention.
. . .
Walking in space
We find the purpose of peace,
The beauty of life
You can no longer hide.
Our eyes are open,
Wide, wide, wide...
Back in the 60s, most hippies differentiated between "good" and "bad" drugs. The "good" drugs were mind-expanding, psychedelic drugs like marijuana, peyote, and LSD, that helped them find peace and spirituality ("the mind’s true liberation," as the song "Aquarius" puts it). The "bad" drugs were those used only for escape, that shut the mind down, like alcohol, nicotine, tranquilizers (like valium), cocaine, and heroin. In 1969, Gallup conducted a survey of students on fifty-seven American college campuses. Thirty-one percent (10-12 million students) had smoked pot, and ten to fifteen percent (1-2 million) had used LSD. Those numbers have changed only slightly since then. In 1997, forty-nine percent had smoked pot and fourteen percent had used LSD. And, as in the 60s, far fewer had used "bad" drugs, with only eight percent having tried cocaine and only two percent having tried heroin. These numbers raise two interesting questions. First, why do the mind expanding drugs continue to be so popular and the mind-numbing drugs so much less popular among kids? And also, if that many college kids were using mind-expanding drugs in 1969 and America has not collapsed, and if so few kids today are using the "bad" drugs, is the drug crisis as real and as pervasive as many would have us believe?
The abuse of prescription drugs by the otherwise anti-drug adults was condemned by the hippies. The counter-culture believed that by making alcohol and tranquilizers their drugs of choice, the older generation had betrayed them, choosing to hide, to ignore, rather than to engage the problems of the world. Notice that the drug trip song "Walking in Space" from Hair says explicitly that the reasons for taking the drugs are self-awareness, finding truth, and finding God. The hippies (the serious ones, anyway) really believed this, and their belief found its authority in the pervasive use of mind-expanding drugs in religious ceremonies throughout the world and throughout history.
There’s a Light
Rock and roll is arguably the most powerful cultural force in the history of the world. When it appeared in the early 1950s, it shook America to its core. Jazz was made for the brain; it was about detachment, bemusement, coolness. But rock and roll came straight from the heart and the groin. It was about primal feelings and desires. It stripped its sound of precision, elegance, finesse, training (just like Punk would decades later). Real rock and roll was animal, outlaw. It was sweaty. It didn’t float like jazz. It exploded. It pounded. Rock and roll was banned in major cities across America. It terrified white adult America. Listening to rock became the ultimate rebellion for white kids especially. Their parents saw it as the biggest danger to all that’s decent since swing in the 1940s… or marijuana in the 1930s… or alcohol in the 1920s… or ragtime in the 1910s…
Rock and roll was responsible for an "emotional revolution" in America. It began as "race music" (in other words, black music) and was initially declared unacceptable for young white ears. But it fast became the first truly racially integrated American art form, coming from equal parts black rhythm & blues and white country music. This was the first time in America that blacks and whites shared in the same culture, both consuming and creating it. And once Elvis appeared, rock and roll became (marginally) acceptable for white kids. For the first time in American history, white (young) people were being open and honest – even inappropriate – about their emotions. This was the most nakedly emotional music most white Americans had ever heard. And it changed everything.
Rock got its power because, unlike their parents, rock and roll took teenagers seriously. It took teenage sex and teenage love seriously. It put teenage emotions on a level with adult emotions, and it made teenagers feel like adults. And the best part for the kids was that parents hated rock and roll. (A 1957 article in Cosmopolitan asked "Are You Afraid of Your Teenager?")
The second part of Act II of Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll focuses on theatre songs that use the musical vocabulary of pop and rock music to convey emotions too big to fit inside any other form of music. It explores the fears of young people trapped, lost, between youth and adulthood ("Over at the Frankenstein Place"), the power of human connection in our increasingly disconnected world ("Suddenly Seymour"), the loneliness of sexual "outsiders" ("Wig in a Box"), and the New Lost Generation in America, with too much freedom and no road map ("The River Won’t Flow").
The act finishes with a powerful trio of songs about finding our way through the dark side of our culture. With "Gethsemane" from Jesus Christ Superstar, we take the song out of its original context; instead of showing us how human Jesus’ struggle was, now we allow the song to focus on just how intensely human those struggles really are. Here, "Gethsemane" is sung by an ordinary man whose problems seem to him just as insurmountable, just as overwhelming as those of Jesus. Instead of seeing the human in the divine, as we did in the song’s original context, here we see the divine in the human. And isn’t that the point of telling stories?
"Flying Home" is a song of redemption and faith, a promise that however profound our suffering, we are not alone. The show ends with a celebration of community, human connection, and the search for meaning, in the joyous, defiant "La Vie Boheme" from Rent.
This is dark territory we explore in Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll, but it is terrain in need of exploration, so that we might find a path through the forest and into the light. It is up to us to understand ourselves and our world, to look for answers and on those rare occasions when we find them, to share them with others. Composer Stephen Sondheim has said that the purpose of art is to make order out of the chaos of our lives, to strip away what’s not true so that we can see more clearly what is. We hope that Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll will do that in some small way. As "La Vie Boheme" reminds us, "the opposite of war isn’t peace – it’s creation!"
_______________________________________For details on the attempt to shut this show down by the St. Louis Catholic Archdiocese, go to http://newlinetheatre.blogspot.com/
Copyright 2007. Scott Miller is also the author of Deconstructing Harold Hill, Rebels with Applause, Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR, From Assassins to West Side Story, and Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre, as well as the vampire novel In the Blood. All rights reserved.