“Last night your shadow fell upon my lonely room,” opens the song “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night)” with utmost urgency, placing the listener immediately within that familiar, eternal “lonely room” of our shared consciousness, delivered there by a buzzing, eternal American psychedelic-pop hymnal that remains as close to the perfect musical expression of cosmic yearning as has ever been recorded. Inexplicably not included among the golden records included onboard the Voyager spacecrafts, the song is a fuzztone-fueled firestorm, one that immediately, perhaps unconsciously, comes within an inch of the ultimate prize: tangible enlightenment and radical spiritual transformation, via Bixby wiggle stick.
Quite surprisingly, the The Electric Prunes were not the harbingers of the dawn of heaven. They did not exist solely to give spiritual solace, to provide an expressway to ecstatic, neo-ancient wisdom. Not that they didn’t try – coming perhaps even closer to prying open the third eye, once and for all, one night on Stockholm, and later, taking part in an nontraditional, traditional petitioning of the heavens above.
Yet like so many things, the truth of The Electric Prunes was and is more complicated than its initial promise (beginning with the fact that they didn’t write “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night),” nor was “Mass in F Minor” their idea).
It’s appropriate, then, that a recent, sensational book by author Peter Bebergal should carry the same title. “Too Much to Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood” carries the written equivalent of the buzzing, transformative urgency employed in song by The Electric Prunes nearly fifty years ago, reverberating in time with the legions of seekers that preceded the Prunes for millenia – if more upfront from the outset that this quest for communion with God will remain necessarily unfulfilled.
As a book, Bebergal presents something several degrees beyond simply a memoir. To describe what the book is, we turn to the words of Peter Coyote – no stranger to inhabiting the role of the seeker himself – who provides the book with its graceful forward:
“Peter Bebergal’s story elegantly elucidates that adolescent murk. Between his dedication to comic books and games of Dungeons and Dragons, an estranged and confused suburban existence in an unsteady secular Jewish home, and with older siblings slipping beyond his grasp into their tantalizing, initiated teenhoods, Bebergal describes his personal quest for wholeness and meaning with language that’s fresh and new, and yet also timeless:
‘… what I was looking for was spiritual in nature. Mysticism or magic, communion with God, or power over his angels.’
His journey, essentially religious, no matter how waylaid and temporarily diverted by youth, drugs and error it may have been, was as familiar to me as my childhood room.”
When the day comes that we can improve upon the words of Peter Coyote, we’ll be sure to make note of it (in fact, we’ll be sure not to shut up about it). Until then, we will simply say we totally agree with that dude, with a concurrent familiarity of that feeling of shadows falling upon our lonely room.
What’s more, we are totally sure that we will return to “Too Much to Dream” the book, in both reading and recommendation, much the same way we return to the song from which it takes it’s name, as a glorious and unforgettable electric-spirit signpost. We feel fortunate that Peter Bebergal decided to share his story and his thoughts with the world at large, and equally fortunate to present this interview with the author below. Enjoy.
Can you recall the very first album that you owned in your youth? Can you recall the very first album that you purchased on your own, using your own money? What was it about that music that initially captured your attention? How have you thoughts about that music evolved over time? What impact, if any, does that music have on your life today?
The first two records I ever owned were actually the two 45s on constant rotation on my Fisher Price Turntable; “Snoopy v. the Red Baron” by The Royal Guardsman and The Fantastic Four: The Way it Began Book and Record Set. After that I inherited my older siblings Styx, Queen and Rush albums. For the next few years my brother kept me in constant supply of Devo and the Cars. The first album I purchased on my own with my allowance was XTC’s English Settlement. I had seen the video for “Senses Working Overtime” at a friend’s house, the only kid on the block with cable and MTV. At that moment, I knew that music could actually give you hope, that it could point towards something beyond the familiar and the mainstream. I remember vividly going to the record store to look for it. They had one copy. No one I knew had ever heard of this band, and just looking at the cover with the cave drawing I felt as though I was being initiated into something secret, something that was bigger and better than anything playing on the Top 40, anything the kids in my school listened to. It really was that momentous. That record changed my life.
Relatedly, what was the first album, band or artist that you feel affected you on a more metaphysical level, the first music that you felt truly had an effect on your consciousness in a way that you were aware of? What topics did that music seem to arouse within your mind? Again, how have those feelings evolved over the years and what relationship, if any, do you have with that music today?
This was something that evolved subtly over time, and it happened with different albums in different ways. When I was about 11 or 12 I began a ritual of listening to my older brother’s records, and it was with those that things began to shift. David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs revealed something about sex. The Beatles White Album flipped a switch that that revealed a slight sense of the sinister and foreboding that I could feel viscerally. But it wasn’t until I listened to Dark Side of the Moon at about the age of seventeen that I captured a glimpse of something almost transcendent. It was then I understood how deeply music could move me, how under the right conditions music could alter consciousness.
Music plays a supporting role in your absolutely excellent book, “Too Much to Dream,” the title of which we knew originally as a song by The Electric Prunes. What led you to use this title for your book, and what does this title mean to you?
One summer afternoon when I was a sixteen year-old-hardcore punk I was flipping through records at a flea market. The table was manned by a long haired, long bearded fellow in a leather vest. I came across an album called The Cicadelic Sixties, a collection of garage rock nuggets. I had just started my own experiments with *ahem* psychedelics, and it just drew me in. There was something vaguely lo-fi and punk about it that it seemed a safe bet. The first song was “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night)” by The Electric Prunes and it blew my punk-infested mind. That song came to characterize for me the moment when my own rebellious and spiritual inclinations found a home in rock ‘n’ roll. It was a song that was both edgy and dream-like, a cultural artifact that perfectly represents the sixties co-mingling of psychedelic spirituality, rock, and pop culture, and that my book “Too Much to Dream” does it best to explore.
The story you tell in “Too Much to Dream” is vivid, compelling and utterly your own – yet one that will be found to be relatable to many. What were the circumstances that led to your being convinced – either by others or simply by yourself – to tell your story in such a way? What did you find most difficult about penning the book? What has been the most surprising thing that you learned during the course of writing the book? What has been most surprising about the reception the book has received?
When I was around forty, having been clean and sober for almost twenty years, I found myself collecting psychedelic music again, reading Alan Watts, and grooving on the art of people like Arik Roper. I began to wonder why after so many years after having any kind of drug induced psychedelic experience I was still so drawn to the music, ideas, and images that relate to these experiences. It was a sudden realization that my psychedelic experiences had never existed in a vacuum of the drug themselves, but were in fact a product of all the cultural artifacts I surrounded myself with at the time; Silver Surfer comic books, Heavy Metal magazine, Syd Barrett albums, Carlos Castaneda, Tarot Cards. All these things mediated my experiences, gave them language and form. It was then I decided I wanted to write a book that was a hybrid of memoir and cultural history, an attempt to reconcile my drug use with the cultural forces that informed them so deeply.
In the opening of “Too Much to Dream,” you reflect on the impossibility to subdue, in the words of Aldous Huxley, “the urge to transcend self-conscious self-hood.” To ask an incredibly open-ended question (and to await an incredibly open-ended response), where do you feel this urge stems from? Can it ever be sated? How does this urge manifest itself in your life today?
This urge is is an essential quality of being human. Whether through religious ritual, intoxicants, art, or music, we have always sought transcendence in some form. It’s the irrational part of us that I believe needs attending to. It can’t be sated because I don’t believe there is any final experience or ultimate truth that we can ever really have access to. We can catch glimpses of it, shadows on the walls of the cave, as it were. There are moments when I am suddenly seized with the sense of something inexplicable, often in regards to nature, when I can intuit in the most profound way that there is something “more,” some extension of my consciousness that reaches towards transcendence. And then the only thing to do is put on some Sun Ra or Sun Araw and groove to their own inheritance of that urge.
Do you feel there is more or less of a stigma in today’s society (for lack of a more overused term) for those who have engaged in psychedelic experiences versus, say, 30 to 45 years ago? Did you have any self-consciousness or hesitation about being not only open but also nuanced about your experiences with psychedelics within the book?
I am not sure there is less stigma, but social media and the internet have widened the conversation in such a way as to reveal how many people there are that use these substances. Sites like Erowid, for example, put it out there pretty explicitly. In the past five years there has also been a huge increase in mainstream research activities involving psychedelics – John Hopkins and Harvard for example – that there is more public awareness in general. If I had any hesitation it was more about revealing how ugly things had gotten for me, and to describe my own debauchery in a public way and then go pick up my son at his school sometimes felt a little strange. But overall, I am glad to have told my story honestly. Too much of the discussion of psychedelics in the underground is about how wonderful they can be, and while this is true, there is a darker element that we should also be talking about.
Is there a sense that the conventional wisdom (again, for lack of a more overused and potentially meaningless term) on psychedelics has stagnated to a degree in a recent years? Our own observations seem to point to a largely bifurcated mindset on the topic, if discussed at all – those who are militaristically opposed to the use in all forms, and those who think it’s, like, so totally intense, dude, to get dosed and listen to Pink Floyd, without regard to any spiritual benefit? Could it be that it has always been this way in the view of society at large, and we’re just getting old ourselves?
I think many in the psychedelic drug community are trying to nuance the conversation, and there certainly is more resources for those who also want the spiritual dimension to be part of their understanding. But in some ways I think the typical stoner mindset is sometimes the most authentic. I think we often ask too much of these chemicals. I know people who use these drugs regularly and while they have profound experiences, not much happens except that they have these profound experiences over and over again. They are after some perfect awareness that will set them free, but I’m not sure that exists. For myself, any lasting spiritual experience is going to come from the long haul. Psychedelics might reveal the path, but for me they could never get me to the top of mountain.
Imagine for a moment that someone was going to drop acid and listen to Pink Floyd. What Pink Floyd album is best for such an endeavor and why? Please show your work.
Even though my own revelation happened with Dark Side of the Moon, I still think that Piper of the Gates of the Dawn is one of the most perfectly realized psychedelic albums of all time. It contains everything one is to experience on a trip: brief and mostly elusive cosmic understanding, moments of madness, surprise at the most mundane of happenings. whimsy, and if you are around cats at the time, the terrible gaze of a feline consciousness as it looks directly into your drug-addled consciousness.
In his excellent book, “Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom,” Andy Lechter writes the following:
“Science and anti-science have collided throughout the history of the magic mushroom. Just as the ricochets and trajectories of sub-atomic particles reveal something of how the physical universe is constructed, so, I think, do the reverberations caused by the magic mushroom expose something fundamental about our cultural universe, about the attitudes and sensibilities that shape our time. That we in the West, in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, have found the mushroom’s litany of peculiar effects desirable is, I would suggest, symptomatic of a broader underlying craving for meaning – more specifically, for enchantment – that sits somewhat awkwardly within our supposedly rationalist, scientific and technological culture.”
Yes, I agree wholeheartedly. This is, I think, the same urge that Huxley describes; this desire for magic, for getting past the appearance of things and getting a glimpse of the numinous. Is it God? That’s one word for it. This why music and art are so essential. They give form and shape to the ineffable. Sometimes they can only describe the desire, and sometimes they can only describe the coming down, the melancholy of having not quite reached it, but that is just as important. I think a lot of current psychedelic bands are playing with this tension more and more. It’s not all beautiful fractals of machine elves and unmediated union with the divine consciousness. It’s sometimes a big bummer, a big beautiful crash that reminds us how human we are, how vulnerable, how lonely. That’s okay. We have music, art, and each other.
What’s next for Peter Bebergal?
I intend to continue to write on these themes, particularly, how esoteric and other spiritual ideas impact contemporary music. I feel really lucky to be part of the conversation, to get to talk about music and the things I love. Please stop by mysterytheater.blogspot.com for a glimpse of what I’m up to.
Listen to Peter Bebergal on Episode 311 of “The C-Realm” podcast: Epidode 311 – “There But For Gratuitous Grace.