Feed Your Head: The Five Senses


We rock around the clock starting in utero. Diane Ackerman writes in A Natural History of the Senses, “One of the first sounds we hear, while in the womb, is our mother’s heartbeat. We are rocking to a continuous, rhythmic beat before we are even born.” Sixties music, particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area, was turned on, tuned in and watted up to volumes and with technologically-induced effects never before possible, let alone probable.

Good conditions for hearing rock music were not a given, because sixties music was not usually performed in theaters and concert halls that had been designed with acoustics in mind. Musicians often played from the backs of flatbed trucks in parks, in college gymnasiums and various other venues designed for purposes other than to project sound from musical instruments and voices. Innovations in sound systems were invented out of necessity.

Even as late as 1967, sound equipment for rock bands was generally abysmal. Drums weren’t amplified at all; after all, didn’t they make enough of a racket on their own? Since the electric bass had never existed before as an instrument of note, sound men often didn’t even think about it. The notion of balancing the volumes of electric guitars with the vocals wasn’t even a gleam in a roadies’ eye; singers were frequently drowned out by over-loud guitars. Complaints that rock bands were out of tune? More often than not, musicians on stage couldn’t hear each other at all. Bands had to rely on visual cues and familiarity with their material from un-amplified practice sessions.

In the mid-Sixties one early sound innovator was Dan Healy, who worked in a recording studio in San Francisco and lived in the Sausalito houseboat adjacent to The Quicksilver Messenger Service. After listening night and day to the band as they practiced, he was appalled the difference when he heard their music mangled and muted by a sound system consisting of a couple of antiquated speakers.

Healy told interviewer Sandy Troy,  “It outraged me that they were being burnt off by horrible sound systems.” He arranged to rent a large amount of sound equipment for performances by both The Quicksilver Messenger Service and The Grateful Dead. It was the first time that either band scored some decent amps. Healy later became a longtime sound designer for The Grateful Dead.

Another early sound wizard was the legendary LSD manufacturer, Stanley Owsley, or Bear. A chemically-induced synaesthete, he told David Gans in 1991, “At one of the Acid Tests. . . .all of a sudden I was looking at sound coming out of the speakers. . . . I have a strong tendency to use sculptural viewpoints in most things. For instance, when I’m working with sound, I work with sound in three-dimensional fashion. . . .I do that in the way in which I set up stages for a live show, in which I orient speakers, the kinds of electrical things I do to sound. To me it is physical, and you can walk through the hall and feel its shape. . .” 

Owsley applied the perfectionism that he used when manufacturing LSD to sound equipment. “In 1968 . . . I started tinkering with little amplifiers. Specifically, a musician named Elvin Bishop asked me if I couldn’t improve the sound in his little [Fender] Princeton amp that he liked to play, which wasn’t very loud and had to be miked in the P.A. So I started taking it all apart and applying some rule-of-thumb principles and changing a few things . . . .and it turned into a real screamer. It sounded good. Elvin liked the way it sounded and that was that. Then I built one for Jorma [Kaukonen] and Garcia and a bunch of other people. . . . I wound up for a while having a sort of production shop at the Carousel [Ballroom, later the Fillmore West] hot-rodding these speakers. . . .”

Bob Weir said many years later, “We’d never thought about high-quality P.A.s. There was no such thing until Bear started making one.” However, Owsley’s control-freak ways, which included eight-hour sound checks, eventually caused a parting of the ways with The Dead. There is no way to do an accurate sound check in an empty room. The way sound behaves changes the minute people enter the room. It will change every time people move around or come and go, as the molecules bounce off changing hard surfaces or get absorbed by clothing and other soft materials.

Nonetheless, The Dead’s devotion to alchemically transmuting music only a few ears could hear into vibrations that could be picked up loud and clear—really, really clear—by a vast assemblage of ears inspired their sound technicians to pioneer new technology for years to come.

One of the primary techniques of creating blow-out effects with music in the sixties was to play it really, really, really LOUD. High was the operative word where volume was concerned, and musicians did their utmost to kick the volume up, up and away. When I sat up close to The Quicksilver Messenger Service’s amps, my hearing would go fuzzy for an hour afterwards. 

Although cranking up the volume until an amp’s tubes exploded was the order of the day, there were also moments when somebody or something cut the juice. Peter Albin told me about Nig Brother and the Holding Company, , “We used to get the plug pulled on us in the middle of sets in towns that had curfews. Once in Fresno it happened.”

Ir could it all come back home to the mesmerizing power of one lone, unamplified human voice. Ron Barnett, manager of The Loading Zone, told me about one of that Bay Area band’s finest hours, in February, 1968.

“We opened for Cream at Winterland. In middle of our set, the power went out. The drummer kept up the beat. The lead singer, Linda Tillery, kept singing—she kept going. Her voice was booming. The other musicians couldn’t be heard, but Linda’s voice and the drum kept going…. They kept it up through the entire power outage.” Tillery was all of nineteen years old, and terrified. People straight through to the back row of the balcony listened with awe.

The primary plugged-in instrument of rock music was the electric guitar, which was largely a California baby.  At the beginning of the 1930s inventors started experimenting with guitars with built-in amplification. In 1931, the first prototype of an electric guitar using magnets and metal coils as a “pick-up”—the guts and glory of electric guitars to come—was developed at the National Guitar Company. Soon the guitars the guitars bore a logo that would become famous in the Sixties from the Beatles, Rickenbacker.

Both the guitar-makers and the musicians of the sixties were experimenting with and incorporating the effects into their music that electricity could produce from their instruments. Sound system designer Paul Squillo explained to me, “At first, the purpose was to make a guitar louder than it had ever been before. However, at some point the goal changed to being able to alter the guitar’s sound when it was in its electrical form to create new sounds that had never been heard before. That was the real beginning of the electric guitar as we know it.”

Bo Diddley was the first guitarist to record the use of feedback, the banshee screeches caused by amplifiers picking up their own signals, usually from the guitar. Jimi Hendrix and a thousand others embraced the demon shrieks. One of the most indelible rock images is Jimi at Monterey, holding his Stratocaster in front of his crotch and humping the amps, fucking for feedback.

You could purposely overload your audio system, causing distortion. You could delay the electrical signal. You could use a fuzz box to obscure the sound. You could use a wah-wah pedal to add weird, rhythmic interruptions to your notes and chords. Reverberations (reverb), a series of rapid-fire echoes, could be conjured up from the technology housed in a little aluminum box. Reverb could also be mimicked with a vibrato or whammy bar, an attachable handle that a guitarist pushed or pulled to adjust string tension, causing them to make a warbling sound. You could sustain a note electronically as well as through your fingerwork. Ike Turner was an early whammy bar wonder. Jimi Hendrix slammed them around in a violent frenzy and John Cipollina coaxed forth a more subtle beauty from the notes.

Meanwhile, big changes were taking place in the way music was recorded and played. The days of monaural records, in which the treble and bass were recorded together and came out of a single speaker, were drawing to a close.

The technology for stereo recording had largely been taken from the Third Reich. Some American soldiers discovered a tape recording machine in a Nazi bunker in Germany. One of them, Jack Mullins, brought its innards back home to San Francisco and tinkered with them. He showed the machine to Bing Crosby, who recognized the potential for tape as a recording tool that allowed more flexibility than discs. Tape could be edited. You could layer several tracks of tape onto yet another tape. From this interaction sprang forth the Ampex Tape Company and the use of tape in recording studios.

The room in which recordings were made was also of the essence. Sound behaves very differently in differently shaped rooms made of different materials. Some of the now-classic recordings were made in recording studios in a wooden church (Columbia), a movie theater (Stax) and a residential basement (Motown). Bathrooms and stairwells doubled as echo chambers. The first recorded “reverb” made use of a tiled bathroom. The Los Angeles sound engineer who recorded most of the Doors’ albums used to take much-needed meditation breaks from Morrison’s antics in the studio’s echo chamber.

At the other end of the sound quality spectrum, the mid-sixties also gave birth to the golden age of grainy, poor quality bootleg recordings. Artists jammed in small clubs and improvised at concerts, giving never-to-be-repeated performances. Meanwhile, tape recorders became more affordable, portable and easy to hide. These illegal recordings of major artists were quietly sold through underground networks, and sometimes from under the counter at record stores. Bootleg albums could fetch a pretty penny and some became high-status items. Some artists and record companies eventually tried to stem the tide with high quality, live concert recordings. However, The Allman Brothers Band and The Grateful Dead, ever dancing to their own drummers, took the stance that music is for the people, embraced the tapers and even gave them their own sections in the audience.

  To appreciate all these studio-generated nuances, a hi-fi, short for high fidelity—also known as a stereo—system was the one material collection of objects that many a hippie possessed. This was usually a guy thing. I knew many a boy who had a mattress on the floor, a couple of orange crates to hold the occupant’s blue jeans and handful of clothing, a cigar box for his stash, an Indian bedspread tacked over the window and the rest of the room devoted to a massive record collection, a turntable protected with a clear plastic cover, a pair of waist-high speakers carefully positioned in just the right places to produce the best sound, and all the above lovingly dusted to a fare-thee-well.

In the mid-Sixties, big, clunky stereo headphones that you could plug into your stereo system became affordable. It felt like the music was inside your head, undulating through every cranny in your cranium. Many swore that the ultimate high was to make love while listening to music through stereo headphones—undulating on a waterbed and with a red light bulb casting a muted, porn flick glow if you really wanted to go the distance. And how better to lure a chick into your pad than to invite her over to listen to a record on your stereo system and headphones—an album that showed you were sophisticated and cool, such as Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain or a semi-obscure band such as Kaleidoscope or H.P. Lovecraft? I was lured this way at least once.

Or maybe the cat came home alone that night.

From massive banks of amplifiers to project sound into stadiums to the invention of new musical instruments, to advancements in recording and home stereo systems, the era was awash in new ways to communicate music electronically. A guy could return home from a dance at the Fillmore, having united with hundreds of freaks as they romped and stomped to the sounds blasting through the amps, blowing out tubes and eardrums. After an evening of listening to screeching feedback and whammy bar wildness, he might peel off his sweat-soaked clothing, flop onto his mattress and light a cigarette. After a moment’s thought, he would pull an album out of its place in his carefully alphabetized collection, place the record on the turntable, fiddle with a few knobs to get the juice flowing and gingerly nudge the needle into place. Then he’d put on the headphones, turn off the lights and be utterly alone with the music. In his solitude he’d listen to an unmistakable solo voice reaching out to him through a web of vinyl, metal and electricity, describing a faint and lonely noise of the one left behind, cleaning up the mess from the clamor and drama of life after the ball is over.

And the only sound that’s left

After the ambulances go

Is Cinderella sweeping up

On Desolation Row

Desolation Row, Bob Dylan