Review of Dirt Road to Psychedelia

Movie Reviews


Austin Goes Electric: Scott Conn’s documentary Dirt Road to Psychedelia
Elevator to the 13th Floor: The Birth of Austin Psychedelia on Film
Dirt Road to Psychedelia: Austin, Texas During the 1960s
Vulcan Gas and Liquid Light: Austin, Texas in the ‘60s
by Andy Gately

“Peyote was legal in those days.  They thought it was an ornamental shrub.”

Ah, the hippie heydays of yore, when the music was better, the love was free, the streets were paved with acid, and cops handed out morning glories instead of citations. It was a different time, you understand. Seems like back then Timothy Leary was the dean, Willie Nelson the mayor, and Abbie Hoffman the chief of police.

For those Austinites too young to be flower children, the next best thing is local filmmaker Scott Conn’s new documentary <italics>Dirt Road to Psychedelia: Austin, Texas During the 1960s<italics>. With a wealth of vintage Super-8 footage, musician interviews, early recordings, recently-unearthed photos, and stories of revelry and rebellion told by those who lived it, it’s enough to bring a tear to your pot-smoking granddad’s crimson eye.

Ten years in the making, the research paid off. Conn has sussed out a number of players and artifacts of the period in this city’s heritage when the flames of cultural revolution were fanned by the political undesirables and fringe elements of society unafraid to experiment with new approaches, states of consciousness and technological innovation, and musical evolution was forged in the hotbeds of honky-tonk dive bars and smoke-stained juke joints. Places like Threadgill’s and, more famously, The Vulcan Gas Company, which opened its doors on Congress Ave. in the summer of 1970. Run by a loose collective of artists as a virtual commune for nonconformists and kindred spirits, it hosted some of the best troubadours of the day, be they folk, blues, or that new bastard offspring of the latter, rock ‘n’ roll. Canned Heat, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, The Fugs, The Velvet Underground, and Muddy Waters all passed across its legendary stage, not to mention Austin’s own seminal psych-rock pioneers, The 13th Floor Elevators. The film muses in depth on their widely influential sound, which through singer/songwriter Roky Erickson’s electric guitar and Tommy Hall’s electric jug helped define the psychedelic movement.

Aside from introducing a younger generation to the aural pleasures to be derived from local bands like Shiva’s Headband, the Conqueroo, and the Hub City Movers, Dirt Road also explores, through the anecdotes of the scene’s surviving minstrels and hangers-on, the rise to prominence of Janice Joplin, who lived and gigged regularly in Austin. At the time, rock ‘n’ roll had yet to be recognized as the midwife of radical change that it would soon embody a couple years later, and was instead considered a rival form to be looked down upon as vapid and pandering by many of the folkies, who identified the Beats as their spiritual precursors and aspired to similar intellectual and artistic heights. Joplin’s progression to mainstream crossover success, therefore, helped provide a bridge between the acoustic and electric sets, and hearing first hand accounts of her origins is fascinating to any students of music history.

The psychedelic aesthetic that was born in the 60s is also nicely examined. We learn about the print process and inspirations behind those kaleidoscopic posters and handbills proliferated by the Vulcan and sister sources in San Francisco, which will forever be associated in people’s minds with the era (and are now highly coveted by collectors).  The film even features a mini-tutorial on the art of live liquid light manipulation that results in all those phantasmagoric rear projections of pulsing alien hearts and polymorphous pseudopods which were once ubiquitous but have fallen into neglect as of late, and instantly conjure up sublime go-go’s gyrating to a jangly Fender Strat being tortured through a vacuum tube amp with ripped cones. Get a pair of clock faces, just add food coloring and baby oil, and then “Pretend it’s a girl you’re dancing with, and you got her by the hips,” and you too will be mesmerizing psych audiences with fantastic imagery to make ‘em feel they’ve just downed a cap or twelve of distilled psilocybin.

Aside from the visual components, the film’s talking heads provide interesting commentary and reflections. The inevitable air of nostalgia that threads through their accounts for their time and place as they wax philosophic about the factors that contributed to their generation’s zeitgeist is tempered by a palpable and prevailing feeling of melancholy in light of the current state of world affairs. After all, the 60s were a time of action coupled with a let’s-all-join-hands-and-levitate-the-Pentagon naiveté where anything was possible through Love, and where has it landed us?  At one point, a woman laments the fact that she sees absolutely no trace in contemporary society that the 60s ever took place at all. So what happened?  In the delicate assessment of one sagely veteran in the film, “We got our f—ing asses handed to us.”

It could be argued that the 60s counterculture failed to achieve many of their goals, but at least in their haze of cannabis smoke and mescaline vision quests, when they were seeing Aztec temples and transcending the temporal sphere, Austin’s musical forerunners weren’t too blazed to remember to hit the “record” button, and for that, we can be ever grateful that, at the very least, the music has survived. For its microcosmic visual counterpart, that same gratitude can now be extended to Mr. Scott Conn.

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