Into the Mystic
Courtesy of Christopher Hill

Music has a way of ear-worming its way into people’s lives, but for Christopher Hill music has been central to his adult life.

He never outgrew his love of music which predates his adolescence. It became a preoccupation that blossomed into a career as a music critic that began in his college years and followed into his new book “Into the Mystic: The Visionary and Ecstatic Roots of 1960s Rock and Roll.”

For the Madison author, the book serves as a “culmination” of everything he’s thought about the 60s era of music. In part the book also represents his own take on some of the music.

“Everybody who was a music fan brings some of their own imagination or construction to it as they make it part of their world,” he said. “Certainly I think that’s true of this music for fans. This is my imaginative free association.”

What Hill examines in his book are the ways in which music was influenced by — and influenced — revolutions happening among its listeners.

The music of the 1960s created a “spasm of enthusiasm” that looked like it faded away, he said.

“A lot of stuff that has occurred since then has been discouraging for anybody who believed the world was on the cusp of a wonderful change,” he added.

That change, an imagining in the age of psychedelic music, is potentially still in the works as Hill says people need to be “historically patient to see how things will turn out.”

Ideas are coming back, according to Hill. The ideas aren’t rebounding in a nostalgic way or in a way that will be quickly forgotten, but in a real concrete way.

Although Hill’s main body of work is focused on music, he has tried his hand at travel, essay and movie writing.

He referred to himself as a “dilettante” who touches base on a lot of topics in his work.

Although his style has changed throughout the years, his interest in music has not. His descriptions have gone from overly ornate or “purple prose” to a more standard everyday hand. He realized he didn’t need to change his phrasing to make his writing stand out.

However the world of music criticism has changed more drastically since the time when his career began.

According to Hill, “A lot of the criticism you see nowadays by younger writers is more focused on the business end of the industry and sales and the extent of the popularity.”

Musical success is now seemingly defined by the work’s mass popularity instead of the music itself or the performance, he added.

Passion for the musical aesthetic is quickly leaving the criticism world at large though Hill’s writing lends itself to continuing the tradition. He is fascinated by the inner-workings of the art form, how it appeals to the listener and, most importantly, how it can start a revolution.

Such revolutions can be found in the music of the 1960s, a favorite era to Hill, as it swirled through the age of psychedelics.

Hill knows that “psychedelic” things are complex concepts that can be summarized from its Greek origins.

“Psyche” means “mind” and “delos” means “manifesting” — the two together create a means of extraordinary understanding.

“I think it’s a way of describing experiences,” Hill said. “I think there are many, many, many levels of perception that aren’t open to human beings. Sometimes they do open up to human beings in some kind of natural way for whatever reason. These are for great artists and poets and religious figures and people like that.

“I think if psychedelic art has any meaning it’s the attempt to communicate those aspects of consciousness that we are not generally aware of in our day to day existence.”

Musical roots

Exploring rock and roll’s roots in African American gospel music is how Hill begins his new book.

“The heritage of black American music is such that there is almost no American popular music that is not somehow part of that,” Hill said. “In a sense, when anyone gets up to sing a popular song they are drawing on that in one way or another. In their presentation or the music itself or the style of the singing, it’s become our expectation of what popular music sounds like.”

Finding the religious influences in rock and roll music goes back to the idea of psychedelic euphoria or gaining a sense of ecstasy from the music as spiritual people can acquire through religion.

Inducing the ecstasy of the holy spirit snuck into rock and roll in a different way, Hill said.

“In a general way it went on to create an expectation among young consumers of popular music that the music would do something exciting for them,” he said. “It had an aspect of changing consciousness to it.”

Hill is sensitive to the current discussion of cultural appropriation, but doesn’t see the roots of rock and roll in that way.

This is a cross fertilization, he said. The “power and vitality” of popular music is in a cultural exchange, not an attempt to take over another group’s culture.

Discussing the liturgical roots of popular music isn’t something a lot of people are talking about anymore which is all the more reason to bring it up, he added.

“I try to describe in a broad way the cultural conditions that produced (this music),” he said. “...The vocation of a gospel singer, as I understand it in a church setting, is they are kind of like the shaman—it’s their job to provoke the ecstasy in the audience. So I think that in its way, in a secularized way, that came over to popular music into soul and rock and roll.”

Music may not embody religious terminology or structure, however, the feelings it evokes can be likened to a religious experience, according to Hill. That deep connection between listener and music was born through music of the 1960s and it’s still around today.

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Amanda Finn is an arts and lifestyle reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.