Freaks of Color, Pt. 1

Find the Others

For the most recent “Ask Dr. D.” — my monthly(ish) subscriber-only column — I took on the following question:

You’ve written about the erasure of women’s roles in the counterculture, high-weirdness version. I’m wondering about the erasure of BIPOC voices, especially on psychedelics. Could you give some of your favorites a little bit of loving consideration? — Wendy

As my answer ballooned I decided it should be a full post. This subject — those Black folks, Native Americans, Latinxs, and everything-in-betweeners who became participants or fellow travelers in America’s psychedelic counterculture of the ‘60s and ‘70s — is too often ignored today, and having my thoughts available only to subscribers only furthers that obscurity. But I’m acutely conscious — which is another way of saying nervous — of being a SWD (Straight White Dude) venturing into issues of race in relationship to a scene that, despite its global reach, remains associated with whites and even whiteness. My only hope is to attempt to speak not with authority, but rather, as Wendy suggests, with love and consideration.


Here I want to honor and remember some freaks of color. “Freak” is a loaded term, of course, but stay with me. The term first emerged in the 1500s, when, according to Richard Broome, it meant “a causeless change, a capricious humor, a whim, and later, an irregular fancy.” All that’s good to keep in mind. By the dawn of the 20th century, “freak” had taken a more naturalist cast, as in a “freak of nature” or other physical anomalies. This category very much included the human oddities presented as “freaks” in dime museums or circus side-shows, like conjoined twins, dwarves, or bearded ladies. Many of these bodies were heavily racialized and exoticized, even framed as subhuman.

By the early ‘60s or so, groups of bohemians lost in the wilds between Beatnik and Hippie started to use freak to describe themselves and their scenes. In a typical subcultural inversion, the pejorative was flipped to a positive, even romantic, valence. This made sense for those Anglos who wanted to escape, purge, or mutate their identities away from mainstreet America. During the subsequent years of the counterculture, many folks self-identified as freaks rather than hippies, a term that had been pressed upon them from without. Freak was street slang — more profane, more edgy and wayward.

In 1967, some sociologists working the Haight drew a distinction between heads, who used hallucinogens or meditation “as a means of self-realization or self-fulfillment,” and freaks, who were more interested in drug kicks as such, and whose excesses ran the risk of “freaking out.” A year later, Tom Wolfe gave the term a different spin, writing in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test that freak referred to the outlandishly stylish or the obsessive, as in “a Tarot freak.” Though freaks weren’t tightly associated with Movement politics, it’s wrong to see them as apathetic. In his 1972 book Freak Culture, sociologist Daniel Foss characterizes freak politics as the desire to effect a “complete discontinuity with the conventional reality” — an operation carried out through “an assertion of self-conscious weirdness directed at the disorientation and destruction of [mainstream] culture.”

The most visible location for freak’s leap from the sideshow to the youth culture is Freak Out!, the groundbreaking 1966 album from the California band the Mothers of Invention. The LP included an uncharacteristic (and rather unfreaky) exegesis by group leader Frank Zappa: “On a personal level, Freaking Out is a process whereby an individual casts off outmoded and restricting standards of thinking, dress, and social etiquette in order to express creatively his relationship to his immediate environment and the social structure as a whole.” In Zappa’s characteristically masculinist eyes, the freak scene was something to enjoy, to intensify, and to exploit. But Zappa also thought that LSD was a stupid waste of time — if not a CIA plot. In other words, the Mothers were freaky without all being acidheads.

They were also freaky without all being white. Bassist and singer Roy Estrada, who was also known in the band as Roy Ralph Moleman Guacamole Guadalupe Hidalgo Estrada, was a Mexican-American from Santa Ana who helped start the group before Zappa joined. He went on to play with Little Feat and Captain Beefheart (and also to do terrible things to children that landed him in prison). His presence in the Mothers, like Santana’s exuberant performance at Woodstock, makes it perfectly clear that freak is no more stable an ethnic category than it is a social or psychological or aesthetic one. Though freaks follow their own formulas, one of the most important is the scrambling of identity.

Estrada’s oldest pal in the Mothers was drummer Jimmy Carl Black, whose trademark line was “Hi boys and girls, I’m Jimmy Carl Black, and I’m the Indian of the group." Black was from the Texas borderlands; his mother was a quarter Chippewa, and his dad, who died before Jimmy was born, was a full-blood Indian whose last name was Inkanish. Black always thought his dad was Cheyenne, but later discovered he was at least part Caddo, a tribe that had occupied East Texas and Oklahoma since ancient days. Though Black didn’t grow up around Indians, he was certainly aware of his difference. In his memoir, the posthumously published For Mother’s Sake, Black describes meeting Miles Davis after sharing the bill at the Newport Jazz Festival. “He told us that we did alright for white boys and I had to remind him that I wasn’t exactly white but he said, ‘You know what I mean, you ain’t exactly black!’”

For Mother’s Sake makes it clear that, despite Frank’s prohibitions, the Indian in the group enjoyed his acid. (Like Estrada, who was fond of amphetamines, Black did not mix partying with his musical duties.) Black doesn’t reflect much on the personal value or experience of psychedelics, which mostly seemed part of the generally freaky lifestyle he enjoyed, at least when away from his family on the road. The book is fun, but Black’s voice is most memorably heard on recordings, especially his performance of “Lonesome Cowboy Burt” in the movie 200 Motels, as well as a heated argument he had with Zappa over band pay that’s included on Uncle Meat.

Like so much white argot, the slang use of freak appears in the jazz world first. In the 1950s, Mutt Carey described himself and Joe Oliver as “freak trumpet men,” explaining that by “freak” he meant that they generated some of their sounds with “artificial devices” like mutes and cups alongside the usual valves. Other jazz musicians used “freak” to describe both devoted fascination — Duke described himself in the 1940s as a “train freak” — and sexually obsessive fans.

Unsurprisingly, the first Black folks who pop up in postwar psychedelic history are also jazzmen. (Here I am leaving aside the people of color who no doubt numbered among the unfortunate soldiers and prisoners loaded with LSD, mescaline, and other psychoactives by nefarious spooks and their white-coated MKUltra minions.) British acid historian Andy Roberts reports that by the late 1950s, LSD was already floating through UK jazz scenes. Meanwhile, peyote circulated through the margins of American beatnik jazzbo zones where Blacks and whites sometimes mingled. While these scenes should not be thought of as freaky, they were certainly populated with sophisticated bohemians and creative drug-users.

In the early ‘60s, Tim Leary and Allen Ginsberg helped turn on Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Charles Mingus to LSD and psilocybin. Dizz, Monk, and Mingus were already towering voices and it would be facile to attribute their subsequent musical statements to their experimentation. According to Lenni Brenner, Mingus thought of acid as recreational rather than revolutionary, a realist attitude that makes sense for a Black bohemian already familiar with the modicum of personal and social freedom that drugs provided within the brutal constraints of American society.

That said, there is more than a little merit to the idea that John Coltrane’s late musical voice, possibly including A Love Supreme but certainly the cosmic blast-offs that followed, were related to his use of LSD from 1964 or 1965 onward. (I have not turned up anything on Alice Coltrane’s acid use, though her South Asian spiritual journeys were more post-freak than Afrocentric.) Rumors that Trane was tripping during the recording of Om (1965) should not get you terribly excited, as most listeners find the album a tough ride. But go for it, intrepid traveler, it will definitely take you to the edge.

Miles Davis presents a more ambivalent case. Though Miles was a sometimes prodigious drug user, I can’t find anything about his interest in psychedelics, and I strongly suspect he didn’t have one. But psychedelic culture heavily influenced his late ‘60s turn towards electric instrumentation, multi-track studio edits (by way of the deft hand of producer Teo Macero), and the trippy jazz fusion pioneered (and packaged with Mati Klarwein’s visionary art) on Bitches Brew (1970). Psychedelic style not only provided a new, happening, and commercial audience of open-minded rock fans, but also a zone of creative novelty and drift where Miles might lose himself and make himself over, as he did on a series of far-out ‘70s albums that jazz purists hate and humble heads can only bow down before in wonder. And like his clothes, Miles’ musically voice changed dramatically: the trumpet got a wah-wah, the jams got freaky, and the melodies condensed into microdots.

One prime vector for Miles’s freak transformation was his brief marriage to Betty Davis, a ‘70s funk pioneer who, in the late ‘60s, was a vivacious habitué of various rock, model, and art scenes. Betty turned Davis on to Sly Stone and especially Jimi Hendrix, both unquestionable freaks of color whose sartorial psychedelia definitely inspired Miles. Sly psychedelicized R&B grooves, expanding his funk into sonic snapshots of an integrated family collective just around the rainbow corner. Hendrix freakified blues and rock, in part by embracing what Mutt Carey might have called the “artificial devices” of whammy bars, wah-wah pedals, backwards tapes, and electric feedback. Psychedelia, at least in its freak articulation, invokes a weird and wonderful fusion of sacred and profane, God and grit, tabernacle and juke joint. I know of no greater instantiation of this magic carpet weave than Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland (1968), which shoots you on a cool moonbeam through the hot chaos of screaming telephones and crosstown traffic.

But where did Hendrix get his freaky looks — the fringe jackets, the scarves, the wild shades? Arthur Lee, an LA musician who enlisted Hendrix for a 1964 R&B session, claimed that Jimi swiped them from Lee himself. Such swagger was not uncharacteristic of Lee, who in 1965, started Love, a psychedelic band that fused Sunset Strip folk-rock with proto-punk aggression and a touch of surf music. Onstage and off, Lee radiated an erratic, brilliant, vaguely threatening charisma. An inveterate acidhead, he helped pioneer the rock enclave in Laurel Canyon, where he retreated to brood, mindfuck journalists, and do drugs.

Love was one of only a few racially integrated groups of the ‘60s rock era. Lee was originally from Memphis, where he was born to a white jazz musician and a mother with both Black and Indian ancestry. Though he wasn’t the only Black rocker around — Love’s lyrical lead guitarist, Lee’s childhood friend Johnny Echols, resembled a shaggier Johnny Mathis — Lee moved in a largely white world. He once wryly described himself, in reference to Mick Jagger, as “a black American imitating a white Englishman imitating a black American.”

There is nothing imitative however about Love’s third album, Forever Changes (1967), a psychedelic chamber-pop bummerpiece that flopped at the time but was subsequently anointed, rightly, as one of the Everests of the era. “Psychedelic music” usually describes a genre, but the sound of Forever Changes is sui generis psychedelia, an organic origami orchestration of strings, horns, jazzy beats and acoustic guitars that conjures something closer to Burt Bacharach than Blue Cheer.

Lee’s lyrics represent perhaps the first mature musical articulation of psychedelic noir. Though the band started recording only a month after the Summer of Love, Lee was already probing the rotten, worm-infested mulch beneath Flower Power. Menacing Forever Changes images, like water turning to blood, were part prophecy and part articulation of the violent, fractured reality of ‘60s America (some of Lee’s childhood neighborhood burned during the Watts riots). But Lee’s voice also channeled a haunting current of spiritual unease, a mystic identity crisis peppered with the harrowing haikus of the far-gone acidhead:

You are just a thought that someone
Somewhere somehow feels you should be here

Or

I don't need power when I'm hypnotized

Or

I don't know if I am living or if I'm
Supposed to be

In one song, Lee declares that “You made my soul a cell,” but we don’t know whether that you is God or a girl or Death or Amerikkka. It’s never clear where Lee is really coming from, and we suspect he doesn’t know either. He is at once a victim and a vector of what Andrew Hultkrans describes, in his fine 33 1/3 book on the album, as a kind of gnostic dread. In contrast to the suave entitlement radiated by bandmate and Hollywood scion Bryan MacLean in the photo above (second from left), it’s hard not to see the tangles of racial identity knotting up Lee’s pensive brow as he stares out at us from his broken castle of spiritual disquiet.

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Across genres and across the globe, music became psychedelicized in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, very much including soul and R&B. For a quick sample, please enjoy the Chamber Brothers’ “Time Has Come Today” (1967), Curtis Mayfield’s “(Don’t Worry) If There Is a Hell Below, We’re All Gonna Go” (1970), and Shuggie Otis’ autobiographical “Aht Uh Mi Hed” (1974). But the freakiest Black music that emerged came from the men and women and aliens of the Mothership, aka Parliament/Funkadelic, aka P-funk.

Guided by George C. Clinton with a sometimes very stoned hand, P-Funk freed the mind with more than their rubbery grooves and galactic guitar (courtesy of Eddie Hazel, blessings be upon him). Each tune or album was part of a dense and ultimately visionary meta-text, which included far-out and funny lyrics, Sun Ra-worthy fashions, cosmic cover art, UFO props, even some bona fide cult proselytizing. P-funk wasn’t a band but an assemblage, made by and for a futuristic urban tribe. And acid was a major initiating factor of the whole thing — early albums like Osmium (1970) and Free Your Mind . . . and Your Ass Will Follow (1970) were written, Clinton claims, almost entirely on LSD. For a teenage crate-digging me, P-Funk albums were like 12-inch gatefold tabs of blotter, especially the ones with Pedro Bell covers. You had to swallow them whole.

In his memoir, Clinton refers to himself more often as a “hippie” than a “freak.” By the end of the ‘70s, when Funkadelic released the track “Freak of the Week,” the term increasingly signified sexual kinkiness. This erotically insatiable sense of freak — c’est chic! — was usually draped on women, as in the 1981 Rick James classic “Super Freak,” and sometimes given a misogynistic twist. But when Betty Davis evoked the term in her song “He Was a Big Freak,” on her 1974 album They Say I’m Different, it’s the man who is begging to be whipped with a turquoise chain. And Betty, who appears on the cover in full starchild regalia, seems happy to deliver.

Don’t buy the rockist propaganda: disco didn’t suck, it tripped. Despite the louder and more louche profile of club drugs like coke, poppers, and speed, the Black, brown, and queer dance scenes that fused into disco continued to nurture a current of specifically psychedelic rapture. The emergence of so-called “disco hits” in the late ‘70s — LSD blotter with 100 mics rather than the more formidable 250 mics of earlier years — directly reflects how dance clubs modulated rather than squelched a current of visionary eros and trance dancing that went back to the ‘60s, if not all the way back to the Paleolithic.

Dance historians credit David Mancuso with laying down the template for the all-night urban dance club ritual around 1970. His “Love Saves the Day” (get it?) loft parties in lower Manhattan unleashed the DJ-as-soul doctor and the heavenly disco ball. Mancuso — who spent time at Millbrook with Leary and talked about using immersive sound equipment to achieve the feelings he got listening to birds or flowing water — was Italian, and his loft parties were mixed in terms of color, identity, and sexual preference. Many great DJs of color came up through these fetes, including the extraordinary innovators Larry Levan (Paradise Garage) and Frankie Knuckles (Chicago’s Warehouse), who pushed the form far beyond Mancuso, and hard into the future.

Or take Sylvester, the “Queen of Disco,” who was one of the first popular dance performers to aggressively fuck with androgynous presentation. Sylvester began his performing career in the Bay, when he became part of the Cockettes, the seriously freaky San Francisco drag troupe populated largely by psychedelic queers. Sylvester was in many ways a more serious performer, and went his own way after a few years. But he continued to cycle through fabulous personae at an almost Bowie rate of change. For a 2019 Oakland Museum show on “Queer California,” the curators included a jacket that belonged to the artist in the 1980s, shortly before he died from complications of AIDS. I don’t know about you, but all that glitter still looks like a sky of diamonds.

Keep your eyes out in the coming week for “Freaks of Color, Pt. 2”, on this same bat-channel.

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