Alan Watts and the birth of psychedelic music

Alan Watts

I think the first time I came across Alan Watts, I was in a record store, which is a little odd since music wasn’t really something he was known for. He was, however, known for plenty of things, including a certain kind of pop Zen philosophy that found its roots in Buddhist thinking and branched out into epistemological, psychological, and sometimes psychedelic ideas. If you put the dots together though, it actually makes perfect sense that a record store would be the place to bring us together. After all, one of the big reasons I keep walking into record stores and blowing paychecks is because it’s a cool way to connect to the past. And in Berkeley you don’t have to dig too far to find relics of a more psychedelic, more new agey, and maybe more optimistic past.

After growing up in England and becoming an Episcopal priest, Watts relocated to SF at age 30, following a burgeoning fascination with Eastern religion to the American Academy of Asian Studies in SF. Soon after, he went freelance, publishing his own philosophical works and hosting a radio show at KPFA in Berkeley, which attracted a loyal cult following. He dropped the now-canonical Way of Zen and dipped his toes into the psychoactive substance pool pretty heavily. Over the next ten or fifteen years, he hit his prolific peak, releasing about a book a year–on life, death, consciousness, cybernetics, ancient zen teachings, you name it–until his death in 1973. Along the way, he secured his place as one of the spiritual progenitors of the psychedelic ’60s, along with Ginsberg, Burroughs, Leary and Huxley.

Today there’s a pretty deep trove of his work to dig into, including a few lesser known recordings pressed up on vinyl in the ’60s. One of those recordings, 1962’s This Is It, according to the reissue gods Numero Group, represents the birth of psychedelic music:

“Psychedelic music all began with the tiniest possible bang: a minuscule pressing of a self-produced LP by Zen Buddhist scholar Alan Watts. In one cosmic flash of inspiration and group improvisation, the next two decades of musical innovation was pre-supposed: psychedelic rock, spiritual jazz, and even new age. As this micro pressing barely made it out of the ashram, it was his writings that actually spread his ideas, usually through osmosis: he was profoundly influential on the beat poets and the subsequent counter-culture.”

The press release for Numero’s reissue goes on to describe the beautiful cacophony of This is It: free-flowing, repetitive, nonsensical chants, paired with some rudimentary experimentation with a few instruments. “Love You,” the first piece of the collection available on Soundcloud, watches that phrase dissolve into babble over piano and percussion, before devolving all the way into growls. Whether you’re ready to swap this out for Revolver, I don’t know. But it’s a crazy artifact, and a solid opportunity to connect with Watts’ legacy. So to that end, I’ll turn to YouTube, for some OG Watts insights. Numero’s reissue drops February 16th.