Sleevenotes

An essay by the Author


BETWEEN the summer of 1969 and Christmas ’72, twelve men gazed back at the Earth from the surface of the Moon. They were the luckiest of a lucky group of 24 American astronauts who made the quarter-million mile journey out there (the other dozen orbited, often in spooky isolation, but didn’t land) and were then cast aside as the space programme of the Sixties ground to a mortified halt. These two dozen men remain the only human beings to have left Earth orbit, sons of the Sixties in excelsis. To this day, no one’s been so far out as they.

   When I set out to track down the nine surviving members of this eccentric cadre for my book Moondust, I began with a number of questions, the most fundamental of which was why did I give a damn about  these people? I’d grown up in California, before moving to England with my English parents in 1974, so I’d watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s first landing in July 1969 from my home near San Francisco. I remember the day well, and that the astronauts’ feat seemed amazing to me, but thereafter, like most people, I forgot about them. The truth was that all that money and effort had seemed to lead nowhere, least of all to the space-faring future that had once seemed our destiny. The things I thought I’d kept from that era were a passion for music and suspicion of suits and ties. And yet, the thought of the moonwalkers’ disappearance unsettled me for reasons I couldn’t put my finger on.

  

Eventually I realised that in my own mind, there existed a link between the freaky race to space and the music which swirled around me through childhood and youth, product of a counter-culture which, after promising to deliver so much, had imploded at about the same time as the space programme. The surprising thing was that when I began to research the period, I found that this link was not simply a product of my imagination; that both had been emanations of an economic Golden Age, when Americans had money to spend and young people felt secure enough to question their inheritance and experiment with alternatives. Vietnam, the space programme, the music scenes of London, Liverpool, LA, New York – none of them could have happened in quite the way they did at any other time. One of the most telling revelations was this: when Apollo 11 touched down, about a month before Hendrix skewered the national anthem at Woodstock, the average age of NASA’s elite Control Room staff in Houston was 26.

   ‘They’d never experienced failure,’ said Flight Director Gene Krantz, himself only 35. ‘So they had no fear.’

  

What this means is that the Moon-shots and counter-culture were flip sides of the same coin. They were how Americans chose to spend an inheritance of wealth and hope that may yet prove unique, and once I understood this, I stopped being surprised at the way music entered the Moondust story at every turn - or at the sometimes bizarre ways in which it followed me on my journey to find the remaining Moonwalkers.

   Occasionally the connections were explicit. Frank Zappa’s father worked on missile systems at Edwards Air Force base in the Mojave desert of California while Neil Armstrong was testing rocket planes there: Martha and Rufus Wainwright’s grandfather, Loudon II, was a reporter assigned to the first wave of astronauts by Life magazine – one of the astronaut wives, Rene Carpenter, laughed as she said ‘Oh, he was a doll-baby, so sensitive…always crying,’ adding that ‘[he] was the one thing I trusted, because you couldn’t trust NASA.’ At least twice during my travels, I was asked to get word to David Bowie that there was a real-life spaceflight waiting for him if he wanted.

   There were lots of small musical interventions, too. After watching the Moonwalker-turned artist Alan Bean give a moving talk in Houston, I turned the car ignition to find Space Oddity on the radio, knowing that no one would ever believe me; later, I read about Cambridge scientists discovering the lowest note ever detected, a B-flat emanating from a black hole, 57 octaves below the one in the middle of a piano, siren song of the Universe. When I found one of my favourite bands, Sleater-Kinney, playing in the courtyard of my hotel in Tucson, their singer Corin Tucker told me excitedly that she’d spotted Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin the day before in Austin, and had got his autograph: who knew that before long I would be seated before the great man myself, listening to him explain that he never believed they really went to the Moon in the first place? Seems Zeppelin wore Apollo spacesuits on their greatest hits CDs because they liked the look.

   All the same, Plant unlocked part of the story for me when he explained his generation’s love for American Blues and R’n’B by saying:

   ‘When I heard Chuck Berry singing, relating to a youth culture which sounded so gregarious and switched on, it was like a calling, like someone blowing a horn on the top of a mountain…The thing about our generation was that there was no conveyor belt that brought this stuff to us – and I think for that reason, when you found what you liked, it wasn’t a casual affair, it was intense…’

   Listen to a tune like Howlin’ Wolf’s Smokestack Lightnin’, released a year before the Soviet satellite Sputnik inaugurated the Space Age in 1957, and you instantly know what he means.

  

Hence the bands of the British Beat Boom, who supplied a good deal of the soundtrack to the Space Age, and in turn influenced much of the sun-drenched, acid-kissed music associated with ‘the Haight’ in San Francisco – of, among many others, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, The Strawberry Alarm Clock, Moby Grape and Creedence Clearwater Revival (whose Bad Moon Rising climbed to number one the week Apollo 11 set down). Like many people whose tastes were remade by punk, I’d written off or forgotten a lot of this stuff, but was now astonished by how vibrant it still sounded, and how powerfully these records evoked their era. By the time I arrived in LA to meet Buzz Aldrin on the first anniversary of the 9/11 outrage, it felt like 1966 again – the year in which Moby Grape and the Alarm Clock formed, and in which he made his first spaceflight aboard Gemini XII.

Throughout, one of the things to strike me was how similar space talk sounds to drug talk. Back in ’66, you could get arrested in some states for Owsley-esque claim that ‘the stars are my home’, as one Apollo astronaut did, and it worked the other way round, too. The Byrds’ Eight Miles High was banned as a ‘drug song’ upon its release that year, when in truth bandmembers Crosby and McGuinn were space and flying enthusiasts who spent hours lying on the bonnets of their cars watching airliners come and go at LAX. Like Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane, they were rapt at the possibility of finding life on or beyond the Moon (as Mr Spaceman from the same classic Fifth Dimension album attests). So the song really was about flying – specifically to London for the first time, as stars.

  

I wasn’t the only one for whom these two Sixties projects were connected, either. Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips recalled the first landing both for the drama of the descent and his brother’s interestingly-timed confession to Mrs Coyne that he’d been experimenting with acid. Wayne then riffed on a line from my favourite Lips tune, Do You Realize??, which simply asks ‘Do you realize/ We are floating in space?’ And at my suggestion that it was soothing, he sputtered:

   ‘No! I don’t mean that line to relax you! We really are. We’re on some fucking insignificant speck in an endless cold vast sea of nothing. I mean, it’s just hanging…I don’t even know why it works! It wouldn’t surprise me that much if I woke up one morning and someone said to me, “Hey, you know how the world was turning? Well, it’s stopped.” Why wouldn’t it? I have dreams sometimes about shit like that, but it could be real. That part of space, I love that, the way it’s full of mysteries. It seems to encapsulate the way that the more you understand, the less meaning things have.’

   He then drew an unexpected conclusion, musing:

   ‘But that’s the way it should be. Goodness is not something that exists in the Universe and that’s why, when it happens, when somebody comes up to you and they love you and care for you, you can say, “Fuck! That’s a big deal.” If it was the natural order to love and care, as the hippies would have you believe, then what would there be to celebrate?’

    I thought about this often in the course of my travels, especially when considering the difficulties some Moonwalkers encountered upon returning to Earth - the breakdowns, addictions, withdrawals and flights to mysticism.

   Frank Zappa would no doubt agree with Coyne. His satiric opus We’re Only in it for the Money manages the rare trick of sounding psychedelic, while laying into loved-up Heads and uptight straights equally, reflecting the optimism and dislocation of the Space Age with breathtaking acuity and wit. As per the Dead, I’d always thought I hated his hippy shit, but also per the Dead, the Arizona and New Mexico segments of the book would have felt very different in his absence. The California psychedelicists also led a shift to the simple certainties of country music on the West Coast, as the Space Age stuttered and the revolution began to pall.

 

MUSIC was with the Moonmen, too. Apollo 12 commander Pete Conrad had missed music on his first spaceflight, aboard Gemini 11, so on the way to the Moon, he took a portable cassette player so he and his crew could bounce around to Joao Gilberto’s hit The Girl from Ipanema and Sugar Sugar by The Archies. He also took a tape of country and western songs, which his co-pilot Alan Bean just about managed to tolerate, but when Brian Eno came to provide the music for an Oscar-nominated film called For All Mankind, he was intrigued to find that many of Conrad’s colleagues had taken country and western on the trip as well.

   ‘I thought that said something interesting about how they saw themselves,’ he twinkled ‘which was as frontiersmen.’

   Most of Eno’s score is collected on the Apollo album and more than any other piece, An Ending (Ascent) captures the sense of wonder I continue to feel when I think of the dreamy two years spent making Moondust. Written to accompany the emotive reuniting of the Lunar and Command modules, it also reflects the tone in Eno’s voice when he recalled the night of the first landing, saying:

   ‘It was a full moon that night and we looked out the window and saw it and thought “My God, this is really happening.” It was a magical moment. It just seemed incredible at the time.’

   Classical music featured on the lunar trips too. Bizarrely, several astronauts took the soundtrack from Stanley Kubrick’s newly-released 2001: a Space Odyssey, exposing the weird dynamic between sci-fi and real-sci that drove Apollo from the very beginning, and Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna will shiver the spine of anyone who’s seen that film. By the time I’d finished my research, I could barely stand to hear Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra – the theme from 2001, which has become a kind of shorthand for space – but Lux Aeterna is another thing entirely. Space is wondrous, but it’s scary as well: one false move and it’ll turn you inside out.

   More intriguing still was Neil Armstrong’s choice of  Dvorak’s New World Symphony and something his crewmate Michael Collins had referred to as ‘strange, electronic-sounding music,’ which the First Man identified by email as the theremin work of Dr Samuel Hoffman – specifically an album called Music Out of the Moon, which the First Man taped from his own collection. The theremin was an early form of synthesizer, which a player controlled by moving his or her hands through two electrostatic fields to produce the kind of unearthly quaver you hear on the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations or Portishead’s Humming. Yet the sound is still most often associated with sci-fi B-movies from the 1950s, notably Forbidden Planet and Robert Wise’s magnificent The Day the Earth Stood Still, making its selection by Armstrong quirky to say the least.

 

Truth be told, it was always the quirks and contradictions that most fascinated me about Apollo. The whole enterprise had been set in train by John F Kennedy in 1961, after a disastrous start to his presidency called for a show of vision. NASA had neither plans, desire, nor means to go to the Moon at that stage (its head, Robert Gilruth, claimed to have woken up screaming the night after the plans were announced), but with the US lagging behind the Soviet Union in science, technology and space, JFK instructed his advisors to find a contest that America could win. Had ballroom dancing been suggested, who’s to say he wouldn’t have gone for it? Viewed this way, the Moon conquest was the most immaculate folly ever contrived, born of vanity and opportunism as much as rapture.

   As such, it was also a perfect expression of its time. It’s easy to forget that the call to peace and love was a response to violence, brutality and unrest on a grand scale, and The Last Poets, often claimed to be the first rap group, grew out of this mid-late-Sixties foment. Deeply obscure at the time, they were rediscovered during the hip-hop explosion of the 1980s, and their Mean Machine sounds as mind-blowing today as when it first appeared. Soberingly, it also sounds as relevant – a trait shared with Jimi Hendrix’s freeform excoriation of The Star Spangled Banner, which was most famously performed at Woodstock, just three weeks after Armstrong’s landing. The guitarist cleverly denied any political intent behind the piece, but his Stratocaster tells another story, of people screaming and bombs falling and bullets tearing flesh. He knew of whence his instrument spoke, too, because like most black men of his generation, Hendrix had done time in the army: had a training injury not bought an honourable discharge, he might well have ended up in Vietnam himself.

 

JUST as Rock and Roll rose with the Space Age, it seems no coincidence to me that the ‘Sixties’ disintegrated in spirit at about the same time as the lunar programme, at the end of 1972, as the last two men stepped off the Moon. Even as a political naif, you could hear the change on the radio, in the sardonic strains of Steely Dan – named after a dildo in a William Burroughs novel – and the rise of hedonistic Glam Rock. David Bowie describes how he felt at the time thus:

   ‘For me and several of my friends, the Seventies were the start of the Twenty-First Century. It was Kubrick’s doing, on the whole, with 2001 and A Clockwork Orange…there was a distinct feeling that nothing was true anymore and that the future was not as clear-cut as it seemed…everything was up for grabs.’

   So Ziggy Stardust was the parody of a rock star by a would-be rock star, herald of an age where everything would start to look like parody and satire suddenly seemed pointless – a brilliant conceit. And when rock tried to be good, it ended up looking flabby and self-important, as when well-meaning George Harrison staged the Concert for Bangla Desh at Madison Square Gardens. The former Beatle coaxed Bob Dylan out of sulky retirement and booked a smack-addled Eric Clapton onto every flight out of London for a week before the guitarist then known as ‘God’ managed to catch one, but still ended up presiding over the counter-culture version of Watergate, with all the money blown on expenses and tax.

   Nonetheless, I saved up for six months to buy the album when it was released in 1972 and my favourite tune is still Ringo Starr’s world-weary It Don’t Come Easy, which had been gifted him by Harrison (you can hear the original demo version on YouTube now). By then, of course, Jimi, Janis and Jim Morrison were dead, while others like Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett and Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac had fried their minds on acid. Within a few years, punks such as The Stranglers (always the scariest of their kind to me, because they sounded so mean but looked so normal) would be mocking the optimism of their predecessors in songs like No More Heroes and Straighten Out. Listen to the lyrics of almost any song from the punk years, though: the counter-culture, like humanity’s brief tilt at the stars, had come to look like a hubristic sham to us all.

   Except that nothing about Apollo is so clear-cut. The more I spoke to the Moonwalkers, the more clearly I saw that the most moving part of the experience for them had been seeing the Earth from such a distance; as an opalescent sphere drifting through space, the only colour you could see in any direction. Among the twelve Moonwalkers, there had been epiphanies, breakdowns, awakenings. Jim Irwin claimed to have heard God whispering to him on the surface; Edgar Mitchell felt plugged into the cosmos like a lightbulb and is now a New Age guru in Florida. At a cost of roughly $13 per year per American, the programme was also great theatre, the only shared global memory that doesn’t involve tragedy.

   Of all the descriptions of Apollo, Norman Mailer’s ‘surreal adventure’ still seems the most apt to me, and some of the songs are here to mark my own scarcely less surreal passage through it. Hallelujah is the drive from Charlie and Dotty Duke’s home in New Braunfels, Texas, to Austin, with Charlie’s spectacular fall and Faith-inspired rise on my mind (it was the Wainwright version which entranced me then, soon after I’d learned of his grandfather’s place in the Programme), while American Music Club’s Western Sky is the tune I heard in my head as I turned for San Francisco after finishing the book across the bay in Walnut Creek, close to where I grew up, and where the band’s singer, Mark Eitzel, turns out to have been born.


   There are times when psychedelic and spiritual ecstasy sound so remarkably like real-life space talk that you start to wonder whether they’re part of the same matrix. Listen to Edgar Mitchell describe his ‘epiphany’, or to other astronauts trying to explain what they saw and felt – examples of which you’ll find in the mix here - and it’s easy to believe. Plug into the ‘sounds’ of space, of radio activity over Neptune or Jupiter’s moons as recorded by NASA probes (again featured here between-tunes), and it’s even easier.

   More generally, the Handsome Family, who hail from Albuquerque, New Mexico, represent the happy time I spent interviewing Harrison ‘Jack’ Schmitt, the only career geologist to go to the Moon. They also embrace the Appalachian folk and bluegrass music I found everywhere and learned to love for the first time on my travels, turning country music’s perceived (and at times actual) conservatism on its head with Our Blue Sky, a song which brings to mind the famous ‘Whole Earth’ photo Schmitt and his partner Gene Cernan brought back from his mission aboard Apollo 17. NASA had given up on capturing this image, but in the end managed it by accident on the very last flight, and it’s been the chief symbol of the environmental movement ever since. In a similar way, Moon River conjures the awe we’ve always invested in the Moon: Danny Williams’s sublime version topped the UK singles chart in 1961, the year Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space and Kennedy confounded the world by announcing the Apollo project.

   Lastly, as friends and I considered Neil Armstrong and Pete Conrad’s eccentric choices of soundtrack, we fell to wondering what tunes we would take given the chance. For my own part, I was astonished at how easily an answer came. Quite apart from its theme, AR Kane’s A Love from Outer Space is one of the most euphoric songs I know, a near-perfect expression of the mood I’d want to take with me to the stars. The more I thought about it, the more certain I felt that if anything beats Sugar Sugar in my book (and not much does), this is it.

 



  

Track Listings

1. Bernard Hermann - Prelude And Outer Space

  1. 1.Bernard Hermann - Prelude and Outer Space (from ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’)

2. The Byrds - Eight Miles High

3. Strawberry Alarm Clock- Incense And Peppermints

4. Creedence Clearwater Revival - Bad Moon Rising

5. Moby Grape - Indifference

6. David Bowie - Moonage Daydream (1999 Digital Remaster)

7. Richard Norris For The Time And Space Machine - Ignition

8. The Flaming Lips - Do You Realize??

9. Ringo Starr - It Don't Come Easy

  1. 10.Richard Norris For The Time And Space Machine - We're Floating In Space

  2. 11.11. Jeff Buckley - Hallelujah

12. Richard Hawley - Cry A Tear For The Man In The Moon

13. The Grateful Dead - Candyman

14. The Handsome Family - Our Blue Sky

15. Richard Norris For The Time And Space Machine - View Of Earth

16. The Jimi Hendrix Experience - Star Spangled Banner & Smashing Of Amps

17. The Last Poets - Mean Machine

18. A.R. Kane - A Love From Outer Space

19. Groupe Vocal de France/Guy Reibel - Lux Aeterna

20. Brian Eno - An Ending (Ascent) (2005 Digital Remaster)

21. Les Baxter - Celestial Nocturne

22. Danny Williams - Moon River (1993 Digital Remaster)

23. American Music Club - Western Sky