Coltrane on Acid: How the Jazz Legend Mixed LSD and the Book of the Dead

In the fall of 1965, John Coltrane barricaded himself in a  studio to make what several historians have called the worst record of his career. “Om”, undoubtedly one of the strangest albums ever created, is John Coltrane’s (allegedly) LSD-fueled attempt to combine jazz with the Bhagavad-Gita and the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Inspired by Hindu spiritual songs, or bhaktis, the renowned Jazz saxophonist put out one of the most obscure, challenging records of the 20th century: a sprawling, 29 minute assault on the senses.

Years before the Beatles visited India to grow out their beards, wear brightly-colored marching band outfits, and get all spiritual and weird (thanks Maharishi Mahesh Yogi), Coltrane had already the mysteries of Eastern philosophy in his own way. The result is pretty terrifying. “Om” isn’t exactly something you can sit back and relax to. It’s an incredibly primal, disjointed mash up of chanting and blaring instruments, a charged, nightmarish amalgamation of moans and bleats and and haunting echoes, all mashed together under the sonic backdrop of a blaring sax. It’s the chaos of all matter in the universe condensed onto a single record. Filled with several stops and starts, strange, wailing solos, and spooky chants from old Tibetan texts, “Om” feels like something that would sound better playing in a torture chamber rather than a living room.

This leads us (as most musical investigations are wont to do) to the issue of drugs. Was Coltrane really getting all freaky on LSD when he made the record? All signs point to yes. It certainly sounds like a hallucinogenic mess. Everyone knows acid makes you crazy, right? Yet it might make you a little bit…well…better. Just ask Brian Wilson. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to any of it. It’s possible that he concocted the idea in a manic fit, some temporary psychological break. Or maybe it’s simply an artistic expression, a new, progressive take on free-form jazz,  a style explored by Ornette Coleman a few years earlier. Was Coltrane in the midst of a crisis of faith? The mid 60’s were a strange time, chock full of radical new ideologies and major shifts in how Americans approached personal introspection. But, on the other hand, this was slightly before everything Eastern became cool in popular culture. We can thank Lennon and McCartney for that.

Whatever the case, “Om” has remained a constant issue of contention among music critics and historians alike. It’s a challenging record.  At times, it’s a down right terrifying one. It has the power to disturb and the power to inspire. While it may not hold up to Coltrane’s other recordings (It’s no “A Love Supreme”), it’s certainly a testament to his artistic integrity.

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