The first time the word psychedelic was ever uttered was at an insane asylum in the heart of the Canadian prairies. Dr. Humphrey Osmond, a psychiatrist researching the effects of LSD and mescaline on mental patients at Saskatchewan’s Weyburn Mental Hospital, coined the term in a 1956 letter to Aldous Huxley.
Searching for a word that encapsulated the mind-altering hallucinogenic experience, Osmond combined the Greek psyche (soul, mind) and delos (clear, manifest) and came up with a new concept: “To fathom or soar angelic, you’ll need a pinch of psychedelic.”
These days, psychedelic is used to describe everything from a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavour to overpriced Roche Bobois upholstery. Musically, the term refers to garage musicians stumbling upon LSD sugar cubes in the mid-sixties and hiring their bearded artist friends to paint album covers of hovering pyramid eyes within paisleys within swirling, multicoloured drops of the Milky Way.
1960s Our magical mystery tour through Quebec’s psychedelic heritage starts with the unlikely ethnomusicological phenomenon of novelty groups with matching monotone hair. Although perhaps better known as the inspiration behind the Man from Glad and Bob Barker, proto-yé-yé groups like Les Classels (silver hair), Les Excentriques (pink hair), Les Coronets (powder blue hair) and Les Têtes Blanches (white hair) were on the cusp of the psychedelic revolution.
Hot on their matching pink Cuban heels came early psychedelic garage bands Les Sinners, the Haunted and Les Maledictus Sound. They were followed soon after by the nougatlike L’Infonie, whose spurts of bossa nova, synthetic go-go and avant-garde free jazz came wrapped in such genre-defining cover art as a shimmering, all-seeing eye in the middle of an elaborately asymmetrical helix.
1970s The golden era of idyllic, bucolic, hippy cover art was ushered in by Harmonium, Robert Paquette, Louise Forestier, Jean-Pierre Ferland and other folk-psych groups. There is something uniquely Québecedelic in these pastoral visions of utopia, where the possibility of human metamorphosis seems as realistic as communing with rabbits around a campfire in Abitibi. Looking at these albums, one has the impression that turning into a butterfly and flying into the sunset was a regular occurrence for rural Quebec musicians.
Guy Skornik’s maverick 1976 opus Namasté! Ici & Maintenant showcases perhaps the most psychedelic album art ever. It features such unlikely pairings as a “magic musch room” atomic explosion on a lily pad floating over a mountain range; a house in a box in a cloud; an open door revealing “the venerable Kalou Rimpoche” bearing a pink flower; a giant number 7 in a valley; a woman holding a puppy in a double circle; and sly fox Skornik himself in the middle of a roulette wheel growing out of a lotus stem. With anglo-franco-
polyglot titles like “Karmavalse,” “Legalement Planant,” “Square Dance,” and “Mahakala Puja,” Skornik could only have come from the deepest recesses of psychedelic Quebec.
1980s Carlyle Williams’ overpopulated 1981 painting for Gotta Go for It! is an indication of just how completely unique this Montreal Renaissance man (who still attends Concordia University) is. Also from the early eighties, the headphone-wearing elf hurtling down the crepuscular highway with nothing but a twenty-four-track mixing board to keep him afloat makes Barde’s Voyage a personal favourite for many aficionados.
Although largely forgotten today, the mysterious creativity and humour in Quebec’s psychedelic album covers still convey genuine attempts at sharing the splendours of the human imagination. Parallels can be drawn to their high-art forebears, Les Automatistes, who also showed souls, feelings and emotions through their singular brand of abstract expressionism.
Strangely enough, a Quebec singer turned up in the sixties with the same name as Les Automatistes’ patron saint, André Breton, the founder of surrealism. And thus the Ouroboros’ tail slips neatly into its own mouth. Ça, c’est du vrai western art!