At precisely eight-o-five
Doctor Frederick von Meier
Will attempt his famous dive
Through a solid sheet of luminescent fire.
In the center of the ring
They are torturing a bear
And although he cannot sing
We can make him whistle Londonderry Air.
And the price is right;
The cost of one admission is your mind.
We shall shortly institute
A synopticon of fear
While it's painful, it will suit
Many customers whose appetites are queer.
Or for those who wish to pay
There are children you can bleed
In a most peculiar way.
We can give you all the instruments you'll need.
If you're harder yet to please
We have most delightful dreams;
Our recorders will preserve
The intensity and passion of your screams.
For we only aim to please;
It's our customers who gain
As their appetites increase
They must come to us for pleasure and for pain.
The United States of America album was a truly experimental affair recorded by a band of UCLA students led by Joseph Byrd, an ethnomusicologist at the university at the time. One of the more notable points of the band was that it had no guitar player, which in 1968 was quite radical, as the electric guitar occupied a central position in rock music of the period. Instead, they used strings, keyboards and electronics, including primitive synthesizers, and various audio processors, including the ring modulator. As Richie Unterberger wrote for allmusic: “What Byrd crafted were not simulations of strings and horns, but exhilarating, frightening swoops and bleeps that lent a fierce crunch to the faster numbers, and a beguiling serenity to the ballads.” The band performed live from a written score. Having seen one of the United States of America concerts in 1968, Barrett Hanson wrote in Rolling Stone magazine: “Those who come to know the group by this record may be quite startled to discover that the live performances contain everything that is on the disc, including effects.”
George Starostin, never a fan of psychedelic experimentation, wrote in his blog Only Solitaire: “The best thing about it is, it remains listenable and enjoyable more than thirty years after its release, and if you're talking radical Sixties experimentalism, that's not such a trivial feat as it may seem. Don't believe me? Just remind yourself of the Animals' Winds Of Change, or of George Harrison's Electronic Sound. See now? That's NOT how this album sounds.” No, but I don’t hear much rock music in it either—this is psychedelia with one foot more firmly planted in Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage than the Beatles ever did. The other foot is planted not so much in popular music (as in pop radio) as in American traditional music. Indeed, the song American Metaphysical Circus has more in common with Charles Ives than any of its contemporaries on the Billboard charts. The song begins and ends with a crunch of overlapping traditional melodies played in a carnival like atmosphere (much like Ives’ The Camp Meeting). Joseph Byrd wrote of the composition in his blog Clouds & Clocks: “Without going back and listening, I believe the sources are (more or less in order) National Emblem (an early 20th Century march, which I played on calliope), At A Georgia Camp Meeting (a "coon song," and early ragtime piece), The Red, White, and Blue (a patriotic song, also known as Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean), and Marching Through Georgia (a post-Civil war song by Henry Clay Work).”
Another unusual feature of the United States of America was that the band’s lead singer was a woman, Dorothy Moskowitz. She’s hardly a household name, but in my estimation, she is the second most important female singer of psychedelia, after, of course, Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick. Like Slick at times, her voice is cold and austere, but Moskowitz seems even more distant in her femininity, as if a woman that it would be impossible to get to know. In American Metaphysical Circus, her singing is precise note for note (with none of Slick’s oriental flourishes), and would be consistently clear if the electronic manipulation of her voice didn’t blur some of her words. The lyrics are definitely out there—I’m reminded of Lennon’s “semolina pilchard” in I Am the Walrus. Indeed, this song taught me a new word, synopticon [observed by many in public, as with cell phone cameras these days]. I had to look up the Londonderry Air [the tune to which the traditional song Danny Boy is set].
The American Metaphysical Circus obviously owes a bit of its inspiration to John Lennon’s Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite, down to the naming of a circus performer at a particular time. But whereas Kite’s circus was purely for carefree entertainment, “a splendid time is guaranteed for all”, von Meier’s circus is sinister. The von Meier circus includes torturing a bear, instituting a synopticon of fear, and the bleeding of children. And then of course there’s the problem of the admission costs, which require that you lose your mind. This lyric is about the dark side of consumer culture, of selling dreams and desires to the public that can never be satisfied but only increase the consumer’s dependency. It seems to be a protest song against the materialism of the American enterprise. The band’s name itself, The United States of America, is a protest just by being the name of a band producing popular music without the proper respect for pomp and circumstance. As Joseph Byrd indicated in his blog Clouds & Clocks, having a rock band named the United States of America at that time was similar to flying the flag upside down. The irony of the lyric is made even more potent when juxtaposed with traditional patriotic and populist melodies (even including a “coon song”, as Byrd pointed out).
The circus, or the carnival, is a frequent metaphor in psychedelic music, so imbedded that it sometimes is in the very heartbeat of the music (as in Jimi Hendrix Experience coda to Bold as Love). Perhaps that was what rock concerts, and being a rock star, was becoming. Rather than evoking church (as Brian Wilson sometimes managed to do) or a dance hall (since psychedelia rarely produced dance music), the rock musician is a barker of his single on the charts, hoping to snag a customer to enter his booth to see the entire album’s worth of freak show. In tone, the lyrics of the American Metaphysical Circus are also indebted to Dylan’s Ballad of a Thin Man.