Review Summary: I believe.
Many of us have had albums we’ve seen ourselves in. As humans, we are hardwired to see parallels to our own lives in art. There’s no question that hearing someone profess your inner thoughts through song is bound to elicit a reaction. Up until a few weeks ago, I’ve never really had that sort of experience with an album. I just assumed that I was too jaded to have the sort of visceral reactions some music lovers have often touted. Was this reaction only possible from a connection established at a young age" Did I miss my chance to have a truly intimate experience with music after darting through albums as fast and recklessly as I have" Or were these stories of music saving lives and changing hearts merely fabrications" For all intents and purposes, Ode To Quetzalcoatl was the answer I was looking for: I believe. I believe the stories. The tales you’ve all told. They were real. And this one was real.
Despite me connecting to this album as much as I did, Dave Bixby’s story is incredibly different from mine. Bixby was a young man from Michigan who became enamored by the hippie era of the 1960s. He bided his time doing drugs, attending beach gatherings, and spending nights in jail (all activities I very infrequently partake in). Say what you will, but the man was adventurous. With this hard and fast lifestyle, it's no wonder Bixby found himself plummeting back to Earth rather quickly. Frequent LSD trips had left him in a sort of soulless state. Bixby muses in an interview done by It’s Psychedelic Baby Magazine:
“I discovered LSD my senior year in high school. My love for adventure took me out where no man has gone and I couldn’t get back. I should have stuck to beer and pot. Dave never came back. My empty body wandered aimlessly for months with not much to say. People I knew seemed strange and unfamiliar. The life I had was deleted… Too many acid trips without enough time in between to decompress and normalize. It left me fragmented and I quietly freaked out. I was in hell with no way to communicate it to anyone.”
Bixby’s redemption came in the form of religion. After being invited to a prayer circle, Bixby began praying by himself. In doing so, he slowly began to connect with others, to regain his humanity. He saw that he wasn’t alone, that others were in similar predicaments. He began to write songs about these insecurities, these fears that he shared with the people that surrounded him. He would practice these tunes for those that came to group meetings for help and salvation, just as he had. Bixby was constantly inquired about recording his songs. He chose 12 of his 30 songs, walked into what he described to be “a large living room thick carpet and wall drapes,” and the rest was history.
The songs on Ode To Quetzalcoatl are organized in a very particular way, carrying a unified theme. The album starts with the sobering Drug Song, an oration of Bixby’s previous bouts of drug abuse. Many staples of the album appear here, from the purposefully empty production to Bixby’s distinctive vocals. The lyrics are emotional and a crystal clear representation of the singer’s experience. No punches pulled. These traits are what make the album so special. More often than not, we see the 1960s through an outsider’s perspective; where peace and love were worth striving for and drugs were the answer. However, rarely do we see the underbelly of 60s counterculture from the time. All of this in 1969 no less, perhaps one of the most pivotal years of the counterculture movement, with Bixby’s friends being shipped off to Vietnam, coming home battered and suicidal or not returning at all.
The main themes of the album are regret and redemption; a fitting theme for the time it was written. The following tracks (Free Indeed, I Have Seen Him) detail a new path in life found in Jesus and visions of his kingdom. Mother sees Bixby remorseful of his attitude towards his mother, who he often scoffed at for her beliefs before becoming saved himself. A particularly heartbreaking song, exemplified by Bixby’s wistful guitar playing. Up until this point in the album, I was enjoying every second of it. I loved the lyrics, the guitar, Bixby’s vocals: everything was going smoothly. The next track, Morning Sun, was what really caught me. Never in my life has a song touched me in such a way as this one did. It’s message of leaving the past behind you and making headway to a brighter future is one that made the entire album click for me. While I’ve never been religious to any extent, this album is universal in its beauty. It’s not very often I can say something like that, but here it reigns true.
The album continues with the quiet magnificence of Prayer, the foreboding Lonely Faces (a song that describes Bixby’s unfruitful endeavors to save those he knows from damnation), and the raga-ish stylings of Open Doors. 666 is about the sights that denote the rapture: disease, torture, natural disasters, and other such events. “666” in this context is the devil, whose defeat would denote a new era of peace on Earth. Here’s where I must confess that if you staunchly abhor music with religious themes, this album may grate on you. The album is coated with references to events in the Bible and visions of Christ, all things I know a sizable amount of people do not believe in. However, the earnestness Bixby displays throughout damper any contempt I may have gone in with rather quickly. Never does Ode To Quetzalcoatl feel preachy or condescending to its audience. It’s more inspiring than anything. You really feel Bixby tugging at your heartstrings in the least-manipulative way possible and, to me at least, it’s truly one of a kind in that sense.
The final 3 tracks of Ode To Quetzalcoatl are the perfect way to close out the album. Waiting For The Rains is a metaphor for baptism, which I never fully understood until reading the lyrics:
“Waiting for the rains to come
And wash my tracks away
So no one can see where I’ve been
No one will know my way”
Here, Bixby clearly never wants to see someone follow his old drug-addled ways. Instead, he wishes for them to see where he has been since those days of confusion and hurt. The path he leaves is for others to follow and for himself to look back at unafraid and at peace (in direct contrast to how he sees his drug-addled past). Secret Forest, according to Bixby himself, is about how finding heaven above starts from finding it within. The final track Sleep is formatted much like a lullaby, with soothing flutes and light guitar strumming to begin, emerging as a duet between Bixby and a woman by the name of Sandy Johnson before drifting into the ether. A perfect cap to the album.
Shortly after recording Ode To Quetzalcoatl, Dave Bixby was caught in yet another downward spiral. The leader of his religious group, Don Degraff (who assumed the name SIR around this time), began to convert it into a sort of cult. SIR began to live outside the public eye, and with him was Bixby and many of SIR’s young converts. Bixby’s weekly concerts stopped. From Spring 1972 through 1975, Bixby hid with SIR until finally exiting the group feeling “disillusioned, confused and questioning his own alleged spiritual encounters.” His move from the group was not all bad however. He would later find himself while sitting in the forest (see Secret Forest). And while it is tempting to detail Dave Bixby’s incredible life since, for this review, just know that he is doing fine these days.
Dave Bixby’s Ode To Quetzalcoatl is a landmark album of late-1960s psych folk. It oozes pure intentions and flowing guitars. Consider this the album that made a believer out of me. Not in Christ Jesus, but in music itself.