“If you remember the sixties, it’s because you didn’t live through them”, Paul Kantner of the Jefferson Airplanes once said. But thanks to introspective records like Dave Bixby’s Ode to Quetzalcoatl, 500 copies released in 1969 through a Michigan-based religious cult known only as The Group, we can get a glimpse of just how close the psychedelic mists of the late decade were.
Confessional record, considered by many the representative par excellence of the loner folk sub-genre, Ode to Quetzalcoatl is the testimony of someone who fell into the abyss of excessive drug use – “Life used to be good / Now look what I’ve done / I’ve ruined my temple with drugs” (“Drug Song”) – and who, Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, he returned with a message of hope and spiritual redemption – “World can’t you see / That the Truth has set me free / And I am free indeed because He said so” (“Free Indeed”).
Born and raised in Grand Rapids, Dave Bixby began playing in folk and garage bands as a teenager. In the summer of ’66 he took advantage of the freedom brought by his first car and drove around beaches and cafes with a 12-string acoustic guitar, immersing himself in the emerging hippie culture. During his last year of high school, however, what seemed like a dream of youthful emancipation turned into a nightmare: he developed a daily LSD habit and a cloud of apathy and confusion fell over him, making everything familiar distant and everything that had motivated him indifferent (as did so many other musicians of the time, such as Syd Barrett, Skip Spence, Roky Erickson, etc.).
It was then that a bandmate introduced him to a religious cult committed to helping young people bewildered by drug abuse through the power of scripture; he cut his hair long and quickly assumed leadership in the cult, but his sudden conversion was met with suspicion by family and close friends, intensifying his sense of alienation and isolation. Until, in the winter of 1968, on his way home from a concert, the engine of his car died and, in a moment of deep despair, he lay down on the side of the road in the snow, about to die in the icy cold. But, and this is the crux of the story, a mystical experience rescued him: “David, I am with you, and have been from the beginning,” Jesus Christ said to him in a spiritual presence.
Inspired by the Messiah’s appearance, Bixby locked himself in his house for a month and a half and composed the songs that would come to constitute Quetzalcoatl and the later Second Coming. Don DeGraaf, the founder of The Group, impressed by the spiritual message of his compositions, invited him to play at worship gatherings, in churches and in high schools, which resulted in the recruitment of new members and the production of the record in question: they set up two microphones in DeGraaf’s living room and recorded the songs in direct take via a tape recorder with a built-in echo effect, much responsible for the remote, depressive sound that characterises the record. Then the 500 copies were distributed by cult members and sold on the street straight from the boots of their cars.
In one of only six stops through Europe, Dave Bixby’s visit to ZDB’s Aquarium is a remarkable and unmissable moment. As he himself said in reaction to the rediscovery of his music: “I’ve been in disbelief about this from the beginning. It’s incredible because I’ve done nothing more than plant some seeds and turn my back on them. […] I have to acknowledge that there’s something bigger than me here and that’s exciting. I have to follow it.” AR