Exploring the cosmos with Nik Turner of Hawkwind
At 73, the space-rock icon is still expanding his consciousness
When British space-rock outfit Hawkwind rose to prominence in the 1970s, it was still cool to be enthusiastic and sincere about expanding consciousness. Soaring psychedelic rock, alien culture, and alternate physical and mental realities had become one with outsider and mainstream culture in the progressive rock of the 1970s. But as the crass consumerism of the '80s and the ironic distancing of the '90s rendered the music's earnestness almost obsolete, a few musicians soldiered on. Nik Turner of Hawkwind is one of those musicians. "The attraction of outer space and inner space, the unknown, was stimulated by pulp sci-fi as a teenager, and further by experiments using hallucinogens in adolescence," Turner says.
His interest in such topics was exacerbated by Michael Moorcock and his mythology-based fantasy and sci-fi novels, such as Behold the Man, The Time Dweller, and the Elric Saga; Moorcock and Hawkwind would later collaborate on the album Warrior on the Edge of Time. Explorations into shamanistic traditions using psychotropic substances — ibogaine, ayahuasca, mescaline, etc. — also opened Turner's eyes. In fact, this cosmic consciousness stuff isn't just window dressing or a nice stage outfit for Turner and his crew.
Like a lot of musicians who developed in the '70s and mediated Western popular culture with more mystical traditions, an expanded collective consciousness is something he still pushes for. Like the decline of human exploration into space, another of Turner's obsessions, the hippie and post-hippie sincere desire for the Age of Aquarius seems to have dried up four decades later. Seminal Hawkwind albums such as X in Search of Space and Quark, Strangeness & Charm mapped out these interests for both the band and listeners, and Turner has vibed along the same path ever since.
Turner takes a long view, though, if a slightly cynical one. "Social and scientific progress take quite a time to take effect, and to be felt, and realized," Turner says. "Private companies are the only ones with enough surplus cash to spend/invest in such ventures. When the multinationals are controlling the world economy and have the whip hand, and act whimsically financially ... we let them! Their media control information, but they can never win, as they can't eat money."
Turner has always had a propensity for improvisation, stretching his space-rock tunes out and filling them with a skronking saxophone and clarinet. "I think I realized that pretty early on," he says, making the connection between jazz and written music, and using music as a language — use the vocabulary, experiment, and ultimately free himself to operate within the moment.
Though he tried his hand at a number of instruments, it's the saxophone where Turner focuses most of his energies. "I did try piano, my mama played boogie-woogie piano, but I didn't concentrate long enough," he says. "I tried guitar, borrowed one with a really high action, I thought they were all like that, found it too difficult and gave up. I thought clarinet more groovy, so when I was 17 I bought myself a clarinet and had a few lessons. Then I turned on to sax."
Add the grooviness of a saxophone to a healthy dose of boyhood investigation into ancient cultures, Greek mythology, and ancient astronaut theories, and you've got a potent mix for music rife with science fiction tropes and ancient symbolism.
But Turner's cosmic-looking consciousness hasn't prevented him from getting mired in mundane music business nastiness. He's long feuded with his former Hawkwind bandmate Dave Brock over control of Hawkwind's name. While working on his latest album, Turner filed an application in the United States with the Trademark Office to register and tour under the name Nik Turner's Hawkwind.
Brock currently tours under just the name Hawkwind, though he's the only remaining founding member of the band in that lineup. It's all a bit messy, and from the outside can seem a little childish, but there's power in a name — or at least financial draw and press attention. "I would like to get a band together with Dave Brock and Lemmy, and have a competition as to what to call it," Turner says — Motörhead's Lemmy Kilmister was an early Hawkwind bassist.
Last month, Brock's competing Hawkwind outfit announced the cancellation of its first U.S. tour in decades, claiming physical stress as a factor.
Currently on tour promoting his latest album, Space Gypsy, Turner says he's in good health and leaning heavily on his past work with and apart from Hawkwind just as much as the new material. He's been jamming through tunes like "Master of the Universe," "Children of the Sun," "Ejection," and "You Shouldn't Do That."
"We try to present a show that is a healing experience, helps to raise peoples' consciousness, make them feel happy and healthy, and have the good times without the use of drugs," Turner says.
Maybe it's the fact that current pop, rock, and hip-hop stars alike swap looks, philosophies, and worldviews so publicly these days, but there's something refreshing about Turner's throwback sincerity, and the fact that he's remained consistent in his views and to himself, even if it means alienating former bandmates and fans.
Maybe he's taking a long view of things, looking beyond this month's shows, this year's releases, and even past this lifetime's achievements — out into the stars, the cosmos, or wherever it is that a third eye actually looks. Is it within? Perhaps it's all of those.