A mind that is stretched to a new idea never returns to its original dimension.
—Oliver Wendell Holmes
Starting at age fourteen I began to hear rumblings about an exotic substance called LSD. Everything about it sounded bizarre, tempting and scary. It could give you a life-changing spiritual experience, which was certainly a claim nobody ever made about speed, the most available drug in early high school. The drug was first called “telepathine” until its alkaloids were isolated as lysergic acid diethylamide. Sandoz was the legendary laboratory that manufactured it in far-off Switzerland, land of Heidi, cows and chocolate.
Research on LSD at Stanford, weirdly, was funded by the CIA. United States intelligence was interested in finding a drug to be used for interrogations, a kind of truth serum. One of the universities upon which Sandoz and the CIA gifted grant money was the Stanford Research Institute in Palo Alto. Ken Kesey was famously one of the subjects of the LSD experiements.
Closer to home was Augustus Owsley Stanley III, a mysterious mad genius LSD manufacturer who was part of the Ken Kesey/Merry Pranksters scene in nearby La Honda. He considered himself to be performing a public service by making unadulterated LSD. “Owsley acid” was supposed to be the purest form of the street-level drug.
Professors Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert and Ralph Metzner were initially tripping in the name of research. After being kicked out of Harvard they set up in Millbrook, New York. The promises they made about LSD were immense. They wrote in The Psychedelic Experience,“A psychedelic experience is a journey to new realms of consciousness. The scope and content of the experience is limitless, but its characteristic features are the transcendence of verbal concepts, of space-time dimensions, and of the ego or identity….Now, for the first time, we possess the means of providing the enlightenment to any prepared volunteer. . ..”
Some bands played while tripping, intuitively tuning in to each other and merging with the collective consciousness of the audience. To someone who wasn’t stoned, the music could sound like an endless set of disconnected sounds strung loosely together by a bunch of weirdos who had gotten stuck in a groove from which they couldn’t get out. However, if you were tripping, those sounds could seem to be emanating from a stoned version of the Energizer bunny, banging his drum from down the rabbit hole, catalyzing mystical, communal vibrations that you just knew would turn on the masses, bestowing life, liberty, and ecstasy to all.
Sam Andrew told me, “Spirituality was uppermost in our minds in ’64 ’65. We started taking LSD to tap into that. I was raised a Catholic. For a long time I’d been running away from the religion part; I had drifted into agnosticism. There was a holy communion aspect to taking LSD in the real meaning of communion. I saw it as an exploration of why things are the way they are. I don’t think I did it any other way besides as a sacrament. The only one in Big Brother and the Holding Company I dropped acid with was Janis. We did it twice. We had beautiful times. ‘It distorts your spatial relationship’ is what Janis said about LSD.”
On the other hand, Powell St. John of Mother Earth told me, “Janis was not very strong on psychedelic drugs, and I don’t think that she would have linked her talents to that kind of thing. She wanted to sing rock and roll, but she was coming out of Bessie Smith and Tina Turner. She told me that she didn’t like psychedelic drugs very much.”
Powell St. John reminisced about his psychedelically-enhanced song-writing in the Sixties as we sat in his comfortable old Berkeley home. “Those psychedelic experiences were religious experiences for me. They put me in contact with the cosmos, and reality of a level that I hadn’t approached before. When I was writing those songs I was looking for metaphors and language that would interpret and explain the experiences. It seemed to me that religious terminology and iconography came as close as I could get to talk about those experiences. That is why the songs have a spiritual dimension to them.
“Initially, when people were first experimenting with drugs they were taking them to learn things. Ultimately people were just taking them to get high. Once that became real it became much less compelling and powerful experience, and it trivialized the whole thing. But early on, people were into discovery, and that’s what my songs were about.”
Unfortunately, sometimes people were given LSD unknowingly by irresponsible people who thought they were altruistically setting them up for a powerfully positive experience. Antonia Cipollina told me, “We were out on the deck of the family’s house one time in the summer, and John [Cipollina, of the Quicksilver Messenger Service] showed up really dosed. He said to Dad, ‘I’ve been dosed on LSD and I need someone to talk to.’ They went into the bedroom, closed the door and Dad talked him down off an acid trip for hours.”
LSD was legal up to October, 1966. A handful of high school kids were already turning on and tuning in, happily hallucinating their way through Driver Education, Algebra and Gym. Marijuana had also become rampant by then. We were assigned to make posters about safe driving for Driver Education. Someone had painted a poster that said, “When Taking Trips, Beware of This,” illustrated with a person behind the wheel with the bloodshot eyes of a marijuana high. The teacher innocently displayed it on the classroom wall.
David Mandel told me about an experience on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley in 1965. “Before Moe’s Bookstore was happening it was an apartment building and I used to rent a flat on the second floor. One day I came down the stairs very early in the morning and there was a guy passed out in the doorway in a peacoat. I look at him and go, ‘Oh! That’s Bob Dylan.’ I thought he was dead at first but I managed to wake him. I said, ‘Why are you sleeping on the sidewalk outside my apartment?’ He said, ‘I’m stoned, man.’ I asked him, ‘Are you playing a gig in town?’ He says, ‘Where am I?’ I said, ‘You’re in Berkeley.’ He said, ‘Yeah, yeah. I played last night. I think I’m playing tonight again at something called The Pauley Ballroom.’ I said ‘It’s just up the street.’ He said, ‘Can you point me there?’ I did and off he went, staggering up the street.”
Being a head want that you took drugs, particularly pot and psychedelics. Either you were a head and belonged to the tribe, or you weren’t. It was that simple. The first, most vital question you might ask about someone you didn’t know was, “Is he a head, man?” The answer meant everything. To be a head meant that your mind had been expanded, that you knew about vast horizons and possessed a fluidity of thought and perceptions that were unknown to someone who had never turned on. You could speak in shorthand to another head; you assumed that they knew precisely what you meant when you said that something was trippy or far out or that it blew your mind.
Being a head meant you could crack the code of any of dozens of songs and grok their stoned-out subtext. This set you apart from straight people who had no idea what they were really hearing. You knew that Big Brother and the Holding Company was a pun on the fact that holding meant that you were carrying drugs. You could smirk about a song that briefly made it onto Top Forty radio before somebody in management got clued in that “Acapulco Gold” was about something other than an elderly couple going to Mexico on a sunny second honeymoon.
You knew that the Byrds were not singing about an airplane flight in “Eight Miles High” and that Sly and the Family Stone repeating over and over, “I Want to Take You Higher” weren’t inviting you to climb Mt. Everest. In fact, you assumed that any song containing the word “high,” or “stone,” or “trip,” or “freak,” or “grass” was in code. There were also the really overt lyrics, such as a short-lived song by the Fraternity of Man on Top Forty radio that was later immortalized on the “Easy Rider” soundtrack, “Don’t Bogart That Joint, “
Bob Dylan opined, “Everybody Must Get Stoned” with the sounds of a raucous party in the background. Ray Charles’s R & B invitation to share some gin, “Let’s Go Get Stoned” was resurrected as a drug anthem, and Grace Slick preached to the choir in the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit:”
On the other hand, it was easy to fall down the rabbit hole of some urban myths making dope-fiend claims for innocent songs. But if you believed them, man, not even the songs’ authors could change your stoned-out mind. There was a persistent belief that is still debated today that Peter Paul and Mary’s song, “Puff the Magic Dragon” was about smoking pot. Donovan’s “Mellow Yellow” revealed to some desperate folks who had already fried a few too many brain cells out of existence that you could get high by smoking banana skins. Many believed that the initials of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” LSD, were a code. John Lennon insisted that acid had nothing to do with it; that it was a cute phrase his young son had uttered one day. We knew better.
LSD researchers Tim Leary, Ralph Metzner & Richard Alpert wrote in The Psychedelic Experience, about a line in The Beatles song, “Tomorrow Never Knows,” recommending that when tripping on acid, “Whenever in doubt, turn off your mind, relax, float downstream.”
Pennis McNally filled in the gaps in A long Strange Trip, “Lennon had stopped by Indica, a store in London much like the Psychedelic Shop, which sold weird art, Beat writing, and other books, including Leary, Metzner, and Alpert’s The Psychedelic Experience. Having tripped once and not enjoyed it much, Lennon put into practice the author’s advice, tried again and had a much better time, and encapsulated it all in “Tomorrow Never Knows,” The lyrics were rumored to come from The Tibetan Book of the Dead. I found a copy in Shambhala Bookstore on Telegraph Avenue and attempted to traverse the Bardo from death to eternal life on the level of consciousness from its pages. However, I could barely make out a sentence.
If the answer to “Is he a head, man?” was no, it was either imperative to turn on the unenlightened, uptight soul as quickly as possible or to totally avoid him or her. There were many who really, truly believed that if people punched holes in their boundaries by dropping acid, or by smoking a righteous amount of pot or hashish, that they could no longer maintain the prejudices and limited views that were causing the Vietnam War, racial prejudice, religious intolerance, corporate greed or sexual repression. When Abbie Hoffman and Grace Slick plotted to slip some acid to Richard Nixon it was because, had they been able to do so, a turned-on Nixon would have been transformed; the doors of perception would have been washed clean and he would have at last grasped the cosmic picture. After just one acid trip, Tricky Dick would undoubtedly have wanted to make love, not war.
To be a head was to tune in to new levels of reality where you could communicate telepathically. If you hung out with other heads, you just knew. You could beam into each other’s brains and dance to each other’s biorhythms. You could also go to an event with thousands of other people and know that you were all attuned to each other. You were united by a massive, psychedelic oversoul and your hearts beat as one to the rhythms of the tribal leaders who wailed on electric guitars and chanted songs of the spirit, all watted-up by as many amplifiers as could be stacked up on stage. In fact, the best way to listen to music was as part of a large group of heads, passing around joints through the crowd, moving and grooving as one. We meet through the beat.
Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead wrote in Searching for the Sound, “When a large crowd is present, as at the Fillmore or the Trips Festival, the experience of the group mind becomes much more intense, and much larger-scale; see how the entire wildly dancing audience behaves like waves in the ocean: whole groups of dancers rising and falling, lifting their arms or spinning rapidly in synchronized movement, darting swiftly through the crowd or languidly ululating in place—manifesting the same spontaneous consensus seen in flocks of birds, schools of fish, or clusters of galaxies.”
The Grass is Greener
Lindy and I decided that it was time to take the plunge into pot. We bought some marijuana from a school chum, the son of a university dean. Realizing that I had no experience, and perhaps with an eye to expanding his client base, he rolled it into joints and handed them over in ready-to-smoke form. He had arrived, unannounced, in the middle of a family dinner. I pretended he was picking up a homework assignment, which as I found out later, did not fool my parents at all.
Later, when we thought that the coast was clear, Lindy and I exhibited an unusually marked interest in our homework and retreated to my room to crack the books. We locked the door and stuffed a towel across the crack at the bottom. We were reasonably certain that my parents didn’t know what pot smelled like, but since neither of us even smoked cigarettes we felt it was best not to take any chances. We wasted a couple of joints just learning how to hold the smoke in our lungs without coughing it all up again. Neither of us got high. Given that the weed of that era was much weaker than the stuff of today, getting stoned was a learned response that sometimes required a number of tries before the cannabinoid receptors in the brain got with the program.
My first high kicked in after my seventh or eighth try. From that day forward the ol’ cannabinoid receptors never let me down again. I was in the Haight-Ashbury district. I had hitchhiked to San Francisco with Hannah, a friend from Walden, and her friend, an exotic creature from Berkeley High who called himself Lord Huck. He had shoulder-length black hair parted in the middle and sported red velvet bellbottoms, a shirt with a psychedelic print, a wide belt and pointy-toed high heeled boots. Hannah thought he was quite the thing, and so did he.
Our first destination was an apartment with friends of somebody’s friends. It was located just off the Panhandle. The inhabitants, who were perhaps ten years older than us, produced a couple of joints and performed the requisite tribal rites of passing them around in a circle. I inhaled deeply and held my breath. As usual, nothing happened. The older folks started teasing me mercilessly about being an inexperienced teenybopper. A teenybopper! Man, was that cold! Teenybopper was one of the worst insults you could hurl at anyone, especially someone as sophisticated, hip and undeserving of the title as I.
The sun was shining and we decided to join the carnival of hippies promenading along the Panhandle. The Grateful Dead were playing atop a couple of flatbed trucks. Suddenly the whole universe tilted. The grass was greeeeennnn. Why had I never noticed how green green actually was? I stopped to pick a dandelion, the most amazing, gorgeous flower I’d ever seen in my entire life. How could I have overlooked its beauty all these years? I tried to show it to my friends, to share with them the incredible yellow color that contained every ray of sunshine on earth, and the pattern—a mandala of petals that was a metaphor for the whole galaxy. The flower slipped through my fingers. I stood there, holding out an empty hand to them instead. It was the funniest thing I’d ever seen. My hand. No dandelion. I was so thoroughly ripped that I couldn’t even walk. I just lay down on the grass and laughed and rolled around in all that luscious green stuff. No one paid much attention; all they saw was just another stoned chick doing her thing, another ho-hum hippie high in the Haight.
Soon after that memorable day, Timothy Leary brought his traveling psychedelic road show to the Berkeley Community Theater. It was loftily entitled, “A Death of the Mind.” The multi-media presentation was designed to encourage people to turn on, tune in and drop out—while Leary collected their money as a consultant.
There was lots of newspaper publicity. The City of San Francisco Oracle was ecstatic. The cover of the fourth issue featured a drawing of Leary and there was an ad for the event within that promised, “re-enactment of the great religious myth using psychedelic methods, sensory meditation, symbol-overload, media-mix, molecular and cellular phasing, pantomime, dance, sound-light and lecture-sermon-gospel.” However, The Berkeley Barb announced it on the day of the show, with a recommendation that people demonstrate against Tim’s anti-political exhortations outside the theater. Onstage, Leary held up a copy of the Berkeley Barb, telling the crowd, “This is an ugly, hateful, Iron Age newspaper.”
My parents took Lindy and me to the show in Berkeley. They and the acid king went way back. My father had befriended Leary in the late 1940s when they were fellow World War II veterans and students at Berkeley. A number of years later, my mother worked for him when Dr. Leary was a research psychologist at Kaiser-Permanente Medical Foundation in Oakland. My parents regarded Tim Leary as a staid, staid, settled, married-with-children kind of guy to whose house you went a-calling when you were in the mood for a pleasant but square evening. I had long heard stories of his kindness in seeking out my mother and offering her a job upon learning that my father had cancer. I was two years old and my brother had just been born at the time Dad was diagnosed. My mother, just thirty years old and preparing to be a widow with two young children, wanted to get back into the work force. Fortunately my father survived, and my mother worked for Leary until his research study was completed.
From my point of view, their friendship had happened a century ago. I couldn’t imagine that a visionary luminary would want to have anything to do with my parents. They were the living embodiments of square. They ran circles around square. I was completely embarrassed to be seen in their company at the event. I wore my trippiest clothing to make sure that everyone could tell that I was not really with them, but just happened to be sitting next to them.
The Berkeley Community Theater doubled as the high school auditorium. It had abysmal acoustics and ghastly pink walls. That night it was only half full.
Leary sat cross-legged on cushions at the side of the stage, wearing a long white Indian collarless shirt that hung over white drawstring pants. He narrated a tale about the journey of Siddhartha into self-knowledge, while a shadow play of the action was projected onto a large screen. Indian music droned hypnotically in the background. At a certain point, his assistants threw handfuls of paper rose petals over the balcony onto the crowd below. All this was supposed to simulate an acid trip. I wondered what was wrong with me, why I was so immune to the experience. This display didn’t make me feel the slightest bit enlightened, let alone as if I was tripping on acid. It seemed hokey. San Francisco venues already had light shows and exotic and they were much more fun than this pretentious, super-serious approach.
After the performance, my parents, Lindy and I strolled back to the car. We were walking behind the theater when suddenly the stage door opened and Tim Leary, resplendent in his Indian whites, walked out. He glanced our way, then immediately bellowed “Jerry! Edith!” and ran to gather each of my parents into an ecstatic embrace. He asked them to wait while he gave a short interview to a reporter. Then he returned to hug them each again. It was a love fest all around. I watched in a mixture of awe and dismay at this reunion, and the enthusiastic affection Tim Leary seemed to hold for these two exasperating sources of all parental boundaries and rules. “The Death of the Mind” had indeed induced an altered perception after all.