True Origins: Stairway to Heaven

Early in the ’60s, Lenny Bruce appeared on Ed Sullivan and performed a skit about some kids on the West Coast who were caught sniffing glue to get high, which Lenny found hilarious. Little did Lenny know, by broadcasting that story, he created a sudden interest in the effects of glue across America.

When the Finchley Boys decided to hold their first infamous glue party (and there were really only two far as I know), they naturally selected the barn at Mary Shirley’s as the appropriate location. Mary was a gorgeous rockn’n’roll blonde who designed and sewed her own outfits—hooded purple velvet cape and Carnaby-street miniskirt was a typical look. Plus Mary had two gorgeous sisters close to her in age.

I never really penetrated their scene but once, for a ceremony in 1969, but the Shirley’s undoubtedly captured the center of gravity on the Finchley’s social life for a while.  The two lead singers of the Finchleys, Jim Cole and George Faber, were dating the sisters early on. Mary was an accomplished musician on many instruments, violin probably being her best. She was also an asset selecting songs and helping transpose them, as well as letting them know which worked and which didn’t. Mary’s opinion was pretty much final.

Mary was a huge fan of the Yardbirds, who weren’t really all that super famous at the time, playing gigs in small clubs, and Mary would get her dad to drive her and her sisters hundreds of miles just to attend a show. The first time she saw them, Jimmy Page pulled her out of the audience to be brought backstage. They treated Mary as an equal and for years, Page would call Mary whenever he was in the Midwest. It wasn’t a gushy teen fan thing either. They weren’t looking for sex and Mary wasn’t offering (until later, that is). At 16, Mary could go toe-to-toe with the biggest rock stars and command their respect. After Mary was done hanging out at these after-parties, she and her sisters would head down to where her dad was sleeping in the car, waiting to drive them a hundred miles back home. It was at one of these late-night hang-outs that Page asked Mary to transpose a sheet of classical music (Chopin). He wanted to work the melody into a song he was writing. (It eventually became the opening to “Stairway to Heaven,” by Led Zeppelin.)

But in 1967, that hadn’t happened yet, and everyone was going to the Shirley’s to get high on sniffing glue for the first time. Glue wasn’t like the ditch weed we’d been smoking, it actually got you high—way high. It was probably the first psychedelic experience for most of us. The second glue party was a relatively small affair arranged by Phil Mayall and attended by the band and their entourage. Mayall was occupying an empty apartment that was probably rented out by his father. It was a second-floor apartment on Green Street that ended up getting trashed. This could have been the earliest signs of the destructo-mania movement that would capture Cole’s imagination for the next year or so. Mayall was becoming known as Dr. Pheeoo and already seemed close to a junkie on the stuff, sniffing morning, noon and night, and keeping a journal of his experiences. His dad got suspicious, found the journal left behind in the trashed apartment, and called the police.

Next thing the Finchleys know, they get a message that the cops know everything, and it’ll “be a lot better for you if you turn yourself in.” So the next day, George and a few others go down to the Urbana Police Station and turn themselves in for sniffing glue. George’s mom was horrified. “Glue!” she said, “you won’t even drink a coca-cola because you think it’s bad for you!”

It would take another year or two before Phil completely gave up his obsession. For a while, he even holed up at my place, the Den of Iniquity, and did his sniffing there. But the most lasting influence was on the Finchley’s lead guitar player, Mark Warwick. The experience caused him to write the first psychedelic anthem I ever heard, a song titled, “Only Me.” This is what raised the Finchley Boys to an epic level, and it sure looked like they might become national rock stars.

8 Replies to “True Origins: Stairway to Heaven”

  1. Glad you still retain all that information … there are so many details about that time I have forgotten over the years … but Turks Head, In Stitches, and Mary Shirley are not among them. Thanks for bringing those images to mind … cha cha cha changes.

    1. There’s a connection between the steam tunnels and sniffing glue. (and I may be taking liberties with my memory here) But once, we got into the University of Illinois Science building late at night and found a gallon glass bottle of pure toluene, which is the active ingredient in glue. The bottle ended up with our friend D. who just loved the stuff. D. had a baggie dispenser on the wall of his room and a plastic lab squirt bottle with a long thin nozzle on it. He would squirt out just enough toluene into the baggie and we would pass it around. We all knew that it wasn’t a good idea to do this very often. D. swore that it wasn’t bad for you like glue, since it was all the other ingredients in glue that would make you stupid if you did very much of it.

      I credit Steve with being the first one in our group to declare that sniffing toluene was, “not cool”. Everything (and everyone) back then was either cool, or not cool. It was sometimes hard to keep up.

  2. Mayall got incarcerated for that glue party incident. He let lip to the cops that I was at the glue party. So, the cops came to my house while I was playing hooky from school and took me to the station for questioning. I pulled out an Egyptian Oval cigarette (from Jon’s Pipe shop) to smoke while being questioned and they thought it was weed. One of the cops yelled upstairs to the jail cells where Phil was being held and told him: “Your buddy Henderson come in the jailhouse smoking marijuana.” As an aside, when I first introduced Mayall to the steam tunnels he pioneered the use of glue down there, way before Steve’s generation made it down there. Allen Ginsburg told Mayall that glue was his first psychedelic experience.

    1. I was still in junior high and riding a skateboard when Stuart Vyse opened up a manhole cover near the Stock Pavilion and discovered the secret world. I skateboarded all through them one year, and then later, while in high school, returned to play around in them. The reason Phil got in trouble was because the apt. he was living in was in his dad’s complex, and Phil held a glue party there and it got trashed. His dad inspected and found Phil’s diary and turned it over to the police.

      1. Strange, as I never saw anyone in the steam tunnels when I first discovered them through an entrance by my father’s Natural History Building. I spent a year jumping in the entrance at the end of my street at Illini Grove that connected to the whole campus network. I even had to break open a couple of padlocked sections to make traveling underground truly unhindered. I later showed my brother, and Eric, Brian, and Phil.

    1. Phil bought his glue at Walgreens in Lincoln Square, but after they began treating it to prevent sniffing, Doug Blair figured out the active ingredient was toluene and began stealing it from the chem labs at the U of I in half gallon containers. All you had to do was wear a white lab coat and push a cart around and you could fill it up with all sorts of supplies. Everything could then be moved into the tunnels and hidden and retrieved later via a manhole entrance.

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