Summer 1966. A Beat symposium is held at the University of Illinois where John Cage is artist in residence.
A local Countess who had a long-running affair with John Roselli is the most powerful person in town not connected to the University. Among other holdings, she owns the local newspaper and TV station, and frequently jet-sets off to Europe, LA, and Palm Beach, when not holding court at the Champaign Country Club.
After the Italian Count she lifted out of poverty (to buy her title through marriage) was caught poking his secretary, she fired him. He fled back to Italy to plot his divorce settlement, but ended up with a bullet in the brain courtesy of Handsome Johnny.
Bill Harvey had been the first assassin she’d approached and declined. Roselli did not, however, and did it for free because the Countess had recently bank-rolled his return from Federal prison. Her empire was supervised by a local lawyer who was also the only known conduit to the Chicago mob.
Local teen Joe Sanderson was backpacking around the world. He would eventually become one of two Americans killed fighting for the Salvadorian revolution. David Foster Wallace had just entered classes at Yankee Ridge elementary, in the newly built suburb for the University of Illinois faculty. He would become one of the most celebrated novelists of his generation.
Spokesperson for the newly forged John Birch society, whose odd name was a palindrome, could be seen slinking around campus in trench coat and fedora, from one conspiratorial meeting to the next. He had recently testified before the Warren Commission. His house on West Ohio Street radiated with spooky vibrations, and children were cautioned to keep clear lest they be subjected to a sermon on the dangers of globalization.
A British noble, Sir Thomas Willes Chitty 3rd, had recently arrived in town, intent on taking acid and having sex with the hottest super hottie he could find, on or off campus.
Allen Ginsberg informs the leather-coated, long-haired teens attending the Beat conference that his first psychedelic experience was on glue and this leads to a rush to Lincoln Square to buy glue and then to the barn at the Shirley Farm where they hold their secret beer and wine-fueled ceremonies, only this time with glue, and out pops Only Me, an amazing song, written by 15-year-old Mark Warwick, the first psychedelic anthem I ever heard, a song that urged everyone to “let their minds be free.”
The word “psychedelic” was coined in the mid-fifties in a letter from Humphry Osmond to Aldous Huxley. Osmond gave mescaline to Huxley in LA and Huxley soon wrote The Doors of Perception. Both men began looking for a word to describe their experiences with altered states. The book’s title came from England’s greatest visionary poet.
“If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”― William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
Huxley suggested “phanerothyme,” from the Greek words for “to show” and “spirit.”
“To make this mundane world sublime, take half a gram of phanerothyme.”
But Osmond chose “psyche” (for mind or soul) and deloun (for show).
“To fathom Hell or soar angelic, just take a pinch of psychedelic.”
Osmond announced the new word at the New York Academy of Sciences meeting in 1957. That same year, R. Gordon Wasson, a vice president at JP Morgan, published a photo essay in Life magazine detailing a trip to Mexico to imbibe mushrooms with a Mazatec shaman.
Wasson would go on to publish a ridiculous book claiming Soma of the Rig Veda was a mushroom. This rabbit hole concealed the real identity of Soma, which was cannabis mixed with milk and spices, something known as bhang in India. At the time, Wasson was in close contact with intelligence agent Dr. Andrija Puharich who would soon be arranging seances with the rich and famous. Puharich had been a frequent visitor to Fort Detrick, where the CIA’s MK/Ultra project had originated. He would later become the biggest booster of fake Israeli psychic Uri Geller.
For those teens seeking a mind-altering experience in the early 1960s, Huxley’s book was often the first step. The rock band The Doors took their name from the book. Jim Morrison’s talents were staggering and their psychedelic jams were among the best of the era for evoking a mystical experience. All fueled by the band’s extensive tripping together. When I think of Morrison in the late sixties, I also think of Jean Michel Basquiat in the late eighties. They both died young, but left a massive body of work.
But in 1964, Timothy Leary had captured the center of gravity by publishing The Psychedelic Experience. Sadly the book was a complete mess of no use to anyone and inscrutable to the average teen as Finnegan’s Wake. Really it was just a money grab. Leary lifted ancient material from Tibet, so there wasn’t much original writing to do. The book led people into a rabbit hole and did zero to enhance enlightenment.
Leary’s book was nothing like Huxley’s poetic account of the spiritual effects of mescaline or Osmond’s descriptions of Native American peyote ceremonies, or Wasson’s description of the shamanistic use of magic mushrooms.
Instead Leary guided the youth (including the Beatles) to look east for enlightenment. It’s the same basic hoodwink laid down in The Razor’s Edge by British secret agent Somerset Maugham, who, like Osmond, worked for MI6. One thing about the early history of psychedelic studies is that most of the major players turned out to be secretly working for MI6, the CIA, or both.
The cliche of the bearded yogi living in a cave in the mountains who meditates until he reaches some satori moment and is transported to a permanent state of bliss is total jive. The religions of east and west are equally corrupt, run by oligarchies, and exist mostly to make money and ensnare acolytes. The Buddhists are perhaps the least corrupted (although there are good and bad in all cultures), but all talk of eternal life is complete bunk. Nothing lasts forever. There is no soul, no nirvana. But if you want to get popular fast, tell the people what they want to hear. If you are looking for enlightenment, take Zoroaster’s advice and just be as kind and empathetic in thought, word and deed as you possibly can. But also realize no state of bliss can last forever, and there is no bliss without an opposite: so everyone is vulnerable to spurts of paranoia, rage and jealousy and other states of mind from the dark side.
Westerners are used to looking east for enlightenment because eastern traditions are older and thought to be wiser. The Zoroastrians invented the word “magic,” and were among the first to learn the secrets of higher math, something learned through a study of harmony. They were also the most advanced astronomers and chemists of their time.
During the enlightenment era, secret societies based on eastern mysticism were all the rage and many fraudulent books were conceived purporting to reveal the true secrets of the universe. All these efforts were hoodwinks and money grabs.
Just as the emergence of psychedelics was carefully stage-managed by intelligence agencies, so was the evolution of these occult societies. Aleister Crowley was one of the first to declare himself an advanced yogi with magic powers out of The Razor’s Edge. In fact, it was Maugham who made Crowley famous through a novel titled The Magician. They were both secret agents plying dialectical games to advance secret agendas.
Meanwhile, after Harrison laid down a raga in “She, Said” garage rockers across America began tinkering with eastern scales.
The 13th Floor Elevators were the first to use the word “psychedelic” in an album title in 1966 and had a minor hit with their first single, but never really fully penetrated outside Texas until Lenny Kaye released Nuggets. The Texas bands of the time had a distinctive sound with a lot of fast picking on the fat strings. The cowboy guitarist had been an icon for generations. Texas rock and surf rock shared similarities, but there were no eastern scales in Texas at the time. The first song to reference LSD was released by in 1960 by surf rockers, The Gamblers.
Mark Warwick’s song Only Me is a better example of psychedelic rock than Your Gonna Miss Me. Both songs were written in 1966.
Other songs in this vein also released in 1966 would include East West by Paul Butterfield Blues Band, a jam devised by Mike Bloomfield after his first gig in San Francisco, where he could have bumped into a slew of bands working on defining an emerging genre; and, of course Section 43 by Country Joe and the Fish, ranks high on the list of early psychedelia. The appearance of cheap, portable organs from England and Italy played a major role in crafting a psychedelic ambience, and most of the original psychedelic bands made use of either the Vox or the less expensive Farfisa.
In November of 1966, Bronx-based band Blues Magoos released the album Psychedelic Lollypop, which included the hit song We Ain’t Got Nothing Yet, which rose to #5 on the charts, far higher than anything by the 13th Floor Elevators. Ralph Scala on Vox and lead vocals.
The following year, Strawberry Alarm Clock and West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band would form in LA, and H.P. Lovecraft in Chicago, while the Finchley Boys (Warwick’s band) would travel to San Francisco and become adopted by the Cockettes as “the next big thing,” only soon to break apart.
But it was the Cockettes themselves who became the next big thing as they launched glitter rock in a trip to New York City in 1971. Had the Finchleys hung around and gone on that voyage, they might have been as big as the New York Dolls. Glitter would eventually usurp psychedelia as the next big thing, and by the time punk rock appeared, the mystical excesses of acid rock were soundly rejected in favor of a return to more primitive garage rock.
After Peter Fonda gave Lennon and Harrison some Sandoz in LA in 1965, out popped She Said, She Said.
Roger McGuinn and David Crosby of the Byrds were also there tripping. McCartney did not imbibe and left the later session when they were recording the song in a huff, refusing to contribute. In the week that followed their first trip, Lennon and Harrison could not relate to the other two because acid had changed them so profoundly. Although McCartney was the last to drop acid, he was the first to inform the public, which annoyed Lennon and Harrison.
She Said, She Said is an amazing tune that shifts from 4/4 to 3/4 while deploying a sitar scale. The seeds of acid rock were planted in Rubber Soul with a brief sitar solo, used only for its distinctive tone. It was David Crosby who showed Harrison how to play raga scales on an acoustic guitar. He also suggested Harrison check out a dude named Ravi Shankar.
They kicked Fonda out of the party for talking incessantly about his gunshot wound in the stomach and how he was momentarily dead on the operating table from blood loss. Lennon was horrified and when Fonda showed the bullet wound, he said, “You make me feel like I’ve never been born.” Fonda’s talk of death while Lennon was tripping is reminiscent of Leary’s use of the Tibetan Book of the Dead as a tripping manual, something that undoubtedly led to some seriously bad trips. Pushing that sort of dogma on western teens was the equivalent of distributing The Book of Revelation to teens in India as a true road to enlightenment.
Compare the intro to Eight Miles High to the opening moments of Coltrane’s Africa/Brass album, released in 1961. Some critics believe The Byrds wrote the first real psychedelic song. It counterpoints some Texas-style fast picking with an open D played on a 12-string. That chiming D would soon appear over and over in songs like Hey, Joe by the Leaves and Going All the Way by the Squires. Many attributed the sound to Bob Dylan, but Dylan claims it was all the Byrds covering his songs, and he had nothing to do with spreading the chiming D chord.
Southern California is where LSD landed because the film business has long had deep connections to military intelligence. Fonda starred in the first LSD film, The Trip, but there were others in Hollywood getting a supply of LSD-25 from Sandoz chemists who secretly worked under CIA supervision. The real acid guru in California was John Griggs, founder of the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, and he got the acid by stealing it from the fridge of an LA film producer. Griggs would soon turn up dead and his group swiftly usurped by intel operative Ron Stark.