THE GREAT FREAK FORWARD
Of the notorious acid proselytizers of the 1960s, it was perhaps Ken Kesey who best understood the futility of trying to label the LSD experience. Kesey, like Ginsberg and many others, was first turned on to acid through a federally funded research program. He was a graduate student at Stanford University’s creative writing program in i960 when he heard about some experiments being conducted at the Veterans Hospital in Menlo Park. Volunteers were paid $75 a day for the privilege of serving as guinea pigs in a study of “psychotomimetic drugs.”
Kesey, a burly, blue-eyed ex-high school wrestling champion, experienced some wild states of consciousness in the clinic. While stoned on acid, he felt he could see right through the doctors, who had never taken the drug themselves and had no idea what it really did. A few weeks later he showed up at the Veterans Hospital as a night attendant in the psychiatric ward, where there was an array of psychedelics—LSD, mescaline, Ditran, and a mysterious substance known only as IT-290. Soon the drugs were circulating among Kesey’s friends in the collegiate bohemia of Perry Lane. Sometimes he would go to work flying on LSD and spend hours leaning on a mop pondering the nature of insanity. “Before I took drugs,” said Kesey, “I didn’t know why the guys in the psycho ward at the VA Hospital were there. I didn’t understand them. After I took LSD, suddenly I saw it. I saw it all. I listened to them and watched them, and I saw that what they were saying and doing was not so crazy after all.” Slowly his first novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, came to him.
The Perry Lane community went through some rapid changes as more and more people started turning on. A psychedelic party scene developed around the consumption of Kesey’s notorious Venison Chili, a dish laced with liberal helpings of LSD. Among those who dined “electric” were artist Roy Seburn, dancer Chloe Scott, a young musician named Jerry Garcia, and writers Robert Stone (Dog Soldiers, A Flag for Sunrise) and Larry McMurtry (Hud, Terms of Endearment). The tripping collegians quickly developed a taste for exotica in the way of mind-altering chemicals, and they procured hundreds of peyote buttons via mail order from a company in Laredo, Texas.
Folklore has it that large amounts of the Native American sacrament often produce visions indigenous to the drug’s ancient traditions and locale. Sure enough, Kesey took peyote and had a vision of a strange, primitive face. It was the face of an Indian, Chief Broom, who became a central character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Writing at times on peyote or LSD, Kesey told the story through the eyes of the schizophrenic Indian. The other main character, McMurphy, was the literary prototype of the new Ken Kesey, a boisterous rebel scheming to blow the mind of the authoritarian Big Nurse. The book received fabulous reviews, and its success gave the psychedelic scene a curious legitimacy; one could have one’s cake (LSD) and write the great American novel too.
With his earnings from the book, Kesey bought himself a place in La Honda, fifty miles south of San Francisco. There he finished his second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion. With powerful amplifiers strung up in the trees belting out rock and roll, his country home became a magnet for beatniks, college professors, and a new breed of doper—the acidhead. Along with the original Perry Lane crowd, Ken Babbs, an old friend of Kesey’s who had flown helicopters for the marines in Vietnam, started to hang out at La Honda. They all took LSD together on numerous occasions. For them acid was a means of eradicating the unconscious structures that interfered with experiencing the magical dimensions of the here and now, the ever-widening Present. As Kesey put it, “The first drug trips were, for most of us, shell-shattering ordeals that left us blinking kneedeep in the cracked crusts of our pie-in-the-sky personalities. Suddenly people were stripped before one another and behold: we were beautiful. Naked and helpless and sensitive as a snake after skinning, but far more human than that shining knightmare that had stood creaking in previous parade rest. We were alive and life was us.”
Out of the happenings at La Honda came Kesey’s famous Merry Pranksters. The Pranksters did not have to trek across continents, as the beats had done earlier, to find a witch doctor or curandero who could administer the power plant. With plenty of LSD on hand, they could just as easily have continued to trip in the warm California sun with the outdoor speakers twanging out tunes by Dylan and the Beatles. But travel was still attached to the bohemian lifestyle as a metaphor for spiritual discovery. The Pranksters purchased a 1939 International Harvester school bus and refurbished it with bunks, refrigerators, shelves, and a sink. They put a hole in the roof so people could sit up top and play music, and they wired the entire vehicle so they could broadcast from within and pick up sounds from outside as well. En masse the Pranksters swarmed over the weather-beaten body with paintbrushes, producing the first psychedelic motor transport done in bright, swirling colors. A sign hung on the rear end which read, “Caution: Weird Load.” Emblazoned on the front of the bus was the word “FURTHUR” (with two u’s), which aptly summed up the Prankster ethos. There were twenty-odd people aboard, and the entire crew was ready for “the great freak forward.”
The Pranksters dressed in elaborate costumes, donning capes and masks, painting themselves with Day-Glo, and wearing pieces of the American flag. They took names befitting their new psychedelic identities. Among the women were Mountain Girl, Sensuous X, Gretchen Fetchin the Slime Queen, and Doris Delay. Ken Babbs was Intrepid Traveler. The magnetic Kesey was Swashbuckler. And Mike Hagen, trying to keep his movie camera steady while the bus lurched down the road, was Mai Function. The Pranksters were constantly filming an epic saga that would star everybody. Kesey’s slogan—“Get them into your movie before they get you into theirs”—was not just a conviction but a strategy.
As they disembarked from the bus with the loudspeakers blasting rock and roll, the Pranksters were well aware that they looked to straight citizens like inhabitants of another planet. That was exactly what they intended. They were into “tootling the multitudes,” doing whatever was necessary to blow minds and keep folks off balance. “The purpose of psychedelics,” said Kesey, “is to learn the conditioned responses of people and then to prank them. That’s the only way to get people to ask questions, and until they ask questions they’re going to remain conditioned robots.” During the 1964 presidential campaign the Pranksters drove into Phoenix decked out in American flag regalia, waving Old Glory and demonstrating with a huge placard that stated, “A Vote for Barry Goldwater is a Vote for Fun.”
The driver of the psychedelic bus was Neal Cassady, the aging beat avatar, who had recently been released from San Quentin after serving two years for possession of a single joint of marijuana. Though the years in prison did not totally wither his joyful manner, the experience hardened him. The essence of Cassady’s style remained the mad exultation in the moment, but his identification with sheer speed was even more compulsive; he ate amphetamines constantly. With Cassady at the helm the Pranksters retraced the mythic path forged by the beat protagonists some years before. As Ginsberg wrote, “Neal Cassady drove Jack Kerouac to Mexico in a prophetic automobile the same Denver Cassady that one decade later drove Ken Kesey’s Kosmos-patterned schoolbus on a Kafka-circus tour over the roads of an awakening nation.”
When Cassady joined Kesey’s group, his legendary reputation preceded him. Some of the Pranksters were awed by him, others did not fully accept him at first. Ginsberg wondered if the Pranksters truly appreciated his brilliance, or were taking advantage of him in some sense. He was Neal Cassady, the “holy primitive”; the atmosphere on the bus encouraged him to perform, to show these younger men and women what real craziness was. His presence lent a certain edge-quality to the general pranking. Indeed, one wonders what extrasensory space he must have inhabited to pull off some of his incredible antics.
On their way to New York the Pranksters passed through the Blue Ridge Mountains. On the steepest downhill road, with Kesey perched atop the bus and everyone stoned on LSD, Cassady decided to careen all the way down hill without touching the brakes while the Stars and Stripes streamed in the wind. Nobody told him he shouldn’t have taken the risk, because nobody on the bus told anybody not to do anything—especially not for the reason that it was “crazy.” Lunacy was not an absolute for the Pranksters; they had moved beyond the world of the Big Nurse and voluntarily embarked upon a trip that was insane by conventional standards. When Cassady took the whole crew with him towards either death or his own version of satori, he was simply going “furthur.” This prank was Cassady’s way of saying that it was easy to claim, “We’re all one,” but another thing entirely to act as if everyone’s life were his to risk. Through such gratuitous acts Cassady became a kind of teacher for the group. He was the Zen lunatic whose gestures embodied the bohemian commitment to spontaneity and authenticity. Kesey described Cassady’s spiritual path as “the yoga of a man driven to the cliff edge by the grassfire of an entire nation’s burning material madness. Rather than be consumed by this he jumped, choosing to sort things out in the fast-flying but smogfree moments of a life with no retreat.”
Cassady represented for the Pranksters an ideal of thought and action fusing into a vibrant whole, into pure up-front being. They assumed that whatever was inside a person would come out during the trip (LSD had a way of making this happen); everyone agreed this did not mean that whatever spewed forth would always be beautiful and lovey-dovey. Weird behavior was commonplace on the bus, and awards were given out regularly for “Most Disgusting Trip.” The idea really was to go “furthur,” to explore the unknown, to feel no limit as to what might be discovered and expressed on acid. It was in this sense that a mission was taking shape among the Pranksters. It had nothing to do with the salvation of the world; it was more a feeling, a “synching” together that created an atmosphere of “creeping religiosity.” As a group they searched for a unified consciousness that would outstrip once and for all the pseudo-reality they had left behind.
The Pranksters were in high spirits when they finally hit New York City. Cassady secured an apartment for a powwow between Kesey’s group and his old friends Ginsberg and Kerouac. Would the original white hipsters accept these psychedelic neobohemians as kindred spirits? The environment was typical for the Pranksters, with tapes echoing and lights flashing off mirrors. An American flag covered the sofa. Kerouac felt out of place amidst the madness. He and Kesey didn’t have much to say to each other. Kerouac walked over to the sofa, carefully folded the flag, and asked the Pranksters if they were Communists. He left early with Cassady and returned to his home in Massachusetts, where he lived with his mother. As Tom Wolfe described the meeting, “It was like hail and farewell. Kerouac was the old star. Kesey was the wild new comet from the West heading christ knew where.”
If there was anybody who could dig where the Pranksters were coming from, they figured it had to be Leary’s group. After traveling a few thousand miles, they were not going to pass up the chance to visit Millbrook, the only other psychedelic commune they knew of. The Pranksters expected a heartwarming reception, but upon their arrival they were not exactly embraced. Things were friendly but somehow cool. Everyone was waiting for the momentous meeting between Kesey and Leary. However, Leary would not meet with the Pranksters. He was supposedly on a very serious three-day trip upstairs in the mansion and could not be disturbed. Kesey was bewildered by this turn of events, but as the Pranksters grew more familiar with the Millbrook scene, they began to understand why they made everyone so uptight. The Millbrook group was essentially made up of behavioral scientists who kept records of their mental states, wrote papers, and put out a journal. Leary and his people were going the scholarly route, giving lectures and such; they had nothing to gain by associating with a bunch of grinning, filthy bums wearing buckskins and face paint. The distance between the East Coast intellectuals and Kesey’s clan was cavernous. As Michael Hollingshead recalled the encounter, “They thought we were square and we thought they were crazy.”
The general atmosphere of quietude—the special meditation rooms, the statues of the Buddha, the emphasis on The Tibetan Book of the Dead—was unbearably stuffy to the Pranksters, who dubbed the whole thing “the Crypt Trip.” In this scene there was no room for electronics, no guitars or videotapes, no American flags, and well, no freakiness. Kesey was not at all interested in structuring the set and setting of an LSD trip so that a spiritual experience would result. Why did acid require picturesque countryside or a fancy apartment with objets d’art to groove on and Bach’s Suite in B Minor playing on the stereo? A psychedelic adventure on the bus needed no preconceived spiritual overtones; it could be experienced in the context of a family scene, a musical jam, or a plain old party. The Pranksters thought it was fine just going with the flow, taking acid in the midst of whatever was happening, no matter how disorienting or unusual the situation.
It was, after all, a question of style, East Coast versus West Coast. The Merry Pranksters were born in California, starting out as a party of outlandish proportions that evolved into a stoned encounter group on wheels. Kesey, having first turned on to LSD in a government drug testing program, saw the whole phenomenon of grassroots tripping as “the revolt of the guinea pigs.” Now that he had taken LSD out of the laboratory and away from the white smocks, any notion of a medically sanitized or controlled psychedelic experience was abhorrent to him. Programming the LSD trip with Tibetan vibes struck him as a romantic retreat, a turning back, submitting to another culture’s ideas rather than getting into the uniqueness of the American trip.
Kesey the psychedelic populist was attempting to broaden the very nature of the tripping experience by incorporating as many different scenes and viewpoints as possible. “When you’ve got something like we’ve got,” he explained, “you can’t just sit on it and possess it, you’ve got to move off of it and give it to other people. It only works if you bring other people into it.” Toward this end the Pranksters staged a series of public initiations, the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests of the mid-1960s, which turned on hundreds of people at a single session. The acid tests were weird carnivals with videotapes, flashing strobes, live improvised rock and roll by the Grateful Dead, lots of bizarre costumes, and dancing.
The ultimate example of Kesey’s attempt to get everybody into the Prankster movie was when he turned on the hoariest outlaw group of them all, the Hell’s Angels. Kesey had met the Angels in the summer of 1965 through Hunter Thompson, the notorious Doctor of Gonzo, who was then writing a book about the motorcycle gang. Whatever the reason (perhaps the bit of redneck in Kesey), he smoked a joint with some of the Angels and they hit it off right away. “We’re in the same business,” Kesey told them. “You break people’s bones, I break people’s heads.” He invited his new friends to La Honda for a party. The Pranksters laid in unlimited quantities of beer and strung a huge banner across the lawn welcoming the Hell’s Angels. The bash would be a reunion of sorts; the old Perry Lane people were there, along with Allen Ginsberg, Richard Alpert, and a lot of San Francisco and Berkeley intellectuals. The Pranksters got ready for the Angels the way they got ready for anything—by dropping acid. The local townsfolk prepared themselves by huddling nervously behind locked doors, while the police turned out to greet the visitors with ten squad cars and live ammunition.
Kesey had really done it this time. A bunch of spaced-out bohemians getting high was one thing, but a violent motorcycle gang was something else again. Even among the Pranksters there was some uncertainty about their guests. The trepidation thermometer must have been sky-high as the Angels roared into La Honda with skulls, crossbones, and swastikas embellishing their denim jackets. But once the Angels dug into the beer, the tension eased considerably. The Pranksters were probably the first outsiders actually to accept the Angels. To Kesey’s group they were fellow outlaws with just as little tolerance for hypocrisy or compromise. An atmosphere of peaceful coexistence was established, and then acid was doled out as a party favor.
Contrary to certain dire expectations of brutal carnage wreaked by drug-twisted criminals, the LSD made the bikers rather docile. They all walked around in a daze, mingling with the radicals, pacifists, and intellectuals. There was Allen Ginsberg, the epitome of much they despised, a gay New York poet chanting Hare Krishna and dancing with his finger cymbals, and the Angels were actually digging him. It was quite a spectacle. The befuddled policemen stayed outside the grounds with their red flashers blinking through the trees. With so many of the Angels bombed out of their minds, the cops deemed it wise to keep their distance.
The party went on for two days—a monument to what the Pranksters had set out to accomplish on the ‘64 bus trip. They had broken through the worst hang-up intellectuals have—the “real life” hangup. After this first bash the Angels hung around Kesey’s for the next six weeks, attending numerous Prankster parties. Their presence added a certain voltage that was unforgettable for those in attendance. Hunter Thompson wrote that if he could repeat any of his early acid trips, it would be one of the Hell’s Angels parties in La Honda. “It was a very electric atmosphere. If the Angels lent a feeling of menace, they also made it more interesting. . . and far more alive than anything likely to come out of a controlled experiment or a politely brittle gathering of well-educated truth-seekers looking for wisdom in a capsule. Dropping acid with the Angels was an adventure; they were too ignorant to know what to expect, and too wild to care.”
Acid and the New Left
Kesey’s scene was all the rage in the Bay Area. Among others, it attracted a number of people who were involved with the Free Speech Movement (FSM) that arose on the Berkeley campus of the University of California in the fall of 1964. This was a period of unbridled optimism and enthusiasm among student activists. The Cold War had finally thawed, and many were eager to flex their political muscle for a variety of issues: civil rights, disarmament, university reform, and so forth. Nothing less than a wholesale transformation of society was thought to be in the offing. The cities would be renovated, the institutions remade, the downtrodden uplifted, and justice would ultimately prevail. It was a moment saturated with possibility, and those who joined the protest struggle were confident, in the words of Lautréamont, that “the storms of youth precede brilliant days.”
The FSM was a groundbreaking event as students asserted their right to organize politically on campus in the face of attempts by the university administration to ban such activity. At a mass rally in front of Sproul Hall attended by thousands, Mario Savio, a curly-haired twenty-one-year-old FSM spokesperson, delivered a stirring address in which he denounced the university as a factory for processing students—its raw material—into standardized personnel. “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes one so sick at heart that you can’t take part, you can’t even tacitly take part, and you have to put your body upon the gears and the wheels, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to stop it. You’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, the people who own it, that unless you’re free the machine will be prevented from working.”
On cue the demonstrators marched into the administrative offices and occupied four floors of Sproul Hall. During the next thirty hours, they established a “liberated” zone with areas designated for political discussion, entertainment, study hall, kitchen, infirmary, legal aid, alternative classes, and steering committee meetings; the roof was reserved for couples who wanted to sleep together and people who wanted to smoke pot. In effect, they created an embryonic version of the future society, the “beloved community,” which they hoped to bring about through social activism.
The young radicals were fashioning the beginnings of a unique political gestalt that encompassed a dual-pronged radical project. They believed that challenging entrenched authority entailed a concerted attempt to alter the institutions and policy-making apparatus that had been usurped by a self-serving power elite; at the same time, they sought to lead lives that embodied the social changes they desired. For sixties activists, the quest for social justice was in many ways a direct extension of the search for personal authenticity. They were as much concerned with questions of psychic liberation as with economic and political issues. Their demand for a high-energy, freewheeling, erotic culture was a keystone of their antiauthoritarian crusade.
The FSM and other emerging New Left organizations attracted not only those who were steeped in campus politics but also a sizable contingent of social “dropouts” who hung out on the periphery of the academic scene. Although these people rarely attended classes, in a sense they constituted the heart and soul of the new lifestyle emerging in and around various college towns all across America. Hunter Thompson described the nonstudent left in The Nation in 1965:
Social radicals tend to be “arty.” Their gigs are poetry and folk music, rather than politics, although many are fervently committed to the civil rights movement. Their political bent is Left, but their real interests are writing, painting, good sex, good sounds, and free marijuana. The realities of politics put them off, although they don’t mind lending their talents to a demonstration here and there, or even getting arrested for a good cause. They have quit one system and they don’t want to be organized into another; they feel they have more important things to do.
For the new bohemians, radicalism had become a way of life. Moving against the structures of antifreedom involved distinctive modes of dress and speech, how you wore your hair, what you smoked, the kind of music you listened to, and so forth. Getting stoned and floating through the day formed the basis of an almost ritualized existence for these people. Finding the clothes, making the connection, copping the dope and smoking it, and leavening the mixture with one’s ongoing experience was in many ways a full-time job in itself.
To the conventional observer this lifestyle appeared shiftless, useless, and parasitic. Invariably the root of this creeping social disease was traced to those evil drugs and that unhealthy lust for kicks they inspired, which was allegedly ruining the lives of so many young people. But drug use was not simply for kicks, an end in itself, even if that was how the straight press and the schoolteachers portrayed it. Indeed, if one insisted on calling it a kick, then it was more like a swift kick in the rump of the establishment.
During the nascent phase of the student movement, taking drugs was a way of saying “No!” to authority, of bucking the status quo. Drug use and radical politics often went hand in hand. If a certain percentage of young people in a given college town were smoking pot or dropping acid, then there was generally a corresponding level of political activism. Not everyone who turned on was also involved in political protest, but there was a significant overlap between the two groups. Many people associated with the FSM, including half the members of the steering committee, were getting high. In this respect Berkeley was not much different from other schools; it was just the leading edge of the political and cultural groundswell that would soon sweep the entire country.
The act of consuming the forbidden fruit was politicized by the mere fact that it was illegal. When you smoked marijuana, you immediately became aware of the glaring contradiction between the way you experienced reality in your own body and the official descriptions by the government and the media. That pot was not the big bugaboo that it had been cracked up to be was irrefutable evidence that the authorities either did not tell the truth or did not know what they were talking about. Its continued illegality was proof that lying and/or stupidity was a cornerstone of government policy. When young people got high, they knew this existentially, from the inside out. They saw through the great hoax, the cover story concerning not only the narcotics laws but the entire system. Smoking dope was thus an important political catalyst, for it enabled many a budding radical to begin questioning the official mythology of the governing class.
It is impossible to understand the politics of LSD without also considering the politics of marijuana, as the two were linked within the drug subculture. The popularity of both substances was inseparable from the outlaw ethos surrounding their use. Dope was an initiation into a cult of secrecy, with blinds drawn, incense burning to hide the smell, and music playing as the joint was ritualistically passed around a circle of friends. Said Michael Rossman, a veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, “When a young person took his first puff of psychoactive smoke, he also drew in the psychoactive culture as a whole, the entire matrix of law and association surrounding the drug, its induction and transaction. One inhaled a certain way of dressing, talking, acting, certain attitudes. One became a youth criminal against the State.”
That dope was fun and illegal made the experience all the more exciting. The toking ritual drew people together in a unique way, so that they felt as if they were part of a loose tribe. Who you got high with was as important as what you got high on, for you shared parts of yourself along with the smoke. There was a natural intimacy about toking up with friends that facilitated the revelation of hitherto hidden facets of personality. (The OSS was right to select marijuana as a truth drug, for it does help loosen reserve and stimulate loquaciousness.) As a mild relaxant that also enhanced awareness, pot was frequently smoked in conjunction with some other activity, such as reading, listening to music or making love. The decidedly sensual effects of marijuana often put people on a different timetable. Getting stoned was a reprieve from dead time, school time, television time, punch-the-clock time, and that was what made the drug so attractive.
Once you had smoked marijuana and enjoyed the experience, an interest in other drugs was natural. For many people lighting up was a prelude to tripping out; the set they took off the smoking high disposed them favorably toward LSD. Although acid and grass are both aesthetic enhancers, the strength of LSD put it in a whole other category. Tripping is a very special type of activity, mentally as well as physically. It can include moments of astonishing insight and supermellow serenity (“a peace which passeth all understanding”), but always lurking at the edge of the psychedelic aura is the specter of something deadly serious. Whereas pot is mild enough to be playful, acid is an intense and unremitting dose of bacchanalia. Unlike marijuana intoxication, which can be regulated by the number of puffs, the acid high cannot be controlled once the tab or sugar cube is ingested. The sheer duration of an LSD trip—eight to twelve hours and sometimes longer—requires a much greater commitment than smoking a “jay.”
In some sense one is forced to earn whatever psychological truths can be gleaned from having the mind stretched to unknown limits by a psychedelic. That was what Kesey and the Merry Pranksters meant when they invited people to try and “pass the Acid Test.” The willingness to endure what could be a rather harrowing ordeal was for many young men and women a way of cutting the last umbilical cord to everything the older generation had designated as safe and sanitized. If smoking marijuana turned people into social outlaws, acid led many to see themselves as cosmic fugitives.
The decision to experiment with LSD for the first time was often as important as the experience itself. One had to muster a certain amount of courage to commit a transgression of this sort. It wasn’t because dropping acid was against the law (the drug didn’t become illegal until late 1966); nevertheless, a leap of faith was required since no one could be sure what lay in store after the deed was done. The only certainty was uncertainty, but that did not dissuade the young from going one on one with the Abyss. Too much was at stake to refuse the gamble. For those who made the leap, the prospect of not taking LSD was even more awesome than the nagging question mark that loomed on the horizon. (Or, as the sixties wall graffiti proclaimed, “Reality is a crutch for those who can’t face acid.”) Their primary motive was not to escape from the “real” world but to experience by whatever means necessary some sort of existential uplift that might shed light on the quagmire of the self.
Psychedelic initiates were willing to pay some heavy dues as they explored a host of mind-altering chemicals. Before LSD became a staple of the street, the most frequently used “brain food” was the foul-tasting peyote, which induced nausea, cramps, and vomiting. (Michael McClure compared peyote to the smell of “a dead wet dog on a cool morning.”) In the late 1950s and early 1960s, peyote buttons could be purchased via mail order from a cactus farm in Texas. Other naturally occurring hallucinogens were also available—morning glory seeds, the Hawaiian baby wood rose, and nutmeg (used by many prison inmates, including Malcolm X before his conversion to Islam). Such drugs frequently resulted in aching joints, weak muscles and a powerful hangover the next day, but that was all part of the “trip.” The passion with which young people embraced these substances, despite the attendant somatic discomfort, was indicative of an overriding conviction that psychedelics were a means to liberation, a way of confronting oneself in cosmic dramas, just as Huxley and the beats had described.
If any single theme dominated young people in the 1960s, it was the search for a new way of seeing, a new relation to the world. LSD was a means of exciting consciousness and provoking visions, a kind of hurried magic enabling youthful seekers to recapture the resonance of life that society had denied. Drugs were a passport to an uncharted landscape of risk and sensation, and those who entered the forbidden territory moved quickly into areas where most adults could offer little assistance. The drama enacted in this zone of enchantment was totally alien to the academic curriculum, which failed to provide the necessary tools to deal with the rewards and pitfalls one might encounter on such a journey.
Experimenting with LSD and other hallucinogens often created a feeling of separation or alienation from people who hadn’t had the experience. Not surprisingly, those who turned on found it increasingly difficult to identify with anyone of a distinctly older mindset; instead their own peer group became the primary source of information as young people assumed the task of educating themselves. They were committed not so much to a predetermined objective as to a process of self-discovery that was open-ended and ripe with images of tomorrow. Their infatuation with psychedelics was symbolic of an attempt to seize control of the means of mental production in a very personal sense. They would get by—and high—with a little help from their friends, learning what they had to know before or after or in spite of school, so that in the midst of a period of chaos and confusion they might find a way to forge a link with the future.
Carl Oglesby, former president of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the leading national New Left organization in the 1960s, reflected on how the psychological underpinnings of taking LSD and rebelling against authority were complementary.
The acid experience is so concrete. It draws a line right across your life—before and after LSD—in the same way you felt that your step into radical politics drew a sharp division. People talked about that, the change you go through, how fast the change could happen on an individual level and how liberating and glorious it was. Change was seen as survival, as the strategy of health. Nothing could stand for that overall sense of going through profound changes so well as the immediate, powerful and explicit transformation that you went through when you dropped acid. In the same way, bursting through the barricades redefined you as a new person. It’s not necessarily that the actual content of the LSD experience contributed to politically radical or revolutionary consciousness—it was just that the experience shared the structural characteristics of political rebellion, and resonated those changes so that the two became independent prongs of an over-arching transcending rebellion that took in the person and the State at the same time.
The first big surge of street acid hit the college scene in 1965, just when the political situation in the United States was heating up. The mid-1960s were pervaded by a sense of daily apocalypse: President Johnson escalated the war in Vietnam, Malcolm X was assassinated, twenty thousand marines conducted a “police action” in the Dominican Republic, and the Watts rebellion caught fire in Los Angeles. During this volatile historical moment the New Left seized the time as well as the attention of the national media, grabbing headlines and making waves. The publicity windfall opened up hitherto undreamed-of possibilities in terms of reaching a large portion of the citizenry but also posed unprecedented challenges for the New Left.
Vietnam was the first television war, and it was the war, more than any other issue, that radicalized people and spurred them to direct action. By the same token the antiwar movement was the first opposition movement to emerge under the full glare of the media spotlight. SDS was catapulted into prominence in April 1965, when it sponsored a rally in Washington, DC, to protest LBJ’s decision to initiate the sustained bombing of North Vietnam. Thirty thousand people showed up for this demonstration, far more than had been expected, and the media coverage was extensive. A flood of newly radicalized recruits joined SDS and its influence expanded considerably.
Of course, SDS was only part of the New Left or “the Movement,” as insiders called it, and the Movement itself was part of a larger cultural upheaval that occurred during this period. Nearly everything was being questioned and most things tried in an orgy of experiment that shook the nation at its roots. Students everywhere were rejecting mainstream values, turning on to drugs, and marching in the streets. There were teach-ins, sit-ins, mass draft card burnings, guerrilla theater, and other forms of high-spirited protest, as the New Left abandoned a reformist approach and entered a phase of active resistance.
Life seemed to be one grand eruption of creative energy in the mid-1960s, and many thought the Crosshatch of cultural and political rebellion was workable and exciting. The hipster and the activist represented two poles of the radical experience. Both shared a contempt for middle-class values, a disdain for authority, and a passion for expression. But there were also significant tensions between the two camps. Each had different ideas about how to achieve personal liberation and remake the world. The first signs of friction became evident not long after the New Left burst into the limelight and large amounts of black market acid hit selected college campuses.
In October 1965 Ken Kesey addressed the Berkeley Vietnam Day rally, an event that was part of the first International Days of Protest, when young radicals in a hundred cities throughout the Western world demonstrated against the war. The Berkeley rally attracted nearly fifteen thousand people who listened to folksingers and a slate of antiwar notables including Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Kesey showed up with a band of Merry Pranksters in the old psychedelic school bus, which had been painted blood-red for the occasion and covered with swastikas, hammers and sickles, the American eagle, and other nationalist symbols.
Kesey’s entourage, which included a number of mean-looking Hell’s Angels, grew restless while the antiwar speakers riled up the crowd about the genocide across the ocean. The Chief Prankster was disturbed by the angry overtones of what was supposed to be a peace demonstration. The lack of humor amidst all the self-righteous rhetoric rubbed him the wrong way. When it was his turn to speak, he strolled to the mike in his Day-Glo helmet and windbreaker and proceeded to shock the audience by saying that wars had been fought for ten thousand years and they weren’t going to change anything by parading around with signs and slogans. Then he pulled out a harmonica and regaled the crowd with a squalling rendition of “Home on the Range.” “Do you want to know how to stop the war?” Kesey screamed. “Just turn your backs on it, fuck it!” And then he walked away.
Kesey represented those elements of the hip scene that emphasized personal liberation without any strategic concern whatsoever; the task of remodeling themselves took precedence over changing institutions or government policy. This posture rankled hard-core politicos who were committed to busting the system that had driven them into limbo. Their opinion of Kesey did not improve the following day when the Hell’s Angels began to hassle antiwar activists as they set off toward the US Army installation in Oakland in an attempt to block trains carrying American troops destined for Vietnam.
Bob Dylan was in the Bay Area during the Berkeley Vietnam Day protest, and the march organizers sent Allen Ginsberg to ask him to lead the demonstration. But Dylan was not interested. “There’s no left wing and right wing,” he said, “just up wing and down wing.” He did make a modest proposal, however. He would agree to participate only if it was a festive rally with a sense of irony. If the marchers would carry placards with pictures of lemons or watermelons or words like “orange” or “automobile,” then he would join in. Not surprisingly, his whimsical offer was refused.
Dylan’s attitude toward antiwar protest disappointed many New Left activists who had once revered him as the folk avatar of the civil rights movement. In his early finger-pointing songs Dylan took on all the sins of the parent culture and spit them back in verse, addressing obvious issues of social justice: antinuke, antiboss, antiexploitation. He sang to hundreds of thousands in August 1963 at a huge rally in Washington, DC, which culminated in Martin Luther King’s eloquent “I have a dream” speech. To all appearances it should have been a moment of crowning glory for Dylan, but instead it was a time of crisis for him both as an artist and as a spokesman for social change.
Dylan was caught up in a symbiotic relationship with the inequities of society. His protest songs had made him rich and famous, but where was it all going? The pressures attendant upon his sudden notoriety, as well as his growing doubts about the ability of the Movement to revitalize American life, distanced him from his earlier material. During this period of self-examination Dylan did what he had done when he left his hometown in Minnesota to pursue a career as a folksinger—“strike another match and start anew.”
With a small entourage of friends and musicians he holed up in Woodstock, an artist colony in upstate New York, and opened himself to various new influences. Everyone around him was popping pills and experimenting with acid and mushrooms, and Dylan himself entered a period of protracted drug use. At the time he was fond of saying that he was “pro-chemistry”: “Being a musician means—depending on how far you go—getting to the depths of where you are at. And most any musician would try anything to get to those depths, because playing music is an immediate thing—as opposed to putting paint on a canvas, which is a calculated thing. Your spirit flies when you are playing music. So, with music, you tend to look deeper and deeper inside yourself to find the music.”
It was obvious listening to Dylan’s 1965 album, Bringing It All Back Home, that he was exploring new directions. The shift in his aesthetic was drastic, as if, like the figure in Cocteau’s film The Blood of a Poet, he had looked at his own poetic image in the mirror until he convulsively splashed through it. Determined to express the full range of his imagination in song, he plunged into strange, beautiful and chaotic worlds. “Mr. Tambourine Man” is an invocation to a mystical journey through “the foggy ruins of time.” The lyrics are appropriately vague; the Tambourine Man may be the pusher, the drug, or the experience itself. But the ambience of the work is unmistakably that of early dawn, the hour of the wolf, when all hangs in an eerie balance, as at the end of a long and difficult LSD trip.
On the same album Dylan made his most explicit statement on the outlaw quality of the drug subculture. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is a paean to the paranoid head-space associated with the use of controlled substances. The opening stanza describes Johnny the bathtub chemist in the basement “mixing up the medicine” while the narc in “the trenchcoat” waits to be paid off. Dylan goes on to offer some homespun advice: keep a low profile, avoid the heat, yet maintain a certain awareness—“Don’t try No-Doz”—and above all rely on your intuition—“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” (A group of militant SDS radicals would later take their name from this line, calling themselves “the Weathermen.”)
In these brilliant and unprecedented works Dylan exorcised the knee-jerk moralism of the topical protest song in favor of his search for a sustaining vision. At first many Dylan fans had a hard time with his new material. For starters one side of Bringing It All Back Home featured electric accompaniment, which Dylan had never used before, and this was strictly taboo as far as the folkies were concerned. To confound matters, these elusive and evocative compositions did not seem to have a single message or ultimate meaning. The interpretation of a Dylan song usually said more about the interpreter than about the song or Dylan, which was what the songs were about anyway—facing oneself.
Dylan showcased his new music at the Newport Folk Festival in July 1965. His set completely shattered the expectations of his audience. On the hallowed ground of Newport—where Pete Seeger sang of peace and freedom, where Dylan himself had sung “Blowin’ in the Wind” with Peter, Paul and Mary just two years earlier—Bobby D. gave the quintessential protopunk performance. He did three electric numbers with a backup band, but the loud, pulsing electronic rock drowned out a lot of the lyrics, causing some in the crowd to scream and heckle the musicians. This wasn’t the Dylan they knew, who had provided a musical backdrop to their most intimate hopes. With some prodding Dylan returned with his acoustic guitar and sang “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” While this encore somewhat mollified the scandalized audience of folkies, the real message was that the black-and-white politics of the folk era was over.*
The process Dylan inaugurated with Bringing It All Back Home characterized his output during the mid-1960s. The songs on Highway 61 Revisited, also released in 1965, were testaments to the mystic trials he suffered during his heavy drug period. In his first international chart-buster, “Like a Rolling Stone,” Dylan asked the musical question of how it feels to face the Void. This remarkable song combined his most withering vocal sneer with a joyously uplifting melody to capture the combination of fear and exhilaration that accompanied his listeners’ first groping steps out of the boredom and security of middle-class suburbia. “How does it feel,” he moaned, “to be on your own, a complete unknown. . .” Never was an artist more in synch with his time and his cultural moment. He was inside the psyches of millions. Phil Ochs described Dylan during this period as acid incarnate: “He was LSD on stage.”
Before Dylan went electric—that is to say, psychedelic—folk was the music of moral conscience, while rock was the Dionysian back-beat glorifying the baser pleasures of sex and speed. But the moment Dylan plugged in his guitar, social critique went Top Forty and rock, with its growing audience, became a vehicle of protest. His songs, along with those of other turned-on folk-rockers who followed in his footsteps—Simon and Garfunkel, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, The Lovin’ Spoonful—became an instant body of oral tradition appealing to an enormous audience of disaffected youth. The idealism of folk was wedded to the anger and exuberance of rock music, and before long many of the same people who trashed Dylan for selling out and leaving the protest movement in the lurch began to rock out.
Dylan’s emergence as a rock and roller was part and parcel of his problematic self-exploration with psychedelic drugs in the mid-1960s. The vastly accelerated personal changes Dylan underwent as he moved from protest to transcendence were archetypical of a rite of passage experienced by thousands of turned-on youth. Dylan knew that everyone had to go through the process of individuation on their own, that neither he nor anyone else could lead the masses to that other shore. To those who were attempting to navigate such treacherous waters, his only suggestion was: “Everybody must get stoned.”