American counterculture owes an enormous debt to LSD. In Acid Dreams: The CIA, LSD and the Sixties (Grove Press), authors by Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain present a definitive history of the spread of LSD in America. In Part Four of our series of excerpts, originally published in July, 1986, the acid dream turns into a nightmare with the rise to power of Charles Manson and the popularity of a real downer, STP. (In case you missed it, read Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.)
In September 1967 the Beatles went on an adventurous trip modeled after the Merry Prankster’s odyssey. Loading a large school bus with freaks and friends, they headed for the British countryside. Like the Pranksters, they also made a movie —an ad-lib, spontaneous dream film entitled Magical Mystery Tour (with an album of the same name). During this period there was an abundance of LSD in the Beatles family thanks to Owsley, who supplied several pint-sized vials of electric liquid along with a cache of little pink pills. Lennon was at the height of his acid phase. He used to “trip all the time,” as he put it, while living in a country mansion stocked with an extravagant array of tape recorders, video equipment, musical instruments, and whatnot. Since money was no object, he was able to fulfill any LSD-inspired whim at any time of the day or night.
By his own estimate Lennon took over one thousand acid trips. His protracted self-investigation with LSD only exacerbated his personal difficulties, as he wrestled with Beatledom and his mounting differences with Paul over the direction the group should take, or even if they should continue as a group. Unbeknownst to millions of their fans, the Beatles, even at the height of their popularity, were well along the winding road to breakup. That acid was becoming problematic for Lennon was evident on some of his psychedelic songs, such as “I Am the Walrus,” with its repeated, blankly sung admission “I’m crying.”
Eventually the mind-boggled Beatle couldn’t stand it anymore. He got so freaked out that he had to stop using the drug, and it took him a while to get his feet back on the ground. “I got a message on acid that you should destroy your ego,” he later explained, “and I did, you know. I was reading that stupid book of Leary’s (the psychedelic manual based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead) and all that shit. We were going through a whole game that everyone went through, and I destroyed myself…. I destroyed my ego and I didn’t believe I could do anything.”
Lennon’s obsession with losing his ego typified a certain segment of the acid subculture in the mid-and late 1960s. Those who got heavily into tripping often subscribed to a mythology of ego death that Leary was fond of preaching. The LSD doctor spoke of a chemical doorway through which one could leave the “fake prop-television-set America” and enter the equivalent of the Garden of Eden, a realm of unprogrammed beginnings where there was no distinction between matter and spirit, no individual personality to bear the brunt of life’s flickering sadness. To be gratefully dead, from the standpoint of acid folklore, was not merely a symbolic proposition; the zap of superconsciousness that hit whenever a tab of LSD kicked the slats out of the ego might in certain instances be felt as an actual death and rebirth of the body (as the psychiatric studies of Dr. Stanislav Grof seemed to indicate). Acid could send people spinning on a 360-degree tour through their own senses and rekindle what a Digger broadside called childhood’s lost “tense of presence,” stated.
But this experience was fraught with pitfalls, among them a tendency to become attached to the pristine vision, to want to hang on to it for as long as possible. Such an urge presumably could only be satisfied by taking the “utopiate” again and again. But after countless trips and sideshows of the mind one arrived at an impasse: “All right, my mind’s been blown…. What’s next?” Little could be gained from prolonged use of the drug, except perhaps the realization that it was necessary to “graduate acid,” as Ken Kesey said. Oftentimes this meant adopting new methods to approximate or recreate the psychedelic experience without a chemical catalyst—via yoga, meditation, organic foods, martial arts, or any of the so-called natural highs. That was what the Beatles concluded when they jumped off the Magical Mystery Tour for a fling with the Maharishi and Transcendental Meditation. “Acid is not the answer,” said George Harrison. “It’s enabled people to see a bit more, but when you really get hip, you don’t need it.” Ditto for McCartney: “It was an experience we went through… we’re finding new ways of getting there.”
For many who turned on during the 1960s there was a sense that LSD had changed all the rules, that the scales had been lifted from their eyes and they’d never be the same. The drug was thought to provide a shortcut to a higher reality, a special way of knowing. But an acid trip’s “eight-hour dose of wild srumise,” as Charles Perry put it, can have unexpected consequences. People may find themselves straddling the margins of human awareness where all semblance of epistemological decorum vanishes and form and emptiness play tricks on each other. Things are no longer anchored in simple location but rather vibrate in a womb of poetic correspondences. From this vantage point it is tempting to conclude that all worlds are imaginary constructions and that behind the apparent multiplicity of discernible objects there exists a single infinite reality, consciousness itself. Thus interpreted, consciousness becomes a means mistaken for an end—and without an end or focus it becomes an inversion, giving rise to a specious sort of logic. If the “real war” is strictly an internal affair and each person is responsible for creating the conditions of his own suffering by projecting his skewed egotistical version of reality onto the material plane, does it not follow that the desire to redress social ills is yet another delusion? In this “ultimate” scheme of things all sense of moral obligation and political commitment is rendered absurd by definition.
Herein lay another pitfall of the tripping experience. Even after they stopped taking LSD, many people could still hear the siren song, a vague and muffled invitation to a “higher” calling. Those who responded to that etheric melody were plunged willy-nilly into an abstract vortex of soul-searching, escaping, and “discovering thyself.” Some were intensely sincere, and their quest very often was lonely and confusing. The difficulties they faced stemmed in part from the fact that advanced industrial society does not recognize egoloss or peak experience as a particularly worthy objective. Thus it is not surprising that large numbers of turned-on youth looked to non-Occidental traditions—Oriental mysticism, European magic and occultism, and primitive shamanism (especially American Indian lore)—in an attempt to conjure up a coherent framework for understanding their private visions.
Quite a few acidheads and acid graduates subscribed to the Eastern belief that reality is an illusion. They were quick to mouth the phrases of enlightenment—karma, maya, nirvana—but in their adaptation these concepts were coarsened and sentimentalized.
The hunger for regenerative spirituality was often deflected into a pseudo-Oriental fatalism: “Why fret over the plight of the world when it’s all part of the Divine Dance?” This slipshod philosophy was partially due to the effects of heavy acid tripping—“the haze that blurs the corner of the inner screen,” as David Mairowitz said, “a magic that insinuates itself ‘cosmically,’ establishing spectrum upon confusing spectrum in the broadening of personal horizons. It could cloud up your telescope on the known world and bring on a delirium of vague ‘universal’ thinking.” Or it might just reinforce what poet John Ashbery described as “the pious attitudes of those spiritual bigots whose faces are turned toward eternity and who therefore can see nothing.”
The laissez faire intellectualism that flourished in the acid subculture was particularly evident in the San Francisco Oracle, which by now boasted a nationwide circulation of a hundred thousand. The lingo of pop mysticism was sprinkled throughout the pages of the psychedelic tabloid. Sandwiched between various tidbits on ESP, tarot, witchcraft, numerology and the latest drug gossip were announcements of impending UFO landings. Yet, in a sense the Oracle was merely echoing a trend that had begun to assert itself in American society as a whole. The appetite for spiritual transcendence, the desire to go beyond “the sweating self,” in Huxley’s words, is an indefatigable urge that assumes many different guises—offbeat religious sects, parapsychology, the occult, and so forth. While such phenomena are not necessarily futile diversions, there is an inherent danger in “wanting the ultimate in one leap,” as Nietszche put it, whether by pill or perfect spiritual master. This desperate yearning makes individuals highly vulnerable to manipulation by totalitarian personalities. It was, after all, Charles Manson who wrote a song called “The Ego Is a Too Much Thing.”
Manson, an ex-convict and would-be rock musician, had his own scene going in the Haight during the Summer of Love, before he and his family of acid eaters moved to southern California and made headlines as a grizzly murder cult in 1969. Claiming to have experienced the crucifixion of Christ during an acid trip, he declared himself the almighty God of Fuck. Then he fed the drug to his harem of females as part of their daily regimen, had intercourse with them while they were high, and cast a corrupting spell over them. To demonstrate their faith they carried out his bloodthirsty schemes.
Manson was only one among numerous mind vamps, power trippers, hustlers, and ripoff artists who hovered over what Mairowitz described as “the ego-death of easy-prey LSD takers” in the Haight. There was a certain type of character who got off on attacking people while they were high and trespassing on their brains. “The whole catalogue of craziness… was exposed by acid,” commented Stephen Gaskin. There were LSD freaks “who were into ego dominance… That was their hobby and that was what they worked toward.” Call it acid fascism or plain old psychological warfare, the hippie community had degenerated to the point where it merely offered a different setting for the same destructive drives omnipresent in straight society. “Rape is as common as bullshit on Haight Street,” a Communications Company leaflet declared. “Pretty little sixteen-year-old middle-class chick comes to the Haight to see what it’s all about & gets picked up by a seventeen-year-old street dealer who spends all day shooting her full of speed again & again, then feeds her 3000 mikes [twelve times the normal dose] & raffles off her temporarily unemployed body for the biggest Haight Street gang bang since the night before last.”
Violent crime increased dramatically as the acid ghetto became a repository for hoods, bikers, derelicts, con men, burnouts, and walking crazies. The shift in sensibility was reflected in the kinds of drugs that were prevalent on the street. First there was a mysterious grass shortage, and then an amphetamine epidemic swept through the Haight. By midsummer 1967 speed rivaled pot and acid as the most widely used substance in the area.The speed syndrome ravaged people mentally and physically. Widespread malnutrition resulted from appetite suppression, and infectious diseases like hepatitis and VD (from unsterilized needles and “free love”) were rampant. The Haight Ashbury Free Clinic was established in response to the mounting health crisis. Among its other functions the clinic offered a special “trip room” where people could ease off the bummers and freakouts that were becoming ever more commonplace in the Haight.
The increase in bad trips was largely due to the fact that inexperienced youngsters were taking psychedelics in a hostile and congested environment. To make matters worse, a number of new mind-twisting chemicals suddenly appeared on the street, including a superpotent hallucinogen known as STP, which could launch an intense three-day trip. “Acid is like being let out of a cage,” one user said. “STP is like being shot out of a gun.”
STP (2.5 dimethox-4-methylphene-thylamine—the initials stood for “Serenity, Tranquility, Peace”) was developed in 1964 by an experimental chemist working for the Dow Chemical Company, which provided samples of the drug to Edgewood Arsenal, headquarters of the US Army Chemical Corps. Scientists at Edgewood tested STP (which was similar in effect to BZ) to see if it could be used as an incapacitating agent, while the CIA utilized the drug in its behavior modification studies. In early 1967, for some inexplicable reason, the formula for STP was released to the scientific community at large. By this time ergotamine tartrate, an essential raw ingredient of LSD, was in short supply, so Owsley, the premier acid chemist, decided to try his hand at STP. Shortly thereafter the drug was circulating in the hippie districts of San Francisco and New York.
STP made its debut in the Haight when five thousand tabs were given away during a solstice celebration marking the onset of the Summer of Love. Few had heard of the drug, but that didn’t matter to the crowd of eager pill poppers. They gobbled the gift as if it were an after-dinner mint, and a lot of people were still tripping three days later. STP lasted considerable longer than the usual eight-hour acid high and produced nightmare visions. The emergency wards at various San Francisco hospitals were filled with freaked-out hippies who feared they’d never come down. The straight doctors assumed they were zonked on LSD and administered thorazine—the usual treatment—to cool them out. But Thorazine potentially increases the effect of STP. It was bummersville in the Haight until people figured out what was going on and word went out to think twice before ingesting the superhallucinogen.
STP was just one of the bizarre drugs that were pumped into the willing arteries of the acid ghetto. According to doctors who worked at the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic, there was a rash of adverse reactions when a compound purporting to be THC (a synthetic version of marijuana) inundated the Haight. The drug was actually phencyclidine, or PCP—otherwise known as “angel dust”—which had originally been marketed as an animal tranquilizer by Parke-Davis. But the army had other ideas when it tested PCP on American GIs at Edgewood Arsenal in the late 1950s. At the same time the CIA employed Dr. Ewen Cameron to administer PCP to psychiatric patients at the Allain Memorial Institute in Montreal under the rubric of Operation MK-ULTRA. The Agency later stockpiled PCP for use as a “nonlethal incapacitant,” although high dosages, according to the CIA’s own reports, could “lead to convulsions and death.”
Yes, a lot of weird drugs were floating around Haight-Ashbury. The neighborhood was clotted with youngsters whose minds had been jerked around ruthlessly by chemicals touted for their euphoric properties. Much of the LSD turning up on the street was fortified with some sort of additive, usually speed or strychnine, or in some cases insecticide. But where did this contaminated acid come from?
Originally the main source of LSD in the Haight was Owsley, but the scene got totally out of hand with all the media fanfare after the Be-in, and renegade chemists started moving in on the drug trade. The Mafia exploited the situation by setting up its own production and distribution networks. In June 1967 James Finlator, chief of the FDA’s Bureau of Drug Abuse and Control, announced that “hard core Cosa Nostra-type criminal figures” were behind “an extremely well-organized traffic in hallucinogenic drugs.” Consequently the quality of black market LSD began to deteriorate. Signs posted in the Haight expressed the consensus among hippies: “Syndicate acid stinks.”
And what was the CIA up to while its perennial partner of convenience, organized crime, was dumping bad acid on the black market? According to a former CIA contract employee, Agency personnel helped underground chemists set up LSD laboratories in the Bay Area during the Summer of Love to “monitor” events in the acid ghetto. But why, if this assertion is true, would the CIA be interested in keeping tabs on the hippie population? Law enforcement is not a plausible explanation, for there were already enough narcs operating in the Haight. Then what was the motive? A CIA agent who infiltrated the covert LSD network provided a clue when he referred to Haight-Ashbury as a “human guinea pig farm.”
And what better place to establish a surveillance operation than the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco? A dozen years earlier in the same city, George Hunter White and his CIA colleagues had set up a safehouse and begun testing hallucinogenic drugs on unwitting citizens. White’s activities were phased out in the mid-1960s, just when the grassroots acid scene exploded in the Bay Area. Suddenly there was a neighborhood packed full of young people who were ready and willing to gobble experimental chemicals—chemicals that had already been tested in the lab but seldom under actual field conditions.
In addition to the spooks who inserted themselves among the drug dealers, there were scientists with CIA backgrounds who stationed themselves in the acid ghetto for “monitoring” purposes. Dr. Louis Joylon (“Jolly”) West, an old-time LSD investigator for the Agency, rented a pad in the heart of Haight-Ashbury with the intention of studying the hippies in their native habitat. The hippie trip must have held a strange fascination for Jolly West and other CIA scientists who had devoted their talents to exploring the covert potential of mind-altering chemicals during the Cold War.These men had tried LSD long before flower power became the vogue. They had administered the drug to test subjects and watched unperturbed as the toughest of specimens were reduced to quivering jelly, their confidence and poise demolished under the impact of the hallucinogen. No doubt about it—LSD was a devastating weapon. Richard Helms, CIA director during the late 1960s and early 1970s, had once described the drug as “dynamite”—a word often used by hippie connoisseurs when praising a high quality psychedelic.
Indeed, it must have been quite a mind-bender for the elite corps of CIA acidheads who ran the secret behavior mod programs when young people started fooling around with the same drug they had once thought would revolutionize the cloak-and-dagger trade. At first they may have passed it off as some sort of twisted fad comparable to goldfish swallowing or cramming a telephone booth, a kind of hula-hooping of the inner self. But soon the number of drug-indulgent youth reached epidemic proportions. The whole thing seemed downright absurd. Why would anyone willingly flirt with psychosis?
Needless to say, the spooks never anticipated that LSD would leave the laboratory this way, but now that the cat was out of the bag they had to ask themselves whether an incredible blunder had been committed somewhere along the line. There was no denying that the CIA was partly responsible for letting loose upon the land an awesome energy whose consequences were still difficult to fathom. As men of science and espionage they were obliged to consider every permutation of havoc that acid might wreak upon a generation of restless juveniles. If LSD makes people insane, and surely that was what the tests had shown, then would a collective mass not suffer a similar crippling departure from the psychic status quo? A forbidding prospect, these acid casualties, yet seemingly imminent if the present trend continued.
One way or another, something very strange was going on behind the scenes. Rumors of conspiracy circulated among the street people. “The CIA is poisoning the acid these days to make everyone go on bad trips,” complained one LSD user. But bad drugs were not the main factor in the decline of the Haight; they merely accelerated a process that began when tons of verbiage started pouring from the press. “The Haight-Ashbury was our town,” said Nancy Getz, a close friend of Janis Joplin’s. “It was sunshine and flowers and love. And the media got hold of it and ate us and fed us back to ourselves.”
With each passing week things got a little heavier, a little freakier, in the Haight. The clincher came when a couple of independent drug dealers were murdered a few days apart; one had his arm cut off, the other was butchered and thrown off a cliff.The hippies were quick to blame the Mob, but nobody knew what had actually happened. Double-crossing, snitching, beatings, burns, and disappearances were endemic to the dope industry, and a number of people had private scores to settle. There was also a lot of friction between white street kids and blacks in the neighboring Fillmore district. For a while it seemed like everyone was packing heat—a blade or a heavy-caliber weapon—as Haight-Ashbury degenerated into a survival-of-the-fittest trip.
A lot of acid veterans couldn’t handle the paranoia and split to the countryside, where they hoped to pursue a relatively hassle-free existence on one of the many communes that were springing up in California and the Southwest. These rural enclaves provided a temporary haven for those who needed to mellow out after having their minds blown in a million different directions. Others returned to their former homes or traveled to cities where hippie communities were just starting to take root. The mass exodus from the Haight signaled the end of the Summer of Love. The Diggers marked the changing seasons by staging a symbolic funeral in which “the death of the hippie, devoted son of the mass media” was proclaimed. A coffin filled with hippie ornaments—love beads, bandannas, underground newspapers, etc.—was carried through the neighborhood and laid to rest. The ceremony took place on October 6, 1967—exactly one year after the Love Pageant Rally, when LSD became illegal in California. “We’re trying to sabotage the word ‘hippie’” explained Ron Thelin, former proprietor of the Psychedelic Shop and Oracle backer who had recently joined ranks with the Diggers. “It’s not our word. It has nothing to do with us. We’d like to substitute the words ‘Free American’ in its place.”
By this time the windows of the Psychedelic Shop were boarded up and the Free Clinic had closed its doors for an indefinite period. Haight Street was turned into a one-way avenue and homeowners and merchants vacated the district in increasing numbers. Property values plummeted, and a wave of crime, drug addiction, and police repression turned Haight Street into Desolation Row. The reign of terror lasted for well over a year as cops patrolled the area in riot gear, roughing up longhairs and busting young people indiscriminately. (A neighborhood councilperson condemned Mayor Joseph Alioto for adopting a “domestic Vietnam policy” in the Haight. Alioto’s retort: “We’re not going to listen to any crybabies complaining about police brutality.”) There wasn’t any reason to venture into this combat zone except to score some dope, and that probably meant heroin or downers, which had been plentiful since the autumn of 1967. Most street scavengers, the leftovers from the Summer of Love, were into shooting junk or sniffing glue or drinking rotgut alcohol—whatever could deliver them to the land of the endlessly numb.
The Diggers, for their part, attempted to carry on the struggle despite the decline of the Haight. An amazing inborn cleverness kept them going through one crisis after another. They practiced street savvy like a martial art, figuring that the best way to deal with the established powers was to outfox them. Their actions were so provocative and unexpected that the authorities often didn’t know how to react. On one occasion a Digger was hauled into FBI headquarters for questioning. As the interrogation was about to commence, he placed a tape recorder on the table and turned it on. The G-man was so flustered he cut the interview short.
In early 1968 the Diggers changed their name to the Free City Collective and issued a manifesto calling for a citywide coalition of “free families” to pool their resources and form survival networks that could sustain a longterm revolutionary effort. They forged alliances with street gangs from the Latin and Chinese ghettos in San Francisco and also worked with the American Indian Movement and the Black Panther party. In response to the intense police harassment that was crippling their community, Free City advocates staged a protracted open-aired salon on the steps of City Hall.
Every day for three months, they gathered to read poetry, give out copies of the Free City News, and carry on outrageously. One of their last events before calling it quits on the summer solstice of 1968 was a Free City Convention (a parody of the upcoming Democratic Convention in Chicago), complete with banners and fanfare and a theme: “A Vote for Me Is a Vote for You.”
Beyond the Free City the Diggers were among the first to raise the issue of ecological balance as a political concern. A handful of the original San Francisco activists would resurface in later years as the Planet Drum Foundation, a grassroots organization devoted to articulating biospheric values appropriate to postindustrial society. From city to planet, bioregions instead of nation-states: a politics of living-in-place, reinhabiting where you are. Echoes of the drum beat could be heard even when the Haight was at its heyday. Listen to a Digger rap it down:
“LSD hand-holding is not the end….We’re going to view what we’re doing as the best we could come up with. It’s only the best, scratch it. Scratch sixty-seven. Summer in San Francisco has been the first Be-Together for Escapees and Refugees….Our part now coming up is to communicate in direct spinal language….To push as hard as we can…to move past the Civil War in the United States to our planetary concerns, the forms and modes of which we are now developing….The species on the planet has to get past the non-living of the last century, that most barren sterile time. The time when men died for wages, when lives were counted against profit-sharing coupons….when coupons and clip-outs became days and nights, when sunup was time to go to work and sundown was exhausted relief or an alcoholic night out….We’re trying to move our minds as sensuous instruments….to move the school of fish we swim in….to move onto the next place that we’ve got to go because if we don’t move from where we are now, the barracuda are going to hit us. And they do. Everytime the tide turns, the barracuda turns. Everybody turns when the tide turns.”
Excerpted from ACID DREAMS (Grove Press) © 1986 Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain. Featured illustration by James Romberger.