Flashback Friday: Acid Dreams, Part Three

With their Zen-like sense of humor, the Diggers create mass confusion in Haight-Ashbury. The third installment of a four-part series.
Flashback Friday: Acid Dreams, Part Three
James Romberger

Originally published in the June, 1986 edition of High Times, Part Three of our series (excerpted from the history of the psychedelic revolution, Acid Dreams: The CIA, LSD and The Sixties) has authors Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain describing how the Diggers created a moment of social utopia, how the media blitz wrecked a countercultural dream, and how the Beatles turned LSD into a byword for global youth culture. (Read Part One and Part Two.)

Stone Free

Something’s astir on Haight Street. Thousands of hippies are making the scene when a roving band of mysterious characters suddenly appears among the day-trippers, passing out handbills that bear enigmatic phrases: Street Menu and Carte de Venue (“Your ticket to somewhere”). It’s the beginning of a street theater spectacle put on by a gangster performing troupe who call themselves the Diggers. The theme on this occasion is “The Death of Money and the Birth of Free.” A bizarre funeral cortege is making its way up LSD Avenue. Leading the procession is a group of women mourners dressed in black singing “Get out my life why don’t you babe…” to the tune of Chopin’s Funeral March. They are followed by three hooded figures hoisting a silver dollar sign on a stick and a half-dozen pallbearers carrying a black-draped coffin. Even stranger are the huge animal masks—at least five feet high—worn by the pallbearers.

There won’t be any reruns of this event, no encores or applause—in fact, there aren’t even any spectators. Everyone’s part of the show. The entire neighborhood becomes the stage as twenty death walkers at the rear of the funeral march give away flutes, flowers, pennywhistles, and lollipops in preparation for the next “act,” so to speak, a cacophonous orchestration mocking the law against being a public nuisance. Public nuisance equals public “New sense,” get it? Hundreds of hippies line both sides of the street with instruments in hand, goofing and spoofing, and so it goes, one scene after another for hours at a time.

As twilight approaches, a few hundred rearview car mirrors procured from a junkyard are distributed to the mischievous masses, who are encouraged to climb atop the buildings and reflect the setting sun down onto the street. Meanwhile a chorus of women in silver bell-bottom pants, bolero tops, and tie-dye outfits raises a banner of marbleized paper inscribed with a poem and chants back and forth to some other women perched on the rooftops. Thousands pick up the cue and chant poetry, and soon the police arrive to clear the mob scene—a rather formidable task, considering that the crowd has swelled to unmanageable proportions. The spontaneous interaction between cops and hippies (call it a riot) becomes part of the performance. It’s all for free—a free-for-all: anarchist antics scripted to make something wide-open happen. “Street events are rituals of release. Re-claiming of territory (sundown, traffic, public joy) through spirit,” proclaimed a Digger manifesto. “No one can control the single circuit-breaking moment that charges games with critical reality. If the glass is cut, if the cushioned distance of the media is removed, the patients may never respond as normals again. They will become life actors… a cast of freed beings.”

The Diggers burst upon the scene in the summer of 1966, when a number of actors broke away from the San Francisco Mime Troupe and formed their own loose-knit collective. They felt that the Mime Troupe’s political satire was too formal, a predictable rehash of left-wing ideas that failed to appreciate the Haight’s unique potential for a new kind of social theater—“a poetry of festivals and crowds, with people pouring into the streets,” as Artaud put it. The debate over dropping out versus political engagement was a moot point to the Diggers. Their imaginative pageants were beyond codification, challenging the assumptions of the New Left as well as the psychedelic religious fringe.

The Diggers took their name from a seventeenth-century English farming group that preached and practiced a form of revolutionary communism. Convinced that money and private property were the work of the Devil, the original Diggers claimed squatters’ rights for the people and gave free food to the needy. When Lord Protector Cromwell announced the Enclosure Act which allowed landowners to cordon off public lands for their own use, the Diggers responded by digging the soil (hence their name) and planting a garden in the Commons Area. Their defiance provoked the wrath of Cromwell and his Roundheads, who charged the upstarts with “encouraging the looser and disordered sort of people into greater boldness.” The priests began exhorting their congregations to go out and give the trouble makers hell, and a wave of bloody repression ensued.

Like their British forebears, the San Francisco Diggers believed that the world was run by a cabal of greedy liars and thieves. It was downright foolish to expect the perpetrators to redress the ills they had created, for to deal with a system that was rotten to the core—either by fighting it or joining it—could only lead to further corruption. The Diggers never protested for or against anything, refusing to be seduced by the romantic pretensions of the New Left, whose faith in the efficacy of telling Truth to Power betrayed its own naïveté. That was how the Diggers saw it, and they had no intention of squandering their energy on angry leftist protest that would end up filling a twenty-second slot on the TV news. Peace marches and demonstrations might provide an outlet for private frustrations—a dose of solidarity for temporary relief of alienation—but it seemed doubtful to the Diggers that all the word-slinging and finger-pointing would amount to much in terms of real change.

If you wanted a better world, the Diggers maintained, then it was up to you to make it happen, because no one else—least of all the fraudulent politicians—would hand it over on a silver platter. To take back what was rightfully theirs, people had to assume their own freedom in the here and now: “Now frozen moments for tomorrow’s fantasy revolution!” The Diggers went about their business as if utopia were already a social fact and everyone were free. They chided other lefties for being stodgy, dull, and fixated on social models (Cuba, China, Vietnam) that had little relevance to the situation in the United States. The goal of revolution, as far as the Diggers were concerned, was not merely to seize the wealth hoarded by a handful of the filthy rich and spread it among the hapless masses. A simple transference of power, a redistribution of things already valued, constituted only a degree of liberation. At best it was a prelude to an overall transformation of values culminating in a revolt against the very concepts of power, property, and hierarchy.

The Diggers sensed a tremendous opportunity in the mid-1960s to experiment with what postindustrial society might look like assuming the human species survived its next cataclysmic moment. Although the precise features of this new social order were never consistently articulated, one could begin by postulating the abolition of the division between labor and leisure, so that the logic of the game once again took precedence in human affairs. It was a game they played for keeps. “Western society has destroyed itself,” stated the Diggers Papers. “The culture is extinct. Politics are as dead as the culture they supported. Ours is the first skirmish of an enormous struggle, infinite in its implications.”

Tough, charismatic, and streetwise, the Diggers illuminated the Haight with wild strokes of artistic genius. In acting out their version of an alternative society, they emerged as the avant-garde of American anarchism, a homespun tradition that went back to the previous century and had recently taken a detour through psychedelics. For the Diggers LSD was “hard kicks,” a way of extending oneself to the perimeters of existence where something spectacular and awesome might occur. Acid imbued their eyes with a visionary gleam and provided the distance that enabled them to see how they matched up against the grand scheme of life. But the Diggers never copped to the notion that everything would be groovy if everyone turned on. The Oracle’s transcendental twaddle struck them as vapid and elitist. They scoffed at those who took drugs to discover the hidden truth and mystery of being.

The Diggers viewed acid in terms of personal fulfillment, but always within a social context. They were more activist-oriented than revelatory: things were real when people did them, and what they did had to relate to the basics: food, clothing, shelter, creativity. As a counterpoint to the vague love ethic of the flower children, they promoted the no-nonsense ethic of “FREE!” When they began serving free meals in the Panhandle in the autumn of 1966, it wasn’t a one-shot publicity stunt. This Robin Hood routine actually continued on a daily basis for more than a year. Any hippie—or straight, for that matter—who was hungry merely had to show up at the park at 4:00 P.M., walk through a large orange scaffold (a “Free Frame of Reference”), and chow down. The Diggers also set up a Free Store, which distributed a wide range of “liberated goods” (most of which had been donated by local shopkeepers.) There was even a basket with “free money” in it, if anyone was short on cash. The Diggers were dead-set against profiteering of any kind, whether it involved dope dealing or HIP merchants hawking psychedelic souvenirs during tourist season. They insisted that any hippie worth his salt had to drop out of America’s true national pastime—the money game. “The US standard of living is a bourgeois baby blanket for executives who scream in their sleep…. Our fight is with those who would kill us through dumb work, insane wars, dull money morality.”

The media portrayed the Digger thing as a good-will gig, a “hip Salvation Army.” Of course they missed the point entirely. Charity was not what motivated the free service initiatives. The Diggers were attempting to lay the groundwork for a collective apparatus, an alternative power base capable of providing the necessary resources so that people wouldn’t have to depend on the system or the state to get by. The gist was practical but also theatrical. Inject FREE into any event, and it could turn into theater. FREE was “social acid” that blew apart conditioned responses and called into question prevalent cultural attitudes about class, status, morality, consumerism, etc. Like LSD, FREE could shake people out of the ruts of ordinary perception and catalyze some sort of revelation. This was the upshot of Digger activities: to make street theater into an art form, a social opera that would ignite and liberate the human spirit.

To the Diggers FREE also meant not claiming credit for what they did. Anonymity was a cornerstone of their operations, and it greatly enhanced their mystique as a group. Of the dozen men and women who initially formed the Diggers, there was no single leader or spokesperson. Whoever had a good idea became the prime mover of that project: others pitched in if the spirit moved them. People did what they were good at doing, but they also made a point of keeping out of the media spotlight. They were wary of the media not only because it distorted everything but also because it was hierarchical, an intermediary between people and the world. Worst of all it purported to tell people “the way it is,” when everyone should be their own source of news. The Diggers had little tolerance for reporters and made it difficult for them whenever they came around for interviews. On one occasion a journalist from the Saturday Evening Post dropped by the Free Store and asked to speak with the manager. He was told that the manager was a shy person who didn’t like to answer questions would make an exception in this instance. The man from the Post was then introduced to a Newsweek reporter who had been told the same thing. The two stiffs questioned each other in a corner for twenty minutes before discovering that they’d been duped.

The Diggers’ aggressive anarchism ran into conflict with the Oracle group, which went out of its way to accommodate the Fourth Estate as part of the publicity campaign for the be-in. Although the Diggers had not been specifically invited to the be-in, they showed up anyway and gave out free food and ten thousand hits of “white lightening” acid Owsley had recently concocted. But that did not mean they approved of the be-in format, which was dominated by media personalities and centered around a stage—the same old hierarchical mode. In contrast to the Oracle’s shoot-the-moon scenario of one huge global turn-on, the Diggers’ focused on the immediate nitty gritty concerns of their own community. They set up crash pads and a free medical service for the young runaways who started flocking to the Haight after the be-in; they facilitated group rituals (often coinciding with solstice and equinox celebrations) as a way of unifying the spaced-out zone of hip; and they kept up their criticism of the HIP merchants and media sycophants whose “psychedelic logorrhea” prevented them from getting down to brass tacks and dealing with the serious problems that plagued the acid ghetto.

A lot of changes had taken place as a result of the media blitz. The local press was having a field day, with reporters from the Chronicle and the Examiner engaged in a running contest to see who could come up with the most lurid details about the human zoo on Haight Street. They took a complex social phenomenon, reduced it to a few sensationalistic elements, and repeated the same tripe over and over again. In every edition there were stories dwelling on dope, promiscuity, long hair, filth, and bizarre behavior—themes that reflected the prurient interests and prejudices of straight journalists locked into the usual-middle class stereotypes about bohemia. The sensational press coverage was tantamount to a full-scale advertising campaign—albeit of a twisted sort—and the neighborhood became a magnet for people who were into just what the media reported: sex, drugs, dirt, weirdness, all the seamiest aspects of the hippie trip. A different crowd filtered into the acid ghetto, and although it passed unnoticed at first, the original community began to disintegrate.

The psychedelic style had a certain meaning for the first wave of self-conscious innovators who were engaged in acting out communal modes of existence. Mundane objects such as love beads and peace insignias were tokens of self-imposed exile that communicated a forbidden identity; they warned the straight world of a threat and issued an oblique challenge to consumer society. But this meaning was not readily apparent to the multitudes who turned on for the first time after the be-in. Before long, teenyboppers and “plastic hippies” from the suburbs started frequenting the hip hotspots for some weekend entertainment. Department stores blossomed out in paisley swirls and psychedelic color schemes, and hippie lingo entered into common usage; suddenly everyone was “rapping” about “doing their own thing.” Long hair, beads, and dope—anyone could be a hippie by following the latest fashions.

Tempers were already at a boiling point when the Chronicle picked up an offhand comment by a Digger and turned it into a front page banner headline: “HIPPIES WARN CITY—100,000 WILL INVADE HAIGHT ASHBURY THIS SUMMER.” Images of a psychedelic Grapes of Wrath sent city officials into a tizzy. The mayor immediately declared “war on the Haight,” and shortly thereafter the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a resolution stating that hippies were officially unwelcome in their town. A futile gesture, to be sure, as the press kept on predicting that a deluge of acid eaters would descend upon the Golden Gated city as soon as school let out for the summer.

As self-fulfilling prophecies went, this one couldn’t be beat.The acid ghetto was headed for a forced consciousness expansion of the rudest sort unless someone figured out a way to stabilize an already overloaded community. The crisis was so grave various community groups—including the Diggers, the Oracle people, the HIP merchants, and the Family Dog—put aside their differences and tried to work out strategies for housing and feeding the media-hyped masses. They proposed that Golden Gate Park be turned into a huge free campground, but the city’s political leaders balked at the idea. The Diggers countered by organizing a feed-in on the steps of City Hall. They dished out free spaghetti and meat sauce to government workers and circulated a leaflet that read, “Say if you are hungry, we will feed you, and if you are tired, we will give you a place to rest. This is to affirm responsibility. We merely provide food, shelter and clothing because it should be done.”

Some took it as an omen when the Monterey Pop Festival drew nearly fifty thousand people to the Bay Area shortly before the summer solstice, becoming the largest rock and roll event of its time. Flyers at the Human Be-In had first announced the festival, a non-profit affair with the slogan “Music, love, and flowers.” Monterey featured a lineup of psychedelic superstars, including Janis Joplin, the Byrds, the Grateful Dead, and Jimi Hendrix. Joplin pulled out all the stops in a total freak-rock performance that was seen by millions in D. A. Pennebaker’s film of the concert. But it was Hendrix who really stole the show when he ended his first American appearance by kneeling in front of his electric guitar and setting it on fire. For the country as a whole, the acid rock era really began with Monterey. Scott McKenzie summed up what it all portended for the Haight when he sang his hit single during the final set: “If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear flowers in your hair.”

The entire city braced itself in uneasy anticipation as young people started pouring into the Haight. They came in droves, a ragtag army of tattered pilgrims who’d gone AWOL from the Great Society. Propelled by a gut-level emptiness, they rode the crest of Kerouac’s bum romance, searching for kicks or comfort or a spiritual calling—anything that might relieve the burden of nonliving that gnawed at their insides. They believed that it would be like the newspapers said, that somewhere at the other end of the rainbow was Haight-Ashbury, the Capital of Forever, where beautiful people cared for each other, where all would be provided and everyone could do their own thing without being hassled.

But the Haight was hardly a paradise during the so-called Summer of Love. The early days of acid glory had receded into memory along with the pioneering spirit that once sustained the hip community. Things were getting rougher on the street, and a lot of kids left when the vibes got too heavy. Those who remained were quick to learn the meaning of Dylan’s adage: “The rules of the road have been lodged, it’s only people’s games that you got to dodge.” Young runaways had a hard time finding a way to earn a living or even a place to sleep. Some took to begging for spare change, but the transient rut didn’t hold much in the way of good luck. It was enough just to avoid getting caught in the wicked undertow of the drug scene, which claimed more than a few victims in the Haight.

Most of the newcomers were less interested in gleaning philosophic or creative insight than in getting stoned as often as possible. They smoked or swallowed anything said to be a psychedelic, and when the visions grew stale they turned to other drugs, especially amphetamines. That such charms were addictive or potentially lethal mattered little, for the dangers belonged to the future, and the future was a slim prospect at best, too improbable to acknowledge with anything but a shrug. For these people Haight-Ashbury was the last hope. They had nowhere else to go. They were the casualties of the Love Generation. You could see them in the early morning fog, huddled in doorways, hungry, sick and numb from exposure, their eyes flirting with vacancy. They were Doomsday’s children, strung out on no tomorrow, and their ghostlike features were eerie proof that a black hole was sucking at the heart of the American dynamo.

The Great Summer Drop-Out

Nineteen sixty-seven was a year of stark contrasts. America’s war against the Vietnamese had swollen into a disaster, provoking disgust and condemnation throughout the world. The black ghettos of Detroit and Newark exploded in the summer heat while Aretha Franklin belted out her anthem for women and oppressed minorities: “All I want is a little respect… ” Yet it was also a moment of highflying and heretofore unimagined optimism as the youth movement reached a dazzling apogee. (Time magazine gave its Man of the Year award in 1967 to “anyone under twenty-five.”) Nowhere was the upbeat sentiment of these turbulent times better expressed than by the Beatles, who embodied in their music and personalities the very principle of change itself.

The Beatles were the foremost lyric spokesmen for an entire generation: millions worshiped their verse as holy writ. Their songs were synchronous with the emotional excitement surrounding Haight-Ashbury. The Beatles were a symbol of the communal group that could accomplish anything, and their unprecedented success fueled the optimism of the times in countless ways. Just before the Great Summer Dropout, the Beatles gave the blossoming psychedelic subculture a stunning musical benediction with their release, in June 1967, of the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Later that month they supplied an anthem for the advocates of flower power, “All You Need Is Love,” in the first live international satellite broadcast, to an estimated audience of seven hundred million people. “I declare,” stated Timothy Leary, “that the Beatles are mutants. Prototypes of evolutionary agents sent by God with a mysterious power to create a new species—a young race of laughing free men…They are the wisest, holiest, most effective avatars the human race has ever produced.”

In their early days the Beatles had popped uppers and downers to keep pace with the rigors of the late-night performing circuit in the bars of Hamburg, Germany. They took whatever was around—French blues, purple hearts, and the “yellow submarines” immortalized in their “children’s song” of the same name. It wasn’t until 1964, after they broke through to rock stardom, that they tried marijuana. The Fab Four got their first whiff of the wacky weed when John Lennon smoked a joint with Bob Dylan at London’s Heathrow Airport. It was a happy high, and from then on the Beatles spent much of their time together stoned.

In early 1965 Lennon and his wife, Cynthia, went to dinner with George Harrison at a friend’s. The host slipped a couple of sugar cubes of LSD into their after-dinner coffee, and things got a little barmy when they left. Cynthia remembered it as an ordeal. “John was crying and banging his head against the wall. I tried to make myself sick, and couldn’t. I tried to go to sleep, and couldn’t. It was like a nightmare that wouldn’t stop, whatever you did. None of us got over it for about three days.” For John the experience was equally terrifying. “We didn’t know what was going on,” he recalled. “We were just insane. We were out of our heads.”

Despite his jarring initiation into psychedelia, within a year John Lennon would be dropping acid as casually as he had once smoked a cigarette. But Lennon was hardly in the vanguard of psychedelic use, which had gained a certain degree of currency among British rock bands in the mid-1960s. A number of pop stars, including Donovan Leitch, Keith Richards, and the Yardbirds, had been introduced to LSD via Michael Hollingshead and his short-lived World Psychedelic Center in London. Soon the turned-on message was being broadcast throughout the English-speaking world, and acid became an international phenomenon. The Rolling Stones announced that “Something Happened to Me Yesterday”; Eric Burdon and the Animals crooned a love song to “A Girl Named Sandoz.” Across the ocean in America the Count Five were having a “Psychotic Reaction,” the Electric Prunes had “Too Much to Dream Last Night,” the Amboy Dukes took a “Journey to the Center of My Mind,” and the Byrds flew “Eight Miles High.”

LSD influenced much of mid-1960’s rock, but it was the Beatles who most lavishly and accurately captured the psychic landscape of the altered state. Their first acid-tinged songs appeared on Revolver (1966). “She Said She Said” was inspired by a conversation in California with Peter Fonda during Lennon’s second LSD trip. Fonda talked about taking acid and experiencing “what it’s like to be dead.” The album also featured Lennon’s “Dr. Robert,” a song about a New York physician who dispensed “vitamin shots” to the rich and famous. On the final track, “Tomorrow Never Knows,” Lennon exhorted his listeners to turn off their minds, relax, and float downstream. Originally titled “The Void,” this song was inspired by Leary’s Tibetan Book of the Dead manual, which Lennon was then reading while high on acid. On it he used the first of many “backward” tapes while tripping in his studio late one night. He even considered having a thousand monks chant in the background. Although that proved unrealistic, it pointed up Lennon’s growing obsession with musical special effects, which would reach an apotheosis on Sgt. Pepper.

By the time Sgt. Pepper was recorded, all of the Beatles were getting high on acid. Paul McCartney, the last Beatle to take LSD, made candid admissions to the press about his use of psychedelics, causing an uproar. “It opened my eyes,” he told Life magazine. “It made me a better, more honest, more tolerant member of society.” If the leaders of the world’s nations were to take LSD even once, McCartney insisted, they would be ready to “banish war, poverty and famine.”

Teen America got its first look at the psychedelicized Beatles on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, in a film clip accompanying the release of “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Their hair was longer, they had grown moustaches, and they were dressed in scruffy, slightly outlandish clothes. Lennon especially looked like a different person, with his wire frame glasses, Fu Manchu, and distant gaze. That was how he appeared on the cover of Sgt. Pepper, where on close inspection, according to Lennon, “you can see that two of us are flying, and two aren’t.” John and George had taken LSD for the photo session.

Sgt. Pepper is a concept album structured as a musical “trip.” The Beatles play the part of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, an old-time musical group, that takes its listeners on a sentimental journey through the history of music from ballads and folksongs to dancehall tunes, circus music, and rock and roll. Above all, the music is blatantly psychedelic. The album includes at least four cuts with overt drug references, and the entire LP utilizes sound effects in novel ways to evoke unique mental images and create an overall psychedelic aesthetic.

It is difficult to overstate this record’s importance in galvanizing the acid subculture. For the love generation, Sgt. Pepper was nothing less than a revelation, a message from on high. Thousands of people can still recall exactly where and when they first heard the magical chords of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” wafting in the summer breeze. This was the cut on which Lennon celebrated the synesthetic peak of an acid trip. The hallucinatory visions of “tangerine trees,” “marmalade skies,” “newspaper taxis,” and “looking glass ties” mesmerized the multitudes of Beatle fans who listened to Sgt. Pepper on pot and acid until the grooves were worn out. Lennon said that the title of the song, rather than standing for LSD, was inspired by his son’s drawings, but his disclaimer had little effect on the general interpretation of the lyrics.

The Blue Meanies immediately denounced the album. The ultra-right-wing John Birch Society charged that Sgt. Pepper exhibited “an understanding of the principles of brainwashing” and suggested that the Beatles were part of an “international communist conspiracy.” Spiro Agnew, then governor of Maryland, led a crusade to ban “With a Little Help from My Friends” because it mentioned getting high. And the BBC actually did ban “A Day in the Life,” with Lennon singing “I’d love to turn you on.

Next week: The conclusion of THE GREAT SUMMER DROPOUT: Charles Manson, STP and the end of a dream. Excerpted from ACID DREAMS (Grove Press) ©1986 Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain. Featured illustration by James Romberger.

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