Fifty years ago today, the band that would turn the world on to marijuana got turned on to marijuana. Perhaps the mostly influential sesh in history happened on August 28, 1964 when Bob Dylan got The Beatles high at The Delmonico Hotel in New York City. While this was not technically The Moptops first-time toking — they shared a joint in Hamburg but couldn’t agree whether or not they got high — they definitely copped a buzz with Dylan in New York.
In his memoir, Beatles roadie Mal Evans recalled the moment Dylan and sui generis rock writer Al Aronowitz pulled out the weed.
“Brian [Epstein, band’s manager] and the Beatles looked at each other apprehensively. ‘We’ve never smoked marijuana before,’ Brian finally admitted. Dylan looked disbelievingly from face to face. “But what about your song?’ he asked. ‘The one about getting high?’ The Beatles were stupefied. ‘Which song?’ John managed to ask. Dylan said, ‘You know…’ and then he sang, ‘and when I touch you I get high, I get high…’ John flushed with embarrassment. ‘Those aren’t the words,’ he admitted. ‘The words are, ‘I can’t hide, I can’t hide, I can’t hide…’”
Joints were rolled; Ringo went first (“My royal taster…” quipped John) and after he didn’t go mad, everyone else joined the party. In his 1997 biography “Many Years From Now,” Paul McCartney recalled that he had a major bout of profundity:
“I remember asking Mal… for what seemed like years and years, ‘Have you got a pencil?’ But of course everyone was so stoned they couldn’t produce a pencil, let alone a combination of pencil and paper.” McCartney recalled
“I’d been going through this thing of levels, during the evening. And at each level I’d meet all these people again. ‘Hahaha! It’s you!’ And then I’d metamorphose on to another level. Anyway, Mal gave me this little slip of paper in the morning, and written on it was, ‘There are seven levels!’ Actually it wasn’t bad. Not bad for an amateur. And we pissed ourselves laughing. I mean, ‘What the fuck’s that? What the fuck are the seven levels?’ But looking back, it’s actually a pretty succinct comment; it ties in with a lot of major religions but I didn’t know that then.”
The evening’s festivities had a lasting effect. Seven months later, with his finger on the pulse and following in the footsteps of Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller, Dylan re-introduced the oblique weed reference to the national pop charts with a surreal plaint to: “take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind…” Three weeks afterward, on April 12, 1965, The Byrds released “Mr. Tambourine Man” as their debut single for Columbia Records, an electric/eclectic seminal folk rock version that reached Number 1 on both the Billboard Hot 100 chart and the UK Singles Chart.
On his next album Dylan would dispense with the oblique references and tie the biblical to the bud by overtly insisting that “Everybody must get stoned!”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, The Beatles now played their music high.
Imagine you’re already the best band in the world, the best songwriters, the tightest ensemble on the planet and a rare musical peer says, “Here! Smoke this!” and taps you into a powerful tool known to music makers time out of mind. It was almost as if Michelangelo had been given a whole new suite of colors; precisely as if The Beatles were given a whole new set of sounds Suddenly, the best band in the world – The Beatles! – was somehow… enhanced.
“Grass was really influential in a lot of our changes, especially with the writers.” Ringo Starr recalled. “And because they were writing different material, we were playing differently.”
In mid-October 1965, the Beatles returned to Abbey Road Studios, and for the first time recorded an album for an extended period without any other major commitments snapping for their attention. When it was released in December, Rolling Stone hailed “Rubber Soul” as “a stunningly mature masterpiece…” while John Lennon preferred to call it “the pot album.” And he has Bob Dylan to thank for that.