(Originally published November 1, 2004)
About 30 years ago, I made a conscious decision to take part in what became known as The Great LSD Experiment. I took acid for the first time in 1974 at age 17. LSD had been a profoundly mysterious, and yet mostly unseen, presence throughout my adolescence. LSD had seemed to be at the very center of the enormous cultural changes that became known as “the ’60s.” In fact, many argued that LSD had been the primary catalyst for those changes. Few disputed that psychedelics had profoundly changed the American pysche. And yet, nobody could agree on precisely how America had been changed. After all the extravagant claims about LSD (you can see God! expand your consciousness! transform society into a world of peace and love!), and all the equally extravagant counter-claims (you’ll jump out of a building! you’ll stare at the sun until you go blind! you’ll suffer brain damage! you’ll end up a Charles Manson-oid cult zombie!) the jury was still very much out on LSD. What precisely WAS LSD? And what did it do?
“There’s something happening and you don’t know what it is, DO YOU, Mr. Jones?” sneered Bob Dylan and all the psychedelic hippies at all the un-turned on Squares who would never Know Where Its At. But as the ’60s turned into the ’70s, even the cock-sure hippies had had most of the smugness wiped off of their psychedelic faces, and even they weren’t quite sure what had happened to them.
There was something very unsatisfying about the whole deal. After all the ruckus LSD had stirred up in the 60s, it all still seemed very much an unresolved issue. Everything had been left up in the air. After all the vicious psychic battles of the ’60s, it was as if America had grown weary of the entire subject and decided to never talk about LSD ever again. LSD had been relegated to the back pages of “yesterdays news.” Also, too, LSD had been declared illegal in 1967 and all the scientific research into the subject had been driven underground or was nonexistent. Like I said, it was all very unsatisfying from my perspective. So in 1974 I decided to donate my brain cells to the great LSD experiment. I figured I had nothing to lose but my mind. And that was probably no great loss. Heh heh.
I guess this book is my attempt to lay out the results of the Experiment, with my brain as both the guinea pig and scientist. It’s a weird story how I went down this path in the first place. Weird because it’s not like I had some master plan.
When I look at my life in retrospect, it’s more the feeling that it happened TO me, more so than I DECIDED to do this or that. So many of my basic assumptions about the life I was looking for were on a subconscious level, barely thought out. And usually erroneously thought out. More this feeling that I didn’t create my life, but that life created me. Even as I’m supposedly responsible for it; for my behavior, etc. I keep getting this spooky feeling that even though I decided this and that at every fork in the road, it was as if all the choices at the fork were placed there by other force. I guess we’re all a creature of the society we’re born into. And I was a hopeless product of my times. It’s this weird sense of predestination, like I had no choice in any of it, as if the World had grown my life just like apple trees grow apples. In retrospect I’ve come to the unavoidable conclusion that either I’m responsible for everything that’s happened to me, or else I’m responsible for none of it. My ultimate spiritual leap of faith was that it was all my karma, all my doing, all my unavoidable destiny. Or else it was all a weird fluke inflicted on me.
Anyway, I can remember the exact moment when I took that first fateful step that led me towards my present destiny.
It was 1964 and I was 8 years old. I was bouncing my basketball down the streets of High Bridge, New Jersey on my way to the playground behind the old brick high school. On the corner right before the high school lived Chaz Dalrumple, this slightly subnormal 2nd grader, a year younger than me. Chaz’s subnormal sister Helen Dalrumple was in my class. All the Dalrumple’s were slightly weird; they all had mouths slightly to one side of their faces, who knows why, probably due to inbreeding. They were kind of like New Jersey hillbillies. Anyways, Chaz Dalrumple was a plump little dumpling of a snot-nosed brat. On this particular sunny afternoon in 1964 Chaz came running out of his front yard towards me like a deranged guided missile as I bounced my basketball past his house. Chaz was all excited about something. He had this exciting new toy, this little transistor radio, jammed up to his ear, practically jammed into his cranium, and Chaz was yelling and screaming and sputtering along to the music. “LOVE YOU YEAH YEAH YEAH!” he kept shouting.
“Chaz what is wrong with you?” I asked. “Why are you acting like such a tard.” Chaz was slightly subnormal in the best of times, but on this day he was really losing his shit. His fat face was red and snot was running down his nose and his eyes were cross-eyed and deranged as if he was experiencing delirious happiness or excruciating pain. “SHE LOVE YOU YEAH YEAH YEAH!” he kept shouting. This tinny music was emanating from the transistor radio, this exciting new toy. The guys inside the radio were singing this fast-pace, chiming, happy song. They seemed really excited about something the way they were singing.
“Let me see that thing,” I said to Chaz as we stood there on the corner. Chaz held the transistor radio up in front of me, and we stood there listening to the music. I can still picture the moment clearly 40 years later. “SHE LOVE YOU YEAH YEAH YEAH!”
Then the song abruptly ended. “And that was the fabulous Beatles!” said the man inside the transistor radio. He was talking really fast, and he seemed really excited about something too.
“Da BEATLES!” shouted Chaz. “LOVE YOU YEAH YEAH YEAH!” Chaz suddenly turned as quickly as he had come, and ran across his front yard, up his porch steps and into his house, slamming the front door behind him. Then he ran back outside, ran back over to me and shouted in my fool face (you guessed it) “LOVE YOU YEAH YEAH YEAH!” Then he ran off into his side yard, doing spastic cartwheels and summersaults in the grass, rolling around and wiping out, finally running off into his back yard, disappearing behind his house, still shouting and sputtering and slobbering to himself.
I continued on my way, bouncing my basketball down the black asphalt driveway that led to the outdoor basketball courts at the playground. And that’s all that I remember about that day.
Shortly after Chaz spazzed out with his transistor radio, my little sister started doing something weird. Late at night after my parents had gone to bed, my little sister would open her bedroom window on the second floor and yell out into the night sky:
“John! George! Paul! RINGO!!”
And always in that order: “John! George! Paul! RINGO!!”
I’d look at my bedroom window next door to hers, out into the black night sky that hung over our backyard, the railroad tracks behind our yard, the school playground on the other sides of the railroad tracks. And I could faintly hear my little sister’s voice echoing off the old brick school building. And I’d look out at the black night sky, and wonder who my little sister was yelling to…
A short while after that the Beatles made their American debut on the old “Ed Sullivan Show.” The whole family gathered around our television set in the family room; this tiny little black-and-white screen built into this mammoth wood cabinet. I’m told about 100 million Americans tuned in that night–the largest mass audience in TV history at the time. America was more unified and homogenized back then. There were only 4 TV channels and America mostly spoke with one voice. This was possibly the very peak moment — for better or worse–of the unified America, just before the American psyche shattered into a thousand pieces. This was also the first time I got to see John Lennon in the flesh. Well, the electric gray-tone of the media flesh. So I guess my whole thing with John Lennon started then.
Overnight, The Beatles were everywhere: on the front page of all the newspapers and magazines, on TV, and of course, the radio, where every one of their songs immediately went to Number One. It was a strange confluence of energy whereby the burgeoning phenomenon of the Beatles, the American empire, and Mass Media all simultaneously bisected and exploded in a frothy peak, to the point where it became difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish where one’s influence ended and the other began. You could say the Beatles were a “media-manufactured” phenomenon. But there was also something very organic and inevitable about how Chaz and my little sister and me and millions of other American kids reacted to the Beatles; like we had been waiting for them. If the Beatles hadn’t existed we probably would’ve created them. In truth, the media always seemed one step behind the Beatles, frantically trying to keep up with the Beatles bandwagon that was always one step ahead of them.
“It was like we were four marionettes,” said Paul McCartney years later, trying to explain the appeal of the Beatles as they beamed into America’s living room for the first time. And that was exactly right. The Beatles were like four dolls: pull the string and the Beatles dolls shake their hair and scream “WOO!” in unison. And that’s exactly how the Beatles were marketed to millions of kids like me. Overnight, the Beatles doll was the coolest new toy in all the kid’s toyboxes. The Beatles toy came at you from every direction; Beatles records, and Beatles books, and Beatles wigs, and Beatles posters, and Beatles games. It wasn’t like I was an obsessed Beatlemaniac fanboy with Beatles posters plastered all over my wall. It was more that the Beatles were everywhere, unavoidable, like the air, and their effect sunk in as if by osmosis.
My favorite Beatles toy of them all was the Saturday morning animated Beatles Cartoon Show. I had a golden childhood (which is weird considering how fucked up the rest of my life would be), and those Saturday mornings in front of the television watching cartoons were the most golden of all. The cartoon Beatles were like four big Bugs Bunnies. John most of all. He was a rascally rabbit that John, and all of us kids instantly recognized him as one of us. His clean-cut smiling Fab Four image never quite camouflaged his wise-guy cheeky side. You just knew that when the adults were out of the room, John would wreak some fun-loving havoc, getting in pillow fights and romping around the room. And the cartoon Beatles wielded their rock’n'roll guitars like a superpower that would always overpower their enemies or at the least sooth the savage beast. I still remember the opening intro to the Beatles cartoon show where they’d do an open strum of the 6 guitar strings. Ten years later when I was learning to play the guitar, I still remembered that opening bit, and it helped me learn to tune my guitar. (It’s amazing how some of that TV stuff sticks in your head for a lifetime).
There were several things that were extra special about the amazing new Beatles toy. For one thing: it came in four flavors so there was something for everybody. The other thing was how they kept updating the Beatles toy every year, just like it was a car. There was Beatles ’64, and Beatles ’65, and so on. And the other thing was, unlike most of the other toys, the Beatles toy came with this high-powered “Love” accessory. The Beatles were always singing and talking about LOVE LOVE LOVE. This high-powered “love” that the Beatles beamed out to their fans. And not the yucky kind of love like with Barbie and Ken. There was something very real and very romantic about the Beatles “love”–something that even got through to snot-nosed, 9-year-old brats like me and my best friend Buddy. We’d sit in Buddy’s kitchen drinking Cokes and listening to all the Beatles songs on his Mom’s clock radio, all the early hits, “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “Do You Want to Know A Secret,” etc. Maybe you can’t buy me love, but you could always buy the Beatles new love song. And somehow those songs got to us where we lived.
And the other thing about the Beatles toy, it was the most interactive of all the toys in the toy box. You couldn’t go to the North Pole to see Santa Claus, but you could “meet the Beatles”–they lived in a real, and yet magical-sounding world called Liverpool. And you could talk to the Beatles–or at least scream at them–and the Beatles talked back to you. You could actually touch the Beatles toy (“Did you hear? Janey scored a handful of Ringo’s hair!”). And you could play cool games with the Beatles toy, like Hide-and-Seek, like when all the Beatles fan-girls chased after them Beatles and tried to rip them to shreds and shit. The Beatles toy was the most inter-active of all the toys; like, if the Beatles said they liked jellybeans, then all the Beatles fans would start buying jellybeans and pelting the Beatles with them everywhere they went (“OWW!” cried George, not so much the Quiet One at that point. It was the coolest). There was a monkey-see-monkey-do quality about the Beatles and their fans right from the beginning.
Lennon, more so than the others, reveled in his power to influence and effect his fans. Years later, Lennon explained to his pal Pete Shotton his rationale for opening the Beatles Apple Clothing Boutique thusly: “Pete, if the Beatles started wearing shirts with one arm torn off, tomorrow, millions of Beatles fan would be buying shirts with the arms torn off!” But it would be a gross overstatement to portray the Beatles as puppet-masters, for as I said earlier, it was very difficult to distinguish who was pulling the strings and who was the puppet and who was the master. And the Beatles were painfully aware of the other side of the bargain (namely, getting a face full of jellybeans). But at the very least, the Beatles had positioned themselves to piss in the generational soup. Fate had chosen the Beatles to ride the generational tiger.
George, the quiet one, had one good line (he may have had another, but I can’t think of it right now): “It was a very one-sided relationship between the Beatles in and the fans. The fans gave their money, but the Beatles gave their nervous system.” And yet, as with so many of the Beatles public statements, this was probably only half true. But one thing that few dispute: it was an aptly named phenomenon, this “Beatlemania.” For, in spite of its fab cuteness, there was indeed something distinctly maniacal about the whole thing.
Well sir, in 6th grade, in 1967, my church league basketball team played for the league championship. And, as always, the Beatles were there in the background providing the soundtrack to my childhood. I remember listening to the Beatles latest hit single, “Penny Lane,” in the locker room on my transistor radio, and getting goosebumps from the beauty of the song and the excitement of the moment. Well, I scored 12 points, and we went on to win the 6th grade championship. After the game our coach treated the whole team to ice cream sodas at the Daza-Dell restaurant off Route 17. That was the high point of my life (it would be all downhill from there). What can I say, I peaked early at 6th grade.
And “Penny Lane” would also be the last innocent, chiming Beatles song from the innocent, fresh-faced Fab Four. For there was something else that was unusual about the Beatles toy, something that nobody really thought of at the time, but would have unforeseen consequences in the very near future. Long after we discarded all of our other toys, all of us kiddies kept on playing with our Beatles toy. For, unlike all the other toys in the kiddies toy boxes, unlike Bugs Bunny and Charlie Brown and Barbie doll and all the rest of them, there happened to be real live flesh-and-blood men romping around inside the Beatles cartoon. Unlike all the other toys, the Beatles toy was growing alongside us. The Beatles toy was alive.