I took my first hallucinogenic drug in David Osman’s back yard. Ossman was KPFK’s Drama and Literature Director, a bright spot on a staff of underpaid, handicapped workers that my manager favored. He was part of the Firesign Theater, a comic group that took Lenny Bruce’s acerbic wit into the psychedelic age.
It was a short DMT trip of about 30 minutes. The garden became ecstatically beautiful. Drops of rain glistened like diamonds on every branch and leaf bud. The air was a balm and everything seemed perfect for about thirty minutes. Transcient euphoria.
L.A. was a party town in the late Sixties. There were other DMT trips and parties at celebrity houses where we snorted coke off mirrors and swam in dark pools above lawns stretching to tennis courts and servants quarters. I got hopelessly lost while incredibly stoned, somewhere in the suburbs on the way to a party where Hunter Thompson showed up with pocket full of amyl nitrates that he popped all night.
Out on the West Coast, we were all intrigued by the 400,000 young people who gathered on a dairy farm near Woodstock, New York, from August 15th to 18th, to listen to 32 musical performances. Despite almost constant rain, a few births and deaths, the media called it a milestone in rock and roll and the counter-culture. The dawning of the age of Aquarius. Good vibes all around.
That was the spin the rock musical Hair put on the counter-culture. It opened off-Broadway in New York in 1967 and came to Los Angeles in 1969. I was ripped on hash brownies and my most vivid memory is of the audience, rows of polyester women with blue hair teased into enormous buns. At the time, Hair seemed to be marketing a vapid parody of the counter-culture, as artificial and out-date as the hairdos in the theater. Thirty years later, when I saw an off-Sunset version with two teen-aged daughters, I found it truer to my memories of the hippie phase than I imagined. What struck me most, I explained to my daughters, was how innocent the drugs, nudity and protests all seemed. “Innocent?” They asked in shock. But there was a huge amount of trust in the first psychedelic way-stations on the counter-culture highway.
A grimmer side of the drug culture emerged that summer in Los Angeles. The Charles Manson commune had moved from the Haight Ashbury to an abandoned mining camp in the desert. The charismatic leader and a bunch of attractive young women were racing around on dune buggies. Later that summer, they murdered Sharon Tate, (who was 8 months pregnant), and several friends of hers at Roman Polanski’s home in Beverly Hills, inflicting more than 100 stab wounds on their victims.
The romance with the decade’s counter-culture came crashing to an end at the Altamont Speedway on December 6th. A free rock concert was supposed to be Woodstock West, but it ended in chaos and violence instead of peace and love. Hells Angeles provided what little security there was (instead of the Diggers who had handled the crowd at Woodstock) and the choice of drugs seemed to be uppers and alcohol rather than acid and marijuana.
Three hundred thousand people showed up, many including the Hells Angels drank heavily. The crowd became increasingly aggressive as the day went on, storming the stage and fighting with each other. Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young played, but one performer was knocked out by a thrown bottle and drunken speed freaks kept storming the stage. The Grateful Dead refused to play and left the concert. The Rolling Stones were the last set. Shortly after Jagger screamed his hit song, Sympathy for the devil, a Hells Angeles biker killed Meredith Hunter when the eighteen year old pulled a .22 caliber pistol from his pocket and stormed toward the stage. By the end, many people were injured, numerous cars were stolen and then abandoned and there was extensive property damage.
The Rolling Stones put out the Let It Bleed album at about the same time. Many people believe the album was an ode to the end of the Sixties; “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” as the ultimate anti-sixties thing to say. Music critic Greil Marcus wrote, “That song and ‘Gimme Shelter’ were about the moral collapse of the counterculture.”
The story arc of serious drug use is well known. An extensive literature, from Thomas DeQuincy’s 1821 autobiographical account of his opium addiction, “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater,” serious drug use begins with revelation and ends with misery. If you’re lucky, redemption may be a coda. People entered the drug culture of the Sixties at different times, but many of those who got deeply involved went on similar journeys of discovery and despair. Tom Wolf’s “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” ends at the Pranksters’ last acid test, a bitter failure at The Barn in Scotts Valley, not far from Santa Cruz, where a voice (is it Babbs?), whispers over and over again on the loud speakers, “We blew it.”
“Easy Rider,” the iconic film that came out in 1969, ends with the same words, “We blew it.” Critics still debate what those words mean in the film but it was clear by 1969 that the counter-culture was changing from its first innocent blossoming into something much more complex, disruptive and dangerous. In the early Seventies, in a six-month period, Alan Wilson of Canned Heat died on September 3rd, 1970, then Jimi Hendrix on September 18th, then Janis Joplin on October 4th and Jim Morrison on July 3, 1971.