Tomorrow Never Knows: Rock and Psychedelics in the 1960s
On August 30, 1964, a Sunday, Manhattan lay swathed in the heat of a summer afternoon. In their air-conditioned luxury suite high above the intersection of Park Avenue and 59th Street, the Beatles could hear the faint screams of fans who had gathered reverently on the sidewalks around the Delmonico Hotel, hoping to catch a glimpse of Paul, George, John, or Ringo peering from behind a curtain. Those screams had rung in the Beatles' ears for seven months as the cresting wave of Beatlemania rose higher and higher with no end yet in sight. In April the top five places in Billboard Magazine's Top One Hundred chart were Beatles songs. On August 12, the film A Hard Day's Night had opened in more than 500 theaters nationwide, earning more than $1.3 million its first week and making Beatlemania a performance for millions of fans to watch and join vicariously. In late August, the Beatles had five singles on the American charts and were winding up a triumphal coast-to-coast concert tour of the United States. Now, as they rested from their performance at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium the night before, they talked to their guest, Bob Dylan, who had driven down from Woodstock to see them. Without fanfare, Dylan pulled a couple of joints from his pocket, put a match to the twisted end of one, and passed it over. For the first time ever, the Beatles were about to get high.
This was, without doubt, one of the most consequential moments in the history of twentieth-century American popular culture. But it was also just five guys getting stoned. It was the birth of a cultural sensibility that would one day colorize Pleasantville, but it was also the first shot fired in the War on Drugs. Within a year, Dylan would release Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, albums that introduced many thousands of American teenagers to his peculiarly mordant version of the psychedelic sensibility and forever altered the ambitions of rock 'n' roll. More slowly and more elaborately, and ultimately reaching a far wider audience, the Beatles would follow the path marked out by getting high, an experience Paul McCartney called "really thinking for the first time." Over the course of the next two years, long before most American teenagers of the '60s had even heard of, much less taken, psychedelics, millions would find themselves stumbling after the Beatles as they raced from the innocent enthusiasms of Beatles for Sale to Lennon's murky encouragement to turn off their minds, relax, and float downstream. By 1969, according to a Gallup survey of fifty-seven college campuses, 31 per cent of students said they had smoked pot, and between 10 and 15 per cent had experimented with LSD. That is, at least 10 to 12 million smoked marijuana and between 1 and 2 million dropped acid. (As noted earlier, the '60s are still with us: In 1997, 49.6 per cent of high school seniors said they had smoked pot, while 13.6 per cent said they had taken acid.) But the long-term cultural consequences of this moment in history cannot be measured simply in terms of such numbers. Rock 'n' roll brought psychedelics into popular culture even for the millions of Americans who never knew what marijuana smelled like. For better and for worse, the fusion of rock and psychedelics helped change fashion, art, politics, and social attitudes about everything from sex to schooling.
But changed them how? The largest and wealthiest and best-educated generational cohort in American history stood on the brink of maturity with rock music pounding in its veins and power at its fingertips. The blues, albeit in diluted form, gave much of this power. (Of the twelve songs the Beatles routinely played on this concert tour, five were unmistakably blues-based: "Twist and Shout," "You Can't Do That," "Roll Over Beethoven," "I Want to Hold Your Hand," and "Long Tall Sally.") But now these millions of kids were about to lay their hands on another power, a power the historian of the '60s approaches with some trepidation because two dominant cultural attitudes toward psychedelics work in tandem to repress serious thinking about them. On the one hand, there is fear and distrust: psychedelics are lumped together with all other drugs, including heroin, cocaine, crack cocaine, and amphetamines. All are the same and all are evil. On the other hand, there is a bemused and knowing sophistication: psychedelics are merely psychochemical entertainment. They're just fun. Groovy, man.
The truth lies somewhere between these two takes. Psychedelics are powerful. Psychedelics are distinctive. As research in the fields of psychopharmacology, religion, and anthropology makes perfectly clear, psychedelics do something no other drugs can, and that mysterious something lies very close to the human sense of wonder that is formalized in the world's religions. When psychedelics are taken out of specific cultural practices and rituals and disseminated indiscriminately to adolescents coming of age in a modern (or postmodern) world, consequences will follow. Half the difficulty of understanding those consequences is to get past today's prevailing attitudes of fear and dismissal and to take seriously the experiences of getting high and tripping. No history of the '60s or of rock music in the '60s can afford to evade this swampy issue. At the same time, no historian of the period can afford to risk venturing into it without making clear at the outset that discussion does not mean endorsement or, worse, a foggy nostalgia.
In the Sunday New York Times that was delivered to their door that morning, an innocent, prepsychedelic Times, the Beatles might have read about the riot that had occurred Friday night in Philadelphia's north side. A full-page spread of photos showed burned-out shop fronts and black men and women surrounding a beleaguered police car. On the next page Governor Ross Barnett of Mississippi vowed to "deter integration of schools in Mississippi," while in a nearby column Princeton University proudly announced that "at least 13 Negroes, " rather than the usual 1 to 5, would be in its arriving freshman class. (Which among Princeton's exclusive eating clubs those thirteen Blacks were asked to join?)
In Connecticut, the Times reported, a new Pesticide Control Board, "established largely as a result of the Rachel Carson book, 'Silent Spring,'" had recommended that the state ban the use of DDT. According to another article "the blue whale, the biggest animal in the world, is believed to be close to extinction." A British scientist was quoted as saying that "'conservation of whales has failed . . . because, like other life resources, the whale belongs to no one and therefore it is in no one's direct interest to look after them.'" In Houston, a "reproduction expert" named Professor Erwin O. Strassman informed the world that in women "the bigger the brain, the smaller the breasts, and vice versa. . . . There is a basic antagonism between intelligence and the reproductive system of infertile women." Why are smart women "denied this privilege" of having children? "In some instances," claimed Strassman, "it is their own fault. I am referring to those who marry late [because] they want to finish their education. They hate to give up their careers."
Meanwhile, and perhaps not coincidentally, Beatlemania raged on around the Delmonico. That morning's paper described the "more than 1,000 teen-age girls" who "stood behind police barricades on the east side of the avenue shrieking like starlings as a deployment of 40 foot patrolmen and a dozen mounted policemen struggled to keep order." The Times review of the Beatles' Saturday evening concern at Forest Hills, echoed the refrain:
An overflow audience of more than 15,000 persons, mostly teen-age girls, shrieked their approval. They continued their frenzied, nearly hysterical screaming as the quartet sang a number of their fabulously successful hits. It was virtually impossible to hear the singing over the shrieking, which often reached the threshold of pain.The not-yet-hip Times reporter (Robert Shelton) went on to fret that
the Beatles have created a monster in their audience. If they have any concern for anything but the money they are earning, they had better concern themselves with controlling their audience before this contrived hysteria reaches uncontrollable proportions.Those shrieks were a sign that something "uncontrollable"some "monster"was about to terrorize the nation. So was the pungent smoke curling up from the joint Dylan had just lit inside a New York luxury hotel. Something was happening here . . . but no one knew exactly what. The American middle class, soon to be dubbed "Mr. Jones" by Dylan, was complacently confident in itself, its power, and its future, for there seemed to be no limit to what its America could achieve. It had won two wars and put a man in space. The gross national product had averaged 5 per cent annual growth for more than thirteen years, and the real income of the average American worker had risen steadily for more than a decade. Clearly, things were getting better all the time. Compared to his counterpart in the mid-1950s, Mr. Jones could afford to welcome change, but only because he was certain that the rational, technical, disinterested minds of business, government, and academy could control the scope and force of that change.
Yet this very faith in rationality produced a counter-current that licked at its foundations. The book at the top of the Times bestseller list that Sunday, John LeCarré's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, invited Americans to ponder the Kafkaesque amorality of the Cold War. Standing in the Berlin rain with the collar of his trench coat turned up, Leamas was a hero whose inner dignity appealed to countless commuters waiting on the platform for their train to take them home to the suburbs. As these Americans benefited from their position in an order that was systematically standardizing the home, the workplace, the school, and the market, their appetite for romance and risk grew stronger year by year. Some of this need was met by the Kennedy mystique, especially after his death. (The bestseller list this week included Tribute to John F. Kennedy and The Kennedy Wit.) Readers flirted with the likelihood of nuclear war when they read Fail Safe and with the possibility of a military coup deposing the President when they read Seven Days in May. They drank Veuve Cliquot champagne with James Bond and drove off in his restored Bentley to do battle with the nefarious agents of S.M.E.R.S.H. At its fringes, this romance of risk shaded into a newly acceptable pornography. Candy was on the bestseller list that day and titillated thousands of middle-class readers with descriptions of Candy's "lithe round body arching upward, hips circling slowly, mouth wet, nipples taut, her teeny piping clitoris distended and throbbing" as she cried "'Your hump, . . . GIVE ME YOUR HUMP!'" to a deranged hunchback beating her with a coat hanger. Meanwhile, just down the list a few notches, Mary McCarthy's The Group frankly described a woman's first attempt to insert a diaphragm: "the slippery thing, all covered with jelly, jumped out of her grasp and shot across the room." Nipples. Clitoris. Such words had never been spoken so publicly before, and their utterance was a signlike Dylan's jointof a new inclination to experiment with forbidden pleasures and risky subjects. Something was happening here. Dangers and delightful transgressions beckoned.
And so did something else. On the bestseller list that week were two books about white racism (Crisis in Black and White and Mississippi: The Closed Society) and two exposés of the massive federal and corporate espionage presence in American life (The Invisible Government and The Naked Society). Echoing David Riesman's worries about the disappearance of privacy and the erosion of self in America, the author of The Naked Society wrote that "it is increasingly assumed that the past and present of all of usvirtually every aspect of our livesmust be an open book; and that all such information about us can be not only put into files but merchandised freely. Business empires are being built on this merchandising of information about people's private lives. The expectation that one has a right to be let alonethe whole idea that privacy is a right worth cherishingseems to be evaporating among large segments of our population."
As these tiny doubts about the American way of life seeped into the consciousness of the American white middle class, they were shockingly reinforced by a sudden renewal of African American rage which, after two decades of relative quiescence, flared up again in cities up and down the East Coast. Suddenly Mr. Jones found it more difficult to ignore that the entire postwar boom had simply swept around, or papered over, the conditions of millions of blacks hemmed in by white racism. The liberal, technocratic approach to national problems had had little impact on the historical legacy of slavery or on the contemporary fact of white racism. Meanwhile, the word "Vietnam" was appearing with increasing frequency in the news, sometimes accompanied by yet more doubts: was this a winnable war? was it a rational war? On August 28, 1964, with only 17,000 U.S. troops stationed in Vietnam at a cost of just $2 million a day, the war was still just a faraway skirmish with recalcitrant peasants duped by their Communist rulers. But in an article titled "New Crisis in Vietnam Poses Large Questions for U.S.," the Times that Sunday worried that
the awesome, and perhaps invincible, problem of inspiring a disintegrating society to pursue with determination a patriotic defensive war is facing the United States in Vietnam. . . . The underlying fact that has been brought home to U.S. policy-makers this week with the latest Saigon political crisis was that successful war can hardly be fought in the vacuum of a society that no longer seems to care about winning and that, out of the frustration of many war years, seems to be turning on itself in fratricidal fury.This was the Americaconfident, stable, risk-taking, with tiny fissures of doubt opening here and therein which the Beatles, for the first time, got high. In which McCartney, according to a firsthand account of the afternoon, "seems to have had an out-of-body experience"; he "declared that he was 'really thinking' for the first time and ordered road manager Mal Evans to write down everything he said."
Really thinking meant what? This is a question about the effects of psychedelics, but it is also a question about the needs of the young people who found in them something (what is exactly the question) that would help them get by. "There's no question," remembers writer Annie Gottlieb, "that the shift from alcohol to grass and acid manifested an enormous break in sensibility between us and our parents." But what exactly was the nature of this new sensibility? What explains the difference between Frank Sinatra singing subtle and sophisticated lyrics by Cole Porter and Bob Dylan delivering this caustic attack (in the form of a thirteen-bar blues) on the hapless Mr. Jones?
You raise up your handFrom the moment the Beatles smoked pot and started "really thinking for the first time," they joined Dylan in creating an entirely new kind of popular musicpopular music saturated with an intense awareness of itself, of its paradoxical cultural functions, and of the relationship, at once symbolic and intimate, between rock performers and the rock audience. Suddenly, rock would strive to be adequate not just to the angst of teenage romance but to a world composed of blue whales near extinction, police cars overturned by anti-racist anger, sex experts pontificating on breasts and brains, Vietnamese Buddhists and Catholics fighting one another in Saigon, tired American policy-makers driving home from the Pentagon on an August afternoon, DDT settling in clouds over American lawns, policemen on horseback struggling to maintain order against a mob of shrieking starlings, The Naked Society lying next to Candy on a bedside table, the muffled sound of traffic, the thrum of air conditioning pulling power from a distant nuclear plant, and deep down in the heart of Texas President Lyndon Baines Johnson folksily defending his recent decision to send planes over the Gulf of Tonkin with the fateful lie that would cost so many lives: "We let them know that we were prepared to back it up, and we did back it up. We said to them you must leave your neighbors in peace and you mustn't shoot at American destroyers without expecting a reply."
And you ask, "Is this where it is?"
And somebody points to you and says
And you say, "What's mine?"
And somebody else says, "Where what is?"
And you say, "Oh, my God
Am I here all alone?"
Something was happening here . . . but what?
As the shadows lengthened in the streets below, as the shrieks of their patient, loyal fans grew dimmer and faded at last into the evening swell of traffic. As the sun reddened in the western sky, as the lights came on in windows across the way. As Dylan rose and stretched. As the Beatles said goodbye to him laughed and looked at one another, looked again: what lay in waiting there? What surmises folded in the glance, what glints and gleams of a different future?
Author's note: A full account of this meeting can be found in Peter Brown and Steven Gaines, "The Love You Make" (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1983), pp. 157-158. The authors put the date of the meeting as August 28, but by my calculation -- based on the Beatles' performing schedule - -it is more likely to have occurred on Sunday, August 30. Certainly it took place some time that weekend. [Web editor's note: You can read the Brown and Gaines account on the web. Another lengthy account -- accuracy unknown -- is by journalist Al Aronowitz, who includes himself in Dylan's entourage that day.]
Read Jon Wiener's review of "Tomorrow Never Knows."
Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 60-67, 81 of "Tomorrow Never Knows: Rock and Psychedelics in the 1960s" by Nick Bromell, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2000 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.