The Psychedelic Experience, Contemporary Music, And The Grateful Dead:
A 1969 Study (Revisited)
In October 1969, I presented a paper at the First Annual Meeting of the Student Association for the Study of Hallucinogens (STASH), at Beloit College, Wisconsin. The paper surveyed data obtained from a questionnaire study involving over 200 artists and musicians who claimed to have had a “psychedelic experience.” This study has been previously published (Krippner, 1968) and was republished following interviews with several additional research participants (Krippner, 1970, 1977, 1985). The final version of the study reviews the results of responses obtained from 27 instrumental musicians and two vocalists, most of them rock and roll performers. Many of the artists (painters, sculptors, multimedia artists, poets, novelists, etc.) filled in questionnaires that were mailed in. However, I interviewed each of the 29 musicians in person, sometimes without a copy of the short questionnaire in my possession, writing down their responses as quickly as possible following the interview. Among those interviewed were members of the Grateful Dead.
These questions were asked: “Robert Masters and Jean Houston have defined a ‘psychedelic artist’ as one whose work has been significantly influenced by psychedelic experience and who acknowledges the impact of the experience on his [or her] work.” “Do you agree with this definition?” “Do you consider yourself to be a ‘psychedelic artist’?” “Are you part of a larger group of ‘psychedelic artists’?” “Have you ever had a ‘psychedelic experience’?” “Have you ever taken a ‘psychedelic’ substance?” “Was your ‘psychedelic experience(s)’ generally pleasant?” “What ‘psychedelic’ substance(s) have you taken?” “How long ago did you take a ‘psychedelic’ substance for the first time?” The detailed results of this study have been presented elsewhere (Krippner, 1970). This article presents the data most pertinent to the Grateful Dead, amplified by references to other rock and roll sources.
Drugs and music have been associated at least since the wine-centered Dionysian rituals of ancient Greece. Wasson (1969) suggested that many of the Vedic hymns were written in praise of the amanita muscaria mushroom that grew in Siberia, the ancestral homeland of the Vedic poets. Charles Winick (1959-1960) interviewed 357 jazz musicians, finding that 82% had tried marijuana at least once, and that 23% used it regularly. Only two of Winick’s research participants over 40 were still addicted to heroin; one former addict remarked, “I guess I just disinnuendoed out of it.” The interaction of creativity and LSD-type drugs has been the topic of several scholarly works (Dobkin de Rios & Janiger, 2003; Merkur, 1998). The former authors concluded, “In a world so in need of redemption, threatened by personal pain, political uncertainties, and continual low-grade warfare, we would be wise to respectfully and thoroughly investigate the promises of LSD-type substances” (p. 184).
The two iconic musical groups of the 1960s most identified with LSD-type drugs were the Beatles and the Grateful Dead (Norman, 1996). The latter group began performing in 1964, under a different name, and became one of the originators of “acid rock” or “the San Francisco sound.” Tom Wolfe (1968) described the influence of acid-rock on the rock music of that time, maintaining that “the mothers of it all were the Grateful Dead.” The group played for Ken Kesey’s “Acid Tests” in La Honda, California, participated in the “Trips Festivals,” the Monterey Pop Festival (where LSD was distributed en masse), and the first Family Dog Dances in San Francisco (Wolfe, 1968). Jerry Garcia described how the band’s name originated:
Back in the late days of the Acid Tests, we were looking for a name. We’d abandoned ‘The Warlocks;’ it didn’t fit anymore. One day we were all over at Phil’s house smoking DMT. He had a big Oxford dictionary, opened it, and there was ‘grateful dead,’ those words juxtaposed. It was one of those moments, y’know, like everything else on the page went blank, diffuse, just sorta oozed away, and there was GRATEFUL DEAD, big black letters edged all around in gold, man, blasting out at me, such a stunning combination. So I said, ‘How about Grateful Dead?’ And that was it. (Lydon, 1969)
Early in their careers, each member of the group tried LSD.Unlike many other musicians, the Grateful Dead made the “irrevocable decision” that the only place to go was “further into the land…that acid opened up” as Lydon wrote. “They were not to be psychedelic dabblers, painting pretty pictures, but true explorers….They decided to try and cross the great water and bring back the good news from the other side” (Lydon, 1969).
The group’s basic sound has been described as “slightly freaked” hard rock rhythm and blues, but also includes classical, electronic, country and western, Indian, jazz, folk, and “accidental” music. Members of the group often attributed their openness to various musical forms to psychedelic experience that “does away with old forms” allowing them to create “music beyond idiom” (Lydon, 1969).Bob Weir, the group’s youngest member when I first met them, told me that he had not taken LSD for three years. He added, “I think that I would have ended up at the same place even without acid.” However, Jerry Garcia told me that ingesting psychedelics was the most important experience of his life, a sentiment later expanded upon in his biography (Jackson, 1999):
There was a me before psychedelics, and a me after psychedelics….I can’t say that it affected the music specifically; it affected the whole me….I think that psychedelics was part of music for me insofar as I was a person who was looking for something and psychedelics and music are both part of what I was looking for. They fit together, although one didn’t cause the other (p. 106).
The eclectic nature of the group and its music was evident in its performers. Mickey Hart, for example, an Army Air Force veteran and jazz drummer, recalls that he was “stoned out of my mind” when he first heard the group in 1967 (Tawney, 1969). He jammed twice with the Grateful Dead’s drummer Bill Kreutzmannn, and then asked Jerry Garcia if he could sit in with the group during an appearance at San Francisco’s Straight Theater. Hart recalled, “We played ‘Alligator’ for two hours, man, and my mind was blown. When we finished and the crowd went wild, Jerry came over and embraced me, and I embraced him, and it’s been like that ever since” (Lydon, 1969). Hart, who along with Kreutzmannn was a drummer for the Grateful Dead, was strongly influenced by the tabla master Alla Rakha and learned to play in Indian meters. In fact, I first met Hart at a birthday party for Alla Rakha following his appearance with Ravi Shankar at New York City’s Lincoln Center. Hart once referred to the basic rock four-four beat as “a box” (Christgau, 1969) and devised highly complicated patterns that he and Kreutzmann synchronized. I spent an afternoon hypnotizing both Hart and Kreutzmann before they attempted various drumming innovations, a session that both later told me improved their synchronization. However, Phil Lesh (2005) attributed the emergence of Kreutzmann’s “unique flexibility” to his early adventures with LSD.
The Grateful Dead developed a style described in a seminal Rolling Stone article as “black satanic,” personifying a “horror comic monster who, besides being green and slimy, happens also to have seven different heads, a 190 IQ, countless decibels of liquid fire noise communication, and is coming right down to where you are to gobble you up” (Lydon, 1969). This image stems, in large part, from the group’s association, from its earliest days, with psychedelics and the ensuing experience.
The Color of Your Dream
I asked Larry Larden of Every Mother’s Son if psychedelics were considered helpful by most rock musicians. He replied, “When you’re high, you get lots of wild ideas for lyrics. After you come down, some of them still sound pretty good and you put them on paper. That’s the most important way you can use a high. When it comes to performing, people do different things. Most of us believe we do better if we go on the stage straight, not stoned. But there are exceptions.” We listened carefully to “Tomorrow Never Knows” by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The lyrics spoke of “the color of your dream” and advised the listener to “turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream.” I remarked that this was a perfect description of many people’s acid trip.
Inevitably the question arises, “Do musicians perform better or worse than usual when under the influence of a drug?” In Winick’s (1959-1960) study, he queried several jazz musicians on this point in regard to heroin and marijuana. In both instances, a majority replied that the drugs decreased rather than improved the quality of their musical performance. In addition, Winick’s data indicated that neither marijuana use nor heroin addiction was related to either a musician’s positive professional standing or lack of it as rated by his or her peers.
I asked the same question of the 29 rock musicians in my study. None of them admitted to being a heroin addict, although subsequent events indicated that at least one of them was not telling the truth. A few musicians told me that they had tried heroin, usually sniffing it rather than injecting it.A larger number had tried cocaine and some used it frequently. All 29 had smoked marijuana and 23 had tried LSD at least once. Five musicians stated a preference for smoking marijuana before a performance; seven felt it impaired their performance, while the others stated that it had neither a clear-cut positive nor negative effect. Three musicians claimed that LSD enhanced their performance while six stated that it had no effect on their performance; the other 15 were of the opinion that LSD and similar psychedelics had a negative effect on the quality of their performance.
This consensus tallies with the position taken by Bill Graham (Graham & Stafford, 1969), the era’s leading rock impresario:
I’ve seen many musicians perform very, very well, and on occasion they have said, “It’s a result of…having used acid.” This I have heard many times. But for the most part the musicians I’ve seen perform under the influence of acid…was close to tragic. The danger…of acid is its use by many who haven’t learned how to cope with it in proper fashion. I’ve known of cases in which a gig had to be cancelled because a certain party was up on Cloud Nine….This happens very, very seldom, but I do know of two specific instances when it happened. I don’t know anyone who has used it and found it detrimental….It has made musicians more serious, it seems to me, more serious about their music and what they are about.The thing I’ve found, though, is that…they’ve lost what we…consider discipline….I’ve gone through this many, many times with some of these kids….I say—in the dressing room—There are ten thousand people out there.” “That’s groovy, man, but dig—I’m watching this and it’s out-a-sight.” Now he, as an individual, has a perfect right to sit there and enjoy his mood. But as an entertainer, not. And what the new musician refused to admit is that he’s a professional entertainer.
My personal experience with rock musicians tallies with Graham’s remarks. In a few instances, I have heard the same musicians perform both under the influence of LSD and not. In no case could their LSD performance be called superior, or even on an equal level. The performer might have been under the impression that he or she was doing well but, in my opinion, there were difficulties coordinating the performance with that of other members of the group. Problems in tempo were common. Frequent fingering errors and missed notes also occurred. Insofar as marijuana is concerned, the effects appeared to be somewhat different and highly variable from performer to performer. In general, I have detected neither improvement nor deterioration among musicians performing after smoking marijuana or eating marijuana brownies.
Psychedelics and Mood
My own understanding of rock music, as well as interviews I conducted with rock musicians, indicates that psychedelic experience played a small but discernible role in much of the music of that genre. This influence was primarily, but not entirely, due to use of marijuana, hashish, and LSD-type drugs by these musicians and their audiences. Non-drug experiences such as meditation, sensory bombardment, dance, and the martial arts were also reflected.
The impact of psychedelic experience could be detected in the mood, lyrics, and texture of the music itself. Like the lifestyles of many of the young people who admired it, rock and roll in the 1960s was typically unstructured and free form, encompassing what was popular and available at any given moment, such as technology, surfing, or political protest (Korall, 1968). For rock music, function preceded form, and sometimes defined the form. Thus, if large numbers of young people arrived at a concert under the influence of LSD, and if large numbers of individuals smoked marijuana while listening to records, the musicians soon embraced this interest and provided music adapted for this audience.
The mood associated with a particular piece of music refers to the emotional feeling reflected in the music and/or engendered by it. Some rock music reflects love, sex, and passion; other rock music expresses pain, agony, and vulnerability. And some reinforces the listener’s dissatisfaction, resistance, and rebellion.The rock music that most directly demonstrates psychedelic influence complements the listener’s mood, whether drug-induced or not. If the listeners have taken LSD, the acid rock most characterized by heavy, driving, pulsating rhythms, may be congruent with their mood. If the listeners have been smoking marijuana, they may prefer the sonorous drone of raga-rock, the complex meters of Buffalo Springfield’s country rock, or the ostentatious imagery of the Doors.
The typical length of rock songs was extended by Bob Dylan and various San Francisco bands. This was done, in part, to allow stoned listeners to synchronize their mood with that of the music, and also in recognition that the stoned listener distorts time and does not realize that a song has been playing for twenty minutes instead of the more conventional three minutes. The stretched out rock song also led to longer instrumental solos so that, as Peter Asher told me, “the soloist could have a better chance to take listeners on his trip.”
Rock music can help recreate both positive and negative drug moods. One rock musician, Marmaduke of the New Riders of the Purple Sage, remarked, “Whenever I hear that line from the Beatles’ ‘A Day in the Life’ that goes ‘drag my comb across my head,’ it reminds me of crashing.” Explaining the effect of LSD-type drugs on mood, Dennis Larden of Every Mother’s Son explained, “There is a conscious effort of many musicians to recreate a mood that goes beyond the lyric or the texture to convey a certain feeling that they felt when they were stoned.” Larden cited Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” John Sebastian’s “Daydream,” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Feeling Groovy” as examples of this influence. Paul Simon admitted taking LSD as a teenager but later preferred alcohol, which he claimed “sloshes people together, while “drugs lock people apart” (Greenfield, 1968). Obviously, musicians don’t speak with a unanimous voice on the topic of drugs!
Psychedelics and Lyrics
Because rock music encompasses many aspects of contemporary culture, it is to be expected that references to drugs might appear in song lyrics. However, these references are often indirect. As Phil Lesh reminded me, “A person who is tripping on acid doesn’t want to hear about drugs, he just wants to groove. Most acid rock never mentions drugs in any of the song lyrics.”
In 1968, Larry Larden told me, “The so-called acid rock groups aren’t the only ones who take drugs. Most of the top rock and roll groups use marijuana regularly and have tried LSD at least once. Pot and acid have such a strong effect on you that they can’t help but affect what you write and how you play. Just listen to the lyrics of the pop songs and you’ll catch on to what’s happening.” He continued, “Program directors try to keep this type of song off the air or they get static from parents and from pressure groups. Look at the stir caused by ‘Eight Miles High,’ ‘Rainy Day Woman,’ ‘Mr. Tambourine Man,’ and ‘Sunshine Superman.’ All of those songs have lyrics that indirectly refer to pot and acid trips. And the kids buy them by the millions, even if program directors try to keep them off the air.”
Drug-related lyrics date back several decades. Alcohol and tobacco have been directly cited in “Smoke, smoke, smoke that Cigarette,” “Cocktails for Two,” “A Cigarette, Sweet Music, and You,” and an older tune, “Beer Barrel Polka.” In the 1930s, Don Redmond, a popular band leader, composed “Chant of the Weed” and used it as his theme song. Few people realized that he was referring to marijuana. Nonetheless, the reference to drugs in rock lyrics, whether direct or indirect, presents the most easily discernible influence of drug experience. The Rolling Stones’ “Mother’s Little Helper” refers to pharmaceutical drugs (“Mother needs something today to calm her down”). The cast of the Broadway musical Hair sang a paean to virtually all illegal drug experiences of the time, ranging from LSD to Methedrine. And the Velvet Underground performed a song blatantly titled “Heroin.” Jim Morrison of the Doors was better known for his cocaine abuse and drunken alcoholic sprees than for his use of LSD (Hopkins & Sugarman, 1980).
One of the most exhaustive listings of song lyrics reflecting drug influence was compiled for members of the ultra-conservative John Birch Society by Gary Allen (1969). Accusing the lyricists of spawning a “carefully coded promotion of narcotics,” Allen claimed that young Americans were being “pushed toward drugs” by such songs as “A Day in the Life” and “Magical Mystery Tour” (the Beatles), “Eight Miles High” (the Byrds), “2000 Light Years from Home” (Rolling Stones), “Expressway to Your Heart” (Soul Survivors), “Full Measure” (Loving Spoonful), “Get On Up” (Esquires), “I Had Too Much to Dream” (Electric Prunes), “Journey to the Center of the Mind” (Amboy Dukes), “Magic Carpet Ride” (Steppenwolf), “Merry-Go-Round” (Youngbloods), “Rose Colored Glasses” (Lothar and the Hand People), and “Up, Up and Away” (Fifth Dimension).
Allen also found song lyrics that mentioned specific drugs indirectly or directly. Although Paul McCartney claimed that “Yellow Submarine” was inspired by a Greek sweet by the same name (Eisen, 1969), Allen claimed that it referred to barbiturates. He maintained that barbiturates were the hidden message of the Rolling Stones’ song “She’s a Rainbow” and that heroin was glamorized by “Mainline Prosperity Blues” (Richard Fariña), “Connection” (Rolling Stones), and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (again, the Beatles offered another reference point). Methedrine, according to Allen, was the hidden message of “Buy for Me the Rain” (Nitty Gritty Dirt Band), “Colored Rain” (Wichita Falls), and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (Rolling Stones). McCartney’s lyrics were often mistakenly attributed to drugs because of his celebrated statement, “LSD opened my eyes.”
The Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” included a command to “feed your head,” and their song “Rejoyce” referred to “chemical changes.” Country Joe and the Fish sang “I Like Marijuana” and “The Acid Commercial,” neither of which received notable air time. David Peel and the Lower East Side recorded, “I’ve Got Some Grass” and “Have a Marijuana,” both of which they sang at a benefit on behalf of marijuana decriminalization at which I spoke in the late 1960s.In “Strange Young Girls,” the Mamas and the Papas sang of “an altar of acid” while Donovan in “Sunny Goodge Street” mentioned “a violent hash eater.”
These overt references to drugs are less common than indirect citations, according to Larry Larden, who explained, “The usual girl-boy theme of pop music is often replaced by a man-cosmos theme.” Psychedelics tend to expand a songwriter’s perspective and he or she “starts to write about people’s relationships to other people, to Nature, and to the Universe.” This trend was noted in the title of several rock albums such as the Grateful Dead’s Anthem of the Sun, the Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow, and the Beatles’ Rubber Soul. A survey of 770 high school students by Robinson and Hirsch (1969) was pertinent; a majority of students of that era “wanted fewer songs about drugs and more about love and understanding.” Furthermore, 70% of these students remarked that they selected a record more for its beat than for its message.
Psychedelics and Texture
Even without drug-oriented lyrics, psychedelic influence can still be discerned in the music of that era. A subtle but extremely important influence can be found in texture, i.e., in the physical properties of the music. These properties often influenced one’s state of mind and sometimes produced psychedelic-like effects in listeners that reminded them of their drug experiences.
Jimi Hendrix initiated music with these unique textual properties. Blue Cheer utilized fifteen amplifiers and often played at volumes considerably above the pain threshold of their listeners in an attempt to produce a distinctive texture. Some groups combined simple lyrics with an extremely complex musical texture, such as the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever.” This combination of the uncomplicated and the complicated produced an effect that demanded structure and interpretation on the part of the listener.
Some musicians combined drug-influenced mood, lyrics, and texture to produce a song that psychedelic enthusiasts referred to as “a real trip.” The Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” are the musical equivalents of a light show with everything happening all at once: the instruments, the sound track, and the lyrics pile on top of each other. Korall (1968) described the results of this mélange:
At their ultimate in surrealism and ambiguity, Dylan, the Beatles, and the acid-rock groups—i.e., Jefferson Airplane—might initially cloud the mind with a crazy quilt of images but they do draw you to them within the maelstrom and engage your capacities in a search that frequently is as exciting and fulfilling as the revelation that sometimes lies at the end of a trip. Observers have paralleled the experience with the drug turn-on as analogous not without basis in fact. The drug phenomenon is very much with us and figures in the music of youth.
The Ultimate Rock Experience
If the contemporary world shapes rock music, the inverse is also true. There are indications that rock and roll played a vital role in social change (Gabree, 1968). The ancient Chinese I Ching declared that, “There is nothing better than music in reforming people’s manners and customs.” Plato observed that “new modes of music herald upheavals of the state.” And the Scottish politician Andrew Fletcher remarked, “if a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make the laws of a nation.”
The advent of rock and roll initiated social change, both directly and indirectly. Terry (1987) called it “the ultimate evil,” noting the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” and their album Their Satanic Majesties Request, among other alleged paeans to demonic forces. Rock records have been banned and burned by various political and religious groups around the world, all decrying their negative influence on society, especially on young people.
On the other hand, the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, founded by David Smith, was largely funded by benefit concerts, and continues to maintain its links with the rock community. Joan Baez and Jackson Browne have continued their political activism for decades. The Dead, the remnants of the Grateful Dead, performed fund-raising gigs for Barack Obama in 2008, ultimately performing at one of the inaugural balls. Bruce Springsteen was another fund-raiser who performed during Inauguration week in Washington D.C.During a previous presidential election year, Lyman (1968) wrote:
Today the great people are the musicians, the actors, the film-makers, the communicators we need in the area of communications. The spirit that impacts this country is playing a new instrument….We need a great new direction but not in the area of politics, we need it the area of communications. That is where the new leaders are gathering.
Lyman’s comment was prescient of the Internet and the online social networking groups that it has spawned in recent decades. The Internet’s pioneers, for the most part, had ingested LSD-type drugs in their younger years. Users of psychedelics are well-represented among the founders of the “computer revolution,” who envisioned these technologies as agents of human liberation. These innovators were central to the creation of the Internet, which rejected centralized authority in favor of decentralized communication and information. Many women who ingested psychedelics were central to the feminist movement, and both genders protested the war in Vietnam, racism, and homophobia. Indeed, the impact of psychedelics on human liberation and mass communication may be their most important social legacy.
Decades later, the legacy remains and musical historians of the future will approach the topic with curiosity and wonder. The exploration of one’s mental processes with drugs, brews, and plants may have to be circumscribed and limited. Musicians and other innovators are usually curious, and this trait has been found to predict drug experimentation (Blum & Ferguson, 1969). Nonetheless, the impact of psychedelic experience on art and music demonstrates that this exploration cannot be entirely prohibited without suppressing a vital creative force.
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* This paper was supported by the Chair for the Study of Consciousness, Saybrook Graduate School.