When flower power turned sour

Rob Chapman’s history of Psychedelia and LSD sees California dreaming become the nightmare of the Manson family murders

12 September 2015

9:00 AM

12 September 2015

9:00 AM

Psychedelia and Other Colours Rob Chapman

Faber, pp.607, £35, ISBN: 9780571282005

Aldous Huxley reported his first psychedelic experience in The Doors of Perception (1954), a bewitching little volume that soon became the Newest Testament among the happening people. One spring morning in 1953 the 58-year-old Englishman ingested four-tenths of a gram of mescalin in his Hollywood garden and waited for the visionary moment. When he opened his eyes he saw pure California neon dust. ‘I was seeing what Adam had seen on the morning of his own creation.’

Evelyn Waugh was not alone in thinking that Huxley had gone bonkers in his American exile. (‘Huxley has done more than change climate and diet.’) He had been introduced to psychedelic drugs by the English psychiatrist Dr Humphry Osmond, a pioneer in the use of mescalin in the treatment of alcoholics (Cary Grant, among others, was prescribed LSD for his drink addiction). As Rob Chapman relates in his huge, encyclopaedic history of LSD and its cultural ramifications, Psychedelia and Other Colours, it was Dr Osmond who, in 1957, coined the word ‘psychodelic’ (mind-opening). This was later amended to ‘psychedelic’ in an effort to remove the psychotic connotations of LSD for which the cranky, drug-legalising Harvard professor Timothy Leary was partly responsible.

In 1969, the story goes, the ‘alternative snake-oil salesman’ Leary telephoned Huxley’s widow to say that the Grateful Dead had arrived in Los Angeles and would she put the band up? A concert violinist, Laura Huxley had never heard of the freaky rock‘n’rollers. (‘We should be grateful to be alive, not dead,’ she told Leary.) The Dead were set to descend with their fuzzboxes and feedback, but Mrs Huxley shooed them away. Her husband would not have cared for the Dead’s weird sound, preferring instead Renaissance madrigals.

Between 1953 and his death in 1963, Huxley took acid some ten or 12 times only. The psycho-chemical expeditions were self-experiment in the name of science, yet Huxley was credited with setting in motion an international psychedelic movement causing the mental derangement of millions of people. Jim Morrison and his humourless California band the Doors named themselves after The Doors of Perception; the Beatles included Huxley’s photograph on their Sergeant Pepper album sleeve. Whether he liked it or not, Huxley was hip.

Chapman, a Mojo magazine contributor, concentrates on music. Alexander Scriabin’s proto-psychedelic composition The Mysterium, written in 1915, involved swirling coloured lights and patchouli-based perfumes wafting over the orchestra pit. From Scriabin it was a short step to the Pink Floyd’s light-show concerts in 1960s underground London, says Chapman. Syd Barrett, the Floyd’s Byronic founder member, borrowed from a tradition of English music hall and the rueful melancholy of Edward Lear to write the group’s shimmering first album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, a Scriabin-like synesthesia of colour and sound. In a fascinating chapter, Chapman considers the influence of music hall on other psychedelic bands such as the Zombies and Cream. A dark side to British psychedelia began to show in their faux-Victorian tales of drunkenness and child death.

In California, the psychedelic movement turned sour with the Manson family murders of 1969, though bad magic had long been hatching beneath the palms. Forever Changes, the great 1967 album by the LA band Love, combined psychedelic mariachi riffs with allusions to blood transfusions and a sickness in the city. Los Angeles would have to wait until the 1980s for a uniquely black music: rap. However, Chapman makes a good case for African-American psychedelia in the shape of Jimi Hendrix, Arthur Lee (of Love) and, later, George Clinton of the prankster funk outfit Parliament.

Meanwhile, as Aldous Huxley lay dying in his Hollywood exile in 1963, his Italian wife Laura waved him on his final trip with a double dose of LSD. (‘Light and free you let go, darling. And you are going toward the light…’) President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas earlier that afternoon; ignorant of the event, Huxley asked for the drug to be administered in extremis. The hippie heyday was not far off, yet no one knew for sure whether Huxley’s LSD ingestions were exercises in pure and applied pointlessness — or worse. Psychedelia and Other Colours, a work of rare scholarship and insight, opens a window onto a much misunderstood multicoloured era.

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Show comments
  • 1YesterdaysWine1

    LSD – a gift from the gods… here’s a great psychedelic love story from the ’60s

  • Jack Sokol

    The writer has zero taste in music. This pathetic portrayal of history is full of innacuracies and deceptions. While Huxley was an influence on the 60’s revolution it was a result of the political upheavals of the Kennedys/King assassinations, the Vietnam war and the 1968 election of Nixon. By dissing the Doors, Dead and everyone else the writer minimises the influence music had. Manson was little more than a sideshow.

  • chapdrum

    Huxley was “ignorant of the event” (JFK’s murder). Perhaps the writer here could’ve brought himself to not place the onus on a dying man.
    Typical conservative tosh.

    • bix12

      Exactly my sentiments. This hatchet job of an article is blatantly judgmental and extremely lopsided. I resent any and all writers that look down their superior noses at that time in our history, when in actuality they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.

      • post_x_it

        Enlighten us!

      • Richard Baranov

        Quite so, I was involved with that milieu and his depiction of it is just plain silly to the point of being tripe.

    • Roger Hudson

      C S Lewis was the real loser that Friday.

  • Gilbert White

    Read Huxley because of his more famous family connections. 35 quid for this, a bit high innit ? These people always get crucial seminal issues wrong? Lear wrote about jumblies wanting to go to sea in a sieve. Nonsense verse what people would be stupid to do this? Pipers at the gares was from Toady as everyone will know!

  • Rap the first “uniquely black music”? What about gospel? The blues? Jazz? And these were actually music.

    • Tom M

      ….ragtime, boogiewoogie.

    • Precambrian

      II wouldn’t call Jazz music, but yes your point stands.

  • ArtieHarris

    “Forever Changes, the great 1967 album by the LA band Love,
    combined psychedelic mariachi riffs with allusions to blood transfusions
    and a sickness in the city.”

    I loved that album.

    • Hironimous Nostril

      One of my all time favourites too. I never grow tired of it.

  • Neil Saunders

    Southern California was a mad place long before the 1960s. The excesses of Hollywood in the silent film era (the debauchery seems to have reached its zenith in about 1917) put the hippies of half-a-century later to shame.

    I’ll be intrigued to read Rob Chapman’s book, though (not least as a companion-piece to David McGowan’s lurid account of the 60s L.A. rock scene, “Weird Scenes inside the Canyon”). And – as an English biographer of Wagner commented in the dark days of World War II – “the music is still beautiful”.

    • As is alluded to above, a lot of English psychedelia was influenced by the Victorian avante garde, Lewis Carroll, Beardsley, the Art Nouveau movement generally. The roots were always there

  • Did Huxley report any ‘bad trips’? I would have thought dropping a tab on your death bed might not be well advised. I’ve got to be honest, I have never experimented with LSD. My attitude to psychedelia is like that of Lenny Bruce’s to Jazz; I like the clothes and the attitude. I came at this as a teenager coming of age in the ’70s hiatus between Glam and Punk. Having a childhood recollection of the Beatles, I discovered their back catalogue for myself. I thought then, and I still do, that the ’65 – ’67 stuff is just astonishingly beautiful and creative. I still reckon ‘It’s All Too Much’ should have been the first Harrison penned Beatles single. But anyway, the Beatles were safe, and whatever they were off their t*ts on, from Newcastle Brown to LSD, we could all identify with them. By and large they either stayed themselves (Macca, Ringo) or found themselves (Harrison, Lennon). It’s clear that for many more the trip led to disaster and destruction. Was it worth the music? Probably not… especially given the extent to how much it fueled the ‘counter culture’. Interesting question though. I’d love to read the book but I’m not paying £35 for it. I’ll wait until it’s in the bargain bins next year

    • bix12

      As you’ve never experienced LSD, your comments are without merit and might as well be random doodlings on a scrap of paper.

      • well that invalidates 98% of verbiage then

        • bix12

          No, only 98% of verbiage that is presented as knowledge when, in fact, it is merely opinion.

          • The only ‘knowledge’ I claimed was of the Beatles back catalogue. Quite happy to put the rest down to opinion based on observation.

            Really not clear what your point is?

          • bix12

            My point is your assertion that giving LSD to a dying man is ill advised then following up with a disclaimer that you’ve never actually taken LSD. Your assumptions regarding LSD are based entirely on everything but first-hand evidence, or experience. That is my point. There has been an entire paradigm built around the myth of the LSD experience and this mythology, if you will, comes from an extremely hostile point of view. So now we have legions of writers (as the one who wrote this article) and others who base their opinions and assumptions on this mythos of negativity. Unless someone has first-hand knowledge of psychotropic experiences, they shouldn’t presume to “know” what it’s about.

          • bix12

            P.S. Huxley wasn’t given a “tab” on his deathbed, his wife injected him with LSD…twice. The first-hand eye witness reports state that it was in fact a beautiful experience. I would suggest you read the story. It’s quite moving. At least I thought it was.

          • Well no one actually knows for sure what goes in in a dying brain, but we do know that there can be spectacularly bad trips, hence my specific question with regard to Huxley. I’m not actually hostile to LSD, as I indicated it can help some people grow. However, it is clearly not a universal panacea

    • Gilbert White

      So you did not survive the trauma of the Bay City Rollers?

  • StrategyKing

    A poor book review. It looks like you were prejudiced from the start, so it is hard to get any good idea about the book.

  • cuje

    Also a must read on this topic is the well written outsider tome, PSYCHEDELIA by Patrick Lundborg

  • Roger Hudson

    The big tragedy was that all those going on about great ‘tripping’ never realised that LSD may have been good for the aesthetic brain but totally screwed up the logical part, i knew a number of science students, at Sussex, whose scientific development was totally stunted by it.

  • barrycooper

    I like to think myself not stupid, but I truly did not understand the flow of argument here.

  • Jay Mandeville

    If the book is anywhere as glib, gossipy, simplistic, jargon-infested or historically dumbed-down as this brief “review”, then the volume is surely going to confuse, mislead & misinform a lot of readers. Here’s hoping author Chapman’s prose, & pose, is considerably more lucid, insightful & toned-down than the flippancy on display here.