On 28 August 1964 the future of rock 'n' roll changed forever, when Bob Dylan introduced The Beatles to cannabis.
The Beatles were staying at the Delmonico Hotel on Park Avenue, near Manhattan’s Central Park. According to Derek Taylor, 200,000 incoming calls were received by the hotel switchboard during their two-day stay. Fans stood eight-deep outside, held back by barricades, and the lobby and corridors were patrolled by police officers. Nobody was able to visit the Beatles’ sixth floor suite without full authorisation.
The band were relaxing after the first of two dates at the Forest Hills Stadium in Queens, and were enjoying room service dinner with Brian Epstein and Neil Aspinall. In the hospitality suite next door, Taylor entertained reporters, photographers and celebrities including Peter, Paul and Mary, the Kingston Trio and radio DJ Murray the K, all of whom were hoping to meet and maybe party with the Beatles.
The two parties were introduced by a mutual friend, the writer Al Aronowitz, at New York's Delmonico Hotel. Dylan was driven from Woodstock by his road manager Victor Maymudes, picking up Aronowitz on the way.
Police officers prevented the trio from entering the hotel elevators until Mal Evans arrived to usher them upstairs. The Beatles warmly greeted the American guests, and drinks were offered.
Dylan expressed a preference for cheap wine. ‘I’m afraid we only have champagne,’ Epstein apologised, although there were other expensive French wines and Scotch and Coke. The Beatles began asking Evans to get some cheap wine, but Dylan got stuck in to what was available. They also offered him purple hearts, but Dylan and Aronowitz declined and suggested they smoke grass instead.
Brian and The Beatles looked at each other apprehensively. "We've never smoked marijuana before," Brian finally admitted. Dylan looked disbelievingly from face to face. "But what about your song?" he asked. "The one about getting high?"
The Beatles were stupefied. "Which song?" John managed to ask.
Dylan said, "You know..." and then he sang, "and when I touch you I get high, I get high..."
John flushed with embarrassment. "Those aren't the words," he admitted. "The words are, 'I can't hide, I can't hide, I can't hide...'"
After the misunderstanding had been put right, The Beatles and their guests got down to business. Aronowitz was unskilled in rolling joints so asked Dylan to do the honours; Dylan wasn’t much better, and much of the grass ended up in a fruit bowl on the room service table.
Bob hovered unsteadily over the bowl as he stood at the table while he tried to lift the grass from the baggie with the fingertips of one hand so he could crush it into the leaf of rolling paper which he held in his other hand. In addition to the fact that Bob was a sloppy roller to begin with, what Bob had started drinking had already gotten to him.
Bob Dylan and The Beatles
Some of The Beatles had actually been introduced to cannabis in 1960, although the drug had made little impression.
We first got marijuana from an older drummer with another group in Liverpool. We didn't actually try it until after we'd been to Hamburg. I remember we smoked it in the band room in a gig in Southport and we all learnt to do the Twist that night, which was popular at the time. We were all seeing if we could do it. Everybody was saying, 'This stuff isn't doing anything.' It was like that old joke where a party is going on and two hippies are up floating on the ceiling, and one is saying to the other, 'This stuff doesn't work, man.'
The Americans were rightly wary of the police presence outside the suite, and of the room service waiters who were streaming in and out. Dylan suggested they move to one of the bedrooms, so all ten crammed inside: Dylan, Aronowitz, Maymudes, Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, Starr, Epstein, Aspinall and Evans.
Dylan lit the first joint and passed it to Lennon. It was immediately given to Starr, whom Lennon dubbed ‘my royal taster’. They didn’t realise the etiquette was to pass the joint around, and Starr smoked as if it were a cigarette. Aronowitz asked Maymudes, a proficient roller, to make more joints, and soon everyone was smoking their own.
I don't remember much what we talked about. We were smoking dope, drinking wine and generally being rock'n'rollers and having a laugh, you know, and surrealism. It was party time.
The Beatles spent the next few hours in hilarity, looked upon with amusement by Dylan. Brian Epstein kept saying, "I'm so high I'm on the ceiling. I'm up on the ceiling." The normally-refined manager also exhibited some self-deprecating humour.
George and I were sitting on this bed and Brian was sort of lying there rather grandly as he would, very beautifully dressed and everything. I have this image of him with a tiny little bit of a butt in his mouth like an old tramp, trying to be graceful with this terrible little fag end.
We actually all got stoned and we were giggling. It was giggling time and we were uncontrollable. And Brian was looking at himself, saying, “Jew! Jew!” He saw the funny side of it. It was as if he was finally sort of talking about the fact. “Oh, I’m Jewish. I forgot.” I don’t think he smoked it a lot. I think the band smoked much more.
Debbie Geller, The Brian Epstein Story.
McCartney, meanwhile, was struck by the profundity of the occasion, telling anyone who would listen that he was "thinking for the first time, really thinking." He instructed Mal Evans to follow him around the hotel suite with a notebook, writing down everything he said.
I remember asking Mal, our road manager, for what seemed like years and years, 'Have you got a pencil?' But of course everyone was so stoned they couldn't produce a pencil, let alone a combination of pencil and paper.
I'd been going through this thing of levels, during the evening. And at each level I'd meet all these people again. 'Hahaha! It's you!' And then I'd metamorphose on to another level. Anyway, Mal gave me this little slip of paper in the morning, and written on it was, 'There are seven levels!' Actually it wasn't bad. Not bad for an amateur. And we pissed ourselves laughing. I mean, 'What the fuck's that? What the fuck are the seven levels?' But looking back, it's actually a pretty succinct comment; it ties in with a lot of major religions but I didn't know that then.
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles
Evans kept the notebooks until his death in 1976, when they were confiscated and later lost by Los Angeles police.
Riding So High – The Beatles and Drugs
This article is an edited extract from Riding So High, the only full-length study of the Beatles and drugs.
The book charts the Beatles’ extraordinary odyssey from teenage drinking and pill-popping, to cannabis, LSD, the psychedelic Summer of Love and the darkness beyond, with a far-out cast including speeding Beatniks, a rogue dentist, a script-happy aristocratic doctor, corrupt police officers and Hollywood Vampires.
Available as an ebook and paperback (364 pages). By the creator of the Beatles Bible. Click here for more information and to order.
Also on this day...
- 2010: John Lennon’s toilet sells for £9,500
- 1969: George and Pattie Harrison travel to the Isle of Wight to see Bob Dylan
- 1969: Apple holds a launch party for Radha Krsna Temple
- 1969: Mary McCartney is born
- 1968: Recording: Dear Prudence
- 1966: Live: Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles
- 1965: Live: Balboa Stadium, San Diego
- 1964: Live: Forest Hills Tennis Stadium, New York
- 1963: Live: Odeon Cinema, Southport
- 1963: Television: The Mersey Sound
- 1962: Live: Cavern Club, Liverpool (evening)
- 1961: Live: Cavern Club, Liverpool (lunchtime)
- 1960: Live: Indra Club, Hamburg
Want more? Visit the Beatles history section.