LSD (part four)

On 17 June 1967 Life magazine published an interview with Paul McCartney in which he admitted having taken LSD. Two days later, following intense press attention, he gave an interview to Independent Television News in which he discussed his use of the drug and the media reaction.

I remember a couple of men from ITN showed up, and then the newscaster arrived: ‘Is it true you’ve had drugs?’ They were at my door – I couldn’t tell them to go away – so I thought, ‘Well, I’m either going to try to bluff this, or I’m going to tell him the truth.’ I made a lightning decision: ‘Sod it. I’ll give them the truth.’

I spoke to the reporter beforehand, and said, ‘You know what’s going to happen here: I’m going to get the blame for telling everyone I take drugs. But you’re the people who are going to distribute the news.’ I said, ‘I’ll tell you. But if you’ve got any worries about the news having an effect on kids, then don’t show it. I’ll tell you the truth, but if you disseminate the whole thing to the public then it won’t be my responsibility. I’m not sure I want to preach this but, seeing as you’re asking – yeah, I’ve taken LSD.’ I’d had it about four times at the stage, and I told him so. I felt it was reasonable, but it became a big news item.

Paul McCartney

The Beatles’ use of LSD decreased after the 1967 Summer of Love. For George Harrison, the turning point came during a trip to San Francisco’s hippie distric Haight-Ashbury on 7 August 1967. They walked around the area while tripping on LSD, but became increasingly uncomfortable as they became surrounded.

I could see all the spotty youths, but I was seeing them from a twisted angle. It was like the manifestation of a scene from an Hieronymus Bosch painting, getting bigger and bigger, fish with heads, faces like vacuum cleaners coming out of shop doorways… They were handing me things – like a big Indian pipe with feathers on it, and books and incense – and trying to give me drugs. I remember saying to one guy: ‘No thanks, I don’t want it.’ And then I heard his whining voice saying, ‘Hey, man – you put me down.’ It was terrible. We walked quicker and quicker through the park and in the end we jumped in the limo, said, “Let’s get out of here,” and drove back to the airport.
George Harrison

The crowd began to grow hostile as they returned to the limousine, and those outside began rocking the vehicle as their faces pressed against the windows. The narrow escape increased Harrison’s resolve to move away from LSD.

That was the turning point for me – that’s when I went right off the whole drug cult and stopped taking the dreaded lysergic acid. I had some in a little bottle – it was liquid. I put it under a microscope, and it looked like bits of old rope. I thought that I couldn’t put that into my brain any more.

People were making concoctions that were really wicked – ten times stronger than LSD. STP was one; it took its name from the fuel additive used in Indy-car racing. Mama Cass Elliot phoned us up and said, “Watch out, there’s this new one going round called STP.” I never took it. They concocted weird mixtures and the people in Haight-Ashbury got really fucked-up. It made me realise: ‘This is not it.’ And that’s when I really went for the meditation.

George Harrison

On 26 August 1967 The Beatles publicly renounced the use of drugs, pledging their belief in Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s system of Transcendental Meditation instead.

Although their attempts at sobriety were short-lived, among John Lennon’s reasons for his declining use of LSD was the number of bad trips he experienced, along with a gradual diminishing of his ego.

I had many. Jesus Christ. I stopped taking it ’cause of that. I mean I just couldn’t stand it. I dropped it for I don’t know how long. Then I started taking it just before I met Yoko. I got a message on acid that you should destroy your ego, and I did. I was reading that stupid book of Leary’s and all that shit. We were going through a whole game that everybody went through. And I destroyed meself. I was slowly putting meself together after Maharishi, bit by bit, over a two-year period. And then I destroyed me ego and I didn’t believe I could do anything. I let Paul do what he wanted and say, them all just do what they wanted. And I just was nothing, I was shit. And then Derek [Taylor] tripped me out at his house after he’d got back from LA. He said, ‘You’re alright.’ And he pointed out which songs I’d written, and said, ‘You wrote this, and you said this, and you are intelligent, don’t be frightened.’ The next week I went down with Yoko and we tripped out again, and she freed me completely, to realise that I was me and it’s alright. And that was it. I started fighting again and being a loud-mouth again and saying, ‘Well, I can do this,’ and ‘Fuck you, and this is what I want,’ and ‘Don’t put me down. I did this.’
John Lennon
Lennon Remembers, Jann S Wenner

By the time of his death in 1980 Lennon had stopped taking LSD, but nonetheless defended it against common public perception of its effects.

A little mushroom or peyote is not beyond my scope, you know, maybe twice a year or something. But acid is a chemical. People are taking it, though, even though you don’t hear about it anymore. But people are still visiting the cosmos. It’s just that nobody talks about it; you get sent to prison…

I’ve never met anybody who’s had a flashback. I’ve never had a flashback in my life and I took millions of trips in the Sixties, and I’ve never met anybody who had any problem. I’ve had bad trips and other people have had bad trips, but I’ve had a bad trip in real life. I’ve had a bad trip on a joint. I can get paranoid just sitting in a restaurant. I don’t have to take anything.

Acid is only real life in Cinemascope. Whatever experience you had is what you would have had anyway. I’m not promoting, all you committees out there, and I don’t use it because it’s chemical, but all the garbage about what it did to people is garbage.

John Lennon, 1980
All We Are Saying, David Sheff

Riding So High – The Beatles and Drugs

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Although unconfirmed, it is possible that The Beatles’ first encounter with cocaine came on 8 December 1961.

A rock ‘n’ roll singer named Davy Jones was booked to play at Liverpool’s Cavern Club, followed by an evening show at the Tower Ballroom in New Brighton, Wallasey. The Beatles backed him on both occasions, in addition to performing their own sets.

Far from widespread in England in 1961, at the time cocaine was nevertheless used recreationally by small numbers of people. One person who unwittingly partook was Bob Wooler, the Cavern’s DJ. It was not a pleasant experience for him.

We didn’t have a strong drug scene by any means. Originally, it was just purple hearts, amphetamines, speed or whatever you want to call it. When The Beatles went down south, they sometimes brought back cannabis and gradually the drug scene developed in Liverpool. There was a rare instance of cocaine when Davy Jones, a black rock ‘n’ roll singer who’d been with The Beatles in Hamburg, appeared at the Cavern. He was a Little Richard/Derry Wilkie type, very outgoing and bouncy. His big record was an oldie, Amapola, and its lyric about the ‘pretty little poppy’ must have appealed to him.

Alan Ross, who was a local compère, brought Davy down to the Cavern, and that was when I had cocaine for the first and only time in my life. I told Davy Jones about my sinuses, and he said, ‘This’ll clear it.’ Alan Ross gave me a smile of approval, I tried it… and nearly hit the roof. There was laughter galore, and I rushed out into Mathew Street, trying to breathe the effects out. I remember Pat Delaney saying, ‘What’s wrong, Robert?’ and I said, ‘Nothing, I’m just a bit giddy.’ The Beatles welcomed Davy Jones with open arms, so I’m sure the drug-taking didn’t stop with me. That is the common factor with The Beatles – whatever was going, they wanted to be a part of it.

Bob Wooler
The Cavern, Spencer Leigh

Later in the 1960s, Paul McCartney was the first Beatle to regularly use cocaine. He is said to have been introduced to the drug by London art dealer Robert Fraser, and used it during the time Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was recorded.

I did cocaine for about a year around the time of Sgt Pepper. Coke and maybe some grass to balance it out. I was never completely crazy with cocaine. I’d been introduced to it and at first it seemed OK, like anything that’s new and stimulating. When you start working your way through it, you start thinking: ‘Mmm, this is not so cool an idea,’ especially when you start getting those terrible comedowns.
Paul McCartney
Uncut magazine, 2004

John Lennon, a Pepsi bottle and Wilfrid Brambell in A Hard Day's Night, 1964

At the time cocaine wasn’t widely used or easily available, although it had been fashionable in certain sections of society since the 1920s. During the making of Sgt Pepper Robert Fraser offered them cocaine, heroin, and speedballs – a mixture of the two. Cocaine was the only one of the three that was accepted.

He walked in with a little phial of white powder. ‘What’s that?’ ‘Cocaine.’ ‘Shit, that smells just like what the dentist used to give us.’ To this day, I swear as kids in Liverpool we were given cocaine to deaden the gums. People say no, that will have been Novocaine, but I think that was much later. I recognise the smell from the dentist; it’s a medical smell coke can have. Anyway, that was my first thought about it.

I liked the paraphernalia. I liked the ritualistic end of it. I was particularly amused by rolling up a pound note. There was a lot of symbolism in that: sniffing it through money! For Sgt Pepper I used to have a bit of coke and then smoke some grass to balance it out.

So Robert introduced me to it, and I know the other guys were a bit shocked at me and said, ‘Hey, man, you know this is like, “now you’re getting into drugs”. This is more than pot.’ I remember feeling a little bit superior and patting them on the head, symbolically, and saying, ‘No. Don’t worry, guys. I can handle it.’ And as it happened, I could. What I enjoyed was the ritual of meeting someone and them saying, ‘Have you seen the toilets in this place?’ And you’d know what they meant. ‘Oh no, are they particularly good?’ And you’d wander out to the toilets and you’d snort a bit of stuff. Robert and I did that for a bit. It wasn’t ever too crazy; eventually I just started to think – I think rightly now – that this doesn’t work. You’ve got to put too much in to get too little high out it. I did it for about a year and I got off it.

I’d been in a club in London and somebody there had some and I’d snorted it. I remember going to the toilet, and I met Jimi Hendrix on the way. ‘Jimi! Great, man,’ because I love that guy. But then as I hit the toilet, it all wore off! And I started getting this dreadful melancholy. I remember walking back and asking, ‘Have you got any more?’ because the whole mood had just dropped, the bottom had dropped out, and I remember thinking then it was time to stop it.

I thought, this is not clever, for two reasons. Number one, you didn’t stay high. The plunge after it was this melancholy plunge which I was not used to. I had quite a reasonable childhood so melancholy was not really much part of it, even though my mum dying was a very bad period, so for anything that put me in that kind of mood it was like, ‘Huh, I’m not paying for this! Who needs that?’ The other reason was just a physical thing with the scraunching round the back of the neck, when it would get down the back of your nose, and it would all go dead! This was what reminded me of the dentist. It was exactly the same feeling as the stuff to numb your teeth.

I remember when I stopped doing it. I went to America just after Pepper came out, and I was thinking of stopping it. And everyone there was taking it, all these music business people, and I thought, no.

Paul McCartney
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles

While McCartney’s use of cocaine ended in 1968, the other Beatles were less restrained – notably Lennon and Starr, although their usage peaked in the 1970s after The Beatles had split up.

I had a lot of it in my day, but I don’t like it. It’s a dumb drug. Your whole concentration goes on getting the next fix. I find caffeine easier to deal with.
John Lennon, 1980
All We Are Saying, David Sheff

It has been claimed that the line “He got monkey finger, he shoot Coca Cola”, in ‘Come Together’, is about cocaine. However, since the song’s lyrics are somewhat opaque, it is perhaps unwise to rely too much on conjecture.

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