Relationship Between Hallucinogenic Drugs, Psychedelic Music, Sixties Counterculture

12. listopadu 2010 v 23:08 |  60´s - souvislosti

"Girl we couldn't get much higher" crooned Jim Morrison in his hit song "Light my Fire," a phrase that aptly summarizes the experiences of many members of sixties counterculture, musicians and fans alike. Since music was first being recorded, drugs and the music industry have gone hand and hand. The first major incidence of drug usage was with jazz musicians, many whom were heavy heroin users, and some even dealers. Marijuana also played a large role in their music and everyday lives; however, it was not until the sixties that LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs became popular. Music was the driving force behind the sixties peace and love culture that emerged. However, without the drug use of the musicians, this music would not have existed. Hallucinogens not only inspired musicians but also influenced their everyday lives in many ways. Therefore, although there would have still been music, it would not have sounded much like the psychedelic songs we associate with the sixties. Musicians' use of hallucinogens and other drugs induced changes in both the sound and lyrical content of their music, leading to the creation of the psychedelic rock of the 1960s, which subsequently influenced the shape of all rock music to come.

It is difficult to believe that only a decade prior to the emergence of a culture that openly embraced drugs and free love, television aired situation comedies of perfect family life rather than protest, and radio airwaves were dominated by Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley, who at the time were even considered controversial. A very homogenized fifties culture surfaced in response to the resonating fear and suspicion that McCarthyism and the Cold War had ingrained into Americans' hearts (Anderson 13). They were said to have embraced tradition, morality and family values, but despite these depictions of the fifties as the idyllic era, racism had far from disappeared. The principles of fifties life left little room for creativity and originality, thus a group comprised of primarily poets, writers, and musicians developed known as beatniks. Since they had entirely given up on American culture and its materialism, they established a community all their own. They were, for the most part, uninterested in politics and protest, and were more concerned with creative expression and mind expansion. One way in which they achieved this was through drug use, taking hallucinogens before hippies had even come to exist. While their movement was not powerful enough to elicit a revolution of the magnitude that occurred in the sixties, their ideas had a great influence on the cultural icons of the following decade, the musicians.

Race relations in America continued to be shaky, and once the sixties rolled around, the Civil Rights Movement was quick to follow. Laws that provided African-Americans with new rights were widely ignored by traditionalists who continued to perpetuate racist attitudes (Anderson 17). Therefore, protestors were forced to rely upon nonviolent direct action in order to reach their goals. Simply being a part of the movement often meant being threatened and beaten, which led participants to begin to question establishment and to feel alienated from mainstream culture. This sparked the emergence of an American counterculture, which continued to grow as an increasing number of the baby boomer generation became frustrated by the norms, values, and morals placed upon them by established society. In order to rebel they rejected these ideas, and instead adopted the opposing positions, thus standing for everything establishment did not. They grew their hair out and wore outrageous clothing to shock the traditional fifties values that were still prevalent throughout society (Neary). The only criterion for membership in the counter-culture was the identification with ideals outside of the mainstream. Hippies were relaxed and followed the motto "if it feels good, do it," referring primarily to drugs and casual sex (Anderson 133).


Long before LSD became the sixties' drug of choice, extensive research was done about its effects and possible uses. As early as 1931, Brave New World author Aldous Huxley experimented with LSD, and in response wrote The Doors to Perception, which described how hallucinogenic drugs are the key to opening the doors of perception, and predicted that such drug use would jumpstart a worldwide religious revival (Shapiro 137).

For the next twenty years, LSD was tested and studied in order to find practical uses for the drug. In the fifties LSD found a place in the medical world as a psychotherapeutic tool; however, it was soon ruled ineffective. Scientists continued to experiment with it, eventually concluding that there were no practical uses (NIDA). However, as the most potent mood and perception-altering drug in existence, even a small dose of LSD can last for hours on hours. It works by disrupting interaction between nerve cells and serotonin, causing hallucinations in which a person may see, hear or feel things that are not really there (NIDA). They may experience rapid, emotional swings and intensified senses, and, as a result, may experience a phenomenon in which he or she believes to see sounds, feel colors and hear images. While trips are usually full of positive imagery and sensations, LSD users must always be prepared for an adverse experience. Bad trips usually consist of "terrifying thoughts and nightmarish feelings of anxiety and despair that include fears of insanity, death or losing control" (Shapiro 130). Although a frequent user may develop a tolerance for the drug, there are no known withdrawal symptoms. Users often credit the drug in helping them achieve a heightened sense of understanding of the world and believe the drug to be a creativity-stimulator. Many of the effects LSD elicits in users are reflected back through the music that they create while high on the drug.

The growth of the sixties music scene was interrelated to the increased use of marijuana and hallucinogens by the youth culture. According to a sixties survey, in 1962 only 25,000 Americans had even tried LSD, but just four years later, at the end of 1965, this number had reached nearly four million. Seventy percent of them were high school or college age (Shapiro 139). The American youth used drugs as a form of rebellion and a way for them to assert their defiance of societal norms. In 1964, the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco became "the meeting place for those opposed to American culture and mainstream ideals, and the cornerstone of this counter-cultural position was rock music" (Shapiro 134). After experiencing a vision of a world of peace and love during a psilocybin mushroom trip, beatnik poet Allen Ginsberg coined the term "flower power" to encompass this idea. The term soon came to symbolize sixties counterculture as a whole (Brewer).

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As the sixties progressed, LSD became more and more readily available. In the mid-sixties Owesley Stanley, known to many as the 'king of acid', became the primary distributor of top-grade acid, and developed very close ties with the music scene (Shapiro 137). He was known for his generosity with the drug and would provide it for author Ken Kesey's notorious Acid Tests in San Francisco. The LSD was then diluted into Kool-Aid and distributed among attendants. It was these events that brought LSD the most exposure. Often, if they felt like playing, the Warlocks (who later changed their name to the Grateful Dead) and other musicians would perform during the tests (Brewer). The music served as a background for the stoned experience, and the entire experience was a forerunner to that of the rock festival.


The Human Be-In at Golden Gate Park represented the next step for psychedelic rock. On January 14, 1967 the concert brought together LSD pioneers, Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg, twenty thousand attendants, and amazing performances by, just to name a few, The Grateful Dead, Steve Miller Band, Jimi Hendrix and headliners Jefferson Airplane (Anderson 95). Since by this time LSD was illegal, and Owesley Stanley believed that it was a drug for the people, he donated 100,000 tabs just for the festival (Shapiro 140). Everyone in attendance formed a sense of community with one another as they listened to the music and got stoned. The Be-In also brought exposure to LSD; its reputation as a drug of peace and love soared in response, and it became considered an integral part of rock festivals. Many West Coast acid rock bands were able to launch their careers through the event, and the record labels were quick to sign them.


The Be-In brought psychedelic rock musicians in contact with one another and with record companies. What had just years before been background music to Kesey's Acid tests had now become a popular genre of music that the music industry was anxious to get their hands on. As the headliners of the festival, Jefferson Airplane was already signed to RCA and had released an album. In 1967, they released their album After Bathing At Baxters, which explicitly refers to acid trips and RCA was eager to reap profits from the drug related songs. Jefferson Airplane had also scored chart hits with their acid hits "White Rabbit" and "Somebody to Love." The Doors were recognized as one of Los Angeles' top acid bands and were soon signed to Elektra. Not too long after the release of their first album, their psychedelic hit "Light My Fire" reached number one on the charts.

Another band that reached popularity after the Be-In was The Byrds, who soon signed a record deal as well. In 1968 Byrd's David Crosby openly admitted that he had been using LSD for the last four years and that most of the time he played high, and that he always wrote high, referring to both LSD and marijuana (Shapiro 140). However, with the record companies' interest in psychedelic rock and its increasing popularity "many [bands] merely jumped on the bandwagon, adopting fashionable psychedelic names and creating drug atmospheres through judicious knob-twiddling in studio, but within the standard three and a half minute format" (Shapiro 142). While these bands may have been noticed during the initial hype that built up around psychedelic rock after the Be-In, soon after their names fell from mention. Today the bands and musicians that are remembered are those that truly made an impact on the listener as well as society.

13th floor

While not as well known as some of the other artists associated with psychedelic rock, an analysis of the movement would not be complete without mentioning the 13th Floor Elevators. They were one of the pioneers of the Texas psychedelic rock scene, which partly explains their more cult status, since the music is primarily associated with, but not restricted to the West Coast. Their album Psychedelic Sounds of 13th Floor Elevators, released in 1966, was the first true psychedelic album ever to be released, and they appear to be almost advertising acid use to the listener with it. Their LSD inspiration on the album is clear to the listener before ever even playing the album. Lyricist Tommy Hall explains the album's purpose on its sleevenote:

"Recently it has become possible for man to alter his mental state and thus his point of

view.....he can then restructure his thinking and change his language so that his thoughts

bear more relationship with his life and problems, therefore approaching them more

sanely. It is this quest for pure sanity that forms the basis of the songs on this album. !

(Shapiro 143)

Thus, through LSD use, one may alter his or her way of thinking and language so that it aligns directly with his or her life and problems. After this introduction, Hall outlines how each individual song on the album pertains to a specific step in this process of LSD-induced reevaluation of self (Doz).

Their song "Roller Coaster" off the Psychedelic Sounds album can be seen as "a spellbinding 5-minute travelogue with adventurous tempo changes and lyrics that define psychedelia" (Doz). An excerpt from the lyrics is as follows:

After your trip life opens up

You start doing what you want to do

And you find out that the world that you once feared

Gets what it has from you

Hall's straightforward message is saying that "you have to open your mind," and the way for you to open your mind is through use of hallucinogens. Therefore, in a way he is urging the listener to do so as well. Despite their immense influence on other psychedelic rock bands, 13th Floor Elevators do not receive the recognition they deserve.


Acid-rock cannot be mentioned without an image of Jerry Garcia synonymously appearing in one's head. Once the Warlocks moved away from their Acid Test days, they changed their name to Grateful Dead in order to signify a change in playing style. They became more experimental, playing free-form rock (Shapiro 142). The Grateful Dead were different from other bands in that they were primarily a touring community, traveling back and forth across the country in an acid haze. Since Dead performances were very improvisational and all the players were often high on acid, their shows would go on for hours and hours. In fact there have been occurrences where the promoter has pulled the plug on one of their extremely long sets, so the band has just gone somewhere else and played for another few hours (Gates). While they were one of first bands to arrive on the scene, they were one of the last to finally enter the recording studio, eventually signing to Warner Brother's (Shapiro 142). They set out to recreate the aspects of their live performance in their albums, and became widely known for music that was notoriously drawn out and clearly influenced by acid use. One example, "Dark Star", is a twenty-four minute acid-rock masterpiece, which is a far step away from the standardized three to five minute song format utilized by most musicians. Since the Grateful Dead was surrounded almost entirely by people using psychedelic drugs while touring, this is reflected in the music that they created; therefore, some of their material from the sixties is rather difficult to listen to when not under the influence (Brown).

Considering how short-lived Jimi Hendrix's career was, the amount of influence he still emanates today is amazing. In just a short time he was able to cross-genres and play a variety of music styles, as well as earn a reputation as of one of the greatest guitar players of all time.
After performing at the Human Be-In, his fame quickly escalated him into the status of celebrity. Hendrix's music had a variety of influences, but it was no secret that he would ingest LSD tabs by the handful, so it is no surprise that this is reflected in his music. His entire Are You Experienced? album is focused around the psychedelic experience itself. The lyrics of the title track imply the importance for first time LSD users to have someone experienced with them for guidance (Whiteley). In "Love or Confusion", psychedelic elements exude from Hendrix's music. By using endless feedback, unusual sound effects and distortion, Hendrix places the listener into a state of incoherence similar to that of the music. All of the elements of the song combine to create an anarchic effect that in turn mirrors the transgression from reality that occurs during hallucinogenic experience (Whiteley).

Perhaps one of the most famous depictions of an intense acid trip is Hendrix's "Purple Haze". Purple haze is a specific form of LSD that acid distributor Owesley created distinctly for the star. The lyrics to the song are very straightforward and reflect Hendrix's own experience with the drug:

Purple haze all in my brain

Lately things just don't seem the same

Actin' funny, but I don't know why

'scuse me while I kiss the sky

Purple haze all around

Don't know if I'm comin' up or down

Am I happy or in misery?

What ever it is, that girl put a spell on me

Through the song's simple, recurring melody Hendrix reflects how the mind functions while on acid, and he uses repetition to cause the listener to become absorbed into the music as they would be in an acid trip. His guitar playing combined with the song's pulsating rhythm evokes the experience of a powerful trip in itself (Whiteley). Unfortunately, drugs played too extreme of a role in his life and took him away far too early, but the legend he left behind is unforgettable.


Unlike many of the bands associated with the psychedelic movement, LSD came into the lives of the Beatles after they had already reached mainstream popularity. During John Lennon's first acid trip he started drawing and perceived George Harrison's house as a giant submarine in which they all lived (the inspiration behind "Yellow Submarine"). However, Lennon soon became obsessed with acid and took hundreds of trips (Shapiro 140). In the same vain as Bob Dylan, the band's drug adventures began to appear in their music.Songs off their albums Rubber Soul and Revolver told these stories to their listeners. "Nowhere Man" examines the inner mental workings of the individual as revealed by psychedelic drugs and "She Said, She Said" was written about a conversation that took place between Lennon and actor Peter Fonda while on acid (Shapiro 140).

The popularity of LSD extending internationally can be largely accredited to the Beatles. When the drug was first introduced, it was largely confined to the counterculture of Haight-Ashbury, and then spread gradually throughout the country with the help of touring rock musicians. Therefore, in 1967, when the Beatles released the immensely successful Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, LSD references were spread throughout the world through the music and Paul McCartney openly admitted to LSD use in a magazine interview, saying: "It opened my eyes. It made me a better, more honest, more tolerant member of society" (Shapiro 142). With the release of Sgt Pepper came the song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds", a song that's relationship to LSD has been debated time and time again. While it seems like an unlikely coincidence, most sources conclude that the title was purely accidental. However, this does not stop fans from listening to the song and formulating their own evaluation of it. While many of the Beatles albums were positively influenced by LSD use, it was Lennon's obsession with it, as well as other drugs, that led to the band's collapse.

Members of the counterculture truly believed that through peace, love and chemicals they would be able to change the world into a better place. They held onto these ideas, but as the times began to change, it became evident that life could not be this way forever. Already by 1967, Haight-Ashbury was witnessing the beginnings of the speed and heroin epidemic ("1967"). Riots between policemen and hippies ensued the following year, and violence began to overcome 'flower-power' as culture's new form of resistance ("1967").

the who

However, the decade was not over yet, and in 1969, The Woodstock Music and Art Fair was held in New York. Around half a million fans joined performers including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Joan Baez, The Who, and The Grateful Dead on a one thousand acre farm for three rainy, drug-filled days ("Woodstock"). Despite the massive crowd, no violence ensued and an unrivaled sense of community was created. The experience allowed people to expose their values and come together, as Janis Joplin expresses: "we used to think of ourselves as little clumps of weirdoes but now we're a whole new minority group" (Anderson 146). Overall, Woodstock created the perfect finale for the sixties and represented a culmination of all of the elements of the counterculture brought together one last time.


Unfortunately, while everyone knew that not every concert could be as community-oriented as Woodstock, the country was not in the least bit prepared for what happened in Altamont, California. The Rolling Stones needed somewhere to play their free show, and the Altamont venue was found last minute. Like at the Human Be-In, the Hell's Angels were hired to be security guards. A crowd of at least 300,000 people showed up, and to make matters worse, poor quality LSD was being distributed throughout the venue. Inevitably the night ended disastrously. There were four deaths total, but the Hell's Angels cannot be blamed (Neary 92). The concert simply should never have happened. It can be said that when Meredith Hunter died (after being stabbed by on of the guards), the spirit of the sixties died as well (Shapiro 147). With the sixties officially over, the seventies witnessed a crack down on drug use. Policemen sought to arrest musicians for publicity and record labels dropped drug-oriented bands. Also, extremely strict drug laws were put into place, so anyone possessing anything more than a small dosage of LSD could get life in prison (Shapiro 156). Rock music saw the loss of some of its most revered icons due to the fault of drugs, including Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Janis Joplin. While LSD usage had been on the steady decline since the late sixties, the cocaine craze of the seventies was now in full swing.

Even though the sixties were over, it did not signify the end of psychedelic rock. Almost all rock bands that developed after the sixties have to credit at least some influence to guitar legend Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, the Grateful Dead, or any of the other musical icons of the time. Due to LSD's decline in popularity, newer rock music does not usually blatantly reflect the drug's use. However, bands that borrow from the playing styles of psychedelic artists sometimes unconsciously exhibit psychedelic aspects in their music. Also, some of the original bands from the sixties are still alive and touring today, as well as a remarkable number of cover bands. Up until Jerry Garcia's death in 1995, the band was still touring and performing to sold-out venues of both older generation fans as well as the youth of today (Gates). In addition, psychedelic rock is still being made today by bands such as the Flaming Lips, Wilco, and Modest Mouse. After the end of the sixties, psychedelic rock disappeared underground for a while and then gradually re-emerged into a variety of emo and indie rock bands.

It is literally impossible to make mention of all of the bands who played a role in shaping the psychedelic rock of the sixties counterculture, and it cannot be assumed that all bands that aligned themselves with the culture actually participated in acid use. Sixties music had a considerable amount of influences, LSD being just one among the many. Despite this, it can still be said that definitive aspects of the drug, and its effects on the mind and body, can be heard reflected back in the music of Hendrix, The Grateful Dead, and Jefferson Airplane, just to name a few. While these musical depictions can be very difficult to pick out and can be easily misinterpreted, many of the sixties lyrics, on the other hand, mention acid directly and describe accounts of LSD trips. In addition to all of the overt drug messages, there are even more songs that have a hidden meaning often involving drugs. Therefore, it is likely that there are a number of songs in each of our repertoires that we never would have guessed are actually about LSD.

The counterculture of the sixties faded away very quickly, but some of the most acclaimed and influential music was produced during that short amount of time. While there will always be a relationship between drugs and the music industry, the relationship between the two has never again been this cohesive.

Works Cited

Anderson, Terry. The Sixties. New York: Longman, 1999.

Brewer, Jim. "DRUGS: Cheap Grass And Free Acid." The San Francisco Chronicle 9 Apr. 1987: 25

Brown, G. "Turned-on, tuned-in and dropped-out sounds." The Denver Post 6 Apr. 2003: F-06

Doz, Lama Sivart. "A Quest for Pure Sanity - The Psychedelic Poetry of Tommy Hall." Bulk Magazine Spring 2000

Gates, David. "Requiem for the Dead: Grateful Dead lead Jerry Garcia dies." Newsweek Aug. 21 1995: 46+

Hall, Tommy. "Roller Coaster." Psychedelic Sounds of The 13th Floor Elevators. International Artists, 1966.

Hendrix, Jimi. Are You Experienced. MCA, 1967

Lennon, John, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. Revolver. Capitol, 1966.

Lennon, John, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Band. Capitol, 1966

Neary, John. LIFE THE '60S. Ed. Doris C. O'Neil. Boston: Bullfinch Press, 1989.

Shapiro, Harry. Waiting For the Man: The Story of Drugs and Popular Music. Southampton: Camelot Press Plc, 1988.

Whiteley, Sheila. "Progressive Rock and Psychedelic Coding in the Work of Jimi Hendrix." Popular Music 9.1 (1990): 37-64.

United States. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Hallucinogens and Dissociative Drugs. 2000.

"1967 'Not so much a neighborhood as a state mindlessness.'" Time Magazine 9 Apr. 1987: 25.

"Woodstock." Washington Post 15 Aug. 1979: B1.

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