Saturday, January 5, 2008

Friday, January 1, 1960

To fathom hell or soar angelic
Just take a pinch of psychedelic.

--Dr. Humphry Osmond, in a 1957 letter to Aldous Huxley (quoted in Acid Dreams, by Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain, Grove Weidenfeld, 1985, p. 55)

According to John Tobler's book, This Day In Rock (Carroll & Graf, 1993, p. 6), Johnny Cash gave the first of his many free concerts at Folsom State Prison, Folsom, California, on January 1, 1960. He continued to give these free concerts there and elsewhere (San Quentin, for instance) in the years after; eventually these concerts would be recorded and become the basis of hit albums in the late 1960s. At five years, six months, and a few days old on New Year's Day, 1960 (I was most likely tucked into bed long before midnight on New Year's Eve, unless we'd gone to my paternal grandparents, who lived about two blocks away, to celebrate) I'd heard neither of the singer nor the prison--at least that I can remember. By this date, Cash had, a few years earlier, had a hit record with "Folsom Prison Blues" (recorded 1955, released as Sun 232 early in January 1956), but the song was inspired not by his experience or knowledge of the actual Folsom State Prison, but instead by the Hollywood movie Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison (1951), which, according to most accounts, Cash had seen while stationed in Germany in 1953 as a member of the U. S. Air Force. Art had inspired art.

In 1973, slightly over an unlucky 13 years later, Dr. Timothy Leary, one of the primary advocates of psychedelic drugs and a figure forever associated with the tumultuous 1960s, would be imprisoned at Folsom State Prison and became one of its most infamous inmates, certainly as infamous as another inmate also incarcerated there at the same time, and a figure also indelibly associated with the 1960s, Charles Manson. So, as it turns out, on the first day of the year 1960, Folsom State Prison was poised to become a potent signifier in the decade of the 1960s, a decade that, considered in this light, was not so much about "peace, love, and freedom" but about drugs, violence, and imprisonment, all of which find their emblems in Johnny Cash (whose drug problems have been well-documented), Folsom Prison, Timothy Leary, and LSD-25 (declared illegal in 1966). Moreover, as Lee and Schlain observe in Acid Dreams, LSD itself is duplicitous, as it has been used "both as a weapon and a sacrament, a mind control drug and a mind-expanding chemical" (Acid Dreams, p. xxi).

The year 2008 represents the 70th anniversary of the discovery, by Dr. Albert Hofmann, of lysergic acid diethylmide, popularly known as LSD-25, a drug which would influence--and change--so many lives in the second half of the twentieth century, including, especially, Dr. Timothy Leary, whose life took a big swerve after being introduced to LSD around 1960. Dr. Hofmann discovered the drug while working at Sandoz Pharmaceuticals in Basel, Switzerland, in 1938. His 1938 discovery was shelved at the time, but retrieved by Hofmann five years later, and in April 1943, he ingested a dose of the drug and experienced an hallucinogenic experience, later immortalized in "psychedelic rock" (or rock music which used electronics to aurally simulate an hallucinogenic experience) in psychedelia such as the British band Tomorrow's "My White Bicycle."

By January 1, 1960, however, drug researcher Dr. Humphry Osmond (pictured above) in a 1957 letter to Aldous Huxley, had already coined the term "psychedelic" to describe the effects of hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD-25, a neologism suggesting "mind manifesting." (See the epigraph to this blog entry.) It was under Dr. Osmond's supervision that Aldous Huxley first ingested mescalin, on 4 May 1953, at Huxley's home in Hollywood (around the time Johnny Cash saw Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison?) I hadn't even been conceived at the time Huxley took mescalin, although I had been by the time Huxley published The Doors of Perception, early in 1954, philosophic speculations prompted by his drug-taking experiments. I suppose I'm attracted to these dates in part because my birth, in late June 1954, occurred about four months after Huxley had published The Doors of Perception and about two weeks before Elvis Presley, while at Sun Records, recorded "That's All Right (Mama)." A little over a year later, Johnny Cash would record "Folsom Prison Blues."

What, then, was the link between drugs (and, especially, halluncinogenic drugs) and rock music? How and why did these two independent developments converge in the 1960s?Certainly drugs had been a part of the jazz scene for decades (Charlie Parker's addiction has been well-documented, and Louis Armstrong was a life-long smoker of marijuana), and perhaps became part of the rock scene through the interaction of jazz and (what would become) rock musicians. But rock musicians would seem to have been drawn to hallucinogenics, perhaps because they were perceived as more contemporary and perhaps because they were associated with the philosophic speculations of authors such as Aldous Huxley. Moreover, drugs such as mescalin (and therefore hallucinogenics in general) were associated, rightly or wrongly, with Native American ritualistic practices, and hence perceived as more "authentic" (in the Modernist mind associated with the "primitive") as opposed to the inauthentic, civilized (industrialized) world.

Serendipitously, the two movements converged in 1960, in the form of The Gamblers' 45 rpm single issued that year, "Moon Dawg," which contained, on the flip side, the instrumental "LSD-25."

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