Sunday, December 04, 2011

“Tuning In And Dropping Out”: The Hippie Culture

I am coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled “American Dreams and Reality: A Retelling of the American Story.” Here, I describe the rise of the hippie lifestyle, its often apolitical nature, and the turn to psychedelic drugs in the 1960s.

After recording two albums of topical and protest songs, Dylan released an introspective album in 1964, “Another Side of Bob Dylan”. The record included love songs and musings of how hard it is to maintain personal integrity in a corrupt world. Bob Dylan’s politically motivated folk fans felt betrayed when he began singing more symbolic, personal songs and especially when he – as they saw it – “sold out” by performing with a rock band. Dylan would reply that he was simply returning to the music he loved and that he didn’t want to be beholden to any particular ideology. In fact, the quest for personal authenticity Dylan pursued at this time was a journey shared by many in the 1960s generation. Many Sixties rebels rejected politics in favor of personal freedom and spiritual enlightenment.

So-called hippies dropped out of mainstream society because they saw nuclear weapons, the Vietnam War, and industrial pollution as symptoms of a sick society poisoned by greed. San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district became America’s most famous hippie enclave, drawing thousands of teenagers and young adults, especially during the so-called “Summer of Love” in 1967. Hippies soon competed with the Golden Gate Bridge as one of the city’s tourist attractions. Thousands of other colonies, however, such as the “The Farm” in South Central Tennessee and the New Buffalo Community in Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico, sprang up across America. Residents in these communes often cooperatively farmed, renounced private property and even shared sexual partners. Hippies embraced instinct over rationality and spontaneity over routine.

Hippies tended to be less educated, less traveled and less focused than the New Left revolutionaries. The hippies focused on genuine emotions and living for today rather than seeking some distant and possibly unattainable political objective. Members of political groups like the Students for a Democratic Society saw the hippies as foolish and self-indulgent, and their dependence on drugs and sexual hedonism as a dangerous distraction.


Marijuana, a natural product, remained the drug of choice in the 1960s, almost as common among young people as beer was among their parents. Yet, if hippies called for a return to nature, much of the ecstasy they experienced came from a laboratory-produced chemical. As noted by historians Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin in “America Divided: The Civil Wars of the 1960s,” D-Lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD as it became more famously known, was invented by the Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman at pharmaceutical firm Sandoz Laboratories in 1943. Hoffman hoped to find a cure for migraines by synthesizing a compound made from rye fungi that he had mixed five years earlier and set aside. While combining chemicals, Hoffman spilled a small amount of concentrated LSD on his fingertips and the substance was absorbed through his skin.

Hoffman hallucinated wildly, experiencing the world’s first “acid” trip. In his diary, he wrote that he experienced a “remarkable but not unpleasant state of intoxication, characterized by an intense stimulation of the imagination and an altered state of the awareness of the world.” Hoffman later recalled “fantastic, rapidly changing images of a striking reality and depth, alternating with a vivid kaleidoscopic play of colors,” a sense-juggling dream state that continued for three hours.

Hoping he would find a practical application for the drug, Hoffman mailed out LSD to the ever-expanding roster of psychiatrists practicing in 1940s America. Psychiatrists in private practice, universities and the CIA experimented with the drug. The CIA, hoping the drug could be used to achieve mind control or as a more effective truth serum, administered LSD to several test subjects without their knowledge. One test subject “ran across a bridge over the Potomac River and went temporarily mad before his colleagues rescued him,” wrote Isserman and Kazin. “Every automobile, he swore, looked like a bloodthirsty monster.”

By the early 1960s, the mass media had discovered LSD and hailed it as a potential remedy for depression, schizophrenia and other mental illnesses. LSD got its greatest publicity boost when Beatle Paul McCartney admitted in an interview taking it and when references to trips began to appear in John Lennon’s lyrics, such as when he urged his listeners to “listen to the color of your dreams” in the 1966 song “Tomorrow Never Knows.” A Harvard psychiatrist, Dr. Timothy Leary, became the chief evangelist for LSD as a means of discovering inner peace and expanded consciousness. Leary received a small sample of Sandoz acid in early 1961 and tested the substance on himself and his Harvard colleagues.

In their 1963 "Harvard Review" article, “The Politics of Consciousness Expansion,” Leary and his research partner Richard Alpert wrote, “The social situation in regard to consciousness-expanding drugs is very similar to that faced sixty years ago by those crackpot visionaries who were playing around with horseless carriages. Of course, the automobile is external child’s play as compared to the unleashing of cortical energy, so the social dilemma is similar.”

Leary believed that the magic of acid was that it could cause users to question social norms and conventional beliefs, a desirable goal in a society warped by racism and violence. In 1961, Leary conducted experiments at the Concord State Prison in Massachusetts. He gave LSD to prisoners and “guided” them through their hallucinations. Leary later claimed it helped the convicts “rethink” the mental “games” that turned them into lawbreakers. Leary famously advised students to “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” Leary’s outspoken advocacy of drug use and his uncontrolled distribution of LSD led to his firing by Harvard and the closing of his Psychedelic Research Project on the campus. Leary moved to Millbrook, an upstate New York estate, where he sought to “create a new organism and a new dedication to life as art.”

One of the first LSD test subjects was future author Ken Kesey, who would later write “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1962), a novel about inmates in an insane asylum that became a cult hit in the 1960s counterculture. Like many who took LSD, Kesey believed that he had found a key to understanding the universe. In the mid-1960s, Kesey led a group that dubbed itself the Merry Pranksters, in winding, acid-drenched bus rides across America. Wanting to celebrate the publication of his second novel, “Sometimes a Great Notion,” Kesey and the Pranksters painted a school bus in Day-Glo colors, installed a first-rate sound system, named it “Further” and zigzagged across the country, from California to the 1964 New York World’s Fair.

Taking not just LSD, also smoking marijuana and popping amphetamines, the Pranksters introduced friendly people they encountered to acid and staged “happenings” – spontaneous events featuring drugs, rock music and light shows. In 1966, the Pranksters started staging “Acid Tests” -- LSD raves -- in the Bay area. (LSD did not become illegal until that year.) The rock band the Grateful Dead, then called the “Warlocks,” provided the soundtrack as psychedelics were passed out like candy. Journalist Tom Wolfe later immortalized the Merry Pranksters’ adventures in the book “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”

After the anecdotes from doctors concerning patients who suffered psychotic episodes after taking acid, Congress convened three hearings investigating LSD use in 1966. The Food and Drug Administration then released a report to the press that cited a few isolated incidents of bizarre behavior from LSD users. In one case, Los Angeles police reported arresting two young men after the pair was seen chewing tree bark while tripping on acid. The report created a national panic, even though it described only four incidents. Research did indicate that approximately two percent of LSD users suffered from serious psychological or emotional side effects from the drug, but a majority of these cases had already exhibited mental illness before LSD use. To some, such risks only lent glamour to LSD. In any case, possession and sale of the drug became a felony on October 6 of that year.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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