If you are turned on to the senses, you tune in to the play of energies—light, sound, air, pressure that continually bathe your sense endings. The world is alive and pulsating.
—“Affirming Humanness,” The City of San Francisco Oracle Nov. 9–20, 1966
The words “high” and “psychedelic” both alluded to something more far-reaching than a state that you could only induce by chemical means. It was one thing to get high, but another trip entirely to be high. Turning on was one thing, being turned on another, and being turned on all the time was, to many, a fuzzy if exalted possibility. Drugs pointed the way to an expanded state of consciousness, a fluidity of thinking, a loosening of intellectual, sensory and spiritual boundaries in which you could discover connections between ordinarily unconnected ideas and images and experience soaring transcendent states. You could also take your senses to their farthest outer limits and on, beyond the twilight zone. While the world became a psychedelic environment to a person under the influence of mind-altering drugs, to someone who was truly high in the most expanded meaning of the word, life could be an endless trip in a borderless, multi-dimensional universe.
Bob Weir of The Grateful Dead said, “Then there were the drugs, of course, but I’m not sure that they had as much to do with it as legend would hold . . . .We weren’t all stoned all the time. But we were all artists, musicians, and freaks all the time. I wasn’t stoned for all that much of it—and I was very much part of the scene. The drugs were there, and they were visible, like the frosting on a cake. On a cake, all you can see outwardly is the frosting, but the cake has a shape and mass, the great bulk of which is not the frosting.”
Various art forms and sensory stimulants sprang up to offer fodder for psychedelicized senses. Intensity was the name of the game, the better to trip all the circuits and break all boundaries—right down to your sense of self as separate from the rest of humanity and creation, within your individual body and brain.
One method was to make your senses go blotto. Freaks floated in isolation tanks (also called sensory deprivation tanks) atop skin-temperature water loaded up with enough salt to keep a human body effortlessly aloft. Such flotation devices were situated in completely dark, soundproof chambers that shut out all stimuli unencumbered by any outer interruptions. Neural firings could unleash some amazing thought processes and hallucinogenic pyrotechnics on their own steam, without any pharmaceutical or herbal enhancement.
Many took sensitivity training to attune their lesser-used senses to the most subtle stimuli. This often involved touching or tasting things while blindfolded. Jello and room temperature cooked spaghetti were two favorites, so squishy and sensual. A more emotion-oriented exercise involved being blindfolded and led on “trust walks” by a seeing-eye partner to fine-tune your sense of touch, your intuition, and to surrender your feeling of safety to the care of another person.
However, the most common modus operandi of the high life was to blast your senses to kingdom come with the wildest, brightest, loudest, most watted-up and scrambled combinations of colors, sounds, scents, textures and flavors ever to assault a synapse.
Senses in a Blender
One of the experience that many aimed for was to scramble up the senses so that one blended with another. In neurology the condition is known as synaesthesia, in which one or more senses become aligned. Many experienced it on LSD. A small percentage of people are just made that way. Natural-born synaesthetes (from the Greek syn– “union,” and aisthanesthai “to sense, or perceive”) most often see a specific color when they hear a musical key, chord or note. Some see colors associated with numbers, days of the week or letters. Other synaesthetes taste or associate a tactile feeling with sounds or colors. Each synaesthete experiences sensory overlaps and connections in his or her unique way; there are no standard-issue connections. Synaesthetic musicians have idiosyncratic associations. To Schubert, E minor was “a maiden robed in white and with a rose-red bow on her breast,” and for Beethoven, B minor was “the black key.”
Duke Ellington’s form of synaesthesia was particularly sensitive. “I hear a note by one of the fellows in the band and it’s one color,” he reported. “I hear the same note played by someone else and it’s a different color. When I hear sustained musical tones, I see just about the same colors that you do, but I see them in textures. If Harry Carney is playing, D is dark blue burlap. If Johnny Hodges is playing, G becomes light blue satin’” The Sixties saw two musical synaesthetes in particular who described imagery in their song lyrics. Bob Dylan told Ron Rosenbaum in an interview for Playboy that that all major keys are about romance, while minor keys deal with the supernatural. C major represents both strength and regret, A-flat major expresses renunciation, and confidence is to be found in E major. Jimi Hendrix used music to express color, form, and the myriad structures of the cosmos with a fluidity matched by few. He envisioned a purple chord, E7#9 (dubbed “the Hendrix chord” by some guitarists) that he employed in the song, “Purple Haze.” In his evocative song, “Axis: Bold As Love,” colors embody characters with potent personalities. Lee Lamb told me about Roger McGuinn (in The Byrds at that time), “McGuinn has a color system. A equals red, B equals brown-green, C equals deep green, E equals blue, F equals violet, D equals leaf green—sun going through leaves. Many musicians I know are like that.”
Head shops were drug-oriented sensory supermarkets, starting with groundbreaking stores in San Francisco and quickly morphing into a cottage industry of privately owned, but almost generic-looking stores across the nation.
An early shop was The Magic Theater for Madmen Only, run by Mike Ferguson of The Charlatans. He sold Victoriana, cigarette papers and smoking paraphernalia—along with marijuana that he supplied on the QT. A prototype for head shops was The Psychedelic Shop. In early January, 1966, brothers Ron and Jay Thelin opened for business. They sold books about psychedelics, spiritually-oriented books, hand made candles, rock concert posters and tickets, prisms, Indian block print bedspreads, camel bells, and an ever-changing selection of exotic items to enliven the senses.
After a brief but memorable run, the Thelins closed up shop in October, 1967, the closing coinciding with the Haight Street event, “The Death of the Hippie.” Said Ron, “We gave away everything. It seemed to us that people were adopting the lifestyle as a matter of style, without any thought going into why they were doing it. Without real purpose.”
He was right. Soon virtually any city you could enter such dens through a beaded curtain. Inside you would find cigarette papers, water pipes, bongs, roach clips and other devices for smoking pot and hash. They inevitably featured peacock feathers and hand made craft items such as strings of beads, God’s eyes, macramé, tie-dyed clothing, leather sandals, belts, headbands and beaded pouches, and colorful candles. Decals, buttons and bumper stickers with marijuana leaves, 3-D images and double-speak drug messages proclaimed your beliefs. There were eye-poppers such as lava lamps, kaleidoscopes, prisms, blacklights and day-glo posters. There might be record albums of acid rock bands. Incense, patchouli oil, and scented massage oils nudged your nostrils. Imported goods from India were always present: block print bedspreads, brass bells, embroidered cotton clothing and jangly tribal jewelry. McPsychedelia: over one million swerved.