by Paul Buhle
Birth of a Psychedelic Culture: Conversations about Leary, the Harvard Experiments, Millbrook and the Sixties, by Ram Dass and Ralph Metzner, with Gary Bravo: Synergetic Press, Santa Fe, 2010, ISBN-13: 978-0907791386, 240pp, pbk, $29.95.
(Swans - October 22, 2012) It was a chilly day in Oakland, c. 1980 (and I was amid a low-cost national tour interviewing octogenarian, ethnic left-wingers for an oral history archive) when a chat with Ram Dass and others, male and female, was interrupted by someone calling out "Let's go to the hot tub!" Too chilly. I experienced a moment of psychic relief, and meanwhile, Ram asked not to be called "Baba" anymore. Gone, already, were the days of the famed LSD-laced Merry Pranksters' 1964 bus ride from nearby La Honda to New York and back, a trip likely to be merged among younger generations with the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour album. A recent documentary film, largely footage taken on the ride, looks indeed like time travel.
Birth of a Psychedelic Culture sends us back on that trip, without the bus or the pharmaceutics, largely through dialogue between Ram Dass (aka Dr. Richard Alpert), retired professor and unretired earth-mystic Ralph Metzner, and Gary Bravo, a psychiatrist still working in Santa Rosa.
If the documentary film goes by too quickly, the book allows us to draw a breath, think more about the fuller cast of characters, including children, and still leave us wondering. A dose of skepticism about the claim that US history changed with the introduction of LSD (the Empire somehow remains central, and so does planet-destroying corporate/military/consumer culture based in imperial demands and the profit system), or whether the leading figures are the stuff of "holy heroism," does not entirely diminish a fascination with the materials at hand. The many photos, spanning forty years, are as intriguing as the text.
So: we go quickly back through the original, early 1960s LSD project at Harvard, Ram Dass explaining his work with Tim Leary, Ralph Metzner, George Litwin, Gunther Weil, Paul Lee, Peggy Hitchcock, and Elsa von Eckartsberg among others adding essentially personal notes. These were supremely well-connected intellectuals (or their wives and protégés), rising big shots in academic life with Harvard post-docs and such, having a big time in an estate in Millbrook, New York. They had prestige and access to funds that make lesser-prestige intellectuals of the time (our professors and our selves) seem totally Out Of It. Then again, the civil rights and peace movements, the impending campus struggles, seem to be a million miles away, as well. The International Federation for Internal Freedom and its heady manifesto of 1963, signed by most of these people and headed symbolically by Alan Watts, was not about the escalating FBI attack on civil liberties but about the right to take any mind-altering drug desired. A different planet, indeed.
This is not to say that the Harvard experiments or the Merry Pranksters had nothing to do with the social movements. But the "elegant world of lithe women and magical men" that Dorothy Fadiman recalls of her visit to Millbrook, getting into the scene and getting laid, seems so distant from the very different excitements to come (demonstrations, agitations, and the women's liberation movement) that it is hard to see the second half of the 1960s in these pages.
Many of the people telling their stories here, women in particular, recall a rough time, with highly unbalanced gender relations that did not make rebalancing, marriage, and children impossible, but mainly delayed. Their stories are revealing and sometimes touching. We emerge from the book with a documentary sense of that very small crowd connecting with the likes of Allen Ginsberg, more indirectly with the Beatles, Acid Rock and...the tens of thousands of us political types who also dropped LSD (for me, a real bummer, though I could appreciate its value for others). Birth of Psychedelic Culture: all and all, it's a good trip, if not one that I'm sorry to have missed.
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About the Author
Paul Buhle retired from college teaching to produce radical comics fulltime. His latest include Studs Terkel's Working, A Graphic Adaptation [reviewed in these pages], The Beats, A People's History of the American Empire (aka an adaptation of Howard Zinn's classic) and a pictorial biography of his childhood hero, The Art of Harvey Kurtzman. His last production (2011) is Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular & the New Land, edited with Harvey Pekar, and reviewed in these pages. (back)