The word psychedelic entered the English language in 1957, courtesy of British psychologist Humphrey Osmond. In a paper he was presenting at a conference of the New York Academy of Sciences, Osmond described his own experiences with mind-altering chemicals, such as LSD and mescaline. Dissatisfied with the judgmental terms that his profession typically used to describe such drugs, Osmond came up with psychedelic as a more neutral descriptor, and the name stuck.
Psychedelic drugs remained in the cultural background, the sole province of discreet, professional, scientific research, until 1963. That year, it became widely known that two Harvard psychology professors, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, were giving controlled doses of LSD to graduate student volunteer subjects. Leary and Alpert were engaged in legitimate research, and the LSD (short for lysergic acid diethylamide) had been obtained legally and with government permission. Harvard deemed the project irresponsible, however, and fired both men on the grounds of unprofessional conduct.
Freed from the constraints of academia, Leary became a vocal advocate of the use of LSD to expand human consciousness. He was perhaps best known for his pithy admonition to young people: “Tune in, turn on, drop out.” By the middle of the decade, many had heard of Leary's advice—and quite a few had taken it. LSD and other psychedelic drugs, such Page 237 | Top of Articleas psilocybin and peyote, came to occupy a prominent place in the youth culture that developed in the 1960s and continued into the 1970s.
One of the focal points for what became known as the counterculture was San Francisco, especially the city's Haight-Ashbury district. An area of traditionally low rent and bohemian lifestyle, “the Haight” attracted many young people who were in search of new experiences, whether chemical, sexual, or social. Although they sometimes referred to themselves as “flower children” or even “freaks,” many adults began to use the term hippie, a word that eventually grew so imprecise that it was often used to refer to anyone who looked, dressed, or acted unconventionally.
MUSIC, BOOKS, AND ART
An important aspect of the scene was the music, especially the variety that became known as psychedelic music or acid rock—so named because listening to it could supposedly simulate the experience of a hallucinogenic “trip” without the use of chemicals. Psychedelic music was characterized by extremely high volume, deliberate electronic distortion, the use of synthesizers, extended instrumental improvisations or jams, and the addition of Eastern instruments, such as the sitar, to the traditional rock instrument repertoire. The accompanying lyrics tended to emphasize mysticism or drug references. Some of the more successful acid rock bands included Jefferson Airplane, Iron Butterfly, Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Grateful Dead, and the British bands Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. Other musical groups, while not usually identified as psychedelic, sometimes recorded songs that fit the mold—such as the Beatles' “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” Strawberry Alarm Clock's “Incense and Peppermints,” and the Jimi Hendrix Experience's “Purple Haze.” Scottish folk singer Donovan had a hit record with “Mellow Yellow,” which extolled the mind-altering properties of dried banana peels.
Nor was any other aspect of 1960s and 1970s culture left untouched by psychedelia. The publishing world produced such books as Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception (1954) and Carlos Castaneda's three-volume Teachings of Don Juan (1968)—the former a paean to the mind-expending aspects of hallucinogens, the latter an account of the author's initiation, at the hands of a Yacqui Indian guru, into the mystical dimensions of peyote.
Films were also quick to cash in on the psychedelic scene. In 1967 Roger Corman, a director best known for his series of horror movies based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, brought The Trip, starring Peter Fonda, to audiences. A year later, the Beatles' animated film Yellow Submarine was released. Its kaleidoscopic imagery and outrageous use of color hinted at, for some, the surreal experience of an LSD trip.
The world of art was also affected. Psychedelic artists employed glaringly bright colors and unusual shapes to evoke the visual experience that came from the use of mind-altering drugs. The work of Isaac Abrams is notable in this regard, and some of Andy Warhol's paintings also show a psychedelic influence. A number of illustrators also adopted the psychedelic style, especially for display on concert posters and the covers of record albums. Some of the better-known work was produced by R. Crumb and Rick Griffin, but the most successful of the psychedelic illustrators was Peter Max. Born in Germany, Max lived for a time in China and Israel before coming to the United States to study art. He had achieved modest success as an illustrator by the mid-1960s, but in 1967 his career really began to take off. Max's bold, colorful designs graced products from posters to shirts to clocks to lamps. In 1968 his posters alone sold more than one million copies.
By the mid-1970s the psychedelic era was over, its LSD and acid rock replaced by cocaine and disco. Although a brief attempt at revival took place in the late 1990s, it was no more than an exercise in nostalgia. Occasionally, psychedelic influences still pop up, as in the solo music released by rock musician Noel Gallagher after 2009, but such efforts seem to be isolated to individuals rather than heralding a new cultural movement. The psychedelic era was a product of its time, and, for better or worse, that time is unlikely to come again.
Henke, James; Parke Puterbaugh; Charles Perry, et al. I Want to Take You Higher: The Psychedelic Era, 1965–1969. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1997.
Hicks, Michael. Sixties Rock: Garage, Psychedelic, and Other Satisfactions. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.
Stevens, Jay. Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987.
Watts, W. David, Jr. The Psychedelic Experience: A Sociological Study. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, 1971.