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The dark side of the acid counterculture movement


It’s all sunshine and rainbows until someone steps one tab over the line. Acid had a huge hand to play in the eternal summer of love that 1960s popular culture seems to be on the surface, but there was a dark side to the psychedelic swirl of tie-dye, universal epiphanies and sonic exploration. When the patent for LSD expired in 1963 there was a three-year period where the drug was legal, and it might not be too hip to opine this, but tales that made criminality seem necessary soon came to the fore. 

Albert Hofmann might have said, “LSD is just a tool to turn us into what we are supposed to be,” and Paul McCartney said it opened his eyes, but the drug wasn’t always administered sensibly once the highwire ways of rock ‘n’ roll were mingled with it. This resulted in some sorry tumbles down dark rabbit holes that stand to show the dark side of counterculture and the acid trips that troubled it. 

Below we’ve collated a few tales from the dark side of the drug and the misuse that led to disastrous trips. From the axe-yielding escapades of Skip Spence to the sadly squandered talents of the incredible Peter Green, these tales, at the very least, should act as portents that promote sensibility. 

Four dark tales from the acid counterculture movement:

Peter Green & Danny Kirwan

Peter Green was the iconic guitarist who trailblazed rock ‘n’ roll blues riffs into scintillating early Fleetwood Mac records and also elucidated that he had the songwriting skills to go along with it in lilting ditties like the beauteous ‘Man of the World’. 

However, he only lasted three albums with the band. Those first three albums had enamoured a European fanbase, and when they embarked on a huge tour, a tragedy befell them in Munich. Green was greeted at the airport by suspicious fans. “John McVie would certainly blame an evening in Germany where Peter took some more drugs and for sure never really came back from that to our recollection,” Mick Fleetwood once recalled.

Guitarist Jeremy Spencer himself has commented on the strange incident, describing the woman who greeted Green as a “model/actress looking girl dressed in black velvet, Woah!” and she was with “this John Lennon looking guy in wire glasses.” They accompanied Green to the gig and watched the rest of the band with a certain disdain before inviting everyone back to “a party at this huge mansion place in the forest.”

Amid a manic psychedelic party in a commune-like mansion, Green descended into the basement and arrived out of the other side “in tears”. In the band’s eyes, he was distraught. Another member of the band present that day was Danny Kirwan; fate also besieged him that night. “Peter Green and Danny Kirwan both went together to that house in Munich,” their one-time manager Clifford Davis recalls, “both of them took acid, as I understand. Both of them, as of that day, became seriously mentally ill. It would be too much of a coincidence for it to be anything other than taking drugs, as of that day.”

Grace Slick

Grace Slick’s adventures with acid may well have resulted in masterpieces like ‘White Rabbit’ and ‘Somebody to Love’ but the brilliance sadly waned towards a darker end to Jefferson Airplane. This unfurled in myriad condemnable ways even though she once said, “Personally, I never freaked out on acid. I didn’t think it could affect you unless you had psychological problems to begin with, and I didn’t.”

While she might opine that, appearing on the cover of Teenset in blackface along with the caption, “Grace Slick and Jimi Hendrix on being black,” would imply otherwise. Furthermore, when police were once called to her house when an “apparently intoxicated man” phoned them to report that “a drunken woman was firing a shotgun in the house,” they encountered a stand-off upon arrival as Slick brandished a shotgun at them and screamed at the cops ordering them to get off her property. 

Ultimately, as per the police report, “officer Bob Rossi was able to wrestle the gun away from her when her attention was diverted,” but the incident hints at an unstable encounter that could’ve been far worse. 

Skip Spence

As a founder of Moby Grape and the beloved drummer on Jefferson Airplane’s debut album, Skip Spence was a trailblazing talent who pushed psychedelia towards lofty heights but sadly his drug-induced mental health issues hamstrung his progress in the industry and led to some harrowing incidents. 

His bright start in music hit hurdles early on when he made an unannounced excursion from touring with Jefferson Airplane to travel with some groupies to Mexico. Before long he was kicked out of the band for other such incidents and returned to work with Moby Grape. However, while recording their second album Wow, Spence flew off the handle when he was under the influence of LSD and smashed through his bandmate’s hotel room door with an axe and began swinging it at them before they managed to apprehend him. 

As his bandmate Jerry Miller recalls: “Skippy changed radically when we were in New York. There were some people there that were into harder drugs and a harder lifestyle, and some very weird shit. And so he kind of flew off with those people. Skippy kind of disappeared for a little while.” 

Thereafter, Spence was sectioned and while in a mental institution he wrote his only solo album OAR. As the legend goes, he left the facility in the dead of night, dressed only in his pyjamas, hopped on a motorbike and drove to a Nashville recording studio to make the record. Sadly, this is his only solo outing as after his Schizophrenia diagnosis, his personality is said to have changed. As his friend Peter Lewis said of his demise: “He was helpless in a way in terms of being able to define anything or control his feelings.”

Syd Barrett

When it comes to the late Syd Barrett, the soundbite on his legacy is that he shone like the sun as his former Pink Floyd bandmates once sang, and then fizzled out as the effervescent wave of psychedelia was destined to do so — with a bad trip and a lengthy comedown.

Pink Floyd formed in 1965 with Barrett at the helm. By January 3rd 1968 David Gilmour had accepted a try-out to replace him. And a few weeks later, Barrett was in the front row of a gig at the Imperial College in London, almost motionlessly watching his old college friend play his licks.

What happened in those short three years is hardly better understood than what has followed. There are tales of him being endlessly spiked by hanger-on’s that don’t seem to have any evidence at all. Other stories of him locking a girlfriend in a room for three days and feeding her the occasional biscuit under the door are also contested and seem to be more of an assimilated tale to paint a picture of his outbursts and outsider artist ways. In short, nobody really seems to know, and even the uncorroborated reports just seem to be a way to define his murky narrative. 

What is certain is that, by 1968, he could no longer function in the band. He would sometimes stand on stage without moving a muscle, just standing stock still while the others tried their best to function as a three-piece. All the how’s? Why’s? And what’s? are simply best ascribed to the only befitting narrative that doesn’t require any impossible detective work – it was the sixties, man.

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