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Remembering The Who guitarist Pete Townshend’s near-death experience from LSD

Rising to prominence in the height of the 1960s psychedelia, British band the Who were no strangers to experimentation. The introduction of newly popularised psychedelic drugs like LSD influenced everything from fashion to music. The Who even dabbled in a bit of trippy discography in their witty way with their 1967 “concept album” The Who Sell Out. But while frontman Roger Daltrey stayed sober, further establishing his role as the “Dad of the group,” other members—specifically Pete Townshend— often had wild, and even dangerous, experiences.

In 1967 Townshend had begun a spiritual journey, quickly absorbing all of Meher Baba’s writings that he could find, and soon after, became an official disciple. With the aid of religion and a few hallucinogens he had experimented with, Townshend created a story inspired by Baba and his teachings of enlightenment that eventually turned into the band’s rock opera, Tommy.

During the height of San Francisco psychedelia and other summer of love shenanigans, Townshend was certainly part of the action. But during his fourth time trying LSD, things weren’t so enlightening as before. After the Who performed their iconic set at Monterey Pop Festival on June 18, 1967, the band, along with Townshend’s wife Karen, boarded their plane back to London. When they settled in, large purple pills were passed around by band members Keith Moon and John Entwistle, supplied by audio engineer, underground chemist, and a key figure in the hippie movement, Owsley Stanley.

While lead singer Roger Daltrey and Entwistle declined the pills, Moon grabbed one, and not wanting him to do it alone, Townshend and his wife split one—that’s when things turned strange. “After 30 minutes, the air hostess, whose turned-up nose had made her look a little porcine, transmogrified into a real pig, scurrying up and down the aisle, snorting. The air was full of faint music… I finally traced the sound to the armrest of my seat,” remembered Townshend. 

He added, “After putting on a headset, I felt I could hear every outlet on the plane at the same time: rock, jazz, classical, comedy, Broadway tunes, and [Country & Western] competed for dominance over my brain.”

While his other bandmates remained seemingly unphased around him, he continued to spiral further into the psychedelic abyss. “I heard a female voice gently saying, ‘You have to go back. You cannot stay here.’”

“But I’m terrified. If I go back, I feel as if I’ll die.”

“You won’t die. You cannot stay here,” said the voice.

“As I drifted back down toward my body,” Townshend recalls, “I began to feel the effects of the LSD kicking back in. The worst seemed to be over; as I settled [into] the experience, though extreme, [it] felt more like my few trips of old: everything saturated by wonderful colour and sound. Karen looked like an angel.”

After this experience, Townshend delved further into his religion, penning an article for Rolling Stone magazine in 1970 and stating that because of Baba’s teachings, he was opposed to the use of all psychedelic drugs. This bold declaration made him one of the first counterculture rock stars to turn against their use of drugs, something he would later go back on in his struggle with harder substances in the ’80s. But whether they accept it or not, the Who certainly played a massive part in popularising the psychedelic revolution, whether through music, or their infamous stories.