Tuesday, May 24, 2016

50 Years Ago – The Beatles in L.A.

For their tour of the west coast in 1965 (the tour that ended it all), The Beatles rented a home owned by Zsa Zsa Gabor at 2850 Benedict Canyon, Beverly Hills. Here they gained a status like that of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, god-like, like the Pope or the Dali Lama, and they were visited by the rich, the famous and the elite. It was in this house that the Beatles first experimented with LSD. 

George Harrison: I had a concept of what had happened the first time I took LSD, but the concept is nowhere near as big as the reality, when it actually happens. So as it kicked in again, I thought, 'Jesus, I remember!' I was trying to play the guitar, and then I got in the swimming pool and it was a great feeling; the water felt good.

Among the visitors were Eleanor Bron, who appeared with The Beatles in Help!, Roger McGuinn and David Crosby of The Byrds, and Daily Mirror newspaper journalist Don Short.

Roger McGuinn: There were girls at the gates, police guards. We went in and David, John Lennon, George Harrison and I took LSD to help get to know each other better. There was a large bathroom in the house and we were all sitting on the edge of a shower passing around a guitar, taking turns to play our favourite songs. John and I agreed Be-Bop-A-Lula was our favourite '50s rock record. I showed George Harrison some Ravi Shankar sounds, which I'd heard because we shared the same record company, on the guitar. I told him about Ravi Shankar and he said he had never heard Indian music before. You can hear what I played him from The Byrds' song Why. I had learned to play it on the guitar from listening to records of Ravi Shankar.

Harrison has stated, however, that it was David Crosby who first mentioned Shankar's music. Though the Kinks and the Yardbirds also experimented with the sitar at the time, the Beatles Norwegian Wood ("This Bird Has Flown"), which was recorded just a month later, was the first western song released that featured this instrument. Indian music and LSD were key influences in the changes in The Beatles' music between 1965 and 1968. The drug, in particular, played a pivotal role in the group's studio experimentation for Revolver and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

John Lennon: We still didn't know anything about doing it in a nice place and cool it and all that, we just took it. And all of a sudden we saw the reporter and we're thinking, 'How do we act normal?' Because we imagined we were acting extraordinary, which we weren't. We thought, 'Surely somebody can see.' We were terrified waiting for him to go, and he wondered why he couldn't come over, and Neil [Aspinall], who had never had it either, had taken it, and he still had to play road manager. We said, 'Go and get rid of Don Short,' and he didn't know what to do, he just sort of sat with it. And Peter Fonda came, that was another thing, and he kept on saying, 'I know what it's like to be dead.' We said, 'What?' And he kept saying it, and we were saying, 'For chrissake, shut up, we don't care. We don't want to know.' But he kept going on about it. That's how I wrote "She Said She Said..." Paul felt very out of it 'cause we were all a bit cruel. It's like, 'We're taking it and you're not.' We couldn't eat our food. I just couldn't manage it. Picking it up with the hands, and there's all these people serving us in the house, and we're just knocking it on the floor - oh! - like that.

According to George Harrison, he and Lennon had decided that the other Beatles should experience LSD, which they had previously taken in London sometime between March and July 1965.

George Harrison: John and I had decided that Paul and Ringo had to have acid, because we couldn't relate to them any more. Not just on the one level - we couldn't relate to them on any level, because acid had changed us so much. It was such a mammoth experience that it was unexplainable: it was something that had to be experienced, because you could spend the rest of your life trying to explain what it made you feel and think. It was all too important to John and me. So the plan was that when we got to Hollywood, on our day off we were going to get them to take acid. We got some in New York; it was on sugar cubes wrapped in tinfoil and we'd been carrying these around all through the tour until we got to LA.

Paul wouldn't have LSD; he didn't want it. So Ringo and Neil took it, while Mal stayed straight in order to take care of everything. Dave Crosby and Jim McGuinn of The Byrds had also come up to the house, and I don't know how, but Peter Fonda was there. He kept saying, 'I know what it's like to be dead, because I shot myself.' He'd accidentally shot himself at some time and he was showing us his bullet wound. He was very uncool.

Although McCartney was wary of the experience, Starr embraced it enthusiastically.
I'd take anything. John and George didn't give LSD to me. A couple of guys came to visit us in LA, and it was them that said, 'Man, you've got to try this.' They had it in a bottle with an eye-dropper, and they dropped it on sugar cubes and gave it to us. That was my first trip. It was with John and George and Neil and Mal. Neil had to deal with Don Short while I was swimming in jelly in the pool. It was a fabulous day. The night wasn't so great, because it felt like it was never going to wear off. Twelve hours later and it was: 'Give us a break now, Lord.'

Despite the general party atmosphere, police and security were stationed around the house to keep fans away. 

George Harrison: I was swimming across the pool when I heard a noise, because it makes your senses so acute - you can almost see out of the back of your head. I felt this bad vibe and I turned around and it was Don Short from the Daily Mirror. He'd been hounding us all through the tour, pretending in his phoney-baloney way to be friendly but, really, trying to nail us. Neil had to go and start talking to him. The thing about LSD is that it distorts your perception of things. We were in one spot, John and me and Jim McGuinn, and Don Short was probably only about twenty yards away, talking. But it was as though we were looking through the wrong end of a telescope. He seemed to be in the very far distance, and we were saying, 'Oh fuck, there's that guy over there.' Neil had to take him to play pool, trying to keep him away. And you have to remember that on acid just a minute can seem like a thousand years. A thousand years can go down in that minute. It was definitely not the kind of drug which you'd want to be playing pool with Don Short on. 

Later on that day, we were all tripping out and they brought several starlets in and set up a movie for us to watch in the house. By the evening, there were all these strangers sitting around with their make-up on - and acid just cuts through all that bullshit. The movie was put on, and - of all things - it was a drive-in print of Cat Ballou. The drive-in print has the audience response already dubbed onto it, because you're all sitting in your cars and don't hear everybody laugh. Instead, they tell you when to laugh and when not to. It was bizarre, watching this on acid. I've always hated Lee Marvin, and listening on acid to that other little dwarf bloke with a bowler hat on, I thought it was the biggest load of baloney shite I'd ever seen in my life; it was too much to stand. But you just trip out. I noticed that I'd go 'out there'; I'd be gone somewhere, and then - bang! - I'd land back in my body. I'd look around and see that John had just done the same thing. You go in tandem, you're out there for a while and then - boing! whoa! - 'What happened? Oh, it's still Cat Ballou.' That is another thing: when two people take it at the same time; words become redundant. One can see what the other is thinking. You look at each other and know.

And so it goes. The Beatles' music was mired in LSD-oriented psychedelia from then on, from "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" (the title's acronym a mere coinkydink?) to "I'm Only Sleeping," though the granddaddy, the be-all, know-all of psychedelia is of course "Tomorrow Never Knows," a veritable kitchen sink of every trick in the book: the tonal Indian drone, tape loops, vocals through a revolving Wurlitzer speaker, distorted up-close mic-ing in the instrumentation - and a bag of chips. "Tomorrow Never Knows" has no equal in the genre, indeed has no equal throughout the Beatles canon, anyone's canon for that matter. It was John of course, but the backward guitar solo belongs to Paul, along with the incessant and mesmerizing drum pattern. The lyrics were inspired by the Timothy Leary tome The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Lennon stated that he wanted it to sound like a "group of Tibetan Monks chanting on a mountain top." 

Lennon wrote "Tomorrow Never Knows" 50 years ago this month. I don't think one is ever the same after hearing this song; it remains as freshly spacey as it did 50 years ago.