The Brown Acid is Bad, But We’re Doing the Rumba


 Cary Grant’s third wife, who introduced him to LSD, was known at her all-girls’ school for her good looks and rumba skills.

                    Obituary of Betsy Drake, The Washington Post

Night fell at Woodstock and as I stumbled around Max Yasgur’s farm I began to feel disoriented.  I knew I was an Egyptian God, either Hathor or Sekmet, I wasn’t sure which, since the acid had only kicked in about a half hour ago.  But why, I had to ask myself–since I was, after all, all-knowing and all-seeing–couldn’t I find the restrooms?


I tripped over a couple of couples in a sleeping bag–then suddenly everyone stood up.  Jimi Hendrix was playing the Star Spangled Banner, and now it was even harder to find my way.  I started to panic–my breath grew short–I seemed to be able to see everyone’s pores, and it wasn’t pretty.

I’d gone to the brink on acid before, lying supine on the stairs at my parents’ house, watching the stucco swirl like a maelstrom, making me think that an entire interior wall was going to come crashing over me.  I’d managed to calm myself then because I was in familiar territory, but I was beginning to fear that the noise and crowds of the greatest rock festival ever would send me into a death spiral of paranoia.

And then I saw her–an angel of mercy, a vision of Apollonian order in a sea of Dionysian chaos.  If only, I thought, if only I could reach her, she’d be the life preserver I needed to hold onto until the universe stopped rotating around me.


“Excuse me,” I said, loudly enough to be heard over the screeching guitars but not so forcefully that I frightened her.

She turned and looked at me, her eyes limpid pools of serenity.  “Yes?” she said with a curious smile.

“I was wondering . . .”  I hesitated.

“Go on,” she said.  “Don’t be afraid.”

“I . . . was wondering if I could join your rumba line.”


I was one of the lucky ones, one of the select few who’d won the lottery to participate in Dr. Timothy Leary’s ground-breaking experiments with lysergic acid diethylamide.  My status came with some serious hip cachet among Harvard undergrads. Where other guys needed years of WASP inbreeding and old money to go crazy, I would become a madman simply by ingesting a little pill.  No muss, no fuss, no Thanksgiving dinners with the family to drive me nuts!

Leary:  “I’m thinking of a number between one and banana.”


I had to sign a lot of release forms before they’d give me my dose, but I didn’t care.  I’d read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and listened to the Grateful Dead’s terrible second album, Anthem of the Sun.  If I could handle that kind of insanity, I was ready for anything.

The nurse came in with two little paper cups, one containing a gulp of water, the second, my ticket to enlightenment.  I reached to take them from her but she drew them back sharply.  “There’s one more thing you have to do first,” she said with a dispassionate, hyper-clinical tone.

“What’s that?” I asked eagerly–I was in a hurry to see the Godhead, dammit!

“I need to measure you for one last variable,” she said, as slipped a 45 rpm record onto the spindle of a cabinet stereo system.


“What’s that?”

“I’m going to put on Tea for Two by Xavier Cugat,” she said.  “I need to measure your eye-hand cha-cha-cha coordination.”


We were sitting in Clem’s basement, four of us.  High school rebels with a cause–we were going to become experienced with hallucinogenic drugs.

Clem knew a dealer in Kansas City who’d assured him that what we would be taking was the purest Owsley acid, the stuff used by the cool kids on the West Coast.  Sure it might be cut with strychnine, or speed or baking soda, but so what? Baking soda is used to make chocolate chip cookies, and also to power the cool submarine I got out of a Rice Krispies box when I was a kid.  So it had to be safe.

baking soda sub

Each of us had asked his girlfriend to come along as his “safe trip partner”–somebody who could drive us to the emergency room if we started to freak out.  It was almost saintly, the sacrifices these young women had made for us; giving up a night of driving around the strip, stopping for hamburgers, Susie-Q french fries and vanilla cokes, then going to a slumber party and playing with cootie-catchers.

Donna was to be my druggy Florence Nightingale–a tall brunette who’d been with me all the way as I advanced from lime vodka to 3.2% beer to malt liquor to Jack Daniels Green Label.  Now I was going to take the ultimate step, entering a world unknown to “normal” consciousness.  I’d report back to her when I was done, but I doubted that she would want to follow me into unknown dimensions.  It could seriously interfere with her responsibilities as head cheerleader if midway through “Two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar,” she started screaming “Please make the evil spiders go away!”

“Are you ready?” I asked her.  She glanced nervously around the room, her white eyeshadow glowing beneath the black lights.


The four girls hesitated–I hoped they weren’t going to chicken out on us.  Maybe they’d try a “scared straight” intervention and we’d end up doing nothing but sitting around and eating the munchie food, like any other Saturday night, instead of exploring the outer limits of the universe.

“We think before you guys take this step,” a blonde named Beth began.

“Yes?” Clem asked, a hint of anger in his voice that our dates would drop something on us at the last minute, possibly bumming our trips.

“We think,” Donna began hesitantly, “you guys should probably do the Bunny Hop with us for a little while first.”

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