The rise and fall of the 'acid casualty'
Famous cases like Syd Barrett were less about psychedelics than the mainstream depict, but maybe more than the psychonauts are willing to admit
I’ve been fascinated with music’s so-called ‘acid casualties’ since I was about fifteen. Think Syd Barrett, Peter Green, Brian Wilson et al: the group of musicians who took psychedelic drugs - primarily LSD - in the late-1960s and early-1970s, and then developed significant mental health problems, often lifelong and ruinous to their art.
And after Jules wrote about Terence McKenna’s memory-holed bad trip in the late-1980s, I decided to do some more digging around music’s so-called ‘acid casualties’ to see what I could learn. I was struck by what I found. Here is a TL;DR of the basic elements of my case:
The decline of the ‘acid casualty’ term should be welcomed, for it has oversimplified and reified a range of prejudices against individuals whose psychosocial problems have as much to do with the world we live in as their issues with drugs.
Many of these so-called ‘acid casualties’ were also ‘poverty, stigma, police and music industry casualties’.
Some were ‘psychiatric casualties’, too: victims of heavy medication and overzealous doctors in the 1960s and 1970s. Psychiatry and the biomedical model’s broader influence on public opinion has fuelled a culture in which the contextual drivers of psychosocial problems have been ignored and bracketed away.
That being said, there are many more musicians than I’d realised who have developed psychosocial problems partially from the use and abuse of psychedelic drugs - including among musicians who have otherwise been taken as exemplars of their benefits.
The role of ‘predisposition’ is plausible and probably real, but it requires greater elaboration and research and is likely to play an ambiguous role.
Under-explored pertinent factors in serious mental illness involving psychedelics are life and societal stressors, high doses, frequent doses, the dangers of LSD in particular, and traumatic psychedelic experiences.
Whether each factor poses significant risk - perhaps with the exception of LSD’s distinct role, which we need to know more about - strikes me as obvious. More energy should instead be invested in creating well-funded and organised social care systems and better treatments, which have stagnated since the time of the original ‘acid casualties’.
More energy also needs to be invested in cultivating a culture of critical and non-prejudicial sensemaking around psychedelic experience; the changing and anti-prohibitionist attitudes wrought by the ‘psychedelic renaissance’ are welcome, as are recent counter-reactions urging caution.
In contrast, the ‘acid culture’ of the 1960s was toxic, naive and fond of ‘mind fucking’ and spiking. The decline of spiking is obviously to be welcomed, though its missionary impulse lives in latent forms that need further eradicating.
The ‘acid casualty’ meme
Despite the territory gains of the ‘psychedelic renaissance’, it seems that the ‘acid casualty’ meme lives in some form for many people in the broader culture. These stories could play a role in some highly negative attitudes that still surround the drugs. For instance, it’s curious that 2018 British polls found only a tiny portion of the public believe political or business leaders should be allowed their jobs if they’ve ever sampled LSD or magic mushrooms. Even when the use setting is specifically clinical, and no legal change is implied for wider use, support for rescheduling psilocybin is not as confident as proponents had probably hoped.
The ‘acid casualty’ meme no doubt reinforces myths around ‘brain damage’, ‘frying’ from acid, ‘perma-tripping’, and being ‘legally insane’ - as well as accentuating a reductive panic around ‘triggering schizophrenia’. These myths are psychoactive, of course, and appear in people’s trips. In the struggle to sleep and the long comedown, who among us hasn’t felt the twinge: is this shit ever gonna end? These narratives affect how people make sense of under-researched risks like Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder (HPPD) and depersonalisation-derealisation (DP/DR) when they begin manifesting, too. So prevalent are these fears of ‘brain damage’ and ‘schizophrenia’ among those suffering from these maladies, in fact, that I recently wrote a blog addressing the issue for my employer!
The earliest reference I could find to the ‘acid casualty’ phrase was in Changes Magazine from 1974 - a time of acute comedown cynicism towards the 1960s - in a passage that decries a “unique contemporary type: that kind of burnt-out acid casualty who ends every sentence with ‘Man’.” Where or with whom the phrase originated is unknown, but one possible candidate is the late Lee Quarnstrom, a journalist and former Merry Prankster, who is cited in 1977 as having used the phrase to describe his “quondam colleagues in the Pranksters.” Perhaps it goes without saying that the later hatred levelled towards hippies and the 1960s formed a unique rhetorical alliance: embarrassed and disillusioned people ‘who were there’, punks, right-wing conservatives, coastal intellectuals.
Perhaps above all else, the meme has been fed by well-covered stories from the music business, with ‘the cracked ballad of Syd Barrett’ perhaps the most-cited. He’s been nudged into living rooms and conversations for fifty years through Floyd albums like Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here and The Wall, which have altogether sold nearly 100 million copies. He’s been the subject of academic papers, speculative biographies, reams of interviews, and a point of debate for his still-devoted fanbase, which revere a musical output sadly cut short after just three albums by age twenty-four. Last month, Roger Waters appeared on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, with a clip describing ‘the tragic story of Syd Barrett’ scoring nearly two million views. He tells tales and broadcasts big pictures of Barrett in his performances. A new documentary is coming out about him, too.
Despite Syd et al’s designation as ‘acid casualties’ (i.e casualties of LSD) the roles of DOM/STP, cannabis, Mandrax and amphetamine, which are known psychotogens, have been curiously overlooked. Sleep deprivation, exhaustive touring schedules, and the psychospiritual wear-and-tear of the mechanised music business all contributed substantially: a topic I will cover later. You’ll also see later that the stories of Syd, Pete and Brian are far more complicated than you’ve been led to believe.
All we know for sure is that Barrett was basically, by all accounts, a more or less mentally healthy and functional young man prior to summer ‘67. He was funny, fond of practical jokes, sensitive, artistic, attractive, sunny, always with some project on the go. Some have tried to find retrospective clues for a burgeoning and possibly-latent decline, but this post-hoc analysis sometimes leaves much to be desired. Admittedly, Syd’s father died when he was fifteen, and it seems it wasn’t much processed; also strangely under-discussed are his experiences in 1965 with glandular fever, which may have later surfaced to contribute to his exhaustion and fatigue at touring and recording.
Yet Syd’s colleagues in Pink Floyd report a very sudden change over a weekend in the summer of 1967. He had gone truant on a scheduled session with the BBC and was found at a friend’s house barefoot and looking wrecked, likely tripping, before being torn away by managers and forced to play. A boho from the time known as Stash DeRola, the son of the painter Balthus, pins Syd’s issues to a trip in Wales that December, however, which went wrong when an occult ritual ended with Syd stuck psycho-spiritually as a teddy bear.
His assistant June Bolan described a number of ‘acid breakdowns’ Syd suffered that year, including at least one where he was chased by police through a London park; Bolan has also mentioned Syd taking very large amounts of the drug, sometimes daily, in tension with reports from another contemporary who says he didn’t take it that much. Some blame it on STP and DMT, which Barrett sampled while in California with a friend bearing the highly Cantabrigian name of Peter Wynne-Wilson. Quite a few contemporaries testify that Barrett was regularly spiked by his housemates, which they, perhaps predictably, have denied doing. One mutual friend, the writer Jonathan Meades, has described a possible incident of abuse, in which Barrett is alleged to have been locked in a cupboard by different housemates while suffering a bad trip. This has been strongly questioned by those who lived there.
Whatever precipitated the change, by 1971 Barrett was prone to catatonia, confusion, lapses of memory, saying things that didn’t make sense, repeated violent rages, paranoia about aliens, and borderline-stalking his girlfriends. The most striking change can be seen by 1974, when Syd paid a visit to his old bandmates while they were recording Wish You Were Here. Most in the studio failed to recognise Barrett for hours, who was now several stones heavier and had shaved off all his hair, including his eyebrows. Roger Waters was reportedly brought to tears on recognising him. Barrett attributed his drastic change in appearance to eating a lot of pork chops and having a large fridge; contemporaries describe heavy drinking, and one can speculate the prescription of antipsychotics, whose side-effects include weight gain and difficulties speaking and remaining lucid. Indeed, while others have said differently, Barrett’s former manager reluctantly told a journalist in 1978 that Barrett had spent several years in a sanatorium on the authority of his highly concerned mother.
Peter Green and Brian Wilson
There are two famous cases other than Syd: Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, diagnosed respectively with schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder. The more one looks in their stories, the more the role of LSD is broadened and contextualised. Wilson gives occasional interviews and still pours scorn on psychedelics, which he considers his “greatest regret”: they “fucked with [his] brain”, “screwed with his brain” and “shattered [his] mind”, despite providing influence for ‘California Girls’ and many of his songs. He took LSD at least three times, and describes hearing voices a week after his maiden voyage in 1965; there are also reports of him suffering an intense flashback that year in a bookshop. While Wilson made his way through the masterful Pet Sounds, his next project, Smile, was eventually wrapped up amid a growing cascade of strange paranoias: that Phil Spector was controlling him, his house was being bugged, his song ‘Fire’ had caused the fire at a local studio nearby, all accentuated by hash smoking and the ups-and-downs of regular stimulants and barbiturate intake. Wilson is generally considered to have never recovered from this peak, and spent several years in the 1970s lying in bed wracked with depression and addicted to uppers, downers, and fast food.
Before his death in 2021, Peter Green likewise attributed his decline to a trip gone wrong with Owsley’s Orange Sunshine - famously dosed with 270 micrograms of LSD - which prompted a psychotic break. Green’s colleagues in Fleetwood Mac, meanwhile, describe a strange and disturbing experience with LSD at a Munich commune, after which his temperament is said to have changed. Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead, then just a jobbing roadie for Hendrix, was concerned about Green’s increasingly devout religiosity and donning of robes by 1968. A watershed came later in the 1970s when Green threatened his accountant with a shotgun for unpaid royalties, leading to a police raid and a brief imprisonment.
Mythologising ‘the acid casualty’
There are certain myths at play, however. The ‘never the same again’ meme seems to be so powerful that it bends witnesses’ histories and re-shapes surrounding events to corroborate them.
Consider the American Tour in 1967 on which “Syd went mad”. Core symptoms include: standing on stage and refusing to play, playing discordant and ‘crazy’ music, not cooperating with the host of the Pat Boone Show, being catatonic, and not knowing where he was. It could be the effect of a stereotyped ‘madness’, but more plausible is some varying combinations of being actively tripping (which he was frequently in the US), disillusionment with the band and not wanting to be there, joking, or taking the avant-garde music the Floyd were already well-known for a step further (listen to ‘A Saucerful of Secrets from long after Syd left, and tell me this isn’t some equivalent ‘crazy music’!). As suggested by the Barrett biographer Robert Chapman, the famous so-called ‘Mandrax incident’ - in which he allegedly smeared Brylcreem and crushed Mandrax tablets on his hair in a frenzy before a gig - turns out probably not to have happened. I found out recently via Barrett’s friend Ian Moore that the tale of Syd wandering on to an airstrip, and trying to hail down a plane like a taxi, never took place.
Do more digging on Peter Green’s story, and you’ll find the same thing. While Green and Danny Kirwan are alleged to have both become “seriously mentally ill” after taking acid in the ‘Munich LSD Party Incident’, it turns out that Kirwan… may not have been there at all. This is despite the colourful and elaborate story memory-spun by Jeremy Spencer, which is horror-like and sensationalist enough to be reproduced without question in a BBC documentary. How Green, battling “serious mental illness”, could have continued touring and recording with the band for up to a year afterwards, alongside further solo work up till 1972 - not least since he seemed fine to Mick Fleetwood - is not made clear.
A dark mythos around a ‘cult’ at the commune seems likewise to be nonsense. The account of their road manager, Dennis Keane, serves as the main source of the ‘cult’ story, yet Keene acknowledges having been high on LSD himself and subject to considerable confusion: in particular, around his co-trippers that he “didn’t realise were German”, which prompted panic when they began talking to him! Notably dismissed is Green himself, who maintained that he had a profound spiritual experience with LSD at the Commune, which spurred him further to pursue improvisational freedom in music.
Yet while Kirwan, the band’s other lead guitar player - and someone already prone to nerviness and neurosis, it’s admitted - may not have been at the Munich commune with Green, things reportedly came to a head with a later mescaline trip in California. Joined this time by the band’s slide player Jeremy Spencer, according to Mick Fleetwood the mescaline effects “seemed to last far longer than they should have” for the duo, causing Kirwan’s anxiety problems to debilitate over time together with relentless touring. Kirwan became dependent on booze, lost his shit backstage in 1972, left the band, became homeless, and died a few years ago.
Spencer, meanwhile, went AWOL during his mescal paranoia. Convinced of an imminent earthquake, or some equivalent apocalypticism, he came across a group of beatific-looking hippies jabbering about Jesus on the street. These hippies were the disciples of the embryonic Children of God: a cult in whose child-abusing and deeply-deranged bosom Joaquin and River Phoenix and their siblings were raised. No doubt hyper-impressionable (or ‘neuroplastic’), Spencer - already deeply into Christianity, like Green, through his previous psychedelic trips - joined the cult on the spot, left Fleetwood Mac, and is still a member. His children, who managed to escape, have placed the blame thoroughly on the drugs for their dad’s very strange decision.
Another case often cited is Skip Spence, who played with the San Francisco bands Moby Grape, Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service, who took some LSD with a local witch and some old man they’d begun revering and tried to cut off his bandmate’s head with an axe to save the world from the Anti-Christ. Spence spent six months at a mental hospital and was diagnosed with schizophrenia, before declining further and spending much of his later life homeless and addicted to hard drugs.
Then there was the 13th Floor Elevators, perhaps the most illustriously transcendental group of fuck-ups who’ve ever come out of Texas. The band was supervised by Tommy Hall, a svengali philosophy major fond of Nixon, who insisted that they take LSD every time they pick up an instrument. While he and his bandmates scrambled for money to eat, Hall kindly handled the cash himself and spent it on sheets of LSD.
Come the end of the 1960s, and Hall was eating cockroaches and convinced that: Dylan was talking to him through his records, his much younger adolescent girlfriend was mind-fucking him through the colour of her clothes, the state of Texas was the New Jerusalem, and his bandmates, despite their increasingly awful trips, needed to take more LSD to learn why their trips were so awful. In the ‘70s, Hall eventually went to live in a cave, got imprisoned for dealing, and was found distributing LSD to children outside a school. Hall is still around and ‘still psychedelic’. He spends his time working on an astrological-astronomical-mathematical theory of everything that doesn’t make much sense to other people, alongside complaining about the ‘fag agenda’ and the sub-evolutionary consciousness of Black people.
You thought I was done with the Elevators? One of their drummers, John Ike Walton, took LSD only twice in 1966 and took/takes Lithium for his ‘“paranoid schizophrenic” condition’. Putting the speed and heroin addiction and early death of their guitar player Stacy Sutherland aside, by far the biggest disaster of the band was Roky Erickson, Hall’s impressionable teenage disciple and co-tripper. Erickson took LSD hundreds of times between 1966 and 1969, and how and when his psychosis came about isn’t known for sure. A turning point probably came in 1968, when Roky went on a road trip to Texas from California. He’d been bingeing on speed for three weeks, and later took the probably insensible decision to consume an estimated ten tabs of LSD, dosed with as much as a thousand micrograms each.
“Anyway, when he took the acid he really went into a bad way”, a friend commented. “From there until we got to El Paso he was hugging himself and holding his arm and hitting on his arm and telling the demons to get out of his body.”
He was soon diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and subject to involuntary electroshock and Thorazine prescription. After being arrested for the possession of a joint the following year, Erickson pleaded insanity to avoid a ten year jail sentence and was held in a mental hospital for five years, during which he faced more aggressive psychiatric treatment - and formed a band there called the Missing Links, among whose ranks Roky was the only one who hadn’t committed murder.
If you’re curious, I’ve compiled a list of everyone for whom I have found some evidence of mental health and social problems of varying lengths partially stemming from psychedelics, together with footnotes of sources and additional reading.
How To Change Your Mind on The Sixties
There are some big bands on that list. Seriously big bands. Even a partial role played by psychedelics in these breakdowns should prompt some revision in how we’ve come to understand their larger cultural effects. I expect many of you knew it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows - that Barrett and Manson were also in the cast of characters -, but I expect you didn’t think it was this bad.
In any history of LSD, I believe these ‘acid casualties’ should have a mention. Yet How To Change Your Mind made no reference - not even to Charles Manson’s Family, which I’d have assumed was low-hanging fruit. Perhaps this is to be expected, since the documentary made no mention of a raft of other safety concerns, including Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder (HPPD), depersonalisation-derealisation, or even the abuse episodes surrounding the MAPS clinical trials.
Indeed, in our popular imagination about the 1960s, we usually tie LSD to spiritual awakenings, California ballrooms, or The Beatles making Sgt. Pepper. And while we see an explicit distancing from that time by scientists and corporadelic leaders - self-christened as the sober-minded ‘adults in the room’ -, I don’t see enough reckoning or criticism of the real darkness nested within the ‘60s: the culture of ‘acid fascism’ and the supremacy of the ‘turned on’, very regular spiking (which affected many of the musicians on that list and beyond), idol worship, cults, drug-fuelled social decay, and other unsavoury practices.
The counter-corporate tendency to view the ‘60s as a time when psychedelic dialogues were more ambitious should be viewed with suspicion, too. Rick Doblin claimed to me that “psychedelics were banned not because they were going wrong, but because they were going right.” Yet to simplify the 1960s LSD movement as an awakened, artistic challenge to the Nixon administration is its own revisionist history.
Mental hospitals were already admitting LSD psychotics by 1965; come 1967 and 1968, and centres like the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic were teeming with bad trips and mental health crises. Later commentators retrospectively called the LSD explosion an ‘epidemic’ and a ‘plague’. I’m tempted to find the answer somewhere in the middle. The sheer waste of talent in the list makes for a bonafide cultural tragedy.
Take a listen to Syd Barrett’s ‘See Emily Play’, recorded at the precipice of his breakdown and the peak of his powers, and compare it to the jumbled chaos of ‘Maisie’ four years later, or his sub-teenage noodling come 1974, when he made his last recorded attempt at music-making. Try out Peter Green’s ‘Green Manalishi’, Skip Spence’s ‘War In Peace’ and ‘All Come To Meet Her’, or Craig Smith’s ‘Ice and Snow’ and ‘Knot The Frieze’, all peaks never re-ascended. Listen closely to the famous arpeggios of ‘Maggot Brain’, or the manic spiritualism of the Elevators’ ‘Rollercoaster’ and ‘Levitation’. Try out Ace Kefford’s ‘Oh, Girl’, found on his lost album from 1968, abandoned as his psychic crisis grew intolerable - or, even better, watch his effluent charisma with The Move, performing ‘Night of Fear’ on stage. So much wasted for so little.
After the pay-wall - this week’s most interesting and useful links on ecstatic and psychedelic risks, ethics, and harm reduction. A lot of ketamine news this week! Into the Ketaverse…
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