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The Varieties of Religious Experience: Scenes from the Acid Conference

December 9, 2009
by Don Lattin
psychedelic colors

The following excerpt is adapted from a chapter of the new book by Don Lattin ‘76 called The Harvard Psychedelic Club. It unfolds in the summer of 1966, when icons of the psychedelic movement like Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert still have one foot in the Academy; Leary still looks the part of the Harvard prof and Alpert has yet to reinvent himself as Baba Ram Dass. For his part, the theologian and scholar Huston Smith is beginning to have second thoughts about the whole strange scene.

It would be the first-ever West Coast LSD conference, a five-day program to be held on the Berkeley campus. In addition to Huston Smith, the religious scholar who was an early leader in the East Coast psychedelic club, the event would feature a talk by Timothy Leary, the former Harvard psychology professor who was rapidly becomming “the high priest of LSD,” and an address by Beat bard Allen Ginbserg entitled “Consciousness Politics in the Void.” At the last minute, however, university officials on the Berkeley campus began worrying about the revolutionary tone of the conference. Richard Baker, who had organized the event (and would go on to become Baker-Roshi, the abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center), compromised, agreeing to remove Ginsberg from the program although the radical gay Jewish poet came anyway and hung out all week. Baker also agreed to move the program from the Berkeley campus to a less official venue in San Francisco.

A pre-conference party was held at a mansion in Marin County, the woodsy suburb across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. About two hundred people gathered on the grounds and around the swimming pool, where the hosts hoped to provide some appropriate music.

They hired the Grateful Dead.

Paul Lee, one of the conference organizers, surveyed the scene and could hardly believe his eyes. There were all sorts of people in the crowed- grandfathers, grandmothers, parents, children, teenagers- and many of them were running around naked. Augustus Owsley Stanley III, the underground LSD chemist, was adorned in a powder blue jumpsuit and handing LSD to anyone who wanted it. He spotted Lee, a large man and walked up to him.

“Wow, man,” Owsley said. “You have such a friendly and familiar face.”

Lee, who does not suffer fools gladly, replied with something between a smile and a smirk. “Yeah, I know, man,” he replied. “I was born that way.”

Owsley tried to press some LSD into his new friend’s hand, but Lee declined. He had to give a talk at the conference the next morning. Plus it was fun enough to just watch all the antics.

Everyone was standing around by the pool, coming onto the acid and waiting for the Grateful Dead to start playing. Then one of the hosts took the microphone and announced that the ownder of an adjacent horse stable were about to call the police unless everyone moved their cars. They were blocking their driveway. There was a great groan from the crowd, like the moan of a tired elephant seal. Everyone was ready to just lay back, trip out, and tune in to the Grateful Dead. Lee was terrified that the whole conference was going to fall apart right there. People would stumble into their vehicles and, if they could get their keys into the ignition, start running into each other like a giant game of bumper cars. Then the police would come and throw them all in jail. Lee thought to himself, This is the test. If everybody gets up and moves their cars without incident, we are going to get through this week. Miraculously, everyone got up and moved their cars in an orderly fashion. They returned to the backyard, lay back, and the band played on.

The conference at the University of California offices in San Francisco went on as scheduled but it was all too far-out for Hudson Smith, the MIT philosophy professor and ordained Methodist minister. He’d come to San Francisco not with flowers in his hair, but with a well-reasoned paper called “The Religious Significance of Artificially Induced Religious Experience” intended for a reputable academic conference. Now the distinguished philosophy professor was getting tired of the circus surrounding the psychedelic scene. What had been going on back east was bad enough. But this West Coast scene was out of control. There were bacchanalian rites, and they were going down on an unprecedented scale. It was downright Dionysian.

From The Harvard Psychedelic Club by Don Lattin; Copyright 2010 Don Lattin. Used with permission of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
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