Eight Miles High
I was fifteen in early 1966 when I heard Dylan sing, “Something’s happening, and you don’t know what it is…” He sang with an authority and conviction that convinced me he possessed some Great Secret. I didn’t know what was happening, but wanted to find out in the worst way. I stared at Bob’s face on the cover of Highway 61 Revisited, but he wasn’t telling. Neither were the Beatles, whose curiously elongated faces on the cover of Rubber Soul heId similar impassive looks.
Life Magazine in March – “LSD -the exploding threat of the mind drug that got out of control,” followed by Newsweek: “LSD the mind drug” gave me a major clue. I’d never seen or touched a drug in my life, but somewhere deep in me I knew –this was the Great Secret my rock and roll heroes were hiding.
Psychedelic drugs were only part of something greater – a whole social movement, the counter culture. It didn’t even have that name yet, but I’d already embraced it, as an escape from a conventional world that had never had any use for me, nor me for it. LSD might have only been a part of that movement, but it was the perfect metaphor for what we were after –magic means to transport us far away from our origins, out of a society that rejected us and into our bodies. Drugs, and sex, but also Eastern religion, and the pacifist tenets of Ghandi, the food and customs of other cultures. And of course rock and roll.
Early that summer I saw the Byrds at an outdoor concert. With Woodstock three years away outdoor rock concerts were still in their infancy. No one knew quite how to do them, or promote them. So I found myself standing in the front row of a tiny crowd before a stage that was just some boards on the ground, naked to the sky.
In that magical time you could go to a concert and the warm-up act was a band you’d never heard of, and they’d be great. In this case it was the Youngbloods, with Jesse Colin Young’s sweet clear voice and a guy named Banana at the keyboards grinning under a head of the craziest hair I’d ever seen. After hearing them I got their first record and was a fan for life.
But like everyone else I’d come to hear the Byrds do “Mr. Tambourine Man,” whose chiming electric 12-string guitar and angelic harmonies had pushed a button in my pleasure center the moment I heard it. What would it feel like hearing that live?
The author, summer of ’66
Something else made me a fan of the Byrds – their leader McGuinn’s appearance. His hair was a similar color and waviness to mine. If my father and teachers would just let me grow it, I might look like him . But they didn’t let me. What they couldn’t stop me from doing was wearing a pair of the little tinted glasses McGuinn wore onstage, – ostensibly to protect his eyes from the lights. But I knew better. Those glasses signaled that though I was far from taking any drugs, I was already in on another part of the Great Secret – that Jim and I and all the other kids fighting with parents to grow their hair were different. Not the bad different we’d felt growing up outside of crew cut football culture, but good different. And we were going to live different, better lives.
I never got to hear the Byrds play “Mr. Tambourine Man.” A few songs into their set McGuinn announced, ‘We’re playing a new song…” looking over at David Crosby, and for an instant I saw a little conspiratorial smile break their impassive faces, and I thought – What’s the secret?”….Eight Miles High.” Oh. THE secret.
An angular flurry of notes tumbled out of his twelve-string electric. And though I’m sure he was just concentrating on playing this clearly difficult part, it looked to me like he was almost afraid, as if the guitar were playing him, and he might lose control of it and it would fly away. My eyebrows crept up my face. They sang in those heavenly voices, and it all came together. They were singing about tripping on LSD. They – standing not ten feet from me – had taken LSD. For all I knew they were tripping right now. I was far from the conscious thought, but somewhere in me I knew then that I too would one day be tripping.
The band was loud. The thunder was louder. I looked up to see black clouds boiling down on us from the mountain above and felt the sting of cold raindrops. This was shortly after someone had been electrocuted in a storm at an outdoor concert in Europe. The Byrds unceremoniously threw down their precious guitars and fled as the sky opened up.
Though I was a couple of years away from dropping acid, magical thoughts appeared in my brain, the likes of which I would later find commonplace among acidheads in ’68 as the 60s took their final lurching turn into general hallucination. I read pathetic fallacy into those storm clouds. Some God was either striking down the blasphemy of a bunch of rockers daring to storm heaven with some illicit drug. Or else He was approvingly punctuating the moment, for my benefit. I never heard the Byrds do “Mr. Tambourine Man,” but my disappointment melted into wonder, in the promise that that Great Secret would someday be revealed to me. And so it was. I got eight –or was it 80? – miles high. I also got about 8000 miles low, but that’s another story.
Six years later, long after acid had raged like that thunderstorm briefly through my life, my band opened for the Byrds at our college, Wesleyan. It was my first time before a big crowd, first time opening for rock legends. Through the first couple of songs my hands felt frozen on my guitar, my throat sealed shut as I attempted to croak out lyrics. But then we hit the Dead’s “Know You Rider.” I felt the hometown crowd stir, heard them yelling, “Oh, yeah!” I felt their energy enter me and started to send it back, amplified from my hollow-body Gibson…
This time it was our set that was truncated – not by a storm wielded by the hand of some mysterious God, but by our manager who appeared at the edge of the stage shouting, “Off the stage. Right now.” I started to argue. He grabbed me by the neck and hauled me away.
I stood at the back of the hall, nursing my anger as they launched into a dreary, dispirited set. McQuinn was the only original member of the band. He gave no conspiratorial asides, just looked sad. The band as a whole seemed enervated, barely moving as though suffering the leaden gravity of some alien planet. It reminded me of how it felt after tripping on acid – the world appearing drab as though all the color had been leached from it. I had no idea if it was years of drugs that had them so tired, or if their performance was just an expression of the general hangover from the 60s.
As I listened I thought – Hey, we might be green, but at least we were trying. I gave up on the music and stalked into the dressing room and demanded an explanation from our manager. He pointed across the room to a short guy in a suit, the Byrds’ manager, “Talk to him.” I stalked over, ready to give him a piece of my mind. “How could you…” He cut me off. “You didn’t get offstage fast enough!” He scowled. “I’ve worked with the biggest names in the business. I’ve managed Jefferson Airplane. Don’t even think of fucking with me. You’ll never work in this business again.”
I shrunk in horror, for in his face for an instant I’d glimpsed another face–with a maw lined with a thousand bloody fangs, bulging greedy eyes, and myriad spiked tentacles waving from its forehead, eager to pierce the heart of every hopeful dreamer with a guitar. That was no acid flashback. Just my first glimpse of the true face of…the music business. I’d have plenty of time later to stare down that demon.
By the next day I’d forgotten all about it, when a friend handed me the school paper with a big smile. The article on the front page crowed about how we’d upstaged the once great band.