B.B. King died last week. This is a strange tribute, I know, but nonetheless a tribute. At a turning point in my life, the great bluesman pulled me from the abyss.
PSYCHEDELIC HORROR ALERT
February, 1969, Freshman Year, Wesleyan University
It was Saturday night around ten thirty. I bought a hit of acid from a guy down the hall. Later –too late – I would hear that there was something wrong with that batch. Too strong, or maybe poisoned.
It came on fast and strong, bearing down like a train. I wandered the dorm halls looking for someone who was still awake. I heard music followed it into a room of strangers. The Beatles’ “Glass Onion, ” John Lennon’s creepy report from the other side of 1000 LSD trips. When the downward guitar slide came I felt my spirit sliding right with it, towards the edge of some precipice. I’ve never been able to listen to that song since.
I got in bed and tried to go to sleep. The moment I closed my eyes my vision exploded into a kaleidoscope of dark, roiling diamonds that rearranged themselves in sync with my pulse, sucking me towards the void. I opened my eyes before I was lost. It didn’t seem possible, but the acid kept getting stronger.
The words looped in my mind –I’m freaking out, freaking out. The decades have softened the punch of those words, eroding their meaning, until today you hear – “I got to my car and freaked out when I saw a parking ticket! “ “I freaked out when she showed up in that pink dress!” – from people who, bless them, know nothing of its origins.
Let me tell you about freaking out.
I leapt from bed and ran out into the night down a path at the bottom of a canyon sliced through the snow of a week ago. A zero degree wind breathed death in my face.
I stood in the door of Dope Central. For a moment my sprits rose at the sight of Clem and Ira. Friends! But as I looked at them I went down the chute again. With identical brown Afros and full beards, they looked like twins even when I was straight. Now I saw twin insectoid devils, the ends of their mustaches nozzles that squirted a steady stream of curlicues and periwinkles scything off into the incensed gloom of their den, humming in time with my pulse as they flew.
I said, “I’m going crazy.”
Clem opened his proboscis. His voice buzzed like an electric razor. “No you’re not.”
He handed me a pipe. “Here, this will mellow you out.”
The grass didn’t mellow me out. It just turned up the red and green patterns teeming over every surface of the room to vermillion and chartreuse.
I said, “I’m going crazy.”
Clem looked annoyed. He couldn’t exactly send me out in that bitter cold.
But I wasn’t going to be much fun. His face lit up. Crazy. Perhaps there was fun here after all. “How about a little music?”
He put on the second side of the Procol Harem album “Shine on Brightly.” It’s filled with a suite entitled “In held (sic) twas I.” A first person account of a descent into madness, some of it sung and some spoken, against a musical background that runs the gamut from rock to circus music.
I heard a Hammond organ and was instantly transported back to when I was ten and by mistake tuned the TV into a soap opera, “The Edge of Night.” Some dismal apartment where it was always dusk, where the gloom pressed down on the inhabitants, hunching their shoulders down, collapsing their faces into perpetual frowns. They barked at each other in endless argument, though they agreed on one point – life was hopeless. As the scene climaxed that organ swelled –Stay tuned! Back in just a minute, with another round of misery.
I lurched back to the present. The organ was gone. A voice narrated, telling of a pilgrim’s audience with the Dalai Lama. The pilgrim asks, “What’s the meaning of life?” The Dalai Lama says, “Well, my son, life is like a beanstalk, isn’t it?” I was instantly young, on my father’s lap, hearing him tell of Jack and the magic beans. Life was indeed like a beanstalk, with the Giant sitting up there…
Jaunty circus music, and I entered a funhouse. Steeled myself for my image in a distorted mirror, for what was surely lurking around the corner, waiting to pounce.
The song got down business. Gothic rock, a blazing guitar punctuating the lyric:
“In the autumn of my madness when my hair is turning grey…” Madness. I nodded my head. And then:
I know if I’d been wiser this would never have occurred
but I wallowed in my blindness so it’s plain that I deserve
for the sin of self-indulgence when the truth was writ quite clear
I must spend my life amongst the dead who spend their lives in fear.
How could this singer know my story so well? Gobbling a magic bean when I knew better. And punishment, so richly deserved.
A lull, and then the worst moment. That thing lurking in the funhouse. It pounced. A razor guitar vomited an atonal barrage, which leapt from the speakers and lunged at me in the form of a giant spider. As it attacked I held my breath and clenched my fists.
Finally the suite ended, with a reprieve: an uplifting, baroque-rock chorale, evoking the Christmas carols of my youth, if not Bach himself. Like sprays of rain after a thunderstorm that wicked guitar interrupted in places, reminding me that the spider was still out there. But I saw a glimmer of hope that the sun was about to come out.
It was dashed a moment later when the needle rose from the last grooves of the record and moved to the beginning, a sight with the same effect as the blade of a guillotine rising.
As Clem’s grin widened I understood his plan. Ever the scientist he had come up with an experiment to pass those hours. He was going to let this suite keep repeating all night. Turn the thing I loved, music, on me. Keep playing it over and over to see if he could topple me into full psychosis.
It was working. The Dalai Lama, Beanstalk and evil circus evoked the identical associations in me. Except now I knew that the spider was around the corner. Riveting as the music was, a part of my mind was busy making thoughts. Thoughts that I was sure proved that I was insane.
I was a nobody, a nothing. I had nothing. No girlfriend. No success at anything. All I’d ever done was run away.
What I’d been running from my whole life was my father, the giant, who’d recently become a giant before the world. I had become nothing because he had become everything.
The record ended for about the tenth time. In the moment’s silence as the arm rose to start it again, I pointed out the east window, in the direction of the state mental hospital I knew was there. I rose from the floor and stood over Clem. “Take me to the nut house.”
He shook his head violently, and I knew that even insectasoids know fear. His plan was working too well. He scrambled to his feet and shoved me back to the floor. It was freezing cold out there. The hospitals would mean police, which wouldn’t do at Dope Central. The song started again.
What strikes me now is that while my visual hallucinations were quite in line with psychosis, the thoughts that I believed meant I was crazy were anything but. I’d actually never been so clear about the truth of my predicament.
What was deluded, if not crazy, was the denial I’d lived with my whole life. The belief that my parents were perfect parents, our relationship fine. And that I was fine.
That, as my mother often said, there was “nothing wrong with Johnny.” Nothing that wasn’t my fault for being an under-achiever, for not finally giving it that push that would make me that famous scientist they always wanted, that would let me catch up with my father…
LSD brutally shoved my face into the plain truth: Going my parent’s way I was bound to lose. The new way, the Way of the Hippie Prankster, seemed impassable to me. It had landed me here, at the edge of the abyss.
Dawn finally came. I woke up my friend Michael. We went to the dining hall and watched the sun illuminate Indian Hill cemetery. Michael reassured me,
“You’re not crazy. Just had some bad acid. You’ll come down.”
A trickle of gratitude. I was not alone.
By evening I was almost down. Michael and his girlfriend Linda invited me to a concert. I followed them reluctantly into a cavernous building, where my father had once taken me to see basketball games. The floor was covered in black plastic to protect it from concertgoer’s shoes. I stepped towards the edge and it rippled like water, then started churning like it was going to suck me down.
Michael’s girlfriend smiled and said, “You’re fine.” She and Michael took my hands and ferried me to our seats on the floor.
B. B. King walked on stage with a big smile and his precious guitar “Lucille.” That smile never left as he gently sang and pulled silky licks from Lucille. I had a glimmer, then burst of good feeling – something 12 hours ago I was sure I’d never know again.
There at the bottom, where I was nobody, where I had nothing, I’d forgotten something. I had my own Lucille. I’d been right to switch my major to Music. But I’d been neglecting my guitar. I got serious about practicing.
My friend Michael died a year ago. The dining hall and place where we heard the concert. are demolished. And now B.B. is gone.