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Friday A/V Club: You Are Watching LSD-TV

There was a time when psychedelics could get friendly coverage on a commercial TV news show.

Is that the barmaid?Front Page DetectiveThe mid to late 1960s saw a moral panic over LSD, with press accounts that carelessly repeated urban legends about the drug's effects. (No, a bunch of acidheads did not stare at the sun until they all went blind.) Such reports helped fuel the drive to outlaw the chemical, which Congress banned in 1968.

But before that wave of stories hit the noosphere, the drug enjoyed a fair amount of favorable coverage too, particularly in two magazines—Time and Life—controlled by LSD enthusiast Henry Luce.

So the TV show embedded below—an episode of the documentary series Assignment Four—wasn't as unusual as you might initially assume. It aired on the San Francisco station KRON in 1964, at a time when psychedelics had started attracting controversy but the panic narrative had not yet taken over. A cautious report that tries to stay even-handed, if it has a slant at all it tilts slightly toward the drug's supporters. Naturally, it also includes an arty attempt to represent a trip on camera. Enjoy:

Bonus link: Here is an article that I wrote about Timothy Leary back in 2006. The piece covers a lot of ground, but I'm mentioning it here because of this passage on LSD and the media:

Scholars today generally regard the LSD scare of the '60s as a classic social panic. "Of all the widely used recreational drugs," the sociologists Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda note in their 1994 book Moral Panics, acid "is the one taken by users most episodically and occasionally, least regularly and chronically." It certainly poses risks, but the most disturbing rumors about its effects—that it causes chromosome damage, that it prompts teens to blind themselves by staring at the sun—turned out to be false. What's more, the media scare arrived at a time when LSD use was at a relatively low level; the hysteria actually faded as the drug grew more popular.

There are some who call me...Tim.Last GaspWhat's fascinating is Leary's relationship to that panic. Leary has written that his best-known slogan—"tune in, turn on, drop out"—was inspired by a lunch with the media theorist Marshall McLuhan, who told him, "You call yourself a philosopher, a reformer. Fine. But the key to your work is advertising....You must use the most current tactics for arousing consumer interest." According to Leary, McLuhan even broke into a jingle: "Lysergic acid hits the spot/Forty billion neurons, that's a lot."

Leary was known to take liberties when recounting his personal history, and the McLuhan story sounds a little too perfect to be absolutely true. But the very fact that he tells it shows he was aware of what he was up to, as does his famous claim in Playboy that LSD "is the most powerful aphrodisiac known to man." In his book The Politics of Ecstasy, Leary commented that if the Playboy interview "had been conducted for Sports Illustrated, the conscientious interviewee would naturally consider the question, How LSD Can Raise Your Batting Average."...Leary's pitches for psychedelics oversold their benefits just as the media's scare stories oversold their dangers. His ad campaign helped fuel the panic and, in less obvious ways, was fueled by the panic itself. Both Leary and his enemies had a stake in the idea that the boomers were becoming the Acid Generation. As the press grew increasingly obsessed with LSD, Leary was willing to ride that wave as he offered a rival narrative of his own.

To read the rest, go here. For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.

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  • Citizen X||

    Hold up, i want to know more about this "chicken farm graveyard." Which, by the way, would be an excellent name for a psychobilly band.

  • Jesse Walker||

    There must be a Hasil Adkins song called "Chicken Farm Graveyard," right? I mean, it's just wrong if there isn't.

  • Citizen X||

    The YouTube search results for "chicken farm graveyard" are mighty disappointing, but at least i'll probably get to have a fun conversation with my company's IT people.

  • Almanian's Rusty Woodchipper||

    Uh - drugs r bad, mmkay?

    One thing I want to do again when I retire - in addition to smoking a TON of pot, trip a couple more times. It's been since the early 80's for me.

    Now, where to find some good, clean acid these days...

  • Gene||

    Last time for me was just before a Pink Floyd concert in Toronto in 1987, in the old exhibition stadium, every plane that went overhead seemed to be part of the show, just like the floating pig and all the frickin laser beams.

    Now, where to find some good, clean acid these days...

    I bet AC could help ya out ;-)

  • Almanian's Rusty Woodchipper||

    I remember watching the Stones and the Silverdome in....'91? '92?

    Anyhoo - I remember that I picked out one of the guys in my fraternity ACROSS THE STADIUM. And I wear glasses and am basically blind.

    Walked around, found him, brought him over to where the rest of us were....and realized how fucked up that was.

    Plus, watched in the bird's feet on the Silverdome ceiling, for minutes...bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzt. So fun!

  • Almanian's Rusty Woodchipper||

    Sorry - the Stones at the Silverdome while on two hits of windowpane. It was great.

  • Robert||

    Interesting that that was also a time when a psychiatric researcher could casually mention ESP as among objects of research.

  • Marty Feldman's Eyes||

    Naturally, it also includes an arty attempt to represent a trip on camera.

    These are always the worst. Last night just watched Skidoo, in which Jackie Gleason has a trip with the obligatory late 60s weird video effects. Lame lame lame.

    As an aside, it gets a vote from me for one of the worst movies I've ever seen. It's only value is as a time capsule, and as a lesson in wasting an impressive cast.

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