Brian Wilson wasn’t the only acid casualty of the 1960s. The decade was rife with crazy diamonds who turned on, tuned in, and dropped out, writes Ben Johnson
In 1967, The Beach Boys were partway through the recording of their twelfth studio album Smile when the band’s leader, Brian Wilson, had a nervous breakdown. He was 25.
Following an incredibly productive period in which he wrote and produced nine albums and 16 singles in the space of two years, Wilson had started to dabble in the latest trend in mind-altering substances, LSD. He flourished in the studio with increasingly ambitious and experimental projects; ‘Good Vibrations’, for example, which still stands as a prime example of beguiling pop perfection.
In a 2011 interview with The Guardian, Wilson said of LSD:
“At first, my creativity increased more than I could believe… On the downside, it fucked my brain.”
Smile was abandoned once Wilson’s schizophrenia took hold. This is where his well-known self-imposed period of exile begins. Confused and hearing voices, Wilson met his deepening depression with a cocktail of cocaine and heroin. It would be another 15 years before his condition was properly diagnosed.
Wilson is the subject of a new biopic, Love and Mercy, which was released in cinemas last week. In the film, which we reviewed at Edinburgh International Film Festival, we get the full four-part harmony of his rise and fall, and rise again (of sorts) after meeting his now-wife, Melinda Ledbetter (played in the film by Elizabeth Banks).
Paul Dano plays Wilson (pictured above) at the height of his creative genius during the 1960s, and John Cusack plays a damaged Wilson in the 1980s after his diagnosis of bipolar schizoaffective disorder and subsequent exploitation at the hands of his therapist, Eugene Landy.
Wilson has received great plaudits since re-emerging as a solo artist in 2002. He eventually completed his lost album, Smile, in 2004, picking up a Grammy for his efforts. He continues to tour, but wears the haunted battle scars from years of drug abuse and mental health issues.
He remains a sad reminder of the hippy hangover; the Timothy Leary LSD advocates who took their minds on a trip from which they would never fully return. But Wilson wasn’t the only one. Here are four other examples.
The glorious, gorgeous Syd Barrett led Pink Floyd from a London art experiment to an appearance on Top of the Pops. But Barrett’s erratic behaviour and drug taking in the run-up to their first commercial success would eventually take its toll.
The band are still pained by memories of Barrett’s rapid decline. In a BBC One documentary from 2007, the late keyboard player Richard Wright refutes the notion of Barrett’s eccentricity being linked to schizophrenia.
“I’m still convinced he took a huge overdose of acid and destroyed his brain cells,” he says. “He went to see [psychiatrist] Ronnie Laing and he said, ‘there’s nothing we can do for him. Physically, the brain has been destroyed.’”
Despite leaving the band, Barrett did pursue a brief solo career, often with the help of his former bandmates. They continued to support Barrett financially and did have a famous final meeting at Abbey Road Studios in 1975 during the Wish You Were Here sessions.
Barrett – overweight and with a shaved head and eyebrows – looked so different that the rest of the band failed to recognise him. By the late 1970s, Barrett had severed all ties with the music industry and retreated to Cambridge to live with his mother, where he stayed until his death aged 60 in 2006.
Long before Fleetwood Mac became Anglo-American master-purveyors of stadium-filling rock, they were a blues band led by Peter Green. Their guitar-led hits included the instrumental ‘Albatross’, the swampy ‘Oh Well’, and the reflective ‘Man of the World’.
Within three years, Green led the group to huge commercial success. But at the height of their fame, mental health issues took hold of Green and he started to deteriorate. Speaking on a BBC Four documentary in 2009, his manager Clifford Davis said an LSD binge at a Munich commune was the breaking point.
Green was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia in the 1970s. But he has continued to create music, both as a solo artist and as part of the Peter Green Splinter Group. His famous fans are many, from Eric Clapton to Jimmy Page, and he last toured in 2010.
Canadian musician Alexander Lee ‘Skip’ Spence went from drumming on the first Jefferson Airplane album to fronting one of the 1960s most underrated rock bands, Moby Grape. Among many brilliant songs, he wrote the guitar wizardry of ‘Omaha’ and the Airplane track ‘My Best Friend’, which ended up on their smash-hit second album, Surrealistic Pillow, in 1967.
During the recording of the Grape’s second album, Spence attacked the hotel room of his fellow bandmate Don Stevenson with a fire axe in a hallucinogenic frenzy. He then had to be restrained from leaping off the building. He went to jail before being referred to Bellvue Hospital Centre in New York for six months, where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and put on a series of heavy anti-psychotic medication. By the age of 22, his career was all but over. He scarcely recorded again and died aged 52 after a life plagued by drug abuse and mental health issues.
Skip’s story is made all the more tragic when one listens to his only solo album, Oar, recorded over a period of seven days in December 1968 following his time at Bellevue. He plays every instrument on the album, which was recorded mostly in isolation at a studio in Nashville.
It’s the sound of a confused mind in freefall, teetering somewhere between a warped experiment in country-folk and a slow descent into madness. But the album is also sprinkled with beautiful moments of clarity. When Columbia released the record in 1969 it was a monumental flop – the lowest-selling album in the label’s history. But Oar – coupled with Spence’s own tragic story – has gained a fervent following ever since.
A tribute album in the wake of Spence’s death in 1999 featured covers by Robert Plant, Tom Waits and Mudhoney, while Beck led his own tribute in 2009 with a little help from people like Feist and Wilco.
Texas band The 13th Floor Elevators were so psychedelic they even had a full-time jug player. Freaky hits like ‘Fire Engine’ and ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me’ aptly display the band’s great energy and vivid, abstract imagination. They are credited as being the first band to use the term ‘psychedelic’ to describe their music, and openly advocated the use of LSD, even saying so on the liner notes of their debut album .
“Recently, it has become possible for man to chemically alter his mental state and thus alter his point of view,” they write on the back of their 1966 record. “It is this quest for pure sanity that forms the basis of the songs on this album.”
Unfortunately, the band peaked too soon and never fully capitalised on the burgeoning West Coast scene, the hippy love-ins and acid parties which were to follow. They also struggled to find success outside of Texas where severe drug laws saw to the band’s eventual demise.
When found in possession of a single marijuana joint, guitarist and songwriter Roky Erickson avoided a ten-year jail sentence by pleading insanity. He was treated for schizophrenia and sent to a Texas hospital where he was subjected to electroconvulsive treatments. He remained there semi-permanently until 1972, by which point the band were long finished.
Thankfully, this story has a happy ending. Erickson continued to make solo music and, in May 2015, the original 13th Floor Elevators line-up reformed to close the Levitation Festival in Austin, Texas, where they were rightly heralded as psych-pioneers by a new generation of fans.
Love and Mercy is out now.