The Rise of Pot Rock and Backlash Busts

When the rock musicians of the 1960s began celebrating their love of herb in hit singles, they did not realize it would bring down the wrath of the Establishment.

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Famously, it all started with Bob Dylan, who often wrote songs at the typewriter while smoking a joint and drinking red wine or coffee. One of the reasons he loved the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” when he heard it in February 1964 was that he thought they were singing “I get high” in the bridge. When he met them in their New York hotel the following August, they informed him that, actually, they were singing “I can’t hide,” but he still offered them joints, and they soon became daily smokers themselves.

In their next B-side, “She’s a Woman,” Paul McCartney sang about how his woman turned him on, slang for getting him high. John Lennon recalled, “We were so excited to say ‘turn me on,’ you know, about marijuana and all that, using it as an expression.” For the A-side, Lennon opened “I Feel Fine” with feedback. According to George Harrison, cannabis enabled the Beatles to perceive sounds they had not been able to hear before. Soon, Lennon opened “It’s Only Love” with the line “I get high” that Dylan originally misheard.

Keith Richards wrote in his memoir Life that he was turned on to cannabis in 1965 by an unnamed black musician touring with the Rolling Stones. When the band released “Get Off of My Cloud” that September, many hipsters assumed the cloud came from a joint.

In Hollywood, Arthur Lee christened his folk-rock/proto-punk band the Grass Roots – until another band called the Grass Roots had a hit, forcing Lee and company to switch their name to Love. Other new groups on the Sunset Strip with cannabis-inspired names included the Leaves and the Seeds. In March 1966, the biggest band on the Strip, the Byrds, released the psychedelic anthem “Eight Miles High.”

The following month Dylan reached No. 2 in the U.S. and No. 7 in the U.K. with “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” better known by its raucous chorus, “Everybody must get stoned!” Prophetically, 12 times 35 equals 420, but that term did not exist at the time. It was not until the early ’70s that some Grateful Dead fans in San Rafael, California apparently coined it.

Summer 1966 saw Ray Charles hit No. 1 on the R&B chart with “Let’s Go Get Stoned,” though the lyrics refer to gin – “stoned” had originally been slang for drunk. But the Association was definitely referencing the code word “Mary Jane” in their smash “Along Comes Mary.”

As the number of teenagers smoking cannabis vastly began to increase, the authorities grew alarmed. In April 1966, “Eight Miles High” was branded a drug song by the music publication The Gavin Report and banned by many radio stations. It was the last time the Byrds cracked the Top 20 singles chart.

On May 21 in San Francisco, two members of the Lovin’ Spoonful (“Daydream,” “Summer in the City”) were pulled over by the cops, who found a bag of cannabis in their car. In order to avoid deportation, the Canadian guitarist Zal Yanovsky, along with bassist Steve Boone, agreed to introduce an undercover cop to the cannabis-smoking associates from whom Zal had procured the drug. It was a decision that would soon have disastrous consequences for the band.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, folk-rocker Donovan was about to feel the heat as well. In his version of the traditional song “Candy Man,” he sang that he missed his dealer (who had gone to Morocco), and in his TV special A Boy Called Donovan, some of his friends smoked hash in front of the camera. Not long after he recorded his ode to beatnik paranoia “Season of the Witch” (with Jimmy Page on guitar), nine cops burst into his apartment on June 11, led by the soon-notorious Sergeant Norman Pilcher. When the squad broke furniture in its search for evidence and treated Donovan’s friend and girlfriend roughly, the bard jumped (naked) on the back of an officer before another grabbed him round the throat. Donovan had actually finished off his supply of hash before the police arrived, but nevertheless the squad “found” some and arrested him.

George Harrison called Donovan the next day, offering £10,000 to help. Donovan was ultimately fined only £250, though the legal problems prevented him from playing the Monterey Pop Festival. When Donovan said he just wanted to go somewhere and lay low till it blew over, Harrison responded prophetically, “It’ll never blow over, Don. We’ll (the Beatles) be next.”

Actually, the police waited for Harrison to leave a party at Keith Richards’ on February 12, 1967, before busting Richards and Stones lead singer Mick Jagger. The Beatles’ had been awarded the MBE medal by the Queen in ’65 and were, for the moment, untouchable. Journalist Philip Norman maintains that the FBI and Britain’s MI5 conspired to get the Stones, while others believe British tabloid The News of the World colluded with Scotland Yard because Jagger was planning to sue them for libel.

As Richard and Jagger both awaited trial, word that the Spoonful had worked with a narc spread through the hippie underground. The undercover officer had arrested someone who complained to a counterculture journalist, who in turn typed the story up in a pamphlet and distributed it to all the hippie newspapers. In March 1967, The Village Voice reported that Yanovsky and Boone were accused of being informers by the underground and reported that record shops hung their albums in windows with slashes through them. Yanovsky quit the band and returned to Canada.

On May 10, the day Jagger and Richards appeared in court, the Stones’ other guitarist Brian Jones was arrested for cannabis possession. On June 29, Jagger was given three months for possession of four amphetamine pills, and Richards was sentenced to a year in prison for allowing cannabis to be smoked on his premises. Luckily for the Stones, a few days later the British daily newspaper The Times printed an editorial titled “Who Breaks a Butterfly on a Wheel,” charging that the sentences were far too severe. Richards’ conviction was overturned, and Jagger was let off with a conditional discharge.

In direct contrast to the Spoonful, the Stones’ run-in with the law cemented their outlaw reputation. The following April, Jagger sang how he had frowned at a crust of bread (presumably in his jail cell) and suffered a spike through the head, but was now reborn as the triumphant “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” The Grateful Dead, who endured the first of many busts on October 2, 1967, would also transform their problems with the law into classics like “Truckin’.”

Eric Clapton got out of town when he heard he was on Sgt. Pilcher’s list of pop star targets. Perhaps the Beatles could have stayed off the list had Lennon not sneered in “I Am the Walrus” at “pretty little policemen,” and, in particular, at “Semolina Pilchard.” He also outraged many when he left his wife for the pregnant Yoko Ono, and on October 18, 1968, Pilcher busted the couple for 200 grams of hash, some traces of cannabis and a half-gram of morphine. A month after the couple was forced to push themselves through large crowds at jail and at court, Ono miscarried. When the couple moved to the U.S., the Nixon administration tried to use the conviction to deport Lennon, keeping the musician in court for many years. On March 12, 1969, Pilcher busted Harrison and his wife Pattie on the day McCartney married Linda Eastman.

In 1973, Pilcher himself was sentenced to four years in prison for perjury, but McCartney still suffered numerous busts throughout the following decade. The feeling that he and his fellow musicians were being, in his words, “outlawed for pot” compelled him to write both “Band on the Run” and “Wanderlust.” Perhaps the artists could take some consolation in the fact that the immense legal persecution they endured inspired some of their most epic songs.

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