With the right people, a smoke session can have a bigger, further reaching impact on society than the average person may realize. One of the best examples of this occurred on one summer day in 1964 in New York City. The session changed both the musical and cultural contributions of one of the most popular music groups of the 60s and 70s.
Many musicians from the 60s and 70s hold a special place in our culture. “Hippie” culture from that time has never really died out but has made waves that impact the politics and lifestyle choices of Americans to this day. Although artists such as Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin live on encased in the immortal amber of 60s nostalgia, the Beatles hold an even more hallowed place in hearts all over the world. This is especially true for those who see the 60s counterculture as their cultural fore-bearer. What role did cannabis play in the Beatles becoming their iconic selves? How did four fairly straight-laced Englishmen discover cannabis in the first place? The answer lies with another icon of the era with roots in an older, more marginalized American subculture - Bob Dylan. It can be traced to one pivotal day in a New York City hotel. This meeting of the minds turned into one of the most culturally influential single smoke sessions of all time.
The cultural change of the mid-60s marked a lasting break with the restrictive, puritanical, buttoned-down, not to mention racist, culture of the 50s and earlier. Beyond today’s self-identifying flower children, dead heads, Phish followers, political progressives, and environmentalists, the culture and worldview of everyday, modern America owes so much to the revolution of thought that began in the mid to late 1960s. The 1960s counterculture took a hard look at certain aspects of post-war society raising issues regarding pollution, racism, corporate greed, and even food quality, to name just a few examples - all issues with which society still struggles to this day. While not one of these problems has been “solved”, the willingness of the average American to question society regarding these and other issues has greatly increased since that cultural revolution. Despite some ebb and flow in the decades since and the efforts of the right wing to take America back by creating a false nostalgia and denying or glossing over these issues, the broader trend points to a growing number of Americans who want to embrace the worldview first given legitimacy by the cultural revolution of the 60s. Though, perhaps, not the most urgent of the issues, a new attitude towards cannabis was at the center of these changes. To what extent the new openness led to an affinity for cannabis and to what extent the mind-expanding effects of cannabis actually sparked cultural progress, is still an open question. However, one phenomenon provides a great case study.
One could say that the Beatles are famous twice over, in two different incarnations. First, there were the Beatles who represented a British pop culture invasion of America. These were the Beatles who toured, followed by crowds of screaming fans, and who were famous for pop music such as “Hard Day’s Night” and “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”. They wore suits. Their hair may have been long by early 60s standards, but they were still clean-shaven and presented themselves as reasonably upstanding members of society. The lyrical content of their songs tended to be pretty tame. Their music may have been revolutionary to pop music at the time, but their style had more to do with early 60s crooners and 50s rockers like Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley than it had to do with anything that came later – including the later work of the Beatles themselves.
That all changed on one fateful day – August 28t, 1964. When Bob Dylan first met the Beatles at the Delmonico Hotel in Manhattan, the Beatles had the opportunity to try cannabis for the first time. Within a year or two, cannabis became a vital part of the band’s creative process, reshaping their music entirely – as well as their impact on society.
Bob Dylan was part of a very different musical culture than that of the Beatles. Instead of the world of carefree rock-influenced pop, Bob Dylan got his start in the deeply political, and already marginal, world of early 60s folk rock. Centered in Greenwich Village in Manhattan, Dylan’s world was ahead of the pack when it came to questioning the status quo of 50s style America. Dylan had already been exposed to cannabis culture at the beatnik influenced Minneapolis coffeehouse called Dinkytown, where Dylan got his start before arriving in bohemian Greenwich Village. Beat culture had adopted the cannabis use of Bebop artists as early as the late 40s and served as a conduit for cannabis’s entry into mainstream white America. Bob Dylan and his early contemporaries, such as Joan Baez, were a part of this tradition. The politics of this folk subculture predisposed its members to question social norms – such as the prohibition on cannabis. The Beatles, at the time they met Dylan, were presenting themselves as performers rather than counterculture rebels. They had some experience with drugs - pills prominent on the European club scene, basically speed, which they used to keep pace with the touring, pop music lifestyle which they were quickly growing to resent. In 1964 cannabis use in the UK was largely relegated to Caribbean immigrant communities. Cannabis, of course, had been illegal in the US since 1937, and in the UK since 1928. It was still not a part of mainstream (especially white) culture in either society. As Bob Dylan made his way to the sixth floor of the Delmonico Hotel, he must have been planning a smoke session. Whether he had a hunch he was about to change the world, or whether he just thought he was about to offer a relaxing way to pass the time with the British pop sensations, we’ll probably never know. Because the Beatles tended to attract a rambunctious crowd, especially in the states, twenty police officers stood guard in the hallway. So whatever Dylan’s intentions, he certainly found it worth the risk.
After an exchange of pleasantries, Dylan learned that the Beatles had never smoked (another version of the story from George Harrison claims that they had tried it years before, but hadn’t felt any significant effects).Dylan was surprised to hear of their lack of experience, since he had apparently always misheard the words “I can’t hide” as “I get high” in the Beatle’s song “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” The folk singer tried to roll a joint, but failed. According to later accounts, after Dylan spilled cannabis all over the table, his driver and friend, Victor Maymudes, successfully rolled what was then known as a “reefer.” The musicians closed the blinds and stuffed towels in the cracks near the doors, as was customary at that time. Within a few minutes, the musicians, strangers only moments before, were stoned and laughing at everything. Paul McCartney, looking back on that day, mentioned how honored he had felt. “We were kind of proud to have been introduced to pot by Dylan, that was rather a coup.” McCartney had something of a spiritual breakthrough. Although he acknowledged that he did not fully understand the experience until years later, he felt that night as if he was “thinking for the first time.” In particular, he described repeatedly ‘meeting’ the people in the room all over again “on seven different levels.” He took notes that night, and while they made little sense to him in the morning, he later realized that his experience tied in to a lot of the major religions of the world. That pivotal day has since been recounted for the public by McCartney, Lennon, Harrison, and associate Peter Brown.
Cannabis had a profound effect on the Beatles in the following years. Lennon joked that they were soon “smoking marijuana for breakfast.” Artistically, the Beatles entered a transitional phase. Songs like “Got to Get You Into My Life” were “entirely about pot” according to McCartney, as well as several other songs on their album Revolver. Before long, cannabis and drug references in the Beatle’s music became more explicit. By their next album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, they included lyrics like “I get high with a little help from my friends”, and “I’d love to turn you on” – the latter being a common term at that time for getting someone high.
The Beatles stopped touring in 1966, and turned inward towards their artistic side, taking time for spiritual exploration and pressing for social change. In 1967, the Beatles paid for a full page ad in The Times of London, which called for cannabis law reform. The controversial ad called current cannabis laws “immoral in principle and unworkable in practice.” It is interesting to note that progress today towards legalization has used a very similar two-pronged argument. The ad called for the government to allow research into the properties of cannabis, remove cannabis from a list of harmful drugs, reduce punishment for possession to a fine, permit its use in private homes, and release prisoners jailed for cannabis crimes. With the notable exception of the latter, the fallen Beatles, John and George, would be proud of the progress on these points in parts of America today. The ad also contained the signatures of 65 British public figures, including members of parliament, prominent doctors, clergy, writers, artists, scientists, and, of course, the “Fab Four” themselves. The next year, the British Parliament’s Advisory Committee on Drug Dependence released the Wootton Report, which concluded that “the long-term consumption of cannabis in moderate doses has no harmful effects” and “the law is socially damaging, if not unworkable.”
The Report further stated that cannabis was “very much less dangerous than opiates, amphetamines, and barbiturates, and also less dangerous than alcohol and it is the personality of the user, rather than the properties of the drug, that is likely to cause progression to other drugs.” Years after the Wootton Report, cannabis is still illegal in the UK. Nonetheless, the Wootton Report did have an impact on the movement. Although progress has been slow, we are still watching the impact unfold today.Notably, progress towards legalization in Holland, just across the English Channel, began only a little over a decade after the Wootton report.
In 1968, the Beatles traveled to India to participate in a Transcendental Meditation training session and to learn from a respected Indian spiritual guru. This trip had a significant impact on the Beatles, particularly on George Harrison, and they were instrumental in raising western counterculture’s interest in eastern spirituality. Though it was not the only factor, the band’s hallmark trip to India is one of the reasons for meditation becoming a well-known concept in western countries. It is also worth noting that the trip took the Beatles to hash-producing Northern India, where cannabis is used by a number of spiritual leaders.
Cannabis, among other factors, turned the Beatles from a revolutionary pop band into vanguard fighters for a new, more open-minded, society. The band would take public stands against war, racism, economic inequality, and greed - especially John Lennon, whose solo work in the 70s became even more politically oriented. The Beatles became more spiritual, artistic and abstract in their approach to music at a time when many young people in the US and UK were experiencing the exact same transition. Perhaps the special place that the Beatles hold in the hearts of that generation is because they made their transition from “normal” to “hippie” in the public eye, as opposed to other artists of the era who arrived on the public scene as counterculture icons. This cultural change, which to a certain extent can be traced to one legendary smoke session for the ages with a few of the most iconic pop culture figures of an era, still shapes our lives today.