The use of drugs (which includes alcohol as well as other narcotics) is perhaps the most easily identifiable theme in the work of both artistic groups. Anyone who is only vaguely familiar with (the image of) the Beat poets will know that they are (in)famous for their drug use and the way this plays a role in their works, both in the production process and the content. Writers and drugs have always been in a close relationship. According to John Long, the majority of the American Nobel Prize winners for literature were alcoholics. He writes in his introduction to Drugs and the ‘Beats’: The role of drugs in the lives and writings of Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg, “it is expected that one would find traces of drugs in literature”, attributing this to the fact that humans have always known “a certain desire to get out of themselves” (7). The Beat writers, however, took this liking towards drugs to a whole new level. In almost every single one of their literary texts, drugs play a (major) role, as illustrated by key works such as Howl (“looking for an angry fix”, “with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls”), On the Road (“You could smell tea, weed, I mean marijuana, floating in the air”) or Naked Lunch (about every page). The Beats experimented with many aspects of life, drugs being an important one. Since many of their works are at least partly autobiographical, these personal explorations find their way into their texts. However, not only did they write about drugs, at times they also wrote under influence of narcotics, making drugs influence their works on two levels. Kerouac is a famous example. As Long relates: “[w]e know by his admission that [amphetamine] was often freely circulating in his brain when he was writing [On the Road]”. Ginsberg, similarly “was experiencing the ecstasies and horrors of mescaline at the time of writing [Howl]” (13). These are just a few examples that illustrate the big role drugs played in the writing (process) of the Beats.
If we take a look at the Beatles, we can find similar patterns in both their personal lives and their music, albeit to lesser extremes than in the case of their American predecessors. This similarity is no big surprise, if we are to believe John Long, who continues his argument about writers and drugs by saying that the wish to change consciousness “is often highly developed in artists, whatever their calling: music, theatre, literature, etcetera” (Long 4). A claim that, even if not applicable to every case, probably holds a fair amount of truth.
Mark Hertsgaard devotes almost an entire chapter of his A Day In The Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles to the Beatles’ drug use. He describes them as a relatively innocent or even naïve group of musicians in their first years of global fame, but argues that this changed in the second half of the sixties. He also claims that it was none other than Bob Dylan who got the Fab Four hooked on marijuana, by introducing it to them after a concert in New York in 1963. It was their first meeting and Dylan could hardly believe the group had never smoked weed before. “We’ve got a lot to thank him for”, McCartney later acknowledged (qtd. in Hertsgaard 193). From then on, drugs – first soft ones and later psychedelic ones too – began to play a big part in the Beatles’ daily lives. They served both as a means to cope with the pressures of the mid-sixties’ Beatlemania, and aided their creativity. “It just opened up this whole other consciousness”, and “it started to find its way into everything we did” are just two quotes the band members (George Harrison and Paul McCartney, resp.) are reported to have said (qtd. in Hertsgaard 192, 195).
This change from ‘innocent’ boys and starting musicians to an experimental and rebellious group of men is also reflected in their music, according to several Beatles academics, who often divide the band’s successful years into different ‘stages’. Coupe elaborately lays out, in his case three, different periods, based on previous scholarship by the musicologist Wilfrid Mellers. According to them, the group’s preoccupations change from “innocence and dream” (up until the movie A Hard Day’s Night in 1964) to “experience and social reality”, or “human relationships and responsibilities” (the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band), to the third and final period which “sees a renewal of the first period in the light of the second”, and involves a search within themselves for answers to external pressures (137-8). Coupe then compares the last period to the “beatific” vision of Kerouac and Ginsberg. Hertsgaard argues that part of these changes in style were due to the group’s use of drugs:
The crucial catalyst for the Beatles’ transformation from lovable moptops to high-minded rebels was their involvement with consciousness-raising drugs, specifically marijuana and LSD. No one liked fun more than the Beatles, but for them drugs were not simply about having a good time. Marijuana and LSD were also and more profoundly tools of knowledge, a means of gaining access to higher truths about themselves and the world. Indeed, it was above all the “desire to find out”, as Harrison later put it, that lay beneath their involvement not only with mind-expanding drugs, but with Eastern philosophy as well. (Hertsgaard 191)
Whereas it does not require detective skills to find the references to drugs in Beat literature, it might take a little more digging to pinpoint them in the lyrics and music of the Beatles – although examples are still ample; some more subtle than others. A few will be examined here in some more detail.
Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds and Strawberry Fields Forever are two famous examples of songs that are often believed to be about drugs. The first letters of the words in Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds correspond to LSD, and in drug slang, ‘strawberry fields’ stands for the very same drug. Even the innocent sounding Penny Lane, the other side of the Strawberry Fields Forever single, is said to be connected to drugs. Wilfrid Mellers argues:
[Both songs] relate the LSD experience to childhood memory and a new Eden discovered within the mind; both, if they can hardly ‘justify’ the drug experience, demonstrate its relevance to the Beatles’ development. (qtd. In Coupe 140)
The in 1965 recorded song Day Tripper plays with the dual meaning of the word ‘tripper’. Lennon cunningly said in an interview: “Day trippers are people who go on a day trip, right?” (Sheff 177). McCartney however has said the song is indeed about drugs, and “a tongue-in-cheek song about someone who was […] committed only in part to the idea” (Miles 209-210). In Happiness Is A Warm Gun the lyric “I need a fix” is repeated, a phrase that anyone who read the Beat writers’ works will recognise. And there are countless other examples of these ‘Beatdom-echoing’ lyrics, which have been excluded here for lack of space.
The Sgt. Pepper’s album was “the biggest barrier-breaker of them all”, according to Hertsgaard (195, 196). In fact, so barrier-breaking that the BBC banned the song A Day In The Life from public radio, arguing that it might promote drug use. Interestingly, however, until that moment the world had not known about the Beatles members’ own experimentation with narcotics. Only after the BBC ban did their fans learn of the Beatles’ actual drug-taking, which caused an immediate uproar. However, as Hertsgaard relates, it was hard to convincingly argue for its negative effects on the Beatles, for their newly released, “acid-soaked” album was “widely recognised as the most impressive achievement in popular music for many years” (196). Nevertheless, “the Establishment” was shocked by the revelation. An even bigger surprise, therefore, must have been the Beatles’ announcement, barely a month after the BBC ban, in which they said they were now completely giving up drugs. They replaced it with a new fascination, however: spirituality… Read the whole article by CLICKING HERE
This is just a part of the article entitled The Beats and the Beatles: two sides of the same coin.