Much has been made of late about Woodstock’s 50th anniversary: it was a milestone in a tumultuous time, an anarchic cultural gathering that managed, despite many slips in the mud, to reflect essential goodwill between assembled members of a broad, colorful tribe.
I fretted, fussed and plotted about Woodstock, frustrated that at 15, I didn’t have the means or the gumption to get there. I had to wait to buy the albums, hear the stories and understand the significance. I had to wait a bit longer before I got to go to what some people dubbed the “West Coast Woodstock.” The 1970 “Christmas Happening” in Laguna Beach didn’t have the thronging masses, or the heralded music, or the dynamics to make it more than a scribble in the history books. But it was in my neighborhood.
And it did have LSD dropped from an airplane in the sky.
I’ll get to acid rain in a bit, but first let me describe my accelerated development. Or regression. My year between 15 and 16 was a “you forgot to get your brakes checked, but what the hell” year. In that period I went from smoking my first pot to taking psychedelic mushrooms to dropping acid. My mild interest in shoplifting turned into an actual business of selling purloined goods to my pals and high school cronies. At 16, I was a junior in high school, a nice boy who ate dinner with his parents, and a lawless deviant.
So, late in 1970 when my friends and I saw the posters circulating news about a concert in Laguna, we were stoked. Laguna Beach was only 40 miles south from my Long Beach home, but it seemed a million miles in culture. Long Beach was sprawling, paved-over, unhip; Laguna was small, had organic food stores, hippies and head shops, and a sparkling beach. Laguna was, to our unsophisticated eyes, impressively groovy. Whether the event would be a Woodstockian “three days of fun and music” or not, go we must.
The posse: me, my older brother, and two close friends. Marty was probably my brother Rick’s closest friend, a mentor for me, whose recommendations on provocative books and music were gold. Dennis was my age, an exuberant guy who was willing to go out further on limbs than most, but when he fell, wings sprouted so that he always landed on his feet.
Dennis and Marty both had cars, and one of them drove. The murk of memory makes some details soft, but the highlights—and my, there were some—all happened, even though some might have happened on the astral plane. But even 50 years can’t erase some sharp memories of people behaving exceedingly strangely.
But first, some background on the concert, much that I only found out years later.
Christmas for the Longhairs
The idea for the festival came from a guy named Curtis Reid, a Laguna local who had a number of friends in the alternative community. Reid was the force behind getting the posters printed and getting the word out about the concert. That word moved from the local hippie communities to alternative newspapers and radio to mainstream media. What was expressed as a celebration of Christ’s birthday with love and music mushroomed into a looming event that alarmed the more conservative citizens of Laguna Beach.
Some accounts had it that the festival was originally slated for downtown’s Main Beach, but the final site was Sycamore Flats, outside of town in the soft hills of Laguna Canyon. Our Christmas family gatherings prevented us from going that first day of the concert, but on the morning of Dec. 26th, we set out for the site. We had no clue that the nearby streets would be choked with cars, some left, ala Woodstock, on the sides of roads far from the festival. Woodstockers in training, we left our car on a dirt pull-out a fair distance from the canyon, and walked in.
We also had no clue that the concert was, let’s say, not particularly organized. Having already hosted the first day of the concert, the site displayed a lot of Christmas wrapping, in the form of sagging tents, trash, rumpled blankets, camping equipment and backpacks. There were lots of people, certainly several thousand, probably more. Some later crowd estimates had it at 20–25 thousand, but I wonder.
We managed to maneuver somewhat near the stage and set up our blankets amid crowds of other blanketeers. Some guy on stage was flatly playing an acoustic guitar and warbling out a listless tune. We set about to smoke as much pot as possible in as short of time as possible. That’s when the fun began.
A thin woman with long dark hair and a billowy hippie dress ascended the stage and in a quavery, piercing voice started to harangue the crowd. “Animals are your friends. Please don’t eat the animals. Love animals, don’t eat them.” She repeated this as a refrain, with mild variation, over and over for long, long minutes. As chance would have it, just as she was beginning her rant, I was eating some Vienna sausages from the can.
If you’ve never eaten Vienna sausages (and you shouldn’t), they are allegedly made of pork. But surely parts of that pork were pig snouts and hooves, and probably pig regrets and bad dreams. And enough salt to paralyze a horse. But I was 16 and high—I would have eaten anything. Despite my thick-headedness, I made a hazy association between the preachings of the woman and what I was eating. I then pushed the cans of sausages under some clothing, so none of her friends would see and drag me to the stage as an example of the Antichrist.
Look! Up in the Sky!
After her performance, a boogie-blues band came on, followed by some strident rock. At this point, I realized that part of what seemed a dentist’s drill of recrimination from the stage was partially due to the sound system. Lots of screechy feedback, dropouts and inconsistent volume. This did not improve. Nor did, to my ear, the quality of the music. But we’d never conclusively heard that any big-name bands would come, so we were satisfied with the sonic sludge we were served. Allegedly Buddy Miles was there for at least one of the days, but I might have hiked out of the canyon to throw those Vienna sausage cans away and missed him.
It was only when the PA guy would periodically announce that “George Harrison has been seen in the crowd,” or “David Crosby is right now in a helicopter on his way,” that big cheers would go up, only to sag soon after when another unknown band crawled onto the stage. But the biggest cheers came soon afterward. I’d seen in the distance a plane drop what look liked leaflets on the gathering. None landed right near us, but not too far either.
In the spirit of Christmas, a local organization called the Brotherhood of Eternal Love managed to drop thousands of hits of Orange Sunshine affixed to colorful cards from a small plane onto the masses. Some said hundreds of cards, others up to 25,000. (Just ask our president about crowd estimates.) The cards circulated through the crowd, and Marty and Dennis took their share. It’s hard to say what is harder on your body, Orange Sunshine or Vienna sausages, but I opted out, for a strong reason.
Months before, I’d gone to a Bo Diddley concert at the Long Beach Arena with Dennis, and we’d both dropped some Orange Sunshine. I later had to flee, because my torqued mind told me that Bo was deliberately playing specific notes to torment me and me alone, and each tone sent my brain convulsing. The Arena being miles from my suburban home, we started to get on a public bus, when I had a revelation: Money is evil! I declared this loudly to the bus driver while we were getting in, tossed all the paper cash in my wallet on the floor, and for good measure, tossed my glasses to the floor too, because I was liberating myself of needless earthly things.
Dennis managed to retrieve some of my money and my glasses, and pulled me from the bus. We walked for hours to get home—lucky for us that speedy acid is like drinking a thousand cups of coffee. On a roller-coaster. Thus, at the Laguna concert, I wasn’t that hungry for Orange Sunshine. My brother, never having developed an appetite for being flung out of a rainbow-colored car at 60mph, didn’t take any either.
As I only found out years later, the benevolent Brotherhood was one of the biggest distributors of acid in the U.S. They believed it was a holy sacrament. Ever-so Southern California, they occasionally smuggled drugs in hollowed-out surfboards. The Brotherhood hooked up with some skilled acid cookers, like Tim Scully, who’d been mentored by Owsley Stanley, probably the most famed of the LSD chemists. In his spare time away from solvents and reagents, Owsley also designed the Grateful Dead’s famed—and titanic—Wall of Sound system. (Needless to say, this was not the sound system used at the concert.)
The Brotherhood’s honorary high priest was Timothy Leary, who’d earlier been busted for pot in Laguna. The whole story is very tangled, but allegedly the Brotherhood paid thousands to later have Leary busted out of jail. Who did the deed? The infamous anarchist group, the Weather Underground. Possibly the Black Panthers also helped to smuggle him out of the country, though he was recaptured later. See how acid unites everyone?
Please Keep the Dragon in Second Gear
Back at the concert, Hendrix hadn’t shown up, but people were high. Very high. Perhaps fifty yards in front of me, I saw the first living, fully naked woman of my life. I thought that was delightful, until she broke away from the group she was standing with, and ran, flat-out full speed, into the side of a parked truck. That, with the horrible sound of speeding human flesh hitting immovable object, was not delightful. Some folks carted her away.
And then Marty carted Dennis away, to one of the medical tents. Dennis had found himself naked and was offering spiritual counsel to some of the women nearby. Marty managed to get him into the flip-out center, where they eventually returned him to the earth, and re-clothed him, since his duds were lost in transit. Marty did report that on the way back, he saw two naked, muddy people having sex standing up. Recently, Dennis told me that in the tent he was hallucinating a choice between God and the Devil, and that he chose not to die, and to be with God. A good choice, as it turned out.
Here’s where our stories diverge: Dennis and Marty say we spent the night, but my brother and I are sure we went home in the evening. It’s possible that we hitchhiked home and they stayed, because we hitchhiked a lot in those days, and there were lots of people leaving the concert. If we did hitchhike home, I’m thankful no acid-fueled concertgoer picked us up, thinking he was driving a dragon, or perhaps a NASA moonshot.
Regardless, despite our efforts, we survived. The concert did go on for another day (even with many police roadblocks), and a couple of thousand people stayed in the canyon until the 28th, when the Laguna and Orange County cops raided the place and forced everyone out, bulldozers blazing. Not quite the sweeping landscape of debris you see in Woodstock depictions, but the place was pretty trashed. From that point, Laguna wasn’t as receptive to the hippie vibe as it had been.
Some big busts followed for the Brotherhood and its associates, and more tangled tales, like that one of their later biggest LSD manufacturers was also a CIA informant. Leary was pardoned in 1976 by Jerry Brown, our beloved Governor Moonbeam. Me, I started going to Grateful Dead concerts. I continued to take acid now and then. I kept my glasses. I stopped eating Vienna sausages. I can still spell.
I never did make it to Woodstock, but I was at the concert where acid came down from the sky. You’ll have to wait for the movie.
Tom Bentley is still trying to figure out what flavor of writer he is, but so far he is a short story writer, novelist, essayist, travel writer, journalist, and business copywriter. Bentley edits all that stuff too. His singing has been known to frighten the horses. See his lurid website confessions and blog at The Write Word