In 1966, David Bowie had a chance encounter with Vince Taylor an early exponent of the British Rock and roll scene. Taylor had been a leather-clad, chain-wielding rocker from the 1950s, a combination of Elvis, Eddie Cochran, and Gene Vincent. What now stood before Bowie in London’s West End was a bedraggled, wide-eyed religious zealot clutching a map that held instructions of what he described as the Alien’s secret bases on earth. This would become, in part, the inspiration for Bowie’s seminal work, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Taylor had slipped into Acid psychosis, he’d taken too much, had reached behind the veiled curtain and become lost in the darkness. Vince Taylor wouldn’t be the only one, like Icarus who had flown too close to the sun, by the 1970s, the casualties of the counterculture were just beginning to be realised. Mind expansion could sometimes come with dire consequences and like Pandora’s box, once openend, could not be closed again.
The same year Bowie had experienced the decline of Vince Taylor, The Beatles released ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ with the lyrics “Turn off your mind, Relax and float downstream, It is not dying, It is not dying”. The Beatles had been experimenting with LSD, or lysergic acid diethylamide, a drug that had become popular amongst the musicians and creatives of the swinging 60’s London scene. Initially synthesized by a Swiss chemist in 1938, it had been used to treat mental illness and addiction before the CIA had procured the world’s supply to use it on test subjects in their secret mind control MK Ultra experiments. It had evidently leaked out and was now been produced by the counterculture to fuel psychedelic enlightenment, creativity, and to trip the hell out.
Before Vince Taylor would begin his journey into the realms of the psychedelic wilderness, he’d been born Brian Maurice Holden in Middlesex, England. His family had immigrated to America when Taylor was aged 7. There, he’d witnessed the birth of Rock and Roll. He’d developed a ‘teddy boy’ look; changed his name to Vince after Elvis’s character in Jail House Rock and began to sing in talent shows. He would have limited success until his return to England in 1957 where the appetite for authentic American Rock and Roll was great. Taylor had the accent, the look; he wore tight leather pants and biker boots and stalked London’s Soho clubs looking menacing. What Taylor lacked in vocal talent and musicianship, he made up for in a blistering performance that saw him gyrate and jitterbug all over the stage, rolling on the floor in spasmodic convulsions of rock and roll ecstasy.
In 1958, Vince Taylor and the Playboys would release Brand New Cadillac, a milestone in the progression of the British rock and roll scene, a song that would later feature on The Clash’s 1979 album London Calling. The teenage crowds loved him and the shows were more often than not, ending in near riots. Though Taylor at the time didn’t have much competition from his British contemporaries, which included Cliff Richard and Tommy Steele.
By the 1960s, Vince Taylor and the Playboys were kicking up a storm in Europe; Paris being the epicentre of his popularity and the beginning of his decline. Taylor’s raucous live shows had been fuelled by amphetamines and alcohol, the rocker’s narcotic concoction of choice at the time. Everyone from Johnny Cash to Elvis had self-medicated with the stimulant to prolong and enhance performance during gruelling tour schedules. The problem would come when LSD was thrown into the mix.
How the story unfolds is that in 1965, just before an important showcase gig at the Locomotive Club in Paris, Taylor had decamped to London to secure funds that the band desperately needed. On his return two days later and just before the concert, what arrived back is what Bowie would later describe as a space oddity. Taylor had ceased to exist; he was now called Mateus and he was the son of God from outer space, he informed the perplexed band. Bobbie Clarke, their drummer of the time remembers the incident:
“About 6 o’clock the door opened and in walks Vince Taylor, his shoes were filthy, he had long hair that looked like it hadn’t been combed in a week, and he hadn’t shaved. He was carrying a roll of purple material under one arm holding a bottle of Mateus wine”.
When the band asked Taylor (or Mateus, as he was now going by) where the money was, he proceeded to take out a roll of notes and set fire to it, informing them that money wasn’t important, it was god that was important. After this apparent divine sacrificial statement, Taylor went on stage draped in a towel and preceded to baptise members of the audience with a jug of water as he sermonised about his newly found faith. The band managed to play 3 songs after which Taylor smashed up all their equipment in a sort of proto-punk rampage and stormed off. Unbeknown to Bobbie Clarke and the rest of the band was that during Taylor’s brief trip to London, he had attended Bob Dylan’s 1965 European tour party at the Savoy, where he had met Dylan, future Velvet Underground member and darling of Andy Warhol’s factory Nico, and a mystery man who would dose Taylor with LSD. He would never be the same again, Bowie would later describe him in song, as a Leper messiah and a rock and roll suicide. Vince Taylor would suffer an acid-induced mental breakdown that he never quite recovered from.
Sadly, his story isn’t unique in the 1960s and the brave new world of psychotropic experimentation. The casualties would increase as LSD became the drug of choice for aspiring artists who wanted to tap into the secret elixir of creativity. Brian Wilson, the songwriting genius of The Beach Boys, perhaps because of the pressure to compete with The Beatles, began taking LSD in 1965, at first resulting in a surge of creativity but ultimately become the cause of his schizophrenia. He would spend three years in bed, abusing alcohol and drugs and spend the next few decades in the spaced-out badlands of his imagination. Wilson later suggested LSD had “Fucked with his brain”.
Peter Green, Fleetwood Macs founding member, singer, and one of Britain’s most celebrated lead guitarists would have a similar experience. In 1970, Fleetwood Mac were at the height of their current success, they’d begun during the British Blues boom of the 1960s and developed their sound and Green’s songwriting until they were out-selling The Beatles and The Rolling Stones in Europe in 1969. Green and the band had begun taking acid and exploring the realms of the unreal while in San Francisco with The Grateful Dead. By 1970, Green had begun wearing white robes and preached on the malefic and corruptive influence of money, even suggesting to the band that they give all of theirs away. The breaking point for the band and Green’s sanity would come after a gig in Munich that year when two beguiling rich Germans invited the band to a party in an isolated mansion in the woods.
The rest of the band remember a dark atmosphere looming over the ‘freak out’ before Green was led off by two of the aristocratic svengali’s, returning hours later in an acid-induced state of emotional distress. Two of the band members, Peter Green and Danny Kirwan, would never be quite the same again. Green would leave the band and spend time in and out of hospitals where he would receive electro shock therapy for schizophrenia. Later he would work as a gravedigger before spending time in jail after he threatened to shoot his accountant if he kept sending him the band’s royalties. Danny Kirwan, after a breakdown, lived out the rest of his life on the streets in London and LA, never quite finding his way home after his experiences on LSD.
Syd Barrett, the architect of psychedelia and the founder of Pink Floyd, would disappear behind what Roger Waters would later describe as “Black Holes in the sky” for eyes after one trip to many. Barrett, an effervescent songwriter and painter, had started the band in the mid 60’s before becoming the darling of the London Underground music scene. After the band had become popular and stardom descended onto Barrett, he’d become withdrawn and isolated himself from the group. After disappearing for a few days, what returned was not the Barrett that they had known. The band would try to seek him help and diagnose his problems with a psychiatrist, at which point Barrett informed them, “Are you sure this is Syd’s problem”?
He would leave the group and go on to record two solo records that would act as a looking glass into the troubled soul of a visionary and the decline of someone’s sanity. He would walk away from the music industry and London on foot, back to his native Cambridge where he would live out the rest of his life as a recluse. Barrett’s decline would be well documented and revisited in Pink Floyd;s albums Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here and The Wall, where his influence and downfall would be ever-present in the life of the band.
The journey down the rabbit hole of creative consciousness would collect victims from the realms of the emotionally sensitive, the artists who had a channel to the act of artistic creation, and lingered in the neverworld between madness and genius. Some would have near misses and some would abstain, but the average rock star’s gluttonous appetite for destruction would mean a tightrope walk for some through the mists of hallucinogenic reverie. The stories would become folklore and rock and roll legend played out by adoring fans with tales of what could have been.
A few would find their way home eventually and years later, make comebacks, only seemingly with their spark now extinguished. The dark side to the counterculture’s free love and ‘do as thou will’ philosophy, would manifest itself in the victims of the drug culture, artists and musicians; the creative free thinkers of the time. Some were looking for spiritual awakening and some were just looking for a good time. What was left could be a romanticized view of a beautiful young artist frozen in time at the height of their fame, they searched for the secret too soon and became lost in the void.