Kerouac’s Bad Trip

by David S. Wills

In January, 1961, John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as President of the United States of America, whilst the much maligned “King of the Beats”, Jack Kerouac, was trying magic mushrooms for the first time, at 170 East Second Street in the East Village.[1]

It was Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary who were responsible. By this stage Jack Kerouac was soured on the Beats and the following countercultural movements, and had nothing but disdain for the hippies. Leary had turned Ginsberg onto psilocybin the previous year, and now the Harvard professor was recording its influence on creativity, and the pair of them had naturally come to Kerouac to record what influence the drug had upon his spontaneous prose.

The meeting, however, did not go well, and is known mostly for being Leary’s first “bad trip” and another example of Kerouac’s increasing distance from contemporary counterculture.

The scene perhaps wasn’t set for the best of trips. Kerouac was, as usual, drunk when Leary arrived at Ginsberg’s apartment. He had been drinking with Lucian Carr at a different address in the city, and turned up already drunk. According to Ginsberg, he mocked the pair of them by asking, “What are you up to Dr Leary, running around with this faggot communist Ginsberg and your bag of pills? Can your drugs absolve the mortal and venial sins, which our beloved savior Jesus Christ, the only son of God, came down and sacrificed his life upon the cross to wash away?”

Ginsberg replied simply: “Why don’t we find out?”

Kerouac continued to act like a drunken fool, screaming at Leary, “I’m king of the beatniks! I’m Francois Villon, vagabond poet-rogue of the open highway. Listen while I play you spiral hot-lick improvisations from my tenor typewriter.”

After taking the psilocybin pills, Kerouac mellowed and he and Leary began to get along better. After realizing that there was snow on the ground, they went outside to play football in the street with an oval-shaped loaf of rye bread.

Dan Wakefield was another witness of Kerouac’s psilocybin trip. He visited Ginsberg to interview him about marijuana (of which Ginsberg was a known public advocate) and found Leary and Kerouac present. Leary informed Wakefield that he was conducting a “scientific experiment” and requested the journalist stay and witness history in the making. Leary seemed to genuinely believe that literary history was being made… that Kerouac’s “bop prosody” would mix with the hallucinogen and result in a true epic poem of some kind, in spite of Kerouac’s obvious drunkenness.

Leary told Wakefield to talk to Kerouac, who was normally hostile to outsiders, because the drug was sure to make him “mellow”. However, Kerouac recalled Wakefield as the author of a mocking article about one of Kerouac’s drunken poetry readings, and “threatened to throw [him] out the window.”

Wakefield wished to leave after the threat, but Leary convinced him to stay. Kerouac was given a pencil and told to write. Everyone watched in anticipation of some new literary triumph, but Kerouac turned away and refused. In the end, he was bribed to produce something with the threat of being deprived of more drugs. The result was dozens of lines drawn haphazardly across the page. Not a word was written, but Leary laughed it off and claimed the creativity would come later.

At some point during the trip, after Ginsberg and Leary again attempted to explain the significance of mushrooms upon the mind, Kerouac looked out the window and famously said, “Walking on water wasn’t built in a day.” Leary later explained:

Throughout the night Kerouac remained unmovably the Catholic carouser, an old-style bohemian without a hippie bone in his body. Jack Kerouac opened the neural doors to the future, looked ahead, and didn’t see his place in it. Not for him the utopian pluralist optimism of the sixties.

Kerouac continued to smoke and drink, shouting so rudely that it caused Leary to suffer his own bad trip – a first for the pioneer of hallucinogens. In fact, he later claimed that the experience caused him to think intensely about being abandoned by his father as a child. According to Ginsberg, Leary curled up in a fetal position in a dark room, while the poet talked him through the experience.

Kerouac’s bad trip did not end there. After taking the mushrooms, Kerouac at least responded to Leary enough to write him a poem postcard and a “stupid drunken letter”, detailing the experience he’d more or less refused to share at the time.

The letter is a little more of what Leary had wanted. It details the mental and physical impact of the drug on Kerouac:

Mainly I felt like a floating Kahn on a magic carpet with my interesting lieutenants and gods… some ancient feeling about old geheuls in the grass, and temples, exactly also like the sensation I got drunk on pulque floating in the Xochimilco gardens on barges laden with flowers and singers… some old Golden Age dream of man, very nice. But that is the element of hallucination in this acid called mushrooms (Amanita?) The bad physical side-effects involved (for me) stiffening of elbow and knee joints, a swelling of the eyelid, shortness of breath or rather anxiety about breathing itself. No heart palpitations like in mescaline, however… Yet there were no evil side effects.

In the letter, Kerouac also claims to have talked to his mother for three days, realizing he loved her more than he thought. He also claims to have awoken one morning convinced that the neighbours thought him “Master of Trust in Heaven.” The world, he felt, was trustful and everyone around him was innocent.

He continued,

In sum, also, there is temporary addiction but no withdrawl symptoms whatever. The faculty of remembering names and what one has learned, is heightened so fantastically that we could develop the greatest scholars and scientists in the world with this stuff… There’s no harm in Sacred Mushrooms if taken in moderation as a rule and much good will come of it.

This letter, however, was not shared as Leary wished. When Leary requested that it be published as evidence of the trip, Kerouac refused. In his journey he wrote negatively of the experience: “The psychic clairvoyance lasted till early this morning – I’ve been sleeping it off (too much to live with, in fact too much for Samahdi peace).” Not long after that, he began comparing the hallucinogenic experience to communist brainwashing. Moreover, Kerouac later made the claim that psilocybin had caused irreparable damage to his mind. “I haven’t been right since,” he dubiously claimed.


[1] Sources are conflicted on the exact date: Maher claims it was January 12th, while Kerouac states in his letter to Leary that it was Friday the 13th and others claim it was the 20th. From Kerouac’s letter: “The mushroom high carried on for exactly till wednesday Jan. 18th (and remember I first chewed the first pills Friday night the 13th). I kept it alive by drinking Christian Brothers port on the rocks. Suddenly on Friday the 20th (day of Inauguration) it started all up again, on port, but very mushroomy, and that was a swinging day, yakking in bars, bookstores, homes around northport (which I never do).”

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Author: David S. Wills

David S. Wills is the founder and editor of Beatdom magazine and the author of The Dog Farm. He travels a lot, and is currently working as a professor in China. His latest book is called Scientologist! William S. Burroughs the Weird Cult. You can read more about and by David at his blog, www.davidswills.com or on Tumblr.

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4 Comments

  1. One thing caught my eye here..

    When drug proponents (I’m one) claim drugs help them it’s all good, but when Kerouac says that they had a bad effect on him the claim is “dubious?”

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    • That’s a fair point, but what I meant was that Kerouac was biased against hallucinogens because of his disdain for the hippies. I mean, he began calling it “communist brainwashing”, so it stands to reason that his claims about its effects on his mind were probably not 100% honest or accurate.

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  2. Interesting article…but it’s incorrect to reference the hippies so much. If this is 1961, the hippies hadn’t happened yet. I understand the reference in the context of Leary speaking later on about it, but Kerouac couldn’t have been rebelling against the hippies or even a mass counter-cultural movement because none had happened yet. The Beats and everything they were doing was countercultural at that point in time, but far from widespread when JFK had just been inaugurated.

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  3. A letter from Jack Kerouac to Timothy Leary;
    The following missive describes Kerouac’s reaction to magic mushrooms, taken the day President Kennedy was inaugurated. Kerouac took the drug at the suggestion of Allen Ginsburg who hooked him up with Leary. At the time Leary was doing clinical research on the effects of hallucinogens.
    ############################################################

    Dear Tim (coach)
    I wrote yo stupid drunken letter, I mean postcard, addressed to Harvard Psychology Dept. which you may get. But Allen reminds me you want notes on my reaction to Sacred Mushrooms extract. Why not I make it in the form of a letter, here and now, without planning, and you can extract what you need for your article and researches. (Allen also suggested I send you my notes on Mescaline but I only have one copy now, will type it later for you, but in any case Mescaline is not the same as mushrooms, as you know)
    You say that Montezuma was high on sacred mushrooms and therefore did not resist Cortez but I don’t think that was the whole story, because under mushrooms I felt myself more in the mood for self-defense than I am usually (because of a vow of kindness in the spirit of Buddhism made soberly years ago, and also old teachings of sacred young brother who died in 1926). No, in fact on mushrooms I felt qutie strong, quite angry in fact at the atheists for fighting Christianity (communism so-called vs. capitalism so-called, it says in the paper, but it’s really atheism vs. gnosticism.) (right?)

    Mainly I felt like a floating Kahn on a magic carpet with my interesting lieutenants and gods… some ancient feeling about old geheuls in the grass, and temples, exactly also like the sensation I got drunk on pulque floating in the Xochimilco gardens on barges laden with flowers and singers… some old Golden Age dream of man, very nice. But that is the element of hallucination in this acid called mushrooms (Amanita?) The bad physical side-effects involved (for me) stiffening of elbow and knee joints, a swelling of the eyelid, shortness of breath or rather anxiety about breathing itself. No heart palpitations like in mescaline, however. I felt that Donlin was asking for too many ‘fives’ all the time (in the trade they’d say he has an oil-burning habit, or is a “hog”)—But under the sympathetic influence of the drug or whatever it is called I kept agreeing with all his demands. In that sense there’s a lot of brainwash implicit in SM’s. So I do think we took too much. Yet there were no evil side effects.

    In fact I came home and had the first serious long talk with my mother, for 3 days and 3 nights (not consecutive) but we sat talking about everything yet went about the routine of washing, sleeping, eating, cleaning up the yard and house, and returning to long talk chairs at proper time. That was great. I learned I loved her more than I thought. The mushroom high carried on for exactly till wednesday Jan. 18th (and remember I first chewed the first pills Friday night the 13th). I kept it alive by drinking Christian Brothers port on the rocks. Suddenly on Friday the 20th (day of Inauguration) it started all up again, on port, but very mushroomy, and that was a swinging day, yakking in bars, bookstores, homes around northport (which I never do).

    My report is endless, exactly. But here, remember what we were saying? “What? What did you say?” (to have a mumble repeated, the mumble being of excruciating importance.) And “Who are you?” “Are you sure?” “I’m not here.” — “What are we doing here?”— “Where are we?”—- “What’s going on?”—”Am I going to die?” — “No” — “I can’t see you, you’re a ghost” — “You’re the Holy Ghost” — “walking on water wasn’t built in a day” — “We’re just laying around here doing nothin” — “Even if I knew how to break your leg (utilizing Zen koan about Baso (T’ang master d. 788)) “even if I knew how to break your leg I wouldn’t do it?— besides you haven’t got a leg. Who said you had a leg? You? Who are you? I can’t see you? You’re not there! I don’t see nuttin! I hate you! Why? Because I love you!” “I love you anyway.”

    We were at the extremest point of goofing on clouds watching the movie of existence. remember?)

    Owing to the residue of Sacred Mushroom hallucination I woke up briefly the other quiet morning (Thursday 19th) feeling that everybody in my neighborhood was sleeping trustfully around me because they knew I was the Master of Trust in Heaven (for instance).

    Everybody seemed innocent. Ladcadio became St. Innocent the Patriarch of Holy Russia. Donlin became the Paraclete, whom you waved over my head by an astounding show of physical strength (remember?) It was a defninite Satori. Full of psychic clairvoyance (but you must remember that this is not half as good as the peaceful ecstacy of simple Samadhi trance as I described that in Dharma Bums). When I yelled out the window at the three Porto Rican teenage boys walking in the snow “Avante Con Dios!” I had no idea where the word “avante” came from, Allen said it meant “forward with.” Clairvoyance there. I saw you, Leary, as a Jesuit Father. Donlin called you Doctor Leary. I saw Allen as Sariputra (the Indian saint). My old idea of St. Peter (about Peter Orlovsky) was strengthened. I saw Peter’s sister Marie as Ste. Catherine. Bob Kaufman as a Michoacan Indian chief. I saw Communists all around us (especially that Ben Rosenbluth, and others). Pearl became a Lotus of indescribable beauty sitting there in the form of a Buddha woman Bhikkushini. When someone mentioned people being electricity I said “Consolidated Coils.” Divine run-outs in my head, like when I went to pee I said to the toilet “It’s all your fault!” and could never leave the group without feeling that they were still with me (in the toilet.) Finally told my mother “C’est la Sainte Esprit” and she agreed. My old conviction that nothing ever happened was strengthened (ow). I felt like a silly agnel (angel) but now I know I’m only a mutterer in old paths, as before. I kept saying, however, to all kinds of people “What an interesting person you are!” and it was true. Finally I said “I think I’ll take a shit out the window” in desperation, it was impossible to go on in such ecstasy and excitement. Jokes were the Sacred Jokes of Heaven. The low dog of Dublin, Bob Donlin, was there by design, I’d say, to keep the good old Irish jokes going, otherwise we would all have been too serious, I say.

    In sum, also, there is temporary addiction but no withdrawl symptoms whatever. The faculty of remembering names and what one has learned, is heightened so fantastically that we could develop the greatest scholars and scientists in the world with this stuff. (By the way, does Wm. Lederer the stuttering genius at Harvard, take it?) (He stutters with a method, most eerie). There’s no harm in Sacred Mushrooms if taken in moderation as a rule and much good will come of it. (For instance, I remembered historical details I’d completely forgotten before the mushrooms, and names names millions of names and categories and data.

    well okay
    Touch football sometime?
    Jack

    *********************************************************************
    From the horses mouth to your ears; Kerouac loved psychedelics and Leary. Your article does a dis-service to the truth.

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