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).”