“Well, I ain’t got no mother to love me, ain’t got no father to care … Lord, I ain’t got no reasons to go on, give me no cause to stay here.”
Janis Joplin, from “No Reason for Livin’’
Forty-nine years after she died of a heroin overdose at age 27, rock’s doomed diva is on the road again. “A Night With Janis Joplin,” a musical homage to the psychedelic era and its favorite blues singer, returned to its Bay Area roots in mid-October — to Santa Rosa and then San Jose, where I first heard that scratchy, sultry crooning through our living-room stereo.
Interest in hallucinogenic drugs has rarely been stronger. The Oct. 13 episode of “60 Minutes” featured Johns Hopkins University’s ongoing psilocybin research studies. The report made a good case for magic mushrooms’ ability to cure depression and addiction; many control-group patients in the study swore the drug took them on some of the most profound “journeys” of their lives.
Mike Wise, a former Post sports columnist who is now a digital and on-air journalist for WUSA9 in Washington, is writing a biography of 1964 Olympic gold medalist Billy Mills.
The Sixties have been dead for 50 years this January. It’s long past time to bury them for good because we’ve severely overrated them. Those years left deep marks on our culture while still leaving us in a perpetual daze about their exact meaning. Meanwhile, the nostalgia bus just keeps rolling on. For those who were there, the sensory overload never ends: Jimi Hendrix’s wailing Stratocaster; Peter Max’s Crayola-inspired pop art; the brittle back seats of Volkswagen bugs; Sensimilla buds, empty Coors cans; the acid-trip comedowns; people losing themselves in the sound, the substances and, really, the feelin’-groovy zeitgeist. “Never trust anyone over 30,” Jack Weinberg, a student-activist at the University of California at Berkeley famously said in 1964 — the year I was born.
But what if you weren’t merely a child of the Sixties but just … a child? What if you couldn’t trust anyone to be your caregiver under 30? And what if, over time, you grew so sick and tired of hearing about how great it all had been that you just wanted to tell everyone to stop the revisionist history and shut the hell up?
During the last year my family of origin was together, “Woodstock” spun continuously on our vinyl record player, 33⅓ revolutions per minute. In the living room of our modest, three-bedroom, shag-carpeted, hippie-pillow home on Dogaway Drive in South San Jose, Joan Baez’s “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man” and John Sebastian’s “Rainbows All Over Your Blues” competed for time and space with the soundtrack from “Camelot” and the Moody Blues’ “Days of Future Passed.”
The damn Moody Blues, haunting the hallway to my bedroom, often till 2 a.m.
Nights in white satin, never reaching the end; letters I’ve written, never meaning to send.
If your father hated his father between maybe 1966 and 1974, he probably loved psychedelic and symphonic rock. Anything, really, to help him get stoned out of his mind.
One afternoon, some 50 years ago, those lyrics were accompanied by the siren of an ambulance, pulling up behind our faded, blue Buick station wagon in the driveway. Strangers in white uniforms stormed into my parents’ bedroom, where they pumped my mother’s stomach to rid her of whatever drugs she had overdosed on.
My father told me to take my 4-year-old sister into my room down the hall to amuse her, play a game, do anything to pretend Mom wasn’t OD’ing and needed to be revived.
I was almost 6.
I am 55 now, and even now I keep hearing these homespun yarns about 500,000 people gathering in Upstate New York on a dairy farm in August of 1969 for something so much grander and more majestic than just a rock festival.
But the “Woodstock” album still takes me to the same unsafe, dimly lit corner bedroom on Dogaway Drive, where it’s just me and my sister still terrified we will be all alone tomorrow.
For many older teens and 20-somethings, tripping on LSD or mushrooms for the first time, exploring their sexuality, giving the finger to Richard Nixon and the establishment — or, hell, downing a pint of Southern Comfort before they went onstage like Joplin — must have felt liberating, almost Utopian.
But deciding to be a part of that scene would become dangerous and ultimately devastating for a young married couple — two disparate souls from different countries, who selfishly wanted to partake of that counterculture, be part of whatever resistance they could, while simultaneously raising children.
And they couldn’t do both.
Ulrike Seitz was just a 15-year-old waifish German girl clearing beer bottles at a hofbrau by the Rhine River when my father, a 23-year-old U.S. Army private stationed in Würzburg, essentially asked an adolescent girl out on a date. Statutory rape and pedophilia come to mind today. In 1962, this was minimized as “robbing the cradle.”
Within a year, they were married. Eight months pregnant and unable to speak but a few words of English, she left her home for my grandparents’ house in Northern California in late November of 1963. When she got through customs at the San Francisco airport, she noticed an eerie quiet in the terminal. Within seconds after meeting her mother-in-law, my grandmother explained.
“I’m sorry, Ulrike, it is a bad day in America. The president has been shot and killed.”
My father was discharged within months and came home to join his teenage bride, who had just turned 17, and their newborn son. Dad decided he wanted to be a newspaper man, writing for small papers in Pleasanton and Livermore before the San Jose Mercury News gave him his big break as a general assignment reporter in 1966.
By the time my mother was 19, their relationship didn’t need the Bay Area of the late 1960s to implode. Between a hard-drinking, pack-a-day California hellion and his demure, inquisitive Bavarian child bride, emotionally alone and a continent away from her siblings and parents, they had enough psychological dynamite already strewn in their path. But the proximity to so much social and political upheaval helped permanently fracture our family.
If people who are still in thrall to The Sixties — and, for that matter, many of their children who still want to live vicariously through their parents’ imaginary pasts — remember that Janis and Jimi OD’d within three weeks of each other in 1970, they might also remember a songwriter and lyricist named Robert Hunter, best known for collaborating with Jerry Garcia.
Despite putting his body through hell over many years, he died in September at 78, outliving many of his contemporaries. Buried in his obituary was this: Hunter volunteered around 1962 to be a guinea pig in Stanford University’s CIA-sponsored psychedelic-drug research program. He was the first member of the Grateful Dead to regularly take LSD, a fact often attributed to the creative surge the band experienced in the following decade.
At Stanford, along with Ken Kesey, the future author of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Hunter was paid to take LSD, psilocybin and mescaline and to detail his experiences afterward.
The psychologist Timothy Leary soon became one of the psilocybin’s chief proponents. Leary coined “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” and many of his disciples heeded the advice of this amateur guidance counselor. In large hippie swaths of Northern California and beyond 50-odd years ago, it nearly became socially acceptable to drop acid and enter another, unexplored corridor of the mind until one’s reality and basic understanding of the environment around them disintegrated.
Stanford was one of many “testing” sites for lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD. After the CIA heard in the late 1940s that the Soviet Union was ramping up efforts to produce LSD — and possibly corner the world’s supply — Allen Dulles, then the agency’s director, approved a program called MK-Ultra. The goal was plain: Beat Stalin in brain warfare. But the testing to determine whether the drug could be used for interrogation, brainwashing or worse wasn’t plain and simple; it was downright cruel and sinister.
James “Whitey” Bulger, the late Boston crime boss, became one of MK-Ultra’s earliest test subjects when he was incarcerated at an Atlanta penitentiary in 1957. “Eight convicts in a panic and paranoid state,” Bulger later wrote of being forcibly injected with the drug. “Total loss of appetite. Hallucinating. The room would change shape. Hours of paranoia and feeling violent. We experienced horrible periods of living nightmares and even blood coming out of the walls. Guys turning to skeletons in front of me. I saw a camera change into the head of a dog. I felt like I was going insane.”
But other test subjects didn’t report psychotic episodes. They claimed their altered mental states took them to dreamy, smiling happy places, to streaks of ingenuity, enhanced imaginativeness — genius, even.
Leary thought so much of LSD’s benefits, he encouraged the “spiritually ready” parents of his young followers to share acid’s mind-bending experience with their children.
And one night, that’s what my father said my mother wanted to do.
I don’t know when my parents began using, how much or what, exactly, they took. And it wasn’t just their own detours from reality that scared the hell out of me and my sister. In San Jose, around 1969, anybody could be high as a kite.
Jill, the auburn-haired babysitter of maybe 19, had taken acid one night when she came to tuck me in and suddenly began calling me, “Joe,” her boyfriend’s name. She laid on top of me and began kissing every part of my body. Until I began screaming, “I’m not Joe! I’m not Joe!” Jill got off me and went back to the living room to smoke a cigarette and cry.
Virginia was the “good” babysitter. She had Coke-bottle glasses, made authentic tamales from her native Mexico and was the only woman beyond our grandmother and our aunt we felt safe with at that age. One night when my father came by her house to pick us up, Virginia asked Dad if he had hit my mother.
Feigning sleep on the couch the ways kids do, I still hear my father’s words — even though I would not understand them until years later.
“I only hit her once, slapping her in the bathroom,” he said. “I did it after she asked what it would be like if we gave the kids a little LSD.”
Whether he lied so he wouldn’t come across as a wife-beater or whether my mother’s nervous breakdown prevented her from being parental, I don’t know. All I knew was that Mom and Dad took drugs and the ambulance came to our house so Mom wouldn’t die.
Mom soon went to live at the state psychiatric hospital in Napa, so she could “get better,'' everyone said. For my sister and me, that meant she could come home again, make us breakfast, tuck us in, be our mom.
About a year later, we drove to a house in the nearby suburb of Hayward, where she was temporarily staying with an older woman from Germany she’d met. The house was painted white, and it was at the very end of a long street. Mom sobbed at the kitchen table, holding us so tight, kissing our foreheads and running her fingers through our hair. We weren’t sure why until Dad drove away.
“Your mother is going back to Germany,” my father said, his voice cracking. “You won’t see her anymore.” My sister buried her head in my lap in the back seat of our Buick and began to let out her own convulsive sobs.
It was the fall of 1970. The decade had claimed my family, my mother, my security. There was a price to pay for the indulgence and experimentation, and the people who ultimately settled that karmic debt were often the children of the parents who rang up the bill. Many took trips and came back. Fifty years later, many more have children, 401Ks and fond memories. But some took too much, toyed recklessly with their delicate brain chemistry and never returned.
When I heard a few months ago that organizers failed to pull off Woodstock’s golden anniversary festival, that all the big acts had pulled out and the tickets had never been sold, I thought silently, to myself: Good. Time to turn the page. Time to let that go.
Mom would return several times from Germany to see my sister and me until I was 12. But after 1976, I did not have contact with her for another 15 years, when I was 27. I went back to Würzburg a year later, asking her for many of the disturbing details of my childhood but always stopping short of embarrassing her for not being the mom she wanted to be. I wasn’t angry or hurt; I just loved that my mother was in my life again.
Over her stove in her Würzburg flat that summer of 1992, she made my favorite childhood dish for me — lentils with German wieners that she ladled generously over these tender egg noodles called spaetzle. After we ate, Mom put her hand on my shoulder with a gentleness that became the most maternal moment from her I can recall. For maybe three seconds, I returned to the child I was when my parents were together and I had every assumption that they would be forever.
A year later, I decided to call her after midnight California time and before 8 a.m. Germany time. A police officer answered. The female sergeant asked in broken English if this was in fact her son from America. “Yes,” I said.
“Your mother is dead.”
She was just 46 when, with beer, wine and sedatives in her system, she accidentally fell asleep in the tub and went under. I hadn’t spoken to her since her birthday a month earlier. It still eats at me: Why did I call then? Why didn’t I call the night before?
My father gave up the drinking, drugging and carousing life of a 1960s and ’70s San Jose newspaperman, moved to Hawaii, found his way to a lifesaving addiction recovery room, and trained for triathlons and marathons (mostly out of guilt that he had almost destroyed his body a decade earlier). As he put his life together for more than a decade, he felt a calling: He decided he wanted to become an Episcopal priest. At 50. He had one relapse, two more unsuccessful marriages and died in 2013 at the age of 73.
My sister and I survived by pretending we were normal kids from a normal family, long before we realized there was no such thing. If I was her protector, she was my guide — showing me how to fill that hole with healthy instead of hurtful things.
Her path to finding a life partner was five years shorter than my own. I lived the lie until 40-plus, which cost me so many relationships, a wrenching broken engagement and left a lot of people in my life wondering why I was so good at running away.
I medicated for a time with women and food and exercise. One of the few benefits of growing up in the 1960s and early 1970s, though, was seeing firsthand the damage the drinking, smoking and drugging can do; except for a cigarette butt I apparently ate out of the fireplace when I was 1, I’ve never smoked, barely drink and have never tried anything harder than marijuana.
I was eventually diagnosed with something called attachment disorder, which means I became adept at sabotaging relationships. That way, a life-saver of a mental-health professional told me, I would never be abandoned by anybody again if I did the abandoning first.
It wasn’t until I walked into a men’s relationship support group one day about 15 years ago where I had heard about a man congratulated for protecting himself from ever getting hurt like he had been hurt as a child. “But that’s not really what you have done,” he was told by his sponsor. “No, by putting up walls all these years, you’ve actually prevented yourself from receiving the love you deserve.”
The man broke down in tears and started to let people in again.
I still operate in chaos better than I do inside well-defined lanes. But it’s a process, much like forgiving the people who brought you into the world.
The year before he died, Dad came to visit his grandchild in Washington. I siphoned as many stories out of him as I could, trying to piece together the past without also shaming him. Then came a revelation, with my wife sitting in the front room:
He had used LSD again, he said. Fairly recently. He went on and on. “I forgot how it broadened my mind in ways I couldn’t imagine.” I felt sick before changing the subject and walking upstairs in disbelief.
When he passed away in 2013, Roger Francis Wise was survived by me, my sister and a decade that wouldn’t die. It’s way past time to put that era down. And down for good.
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