By now, we’re all probably familiar with the wilder conspiracy theories from the 1960s and 1970s about rock & roll. Jimi Hendrix was murdered, Jim Morrison faked his death, and Paul is dead. There’s an element of morbidity in rock mythology that dictates the show must go on. It could be that rock, a music that emerged as the identity of America’s first youth cultures, never outgrew its endless summer—or there could be something more sinister at work. Violence has always lingered on the fringes, erupting suddenly to claim the lives of rock’s young gods and then disappearing just as abruptly, as if nothing happened, the memory soon fading into urban legend.
Could rock itself be the conspiracy? In 1965, Christian evangelist David Noebel published the notorious Communism, Hypnotism, and The Beatles, arguing that rock music was a communist project to indoctrinate America. Right-wing superconspiracies about rock & roll appeared as moral panics gripped the nation. The Satanic Panic would eventually replace the Red Scare, with figures like Bob Larson stepping into the shoes of Noebel with books and home videos about the literal evils of rock music. But these accusations were short-lived, lasting only as long as the diseased hivemind of right-wing paranoia could sustain each panic. Superconspiracies about rock never moved beyond fringe Christian ministries.
The irony here is that a conspiratorial reading of rock & roll’s origins isn’t necessarily off-base, just miscast as individual theories about lone figures in rock lore or as an all-encompassing boogeyman of the right. There’s a case for covert influence. But by whom? That’s the question.
Rock hagiographies have rewritten the history of the genre as one of protest, but the truth is that only war rock & roll has ever fought is a culture war. This is because, from the very beginning, rock has valued traits like individualism and freedom of expression over political action. Moreover, its primary mode of rebellion was, is, and always will be consumption. The greaser, rock’s earliest youth subculture, defined itself by its image: black leather and blue jeans, muscle cars and motorcycles. The greaser’s gods were Presley, Dean, and Brando, lone men lashing out at a conformist society. They expressed their anger in singular acts of self-destruction. While this may have amounted to a form of cultural rebellion, a war of offense on the conservative majority, it was in no way threatening to American capitalism — and, in fact, supported it through the continued consumption of American goods and entertainment.
This stood in contrast to other contemporaneous movements. The American folk revival was an explicitly political project, growing out of the Communist movement of the 1930s and 1940s, as leftists searched for a form of cultural expression that could shake Americans from their complacency. Urban folklorists and activists began promoting an idealized image of an American “folk” as a way of uniting the working poor. This led to the creation of folk groups like the Almanac Singers and the Weavers, troupes that could travel the country to perform renditions of traditional folk ballads updated with anti-war and pro-union messages. In The Folk Singers and the Bureau: The FBI, the Folk Artists and the Suppression of the Communist Party USA, 1939–1956, historian Aaron Leonard observes how this made folk an immediate target of the government: the Federal Bureau of Investigation singled out musicians like Peter Seeger and Lee Hays to testify at the House Un-American Activities Committee. American folk would experience a dark period in the mid-1950s thanks to the backlash but, by the end of the decade, it returned stronger than ever as a new generation of artists like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez took up the musician-activist mantle. These artists again updated the sound to match political trends, and songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “We Shall Overcome” became anthems of the anti-war and civil rights movements.
But the individualism of rock presented a threat to the communism of folk. Many viewed Dylan as abandoning class politics after going electric in 1965 and folk as moving away from political provocation as artists from California’s Laurel Canyon began incorporating the drug culture surrounding rock into the folk sound. Notably, The Byrds progressed from covers of protest songs like “The Times They Are-A Changin’” to the psychedelia of “Eight Miles High.” Central to this shift was LSD, or lysergic acid diethylamide, a hallucinogenic drug that allowed users to experience either intense feelings of euphoria and enlightenment or paranoid delusions and violent mood swings. It was a perfect match for rock’s next subculture: the hippie. The hippie’s preferred music, psychedelic rock, could veer between serene harmonies and loud passages of guitar feedback. And while appearing to share allegiance with the folk musicians that preceded it, the hippie was actually a natural evolution of the greaser. Radical politics were worn like leather jackets, spiritual beliefs tested like motorcycles. The hippie presented no challenge to capitalism, it simply remade the economic system in its image. By the end of the decade, we shall overcome was out and sex, drugs, and rock & roll was in.
Questions abound. Why did this evolution occur — and to what extent was it encouraged by outside forces; who was involved—and where did they come from? It would not be too spooky to say the government may have had more than a passing interest in promoting a movement that encouraged consumption over class politics. Beginning in 1947 with the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency, the government covertly funneled money into art and arts criticism it deemed “American.” The purpose of this art was two-fold. First, successful art would raise the prestige of America internationally, and second (and more important), it would act as propaganda for American values like individualism and democracy in a growing cold war. The best-known example of this was early CIA support for abstract expressionist artists like Jackson Pollock via the Congress for Cultural Freedom, but the CIA didn’t discriminate. Though it may have had a preference for the avant-garde, the CCF funded projects across a broad spectrum of mediums and styles, covering everything from popular music like jazz to critically-minded genres like classical. The CIA’s preferred tactic for spreading American music abroad was festivals; in 1952, the CCF held the Festival of Twentieth-Century Masterpieces of Modern Art in Paris, and in 1961, using a front group known as the American Society of African Culture, it tricked singer Nina Simone into performing at the Lagos Festival in Nigeria. Musicians of the era, knowing or not, benefitted from the financial support of the CIA.
With regard to rock, the counterculture of the 1960s wasn’t something that emerged fully formed — it was an (un)intended consequence of government research. The CIA began using LSD in mind-control experiments known as Project MKUltra in the 1950s. At the time, the agency was the only source of the drug in America. The counterculture’s first exposure to acid, through figures like Allen Ginsberg and Ken Kesey, came in these experiments, as either willing participants or clever opportunists. These early adopters — Kesey in particular — were responsible for the mainstreaming of the drug. Journalist Stephen Kinzer outlines Kesey’s influence in his book Poisoner In Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control: Kesey stole LSD from a veterans’ hospital he was working at and began passing it in hip circles, precipitating the creation of the Merry Pranksters. Kesey then worked with Owsley Stanley, sound engineer for Haight-Ashbury rock band The Grateful Dead, and Tim Scully, a computer engineer, to synthesize and distribute LSD at a series of parties known as Acid Tests. Kesey’s Acid Tests appeared in Tom Wolfe’s best-selling The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, spreading the gospel of acid to a nation of lost and bored youth. This coincided with figures like Timothy Leary conducting highly-publicized LSD research at Harvard University. The constant press attention surrounding these figures helped to turn acid from an obscure research chemical (in the hands of the CIA) into a household name.
But even if rock music was a summer with no end, acid, as a drug, is not. It inspires wildly different reactions in its users — some experience joy, others become paranoid. This dichotomy had a profound effect on the politics of the era. As author Martin Lee notes in his book Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond, “LSD does not make people more or less political; rather, it reinforces and magnifies what’s already in their heads.” What was in the heads of the counterculture? CHAOS. Intelligence and law enforcement agencies began ramping up domestic spying programs targeting leftist organizers and institutions throughout the 1960s. Programs like COINTELPRO and Operation CHAOS tasked agents of the state with infiltrating left-wing groups and pushing them to commit acts of violence, to turn public opinion against left-wing causes. Local police and federal agents, dressed as protestors, would often escalate violence at events like the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Acid contributed to the apocalyptic tone. In 1969, a collective calling itself Up Against the Wall, Motherfucker published a manifesto called “Acid-Armed Consciousness” that demanded “an environment that must be transformed” through “drugs/magic/guns.” To be clear, The Motherfuckers were not agent provocateurs, but acid — or the government — or both — had amplified what was inside their heads. Chaos.
This is important when considering the drug culture surrounding rock & roll. The Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco was the center of the rock world in the 1960s. Bands like The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane inspired thousands of young Americans to flock to San Francisco, and the Haight in particular, to pursue fame and a good trip. Where things become murky is that as the Haight was experiencing its tourism boom, it also saw an explosion in violent crime. In the midst of the Summer of Love, the August 7, 1967 front page of The San Francisco Examiner read: “LSD Trip Murder.” The corresponding article described the murder of a local LSD dealer. Less than a week later, on August 12th, another appearedannouncing the dealer’s friend was in jail for attempted murder, in a plot to avenge his death. The mood nationally was probably best summarized by a Boston Globe article the following week titled “Leader’s Murder Spreads Fear Among Flower Children” which quoted from a Haight-local newsletter: “All these long-haired dope fiends will be scattered across the continent like seeds.”
What’s interesting is that the CIA was in the Haight as early as 1966. In Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA and the Secret History of the Sixties, writer Tom O’Neill describes how Dr. Louis Jolyon West, a researcher involved with Project MKUltra, moved to San Francisco in the fall of that year to observe the counterculture. He set up a “crash pad” in the Haight to become more involved with the neighborhood’s residents and study their reactions to LSD up close. But O’Neill argues this, too, was another CIA front. The grad students West hired to observe the hippies had no idea what was happening at the crash pad most of the time or what their research even entailed, with one stating that their subjects rarely, if ever, showed up for appointments, even as large numbers of people were moving into and out of the building. So what were West’s true intentions? A few years later, in 1972, he sent a grant proposal to the California legislature for “The Center for the Study and Reduction of Violence.” As O’Neill observes, the project called for “implanting electrodes and ‘remote monitoring devices’ in prisoners’ brains.” According to Brad Schreiber, author of Revolution’s End: The Patty Hearst Kidnapping, Mind Control, and the Secret History of Donald DeFreeze and the SLA, William Herrmann, counterintelligence expert to then Governor Ronald Reagan and former psychological operations officer in Vietnam, was to head the Center. Herrmann had previously overseen behavior modification experiments at an Operation CHAOS-funded research facility, California Medical Facility, in Vacaville, California. One of the alleged experiments involved Colston Westbrook, a participant in the CIA’s Phoenix Program, who ran a group for inmates that, Schreiber states, inspired revolutionary (and police informant) Donald DeFreeze to create the Symbionese Liberation Army and kidnap heiress Patty Hearst.
Complicating matters, people involved with the distribution of LSD in the Haight-Ashbury may have had connections to the CIA. Lee’s Acid Dreamslays out a labyrinth network of names and personalities, including William Mellon Hitchcock, one of many members of the Mellon dynasty. Hitchcock bankrolled The Brotherhood of Eternal Love, distributors of “Orange Sunshine,” the most widely used form of LSD in the late 1960s. The Brotherhood, a motorcycle-gang-tuned-commune from Orange County, had an established presence in the Haight as early as 1966, but became major players in the city by 1969 with Hitchcock’s backing. Hitchcock allegedly stored some of his wealth at the Castle Bank and Trust, a financial institution established by CIA agent Paul Helliwell to allow the agency greater discretion in funding covert operations. After Hitchcock withdrew his financial support for The Brotherhood in the summer of 1969, another backer emerged with alleged agency ties. Lee states that businessman Ronald Hadley Stark appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, to manage the group’s finances and assist in the production of acid. Members of The Brotherhood believe, to this day, that the CIA was responsible for the death of the group’s leader, John Griggs. In Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love and Its Quest to Spread Peace, Love, and Acid to the World, a biography of The Brotherhood by Nicholas Schou, member Dion Wright stated, “I have come down on the side of a government assassination that worked.” In an interview with Lee for Acid Dreams, Brotherhood associate Tim Scully also found the timing of Griggs’s death suspicious given that Stark popped up immediately after. (Stark left the United States around the time of a multi-agency raid on the Brotherhood in 1972. Journalist Philip Willan states in his book Puppetmasters: The Political Use of Terrorism in Italy that Stark would go on to infiltrate Italy’s Red Brigades.)
So who funded rock & roll? There are no direct connections between rock musicians of the era and the CIA’s spookshow of psychedelic sights and sounds. The closest we come to a conclusion is Altamont, the music festival where the Hell’s Angels stabbed a man to death. John Jaymes, who promoted and secured funding for the festival through a company called Young American Enterprises, was later found to be a government informant. But in a 1971 interview Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards claimed Jaymes was an “ex-narco.” And a 1979 Washington Post profilerevealed his real name as John Ellsworth and alleged ties to the intelligence community going back over a decade. Was Young American Enterprises a front? The Congress for Cultural Freedom didn’t officially dissolve until 1979. The violence at Altamont was a culturally defining moment, signaling, along with the Manson murders, the death of the 1960s. Could it have been another covert operation? Unfortunately, Ellsworth, too, evades us. He seems more grifter than asset. He would keep popping up every few years to con everyone from President Jimmy Carter to the Pope. As with all prior examples, no concrete evidence exists linking him to the CIA. All those things we know, or think we know, eventually fade from certainty.
Maybe rock needn’t be a conspiracy. Maybe it only looks that way to my damaged brain because of all of the other conspiracies that did happenalong the way. COINTELPRO, Operation CHAOS, and Project MKUltra were real. The government’s history of covert operations against American citizens lends an air of legitimacy to the idea of a rock conspiracy — any conspiracy, really — because nothing can be more ridiculous than reality. Our government has agitated violence in left-wing circles as a way of discrediting various movements. If they could do that, what else are they capable of? The question to consider is this: did the government, already engaged in a half dozen other conspiracies, need to secretly fund rock & roll?
(As a postscript to this article, the National Endowment for Democracy — a group frequently accused of CIA ties — secretly paid over $20,000 to rock bands in Venezuela in 2011. The grant application stated the program’s purpose was “to promote greater reflection among Venezuelan youth about freedom of expression, their connection with democracy, and the state of democracy in the country.”)