On August 28, 1964, Bob Dylan got the Beatles stoned on pot for the first time. The man who engineered this historic session was music critic Al Aronowitz, one of my heroes.
Aronowitiz wrote for the New York Post when I was growing up. Years later I met him when he visited High Times. During that visit Aronowitz, who'd written a few articles over the years for the magazine, told us the story about the famous Beatles-Dylan hangout. He'd written about it on his website, The Blacklisted Journalist, in an article titled "Let's 'ave a Larf," in 1995. I asked if we could publish it in High Times. Aronowitz agreed.
Here's a slightly abridged version of that article:
The two biggest laughs of my life were the first time I smoked marijuana and the first time the Beatles smoked it. The latter occasion was at the Hotel Delmonico on Manhattan's Park Avenue on August 28, 1964. The Beatles and their manager, Brian Epstein, had just finished eating their room service dinner when Bob Dylan and I pulled up in Bob's blue Ford station wagon driven by Victor Maymudes, Dylan's tall, slender and very sephardic-looking roadie. Victor carried the stash in his pocket as we made our way through the mob of teenyboppers on the sidewalk and into the hotel. I think it was my stash, but I can't remember for sure.
In the Hotel Delmonico lobby, cops blocked our access to the elevators until No. 2 Beatles road manager Malcolm Evans, descended to the lobby to escort us through the police lines. When we got to the floor of the Beatles' suite, the elevator doors opened on a hotel corridor crawling with still more cops, plus there was an overflow from the suite next door to the Beatles. This overflow included reporters and photographers and radio and recording and TV personalities the likes of Peter, Paul and Mary and the Kingston Trio, all of whom were being charmed by Beatles press officer Derek Taylor while awaiting their turns to meet the Beatles in the suite next door. I doubt the Beatles ever got around to meeting any of them on that particular night.
Mal led us directly through the melee and into the Beatles' suite, where I introduced everybody to everybody with an awkwardness for which I will always hate myself. Allen Ginsberg would afterwards ask me if this initial meeting between Bob and the Beatles was "demure." That is exactly the right word for it.
Looking back, I still see that evening as one of the greatest moments of my life. Actually, I was well aware at the time that I was brokering the most fruitful union in the history of pop music, certainly up until then. My aim was to make happen what did happen, which has been some of the greatest music of our time. I was pleased by the thought I was engineering, participating in and chronicling a milestone moment in history.
I was the go-between. In those days, I was in the middle of everything. By this time, I already had networked together one of the world's greatest collection of potsmoking pop stars, poets, painters, personalities, plus my jazz contacts, featuring Miles Davis and also my wide circle of writers, music tycoons, movie actors, and other entertainment artists. But to put Bob Dylan and the Beatles together was my crowning achievement.
To me, Bob was The Cat's Meow, The End, The Ultimate. Assigned months earlier by the Saturday Evening Post to write an article about Bob, I instead had fallen in love with him. To me, no other artist had ever come along with such wit, perception, insight, charm, cleverness and charisma. To me, Bob was going to revolutionize contemporary culture. To me, Bob was doing more to change the English language than anybody since Shakespeare. I decided for certain that, in Dylan, I was witnessing the greatest ever. For me, nobody could beat Bob, nobody past or present. Then, later, when I was also assigned by the Saturday Evening Post to write an article about the Beatles, I fell in love with them, too. Dylan, of course, had roped me in with words because words, after all, are what I deal in. With the Beatles, I found their singing and their sound so contagious that their lyrics didn't matter. As people so often say in the music business, the Beatles could have been singing the telephone book and still they would have ravished me. And everybody else, too.
Bob's girlfriend at the time, Suze Rotolo, thought the Beatles were great, too, and she and I used to gang up on Bob about them. To him, the Beatles were "Bubblegum." But then, Bob had a habit of turning up his nose at most everything that everybody else liked. As for me, I felt it was my mission to hang out with this mysterious and elusive, but also overwhelmingly inspirational, young oracle. His combination of charm and artistry totally brainwashed me. I felt that his message was almost holy and that it was my mission to encourage him to expand his audience. I felt it important for him to reach the young. I somehow wanted his lyrics to enlighten the same teenyboppers then trying to claw the clothes off the Beatles. For Bob's part, his attitude was that he didn't want any of his concerts drowned out by teenybopper screeches. "It'll never happen," he told me. To me, Bob seemed to be pretty much of a folkie purist in those days. I used to argue with him that today's pop hits are tomorrow's folk music classics. He had no interest in the Beatles in those days. Eventually, it was almost as if I had to drag him kicking and screaming to our parking space across the street from the Delmonico.
Obviously, Bob and the Beatles were fated to meet and I was determined to be fate's helper. I certainly did my best to be the one to bring them together. After all, they deserved to know one another. In many ways, I saw Bob Dylan and John Lennon as mirror images of each other, personifications of hip on opposite shores of the Atlantic, each epitomizing the culture of his country and each emerging as a spokesman of its culture. To me, Bob and John were brothers born of the same creative clay. To me, they were both towering bastions of individuality. They certainly were both so different from everybody else as to make people pick up and notice. To me, John Lennon was Dylan's English reflection through the looking glass and across the sea in the land of left-hand drive. As soon as I got to know John well enough, I started telling him that he ought to meet Bob. John kept saying he wanted to wait until he was Dylan's "ego equal."
"Yeh, I wanna meet 'im," Lennon told me, "but on me own terms."
In other words, John, like Bob, had a mountain of an ego. I knew I had to climb those mountains to get them both down in the same place. By the time August 28, 1964, came around, Bob was still high on his hill, acting as if he were reluctant to do me a favor and come down to meet the Fab Four. On the other hand, John was in a rush. To John, Bob might not have been as important an inspiration as Elvis Presley, but Dylan's magic had stopped an entire counterculture dead in its tracks, and John, too. In effect, Dylan had tapped John on the shoulder and made him turn around to look. John recognized that he had been outdistanced by Bob in plumbing his own depths. It was after listening to Dylan's first album that John had written his autobiographical "I'll Cry Instead," intended for use in the soundtrack of A Hard Day's Night. The song never made it into the movie, but it very easily could have been written by Dylan about himself. "I've got a chip on my shoulder that's bigger than my feet," the song said, "I can't talk to people that I meet."
Those were the days when I was living the life of one of those well intentioned, do-gooder and highly innocent middle class nerds with my wife and three delightful kids in a house nestled in the scenic Watchung Hills of suburban Berkeley Heights, New Jersey.
I was one of those fools who think they're hip because they smoke pot. To me, marijuana was a wonder drug. It was nourishment for the brain, the consummate head food. As Aldous Huxley had taught me, pot opened the Doors of Perception. But probably it was Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg who most influenced me in my plunge into drug experimentation.
When you first try it, marijuana immediately seems so enlightening and possesses such a liberating quality that those it liberates often turn into messianic Johnny Appleseeds. That happened to Neal Cassady, that happened to Allen Ginsberg, that happened to me and, in a much more cosmic way, that is what ultimately happened to the Beatles, who happened to have the power to spread psychedelia to all of contemporary culture.
My first day in Liverpool, I scored some grass. The Liverpool kids were ready to trade me for any kind of pills I had in my pocket. All of England's youth seemed to be pillheads, hooked on uppers, mostly. In my pocket, I had dexedrine spansules my doctor had given me as diet pills, plus a prescription of Elavil, a mood elevator which I never bothered taking. I was becoming anti-chemical. I had discovered marijuana and, rather than swallow pills, I had swallowed the pothead litany that marijuana grew out of the ground while pills were manufactured. Prefer anything natural to anything man-made was the countercultural dictum. When my cover piece about the Beatles soId more copies of the Saturday Evening Post than any issue since Ben Franklin first founded the magazine, the editors sent me to England in the summer of 1964 to write a second cover story about the Beatles. By that time, I knew John Lennon well enough to tell him to try marijuana instead of poisoning his system with chemicals.
Turning the Beatles On
Originally, I had thought for sure that the Beatles smoked pot. I had thought for sure that any artist who could make music sound as hip as they made it sound had to be a pot-smoker. Weren't they singing, "I get high! I get high! I get high!"? I had even asked Dylan, didn't he think they were singing, "I get high! I get high! I get high!" and he had answered yes. So, I was surprised to learn that they weren't pot smokers. They sort of considered pot smokers to be the same as junkies. Like the DEA, they put grass into the same category as heroin. Finally, John said he would try some if I brought it to him.
First, Brian Epstein called me from London. He said John would phone me as soon as the Beatles got into New York. I was standing in the family room of my FHA ranch-type house when John telephoned.
"Where iz 'e?"
"Oh, he's up in Woodstock, but I can get him to come down."
Bob had slept many a night in my house in Berkeley Heights, where he and Victor arrived from Woodstock to pick me up for the ride to Manhattan and the Delmonico Hotel. When we were ushered into their suite, the Fab Four and Epstein had adjourned from their room service table to seats in an adjoining sitting room, separated from the room with the dining table by a wide rectangular arch. From the front room near the windows overlooking Park Avenue, we all seemed to migrate back to the room service table. That's where the glasses and the wine and the liquor bottles were. Bob just wanted what he usually drinks, cheap wine.
"I'm afraid we only have champagne," said Brian, apologetically.
There also were some expensive French wines and the scotch and Coke, which had become the standard Beatles drink. The Beatles immediately started making a big fuss about not having any cheap wine and they were about to send Mal out to get some Chianti or something, but Bob started getting drunk on the harder stuff. Alcohol always was Bob's No. 1 drug of choice. When the Beatles offered some pills, I said we'd rather smoke some pot. When the Beatles said they never smoked pot, I forget whether it was Bob or me who brought up the story about thinking they were singing, "I get high! I get high! I get high!" As John obligingly pointed out, they were singing, "I can't hide! I can't hide! I can't hide!"
They wanted to know how the marijuana would make them feel and we told them it would make them feel good. I still hadn't learned how to roll a joint in those days, so when the Beatles agreed to try some, I asked Dylan to roll the first joint. Bob wasn't much of a roller either, and a lot of the grass fell into the big bowl of fruit on the room service table. Bob hovered unsteadily over the bowl as he stood at the table while he tried to lift the grass from the baggie with the fingertips of one hand so he could crush it into the leaf of rolling paper which he held in his other hand. In addition to the fact that Bob was a sloppy roller to begin with, what Bob had started drinking had already gotten to him.
Before we lit up, Bob and I explained about the aroma. We suggested that we all go into the bedroom and shut the door for some privacy. I don't remember anybody bothering to stuff towels into the door cracks to keep the smell from leaking into the other room. Epstein and the Beatles stationed themselves at the far end of the room near the front windows, clustering around John, at the head of one of the beds. Also with Epstein and the Beatles were Neil Aspinall, the Beatles' No. 1 road manager, and of course, his assistant, Mal, the gentle giant.
Bob handed the joint to John, who immediately handed it to Ringo.
"You try it!" John commanded.
That act instantly revealed the Beatles' pecking order. Obviously, Ringo was the low man on the totem pole. When Ringo hesitated, John made some sort of wisecrack about Ringo being his royal taster.
"Inhale with a lot of oxygen," I instructed. "Take a deep breath of air together with smoke and hold it in your lungs for as long as you can."
As Ringo kept taking hits, Victor, Bob and I waited for him to pass the joint to John, who was sitting right next to Ringo. But the Beatles were unacquainted with the rituals of pot smoking. Pot smokers share joints because it's precious stuff. It's illegal, expensive and not easy to get. Pot smokers don't waste any smoke letting the joint burn idly like a cigarette. That's what's known as "Bogarting" a joint, in honor of the way Humphrey Bogart held a lit cigarette in his fingers until the long ash would fall from its own weight. I neglected to instruct Ringo about passing the joint and it was obvious that he was going to hold onto it as if he were smoking a cigarette filled with tobacco. I didn't want to risk the possibility that Brian and the Beatles might recoil from the idea of passing a joint from lips to lips like a bottle shared by winos on a street corner. I asked Victor to roll more joints. Victor was an expert roller whose joints looked like regular cigarettes.
"Soon, everybody was smoking his own joint as if it were a cigarette. Ringo pointed at the way Brian Epstein was laughing, and we all started laughing hysterically at the way Brian was laughing. 'I'm so high, I'm on the ceiling,' Brian kept saying. 'I'm on the ceiling.'"
There also came a certain point when Paul realized he was really thinking for the first time in his life and he also realized that this was a great occasion. He told Mal to get a pad and a pen and to write down everything he said. From then on, Mal followed Paul through the rooms of the suite, writing down everything Paul said, but I never learned what happened to Mal's notes.
Yes, we all probably had one of the best laughs of our lives that night at the Hotel Delmonico. Certainly, I hadn't laughed so hard since the first time I smoked marijuana. That's why, after that night at the Delmonico, whenever John wanted to smoke some pot, he would never say, "Let's smoke some marijuana" or "Let's get stoned" or "Let's smoke a joint" or "Let's turn on." To Paul, George, Ringo, Neil and Mal, he would say: "Let's 'ave a larf!"
"Many Years from Now" Excerpt
In Many Years from Now by Barry Miles, McCartney recalls the famous smoke-out:
"The first time I took it I got very high indeed. It was quite a breakthrough, it was something different. George, John and I were sitting in the main room of the suite, the lounge, drinking. We were sitting there with our Scotch and Cokes, and Dylan had just given Ringo a puff of it. Ringo came back in and we said, 'How is it?' He said, "The ceiling's coming down on me." And we went, Wow! Leaped up, 'God! Got to do this!' So we ran into the back room - first John, then me and George, then Brian. We all had a puff and for about five minutes we went, "This isn't doing anything," so we kept having more. "'Sssshhhh! This isn't doing anything. Are you feeling ... ggggzzzzz!' and we started giggling uncontrollably.
"And it was very, very funny and my, it was. It was! The Beatles were about humor, we had a great humor between us. There was an 'in' side to the track of humor that we would use as a protective thing, so with this on top of it, things were really hilarious. I remember walking round the suite, trying to get away from it all, closing the door behind me without realizing George had walked step by step with me, so I thought I'd lost him, turned around, and he's in the room with me. 'Ohhh! This is hilarious. I can't handle it!' It was like the funniest bloody dream going.
"It was me, George and Brian, this little group. Everyone would go in in twos. We were looking at Brian Epstein, who had a little butt, the tiniest little butt, so he looked like a tramp smoking a dog-end, which we had only ever done when we were poor before... And this, compared to Brian's image... and we were going, 'Awwwww!' Fucking screaming laughing at him. It was hilarious. I remember Brian looking at himself in the mirror and getting the whole joke of all this. We were all in hysterics.
"It developed into a bit of a party. We all went back out into the lounge and drank and whatever but I don't think anyone needed much more pot after that. That was it! I spent the whole evening running around trying to find a pencil and paper because when I went back in the bedroom later, I discovered the Meaning of Life. And I suddenly felt like a reporter on behalf of my local newspaper in Liverpool. I wanted to tell my people what it was.
"I was the great discoverer, on this sea of pot, in New York. I was sailing this sea and I had discovered it.
"So I remember asking Mal, our road manager, for what seemed like years and years, 'Have you got a pencil?' But of course everyone was so stoned they couldn't produce a pencil, let alone a combination of a paper and pencil, so it was I either had the pencil but I didn't have the paper or I had the... I eventually found it and I wrote it down, and gave it to Mal for safekeeping.
"I'd been going through this thing of levels during the evening. And at each level I'd meet all these people again. 'Hahaha! It's you!' And then I'd metamorphose on to another level. Anyway, Mal gave me this little slip of paper in the morning, and written on it was, 'There are seven levels!' Actually it wasn't bad. Not bad for an amateur. And we pissed ourselves laughing, I mean, 'What the fuck's that? What the fuck are the seven levels?' But looking back, it's actually a pretty succinct comment; it ties in with a lot of major religions but I didn't know that then. We know that now because we've looked into a lot of that since, but that was the first thing.
"We were kind of proud to have been introduced to pot by Dylan, that was rather a coup. It was like being introduced to meditation and given your mantra by Maharishi. There was a certain status to it."
In his new book, Another Side of Bob Dylan, Victor Maymudes recalls that Dylan "passed out on the floor" after smoking out the Beatles.
Postscript: Al Aronowitz passed away in 2005.
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