Throwback Thursday: Understanding “South Pacific” With a Little Help from LSD

Surfing

I turned on the electric Tee-Vee machine late one night last week, lit a doobie the size of a Buick, settled back and punched the surfing stick 10,000 times, all five fingers skidding every which way while I traveled through hundreds of channels, until I came to “South Pacific,” a film made in 1958. This, of course, stopped me dead in my tracks. I puffed the blimp down to the bitter end of ash, grabbed my freshly charged Dopen, took a quick blast-aroma, then muttered in tongues to myself, “Why the hell not?” I hit play. As the credits rolled on screen, I chuckled to myself, recalling back to 1967, the Summer of Love, when I saw the film. On acid.

A Whole Lot of Shit

The ‘50s were a halcyon time. Or so they led you to believe. A lot of shit went down behind the scenes, and shit went down in front of the scenes. For this, you had to be there to see it. Otherwise, it was hidden, the recesses of history only open to those who had the keys. I didn’t have access, I didn’t know anyone who did. I became a witness as a kid to history rolling by me in a blur, occasionally stopping so I could get a slit of an understanding of what was happening.

Tales of the South Pacific

“South Pacific,” the sprawling Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, was made into a film in the ‘50s from an earlier successful play that ran for years on Broadway. Based on James A. Michener’s novel, “Tales of the South Pacific,” it was one of the first serious books I ever read as a kid growing up post-WWII.

The ‘50s

I first saw the film with my parents at a theater in our small town in Appalachia. We drove to the theatre in my mother’s VW Microbus. She was stoned. My father had had a few drinks. Straight up Cutty Sark. At that point in my life I had never had a smoke or a drink. 1958 was deep into the heart of the ‘50s. Sputnik was launched by the Russians a year earlier, and now the United States was scrambling to get into space as well. The Cold War was on the front burner, and we practiced diving under our desks at school as we waited for the bombs to fall. The Beat Generation was in full swing. Yet black people still had to use separate bathrooms, eat at separate lunch counters. No one thought much about it.

Black and White

Seeing the movie today was somewhat of a shock, but I was struck by what I believe was the major theme of the story: racism. You have to understand, this film was released in the ‘50s, in a time when people of color were marginalized far more so than they are today. Today, it’s more subtle. Back then, it was out there for all of us to see and feel — in the light of the day. Black and white. Like the movie, the way I remember it back then, when actors were in technicolor. But I couldn’t remember it that way, couldn’t remember the message of racism. But we didn’t know it then, because racism was woven so tightly into the fabric of life. It was just what was. Ignorance was bliss. More likely, ignorance was the mean, the meme. Ignorance is brutal. Ignorance promotes legislated hate. Out in the open back then. Under the covers today. We’ve not come far enough, and not soon enough.

Understanding “South Pacific” With a Little Help from LSD
“South Pacific” 1958

The Plan of a Lifetime

I saw the movie for the second time when I was a freshman in college. It had come around and was in theatres again for a limited run. I saw an advertisement for it in one of the papers, remembered my experience with my parents. I told my friends Roger and Sven. They, too, had remembered the 1958 movie. Roger, true to form, could recite (if that’s what you call it, because he couldn’t sing a note, so he sounded like he was reciting a lopsided poem), all the songs. We sat around in my dorm room in 1967, three freshman passing around a joint and drinking from a bottle of Cutty Sark (what else?), planning on going to the movie the next night. Ripped and stoned, of course, waiting for the aliens to come and spirit us away. We had a plan for the movie. We’d take acid for the first time. Sven had gotten his hands on some tabs. We’d drop an hour before we took off — and take off we did. And how.

The Dropping Off Point

The next night we were off, four of us. Sven’s girlfriend joined us, Autumn. She drove us in her 1963 Chevy Impala SS Convertible. An hour earlier we sat on the couch, all four of us, each of us holding a tab in the palms of our hands, dull-looking orange tabs — Orange Sunshine, as they called it back then. Sven had scored big. Haggis Altoona, our dealer, had gotten it for him. We were all hesitating. This was new territory. This wasn’t your mother’s pot. Sven shrugged and popped his tab, looked at all of us and smiled like the Checkered Demon. The rest of us laughed and followed suit, albeit a little nervously.

The Vanishing Point

We rolled down Colorado Blvd, the old Impala swaying back and forth, up and down with every rise, flowing toward our destination. Ah, the acid was taking effect. After about 10 minutes we reached the Cooper Cinerama. Inside the Impala, the smoke was thick and we were all laughing uproariously. College students now, future hippies to come. “South Pacific” and the acid would take us over the top, I was sure of it.

The Point of it All

I ordered a vat of popcorn as large as a bathtub. The acid was working its wonders. I followed my friends, eyes bulging, through a labyrinth of exploding color to our seats. I settled into the deep-cushioned, red velvet chair that seemed to embrace me like a long-lost friend. Nope, no sugar water soda for us. We had smuggled beer under our coats and had our numbers (joints) ready. Not that we needed any of these extra, added highs.

After the previews (not as long and drawn out as they are today), “South Pacific” started with an introduction filled with bits and pieces of the show music that was to follow. We relaxed and let ourselves be drawn in, no matter how backward the story and music felt. Remember, we were now captive to our seats and the acid, seeing and listening to a ‘50s musical, old fashioned and something our parents all revered; all this against the societal backdrop of the heavy rock music that we constantly listened to: The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, The Kinks, Procol Harum, Janis Joplin — among many others too numerous to name here. I didn’t try to compare both genres. That night I just tried to enjoy the ride and let myself go with the old and the new.

The Penultimate Point

The colors on the screen began to overwhelm me until I thought I was swimming in the Pacific Ocean, which affected my hearing and the slur of my thoughts. I had to shrink back in my seat, cover my eyes and take deep breaths, then peek out between my fingers, coming up for air. I was taken completely in by the deep blues and purples, the red sun setting into the aquamarine ocean swells as the actors sang the old fashioned songs my parents used to listen to. When the film ended I sat back, taking in all that I had seen. When I had the time to digest the film, the theme of racism portrayed in the story crept into my mind and wouldn’t let go. How woven into the fabric of our society it was, and how impossible it is to eradicate it completely, even though we sometimes seem to make headway. I was struck how little the universe cares about us and how, instead, it is up to us as human beings to care of each other.

One Final Point

“South Pacific,” that antediluvian remnant of the ‘50s, opened me up to this problem our tiered society continued to fuel, helped me understand what the minorities of our country faced and continue to face. My first acid trip unscrewed the lid of my malleable mind with the can opener of psychedelics and took me farther into the ‘60s and beyond, changing the way I felt, giving me a new look on the world. I vowed to fight racism and all unfairness. And I continue to do so.

 

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