The counterculture holiday known as Bicycle Day rolls around on April 19th with 2017 representing the 74-year anniversary of the historic day in 1943 on which Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman first intentionally ingested LSD, after inadvertently discovering the substance’s mind-bending effects three days prior. Hoffman’s surreal bike ride home convinced him that LSD was worth exploring further. The substance would go on to play a pivotal role in human evolution some two decades later when it became a catalyst for the socio-cultural revolution of the 1960s.
The San Francisco Bay Area was a key flashpoint for explorations of higher consciousness, with the trailblazing Acid Test parties held by author Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and a buzz band named the Grateful Dead giving rise to a cultural wave of spiritual awakening. Many Americans remain unaware of how Uncle Sam played a key role in developing LSD’s usage through a secret CIA project codenamed Operation MK-Ultra, which experimented with LSD and other substances on unwitting citizens because the agency saw LSD as useful as a truth serum of sorts and even for potential mind control purposes.
One of the places where such experiments took place was at a VA hospital near Stanford University where Kesey and future Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter were among those who signed up as research volunteers to try experimental drugs for $75 per session under the watch of Stanford scientists. The cosmic cat was soon out of the bag, and the world has never been the same. LSD has continued to influence the awakening of successive generations of youth, despite an oppressive crackdown from Uncle Sam. The psychedelic experience remains a spiritual coming of age ritual, particularly within the improvisational music scene that the Dead pioneered.
The 2017 Bicycle Day event at the Midway in San Francisco will celebrate the heritage of Hoffman’s paradigm shifting work with a multi-faceted lineup of artists and musicians headlined by renowned psychedelic artists Alex Gray & Allison Gray, along with new jam rock supergroup Bureau of Sabotage. Just formed in 2017, the quartet features bassist Oteil Burbridge (Dead and Company, Allman Brothers Band), guitarist John Kadlecik (Furthur), keyboardist Aron Magner (Disco Biscuits), and drummer Jeff Franca (Thievery Corporation.) One of the BuSab’s first gigs was an “Anti-Ball” benefit show in Washington D.C. on January 20 where they played in opposition of Donald Trump’s inauguration to help raise funds for Planned Parenthood, MoveOn.org, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. With a repertoire heavy on the Grateful Dead, they’re a natural fit for a Bicycle Day show in San Francisco.
PopMatters caught up with Burbridge and Franca last week to talk about Bicycle Day and BuSab’s efforts for a musical revolution in the era of Donald Trump’s foul domain of greed and avarice. “BuSab started because a friend called me about a gig she had for me at Sundance Film Festival this year. I was on the lookout for chances to play with John Kadlecik, so I called him first. We bounced around a few names of cats we wanted and just started calling to see who was free on that date. It was a one-off gig, but the lineup feels so great that we’re starting to get other offers. What a sad and tragic day. I’m so glad I spent it with Bureau of Sabotage,” Oteil Burbridge says of the D.C. show, noting that Kadlecik was the one who arranged the gig and who came up with the name of the band. “In a lot of ways I feel like a student of John Kadlecik’s. He knows as much about the Grateful Dead as anyone besides the original members. He knows a lot about a lot of things. What an incredibly intelligent human being he is. He’s one of the most evolved people I have ever met.”
Kadlecik, who played alongside Dead bassist Phil Lesh and rhythm guitarist Bob Weir in Furthur from 2009 to 2013, is clearly a savvy fan of visionary political commentary in science fiction. At BuSab’s Washington DC show, he explained how the band name comes from stories by Dune author Frank Herbert, in which the Bureau of Sabotage begins as a resistance organization against an out of control government that’s become so terrifyingly efficient in cutting red tape that laws are conceived, passed, funded and executed within mere hours, creating a reckless governmental juggernaut that threatens society. The BuSab acts to frustrate the workings of the system to give people a chance to reflect on and deal with changes, ultimately becoming recognized as a necessary check on the power of out of control government.
Burbridge says fans can expect to see the BuSab take risks as they seek to be fully in the moment, following in the tradition of the original Acid Test parties where the fledgling Grateful Dead weren’t even necessarily required to play. Drummer Jeff Franca concurred, saying “People can expect a funky psychedelic set of jams, tunes you’ve heard before but presented in a different way.” He noted that he and Burbridge and Kadlecik first got to play together at the Jungle Jam in Costa Rica last year and that the chemistry was “automatic”.
“When I got the call to play with John and Oteil I was very excited to find out that Aron Magner was going to fill out the band on keys. We all bring our influences to the table to create a fresh take on some classic music,” Franca says. He and Burbridge both indicated that they’re eager to check out Alex and Allyson Grey in person at Bicycle Day. “I have always loved Alex Grey’s art. I have done shows where he has spoken and presented his works, but I have never seen him paint live, so that will be cool,” Franca says.
“I really love what they are doing with the Chapel Of Sacred Mirrors [an art sanctuary and trans-denominational interfaith church founded by the Greys in Wappingers Falls, New York],” Burbridge adds. “It’s so sad to me that there is this antagonism between science and spirituality. But the recent history between the two is what it is and takes some time to work itself out. In my opinion, love and art are two of the best doorways to the mystical. The idea of creating a sacred space that honors all things sacred and mystical through creating art of all varieties is just the coolest thing to me.”
Burbridge has made a name for himself playing with some of the top psych-rock outfits in music history, including his current gig filling Phil Lesh’s shoes alongside original Grateful Dead members Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, and Bill Kreutzmann in Dead and Company since the fall of 2015. But he says most of his psychedelic experiments were confined to his younger years.
“I did the vast majority of my psychedelics when I was 17 to 19 years old. I grew up in a house that was half mystical because of my mom and half atheist because of my dad. From a very young age, I’ve had mystical things happen to me like precog dreams. So I didn’t need LSD to be shown that there’s more to reality than what we can see even with an electron microscope. But it did provide me with some formative philosophical conversations that shaped what I believe even to this day. I always did low dosages with one exception, and that was a really bad experience. That’s what you get when you don’t treat it with the proper respect,” Burbridge says with a cautionary note, similar to Timothy Leary’s admonitions about the importance of mindset and setting when engaging in explorations of higher consciousness.
Franca says psychedelics have been more instrumental in learning life lessons than in his musical development and that most of his psychedelic experiences have been as a fan of music, rather than as a performer. “Since I was very young, I have always been into trippy music. Growing up I was mainly into Pink Floyd, especially the album Atom Heart Mother. The A-side being an epic symphonic work full of concrete sounds as well as groovy synth work and dark spaces where time seems to stand still. The rest of the songs on the album to me are the final steps of the bridge that connects the more classic psychedelic sound of the Syd Barrett era to the more polished Waters/Gilmore era Floyd,” Franca says of the Pink Floyd influence he shares with so many music fans.
“When I started taking psychedelics I realized that patterns in nature and visual rhythms are what I find most trippy and that things that were already ‘trippy’ without the enhanced effects of various substances remained so, but more so made me realize that the creators of the art or music I was into were also experimenting with psychedelics,” Franca continues. “This is why the ‘60s era Bay Area sound is interesting to me because the original sounds of Jefferson Airplane and the Warlocks and early Dead were still very ‘in the box’ production wise, with sounds they were choosing and still heavily based on the blues and rock ‘n’ roll. I feel like once everybody experienced the more traditional sounding music on psychedelics, they then took those sounds that they heard/felt and started to put them into the production and general musical style of what they were creating from the start.”
Regarding the early years of LSD, Burbridge went on to note a recent viewing of a Canadian documentary on Youtube about the birth of LSD and how it was focused on “straight looking academics from the the late ‘40s and ‘50s” trying to find a cure for headaches [something that the non-profit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) is still working on.]
“They said that they realized that there was a great potential to treat things from alcoholism to psychological traumas with it. The military wanted to weaponize it, but the experiments made the troops want to quit the military, so they discontinued it! None of them were down with killing people anymore,” Burbridge points out regarding Uncle Sam’s sad hypocrisy regarding psychedelics. “These academics said that is was unfortunate that white culture had no way of integrating it into society. They said the best way to do it would be like Native Americans and other tribal cultures did it, which is through their religion. They said that a religious ceremony that involved trance catalyzed by drums, dance, music, etc., was the most effective way. I thought to myself, ‘Yeah! Like a Grateful Dead concert!’ What a great honor it is to be such a big part of one of the West’s only psychedelic traditions! I hope to encourage more of the sacred use of it in favor of the use of it for entertainment.”
While many artists are gun shy about expressing socio-political sentiments for fear of alienating fans on another side of the political spectrum, Burbridge says he’s too angry with the current state of affairs to sit quietly. He offered some insightful sentiments on public affairs that resonate with those of seminal musical truth tellers like John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix.
“I guess I should be more shy about it, but I’m so pissed off. Donald Trump will do whatever the Overlords tell him to do just like Clinton, Bush, Obama and all the rest of them. He went from ‘Drain The Swamp’ to ‘Cutting Out The Middle Man’ overnight. Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State? Wow. Remember the Wiki-leak that showed Obama got his entire cabinet handed to him by Citi-Group? Presidents are low in the hierarchy. If they really do the right thing, they’ll end up like Kennedy,” Burbridge points out in pithy references to 2008 and 1963. “We’ll have a real revolution soon. Ironically, all we have to do is just say no. Say no to killing. If everyone, all the militaries everywhere, did it at the same time then these assholes would have to fight their own wars. I fully support our troops, but I’m wholly against the Congress that would send them to kill. I don’t trust them. They have a totally different idea of what ‘American Interests’ constitute than I do.”
Just getting warmed up, Burbridge went on to point out some of the contradictions and hypocrisy that have increasingly infected American government over the decades. “I’m still trying to pin down what ‘America’ is. If it’s the government, then I feel no allegiance. That allegiance has to be two-way, and it’s not anymore. The government is not by or for the people anymore. It might still be ‘of’ the people but looking at Congress these days you would have to loosen your definition of ‘person’ . If America means the people of America, then I feel an allegiance to those that want to live in harmony with me. If America means the Constitution, then I have mixed feelings there as well. It used to say that I was only three-fifth’s of a person. What kind of fucking bullshit is that? Besides, what President abides by the Constitution anymore? None of them. It’s all a popularity contest and identity politics these days. We’ve been sold out. I do like the idea of the Constitution though. It’s great that we used to be able to use the document to make the country live up to it. I fear that possibility doesn’t exist anymore.”
Franca expressed similar sentiments, making it clear that Bureau of Sabotage is a band of brothers in solidarity for peace. “As Fela Kuti twice said, music is our weapon. I am fully on board with that. I believe that we as musicians have a responsibility to document the vibrations of our time here on Earth, musically and culturally. Thievery has always taken a burn Babylon stance in their music. My own project Congo Sanchez also takes that stance with our music and message at our shows. It is very important to me to use the gift that has been given to us as musicians for good and for positive motion. Sometimes that means directly calling out the government because as Oteil will tell you, ‘I am anti-government.’ Meaning that the people that reside in any specific place are not necessarily in agreeance with their elected government,” Franca says. The drummer went on to point out a recent controversial example from the Trump regime.
“I was just walking down the street yesterday thinking what a beautiful day. Then I thought about the MOAB bomb and was like damn, I’m here walking down the street just for a breath of fresh air while my country is bombing innocent people. I am not bombing anybody myself, but as an American, I am included in that somehow. So we use music to make our stance known and so that free thinkers all across the globe can be aware that we are not the only ones!!”
The Bureau of Sabotage is only just beginning their national campaign for musical truth and justice. It will be quite interesting to see how many other musicians and artists will enlist in the creative resistance as the Trump regime cranks up its assault on American democracy and the environment.