On January 12, 1967, the 1950s television series Dragnet was revived after a hiatus of nearly eight years. As if to highlight the fact that the new version of the show was being presented in color, the first episode was called “The LSD Story.” It begins with detectives Friday and Gannon responding to a report that a young man has been spotted in a vacant lot painted “like an Indian” and chewing the bark off a tree. They arrive to find the suspect with his head buried in a pile of loose dirt. When the two officers pull him to his feet it becomes apparent that half his face has been painted blue and the other half yellow. The sugar cubes found in his pocket tell the cops all they need to know. The episode, popularly known as “Blue Boy,” is an early example of hippie exploitation, a sub-genre that would explode later the same year with films such as Hallucination Generation and The Love-Ins. The result of this cinematic disinformation was that LSD became the scapegoat for a whole range of issues affecting America’s youth. When Art Linkletter’s daughter Diane leapt to her death from the 6th floor of her West Hollywood apartment on October 4, 1969, toxicology results confirmed that there were no drugs in her system. She had reportedly used LSD in the past, however, so it only took her father’s unfounded statement at a press conference that her death “wasn’t a suicide. She was not herself. She was murdered by the people who manufacture and distribute LSD,” for Diane Linkletter to become one of history’s most famous “acid casualties.”
With the help of newspaper reports, these negative images of LSD became firmly embedded in the “official” narrative, and the acid casualty soon became something of an archetype. The idea was further strengthened at the end of the decade, when both Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd and Alexander “Skip” Spence of Moby Grape left their respective bands after having mental breakdowns. Their mental disorders were popularly attributed to LSD, despite the fact that Spence was later diagnosed as being schizophrenic and Barrett showed signs that would suggest he suffered from the same condition. The reality appears to be that in most every case the “acid casualty” label was conveniently applied to anyone with mental health issues who had also used LSD at some point. This narrative in which LSD was cast as a drug that had the power to destroy the psyche soon became so strong that even many regular users of LSD believed it.
Around 1970 Richie Nelms was in the US Navy, working as a corpsman in the psychiatric ward of the hospital at the Charleston Naval Base in South Carolina. One patient in the ward had been admitted for a several month stay after having “tripped out on LSD.” He and Nelms became friendly and soon discovered they had something in common: both men were musicians. Nelms borrowed a guitar from the Red Cross, and the pair would often play together. At some point during these sessions the patient suggested they cut a record together. Nelms “thought it was a pipe dream,” but was surprised when some time in 1971, six months after his release, the patient contacted him and asked if he was still interested in going into the studio.
In 1971 if you wanted to cut a record in a professional studio in South Carolina there were few options. The regional market at this time was dominated by Crandel “C. B.” Herndon’s United Music World Recording in West Columbia. Herndon was the owner of a local trucking company and ran the studio as a side business, staffed by professionals, some brought in from Nashville. (For another example of the unlikely relationship between the trucking and recording industries, see my earlier post “The Lutenist and the Publisher: A Trucksploitation Tale.”) The studio did mostly custom work, and its output in the very late 60s and into the 70s was rather prolific. A large number of records were released on its house labels United Music World, Music World, United, and Smoke.
Nelms and his former patient entered the studio in West Columbia armed with a couple of tunes Nelms had written. It is not known whether they brought along their own rhythm section or used local session musicians. The first tune recorded, “Now She’s Gone,” is a forgettably maudlin number with a countrypolitan crooner vibe. The flip, “The Way I Feel,” is more interesting. With a guitar player who has only been identified as an “acid casualty,” the listener might have high hopes that the track could turn out to be an unknown psychedelic masterpiece. In this case, though, one has to strain a bit to find any hint of psychedelia. The arrangement is somewhat sparse, with a single guitar playing wiry lead lines over the bass and drums. Probably the most remarkable thing about the track is that stylistically it does not even remotely sound like it was recorded in 1971. To me, it sounds like a very competent demo by a songwriter hoping to pitch a tune to Gene Pitney circa 1962. This sort of anachronism is an interesting aspect of many custom releases. Styles changed so quickly in the middle decades of the 20th century that even a delay of two or three years between writing a tune and recording it could make it seem hopelessly out of date. In this case, the record was too unself-conscious to be considered a pastiche, appeared far too early to be seen as any sort of revival of its style, and was released far too late to be relevant.
A thousand copies of the disc were pressed by Precision Record Pressing in Nashville, and it was released on Music World MW-232 as by The Next Step. The only reason we know as much of this story as we do is because Nelms left a comment on 45cat in 2012 relating how the record was born. I attempted to contact him through the site but got no response. Nelms was only in South Carolina because he was stationed there, so the questions of his origins and his previous musical history are open ones. Perhaps more intriguing is the mystery guitarist. He seemed to know that not only was the possibility of cutting a record not a “pipe dream,” but how to make it happen. Because of this, it’s tempting to speculate that he had recorded before, but where and with whom? At the moment, he is a complete cipher. It’s important not to make too much of the guitarist’s hospitalization. It’s not hard to imagine the sorts of pressures a young man in the US military in 1970 faced. With a transfer to Vietnam as close as the anonymous stroke of an administrator’s pen, turning to drugs as an escape from stress is not a surprising choice. A breakdown, with or without drugs, is also something that could easily happen to most anyone placed in such a situation. It is only because of the pre-existing “acid casualty” narrative, one constructed from distorted media portrayals of LSD, assumptions, and folklore, that he bears this label in our story. Most likely he was a musician who was drafted and temporarily crumpled under the pressure of his situation. Perhaps someday he will emerge and tell his own story.
The Next Step: “The Way I Feel”