Fear and Loathing in Southeast Portland, Halloween 2002

Hutch Harris (the Thermals) shares a tour horror story.

I’ll always remember Halloween of 2002, despite it being one of the blurriest nights of my life. It was the first — and only — time I performed while under the influence of psychedelic drugs.

I don’t recommend getting on stage with a stomach full of mushrooms, but I wouldn’t try to dissuade anyone from doing it, either. Everyone needs to test their own boundaries, to learn what they can and can’t handle. In general, I would encourage artists to expand their minds in any ways they see fit. Some study history. Some meditate and do yoga. I did drugs. To paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson, “I hate to advocate drugs or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.” Creating art is about seeing the unseen and then communicating what you’ve discovered. A clear head and a rested body isn’t always the best recipe for success; sometimes you need to let go of all rational thought and behavior and dive into the void.

I don’t recommend getting on stage with a stomach full of mushrooms, but I wouldn’t try to dissuade anyone from doing it, either.

By the time the Thermals formed in the summer of 2002, I had already dived into the void enough times to fill it with countless shriveled mushroom caps and stems, black gel acid hits on bitter, thick blotter paper — and a few ketamine-filled eyedroppers. My personal psychedelic era was 1991 to 1996: my last few years of high school, and my first few years of not going to college, save the few classes I dropped out of at De Anza Community College in Cupertino, California.

An average Friday or Saturday night went something like this: around eight I would meet up to get high with my friends Chico, Tuffy and Moose. Obviously not their real names, and obviously I grew up in some kind of bizarre, druggie comic book, like Archie and Friends written by William S. Burroughs. For a few hours we would drink beer and smoke clove cigarettes, maybe hang out in Tuffy’s older brother Paul’s room listening to the Doors. I can still remember lying on the couch, listening to the soft rain fall during the seemingly endless outro to “Riders on the Storm” the first time we took hits off Paul’s four-foot bong. Around ten o’clock we would drop acid and walk the quiet streets and cul-de-sacs of the suburban South Bay area. Just before sunrise, I would sneak back into my parents’ house and hide out in my room, still awake for hours. One cold, winter morning I lay in bed and watched The Great Muppet Caper three times in a row while my dog Scooter slept soundly, as unaware of my exploits as my parents.

But I digress! This is why it’s annoying to ask a drug user to tell you a story. They will never get to the point, if there is one at all. Uh, what was my point? Oh yeah, I played a show on shrooms fourteen years ago. But first, a little more backstory. Just a little, I promise!

I like to be in control on stage, which is impossible when you’re under the sway of heavy drugs.

I moved to Portland in 1998, when I was twenty-two. My use of reality-bending drugs was just about over at that point. I had opened my mind as wide as it could go, and it was now time for it to finally perform the task for which it was made: thinking. I limited my drug use to the most basic and loved illicit substance: weed. People were smoking a ton of weed in Portland when I moved here, about as much as people do now, despite legality then still being a pipe dream (lol). The Thermals were no exception. Every practice began and ended in a cloud of green smoke, and there wasn’t a single song I wrote at that time that didn’t start with a huge hit from a bong. We would smoke hard before shows, and harder after.

Psychedelics were different. They could make you lose control of mind, body and the ability to not laugh for hours at a time about something that no sober person would ever find funny — like a flower, or a wall. I had never played a show on psychedelics. Hell, one of the only times I even had mushroom-aided band practice, I blew both speakers in a Fender twin amp because I was blasting my acoustic guitar through it and it just couldn’t get loud enough. Generally, I like to be in control on stage, which is impossible when you’re under the sway of heavy drugs.

But it was Halloween. The Thermals had just signed to Sub Pop. We were cocky; we felt like we could do anything. Why not take mushrooms and play a show? I didn’t need to be in control on stage. Besides, there wasn’t even a stage; we were playing in a basement. A dark, dirty house show on the darkest, dirtiest night of the year. Why not get a little crazy?

So we got a little crazy. I arrived at the party dressed as my aforementioned literary/drug idol, Hunter S. Thompson, replete with a briefcase full of weed and mushrooms. The party was bustling, everyone in costume. The house was filled with mummies and vampires, but mostly Royal Tenenbaums, as it was just a year after the film’s release. I found my band, Kathy Foster (bass) and Jordan Hudson (our original drummer), sitting at the kitchen table. Kathy was an adorable snow bunny, Jordan some kind of psychotic lumberjack with a huge black mustache. I cracked open my briefcase and produced the magic mushrooms. “Maybe we should wait until after we play,” suggested Kathy, then and now the most pragmatic member of our band. “Gulp,” Jordan and I replied. It was too late. We were already washing down a few caps apiece with large gulps of Pabst Blue Ribbon, which was the only beer anyone drank at house parties in Portland around the turn of the century, except for maybe Natty Lite Ice.

It didn’t take long for the high to kick in. Aided by the manic energy of the party and the massive spliff we smoked on the porch, Jordan and I got very loopy very quickly. Usually at a house show, no band wants to go on first. Everyone wants to wait for more people to arrive, or for the people that have already arrived to get drunk, or for the drummer to get off work and pick up her boyfriend on the way over. Jordan and I were dying to play. We were more than ready, high as kites barely an hour past ingesting a considerable dose of psilocybin and unaware of how much higher into the clouds we were going to climb.

Kathy’s bass notes fell like buckets of boiling water onto a frozen pond.

The basement was packed to the gills. My Telecaster felt like it was a thousand pounds one minute, then utterly weightless the next. As Kathy tuned her bass, Jordan and I smiled at each like we were each a crazed Cheshire Cat seeing his own reflection for the first time. Kathy’s bass notes fell like buckets of boiling water onto a frozen pond. Her tone was huge and dripping wet, and the sound was purple to my ears, now feeling the full effects of synesthesia. I checked my tuning by strumming an A chord. It was a deep, dark shade of maroon. Sounded good to me! I plucked out the short into to “Goddamn the Light” and we blasted off.

Any nerves I had before we started melted away the second the band came in. Staring down the throng of hipster monsters that were crammed before us, I quickly got the feeling that they knew, they knew. It wasn’t a paranoid feeling. I felt that no matter what their level of intoxication, everyone witnessing our louder-than-hell post-pop-punk spectacle was with us in body and spirit. They were fully onboard and ready to go all the way with us into the deepest corners of outer space. Hard drugs may produce artificial emotions or understanding of environment, but they sure are convincing as hell.

My guitar assumed a normal weight as the show went on, although it did feel unnatural in other ways. In some songs it felt hard like stone, during others it had a gooey, Silly Putty-like consistency. I would laugh out loud sporadically, for no reason other than that I was super high and enjoying the hell out of myself. Halfway through an instrumental break in “Time to Lose” I turned to smile at Jordan. He had a look that was alternating between joy and terror, like a baby deer riding a roller coaster. I realized then that we both had no idea where we were in the song. Had we just played the first verse or the second? Did this song even have verses? What the hell is a verse? We looked to Kathy, naturally. She was having a good time, despite making the sane choice to stay relatively sober that evening. She read the fear in our eyes and guided us to the chorus. WHEW. We didn’t just hold it together for the rest of our twenty-minute set in that filthy basement, we burned it to the ground. At least, according to us.

The performance had been cathartic, to say the least.

I lay on the grass in the front yard for remainder of the evening. The performance had been cathartic, to say the least. I had sweat through the two shirts, jacket and hat I had been wearing and was gently coming down from the great heights I had just experienced. Jesse, my date, was sitting quietly next to me. She was dressed as a ghost in a simple white sheet. She was cool and calm, as opposed to the rest of the revelers, who were shouting and laughing as they stumbled off and on the porch. Jesse was dark and mysterious even when she wasn’t sitting still and covered in fabric. She was the perfect yin to my bright, boisterous yang that evening. We left the party early, caught a cab and disappeared into the night.

Hutch Harris was born in New York City, raised in Silicon Valley and has resided in Portland, Oregon for the past twenty years.  Harris founded and was the lead singer/songwriter of the Thermals. He is currently working on his first solo LP. Follow Harris on Twitter here.

(Photo Credit: Westin Glass)