The following abridged interview is taken from LSD historian Andy Roberts’ new book Acid Drops: Adventures in Psychedelia (Psychedelic Press 2016). Acid Drops is a collection of essays, interviews and fiction dealing with LSD, and includes a forward by MDMA researcher Dr Ben Sessa.
The history of psychedelia, particularly the British experience, has been almost totally written by men. Of the women involved, especially those who were in the thick of it, little has been written either by or about them. A notable exception is Liz Elliot, former partner of Brian Barritt, who was a friend and associate of Tim Leary and author of Whisper: A Psychedelic Time Script, and The Road of Excess. The full story of Liz’s remarkable life will hopefully be revealed in her autobiography.
With Brian Barritt, one of the first recreational users of LSD, she travelled to Algeria to meet Timothy Leary, before moving to Switzerland to live within Leary’s inner circle, where she and Tim fell in love. Afterwards Liz and Brian lived in Amsterdam where they dealt large quantities of psychedelics and other drugs. Also, she knew Michael Hollingshead, had adventures with the Hog Farm, the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, met Burroughs and a kaleidoscope of other psychedelic luminaries. Liz’s story, here focussed on her time spent in Leary’s orbit, is above all else a story of a life well lived and exudes a humanity not often found in other reminiscences from the psychedelic heyday.
Andy Roberts: When did you first take LSD, Liz?
Liz Elliot: In 1965. I knew the Incredible String Band, when I lived in Edinburgh, and they gave me my first acid, through a guy called Vern. Me and my future husband went up to Vern’s and he said the Incredible String Band had decided we were ‘ready’, and he gave us this white powder to lick off a record sleeve and told us to go out and enjoy ourselves, cos it was still legal then. Vern lived in a flat that Clive Palmer, and before him, Spike Hawkins used to live in.
What did you think of the experience?
I thought I was in heaven. Before I first took it I’d only ever had marijuana or heroin or speed and I thought it would be a bit like that. Me and Tam, my first husband, went out and raved around Edinburgh, it was the most amazing thing. I walked along going ‘I’m in heaven, this is heaven!’ My mind was completely blown! I was just so happy to find something so wonderful! From being a sort of underground beatnik I felt justified that things had to change and that straight society was not something I wanted to be part of but before I felt a bit guilty about not being part of straight society.
Liz lived in Edinburgh for about six years before moving back to London and living in squats where she eventually got together with Brian Barritt. He was an early adopter of LSD and one of the first few recreational users of the drug in Britain in the early sixties. Barritt spent four years in prison after being caught smuggling four pounds of hash through customs. He was released in 1969, with plans to publish his legendary psychedelic book, Whisper.
How did you and Brian get together, and who had the idea to get in touch with Tim Leary?
I’d met him years before, through the heroin scene, but we didn’t really know each other. Brian had just been released from prison and I met him at a squat party—he helped me find my son’s scooter. We went for a coffee and that’s how I met Brian again. One night when he was staying with me a friend came running in saying ‘Tim Leary’s escaped from jail and he’s with the Black Panthers in Algeria’. So I said, ‘Let’s go, Brian, come on!’.
In January 1970, Tim Leary was sentenced to ten years in prison for possession of a tiny quantity of marijuana in 1968, later increased to twenty years for a 1965 offence. Following a daring escape in September 1970, planned by the notorious political group the Weather Underground, Leary fled the US and was offered a kind of sanctuary in Algeria by militant US Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver.
What was your first meeting with Tim like?
He invited us up to the place he was staying, where Elridge Cleaver virtually had him in prison with someone watching him all the time. Tim and Rosemary were very isolated at the time, they really had nobody so we got on really well with them and they were pleased to have us there. We had dinner with him and Rosemary, and he gave us a matchbox full of acid! That was Orange Sunshine. We ended up staying there for a year!
Was he at that time expanding on his ideas about how acid should be spread widely throughout society?
Not at all. He was a bit confused—as confused as Tim ever got—at the time. Cleaver was making him carry a loaded gun—though he secretly removed the bullets—threatening to grass him up to the Algerian government and have him thrown out of the country and back to Folsom prison. So Tim had all that paranoia and Rosemary was paranoid as hell, so that didn’t help. Cleaver was trying to get him to use ‘shoot to kill’ as a motto and Tim was changing it to ‘aim for life’, and all this was being reported in the American press.
A total clash of ideologies then?
Yeah. They thought, well, we’re both underground figures, we’re both anti-establishment, it’ll work, but you couldn’t have met two more different people!
How would you describe Tim’s personality as you saw it then?
You know that record My Sweet Lord by George Harrison? We listened to that on an old radio while we were in Algeria, coming through the static, when we were tripping, and I heavily associate that record with Tim. He had a charisma that I’d never come across before and I thought he was absolutely amazing. He didn’t really expound any theories as such but over those dinner conversations we’d go into all kinds of things. He never laid it on you what you should believe or anything, but he always had loads of really interesting information of all kinds. Lots of scientific stuff, information about stars, because we could see so many where we were because there was no street lighting.
Were you involved in the magical rite that Tim and Brian took part in?
No. What happened was Tim said he was going to go into the desert and trip with Brian. I think they wanted to get away from the women, Rosemary and I, and have a man’s trip together. So they drove into the desert and had to go to a place called Bou Saada because Tim and Rosemary had been staying in a hotel there for a while and they’d left something there they needed to pick up. It was acid, wrapped up in something, clothes probably. So they went into the desert and although they didn’t know it at the time it was the very same place and probably the very same river bed where Aleister Crowley and Victor Neuberg had carried out their mescaline fuelled full moon ritual in 1909. And it was a big, big, trip and they kind of basically channelled Crowley and Neuberg.
We touched base at Bou Saada. We did not realise until Brian Barritt told us months later that we were following exactly the route which Aleister Crowley took on his search for illumination. The eerie synchronicities between our lives and that of Crowley, which were to preoccupy us, were still unfolding with such precision as to make us wonder if one can escape the programmed imprinting with which we are born. (from Confessions of a Hope Fiend by Timothy Leary)
Ah, so, at the time they didn’t know it was the same place used by Crowley and Neuberg in 1909?
No, no, no. I was reading something later, one of Crowley’s books, and I said to Brian, isn’t that the place where you and Tim took acid? That’s where Crowley and Neuberg were channelling John Dee and Edward Kelly!
How did you come to leave Algeria and where did you go next?
We saw Tim one day and he said he’d been invited by a group of students to speak at a university in Copenhagen and he asked us if we thought he should go. We were worried that the CIA might be waiting for him at the airport, but off him and Rosemary went, to Copenhagen, and we were expecting them back, but they didn’t come back. Then there was this big thing in the Algerian newspapers saying everyone had been waiting for Tim Leary at Copenhagen airport—including the CIA!—but he’d disappeared while on this airplane flight. It turned out the plane had landed in Switzerland, but we didn’t know this and we were really worried for three weeks or so because we had no idea what had happened. Then we got a postcard from Tim saying ‘We’re in Hesse country, come and find us’. So without Tim it was time to leave Algeria, as we had no money. We hitched to the coast, got a ferry across the Med and ended up living in a squat in London for about six months.
How did you re-forge contact with Tim?
We ended up talking to Tim on the telephone, he contacted us via Whisper and Dave Ball. It was amazing. We were trembling and I remember Brian saying to me that it was like talking to a lover. Brian said he’d go over and leave me in the squat with Davie because we only had enough money for him to go, and I thought, oh, that was it. But then a friend told my story to Dr. Jean Hoerni, one of the inventors of the micro-chip and he gave me £500, a lot of money in 1972, to go over and join Tim and Brian. So I got on the phone to Brian, and then Tim came on and said ‘why aren’t you here? I would have paid for you to come’. I didn’t know anything about networking then but I realise now that Hoerni was expecting me to tell Tim about the microchip.
Was there a relationship developing between you and Tim, Liz?
Brian went off to mix the record in Cologne where the main studio was. But Tim hadn’t been able to go because the CIA would have got him. While Brian was away, Tim and I took acid together and fell in love.
Do you think you were in love with Tim before you took acid together, just you and he, or did the acid precipitate it?
It was getting that way, we’d taken acid often before that but Brian was there, so I didn’t really let it happen. But our acid trip wasn’t contrived for that purpose. I went up to see him in the penthouse he was living in in Corona, which was owned by Christoph Wenger, the grandson of Herman Hesse. We were getting on so well, talking, probably talking cosmic talk and I just thought we could expand on it if we were tripping so I asked him if he had any acid, and he went and got some from Dennis downstairs.
It must have been such an intense experience. How did it resolve itself? Did things between you and Tim develop further?
The situation went on for ages. I remember one time driving along with Tim and Brian in the front and Davie and me in the back and Tim turned round and said, ‘Look Liz, you’re going to have to decide between us sooner or later’. I said, ‘yeah, I know’, and didn’t say anything else!
It’s nice to be wanted!
Well, you see, that was the thing. I was having a wonderful time, with two men treating me like I was the Queen of God Knows What! My low self-esteem had disappeared and I felt wonderful, I’d never felt so good in my life and I didn’t want anything to change. It was hard to know what to do because I’m really quite a monogamous person and I’d committed to Brian. I hadn’t finished the scene with Brian to know that I didn’t want him, and I couldn’t just abandon him. Davie was starting to regard Brian as his Dad and yet I was in love with Tim, although Tim was so much older than me! On the other hand Tim had bought me a car, got an air-hostess to bring an ounce of heroin through customs for me (the last thing I wanted at the time) bought toys and got a nanny for Davie. And how could I presume Timothy Leary, the famous psychologist, a Harvard professor, would want me? He’d done a good job boosting my self-esteem. He must have been amazed to find it was so low when he was psycho-analysing me. For that’s what he must have been doing. But he had such a good brain! There was no way to choose between those two at all, I was very confused.
So what happened, how did it end, Liz?
I was supposed to meet Brian in England. Brian had to go back to London to do various things, see about Whisper, get some more clothes, and Brian had gone ahead and asked me to come so I said ok I will. But I went with Tim to meet this guy representing the Austrian government —Tim was thinking of moving to Austria—so we went to St Moritz to see him and stayed in the Bridal Suite of the Palace Hotel. We had dinner with this Carlton Smith guy and arranged for Tim to cross the border, and the senator just assumed I would be with Tim and Tim asked me to go with him. But I’d promised to go to Brian in England so got Tim to take me to the airport and at the ticket gate he said ‘are you sure you want to go?’. I didn’t want to go, but I’d promised, so he said ‘I’ll tell you what we’ll do, I’ll toss a coin, you choose’. I think I chose heads and I would stay, tails and I would go, so he tossed the coin and it came out heads and he said ‘well, you’ve got to stay’.