The Watts house became a blend of memorabilia and psychedelia. Antique window glass was decorated with pieces of translucent contact paper, to give it the effect of stained glass, as multicolored sunlight streamed through the strips of dangling paper. An ornately carved wooden mantle clock had the word “NOW” written on a round placard which covered its face. An old-time radio stood in the corner of the dining room, but now instead of playing Amos ‘n Andy and Fibber McGee and Molly, the big old box was tuned into Peter Bergman’s Radio Free Oz, booming music by Ravi Shanker, Simon and Garfunkel, and The Beatles.
With plenty of room for guests to roam around, the Watts house became a psychedelic social club. One frequent visitor was Bud Simco who recalled:
“Kerry was charismatic and had the ability to attract diverse personalities, people who would normally not be associated with each other, except by the force of Kerry’s personality. For example, there were so-called hippie types tripping under the dining room table, holding burning candles in their hands, while right-wing types were holding forth in the kitchen. One such character I recall had never been to Watts before, and showed up wearing a bullet proof vest and armed with a .45. He seemed reasonable enough, in conversation, but he was taking no chances (having never been around hippies before). There were people from all walks of life… including a pilot for the Flying Tiger Airlines, a student from MIT, some swingers, a fashion model, some writers, some SDS student types, and various and sundry others whom I did not know. One of my guests at one particular gathering was a former motorcycle gang member who lost his foot in a motorcycle accident, and his beautiful American Indian wife, who was at the time a co-worker of mine. He had never seen such an assorted group of people in his life, for example, but with his tambourine, magic mushrooms and a Donovan LP loudly playing, asserted his presence along with all the diverse others in one righteous happening. The thing is, everyone was tolerant of the other, regardless of individual inclinations and/or politics. At such an event, many people would never even interact with other groups, in other rooms, although many did. That was the one universal factor re: being present at one of Kerry’s gatherings, either at his home in Watts, or perhaps at one of the original ‘Be-Ins’ at Griffith Park.”
At the Griffith Park Be-In, Kerry Thornley cut a singular swath, equipped with a sign bearing a perfectly surreal statement that seemed to say one thing while also saying something else entirely, just the sort of irreverent psychedelic koan that Kerry became famous for throughout his life. His sign read:
Fellow Discordian Louise Lacey also attended the Griffith Park Be-In. She recalled:
“The weather was perfect. We were all stoned. A single engine plane came and circled, and I thought it was the media, keeping track of us, but then a man all in white dropped down with a parachute and the crowd roared with approval. Later I learned that an old friend of mine from Marin County was the pilot. He got that plane out fast, because it was illegal to parachute within the city limits.
“The Be-In was fascinating because I had never seen such a large collection of freaks. I couldn’t keep from grinning. I was particularly interested because some hard-assed sociologist had said that when you were on LSD you were extremely susceptible to being led. I was watching for people being led.
“I saw a group of people organized into a crack-the-whip game. Twenty or twenty-five people formed and a man with a megaphone was giving them instructions. (Definitely planned.) ‘Move up the hill, move down. Hang on tight. Join with more people.’ I couldn’t tell if anyone was listening or just all having fun. The people at the end of the line were moving so fast they kept being thrown off, tumbling down the hill in the grass, laughing hysterically. Then some of the crack-the-whip people let go of the hands of the people around them and drifted off. The megaphone man yelled more loudly. ‘Hang on, don’t let go.’ More people drifted away. He was screaming now. The group all dropped hands and disappeared in the crowds and the megaphone man was screaming at the top of his amplified voice, ‘Come back! We are playing a game here!’ But the people were gone. I didn’t worry any more about what that sociologist had said.
“Many groups of people were gathered as families of friends. It was the first time I had seen this form of organization. So there were tents, and lean to’s and lots of signs pounded into the dirt, describing one thing or another to identify who the friends were. (This is where Kerry’s sign fit in.) As I didn’t live in LA, I didn’t recognize anyone other than Kerry’s friends, who didn’t stay around his sign, but it didn’t matter. I ‘knew’ the strangers as friends, and we laughed and hugged and shared doobies, and listened to music and I moved on. Nobody got hurt, everyone had a good time (except, I imagine, the man with the megaphone). As the day progressed, I gravitated back to Kerry’s sign and others did, too, and we shared what we have experienced, eventually gathered our stuff and drove home to Kerry’s. A most successful day.”
In March 1967, the Los Angeles Free Press ran an article about how you could get high from smoking banana skins, including instructions on how to prepare the stuff. Kerry decided to give this new craze a go, and in the company of co-conspirator Louise Lacey visited the local Safeway supermarket, as the two of them cleaned out the produce section of their banana supply, then brought home the banana bounty, removed the fruit and baked the inner portions of the skins on cookie sheets just as the Los Angeles Free Press article had instructed.
While this cosmic concoction was cooking, Kerry and Louise went around the Watts neighborhood, ringing door bells and offering skinned bananas to any interested parties. As Louise recalled: “This was a mostly black neighborhood, who knew Kerry, at least by sight, but still they weren’t interested. He explained that it was an experiment, and that no one had messed with the bananas (which were getting brown), but they thanked him and shut the door, again and again, so we gave up.”
Kerry’s friend Becky Glaser remembered walking into Kerry’s house and discovering that every container conceivable was filled with peeled bananas. Becky said she will always remember the wild look in Kerry’s eyes, when she walked in and asked him:
“And what the hell are we gonna do with all these fucking bananas?!”
“Well, I’m urging you all to eat them.”
“And what’s gonna happen if we eat them?”
“I’ll get rid of them!”
“Yeah, but what are you going do with the peels?”
“Aha! That’s the important part!”
As Kerry’s brother, Dick Thornley, remembered: “Kerry enthusiastically invited me over for some Mellow Yellow that night. The invitation came after they had baked it. I recall the stuff was essentially powdered charcoal by the time it came out of the oven. It was nearly impossible to light, let alone smoke.”
The Mellow Yellow craze is now considered an urban legend that was promoted by the Los Angeles Free Press article and Donovan’s groovy tune of the same name. According to the liner notes of Donovan’s Greatest Hits, the rumor you could get high from banana peels was started by Country Joe McDonald of Country Joe and the Fish.
Whatever the origin of the Mellow Yellow mythos, Louise Lacey remembers that inhaling the banana skins was anything but mellow. As for copping a buzz, the only one who got off on the stuff was Kerry, who after toking down on a Mellow Yellow reefer, proclaimed, “I’m high!” Leave it to Kerry to be the only person in the history of the Mellow Yellow craze to actually get off on the stuff. Of course, this wasn’t out of the ordinary, because—as Becky Glaser recalled—“Kerry got high off of everything.”
Hear the Mellow Yellow story from an interview I conducted with Louise Lacey in 2007. Play below or download the MP3 here.