The great bananadrine case of 1967

How stories spread and why citizen journalists should be wary of them.

The source of bananadrine revealed.

I HAVE THIS VISION of standing with a couple friends in Musgrave Park, Brisbane. I think it was there. Memories of that long ago are a bit hazy. I recall it was the sight of an empty 200l fuel drum, though that might not be quite accurate either, which led us to speculate about how to boil banana skins. Doing that was something of a topic of conversation at the time.

Just getting hold of a sufficient quantity of banana peel would have been an insurmountable challenge even before we could extract and dry the inside scrapings to refine the hallucinogenic drug in them.

The notion that banana skin contained the hallucinogen given the name of ‘bananadrine’ was news that reached us there in sleepy Brisbane from overseas. Reinforcing the belief was the release in 1967 of Donovan’s album, Mellow Yellow (“elec-tric-al banana is gonna be a sudden craze”). Donovan was in the know, wasn’t he? No way he could be wrong.

A bit of context might help here. 1967 and the years thereabouts were the heyday of LSD, the popular if illegal hallucinogen of the time. That should say something about banana peel and Mellow Yellow.

In his book, In Search of the Lost Chord: 1967 and the Hippie Era, Danny Goldberg, like my friends in Musgrave Park that day, was wandering at large on the verge of hippie culture. His book is a participant’s story of the times and the culture. In it he discusses the great bananadrine affair.

“The thing the sixties did was to show us the possibilities and the responsibility that we all had. It wasn’t the answer. It just gave us a glimpse of the possibility”… John Lennon.

Before it reached our distant shores and the even-more-remote riverbanks of Brisbane, the story was picked up by the underground press in the US. It reportedly originated with the drummer of a popular West Coast rock band of the time, Country Joe and the Fish.

“We were living on peanut butter and banana sandwiches at the time and just throwing the peelings away, so this sounded like a good idea”, Danny Goldberg quotes the vocalist of the band, Country Joe McDonald, as saying. News of the hallucinogenic banana skins was revealed to the world at one of the band’s concerts.

The underground press picked up on the story. It appeared first in the Berkeley Barb which published a how-to recipe for extracting the pharmaceutical from the banana skin by boiling, drying, then smoking the substance in a banana-peel-joint. The East Village Other picked it up, and from there it flowed into the mainstream press via the San Francisco Chronicle and onto United Press International which picked it up from a student newspaper. It was sort-of a paper-based viral spread. Banana sales must have picked up around the country and hippie-like people might have been seen rummaging in the bins of the fruit and vegetable stores of great American cities.

The politicisation of banana peel

It was then that banana skins took a serious political turn. Not all were happy with Country Joe’s revelation. Especially the radical Left which was home to a great many seriously political and seriously unhappy people at the time. Author and counterculture denizen, Danny Goldberg, tells how it went for them:

“Some of the radical left took the banana fad as an example of hedonism on the part of stoners. Tom Gitlin wrote an ‘Open Letter to the Hippies’, reminding them that the primary importer of bananas to the United states was the United Fruit Company, which was complicit in imperialist repression in Latin America”.

This raises the question of whether the corporation was a willing or merely an inadvertent drug runner.

The Open Letter illustrates the tension between the New Left and hippies, something that became apparent in Australia at the time. The radical Left saw themselves as serious people and hippies as dilettantes.

Compounding the politicisation of banana peel was Congressman Frank Thompson who, Danny Goldberg says, introduced the Banana Labelling Act “requiring a sticker similar to that on cigarette packaging”. Not to be outdone, the Food and Drug Administration announced it was to try to figure out whether smoking banana peel really did produce a high. Although the finding was negative, the research would have produced some curious images as scientists sat languidly around in their lab passing banana joints.

Eventually, belatedly, the bananadrine revelation faded away. It did likewise in sunny, dreary Brisbane and took with it our interest in it as a high-speed highway to a DIY legal high and a path, perhaps, to fruit-fueled enlightenment.

Bananadrine and citizen journalism

For citizen journalists, the great bananadrine high holds a number of lessons.

One of these is about the rapidity with which rumour spreads. It is a spread boosted by social media through which it will enter the minds of a great number of uncritical, credulous people and be regarded as fact. We see this time and again. Spurious claims, often started by someone trying to sell something, are accepted uncritically by otherwise-intelligent people and reposted as fact.

Another is about the necessity of skepticism: ask for evidence for any claims that arrive as rumour, especially if carried on social media. Better, look for evidence of anything at all that you have doubts about. A high level of skepticism is necessary to survival and sanity in today’s media-and-fake-news-soaked landscape. We can do this by applying Carl Sagan’s dictum:

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Something else, too:

…if a story sounds implausible, it probably is.

For citizen journalists with an experimental mindset, take care if testing claims of a pharmacological nature. Better still, don’t.

A further lesson is just because a musician says something in their song does not mean it is true. Song lyrics can be as mythical as any work of fiction. This includes lightly-coded messages such as elec-tric-al banana.

The great bananadrine high holds yet another lesson. It is this:

…uncritical reporting and pilching stories from other media is a fast road to damnation.

Reported repeatedly in the absence of questioning, for a great many people rumour spread by uncritical reporting becomes fact.

One more thing

There is one remaining mystery. Given the ease of extracting bananadrine from banana peel, why did it not displace LSD as the preferred hallucinogen of the time and all times thereafter?

Perhaps Cary Abrams and Brooke Kroeger’s piece on the East Village Other historical website gives us a clue. It is entitled ‘Anatomy of the Great Banana Smoking Hoax of 1967’.

“Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe”… Albert Einstein.