In the 1960s, a group of psychedelic-loving misfits from Orange County called the Brotherhood of Eternal Love figured it could turn the entire world on to the mystical power of LSD.
It seemed like a reasonable idea at the time -- the brotherhood had been founded on a shared belief in LSD's transformative effects. But somewhere along the line, the spiritual message was squashed by thousands of kilos of smuggled marijuana and hashish.
By decade's end, the psychedelic messengers had sidetracked into a smuggling operation that made the group one of the largest drug cartels in America.
Instead of enlightenment, the members of the brotherhood wound up making their mark as narcotics trailblazers: They distributed Orange Sunshine, arguably the most popular "brand" of LSD in history; created the strain of pot known as Maui Wowie; and were the first to bring Afghan hash to the U.S.
For a while, they were America's foremost counterculture outlaws, dubbed the "hippie mafia" by Rolling Stone. But the organization ultimately fell prey to greed, back-stabbing and legal heat. And when it was gone, it barely registered an acid flashback, even after biographers, documentarians and Madison Avenue began to strip mine the hippie era for material.
Yet in "Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love and Its Quest to Spread Peace, Love, and Acid to the World," Nicholas Schou manages -- amazingly -- to penetrate four decades of silence.
A staff writer at OC Weekly, Schou first wrote about the brotherhood for that paper in 2005, and now he's unfurled a true-life ghost story, interviewing dozens in and around the brotherhood's orbit, many of whom are talking on the record for the first time.
The result is a mind-blowing scrap of found history, like something buried deep in the earth -- and you cannot avert your eyes. It's a bizarre tale in which freakazoid suburban 1960s kids live recklessly, blissfully unaware of just how close to the edge they are.
The roots of the brotherhood can be traced to Anaheim in the early 1960s, when Orange County was an "American Graffiti" landscape of hot rods and hoodlums. One such figure was John Griggs, just another average low-grade dealer and user -- until he dropped acid in 1965 and became a devotee of Timothy Leary's lysergic philosophy and a pied piper for the promotion of hallucinogenic drugs.
Griggs, Schou writes, "would recruit everyone he knew -- surfers, street fighters, pot dealers and petty crooks -- into a tribe of people who viewed acid as a sacrament, a window into God itself."
This loose but growing aggregation officially became the Brotherhood of Eternal Love in October 1966. Their utopian agenda, aside from turning on the world, involved a scenario in which the group would relocate to its own island.
But such grandiose dreams didn't come cheap. Although they opened a storefront called Mystic Arts World on Pacific Coast Highway, drugs were always the primary source of the brotherhood's solvency.
In 1967, Griggs consulted the I Ching for advice about sending some brothers to the Middle East to score hash. "The book said, 'Crossing the great water will bring supreme success,' " brotherhood member Travis Ashbrook recalls.
But while brotherhood members were shipping hash-filled cars back to the States, Griggs developed a bond with Leary -- who'd moved to Orange County at his suggestion -- that was tearing the group apart.
Many in the brotherhood distrusted Leary, Schou writes. To them, the acid guru was a charlatan, addicted to fame and willing to glom on to anyone willing to help promote his great cause: himself.
The entry of the high-profile Leary into the organization was accompanied by increased scrutiny from law enforcement, which prompted many members to flee California for Maui.
Filling the void were nefarious characters more interested in money and fear than peace and love. The name of the brotherhood, Schou notes, "now was being hijacked by dope pushers and used as a sales pitch or a marketing device."
After Griggs died in 1969 of a drug overdose, the group lost its tenuous bond. Business became more ruthless. The drugs got heavier. Mistakes were made, and, in 1971, the police finally brought them down. The Brotherhood of Eternal Love was left to rest in peace.
That is, until now. With "Orange Sunshine," Schou has crafted a definitive history of the dark side of the 1960s. It's a jarring but important reminder that the black-and-white filter that many of us bring to the decade is really shot through with gray.
Himmelsbach is a Los Angeles writer and producer.