True Origins: Stairway to Heaven

Early in the ’60s, Lenny Bruce appeared on Ed Sullivan and performed a skit about some kids on the West Coast who were caught sniffing glue to get high, which Lenny found hilarious. Little did Lenny know, by broadcasting that story, he created a sudden interest in the effects of glue across America.

When the Finchley Boys decided to hold their second infamous glue party (there were really only two), they naturally selected the barn at Mary Shirley’s as the appropriate location. Mary was a gorgeous rockn’n’roll blonde who designed and sewed her own outfits—hooded purple velvet cape and Carnaby-street miniskirt was a typical look. Plus Mary had two gorgeous sisters close to her in age. I never really penetrated their scene but once, for a huge ceremony and celebration in 1969, but the Shirley’s undoubtedly captured the center of gravity on the Finchley’s social life for a while.  Mary was an accomplished musician on many instruments, violin probably being her best. She was also an asset selecting songs and helping transpose them, as well as letting them know which worked and which didn’t. Mary’s opinion was pretty much final.

540419_799832633392278_4484199324230802802_nMary was a huge fan of the Yardbirds, who weren’t really all that super famous at the time, playing gigs in small clubs, and Mary would get her dad to drive her and her sisters hundreds of miles just to attend a show. The first time she saw them, Jimmy Page pulled her out of the audience to be brought backstage. They treated Mary as an equal and for years, Page would call Mary whenever he was in the Midwest. It wasn’t a gushy teen fan thing either. They weren’t looking for sex and Mary wasn’t offering (until later, that is). At 16, Mary could go toe-to-toe with the biggest rock stars and command their respect. After Mary was done hanging out at these after-parties, she and her sisters would head down to where her dad was sleeping in the car, waiting to drive them a hundred miles back home. It was at one of these late-night hang-outs that Page asked Mary to transpose a sheet of classical music (Chopin). He wanted to work the melody into a song he was writing. (It eventually became the opening to “Stairway to Heaven,” by Led Zeppelin.)

The Shirley dairy farm was built on a hill at the south edge of town.

But in 1967, that hadn’t happened yet, and everyone was going to the Shirley’s to get high on sniffing glue for the first time. Glue wasn’t like the ditch weed we’d been smoking, it actually got you high—way high. It was probably the first psychedelic experience for most of us. The first glue party was a relatively small affair arranged by Phil Mayall and attended by Jim Cole and a few others. It was held in a second-floor apartment on Green Street. But after that second party at the Shirley’s, some of the Finchley’s could already tell glue wasn’t going to be their bag. Mayall was now known as Dr. Pheeoo and he already seemed to be close to a junkie on the stuff, sniffing morning, noon and night, and keeping a journal of his experiences. His dad got suspicious, found the journal and called the police.

Next thing the Finchley’s know, they get a message that the cops know everything, and it’ll “be a lot better for you if you turn yourself in.” So the next day, George and a few others go down to the Urbana Police Station and turn themselves in for sniffing glue at the Shirley sisters’ barn. George’s mom was horrified. “Glue!” she said, “you won’t even drink a coca-cola because you think it’s bad for you!”

It would take another year or two before Phil completely gave up his obsession with glue. For a while, he even holed up at my place, the Den of Iniquity, and did his sniffing there. Here’s Phil in England in 1970, living the high life.


Author: Steven Hager

I'm a writer, journalist, filmmaker and event producer.

3 thoughts on “True Origins: Stairway to Heaven”

  1. Glad you still retain all that information … there are so many details about that time I have forgotten over the years … but Turks Head, In Stitches, and Mary Shirley are not among them. Thanks for bringing those images to mind … cha cha cha changes.

    1. There’s a connection between the steam tunnels and sniffing glue. (and I may be taking liberties with my memory here) But once, we got into the University of Illinois Science building late at night and found a gallon glass bottle of pure toluene, which is the active ingredient in glue. The bottle ended up with our friend D. who just loved the stuff. D. had a baggie dispenser on the wall of his room and a plastic lab squirt bottle with a long thin nozzle on it. He would squirt out just enough toluene into the baggie and we would pass it around. We all knew that it wasn’t a good idea to do this very often. D. swore that it wasn’t bad for you like glue, since it was all the other ingredients in glue that would make you stupid if you did very much of it.

      I credit Steve with being the first one in our group to declare that sniffing toluene was, “not cool”. Everything (and everyone) back then was either cool, or not cool. It was sometimes hard to keep up.

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