High Times at Houghton

Carl Williams, a self-described specialist in counterculture, reviewed one of the largest collections of items related to sex, drugs, and rock and roll ever assembled in a talk Wednesday evening at Houghton Library.

Williams is the head of the Counterculture Department of the antiquarian bookselling firm Maggs Bros. Ltd., in London.

Speaking rapidly and in a British accent, Williams opened the discussion by describing how “stoked” he was to be lecturing at Harvard.

Alongside Williams, Leslie Morris, curator for modern books and manuscripts at Houghton Library, explained initially that Williams was invited to interpret the vast collection of counterculture items Harvard received in 2009 from Julio Mario Santo Domingo, a Colombian billionaire and businessman who also served as his country’s ambassador to China.

Domingo’s trove included over 50,000 items related to drugs, including psychedelics and botanicals, and erotica. Most members of William’s audience appeared to have been teenagers in the 1960s and 1970s.

Santo Domingo’s family retains ownership of the collection, but has lent it to Harvard so scholars can study and catalogue it.

The collection’s music-related items are at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

The remaining paraphernalia that is at Harvard includes posters, books, films, photographs, buttons, and comic books.

Williams, who helped Santo Domingo assemble the collection, displayed images of the items such as a Black Panther Party poster, a first edition of Jack Kerouac’s 1957 book classic “On the Road,” and film reels labeled “Nuggets and Nudists.”

The collection also includes material from before the counterculture movements of the 1960s and 1970s, as Williams showed many photos of 16th century botanical publications and handwritten letters from French poet Charles Baudelaire.

Williams also showed and narrated slides of other items such as writer William S. Burroughs’s Scientology handbooks, the first editions of Aleister Crowley’s occult books “Oracles” and “The Equinox,” drag queen portraits, Latin American and Spanish Civil War revolutionary flags, and a gig poster for the British punk band Sex Pistols.

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