Memorable drug scenes in films tend to fall into two broad categories: either they successfully mirror the drug’s effect or the behavioural spectacle of its usage. So in the former category there’s the trippy, such as in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas where a hapless Johnny Depp on acid watches the carpet pattern swim and the bar clientele transform into giant reptiles; or William Hurt’s mushroom mash-up in Altered States – a fast-cutting fury of pyrotechnic flashes, tribal ghost dancing and eventual ossification. In the latter category there’s the horrors of heroin, such as Ewan McGregor shooting up and overdosing to Lou Reed’s ‘Perfect Day’ in Trainspotting, or Frank Sinatra going cold turkey in The Man With the Golden Arm. And somewhere in between there’s the mania of cocaine, such as Al Pacino’s nose-burying excesses in Scarface, or Ray Liotta’s snort of wide-eyed wonder in GoodFellas, followed by that marvellous paranoia-fuelled helicopter chase sequence.
These substances come with natural in-built cinematic potential, and there are scores of similar examples that can be quoted. But how many memorable scenes can you think of that are based around the use of downers? Neither the inner nor the outer experience would seem at first glance to have much to offer the filmmaker, but that assumption has just been proved incorrect. Now on release, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street has become a talking point with regard to the various array of amoral excesses it exposes; it will also enter the annals of movie list-making with one of the most splendid drug scenes ever, involving that most unlikely of candidates…Quaaludes.
As a movie, The Wolf of Wall Street does start out very like GoodFellas, so much so that it has the sense of being a souped-up retread. There’s the ‘wise guy’ voice-over with visuals tailored to fit, sometimes fast-cutting, other times freeze-framing; and this time the technique is taken further, with the action compressed or expanded in very deliberate schematic ways, sometimes bordering on the cartoonish – Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) even performs direct pieces to camera on occasion. Then there’s this narrator himself, an evident narcissist who opens a door to let the audience into his secret hermetic world, a forbidden pleasuredome of naughtiness and noir in which he wants you to simultaneously delight and abhor.
GoodFellas can be viewed as a kind of addiction movie, though not about addiction to any one substance or activity but instead to the whole existential package of gangsterism – the power, the glamour, the esteem of belonging to an elite crew, the easy money, the enhanced access to sex and drugs, the reckless abandon and, of course, the routine violence. Jordan Belfort is just like Henry Hill in being perpetually high on such a lifestyle, mainlining more and more of it till he suffers an overdose and the inevitable side effect of having the FBI on his tail. Being a dodgy stock-trading boss, sometimes operating outside the margins of legality, has a great deal in common with being a wise guy and many of the aforementioned boxes are ticked in both movies. Read more…
Way back in 1951, three years before Aldous Huxley published The Doors of Perception and awareness of the entheogenic properties of psychedelics in the West was almost non-existent, William Burroughs made his first expedition to Panama and Ecuador in search of ‘yage’, as he called it, or ayahuasca, which he knew was used by Indians in shamanic rites and was said to increase telepathic sensitivity. As one of the earliest Western explorers with an experiential rather than an academic motive, he proved himself to be way ahead of his time, prefiguring a widening interest in the substance, which has now gone almost mainstream and blossomed into what we call ‘ayahuasca tourism’.
That first expedition, described in Burroughs’ novel Queer, proved unsuccessful; but Burroughs returned to Panama in 1953 and this time he went on to Bogotá, where he had the good fortune to meet botanist Richard Evans Schultes, a world authority on hallucinogenic plants and a Harvard contemporary of Burroughs. Schultes told Burroughs about the methods of preparing ayahuasca, and also about the Indian mythology surrounding it and its use as a means of communicating with the spirit world. Schultes, who sampled the hallucinogenic specimens he discovered, had tried ayahuasca, but said his own experience was limited to vivid colours and no visions. He pointed Burroughs in the direction of the Putumayo River, where he would find brujos who made the ayahuasca brew.
In Mocoa Burroughs met an old brujo who prepared the black liquid, oily in texture and bitter in taste. Soon afterward ingesting it Burroughs experienced blue flashes and a wave of nausea, and, though he could hardly walk, he staggered out of the brujo’s hut and retched violently. He continued to have intense hallucinations, needing to take barbiturates in order to bring himself down, and he later concluded ayahuasca was the real mind-bending kick he was seeking, though this was clearly an overdose.
Later in the expedition Burroughs made a discovery about the preparation of ayahuasca that proved highly significant; in fact he is apparently the first Westerner to come upon this information – which came as news to even Schultes himself. Burroughs learned from another brujo that in order to release the full hallucinating effects of ayahuasca, another plant – chacruna – needs to be added to the brew. This functions as a monoamine oxidase inhibitor, activating the DMT in the ayahuasca and essential for the proper experience. In a letter to Allen Ginsberg in June 1953, Burroughs waxes lyrical about one of his trips in this new mode – a marked contrast to the turmoil of the earlier experience. ‘I experienced first a feeling of serene wisdom so that I was quite content to sit there indefinitely.’
The further fruits of this trip were written up in a fictional letter to Ginsberg in The Yage Letters, which includes contributions from both writers and was eventually published in 1963, when entheogenic interest in psychedelics was well established. This early work depicting ayahuasca tourism went on to inspire Terence and Dennis McKenna in their own journey to the Amazon and led to their book The Invisible Landscape: Mind, Hallucinogens and the I Ching. Burroughs’ ayahuasca visions were also very important in the development of his most famous novel, Naked Lunch, starting him on his unique and audacious path of literary experimentation.
Read my full account of how ayahuasca informed Naked Lunch in the current PsypressUK magazine, which also includes a brief history of psychedelic research from Stanislav Grof, an account of the political difficulties of getting support for psychedelic medicine from Ben Sessa, an informative story about how Allen Ginsberg wrote a poem and turned on publisher Tom Maschler in Wales, plus reflections on Jung and Castaneda and an excellent account of a recent Peruvian ayahuasca experience from Alison Terry. More details here: PsypressUK 2013 Vol.2.
When I had the mushroom-inspired vision of The Cult of the Novel way back in 1979 – written about at the finale of The Mad Artist – I knew that although it was highly organised it was also fanciful and solipsistic and I could only hope that somehow it would filter into the outside world and connect with like-minded individuals. It didn’t much at the time and history was against me, with hippydom and psychedelia on the wane and Thatcherite values about to engulf most everything. Cut to thirty-plus years later and people are talking about a psychedelic renaissance, with the old and new coming together and the golden era of 1960s-’70s psychedelia being re-evaluated.
I’ve often asked myself why it took so long for me to finally formulate and write The Mad Artist, and perhaps it was because I wasn’t ready before or perhaps the world wasn’t ready. When I did publish it in 2010, I looked around for similar contemporary books and couldn’t find any; though Albion Dreaming by Andy Roberts, a history of LSD use in Britain, was on a most similar wavelength. Then shortly afterwards along came Bill Booker, whose Trippers, a personal memoir of LSD and the ’70s scene, is very like The Mad Artist and also had a long gestation period. And then Leaf Fielding leaped into the frame with his To Live Outside the Law, a much more wide-reaching and influential memoir about the same zeitgeist, with the added spice of the inside story of the Operation Julie bust.
The four of us liaised and chatted extensively about our shared literary involvement, and it was Bill’s idea to form the Facebook page The Semi-Secret Fellowship of Freaks, named after the original fellowship in Trippers. We were joined by Rob Dickins, a Freak of a newer generation, not even born in 1979, but very much tuned to the same vibes, as demonstrated by his site PsypressUK and subsequently his recently published novella Erin. The page provided one of several focuses for interaction, discussion and more speculation about this psychedelic renaissance we are undergoing. Something of a ‘novel cult’ was getting together. Read more…
Originally published on The Digital Fix, here is my review of this excellent LSD documentary.
Originally posted on Psychedelic Press UK:
The Substance is a Swiss-made feature-length documentary which gives a general overview of LSD throughout its seventy-year history and serves as a useful primer for the subject of psychedelics. It is structured around extensive interviews with Albert Hofmann, the chemist who first discovered the substance, Stanislav Grof, a psychiatrist well known for the practice of psychedelic therapy, and various other luminaries in the field. Their accounts, both personal and professional, interact with a fine body of archive footage from the 1940s onwards to weave the extraordinary story of one of the most controversial and powerful drugs – both in terms of active dose and also in transformational effect – to ever have been unleashed on mankind.
The psychedelic properties of LSD were first discovered in 1943 when Hofmann accidentally ingested a small dose and found it unusually pleasant and stimulating. In interview he then goes on to tell the famous story of how he subsequently gave himself what he thought to be a minute dose – 250 micrograms – and became overwhelmed by a terrifying trip due to the drug’s unexpected extreme strength. Nonetheless the potential of the drug in psychiatric research was immediately evident and Sandoz in Basel, the laboratory where Hofmann worked, began to make it available.
Originally published in the PsypressUK magazine, here is my review of Rob Dickins’ excellent first novella, available on Kindle or as a signed limited edition print copy. Highly recommended!
Originally posted on Psychedelic Press UK:
Rob Dickins is well known as a guru of psychedelia and an avid participant in the British festival scene and here, in his first novella, he blends the two ingredients in a startlingly original and creative fusion. Erin takes place over the span of the Solpsycle Gathering; a medium-scale festival with a strong New Age ambience. Lije – ‘a schizophrenic…a journalist [and] a druggie’ – and his group of mates move somnambulantly through festy space-time, bearing the chaotic, fractured perceptions of non-stop partying. Enter the beautiful and enigmatic Erin, who manifests to Lije as a psychonautic guide, leading him through extravagant mushroom and salvia trips in an odyssey of self discovery.
At first Lije is entranced: ‘A flower appeared before my eyes and began to blossom. It blossomed in fractals, geometrically, as petals beget petals beget petals beget petals; the slow turn of a planetary arc. Reds, blues and greens, organic tendrils that spread outwards at a speed unfathomable to my frozen awareness.’ But the path is a tricky one and, deeper into the trip, an insidious spirit appears who lures Lije into bad places. For indeed, beneath it all, a dreadful truth lurks, and somehow Lije must come to terms with it.
Most misery memoirs are first books penned by people who are often not primarily writers, but who simply have extraordinary tales of woe to articulate. It is a very commercially-driven genre, where writing quality is not paramount, sometimes involving ghost writing; and it’s become a bandwagon that the ever expanding ranks of celebrities are wont to climb onto, as their names alone will sell books.
This makes Jeanette Winterson a special case with Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? as she’s an established writer of long standing, and way back in her twenties she already addressed her turbulent and troublesome early experiences in her semi-autobiographical first novel Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. So why revisit this territory and de-fictionalise it? Why re-clock the car to zero, so to speak?
It’s partly down to the changed perspective of middle age, where all becomes recast in a historical rather than an immediate context; and not only her own life but also her surroundings – Manchester and Accrington and their industrial heritage. She paints a picture that certainly supports the adage ‘it’s grim up North’, involving austere little houses with outside lavvies and no central heating or fridges or telephones. I am four years older than Jeanette, but as a southerner whose childhood was surrounded by ‘all mod cons’, hers feels like it belongs to an earlier generation.
Similarly she redrafts the almost 19th century figure of her stepmother, whom she refers to as ‘Mrs Winterson’ and who uses the matrix of her religious beliefs as an enabler of her abuse. Jeanette’s childhood involved corporal punishment, dished out by her father on the instructions of the dominant mother, nights spent of the front doorstep having been locked out of the house, and the burning of her hidden and forbidden book collection after it was unfortunately discovered.
Nevertheless Jeanette absorbed enough literature to get to Oxford to study English, become a successful writer and leave all that toxicity behind. But of course it’s never that simple. And so we come to what Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is really all about – the spectre of unfinished business, the part of her story that serves as a corollary to Oranges. Read more…