First published in July 2011, To Live Outside the Law is a book of many facets. It is part personal memoir of the ’60s-’70s psychedelic scene, part ‘true crime’-style insider account of the Operation Julie escapade, subsequent bust and jail time, and also a larger meditation on the cultural and spiritual impact on humanity of that most potent and exotic of illegal substances—LSD.
The book is tightly and economically written, telling us enough but without going into burgeoning detail, so that a large swathe of time is covered efficiently in its near 300 pages. The structure takes the time-honoured form of two interwoven strands, the first starting with the Julie bust and continuing on through the legal proceeding and imprisonment, and the second dealing with Leaf’s past life up to the bust. It works very well, with the unrelenting downbeat dourness of the former strand contrasting strikingly with the colour of the latter; and the two synergise together beautifully to answer the book’s central question, poised on its cover: How did I get into this mess?
The answer is complicated, but the honest and candid writing, coupled with the willingness to reveal intimate details, build into a lucid and fascinating portrait of a talented individual whose youthful waywardness and ‘rebellion’ ultimately stretched too far for his own good. The roots, as ever, lie in childhood, and Leaf’s, though middle class and not ‘deprived’ in the usual sense, had huge shortcomings. From the age of seven onwards, with an army officer father often serving overseas and no mother, Leaf had virtually no proper family life and was subject to the institutionalised sadism of boarding school, where he didn’t fit in. What with having to fight the school bully to prove himself, enduring vicious canings from the headmaster and slipperings from prefects for the most trivial of ‘offences’, he became radicalised early. Through George Orwell he got interested in the Spanish Civil War and developed an anti-fascist stance that both alienated him at school but secured him a place at Reading University. Read more…
I first became aware of Trippers by ‘overhearing’ a conversation on Facebook between Rob Dickins, editor of PsypressUK, and Andy Roberts, author of Albion Dreaming. Andy enthused about this newly written but set-in-the-1970s psychedelic memoir with Kerouacian undertones, and I thought, ‘That sounds awfully like my book, The Mad Artist.’ Shortly afterwards I found Bill Booker on Authonomy, and we backed each other’s books, exchanged comments and compared notes on the remarkable similarities of our psychedelic and literary journeys. Reading Trippers, therefore, became a two-fold pleasure of me—firstly to appreciate it in its own right, and secondly to discover further parallels between what it describes and my own experience.
It’s the summer of 1971 and an eighteen-year-old Bill Booker has reached an important developmental point. With a childhood lacking in self-confidence behind him, he’s branching out, finding new friends, thinking about purposeful journeys and being lured by the exciting scent of changing times. There’s a host of new music to dig, from serious cred stuff such as the Floyd and Syd Barrett, King Crimson, Cream and Beefheart, to the more middling cred ELP and Hawkwind, to the downright lightweight, such as the Osmonds. When it comes to reading material there’s Hesse, Heinlein and Jung, International Times and Oz, the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and Mr Natural…all of it imbibed through ‘a scented blue haze of joss and marijuana smoke.’
Bill and his gang see themselves as ‘Freaks’ with a capital F—a new incarnation of youth culture at the start of a new decade—and one Saturday the group identity gets expanded to ‘The Semi-Secret Fellowship of Freaks’. With suitably raised consciousness, Bill attempts to define his goals. ‘I wanted to be creative. I wanted spiritual enlightenment, although I only had a vague idea of what that meant. I wanted a girlfriend. I wanted true love. I wanted to be wise, joyful and fulfilled. I wanted to always know that life was meaningful. I wanted to know that there were mysteries to contemplate.’
One might well ask what is the difference between Freaks and good old hippies? As they both tick so many of the same boxes—long hair, alternative dress and lifestyles, anti-establishment, mystically orientated, into dope and acid, listen to Pink Floyd—it’s hard to get so much as a tissue paper between them. Yet early in the 1970s there’s already a sense that being a hippy is a bit old hat, you know man, so ’60s, and now we’re in a bright new decade with bright new decimal currency replacing that old £.s.d. (not LSD!) and we need to carve out a fresh identity. Being a Freak then is a reaction against the perceived countercultural conformity of hippiedom—Freaks are a bit rawer, edgier and less pretentious. Read more…
This seven-minute film is the first in a projected series of ‘trippy’ films, which in various ways will celebrate aspects of the psychedelic experience. Actually it came about as a happy accident, an afterthought. The footage was shot as part of a more extensive project—an illustration of a reading of the first trip sequence in The Mad Artist—which would also involve some night shooting in other locations. I was unable to complete the night shooting in my available window, and now the trees have come into leaf, so it might all have to wait till next winter, as the trip takes place in December.
However, in playing about with the shot footage, I experimented with various visual effects and an idea sparked: to make a trippy film in its own right, independent of the text of the book, though guided by the experiences it describes. So ‘Tripped in the Woods’ evolved as a notional, subjective point-of-view trip film, involving no people and no words, only the wood itself, progressively metamorphosing by means of trippy visual effects and complementary sound design.
Trippy videos abound on YouTube, and in the main they feature randomly generated wormhole and fractal patterning, fast cutting of anything and everything weird, strobe and flash effects, and tend to be light on original content. The better ones are impressive, but this type of video can get boring and when compared to the fabulous, polymorphous sophistication of the actual trippy inscape, they come nowhere near. With ‘Tripped in the Woods’ I eschewed the oversubscribed inner world of tripping and concentrated instead on the outer dimension—how acid transforms the look, feel and sound of one’s environment, which is especially relevant if that setting is already ‘pretty’, as the Plymbridge Woods undoubtedly is. And that area has a special significance in being the real setting for my first acid trip, described at length in the opening chapters of The Mad Artist.
As a big fan of the surrealist photographer Man Ray, master of the solarization, I’ve been dabbling in creating such effects since college days. Back then it all had to be done in the darkroom, with the results hard to predict in advance, and little did we dream that one day computers would take over the task. With Final Cut Pro, I used many different solarization effects, including double and sandwiched solarizations, alongside other image manipulations and stylisations, such as saturation, motion blurring and posterization, to gradually rack up the impression of consolidating trippiness. In Final Cut Pro one can apply posterization to the red, green and blue channels independently, so the range of combination effects is almost endless. Soundtrack Pro also has an extensive library of effects and atmosphere/musical beds, and again used in combination the sometimes melodic, sometimes eerie and sometimes frenetic moods of a trip can be evoked.
More info about my first acid trip as described in The Mad Artist: ‘The Alphabet Wood’
It’s always heartening to discover another writer who, perhaps by taking a very different path, has nonetheless arrived at a very similar creative place to oneself. This happened when I saw David Shields being interviewed on a BBC arts programme about his book Reality Hunger and the broader implications of the concept. He talked about the impoverishment of traditional fictional techniques and how today’s writers are incorporating more and more ‘reality’—that is, what really happened as opposed to what they made up—into their work. There is, he reckoned, a larger ‘reality hunger’ out there, manifesting in other media, such as reality television and the less adorned, more immediate communication afforded by the internet. Listening to Shields, I thought: that could be me talking, and I was amused by the discussion session following the film insert, where several panel members disagreed with him.
So I approached the book Reality Hunger with considerable excitement, while at the same time anticipating some mild disappointment due to my high expectations. But I wasn’t at all disappointed: the book proved to be everything I had hoped it would. It’s subtitled ‘a manifesto’, and it takes the form of numbered sections of varying lengths, which each have an aphoristic or epigrammatic quality. Many of the shorter ones are actual quotes from a wide range of writers and other artists, which Shields, acting like a DJ or MC, ‘samples’ and incorporates into the overall ‘mashup’. It is very effective and underscores the book’s textual points in a textural way, much like a plastic work of art. And as for the accusation of plagiarism, he answers that in the form of a quote from Picasso: art is theft. Who can argue?
As a drug memoirist, I had a special interest because I knew from the interview that this is an area Shields touches upon, and to my mind drug writing is an important component in the spectrum of this push toward ‘reality’. Indeed he mentions the Vedas—citing them as the earliest examples of written storytelling—and also De Quincey, Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson before getting stuck into James Frey and his infamous tome A Million Little Pieces. Here is one of the finest examples of an ideological clash between ‘reality’ and ‘fiction’ in a contemporary book. Telling the story of a hopeless, burnt-out, twenty-three-year-old drug addict, who mends himself in a rehab centre, Frey firstly wrote the book as a novel, and when he had no success at marketing it, he rebranded it as memoir, after which it was outstandingly successful, selling in the millions.
Around three years after its first publication, details emerged of falsifications within the book, primarily that Frey had greatly exaggerated his criminal past, creating jail time that didn’t actually exist. This put his publisher in an embarrassing position, regarding the definition of ‘non-fiction’ and opened up a debate on the latitude of factual reportage within memoirs. It reached a climax when Frey and his publisher appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show and the result was a public crucifixion for the heresy of daring to place lies into a so-called work of fact. Afterwards Frey was dropped by his agent, and his publishers made him insert an apology into future editions. Past readers were even offered a refund, such was the furore the incident created.
As reported in Reality Hunger: ‘Oprah has created around herself a “cult of confession” that offers only one prix-fixe menu to those who enter her world. First the teasing crudités of the situation, sin or sorrow hinted at. The entrée is the deep confession or revelation. Next, a palate-cleaning sorbet of regret and repentance, the delicious forgiveness served by Oprah herself on behalf of all humanity… I’m disappointed not that Frey is a liar but that he isn’t a better one. He should have said, Everyone who writes about himself is a liar. I created a person meaner, funnier, more filled with life than I could ever be.’
Oh, that rings so many bells. Having written about my twenty- to twenty-four-year-old self in The Mad Artist, I discovered that however much you try to stick to the truth or the facts, you cannot help but turn yourself and others into ‘characters’, and characters start to assume a destiny of their own on the page. For me the writing of a ‘novelistic memoir’ was both an act of serving up reality and one of full literary performance at the same time. Read more…
Further Mad Artist Sample Chapters
- Yesterday upon the stair
- I met a man who wasn’t there
- He wasn’t there again today
- Oh, how I wish he’d go away
—The first stanza of ‘Antigonish’ by Hughes Mearns, which I came across in childhood and retained at the back of my mind. Walking home from a party one night in September 1976, after smoking a lot of dope including some extra zappy THC oil, I had cause to remember this rhyme, as I had a hallucinatory episode along the very lines it describes.
Voices in the head, or voices beyond the head, encountering malevolent doppelgängers and experiencing the attendant existential slippage, are familiar symptoms of a variety of mental illnesses, up to and including schizophrenia, the big one. Experiencing such things on psychedelic drugs, however, opens up a grey area—for how much of it can be put down to one’s inherent propensity to be barmy and how much is simply down to drug effect? There’s no way of accurately answering such a question, since the two things are too intimately synergistic to separate. However, if the disturbing effects dissipate and don’t regularly recur once you come down from the high, then that has to be a good sign.
The term ‘cannabis psychosis’ has now become part of our drug zeitgeist, and what it actually means is open to debate. Certainly the phenomenon of younger people, under sixteen, consuming large amounts of the more potent skunk varieties of cannabis has led to a greater amount of visible manifestations of psychosis or psychosis-like symptoms than in previous generations of cannabis users. But psychosis-like, or psychotomimetic, episodes are of course nothing new, and remain a potential hazard to the tripper, much as losing your grip on the rock face is a potential hazard to the climber, or skidding off the road is a potential hazard to the motor racer.
This is one of the issues that I explore in The Mad Artist, in particular in the long middle section entitled ‘Geometric Progression’, which begins and ends with encounters with the numinous being called ‘The Man’ (who wasn’t there). Naturally the account I give is as much ‘creative writing’ as faithful reportage of an actual event. And one could say that the incident itself was as much creative fantasy as any kind of ‘psychosis’. The Man’s nearest reference is Cesar Romero’s The Joker, from the original Batman TV series, which was one of my favourite shows of the mid-’60s; and he also has a flavour of Hugo, the sinister dummy from the ’40s psychological chiller Dead of Night, who takes control of his ventriloquist master Maxwell Frere (Michael Redgrave).
Read ‘The Man’ chapter and the three following chapters, detailing more heavy dope sessions in Bournemouth and London, in an extract on Authonomy. Please do back, rate and leave a comment if you’re on the site!
Originally published independently in 1997, Stephen Smith’s Addict has gone through fourteen printings, and according to publisher Westworld International’s website it has sold 1.4 million copies worldwide. Seemingly it is the only book published by that outfit and the only book Stephen Smith has written. It does appear regularly in the Amazon.co.uk bestsellers list in the category ‘Alcohol & Drug Abuse’, which is what first brought it to my attention.
With its single-word title in large shaky capitals on a lurid cover, including a pair of crazed eyes staring out at the reader, Addict does, at first glance, rather fulfil the expectations of the stereotypical tale of drug misadventure. Written in a basic, non-literary style, replete with copy editing errors and typographical oddities, it also has a very ‘homemade’ quality. Yet as a book it works. As E.M. Forster said in Aspects of the Novel, a story ‘can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next.’
And many of the things that happen in Addict are just too weird and too farfetched not to be true: it’s full of stuff you just couldn’t make up. But again, conversely, it isn’t entirely believable either, having, in certain sections, something of the air of the drunkard’s tall tale told in the pub, piling on the exaggerations till breaking point is reached. When you consider that here you have a narrator who was so completely out of his tree for most of the story that he didn’t know what was happening even as it was happening, who was constantly in and out of mental hospitals, at one point undergoing electroshock therapy that wiped out his entire memory for several years, the term ‘unreliable’ takes on a whole new level of connotations!
But whatever criticisms one may make of the broad strokes of Addict’s storytelling and the embellishments that feel like fabrication, ultimately the portrait of addiction that it paints is authentic. And it perfectly conveys one essential quality of the addict/alcoholic: that of being a compulsive fantasist, unable to resist the appeal of fantasy over reality.
Simultaneously initiated at the age of fourteen into gay oral sex and dexedrine, Stephen proceeds to spend decades taking lethal quantities of the little yellow pills, together with drink and other drugs, whilst pursuing a life of petty crime and rent boy activities, as well as having several tumultuous relationships with women. He makes huge amounts of money and either squanders it or hides it and forgets where. He gets involved in London’s ’60s gangster underworld, which is fun at first but eventually lands him in serious trouble. Forever darting from one project to another, he leads a madcap fly-by-night existence, continually stuck in amphetamine overdrive.
There are many manic and psychotic episodes as loss of control, paranoia and mounting dysfunctionality take their toll. Familiar events from history, such as the Kennedy assassination, the Moon landings and various Beatles’ hits whiz by, signposting the passage of time, and we begin to wonder how Stephen can possibly still be alive and have a functioning heart, brain and liver in the face of such prolonged excess. There is much repetitiveness in the swinging from high to low, and as a true addict Stephen just cannot stay clean and get off the rollercoaster. Inevitably skid row beckons, and he descends further through the various strata of the underclasses, into his own Hieronymus Bosch-like hell.
Such an account of unbridled craziness, misery and hopelessness does make for a breathless compulsive read, and despite its lack of literary charm Addict is never boring. It has much to tell us, not only about the surface of drug addiction but also about the mechanics of the addictive personality, where anything and everything is grist for the mill—be it money, relationships, risk taking or plain lunacy for its own sake. In its own very idiosyncratic way Addict is a serious work.
Albert Hofmann, discoverer of LSD, died in 2008 aged 102. This book, which he saw in proof form shortly before his death, has consequently become a posthumous tribute to the man, celebrating his life, work and influence. It takes the form of several essays by Hofmann himself, followed by a Festschrift of others by luminaries such as Ralph Metzner and Stanislav Grof, the whole ensemble edited by Amanda Feilding of the Beckley Foundation.
What comes across as intriguing is that though Hofmann chose a career path of empirical science in becoming a chemist, he nonetheless had a strong mystical orientation, which first manifested in childhood: “While I strolled through the birdsong-filled forest, freshly verdant and illuminated by the morning sun, everything suddenly appeared in an uncommonly clear light. Had I previously not looked carefully, and did I suddenly now see the spring forest as it really was? It radiated the splendour of a peculiar, heartfelt beauty, as if it wished to encompass me in all its glory. An indescribable feeling of happiness, of belonging and of blissful security perfused me.”
It was this kind of perspective and serendipitous outlook that led Hofmann towards the discovery of LSD, and he gives a distinctly Jungian analysis of the string of chance events and coincidences that paved the way. Even though he was searching for a circulatory stimulant, not a psychedelic, and even though he’d synthesised the compound five years before and found it to be ineffective for that purpose, he was nevertheless drawn by its chemical structure to synthesise it again: “…a repetition, so to speak, founded on a hunch, chance had the opportunity to come into play. At the conclusion of the synthesis, I was overtaken by a very weird state of consciousness, which today one might call ‘psychedelic’.” Another chemist might have taken it no further, but Hofmann was sufficiently intrigued to conduct a self-experiment three days later, and the rest is history.
As the psychedelic movement developed, Hofmann’s mystical perspective drew him inevitably towards its other major figures. He worked with R. Gordon Wasson on the isolation and synthesis of the active ingredients of Mexican magic mushrooms―psilocybin and psilocin―and also with Wasson and Carl Ruck on an investigation into the possible psychedelic underpinnings of the ancient Greek Eleusian Rites. In his essay on Eleusis, Hofmann explores how the Mysteries can serve as a model for our times: “The necessary changes in the direction of an all-encompassing consciousness, which are prerequisite for overcoming materialism and for a renewed relationship with Nature, cannot be delegated to government―the change must and can only take place within each individual person… Eleusis-like centres could unite and strengthen the many spiritual currents of our time, all of which share the same goal, the goal of creating, by transformation of the consciousness of individual people, a better world…” Read more…