Last year Bill Booker and I encountered one another on the basis that we’d both written very similar books about our respective psychedelic experiences in the 1970s. As we compared notes, we found that the incidences of crossover between our two tales were numerous and uncannny in their synchronicity. I reviewed Bill’s book Trippers here, and now he’s returned the gesture, producing an incisive analysis that really gets beneath the surface and elucidates many of the typically ’70s storylines. Thankyou Bill, and long live the Semi Secret Fellowship of Freaks—both inside and outside the pages of literature.
If, like me, you like to make reading a book a journey of discovery, you won’t want a detailed map of the terrain so I’ll just give you an idea of the pharmacy to come and a few appetising vignettes and indications.
Rather than painting the sweep of its four and a bit years in broad strokes, Roger Keen paints this never-leave-a-turn-unstoned saga in intricate detail. He describes what is going on in his life alongside his trains of thought as he attempts to understand his LSD, cannabis, opium, cocaine and psilocybin experiences, often comparing them with other psychonauts’ travellers’ tales. If you’re interested in ‘man + psychedelics (entheogens) = ?’ then you should read this.
Right at the beginning Roger tells us his first acid trip was a much anticipated milestone in his life. The Mad Artist opens on ‘a dull Sunday afternoon in December 1975′ when, after a phone call from his best friend, Henry, arranging to meet up for their first acid trip, Roger already begins to feel he ‘was now a stranger in [his] own front room.’
This trip was a mixture of wonder, awe and paranoia – and interestingly, his acid visions often inspired his art college projects: ‘Suddenly the trip jumped in intensity… [...] The whole wood around me was no longer composed of trees, branches and leaves, but one composed of …letters. Letters of the alphabet.’ (p26) Later, Roger creates art out of these images. Like an explosion in a type foundry, alphabetti spaghetti recurs in other psychedelic episodes throughout the book.
At times The Mad Artist reads like a novel, at others it is very much a memoir and at yet other times it is a thoroughly absorbing blend of the two. At its best it brings Roger’s experiences vividly to life. Roger constantly attempts to understand his experiences and the psychological, philosophical and emotional concepts arising therefrom. At times he is terrified, either by the sheer power of the psychoactive substances he’s taken or from the resulting visions and concepts that are evoked. He always takes pains to provide a truthful, accurate and detailed account… Read the full review
How do you effectively depict mental illness in cinema? The necessarily internal nature of much of its substance has presented a formidable challenge to filmmakers over the ages. Psychotic states are easier to handle, as they’re inherently more dramatic. Who can forget the cracks opening up in the walls and ceilings of mad Carole’s flat in Polanski’s Repulsion, with hands springing out of the walls on percussive beats to taunt and molest her? Then there’s ventriloquist Maxwell Frere in Dead of Night, whose schizoid condition renders him under the control of his dummy, the delightfully sinister Hugo Fitz. And more recently, crazy mixed-up Donnie Darko gets to chat to a six-foot-tall rabbit about the end of the world, as you do.
But how does a filmmaker cope with depression? You can have a character act moody, downbeat, irrational and dead to sentience, but by what means do you convey the grand drama and existential terror of the inner apocalypse that is the hallmark of the full-on depressive state? Lars von Trier has found a way – by reifying it as the eerily beautiful blue planet Melancholia, which is coming towards Earth and maybe will collide, or maybe not.
Melancholia is very deliberately a film of two halves. The first, entitled ‘Justine’, depicts a train crash of a high-class wedding reception, where depressive bride Justine (Kirsten Dunst) simply isn’t in the mood, breaking off from the proceedings to take a bath, wander on the hotel golf course and capriciously shag one of the guests in a bunker, as family and friends fulminate around her. Shot in a chaotic style, with jerky camerawork, jump cutting and crossing the line, it lightly sketches Justine’s situation, but does so with knowing expertise. The interaction of her cold, ball-breaking mother (Charlotte Rampling) and skittish, ineffectual father (John Hurt), now estranged, tells us all we need to know.
The second half is entitled ‘Claire’, after Justine’s better adjusted sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and shows the aftermath of the failed wedding, with Justine staying on at the country hotel which is owned by Claire and husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). Apart from the family there is no one else around – no guests, no golfers, no staff – so the setting could be a more aesthetic version of the Overlook Hotel. Into this hermetic bubble, the planet Melancholia makes its entrance, with John studying it through his telescope and calming fears about an imminent collision with Earth. Through careful and inspired use of CGI, the blue planet manifests in the sky over the ornate topiaried gardens and lake, forming a luminous binary combination with the moon by night and an impressive blue-white sphere of increasing magnitude by day.
Despite reassurances from John, Claire becomes increasingly anxious and googles Melancholia to find a diagram of its trajectory in relation to Earth, which contains a tricksy whiplash sting in the tail. However, in contrast to Claire, Justine finds herself much more serene than normal, somehow in accord with the approaching Melancholia, and even takes to bathing nude by its light, the preternatural sapphire glow sculpting her body so that she resembles an ethereal goddess. To placate Claire, John creates a circle out of wire, to be held at a fixed distance and so measure whether the planet is getting bigger or smaller. Having loomed large in the sky, it starts to recede, causing relief all around, but presently – horror of horrors – it starts to swell again, threatening to wipe out everything, life as we know it.
So by using the science fiction conceit of the cosmically-wrought end-of-the-world scenario, Lars von Trier perfectly recreates the conditions of depression, with its looming all-pervasive horror, waxing and waning and waxing, and the threat of apocalypse always felt to be imminent. As a rationale it’s more subtle than cracking walls, a giant talking rabbit or a dummy with a mind of its own, and has left some of its audience out in the cold and bewildered. The ponderous very Northern European style of the filmmaking, reminiscent of Bergman and Tarkovsky, and low on entertainment value, has also acted as an alienating factor. Yet for those that ‘get it’, this is uncompromising cinema of a high order, a true auteur’s vision of a coalescence of beauty and darkness, a transcription of the perilous path that circles the Nietzschean abyss which is always there, if not always in sight.
In his recently published memoir, To Live Outside the Law, sixty-three-year-old Leaf Fielding gives the first ever account of the legendary Operation Julie drugs bust from the perspective of inside the gang, whose motivation was to transform the world for the better through the mind-altering powers of LSD. For Leaf the drug proved to be both an avatar of enlightenment and downfall, leading to him serving a five-year prison sentence. He first tried it back in 1966, as an idealistic eighteen year old, and that wholly positive experience kick-started his quest. He captures his youthful excitement and enthusiasm beautifully in the text:
‘…Jack and I were afire with our trip and talked about it for days. He too had experienced a sense of oneness with nature, life as energy and worlds in grains of sand as well as the sensory overload, distortion of time and space and hallucinatory after-images. Our lives had been turned on their heads and we were a great deal better for it, we agreed. Our friends ought to try this miraculous stuff. Everyone should… The light of joy was in our eyes; we’d stumbled across the elixir of life, the substance that was going to transform humanity!’
By then LSD was illegal, so Leaf’s inclination naturally pushed him onto the wrong side of the law. The next few years were colourful and picaresque, involving travelling and dope running in Europe, Turkey, Morocco and Thailand; and later back in England, he became a key member of the Julie outfit, who manufactured and supplied millions of doses of acid in the 1970s. In the book Leaf conveys the subtle changes in his outlook over the passage of time, and also the ambivalence of his position, distributing acid for idealistic reasons, yet having to put up with the stresses and strains of outlaw life.
‘At the beginning of our acid-dealing days I was light-hearted and full of optimism. Over the years the stress levels grew. Life is a continuum – by the time of the bust I was paranoid and full of anxiety, not a good exemplar for my wares.’
In the Operation Julie bust all his worst fears were realised. The gang were treated like big-time criminals and parallels were drawn between them and the IRA and Baader Meinhof. ‘It was falsely stated that there were links between us – a very effective smear in terms of demonising us in the mind of the public.’
The ‘real story’ from Leaf’s point of view – of wanting to raise consciousness to free the spirit – was lost and he became famous for all the wrong reasons and faced years in jail. So how did he cope with such a crushing experience?
‘I’d been busted with a sizeable group of like-minded friends. That helped enormously. Although riven by divisions we were all in the same mess and many of us were still good pals – we’d been through a lot of psychic territory together. By the time we were split up I was well used to being in prison. Anyway, I was accustomed to institutional life, having done ten years in boarding school. Being part of the Julie mob was another big plus; we had status. All these factors contributed to my survival.’ Read more…
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…