This article was adapted from my talk at Breaking Convention 2015, held in London at Greenwich University. It has now been published by the excellent Oak Tree Review, which investigates the many branches of psychedelic culture throughout history, specialising in its manifestations in art and literature.
In their activities and writings in the late 1940s and ’50s the Beat writers – principally Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg – prefigured and influenced the Psychedelic Movement, which came into flowering a generation later. When those epoch-making cultural changes got underway in the ’60s, the Beats were naturally looked upon as mentor figures and elder statesmen, and Timothy Leary, who was of the same age group as them, was happy to recruit and induct them into the cause – through his Harvard program. This produced some unexpected and volatile results – Tim Leary got more than he bargained for – and the end product as regards the three major Beat writers was one spectacular success, one mixed case, and one spectacular failure.
It all started in New York in 1943, within the Columbia university scene where the Beats first hooked up. At the time Jack Kerouac was in his early twenties, and already saw himself as a writer. Bill Burroughs was older, in his late twenties, and was known as a raconteur and intellectual, and became a mentor figure to the group. Allen Ginsberg was the kid, still a teenager, and just enrolled at Columbia. There were other key people in the group, such as Lucien Carr, another student, and everybody became fictionalised in Kerouac’s novels – most notably On the Road.
At around this same time Burroughs first tried morphine and became an addict, so the events of his first novel Junkie run roughly concurrently to On the Road. In both books, which are strongly autobiographical, there are many references to recreational drug use, and they open a marvellous window onto pre-psychedelic bohemian life – exactly the kind of scene which would develop eventually into the hippie scene.
Read more on: The Oak Tree Review
Originally published in Psypress Vol XVIII, my in-depth interview with LSD historian Andy Roberts covers his new book, Acid Drops, and much more. We compare notes on the mind-bending properties of Operation Julie acid and generally muse about tripping in the 1970s, with Andy giving examples of the various weird acid synchronicities he’s experienced. Now online in this abridged version.
Andy Roberts is well known in the psychedelic community as the author of Albion Dreaming: A popular history of LSD in Britain, which was published in 2008. He is also a UFO folklore researcher, a prolific journalist on matters psychedelic and Fortean, and an active presence on the event and convention circuits, giving lively lectures and contributing robustly and colourfully to discussion sessions.
I first met Andy on Facebook in 2010, when he provided a lot of kind support and valuable feedback on my then newly-published memoir, The Mad Artist, concerning my psychedelic adventures in the 1970s. As Andy is much the same age as me, we found we had many congruent historical experiences—acid war stories, one might say—we’ve continued to exchange lively chat on such matters, and we eventually met in the flesh last year. For a long time I’ve wanted to delve a bit deeper into his head and ask a few possibly difficult questions. And now with the publication of his new collection of writings, Acid Drops, I’ve finally got my chance.
Roger Keen: Andy, congratulations on publishing Acid Drops. It contains a miscellany of pieces, some already familiar to me and some not so. When you composed them, did you have the idea that they may one day come to together to form a whole, or did that notion take place more spontaneously? And how did you decide to arrange them in order to create a total effect within Acid Drops?
Andy Roberts: Thanks! There was never any real notion they may coalesce into a themed collection until sometime in 2015, when Psychedelic Press supremo Robert Dickins suggested the idea and it grew from there. At the time I was deep in research for the Michael Hollingshead biography I am still writing (of which more later) and, like any good writer, looking for diversionary activity and an anthology of psychedelic writings seemed like an excellent idea.
Even though I’d had an abiding interest in psychedelics since 1971, until I wrote Albion Dreaming I’d actually written very little else on the subject; a very early short piece after my second trip, a few articles for Fortean Times relating psychedelics to flying saucer belief, and a piece about the Grateful Dead’s acid-inspired telepathy experiments, and that was about it. But since the publication of Albion Dreaming I’ve written quite a few pieces, some of which have been published in Psychedelic Press, some in more obscure journals, and I had a few pieces kicking about in note form which I breathed new life into. Being able to publish all these bits and pieces meant that others have the chance to see at least the tip of the ‘research iceberg’ that is my archive!
Some of the real treasure came in the form of interviews I had carried out for Albion Dreaming or for the planned Hollingshead book, because usually only a tiny percentage of an interview actually makes it to the final edit of a book, and the chance to print some of these interviews in full was too good to miss. I also generated a few pieces specifically for Acid Drops, such as the interview with psychedelic alchemist Casey Hardison, which I think is a corker! I was also very pleased to be able to include a long form poem written by my good friend Graeme, about an experience we shared on a psychedelic quest for a mysterious and now long gone sculpture deep in the heart of the Lake District in Grizedale Forest.
I also have several pieces that didn’t make or weren’t submitted for the final edit, plus a host of interviews which have yet to be transcribed, and lots of other ideas that might make it into a second volume if Acid Drops sells well enough.
The final order of pieces in the book was entirely Rob’s and it makes perfect sense, being a mixture of the chronological and the themed.
Read more on: PsypressUK
The second volume in the Nemu’s End series finds the self-styled Reverend Danny Nemu looking inwards to explore the personal apocalypse, where the veils of regular cognition are rent asunder and an unbounded world of revelation manifests beyond. He focuses on how the constrictions and convolutions of language work to dilute the divine, drawing its sting and rendering it into the conventions of whatever zeitgeist that currently obtains. This issue is intensified by translation – for example, any number of multiple meanings can arise in the text of the Bible when it is filtered through Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, Latin and English. Overcoming the tyranny of the Word, be it written, spoken or thought, is what Neuro-Apocalypse is about, and Danny Nemu explores the many avenues through which this may take place.
Drawing on a rich history of personal experience, Danny tells of arguing with Jehovah’s Witnesses in Kyoto, of taking his perceptive system ‘off road’ with large doses of speed, and imbibing ayahuasca, firstly in Japan and later in the Brazilian Amazon. From an elevated perspective, he sees the ‘problem’ of language and the pictures it creates, even as he’s using it: ‘The nervous system finds what it expects to find […] We call false interpretations of the visual scene “hallucinations”, even though everything we see is an interpretation. The world perceived is the visual equivalent of a theory as yet unfalsified.’ He says that our cognitive structures are both climbing frames and cages, but their bars can be bent or reconfigured.
When it comes to geniuses such as Newton, Tesla and Wittgenstein, Danny points out that their oddities and obsessive natures contributed in no small part to their intellectual achievements and breakthroughs; and similarly with autism, the difficulty with abstract thinking can be counterbalanced by the savant’s extraordinary powers of memory and recall. Continuing this thread, he notes that some of the symptoms of an epileptic fit resemble those of a religious vision, including terror and elation, premonition and encounters with demonic, angelic or ancestral entities. And the syndrome of ‘hearing voices’ isn’t necessarily all bad, when looked at from beyond the perspectives of western psychiatry. The point here is that there are many ways for the veil to be lifted.
Entering the realm of the role of psychoactive substances in the history of religion, Danny crosses the more familiar ground of Soma and the Eleusinian Mysteries, and then moves onto drugs in the Bible, re-evaluating the propensities of frankincense and myrrh. The former is a tranquilliser, an antidepressant and anxiety-reliever, whilst the latter shares those properties and is also an aphrodisiac. They were used with wine and other ‘head spices’ to create both healing and psychedelic effects, and when looked upon in that light, many passages in the Bible take on multiple new shades of meaning. For example, in the burning bush story, the bush burned with fire but was not consumed, which perhaps is ‘a good metaphor for the colourful geometric patterns that blaze around the objects of one’s attention in psychedelic states.’
As with Newton, Tesla and Wittgenstein, Danny’s new work has an impressive, obsessive monumentalism – the notes alone take up fifty pages. And the Reverend himself comes over as an Old Testament prophet reborn as a psychedelic dub poet or DJ, sampling and splicing the ancient and modern in his own signature style. Blending Bible studies with history, linguistics, philosophy, psychology, pharmacology and anthropology, Neuro-Apocalypse is a heady eclectic reading experience, a synapse-stretching brain workout that puts a new spin on apocalypses within and without. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the cutting edge of psychedelic philosophy.
Buy a copy here: Psychedelic Press Shop
My latest piece for Reality Sandwich explores the notable psychedelic elements in Doctor Strange, linking it to Avatar, Inception, The Matrix and other cyberdelic movies.
Back in 2009, Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void appeared to herald a new era in psychedelic cinema, where increasing awareness and appreciation of DMT states fused dramatically with rapid advances in visual effects technology, to give rise to a better, more subtle and sophisticated film iconography that transcended the shortcomings of earlier years and got much closer to depicting the actuality of these fugitive and evanescent states. Noé’s lengthy extemporised sequences, involving fantastic voyages through fractal geometries and transmogrifying amoeboid forms, evoked both internal and external space adventure, and for the initiated he very much had it cracked. But despite high critical acclaim in some quarters,Enter the Void bombed at the box office and abjectly failed to kick-start a tryptamine-cinema renaissance. Seemingly by being so completely focussed on the arcane realms of the psychedelic inscape, it was too purist for many, lacked sufficient narrative underpinning and didn’t press enough buttons in the vital area of entertainment as well as enlightenment.
Cut to 2016 and in the latest Marvel blockbuster, the eponymous Doctor Strange – played assuredly by Benedict Cumberbatch – has his rationality and scepticism smashed by shamanic ninja the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), and after first discovering his astral body, he is then hurtled onto an cosmic roller-coaster ride that more than uncannily resembles Noé’s void. The Doctor whizzes through a world of eidetically coloured planetary bodies, black holes, fractals and kaleidoscopic visions, coming to witness his own fingers sprouting hands whose fingers sprout yet more hands, and so on, and he finally becomes a true believer in alternate dimensionality. And in many other discombobulatingly trippy sequences, using further advanced generations of visual effects and 3D technology, the latest psychedelic fare is once again delivered successfully to the masses – by wrapping it in the entertainment-friendly foil of science fiction.
Read more on Reality Sandwich.
The latest Psypress Journal, 2016 Volume XVIII, features ‘War Stories and Cosmic Flights’, my in-depth interview with LSD historian Andy Roberts. We compare notes on the mind-bending properties of Operation Julie acid and generally muse about tripping in the 1970s, with Andy giving examples of the various weird acid synchronicities he’s experienced.
Andy goes on to talk about his new book Acid Drops, a collection of essays and interviews about all things psychedelic. As well as exploring the wacky, scary and wonderful in first-hand trip accounts, he also debunks long-standing urban myths about acid, such as Francis Crick being aided by LSD in discovering the DNA double helix; and also the classic ‘Reservoir Drugs’ scare story, about LSD in the water supply potentially freaking out entire towns and cities.
His collection includes interviews with Liz Elliot, Casey Hardison and Ramsay Campbell, and he also features a piece of his own fiction, all of which he discusses, along with his upcoming biography of Michael Hollingshead. Finally Andy gives his thoughts about the ‘war on drugs’, which makes him ‘incandescent with rage’, and also the current psychedelic renaissance, including the effect of the internet and social media on acid culture.
Psypress 2016 Volume XVIII also features Dr Andy Letcher’s ‘Mad Thoughs on Mushrooms’, a Foucauldian discourse on the effects of mushrooms within various classifications – some philosophical brain food of the highest order here! Christopher G. Ewing gives a marvellous account of the healing properties of psychedelics in dealing with conditions such as PTSD and addiction, and Vladimir Stephan delves into the area of sensory deprivation and altered states, examining the various techniques. For an enlightening read, get your copy now: Psypress 2016 Volume XVIII
Part 2 of my article Psychedelia in the Movies, originally published in the Psypress UK Journal 2015 Vol IV, has been republished on Reality Sandwich alongside Part 1, including the illustrative video clips. So the the whole story, including text and imagery is now available online!
Once the late ’60s boom in acid culture and acid cinema had dissipated, the psychedelic movie became another component of the fringe and the experimental, something to recur and be revived at intervals, a pattern that continues into the present. As we saw in ‘Part 1’, a principal avenue of this tendency involved name directors, associated with the weird and offbeat, taking on solid psychedelic literary properties – such as Ken Russell, the work of John C. Lily and Altered States; and David Cronenberg, the work of William Burroughs and Naked Lunch. The next big milestone in psychedelic cinema occurred in just the same fashion, with Terry Gilliam, Hunter S. Thompson and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998).
With his track record in mind-bending fantasies such as Time Bandits (1981) and Brazil (1985), Terry Gilliam would seem the ideal director to tackle Thompson’s tale of madcap psychedelic debauchery, where the ‘effects’ are already ‘scripted’, rendered in electrifyingly graphic prose. But Gilliam came into the difficult pre-production process late, having to produce a new script in a short time, and the filming itself proved as chaotic as the movie’s contents. The end result achieved a disappointing box office performance and very mixed reviews, with many critics understandably attributing the characters’ qualities of waywardness and incoherence to the movie plot itself.
Whilst falling short of being a totally satisfying adaptation of the book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is nevertheless a very worthy effort in the reification of psychedelic effects and head spaces for the screen. Gilliam wanted the film to feel like a trip from beginning to end, and with cinematographer Nicola Pecorini, he designed a catalogue of techniques to match the qualities of each of the many drugs that are consumed, such as melting colours and flare effects for mescaline, and wide angles and morphing for LSD. Voice-over narration from Johnny Depp’s Raoul Duke provides much-needed structure and grounding, bringing us back to the novel and Thompson’s original vision as a bulwark against drug chaos swamping everything.
Read more on Reality Sandwich.
My Breaking Convention talk from July 2015 is now up on Vimeo.
In their writings and lifestyle experiments, the Beat writers Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg were very much the precursors of the psychedelic movement – in particular with regard to their employment of drugs for recreational and psychonautic purposes. They were pioneering users of ayahuasca, mescaline, psilocybin and LSD; and when Timothy Leary began his Harvard work he naturally tried to induct the three as elder statesmen figures. The results were somewhat volatile and unexpected, with one resounding success, another a mix of good and bad, and another a resounding failure. Nevertheless the Beats remain highly influential figures and today’s psychedelic culture would not be the same without them.