It’s been a long time since I read a book that has held so much personal significance for me as Andy Roberts’ Albion Dreaming, which with great enthusiasm and obvious love for the subject matter, relates the specifics of how LSD tripped out British culture—a story as least as interesting as its American counterpart, featured in works such as Storming Heaven and Acid Dreams. Many intriguing threads are woven together, from early military experiments in the ’50s at the infamous Porton Down chemical weapons facility, where unwitting volunteer servicemen ‘were expected to hallucinate for Queen and country’; to early examples of LSD psychotherapy, involving famous figures such as the comedian Frankie Howerd and actor Sean Connery; to the more familiar ‘swinging ’60s’, the free festival movement and beyond.
Roberts charts the influence of acid on the ’60s music scene, which gave us the Beatles’ celebrated Sgt. Pepper album and launched the mighty Pink Floyd at the UFO club in London, as well as many other acts, including the Moody Blues, the Small Faces, Donovan, the Move and the Incredible String Band. As more and more psychedelic lyrics began to seep into the zeitgeist, the BBC banned certain tracks and newspapers such as the News of the World ran exposes on these so-called corrupting and decadent bands, which turned out to be laughably self-defeating:
‘By explaining exactly what LSD was, its cost and its effects News of the World gave thousands of teenagers a glimpse into a way of life they desperately wanted to be part of… To an extent the unwitting media promotion of LSD led to thousands of young people throughout Britain becoming more knowledgeable about the drug than they would otherwise have been.’
Albion Dreaming also gets behind the scenes and documents some of the less well-known LSD movers and shakers: evangelists such as Michael Hollingshead, who first turned Timothy Leary onto LSD and founded the World Psychedelic Centre in Chelsea; chemists such as Victor Kapur, one of the first to make blotter acid in bulk in the late ’60s; and writers such as John Michell, whose mystical ideas popularised Glastonbury and paved the way for the first free festival there in 1970. There are also many testimonies from ordinary people, ‘vox pops’ one could say, which illuminate how LSD culture inexorably blossomed throughout this period, leading to changes in lifestyle, fashion and prevailing political, social and religious attitudes. Read more…
The news that Alice in Wonderland has become the tenth highest grossing movie of all time, supplanting Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers, further strengthens the hold the 3-D phenomenon has taken over cinema. The fact that an offbeat fantasy, which did not receive the highest critical praise, could be so successful is another indication that audiences are flocking to cinemas for the spectacle, the buzz of 3-D alone, with subject matter a secondary concern. So what exactly is the nature of the new 3-D’s seductive allure, its x-factor, its secret ingredient? As psychedelic initiates have realised, 3-D produces something like an altered state, a non-ordinary level of sensory experience that is comparable to a drug trip.
The very act of putting on the glasses and seeing things differently is like passing through a gateway, or cleansing doors of perception. Then there’s the strangeness, the strikingly unusual quality of 3-D vision, where everything is heightened, surfaces and textures are more alive and resonant, and the commonplace becomes transfigured and imbued with specialness. The nature of how things are rendered in 3-D becomes part of the viewing pleasure, as important a factor as plot, action and characterisation; and the anticipation of the next 3-D thrill, plus the sense of immersement in another realm, take the audience beyond mere cinema into theme-park-ride and virtual-reality territory—other parallels for chemically enhanced consciousness.
Moreover, Alice in Wonderland proves the case that 3-D movies are becoming trippier in terms of narrative and design as well as in sensory effect. The story of Alice has been a favourite paradigm for trippiness ever since Grace Slick’s ‘White Rabbit’ marshalled up the references: substances to make you grow or shrink, a hookah-smoking Caterpillar and the talking Rabbit himself—a film favourite from Harvey to Donnie Darko to Inland Empire. Using a medley of techniques—green screen, motion capture, live action and full animation—Tim Burton has pieced together a new Wonderland for the 2010s, and with a combination of his already well-developed Gothic-weird sensibilities and the astute use of 3-D, he has rendered the material into a totally bone fide trippy adventure. In 3-D the z-axis layering of the various elements—themselves set at different points in the scale of reality to unreality—creates a synergy that gives rise to an entirely new whole: an alloy of the real and imaginary that lives independently on its own terms…how psychedelic is that? Read more…
I first got into Castaneda in the mid-’70s, when Tales of Power was his latest and he was a huge inspirational figure to the psychedelic movement, but at the same time was coming under attack on the grounds that his anthropological fieldwork was a tissue of fiction. What my friends and I particularly liked about the books was that we could act out their various elements, adapting them to suit our own lives. So we would go out to various ‘power spots’, partake of ‘the little smoke’ and then, having entered the correct frame of mind, ‘stop the world’. In more general terms, we also attempted ‘living like a warrior’, following ‘a path with heart’, practising ‘the gait of power’—which incredibly did work!—and we also developed Castanedaesque commentary to accompany our favourite games. Therefore to attain a maximum score was to achieve a feat of ‘knowledge’, whereas to score poorly was considered to be ‘indulging’ and succumbing to the various enemies of a ‘man of knowledge’.
When we read Richard de Mille’s Castaneda’s Journey, which attempts to tear Castaneda apart sentence by sentence, my friends and I disagreed. One friend, who had read widely on anthropology and shamanism, considered that Castaneda no longer had any credibility amongst his peer group members, such as R. Gordon Wasson, Peter Furst and Michael Harner, and ought to be honest and start calling himself a novelist. I then argued that the tenets of his philosophy still held up on a mythological level regardless of whether they had factual or fictional sources.
I wondered whether de Mille’s expose would damage Castaneda’s popularity in the long run, and shortly the ’80s came along and there was a radical zeitgeist shift, with Reaganism taking hold in the U.S. and Thatcherism in the U.K. The acquisitive cult of the yuppie was born, and there was no longer any place for teachings such as don Juan’s. But much more recently, when I looked into Castaneda again, I was struck by how venerated he is by new generations of fans. The ratings for his books on Amazon are impressively high and the number of websites and blogs dedicated to him is huge.
Seemingly today’s psychonauts are not interested in de Mille’s dogmatic wrestling with the issues of fact versus fiction, and instead, like the acid and mushroom trippers of the ’60s and ’70s, see Castaneda’s philosophy as a series of charts by which they can help map their own experiences. Back in the ’70s I saw that the strength of the books rested on their ‘how to’ elements, like recipe or fitness books, and that Castaneda had conferred the status of vicarious sorcerer’s apprentices upon his readership. Now it seems axiomatic that such a process would continue through time. As history teaches us again and again: myth is more powerful than fact.
First appeared on Evolver