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The Strange Days of the Mid-1970s

It was fortuitous that publisher Trevor Denyer happened to see my trippy photomontage ‘Man of Letters’ from my time at art college on my Facebook page The Mad Artist, publicising the memoir that details those years. He came to use it for the cover of his Strange Days – Midnight Street Anthology 4, featuring stories by many writer friends, including Simon Clark, Allen Ashley, Rhys Hughes, Gary Couzens and Terry Grimwood.

The image – reflecting a very ‘strange’ period in my life, as an art student in my early twenties – obviously resonated with Trevor and evoked the strangeness of more contemporary life, as reflected in the stories; and indeed as the year 2020 has progressed an even greater Strangeness has enveloped us all, so there is some prescience all round in words and images…

In looking at the montage again, plus the other associated photographs from that era, memories have been brought back – and it was a highly crazy, turbulent period.

I was sharing a flat at the time with Vince, a fellow photography student, and we had many wild drunken times (see The Mad Artist Chapters 15-17). We partied on the Isle of Wight, picked up girls together, and once attended a college party where I almost started up a train, and I ended the night having a ‘friendly fight’ with Vince where I sustained some mild facial damage. The hangover was far worse! I was absolutely ‘mad’ in those days, hence the title of the memoir.

Our flat had the capacity for four people, and Vince and I had constant trouble filling the other spaces – and we had to endure interference from our puritan Irish landlord, who thought it was ‘immoral’ that boys and girls should share together.

One of our flatmates was the ditsy Zoe, who was escaping a troubled home life with her parents. A crisis was precipitated when she later stole a selection of albums from everyone in the flats, the police came around to investigate, and the landlord evicted Zoe and her suicidal boyfriend on the grounds of their multiple sins.

Vince went back to the Isle of Wight for the weekend, I was left on my own in the flat, and I decided to drop some LSD, as you do…It was a weird trip, involving boa constrictors on the ceiling, and looking in the mirror to see my Syd Barrett-like appearance transform into Neanderthal Man and many other things (full details in Chapter 17). But a lasting outcome was a resurgence of my letters-of-the-alphabet textural hallucination encountered on other trips (see Chapter 3).

Vince was a very talented photographic artist and his speciality was photomontage – I liked his work and wanted to somehow emulate it. Bearing this in mind, I decided to produce the photomontage based on the trip ideas.

At my previous art college, I’d already fashioned the letters out of plywood, each around four inches high, and now I positioned them on a colorama in the studio and photographed them with a wide-angle lens to give the impression of a landscape. Then I got Vince to photograph me in a phone box, a faraway look in my eyes as I held the receiver to my head, an action inspired by the strangeness of having to phone my parents during my first ever acid trip, also recorded in the Psychedelic Press XXIX Journal (sold out, unfortunately).

With the addition of a dramatic afternoon sky, shot in the New Forest, the elements were ready, and I composited them together using a scalpel, scissors and glue, as this was eons before the Age of the Computer. Vince was sceptical at first, but when he saw the finished result he gave it his seal of approval, and it was my best picture at the end-of-year show. Now it lives again in the equally – if not more! – Strange Days of the 2020s, thanks to Trevor.

More details about Midnight Street Anthology 4

More details about The Mad Artist

Recent Psychedelic Writings

February 14, 2020 Leave a comment

The latest Psychedelic Press Journal, Issue XXIX, contains an account of ‘My First Trip’ – another in the long-running series initiated by editor Nikki Wyrd.

For me this is the latest of many iterations in writing about this formative experience, which took place in December 1975, over forty-four years ago now. The longest version, of course, is the seventeen-thousand-word account at the start of my memoir, The Mad Artist, but here was an opportunity to boil it down and make it more concise for magazine purposes.

Processing the experience once again, I was reminded of the hair-raising aspects of the trip, which was both extremely strong – due to the LSD itself: Operation Julie Vintage in double dose – and was rendered more hazardous still by the poor choice of setting – country woods and roadways, involving passing cars, on a cold unforgiving winter’s night. In a way it’s a cautionary tale about how not to conduct a first trip!

Nikki Wyrd sets these factors in context in her Editorial and comes up with the delightful phrase ‘retroactive enchantment’, in order to describe how a subject’s view of an event can mature and transform over time as the various factors are processed and its true value comes to the fore. Nikki has said she sees these ‘First Trips’ as watersheds in peoples’ lives, a significant rite of passage, and she hopes the collection will provide a resource for historians of the future, with a range of times and places featured. A worthy project indeed!

Also the excellent cover of Issue XXIX, designed by Tom Andrews of Done London, was inspired by my ‘First Trip’ account, with the woodland setting featuring awesomely in the mandala-based imagery.

Other pieces include a wry trip poem by Kerry Rowberry, written in Birmingham dialect, which evokes Irvine Welsh’s use of dialect in Trainspotting; there’s a very vivid account of an epoch-making DMT trip from Anthony Pellegrino, with great existential resonance like my own; Mike Fioroto provides a psychedelic short story, and there are articles from Daniel Kelley, Mark Juhan and a review of Andy Roberts’ Divine Rascal from Rob Dickins. Another superb knowledge-packed issue!

More information: Psychedelic Press

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William S. Burroughs: A Life

October 3, 2018 2 comments

What follows is an extended review of Barry Miles’s biography: William S. Burroughs: A Life (American title: Call Me Burroughs: A Life), which was published in February 2014 to mark the centenary of Burroughs’s birth.

The review first appeared in the Psychedelic Press magazine Vol IV 2014, and has never before been online. It is reprinted now because of its in-depth quality and the fact it provides a whistle-stop tour of Burroughs’s life through the lens of Barry Miles’s updated facts.


 

Barry Miles is no stranger to writing about William Burroughs or the wider Beat scene. He had known Burroughs and been part of his circle since the mid-1960s, when Burroughs lived in London, and has catalogued his work, collaborated with others on restored texts of his novels and has written a portrait of Burroughs, El Hombre Invisible, which for many years has served as the standard primer or introduction to the life and work of the man. Miles has also penned biographies of Kerouac and Ginsberg and other works related to the Beats, such as The Beat Hotel. He therefore seems ideally equipped to write this new definitive biography of Burroughs, published to coincide with the centenary of the author’s birth in 1914.

As he tells us in the introduction, Miles had a hand in the making of the myth of Burroughs, a phenomenon which has now become so powerful that it has ensured Burroughs a place as a character in history independent of his place in the hall of great writers. It was in 1984 that Miles discovered a lost Burroughs manuscript, Interzone, which together with another from the past that he’d previously uncovered was instrumental in getting Burroughs a new publishing deal. That other manuscript was Queer, Burroughs’ second novel, written in the early ’50s but never published at that time. In the ’85 edition Burroughs supplied a short introduction, a few pages of autobiographical background that were to prove seminal in establishing the Burroughs ‘myth’.

Read more on: Medium

The Man and the Legend: An Appreciation of Howard Marks

September 11, 2018 Leave a comment

My in-depth study of Howard Marks, originally published in Issue XXI of the Psychedelic Press journal, is now available online.


 

Dennis Howard Marks, cannabis smuggler extraordinaire, died from cancer in 2016 at the age of 70. Born in 1945, he belonged to that generation who came of age as the alternative society and psychedelic drug culture really began to flower in the second half of the 1960s, and like so many who are now venerated icons he rode that wave for all it was worth. He looked like a member of a hard rock band and he brought pop star glamour and celebrity sheen to the world of drug crime like no other figure. In this he was harking back to earlier, more romantic ages, taking the form of a 20th century Robin Hood, Dick Turpin or Captain Kidd—in fact in Señor Nice he claims family connections to the Welsh buccaneer, Sir Henry Morgan. Howard also acted in several films, and had he been given the chance, he would have fitted perfectly into the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, alongside Johnny Depp and Keith Richards.

Howard’s Facebook pages are crammed with fan’s proud selfies taken alongside the man, and there and elsewhere he is continually referred to as a ‘legend’. The creation of the Legend that surrounds him was very much his own doing, and intriguingly he cultivated fame as a dope smuggler even though he knew he was playing a Faustian game—receiving publicity and avoiding law enforcement do not go hand in hand! He had a very good run and a number of close shaves with the law until his eventual downfall in 1988, leading to a sentence of 25 years at Terre Haute prison in Indiana, though he was released in 1995.

Read more on: Psychedelic Press UK

The Beat Hotel & Shakespeare and Company

November 16, 2017 Leave a comment

This short film was assembled from recently rediscovered footage I shot in 2006, showing the legendary Beat Hotel in Rue Gît-le-Cœur in the Paris Latin Quarter, and the nearby equally legendary bohemian bookshop Shakespeare and Company.

In the 1950s the hotel was home to Beat luminaries William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. Burroughs completed his novel Naked Lunch here, and in conjunction with the artist Brion Gysin, he discovered the consciousness-altering dreamachine and the cut-up literary technique, used in subsequent novels, including Soft Machine and Nova Express.

The original Shakespeare and Company was founded by Sylvia Beach in the 1920s, and writers such as Hemingway, Pound, Fitzgerald, Joyce and Beckett gathered there. It featured in the Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris, but it was shut down during the Nazi occupation in 1941. The bookshop, in its current location, was founded by George Whitman, an expat American of literary leanings, who at the time of filming was still alive and active at the age of ninety-two. Back in the ’50s he knew Henry Miller and Anais Nin, as well as Samuel Beckett and, of course, the Beat writers.

George Whitman died in 2011, just after his ninety-eight birthday, and the bookshop is now run by his daughter, named after Sylvia Beach. As for the Beat Hotel, in its present incarnation – as the Relais Hotel du Vieux Paris – you can stay for around 150 Euros per night, and if you ask they might give you Burroughs’ old room.

Review: Leaf by Leaf by Leaf Fielding

Leaf Fielding, member of the legendary ‘Operation Julie’ LSD-manufacturing-and-distribution ring, was busted in 1977 and spent five years in jail, ending his sentence at Leyhill Open Prison. He published his memoir, To Live Outside the Law, in 2011 – a gripping account of the Julie bust, the events that led up to it, and Leaf’s more general life story, involving a difficult childhood, bad times at boarding school and eventual flowering into a young hippy in the mid-1960s. The book was the first insider account of the Julie affair and was well received, earning plaudits from luminaries such as Howard Marks, who typically described it as: ‘F***ing good!’

Several years on, Leaf has now published Part 2 of his memoirs, entitled Leaf by Leaf, which continue the story from the point where To Live Outside the Law ended – his release from prison. After initial exhilaration, Leaf is subject to volatile mood swings as he faces the inescapable tally of traumas that prison life has inflicted on him, and also the realisation that healing himself won’t be a simple process. Moreover it is now the early 80s, the grim Thatcher era, and by this time the vivid psychedelic colour that infused the previous two decades of British life has all but drained away.

Read more on: Psychedelic Press UK

The Man and the Legend: An Appreciation of Howard Marks

Psy Cover XXIThe new Psychedelic Press Journal Volume XXI contains my in-depth appreciation of Howard Marks, alongside some other excellent articles and fronted by a fabulously trippy cover from artist Rebecca Jordan.


 

Dennis Howard Marks, cannabis smuggler extraordinaire, died from cancer in 2016 at the age of seventy. Born in 1945, he belonged to that generation who came of age as the alternative society and psychedelic drug culture really began to flower in the second half of the 1960s, and like so many who are now venerated icons he rode that wave for all it was worth. He looked like a member of a hard rock band and he brought pop star glamour and celebrity sheen to the world of drug crime like no other figure. In this he was harking back to earlier, more romantic ages, taking the form of a twentieth century Robin Hood, Dick Turpin or Captain Kidd – in fact in Señor Nice he claims family connections to the Welsh buccaneer Sir Henry Morgan. Howard also acted in several films, and had he been given the chance, he would have fitted perfectly into the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, alongside Johnny Depp and Keith Richards.

To read more, visit the Psychedelic Press Shop.

War Stories & Cosmic Flights: An Interview with Andy Roberts

January 26, 2017 Leave a comment
andy-roberts-2016

Andy Roberts at Breaking Convention

 

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

War Stories and Cosmic Flights

November 8, 2016 Leave a comment

xviii_front_cover_1024x1024The 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

Psychedelia in the Movies, Part 2 – Reality Sandwich

Psychedelia in the Movies Pt2

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.

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