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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

SPECIAL OFFER FROM VALENTINE’S DAY FOR ONE WEEK: KINDLE EDITION OF THE MAD ARTIST AT HALF PRICE ON AMAZON.COM & AMAZON.CO.UK – LINKS HERE Read more…

Being John Malkovich Blu-ray

Old, New and New Inside Out!

Out now, new 4K restoration of the 1999 movie from Arrow Academy, featuring a reversible sleeve (see above) and many new extras, including a featurette exploring the marionettes made for the film, the full Floor 7½ corporate video seen in the film, and the full pseudo-documentary “John Horatio Malkovich: Dance of Despair and Disillusionment”.

The first pressing includes a booklet containing archive publicity materials and an in-depth essay by myself, where I explore the phenomenon that is John Malkovich, the phenomenon that is Charlie Kaufman (screenwriter) and how they fused so marvelously in this piece.

Find out more here: Arrow Films

Midsommar: Folk Horror Trip of the Year

Welcome to Trippy Sweden!

With its many striking tropes, shocks and grotesque elements, the folk horror sensation Midsommar has become a big talking point among fans of weird and psychedelic movies, and my favourite of the moment. Here is an in-depth article I wrote for the excellent Sweden-based psychedelic culture site The Oak Tree Review, run by Henrik Dahl.


 

The noun ‘trip’ and the adjective ‘trippy’ have long been embedded in the language as generalised indicators of anything that is weird, far out, uncanny or whatever, and when it comes to movies they are customarily overused. But with regard to those genuinely trippy cinematic journeys, the ones which connoisseurs know, love, recognise and seek out, then we have to dust off those words once again because there are none better.

Movies which are simpatico with the psychedelic experience have been around long before alternative culture flourished in the 1960s, tapping into a collective unconscious thread, perhaps, from the shorts of Georges Méliès through to mainstream entertainment such as The Wizard of OzFantasia and fortuitously big budget art films like A Matter of Life and Death. The direct impact of the ’60s gave us 2001: A Space Odyssey and a slew of films featuring actual showcased trip sequences, including Easy RiderAltered States and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, together with hippyish alternative cult movies such as Performance and The Holy Mountain.

Those same terms of reference boosted the sci-fi sub genre cyberpunk, with the riffs of Philip K. Dick echoing through TronTotal RecallThe Matrix and A Scanner Darkly. Then there’s the freeform, madcap quality of early Surrealist films such as Un Chien Andalou and The Seashell and the Clergyman, pointing to the later works of Buñuel – notably Exterminating Angel and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. The French art film tradition, including Cocteau’s Orphée and Le testament d’Orphée, Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad and Rivette’s Céline and Julie Go Boating also project that same dream/fugue/ trip quality. With all this feeding through, by the early days of the twenty-first century, we had a clearly established phenomenon – the postmodern weird mind-bending movie that nods to psychedelic experience, regardless of whether drugs are present or absent.

Of these the standout example is David Lynch’s Möbius strip surreal-noir masterpiece Mulholland Drive, quite rightly voted the greatest movie of the century so far. Lynch has never taken drugs, but then neither did Salvador Dali, yet in the works of both of these artists the sensibilities are there to see, getting knowing recognition from those who are ‘experienced’. Lynch’s splendid dive into a hallucinatory netherworld where higher dream logic has supplanted quotidian cause-and-effect and linear space-time is, to coin a word, definitively trippy. There are many other examples from the last twenty years, too numerous to discuss, and each of us will have favourites. My own are Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void, Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York and Lars von Trier’s Melancholia.

Read more on: The Oak Tree Review

 

Psychedelia in the Movies, Part 1

August 25, 2015 1 comment

Psypress Cover 15-4_by_Reuben_Q_Online_grandeMy latest piece for the Psypress UK Journal – the first installment of a two-parter – explores the roots of psychedelic movies, their rise in the 1960s and the spread of their various influences thereafter, including psychedelia in comedy, sci-fi and horror, cartoons and reality benders. In particular ‘trip sequences’ in films such as The Trip, Easy Rider and Altered States are analysed at length, alongside other psychedelically-tinged scenes in films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Yellow Submarine.

Whilst verbal descriptions convey much, I felt it would be useful to back up the article with some clips of the actual scenes under discussion, so here is a selection of suitable elements to peruse in conjunction with the piece. They follow the same order as in the text. Psypress UK 2015 Vol IV also contains illuminating essays from Peter Sjostedt-H, Nathan Horowitz and Ido Hartogsohn. To purchase a copy please visit the Psypress Shop.


 

The Trip (1967). This trailer gives a good flavour of the kitschy pop art treatment of the subject back in its heyday, with much reliance on flicker and strobing effects. It will blow your mind!


 

Easy Rider (1969). The Mardi Gras cemetery acid trip borrows from the grammar of The Trip, but moves it into darker, edgier spaces with fast cutting and vertiginous camera moves conjuring an atmosphere of chaos.

Read more…

New In-Depth Review of The Mad Artist from William J Booker

February 4, 2012 Leave a comment

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

Fabulous Freakdom: Trippers by William J Booker

August 1, 2011 2 comments

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…

Tripped in the Woods

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

Solarized Nude 1976 by Roger KeenAs 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’

The Man Who Wasn’t There

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!

Read ‘The Alphabet Wood’: Roger and Henry’s First Acid Trip

August 16, 2010 2 comments

devotes its five opening chapters, 16,400 words, to that life-changing event that triggered the ‘psychonautic adventures’—the quest for metaphysical answers and spiritual truth which makes up the book. Underwent on a winter’s night, in the rural setting of the Plym Woods and neighbouring villages, the trip was poorly planned, chaotic, crazy—an object lesson in how to get it completely wrong regarding set and setting. But precisely because of the ensuing chaos, the adrenalin rush powered the trip into extreme realms, giving rise to the geometric progression effect that became a motif for the future…

Suddenly the trip jumped in intensity, and the visual effects burst through a quantum barrier into something totally unprecedented. The whole wood around me was reborn in another form: it was no longer a wood composed of trees, branches and leaves, but one composed of…letters. Letters of the alphabet. They were wrought in diamond-encrusted platinum and silver, and interconnected with their own vascular system of luminous, throbbing primary coloured energy. All the various geometric permutations of leaf cluster, twig and branch were resolved into letters in a crystalline fractal method — letters within letters down to the limits of vision, perfectly mirroring the scale and detail of what was being transformed according to the terms of some higher surreal logic. I watched as the wood pulsed, light and dark, light and dark — later, I would realise, in sync with my own heartbeat — each time breaking out into new symbolic foliage of impossible intricacy. It was utterly transcendentally fabulous, but I was too scared to derive any enjoyment.

Now the full five chapters can be read as a Book Preview on Lulu. Click on ‘Preview’ below the book cover image.

The same section can also be read as a free sample Kindle download from the Amazon Kindle Stores.

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