My 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.
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
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’
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!
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.
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…