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
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.
I attended the recent Breaking Convention at Greenwich University and gave a talk entitled ‘Beat Writers and the Psychedelic Movement’, which covered the story of how the major Beat figures – William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy – preempted and were later inducted into 1960s psychedelia by Timothy Leary. It gave me the opportunity to again explore in detail the fascinating facts of Burroughs’ early involvement with ayahuasca – previously covered in William Burroughs: Ayahuasca Tourist and The Soundless Hum – which in the context of the conference and the current huge interest in ayahuasca were most pertinent.
At Breaking Convention there were many talks relating to use of the vine, covering ayahuasca in group therapy, tools for navigating its altered states, the current wave of tourism versus tradition, soma and ayahuasca; and also the related areas of tryptamine plant mythos, the pineal portal, the ontology of entities in the DMT realm and what it’s like to be a machine elf. In fact the whole ayahuasca/DMT/pineal gland nexus is the hottest area in the current psychedelic zeitgeist.
And good old Bill Burroughs was there first – a fact that other speakers and participants picked up on as well as myself. Luke Goaman-Dodson gave an illuminating talk on the parallels between Burroughs and Terence McKenna as ayahuasca psychonauts, comparing McKenna’s thoughts on the syntactical nature of reality with Burroughs’s cut-up technique, an area that touches on both post-structuralism and chaos magic – the notion that the world is made of words and that reality can be manipulated through them. Burroughs developed his cut-up technique into form of magic using recording devices and used it effectively; once he attacked the Moka Bar in Soho, where he’d received rudeness and bad service, and after several sessions the business began to collapse and eventually closed down.
The transgressive nature of Burroughs’ activities – the ‘literary outlaw’, drug addict and gun nut – cropped up in Alan Piper’s excellent presentation on psychedelics as a key tool for alterity in the twentieth century avant garde. Burroughs’ writings in The Yage Letters and Junkie were juxtaposed with some excellent photos of the older writer in a three-piece suit, pistol in hand of course! Alan posed the question of whether psychedelics would lose their transformative powers if they become officially sanctioned, commodified and safely marketed – a route that Burroughs never traveled in his art and life.
And Burroughs’ hand could also be seen in the area of the convention’s installations, in particular with regard to hypnagogic light machines. Burroughs explored flicker-effect altered consciousness with his collaborators Brion Gysin and Ian Sommerville, who designed and built a ‘Dreamachine’ – a cardboard cylinder containing slits, with a light bulb inside, rotating on a record deck so that it would flash at the correct rhythm to induce hallucinations.
Dr Dirk Proeckl and Dr Engelbert Winkler discussed their Lucia No.3 Light Machine, a very high tech variant where a pulsing whirring light is aimed at the subject’s face, with closed eyes, to induce psychedelic displays of colours and shapes, out-of-body feelings and deep relaxation. But retailing at £16,000, it resides at the high end of one’s pocket also!
More in keeping with the original concept, digital artist Luciana Haill displayed dreamachines augmented with EEG installation. Subjects sit with closed eyes and monitored brainwaves, listening to sounds on headphones, in order to create an interactive participatory artwork. Luciana is also involved in the academic side of brainwave research; she is a Visiting Research Fellow at Sussex University’s Department of Informatics and has written a paper on ‘Dreamachines and Electroencephalographic Signals in Art’. Mr Burroughs and Mr Gysin would have definitely approved!
Also at Breaking Convention, Muswell Hill Press launched its anthology of the best of PsypressUK writing – Out of the Shadows – covering subjects such as the use of psychedelics in medicine and psychotherapy, archetypal psychology and spiritual awakenings, creative surges in literature, myth and visionary art, and philosophical theory to ayahuasca healing. It features top psychedelic commentators such as Stanislav Grof, Rick Strassman, Ben Sessa, Rob Dickins, Tim Read, Maria Pap, Sam Gandy, Andy Roberts, Dave King, Henrik Dahl, Jack Hunter and David Luke, and an interview with activist Casey William Hardison. It also contains my article ‘Beats on Acid’, which provided the original basis for my Breaking Convention talk.
In the words of Dr David Luke:
Florid as psychosis, poetic as the elements, insightful as meditation and intellectual as the noosphere: PsyPressUK is a ragtaglledy mag loaded with psychedelic word mongery from far-flung medicine bags and the academy’s finest pharmacographers, and this anthology assembles the best of those essays in one book. Not just writing on drugs, but writing about drugs, with the light fully switched on.
Copies are available from the Psypress Shop.
This article was originally published in the Psychedelic Press UK print journal 2013 Vol.2 and is now up on the Psypress site.
Mostly everyone has heard of William Burroughs’ drug-inspired masterpiece Naked Lunch, but far fewer have actually read it from cover to cover and fewer still have properly understood what Burroughs is doing in its pages.
Often dismissed as incomprehensible, pornographic and, due to its lack of formal narrative structure, unfilmable, Naked Lunch was nevertheless tackled on celluloid by David Cronenberg in 1991, resulting in a movie that is only minimally representative of the book and tends to deepen its mystery rather than clarify it. Reinventing from scratch and substituting his own authorship, Cronenberg ‘sampled’ Burroughs’ life and work in order to produce a body-horror pastiche that owes as much to the Ted Morgan biography and the novels Exterminator and Junkie as Naked Lunch itself. But for many people that film stands for what Naked Lunch is about.
Another common misconception is that Naked Lunch is about ‘the horrors of addiction,’ a description more suited to Burroughs’ autobiographical first novel Junkie. By the time of Naked Lunch, he’d moved on considerably from depicting anything so mundane or literal as that. What Naked Lunch represents is the fruit of a pharmo-picaresque creative journey that was partly inspired by opiate addiction but that rapidly expanded to encompass the visions of majoun, peyote and most particularly ayahuasca or yagé, whose psychonautic propensity underscores much of the grotesque, lurid phantasmagoria for which the novel is famous… Read more on Psypress UK
My in-depth review of Barry Miles’ biography of William Burroughs is included in the new issue of the Psypress magazine. More information at the Psypress Shop.
Having already penned two articles for the PsypressUK journal involving William Burroughs – ‘The Soundless Hum’ (2013 Vol.2) and ‘Beats On Acid’ (2014 Vol.3) – I now have a third coming out in the next issue, which this time is an in-depth review of Barry Miles’ new biography William S. Burroughs – A Life. And it won’t end there, for I also have another review to write of John Long’s Drugs and the “Beats”. I might even get around to commencing the extended study of his fictional oeuvre that I’ve had in mind for many years.
Ever since I first read and re-read Naked Lunch at around the age of nineteen, I’ve been endlessly fascinated by Burroughs, which is why I keep writing about him – there always seems something additional to say, other facets of the life and work to explore. The new Barry Miles biography has thrown up yet more aspects and weird and amusing anecdotes to complement those existing, so I couldn’t resist putting together yet another Burroughs piece that presents the most prominent and intriguing in the form of a list of ten, some familiar some not so.
Having been involved in spirit possession, exorcism, mirror-gazing and some weird cut-up magic involving cameras and tape recorders, Burroughs was as big on the occult as he was on drugs. And his eclectic taste in drugs took him from the visionary secrets of yagé in South America, to Eukodol in Tangier – in his opinion the best and most habit-forming junk ever. He was, of course, a legendary ‘gun nut’, and despite killing his wife in an insane drunken game of ‘William Tell’, his fetishistic regard for weapons never abated. On a more positive note, he was a friend of Paul McCartney in the 1960s, and his namesake grandfather invented the first adding machine, spawning a billion-dollar empire. What wasn’t William Burroughs into? Answers to that question, when posed on a message board were: ‘women’ and ‘gun safety’. Very true!
Read my piece ‘Ten Amazing Facts About William Burroughs’ on Medium.
The 2014 Volume 3 issue of the acclaimed Psychedelic Press journal is out now, and it contains my extended article ‘Beats on Acid’, about what happened when the original hipsters encountered the new 1960s era of tripping. Allen Ginsberg took mushrooms, declared himself ‘the Messiah’, and plotted with Timothy Leary to turn on the world. Meanwhile Neal Cassady passed the Acid Test with Ken Kesey and drove the legendary bus ‘Furthur’ off into the sunset and immortality. But for Bill Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, the transition wasn’t that simple…
Interest in and information about ayahuasca has expanded exponentially in recent years, and the Psypress journal is the place to find out the latest. Author and workshop coordinator Ross Heaven asks the question ‘What is Ayahuasca Tourism?’ and whilst painting a very eye-opening picture of the current Amazonian ayahuasca scene, he concludes there is no definitive answer, with perhaps more pluses than minuses to the so-called ‘Western invasion’. Nathan D. Horowitz gets down to business with a florid and lyrical Ecuadorian ayahuasca trip account, which sustains vivid narrative intensity. And on a related note, Andrew R. Gallimore gets inside the DMT-influenced brain and shows how altered neurology engenders a more fluid model of reality.
In the more academic realms, James W. Jesso explores the parallels between Sufism and psilocybin as a spiritual tool, and John Glynn looks at the literature of the chemistry of psychotomimetic drugs, relating it to mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and also psychedelic therapy. In other articles, Roger Green gives a detailed analysis of Aldous Huxley’s entheogenically utopian novel Island, and Mike Jay considers the lotos-eaters of myth and antiquity. And finally editor Robert Dickins meditates on the ego and ego-loss in psychedelic experience, touching on Freudian theory and the works of Huxley again, but mainly on Alan Watts and his seminal piece of trip-lit The Joyous Cosmology. To obtain a copy of the journal, click here.
The range, depth and variation of the subjects explored, plus the obvious expertise of the authors makes for a lively and didactic read; and again the journal shows that the hundred-page digest format – a volume to hold in your hands – cannot be beaten in many ways, and ideally compliments the keyboard-and-screen experience of the internet. The journal has been going for two years now, and Rob plans to make it bi-monthly and also obtain new computer equipment, redesign the Psypress website and publish more books to expand the existing collection.
To this end Rob has launched a crowdfunder appeal with the aim of raising £5,250. As I write, £725 or 13% of the target has been reached and I urge you to contribute and spread the word around and get Psypress up to the next level. Rob has worked tirelessly over the past five years to build this portal of psychedelic information, and his achievement to date is most impressive. He says:
The Psychedelic Press aims at two things: 1) To be a public forum for psychedelic and curious culture, and 2) to raise awareness about the therapeutic, medical, and cultural significance of psychoactive plants and chemicals, through the publication of a range of media.
There are various gifts on offer in exchange for donations, such as copies of the journal, subscriptions, copies of Andy Roberts’ excellent book Albion Dreaming: A Popular History of LSD in Britain, Psypress T-shirts and original artwork, depending on the level of donation. I have donated and I eagerly await the arrival of my T-shirt! More information here.
So I finally got around to seeing the movie version of Kerouac’s On the Road, not far off two years after its UK release, which, for a writer and film buff who counts the Beat scene as a specialist interest, seems somewhat lackadaisical! I missed it at the cinema and having absorbed the lukewarm reviews and general lack of buzz surrounding the release, I wasn’t in any hurry to catch it on DVD. In a way I was delaying disappointment, putting off a moment of long anticipation that was now almost certainly destined to be anticlimactic. Why would I want to spend two hours witnessing one of the most cherished and influential novels of my life turned into just another average piece of 1940s-’50s period cinema-screen fodder?
Like its companion Great Beat Novel Naked Lunch, On the Road presented challenges to the filmmaker. Its autobiographical narrative is episodic, meandering and strung out, lacking the neatly shaped arc that would authoritively drive a film plot. What holds the book together is, of course, Kerouac’s prose itself, his ‘bop prosody’ with its jazz-like spontaneity, exuberance, fearless rule-breaking experimentation and pure drug-tinged scintillation. Finding a parallel method to inject all that into a film and make it work is no easy task. Go too far from the original – as David Cronenberg did with Naked Lunch – and you end up with something that’s a bit potty; but try to be too faithful and the danger is your product will be flat and lacklustre in its attempts at reverence.
Walter Salles’ On the Road does at times fall into the latter trap. What was cutting edge in ’50s culture and writing – acting crazy whilst mouthing off about poetry and philosophy, doing Benzedrine and weed and swapping sexual partners – now seems tame, dated and so-whatish in many of the film’s scenes. There is no shock value and not much of a curious spin to make us view the action in a special light. Kerouac the writer manifests in the most conventional of ways – in voice-over narration from the actual text, banging the keys of his typewriter with big close ups of the emerging words, and the usual spiel about wanting to capture life’s evanescence. Finally the moment where he writes the first draft of the book itself, on a continuous scroll of paper (obviously not part of the text itself), becomes the apotheosis of the whole process – again hardly a ground-breaking idea.
This device of real-life framing of the fiction, also employed in Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch mash-up, seems almost inevitable in dealing with Beat mythology now, as the biographical details of the protagonists and their writings permeate each other totally. And when you have a ‘fiction’ such as On the Road which is already ‘real-life’ – on the IMDB page real and fictional names appear side by side – one might think there is little point in retaining the fictional armature at all; why not make a film about the events ignoring Kerouac’s own perspective and instead try to say something new? Read more…