From the moment I took my first delicious pull on a reefer in The Partisan, Soho, 1956, I was hooked on drugs. I was sixteen, already deliriously hooked on fiction, politics, sex, and rock and roll. When the sixties came I was waiting for them and relished every golden moment. The dope had been a revelation. I hardly knew it, but I had found the means I needed to describe and order my specific experience, just as recently I found what I needed more innocently via the Internet and Chaos Theory. The connection can be found in those early fractal videos which used to come with rolling papers, incense, and background music that sounded as if it was played by decomposing hippies.
Most of us nowadays know casual, non-dependant users of drugs who are pillars of the community. Public sector professionals, journalists, lawyers, captains of industry The backbone of the country, like the successful judges and executives of major corporations who go home in the evening and relax with a spliff, a Perrier and CNN. In other words, drugs have become about as middle-class and threatening to society as Mickey Mouse.
Drugs have played a significant part in bohemian and radical life for at least a couple of centuries, though Thomas de Quincey didn’t have to fear the law when he wrote the first psychedelic treatise, Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821):
The druggist—unconscious minister of celestial pleasures!—as if in sympathy with the rainy Sunday, looked dull and stupid, just as any mortal druggist might be expected to look on a Sunday; and when I asked for the tincture of opium, he gave it to me as any other man might do: and furthermore, out of my shilling, returned me what seemed to be real copper halfpence, taken out of a real wooden drawer. Nevertheless, in spite of such indications of humanity, he has ever since existed in my mind as the beatific vision of an immortal druggist, sent down to earth on a special mission to myself. …When I next came up to London, I sought him near the stately Pantheon, and found him not: and thus to me… he seemed rather to have vanished from Oxford-street than to have removed in any bodily fashion… I believe him to have evanesced, or evaporated. So unwillingly would I connect any mortal remembrances with that hour, and place, and creature, that first brought me acquainted with the celestial drug.
De Quincey popped his first lid in 1804. By the end of his life he was a miserable addict, the world’s first high profile junk victim. But he was also one of the first to make conscious use of a drug to explore his own psyche, to incorporate it into his creative process and give us the gorgeous imagery and acute insights of his enduring work.
Laudanum is opium dissolved in brandy and swallowed. Not very efficient, and it makes you feel sick, but it’s better than toothache. The story of the English Romantics is soaked in laudanum. Some argue that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was the product of opium. The romantic visionary frequently found drugs a great boon, though sleep deprivation often worked just as well…
Though laudanum, gin and tobacco were the drugs of choice through most of the 19th century, hashish was also commonly used, especially in the Romance countries, and Sigmund Freud swore by cocaine all his life. He called it a wonder drug. It gave him some of his greatest insights. But it was the cigars that killed him. Sherlock Holmes also enjoyed the odd gram or two. And nothing could kill him…
Colette tells the story from the 1920s of a relative’s remains kept in a small urn on the mantelpiece. The ashes slowly disappeared until one guest could contain themselves no longer and at last complained about the terrible quality of their hostess’s coke. A bookdealer friend recently opened a novel he’d bought from the personal collection of a deceased Pulitzer prize-winner and found several ancient packets of yellowed smack hidden there, forgotten by the author…
But none of that’s really news. A healthy democracy will eventually adjust to the use of mind- and mood-altering drugs and develop conventions for taking them, just as it has for alcohol and tobacco. That could be what’s going on now. What I’m more curious about is the difference between the ‘drug culture’ in which I was a mythologised participant and today’s club culture, which is perhaps its nearest equivalent.
Not long after I’d discovered the pleasures of ‘tea’, I remember catching a buzz about acid (much as we’d caught it about Borges’s then untranslated stories, as an enthusiastic rumour). We had excited discussions in Sam Widges Coffee Bar, Berwick Street, about going to John Bell and Croyden, the Wigmore Street chemists, and scoring some LSD. It was still legal in those days but controlled and, it turned out, too expensive for us.
Within a few years, cheap manufacturing methods produced the flood and variety which made the sixties such a unique and wonderful time to live and take risks in. Half my friends and acquaintances of those years are dead from drugs or drug-related accidents. - Hendrix and Bolan are amongst the most colourful examples. Tripping, Smilin’ Mike lost his keys and decided to climb to his room, three storeys up. He almost made it. When he fell he impaled himself on the basement railings. Someone else jumped from a window to evade an angry wife. Vans swerved off the road because drivers suddenly confronted Nazi roadblocks. Cars ran into trees. Drowning on your own vomit became almost a credential. And if we had all the money that went up all the arms and all the noses of all the dead wankers in Ladbroke Grove we could probably pay Russia’s national debt and still have enough left over for a pint, a bag of chips and our bus fare home.
I have to admit the hallucinogens were a lot better in those days. My first mescalin trip was done under almost clinical conditions not as a recreational activity but because I was curious. I felt like an explorer. I wanted to test my own impressions against those of Aldous Huxley, whose Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell were most people’s introduction to psychedelic drugs.
Maybe because of my experience, I’m of a very prosaic and doubting disposition. I don’t have much in the way of mystical beliefs, but I do celebrate the mythologising creativity of the human mind. And this was primarily an exploration of my own psyche. As ecstatic dimension upon dimension unfolded, scattered, blended and bent, making every object a thing of intense beauty, sometimes of terror; as extraordinary encrusted patterns revealed themselves in the most familiar things, I was consumed with profound emotion at the harmony I sensed in the whole unseen multiverse. Yet I understood what was happening to me as a psychological phenomenon. It’s harder to lose touch with reality if you’re on mescalin which can make you feel like crap even as you develop an extraordinary multi-dimensional vision, a blast of infinity. It makes you vomit, but there’s a lot to be said for vomit that looks like a stream of jewels pouring from your mouth, particularly if you’ve got a bucket handy. In turn you develop useful images, metaphors and even fundamental method of structuring and design. Similarly marijuana is wonderful for working out character relationships, while cocaine can be used for minute, specific, meaningful detail, complex symbolism, and E can help you step back from the subject and take a psychic breather. Whizz probably does nothing much for you except help you make that final deadline. It helped my friend Bill Butler produce his last manuscript, The Myth of the Hero. He died the night after he delivered it.
I’ve worked sporadically with Hawkwind, a band generally considered the ultimate ‘acid head’ band. Which it might have been. But it was also a well-rehearsed working band, with coherent principles and questioning, edgy urban lyrics, willing to drop a national TV appearance to play a free gig in a good cause. never gave the paying customers a short set (unless the police broke it up), often doing two hours or more nightly. You need a fair amount of self-control and natural stamina for that.
Sometimes we lost it. Mostly we didn’t. The local drug squad and their poor dogs used to arrive at gigs before us. Radiating the dangerous air of insomniac crack addicts in urgent need, they’d address us without looking at us, terrified that our direct gaze would turn them to freak-burned geeks or us into human beings. They would hang about murmuring, waiting to pounce when we took our drugs. They didn’t ever understand, as we prepared efficiently for a gig, that we had already taken the drugs. You need a sense of self-preservation and a strong constitution, the kind of discipline you only find in the ghetto, these days.
And we had positive social effect. If you don’t believe it, think of all those sixties druggies, including members of Hawkwind, who are funding orchestras, underwriting international self-help projects, spreading their profits into the public sector as fast as Rupert Murdoch takes his out. Setting up foundations like The Grateful Dead’s Rex Foundation, which between 1992 and 1996 gave over four million dollars in grants to modern classical composers, as well as to many other legitimate scientific, artistic and social projects. Not bad for a band that’s hardly ever sniffed the hit parade, though it’s probably sniffed everything else.
Like Hawkwind and others in England, the Dead continue to stand for those counter-culture values, so despised and mocked by conservatives. They’re pledged to ‘put tools into the hands of people who need them most’. They have a far better record of civic responsibility than most modern governments.
As I grew up, drug-taking was associated with political reform and a war on bigotry. With serious agendas.
So what changed, apart from the hairstyles? The notion of public altruism, perhaps. Were we naive as a culture in trying to end war, poverty, cruelty and ruthless profiteering? Did things improve after we were marginilised by Thatcher’s flocking gannets?
The notion of ‘leisure drugs’, used to unwind and keep dancing came in with old Mrs T and her drooling admirer R.R. With their reliance on sententious self-indulgence which they called ‘individualism’ and nervous greed, which they called ‘enterprise’, they helped create a culture so aggressive and divided that we had to come up with a drug to counter it. So nowadays former firebrands go on latenight tv to share a smile and a warm glow with their old enemies, surrounded by an aura of Ecstacy, the people’s Prozac.
Associated with political radicalism in the sixties and seventies, drugs had become by the nineties entirely identified with pleasure and leisure, as subject to fashion as the latest vodka or designer boot. I’m told that for a while football supporters of both teams would enjoy group hugs in the stands. Then the E ‘stopped working’, another drug took its place and everyone went back to normal.
This doesn’t have much to do with stepping through the doors of perception, or staring into the faces of heaven and hell, but quite a lot to do with the quest for the free ride, that holy grail of the Tory years. Why work for something when a pill will get it for you just as well? Both hippy and punk, driven by courageous curiosity and righteous anger, failed to achieve the world they’d worked for. What followed was, for me, a profound change of social mind-set, a pretty miserable dance of death led by greed, self-indulgence and sentimentality, away from the world’s disturbing realities, reaching some kind of grotesque sugar-sculpture epiphany with the pop funeral of Princess Di.
I’m not suggesting that altruism is dead or that every clublander talks exclusively in DesignerLabel. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that today’s generous souls have learned strategies for dealing with power, rather than confronting it face on as we tried to do. And perhaps they get more of what they want than we did. And if, when the strain of all this gets too much, they relax with a spliff or a tab of the latest mellowing designer drug, can you begrudge them?
So is there really a fundamental difference between such contemporary drug users and, say, the Grateful Dead? It seems to me there is. Maybe the difference between a successful beggar and a frustrated visionary…
We were anti-acquisitive not because we were rich but because we were rich in comparison with the rest of the world. We thought in terms of the common good and the quality of life. We felt obliged to be activists in that cause. Counter-culture politics had a lot more to do with a rational, dignified lifestyle than with waving a daisy under a copper’s nose. There were unsentimental moral imperatives connected with our drug explorations as well as a considerable amount of pleasure. But we tried to treat our drugs, as well as the world, with proper respect.
Disrespect might indeed be the watchword of the Thatcher years. The debased political language of the eighties and nineties, accusatory and self-congratulatory, was used to marginilise the voice of liberal humanism and help the already wealthy strip our remaining public assets.
We were told some real whoppers about drugs, too, and the need to make war, not love, but it didn’t faze the clubland consumers, who went from whizz to coke to E to P and round again as the fancy took them. For them drugs had become no more than a way of complementing a good time, of feeling even better, of dancing the night away. Acid, which had powered the idealism of a generation, became a pleasant substitute for ecstacy.
Most drug users of recent years learned that it was not only acceptable to be greedy, but felt morally impelled to be as greedy as possible. Under Thatcherism righteous anger was replaced by prudish sententiousness, whining self-reference. The drugs we used to help us confront the world became a means of avoiding it. Ecstacy and Prozac joined valium as drugs to keep the issues from ever really coming up. Stasis. Good old fashioned decadence.
Is there any place left at all for those sixties drug culture values? I think there is. They’re in full flower on the World Wide Web, which, come to think of it, is another of those old hippy ideas that seems to have worked out reasonably well…
Maybe I’ll meet you there?
This essay originally appeared in the July 1995 issue of Time Out.
Copyright © 1995 by Michael Moorcock.