Psychedelic Thunderdome 1/5 [Trenchant Edges]
Estimated reading time: 18 minutes, 44 seconds. Contains 3748 words
Welcome back to Trenchant Edges, a newsletter where we talk about strange people and their ideas. I’m your host Stephen and today we’re doing something a little different (again).
I’m testing out different ways to publish an ebook version of the write-ups I wrote for a bracket a few years ago: The Psychedelic Thunderdome
A kind of gonzo introduction to people I thought were relevant to modern American Psychedelia. I’ll explain more along the way.
Today’s going to be the first chunk of that. I’ve been making awful-looking ebooks and want to try something that’s a bit more browser friendly (We have at least one reader using a PS4 to read this and I wanted to give him an equal shot).
Here’s the starting Bracket:
I’m not going to hide the results from you, my attempt at preventing Mckenna’s ascendance failed. But there are a couple other twists worth the time. And the intros still slap pretty hard.
Let’s get to the intro.
If you're reading this, you're on my beta reading list.
This is an extremely crude start to creating an ebook version of the Psychedelic Thunderdome, a month-long event from November 2018.
The idea was simple: A messy, personal bracket about which figures from "psychedelic history" are the most psychedelic.
Silly for sure, but it's important to trick the algorithm into showing people good stuff.
I've structured this version very little. And I think the odds are very good that it'll have such a bad reader experience that shit will need completely redone.
But that's the fun of creation, eh?
One thing you'll note is a slew of handy little links peppered throughout. They are not clickable, but if you copy them into your browser they should take you to the posts in question.
There's a lot of cool discussion there and often new information about the people in question. Lots of folks have strong opinions! And also this is when I learned Alan Ginsberg was in NAMBLA, so that sucks.
I dunno. Let's just see where this goes.
You can reach me for comments @ Stephen@acknowledgethismerch.com or through the IAPCWE page.
Thanks for joining me on this self publishing adventure! Lol.
The Explanation I put in the Comments of Every Post
The fuck is this?
Simply put, I'm trying to spread knowledge of important and interesting figures in our community in ways the Facebook algorithm will actually show people. So, popularity contest. This particular bracket was assembled around a few guidelines: 1. Relatively modern, 2. Influential in the psychedelic community. 3. Dead 4. Not mainly musicians. There were so many good options for this bracket I had to winnow things down somehow. I've got a list of over 150 people who could have been in this one now and so I made some arbitrary guidelines to get it down to the current 32 contestants.
"Wait, but not all these people used psychedelics." Yup. I define psychedelic broadly as the conscious change of a point of view in the same way a photographer will move around to capture different angles. Psychedelic drugs are perhaps the most dramatic example of this kind of process but it's something we do constantly. So there are some writers, artists, and poets whose legacies aren't tied necessarily with psychedelic drugs but who helped bring in some wild new perspectives be they 19th-century romantics, surrealists, or beats.
"Ok, so that's what you mean by psychedelic but what do you mean by most? How do you even measure that?" I don't. I'm here to celebrate the heroes and the villains of our cultural milieu. Don't limit yourself by my definitions. I'm more interested in why people choose one over another than my own opinions on the subject.
"OK, so how can I help?" A couple things. If you're a merciful graphic designer, please for the love of god help me make a bracket that looks nice. I know enough to know how wrong everything on it is but not enough to actually fix it quickly. I spent like... 90 minutes in 3 programs making this ugly thing. Please help. I feel like this is a 7-minute photoshop job for someone who isn't inept or frustrated.
If you're not a graphic designer there are 4 things you can do: 1. Vote and comment every day we do this. If this is popular it might just be every day until we run out of ideas. I've got literally 3 months worked out already 2. Share links to each post of content from each person you like. We'll create a big master list of resources as we go. 3. I'd kind of love to see some ridiculous fanart of, say, Hunter Thompson power bombing Tim Leary. 4. Got something to say about a future match-up you want included in the match up post? Let me know and if it's good I'll share it.
If you've got any other ideas just throw them in. This whole thing is an experiment. The more people contribute to it the more successful it'll be. In both a cynical attention-stealing sense and in a sincere art sense.
PSYCHEDELIC THUNDER DOME DAY 1: Terence McKenna vs John C Lilly.
Two titans of the field. The rashpunk bard who gave voice to the content of the psychedelic experience versus maybe the most radical scientist of the last hundred years. Both steeped deep in contradictions inherent in extensive self-experimentation and attempting to map a rational grid on inherently arational things.
Terence is probably best known for his Timewave Zero program, novelty theory, the stoned ape theory of human evolution, and promoting the notion of an apocalyptic 2012 event. But while his pretentiousness toward scholarship never managed to overturn any established paradigms in the fields he wanted them to, his ability to describe psychedelic experiences and relate their contents to a wide range of subjects is probably unmatched. I could write all day about the big fish and little fish he caught or spun yarn about and all those in his wake. My favorite of his books? True Hallucinations, which mainlines a modern fairytale to any reader willing to take the time to visit it.
While Terence was ultimately a kind of orator who worked towards a kind of scientific art useful to challenge assumptions about the nature of reality, John C Lilly was a scientist who constantly pushed for the edge of whatever field earned his interest of the moment.
Probably best known for his pioneering work with dolphins and the invention of the isolation float tank, Lilly wrote a dozen books ranging from the quasi-self help, neuroscience, and memoir. As well as maybe doing more ketamine than he should have. I'd like to wax poetic about more of his writing and contributions but I've only read two of his books, The Centre of the Cyclone and Programming and Metaprogramming the Human Biocomputer, which are both fantastic.
Both men have had a wide impact on popular culture. From helping kickstart the 2012 movement to having a mess of comic books with ideas lifted from him, particularly by the writer Warren Ellis, to Lilly's legitimizing the study of nonhuman intelligence, the video game Ecco the dolphin, and several movies based on him or his work they've both impacted much more than you might initially think.
So, who's the most psychedelic? Haha react for Terence McKenna and love react for John C Lilly. Only one will advance to the second round. If you want to sway others, comment your reasons. But be nice, y'all.
If you want to know more about the thinking behind this meaningless competition check the comments. Pay no attention to the terrible graphic design behind the curtain.
Commentary: Terence took this 43 to 21, with 17 people not voting well.
While I'd have voted for John Lilly, this was pretty much the result I expected. One of my secret perverse goals for this bracket was knocking out Mckenna, Lilly, Thompson, and Leary so someone interesting could win. You could say I got 3/4 or you could say I completely failed.
Beyond that, I'm pretty satisfied with the results.
One thing that's not related here but I brought it up so it needs said: In June 2020 comicbook writer Warren Ellis was revealed to have emotionally manipulated over 100 women over his career, a thing you can and should read about on their website: https://www.somanyofus.com
They've been in mediation with Ellis since August 2021 and it's really worth reading their statement & updates on the subject. I hope they get what they want out of the situation.
PSYCHEDELIC THUNDERDOME DAY 2: Humphry Osmond vs Aldous Huxley
Psychedelic Psychiatrist vs Literary Gadfly
The pairing of one of the big names in 50s American psychedelia and some guy you've never heard of may at first not make much sense but hear me out. Huxley and Osmond were friends and between them recognized and satisfied a crucial role. Prior to their letters in 1956, the word the medical field used for psychedelics (then mainly LSD and Mescaline) was Psychotomimetic or "psychosis mimicking". It's no surprise the frankly strange class of drugs we now call psychedelics were confusing to both researchers and the CIA.
So the two friends hashed out some ideas. Huxley sent the following verse:
"To make this mundane world sublime, Take half a gram of phanerothyme"
Osmond responded with:
"To fathom Hell or soar angelic, Just take a pinch of psychedelic"
Wisely, and with the better verse, Osmond pushed for psychedelic and despite some resistance and forever after complicated relationship within and out the medical community psychedelic won the day.
Personally, I'm glad it did because Phanerothyme sounds bad and the couplet comes off as pure advertisement jingle. Where Osmond's response is more honest in advertising, "Why yes, you gonna see some shit."
What of the rest of their contributions? Huxley wrote a number of important novels of interest to the visionary thinker like Brave New World and Island and, despite my distaste for him, I must admit that dying while tripping on acid the day President Kennedy was assassinated is one of the most metal things possible. Osmond pioneered therapeutic psychedelics work at both high and low doses and his later works, after the backlash against psychedelics ended all research about them, he wrote several books about living with mental illnesses, particularly schizophrenia.
In the end, both were influential well beyond their fields. And now I'm out of time to write more so it's time to pick who is the most psychedelic of the two.
Was it one of the fathers of psychedelic medicine who coined part of the name of this very page or the novelist whose book introduced millions to the psychedelic experience.
Commentary: Huxley took 69% of the 75 votes (nice)
Ok, so there's no way to pretend I'm not incredibly biased here. I love Osmond's psychedelic couplet and I hate Brave New World. But Huxley is a popular intellectual Giant and Osmond's research has been suppressed by the war on drugs until very recently. No surprise that Huxley took 70% of the vote on this one.
I do have to admit that my introduction skimped on Huxley's resume. The man's scholarship is considerable and his influence more than I implied. He's well looking into even if my grumpy ass feels like that work is often overrated.
PSYCHEDELIC THUNDERDOME DAY 3: RONALD STARK VS CARLOS CASTANEDA
How many levels of con artist are you on my dude?
Weeeeeeeell, that's hard to say. Today's contestants are maybe the most disreputable people on the whole list. Ron Stark was a spy savant who flit from hot spot to hot spot like some kind of amoral folk hero legend, leaving just before the cops showed up. Maybe he worked for the CIA, maybe he worked for himself. We'll never know. While Carlos Castaneda was somewhat briefly a revolutionary innovator in the field of anthropology and inspired at least a whole generation of Baby Boomers to follow in his apparent footsteps and far more than that to experiment with new age and neo-shaman practices. But a lot of his story turned out to be kind of made up and his fortunes wanned until he lived with a small group of his devoted followers.
Stories don't have to be true to be important.
But that's just one side of it. Both men lived extraordinary lives devoted to their own specific passions. Carlos to his anthropological Shamanism and Ron Stark to... well, we'll get to that.
Castaneda's mysticism may have come from apocryphal sources but it's resonated hard with seekers ever since its publication. And it's possible he was expressly looking to upturn the literary conventions of anthropology by rebranding a new age noble savage story into meta-fictional pop art. An act, ironically, worthy of any wordsmithing wizard. His later life was spent refining and teaching a system for self healing and transcendence called Tensegrity.
I'll be honest, I don't have much opinion of his work. I read two or three of his Don Juan books mostly because my mother's best friend, a devoted Christian, named her eldest son Carlos after him and I wanted to get a glimpse of why his books had such a powerful effect on her. But that was long before I had the experience or tools to see if he was using lies to tell the Truth. Which is the only way you can do that.
If anyone's tried out his practices I'd love to hear real feedback on their results.
Which brings us to Ronald Fucking Stark. By *far* the most interesting person I've come across in studying our history, Stark's a fucking enigma wrapped in a kilogram of LSD and with an inexplicable valid British passport. A bit odd for an American born in NYC, what we know of his early life is vague. But by the mid-60s he had set up a chain of illegal drug labs in Europe. He enters American Psychedelia by showing up at Tim Leary's Psychedelic Ashram at Millbrook, somewhat under siege by future Watergate burglar G Gordon Liddy, with an uh significant amount of LSD. 2.2lbs, 1 kg, or 10,000,000 hits of acid. He was quickly referred to getting the hell out of there by sending him to the Brotherhood of Eternal Love's home base outside of Laguna Beach California.
The Brotherhood, who's banker Billy Mellon Hitchcock had to pull out because his finances were being investigated by the feds for some, uh, creative business ventures. So when a guy showed up with, again, a fucking kilogram of LSD they listened. Deals were made and he took over a bit and he convinced the Brotherhood of many things probably not true like having a PhD in chemistry. From Harvard. Stark also made contact with people involved in the English acid ring that'd be known as Operation Julie. And yet, a few years later when both the Brotherhood and Operation Julie were broken up Stark was somewhere else. Where? Hahahaha. Good question.
By 1975 he'd be arrested in fucking Italy with literal fascists. I can't even begin to describe the weird bullshit going on in that scene but he was intimately linked with training them in Operational Security and other covert skills. One commentator, journalist Philip Willian said, "Stark's arrest in Italy was prompted by a mysterious phone call to the police and he seems quite happy to go to prison, where his time was gainfully employed in winning the confidence of captured Red Brigades leaders, given that he turned down the opportunity of bail in August 1978."
Long story short, in 1979 he requested his magistrate speak with him privately because he could prove he'd been a CIA agent since 1960. After a short conversation, the magistrate let him go. Stark disappeared back to America. The Italian state repeatedly tried to extradite him legally but the state department stonewalled them for months before giving them a death certificate in 1983.
I'm skipping over so much here this guy's life is utterly insane. Like Catch me if you Can but with a professional multilingual savant instead of a clever kid good at finding an angle. He's a cold war Paul Bunyan doing great deeds of infiltration and disappearing right before the bag was out. Someone once claimed to me that Stark lived until the 90s before dying of AIDS at Laguna Beach. That wouldn't be the weirdest part of his life.
So I'll leave you with two quotes. The first about Ron Stark, "He had a mission, he explained, to use LSD in order to facilitate the overthrow of the political systems of both the capitalist West and communist East by inducing altered states of consciousness in millions of people. Stark did not hide the fact that he was well connected in the world of covert politics." -Acid Dreams, Lee & Shalin
And the second about Castaneda, "Carlos knew exactly what was true and what was not true. But the thing that's missing when people talk about Carlos is not whether Don Juan lived or not, or who lived in what house. It's about becoming a voyager of awareness, about the 600 locations in the luminous egg of man where the assemblage point can shift, about the process of depersonalization he taught." -Angela Panero, of Cleargreen Inc, a group that marketed Castaneda's teaching near the end of this life
Anyway, you know the drill, vote for who you think was most psychedelic of these two titans of personal myths.
Commentary: Ronald “Fucking” Stark wins with 64% of the 74 votes
Ok, So I’m happy with this one. Ron Stark is one of the most interesting people to ever show up in the psychedelic scene, a man who’s lies were so large and suspicious that a lot of people who should have known better bought into it, one imagines just ‘cause they wanted to see what’s next.
Lord knows I want to.
Unlike Castaneda, who’s been thoroughly debunked these days, we’ll never know exactly what the hell Stark was doing.
The reality behind that mystery has pretty good odds of being terrible, that Stark was pure CIA as he sometimes claimed. But hell, even the hints of it make for an excellent story.
Incidentally, it turns out Catch Me if You Can was also based on a lot of lies.
PSYCHEDELIC THUNDERDOME DAY 4: AL HUBBARD VS R GORDON WASSON
Johnny LSDseed vs The Mushroom Hunter
Not as dubious as yesterday's competitors, today's match-up is between two of the heroes of the psychedelic 1950s. Without them perhaps American psychedelia would be a very different place.
Captain Al Hubbard and R Gordon Wasson personified the earliest Americans interested in psychedelics: The creative establishment type too curious for their own good. Hubbard was a literal visionary and bootlegger later pardoned by Harry Truman for his OSS (pre-CIA) service in WW2. He became a millionaire from Uranium mining in the 40s and spent the next two decades working for a slew of different organizations. But what he really did for us was share LSD with as many people as he could. As many as 6,000 among professionals and civil servants.
Robert Gordon Wasson served as a radio operator in WW1 and later became a wall street banker. This wouldn't qualify him for a place on this list or on this page except that he was also something of an amateur mycologist. And, more than just any amateur mycologist, he was the first American to publish a popular article on psilocybin mushrooms in life magazine in 1957. While this contributed to a rush south to find the mushrooms that resulted in massive over-harvesting, it also introduced many Americans to the idea of drug-mediated religion. More than that, Wasson continued to contribute to research on psychedelics for the rest of his life and was even part of the team who coined the term Entheogen to describe hallucinogens which produce mystic experiences of divinity.
Neither man can be said to be perfect, Hubbard's life was often shady and potentially his deep ties to law enforcement and several nation's intelligence communities might make some suspicious. While Wasson's contributions were more aboveboard and groundbreaking, they still created real backlashes for people living in the areas he described.
But without either our history might be very different.
So who's the most psychedelic? The Entrepreneur spy who gave over 6,000 people their first trip or the Dilettante Banker who paved the way for serious scholarship on the relationship between drugs and religion?
Commentary: R Gordon Wasson dominated with 79% of the 53 votes
Disclaimer: Some might disagree with my placing a potential intelligence community member in this bracket or with others I've put on here.
However, there's not actually any way to separate the history of psychedelics from the manipulations of the state so I have not tried to do so.
Pretending these links don't exist is as foolish as exaggerating them.
Personally, I assume they both did work with intelligence communities. The 40-50s were filled with this kind of gentleman spy shit. Both traveled in the right social circles to do so.
And there's some evidence on both sides. Even if it's somewhat spotty. They're part of our community no matter how you feel about them.
And their negative influence can only be counteracted by recognizing who they were, what they did, and how we can do better
In retrospect, I think I was probably too kind to Wasson here. The harm he inadvertently caused to Mexican ecology is substantial and we’ll get into his impact on the life of the healer he made famous, Maria Sabina, later on in the Thunderdome.
Hubbard is also a profoundly sketchy guy, but I don’t think I really minimized that.
Alright, so this is part one of… maybe 5 or 6?
I’ve gotten back into writing a mess of drafts over the last couple weeks but I’ve needed to finish them. So this next week will mostly be syndicating the. ~15k words of the Thunderdome.
That’ll get us back into a bit more of a habit together and also give me time to finish the rest of the crap I’ve got on the backlog.
All that means that it’s time for me to hit you up for money.
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Alright, I’ll see y’all tomorrow.