Let this book of ours be a joyous one. Let the writing of it happen in the manner of a dance song or dream. Find in it an occasion to read Gurney Norman’s Divine Right’s Trip, a “novel of the counterculture” serialized in (and thus functioning as a paratext to) The Last Whole Earth Catalog. Leary, Di Prima, Huxley, Olson, Ginsberg, Kesey, Baraka, Sanders: all have their places, all have their roles in this tale we are about to tell. Words written on behalf of Utopia. ‘Twas a time when the not-yet was still possible, and that time is now.
Caught up on witches, let us sit with creatures and plot reading lists, end of schoolyear approaching. When time allows, we’ll plant our garden. Up onto the turntable I place an album from the 1960s folk revival, rescued from a bin at Goodwill: Mark Spoelstra’s Five & Twenty Questions.
Liner notes by counterculture folksinger and novelist Richard Fariña. The latter died tragically on April 30, 1966 in a freak motorcycle accident, two days after the publication of his novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me. Fariña is the writer to whom Thomas Pynchon dedicates Gravity’s Rainbow. Pynchon had been best man at Fariña’s wedding to Joan Baez’s sister Mimi in spring of 1962. Along with the title track, other highlights on the Spoelstra album include “On the Road Again” and “My Love is Like a Dewdrop.”
Pranksters run loose across the country, reversing the journey West by heading east, unsettling what was settled. The future advertised at the 1964 New York World’s Fair: that was the destination toward which the Pranksters drove. Yet the Fair was just a ploy. They were also heading to New York for the launch of Kesey’s second novel Sometimes a Great Notion. With their doors of perception “cleansed,” however, the Fair appeared to them as it was: lame. The future as designed by clueless technocrats. And just as the Fair was a bummer, so was Millbrook. So they drove home and, as if in reply to the Fair, launched a series of “blissful counterstrokes”: the Acid Tests and the Trips Festival.
There were deer in the yard when I arrived home from “the Teet.” And a stinkbug that needed rescue, and a toilet that whines and may need a new valve. Tomorrow, weather permitting, I’ll mow the lawn and grade. In the days ahead, we hope to build our garden. As Roy Morrison said of the Mondragon cooperatives: “We Build the Road as We Travel.” Let these trance-scripts be spaces of hope. Signposts to an alternative modernity, like the one reported from firsthand by Richard Fairfield, reports gathered in his book The Modern Utopian: Alternative Communities of the ’60s and ’70s. If I could time-travel, the countercultural communes would be a destination to which I would journey. Let us be drawn toward collective living, enriched by conversation with others. We can begin by taking Fisher’s course on Postcapitalist Desire. Read the assigned readings, including work by Ellen Willis. Fisher gets his assessment of the reasons for the failure of the communes from Willis. Fellow ’60s rock critic Richard Goldstein included Willis among Emma Goldman and Abbie Hoffman as members of a lost tradition of “radicals of desire.” Somewhere in my basement is a collection of Willis’s writing on rock music, Out of the Vinyl Deeps. Also the book with the material Fisher assigned: Beginning to See the Light.
Step into “Jam On It,” members of Newcleus rocking the mic, beat is fresh. Then read Lennon Remembers, a two-part interview with John Lennon conducted by Jann Wenner for the December 1970 and January 1971 issues of Rolling Stone. Lennon begins the interview a bit rancorous and sour grapes. The Beatles had broken up eight months prior, and Lennon seems convinced that the 1960s cultural revolution failed to produce real change. “Nothing happened except that we all dressed up,” he says. “The same bastards are in control, the same people are runnin’ everything, it’s exactly the same. […]. We’ve grown up a little, all of us, and there has been a change and we are a bit freer and all that, but it’s the same game” (12). The band’s final years were in Lennon’s view humiliating and awful. People were thrust on them and would touch them. To recover, he made his first solo album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, released the same month as the interview. The album cover features John and Yoko relaxing under a tree beside a lake at Lennon’s Tittenhurst Park estate. A church bell rings in the opening seconds of “Mother,” the first track on Side A.
By the time of “Working Class Hero,” my thoughts are of primal scream therapy and psychic restitution. That’s what one seeks through psychotherapy, is it not? “Psychic restitution”? It all seems a bit too rooted in the past. It is time instead to re-read Eroding Witness by Nathaniel Mackey.
The “new” look of psychedelic art and design of the 1960s was, as a recent Vox video shows, about recooking the past. “Art Nouveau on acid.” For Huxley, meanwhile, the psychedelic experience is about Moksha, a concept from Eastern spiritual traditions involving freedom from samsara, or access to a truth or a reality beyond the cycle of suffering and rebirth. I find myself returning to Huxley’s book The Perennial Philosophy, published in 1945, immediately after WWII. The book assembles passages from the writings of saints and prophets from traditions of Eastern and Western mysticism. The German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz is the one who named this strain of esoteric wisdom “the perennial philosophy.” There’s a universalizing bent to perennialism, arguing as it does that all religions, despite their differences, point to the same truth: “That Art Thou,” or “Thou Art That,” “the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being” (Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy, p. vii). There is an eternal Self in the depths of each person. Or as Marcus Aurelius claimed, “the universe is a single living organism possessed of one substance and one soul, holding all things suspended in a single consciousness and creating all things with a single purpose that they might work together spinning and weaving and knotting whatever comes to pass.”
Whatever happened to Acid Communism? Let us pursue its imagining. While there is much to honor in the concept, there are reasons as well to be wary. Horns and song for those who died and those who live. With the Surrealists, let us “win the energies of intoxication for the revolution,” i.e., the energies of plant medicine and psychopharmacology. Can such powers be used to heal? One might have cause to doubt, given the fate of Acid Communist protomartyrs Walter Benjamin and Mark Fisher. Let us break with the platform’s thanatopic past. Let us find cause for hope and be in their stead life-loving parents and gardeners. Rescue Eros from the Googleplex. Caroline Busta arrives announcing, “Actual power keeps a low profile; actual power doesn’t need a social media presence, it owns social media.” She proposes “radical hyperstition,” by which she means “constructing alternative futures that abandon our current infrastructure entirely.” This is what Gene Youngblood proposes with his concept of “The Build,” is it not? He gives it a name, “Secession From the Broadcast,” and a slogan: “Leave the culture without leaving the country.” Gene knows what to do. Cultivate radical will, he says, by “producing content for countercultural media lifeworlds as technologies of the self…habitats that enable strategic counter-socialization.” Perhaps this is not quite what Busta means by “radical hyperstition.” Youngblood’s all about media, whereas I’m thinking Busta’s thinking seeds and dirt. Food, energy, language. “Choose your character / choose your future.” Identity play among options like anarcho-primitivism, post-civilizationism, or “Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism.” Busta and Youngblood meet, though, in what Busta calls “the dark forest”: regions of the web “where users can interact without revealing their IRL identity.” Life is a cryptogram which, once deciphered, delivers news from nowhere.
A book called Realizing the Impossible called out to me the other day, the title resonating with a phrase I’d recalled in an email the day prior. A friend had recommended an article commending the importance of utopian visionary thinking in times of crisis. I replied with a line of Che Guevara’s spraypainted on the walls on the streets of Paris during May ’68: “Be realistic — demand the impossible.” Opening the book, I came upon an interview with late 60s acid anarchist Ben Morea, central figure in New York freak-left political-art groups Black Mask and Up Against the Wall Motherfucker, as well as — to my surprise — a later, short-lived collective called International Werewolf Conspiracy. The name pricks up one’s ears, does it not? For a short time in the late 60s and early 70s the group made and printed posters and manifestos. They’d pass out leaflets to fellow heads on the streets. Morea was friends with Valerie Solanas, author of The SCUM Manifesto. Morea wrote a pamphlet in support of Solanas when she shot Andy Warhol, an act shunned and disowned by the rest of the left and the art world. There’s a character based on Morea in the 1996 film I Shot Andy Warhol. By 1969, he was heading the International Werewolf Conspiracy. The group’s broadsheets amplify the gothic element in Marx and Engels. The specter evoked in the first sentences of The Communist Manifesto has given way to a pack of werewolves birthed when American youth drink the era’s “magic potion,” LSD. These werewolves are thus in origin a bit like Frankenstein’s monster — one of capitalist science’s Faustian lab experiments gone awry. The pose strikes me as pure Attentat. Then again, maybe it’s just an American “horror-show” version of épater la bourgeoisie: an attempt to shock the middle class out of its complacency as the country transforms into Nixonland.
Students in my classes produced presentations on Beats, Hippies, and Millbrook. The third class was more comprehensive in its coverage — though none of the groups mentioned the new religions and religious organizations formed at Millbrook: the Neo-American Church, for instance, and the League for Spiritual Discovery. Practitioners of religion were targeted by government. These were utopian communities of love and peace: open, welcoming communities founded not through settlement but through sacramental use of psychoactive substances. They modeled for the civilization the Alternative, the solution to the economic and environmental crises. They also modeled, however imperfectly, an attempt at alliance with anti-racist, anti-colonial groups like the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement — a point neglected in the histories presented by my students. Is there more I could say to help them vote? Or is the action we must take vaster than that? Let us trust that the texts will lead the way, permitting us to say what needs saying.
Ishmael Reed may have been present at the founding of the East Village Other — indeed, he seems to have been the one who gave the paper its name! — but many of his poems of the 1960s, the ones gathered in Conjure: Selected Poems, 1963-1970, are quite scornful in their assessment of the counterculture. In his “Neo-HooDoo Manifesto,” for instance, Reed calls out Theodore Roszak, noting that in the latter’s famous book The Making of a Counter Culture, “there is barely any mention of the Black influence on this culture even though its members dress like Blacks talk like Blacks walk like Blacks, gesture like Blacks wear Afros and indulge in Black music and dance” (20-21). Speaking of neglected black influences upon the counterculture, why am I only just now learning that the acid trip sequence in Easy Rider was shot at or near Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau’s tomb in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1? Hopper and Fonda filmed the sequence guerrilla-style, without permission … while tripping on acid. Reed’s collection also includes a poem called “catechism of d neoamerican hoodoo church” — a self-conscious response of sorts, I imagine, to Millbrook resident Art Kleps’s Boo Hoo Bible: The Neo-American Church Catechism and Handbook. Several of Reed’s associates were participants in the psychedelic revolution — including East Village Other co-founder and publisher Walter Bowart. Bowart’s second wife was Peggy Hitchcock, the director of Leary and Alpert’s International Federation for Internal Freedom (IFIF). Peggy’s brother Billy is the one who arranged for the Leary crew to live on the Hitchcock Estate in Millbrook. Bowart went on to publish an important book on MK-Ultra in 1978 called Operation Mind Control.