October 22, 2008

"Have A Good Trip, Mike"

I keep going back to the spring of 1968, because it was such a momentous period in my life that it turned my head in a different direction, putting me on a new road that I’d never suspected was on the map. Sometimes I think I have never gotten off that highway, though I’ve taken a lot of routes and done many different things. It’s hard to say exactly where it began, and impossible to predict where it ends, but it has been a hell of a trip, and, at times, a heavenly journey as well. But Heaven was only a glimpse, not a permanent address.

My friend had done lsd and like everyone else I had read about it in Life magazine’s front-cover exploitation of the new phenomenon. Millions of readers got their first wrong impression from that long piece about the hippies doing acid and tripping off to other worlds. Years later we learned that Luce the publisher had done the stuff along with many military brass, government officials and politicians like Jack Kennedy had, after CIA began experimenting with it to test its use as a truth serum. Rich people tried it first. Later, the CIA farmed it out to universities and psychologists like Timothy Leary, who turned it loose upon the masses. CIA originally tested it as a truth serum in a vain expectation it would reveal whether turncoat Soviet spies were telling the truth. It’s hard to lie on lsd. Lie on acid and you are off on a bad trip. It’s as simple as that, folks. CIA heard Sandoz Pharmaceuticals had the stuff that Albert Hoffman had discovered by accident while experimenting with different variations of the ergot fungus that grows on rye. It’s a long story that doesn’t belong here, but it’s been thoroughly investigated and documented.

So a week or so after the Whitehall Anti-Draft Demonstrations in Manhattan which had blown my mind, I decided I wanted to try the stuff. My friend had a friend who could get it, so I went with him one night to Matty D’s apartment on River Road in Edgewater, NJ. Matty was a stocky guy with a wife and infant, a Brown University graduate in something, a pothead and sort of a dark, quiet person. He was hospitable and soft-spoken. After getting to know me, he went to the kitchen and returned with a silver tray and a fluid in a small glass. I drank it with a bit of trepidation.

He had a great stereo system for that time, and his large living room with a plate glass window overlooked the Hudson River, uptown Manhattan and the George Washington Bridge. It was lit dimly by one small lamp. It was comfortable and quiet. I settled back in an easy chair and waited to see God. Never in my life had I expected to see Him, so it scared me a little to think He might come booming into my consciousness any moment. But He didn’t. Not that night anyway. It was 30 years before I could detect His presence, and that was only a glimpse too; but enough to slap me half-awake from my troubled sleep.

Matty and my friend, who I won’t name because he’s a well-known guy, stayed with me awhile, and my buddy said that he would “guide” me on the trip. That was Leary’s way. You needed a guide to keep you on earth when things got too cosmic. It was okay with me because I liked and trusted him. It was obvious to me that he was more intellectual and experienced in such matters. Later on my endless nightmare trip I wished he hadn’t guided me in the direction I’d taken.

After a little while, the lights on the stereo seemed bluer and redder than before. My body felt sensitive and sounds from the street seemed louder. The carpet was dark red or blue and it seemed I could see the threads. I spent some time at the window watching a light show of a flashing red police light, and the reflections of Harlem on the Hudson seemed to be the real city while the other one seemed unreal. Calmness came over me. My friend went off to the kitchen with Matty and they returned with a joint. We smoked it and talked. I felt weird talking, because I knew I wasn’t there, and I felt uncertain of myself. Everything I said seemed phony or inadequate. There was nothing overpowering about the trip, but things were certainly different. (Later I learned they had given me mescaline, the hallucinatory derivative of the peyote cactus, a much milder drug.) Mescaline is a natural product, but lsd is completely man-made. Indians have been taking mescaline ever since the molten moon was ejected from what is now the Pacific Ocean. It is a ceremonial drug, and in their society it is also, like peyote itself, for God-seekers.

I dozed off in the chair and don’t remember if I dreamed. An hour later I awoke to hear a strange old man’s voice singing in a fashion I’d never heard. I asked Matty who it was.

“T hat’s Dylan, man,” he said with some surprise.

“Who’s Dylan?” I asked.

“You’ve never heard of Bob Dylan?” A tone of incredulity came into his voice.

“No.”

“Man, Dylan is the best. And this is the worst album he ever made,” he said.

He was singing the title song of the John Wesley Harding album. It goes like this:

John Wesley Harding,
Was a friend to the poor,
He traveled with a gun in ev’ry hand.
All along this countryside,
He opened many a door,
But he was never known
To hurt an honest man.
‘Twas down in Cheney County,
A time they talk about
With his lady by his side
He took a stand.
And soon the situation there
Was all but straightened out,
For he was always known
To lend a helping hand.
All across the telegraph
His name it did resound.
But no charge held against him
Could they prove.
And there was no man around
Who could track or chain him down,
He was never known
To make a foolish move.”

The whole album contained songs of a type I’d never before heard. Each one seemed more complex and mysterious than the one before. I’ve written in another piece the effect that The Wicked Messenger had on my newspaper career. Another that came to have meaning for me years later:

”I am a lonesome hobo
Without family or friends,
Where another man’s life might begin,
That’s exactly where mine ends.
I have tried my hand at bribery,
Blackmail and deceit,
And I’ve served time for ev’rything
‘Cept beggin’ on the street.
Well, once I was rather prosperous,
There was nothing I did lack.
I had fourteen-caret gold in my mouth
And silk upon my back.
But I did not trust my brother,
I carried him to blame,
Which led me to my fate of doom,
To wander off in shame.
Kind ladies and kind gentlemen,
Soon I will be gone,
But let me just warn you all,
Before I do pass on;
Stay free from petty jealousies,
Live by no man’s code,
And hold your judgment for yourself
Lest you wind up on this road.”

Maybe it was the mescaline that made it so vivid as to be embedded in my brain. But after first hearing Dylan and detecting the feeling that accompanied the intellect of these very different songs, I became a “Dylan freak.” I still am. To me, everything he does is a masterpiece, because he clearly is a Master in the tradition of Rembrandt, Picasso, Stendhal, Shakespeare, Vermeer, Cezanne, Tolstoy, Hemingway and Lennon. Everything he produces seems blessed with with the divine calligraphy of art.

About 30 minutes before dawn Matty suggested we take a ride to the shore and watch the rising dawn. He had a VW bug. He and my friend took the front seats and I rode in the back. It seemed he was going too fast and a few times I asked him to slow down. Normally I wouldn’t do that, but for some reason I felt fear. He obliged, each time saying he was going the speed limit.

We walked onto a deserted beach and slowly at first then appearing like an act of God—which it is—the sun came up over the ocean and bathed us in red. I had never seen such a sunrise, though as a drinker and a manic all-nighter I had seen a hundred of them. We stayed quiet during the event, then drove quietly back to his place, where we drank a glass of red wine and parted company.

I saw God on that trip but didn’t recognize Him. Next time I tripped was in California at an acid commune in San Francisco, and it was there that I began to realize that I had fear. More than anything, I was afraid to reveal myself and my thoughts, because I seemed so different than the younger people who were also tripping and who had never been in jail, never been in the marines, and never had wanted to beat the hell out of people. I wanted to be accepted and I tried to be like them but it was all a fake, and they always detected it. Six months later I returned to New York and got that job in Alphabet City where everyone it seemed was on drugs. St. Mark’s Place was congested at night like Time Square on New Year’s Eve. I started tripping alone, probably once every few days. Acid was cheap then (about $2 a hit.) It wasn’t hard to get. My hair grew and I smoked a lot of pot. I went to every demonstration I heard about, and shouted the slogans of the antiwar movement. As is my bent, I began reading seriously about the issues of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, feminism, and spent a lot of time trying to decipher Marx and other communists.

If they had lied to us about the war, perhaps they had lied about communism too.

Then a pretty blonde gal named Karen Plant from Palos Verdes, who I’d met in Hermosa Beach, CA, got in touch with me and I moved her into the apartment on East 11th that I shared with Jan and George. Soon after I got a free apartment for being caretaker-janitor of three buildings, and we had a nice but brief affair. She left me for a black guy that she liked better, and I’m sure he was a better lover than me, because I still didn’t know much about it and wasn’t the type she’d grown up with. I simply wasn’t hip, I thought.

But I got over it pretty quickly. I was more studious than the cats I hung with, and since I had been a newspaper reporter, I was up on current events, but my outlook was skewed as a servant of the Establishment, and, it seemed to me, less simplistic than the younger hippies. I was trying to be a hippie, trying to get into a community of feeling and song, poetry and dance, and demonstrations and conscience, but I still stood outside the circle rather aloof and probably superior-looking and “uptight,” which was a favorite appellation back then. And I felt uptight.

But then Joey and I got in touch and went around New York to museums and ate in cafes and made love and fell in love. We decided to go to California together in her Volkswagen. It was the dream of a lifetime for me, traveling with a lovely woman. And Joey was (and is) a very lovely, absolutely exquisite Alsatian beauty with a smile to light dark rooms and a mind full of poetry and deep feeling. At least she was then.

One day I got a letter from a younger sister inviting me to her high school graduation in Westlake. I hadn’t been there recently and thought it would be a good idea to see my family and for it to see the way I had changed. Can you imagine? I was going back into the Deep South to a hard-shelled Baptist town dressed in bellbottoms with long hair and carrying a guitar that I barely knew some chords for. I gave up the job and said goodbye and hitchhiked it. God was with me because I got there alive.

Then my older sister Pat found out I had lsd with me, called the sheriff, and put me in jail for 18 months. I served most of it in solitary confinement. But that’s another story. A whole 'nother story about a rapid descent into confusion, marriage and self-hate.

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