Acid Drops: Andy Roberts – A Review

Acid DropsAndy Roberts already has a definitive place in the recent resurgence of interest and research into psychedelic substances, having penned a well-received historical account of LSD in his 2012 book Albion Dreaming. Subtitled, A Popular History of LSD in Britain, it recounts the history of LSD from its synthesis in the laboratory of Albert Hoffman, to the British intelligence experimentations as a tool of the military, early research and use by psychiatrists on their patients, right through to the banning of the substance and the subsequent explosion of interest in the 1960s that led to the “hippie” counterculture. It is more or less a chronological account, and it is never more interesting than when recounting the continuing development of the psychedelic scene in the 1970s. It is here where Roberts’s own experiences give the historical analysis a personal confirmation. This is necessary because the propaganda and policing of this most wondrous of substances has distorted the accounts of the names and the places, so correcting many misconceptions and false accusations concocted by media, police and politicians becomes essential. In Albion Dreaming, Roberts mentions familiar names and places to anyone with a passing interest in the history of LSD. Operation Julie, the police operation that broke the huge production of LSD in the UK in the 1970s is detailed, as is the UK visit of the acclaimed Beat poet Allen Ginsberg in 1967, where he wrote his epic LSD poem, Wales Visitation.

In Acid Drops, many of the historical characters and episodes contained in Albion Dreaming are naturally present. But what Andy does in Acid Drops feels like the metaphorical mirror of an acid trip itself. The linear, sober analysis of Albion Dreaming is replaced by a looser and deeper, more malleable account of the history and the effect of Hoffman’s so-called “problem child”. Dr Ben Sessa, one of the pioneers of the modern resurgence of interest in LSD, gives a foreward and he speaks of the unexpected benefit of the enforced break that prohibition and policing created in the 80s and 90s, from the heady and wacked out days of the 60s and 70s, with its sprawling and defiant trip literature, UFO sightings, free festivals and all, to the modern incarnation, which is to investigate the effects of these drugs from a scientific perspective. There is the natural reticence of the scientist to go too far into the crazy detail of the subjective psychedelic experience, or of what less skilled minds might uncover within. But Andy, being someone who was steeped in that earlier history, has no fear to tread or re-tread there, and it is a testament to his own level-headedness and willingness to question what he finds without completely relinquishing the weirdness, which gains both the respect of Sessa and simultaneously keeps hold of the thread of the counterculture and the very strangeness of the experience, giving it a relevance to the present popularity of psychedelic research within academia and in the general public. And how apt that the book is given an afterward by the occultist, chaos magician and well-respected psychedelic explorer Julian Vayne, who also reminds us of the importance of anchoring the transcendent experience into the everyday reality, to ground some of the luminosity, inspiration and all-out weirdness into a constructive use and as an approach to one’s everyday life.

There are many highlights in this book and the names and places read like a glossary of UK psychedelia, which will either be familiar or instructive to anyone who wishes to understand the history of the UK psychedelic scene of the time. For me the in-depth account of the creation of Allen Ginsberg’s poem, Wales Visitation, from his ingestion of LSD, to the initial sketches while tripping and finally into the completion of the poem itself, gives a unique account of the creative process, not only of one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, but also as an example of someone who was able to artfully and confidently bridge the stream-of-consciousness and mystical states of the psychedelic experience with the conventional world and its often resistant and jaundiced view of the acid head. Never is this more obvious than when Ginsberg reads out the poem on the Conservative American polemicist William F Buckley’s TV talk show, which is available for all to see on YouTube. Buckley finds he cannot overtly mock its poetic brilliance and so ends with the faint praise “I kinda liked that”.

But it’s not all sweetness and light. The infamous acid casualties are not as rare as some aficionados would like to believe and drop outs, people who could not let go of the dreams and visions and were stranded in the psychedelic liminal space, of illusions and delusions, can also be used, and have been used, as an excuse to condemn not only the individuals and the drug, but also the necessity of the irrational non-ordinary states to our creativity. Roberts himself is no stranger to the dark side of the psychedelic experience. He begins the book with an account of his first LSD trip, which became a terrifying ordeal and it is this perhaps which gives the book and his subsequent experiences such grounding. Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger they say. I would say those who are damaged by the negative experiences can become dead to the world in some way, whereas to survive such experiences with rational mind intact with an ability to communicate the experience gives one an insight and empathy that can come in handy not only in negotiating other psychedelic experiences, but also in relating with others who have confusing, outright delusional and frightening experiences. It is Andy’s sober, unsentimental compassion that shines through the book and it is his own ability to communicate these experiences in a way that does not get lost in the strangeness that has made him such a popular feature of the biennial academic and scientific conference, Breaking Convention.

His own psychedelic synchronicities are amusing and telling. Few who have any full-on psychedelic trip can escape those subjective feelings of fatedness or synchronicities that often seem to occur. Some get freaked out, some ignore them and cast them off as “mere” coincidence. Andy recounts his experiences with both a sense of reverence and objectivity, which is a fine balancing act. Embarking on various trips through the 70s with set intentions and discovering along the way some seeming result of the intention, is a feature of at least three experiences he recalls, such as when he recounts discovering rubber ducks on a beach after reading about a ship sinking with a cargo of rubber ducks in the Pacific, finding a Pink Floyd scrawled in pink on a piece of wood in the middle of a detour on a country road after listening to a Pink Floyd album, and witnessing the aftermath of a car crash after drawing the card of Death in a tarot reading, all after taking LSD.

Could these seemingly connected occurrences, so often intensified during the psychedelic experience (and in deep meditation and visualisation techniques) point to some kind of link between the fabric of reality and consciousness, or are they merely simultaneous arisings, the so-called synchronicity of Jungian psychology, rather than any evidence of cause and effect? Perhaps they are really nothing more than an erroneous sense of agency we feel, brushing up against the philosophical actuality of material determinism, which noted neuroscientists and philosophers such as Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett are so fond of discussing. There are no conclusive answers, but these are subjects we should not shy away from, and neither should scientists. It cannot be left to the naive, to the credulous or to the paranoid and Andy is brave enough to risk divulging. Healthy and light-hearted scepticism rather than cynicism is needed and a holistic understanding is preferable to conventional linear approaches, with a compassion for our natural curiosity, for our fragility as human beings, our vulnerability and our earnest desire to understand. All should be taken into account in these investigations, all should be understood in context of present knowledge and in the context of what is anecdotally suggested.

Another highlight for me (and there are many more names and events that I do not have the time and space to go into, but which make the book such an important anthology and testament to psychedelic history and the psychedelic experience), is the interview that Andy gives with the psychedelic author Liz Elliott and her account of her time in Algeria in the autumn of 1970 with Timothy Leary, who had fled the US authorities to seek sanctuary with Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver. This is a fascinating, illuminating documentary of the time and of these characters with their charisma and imperfections laid bare, weaving the psychedelic and the political turbulence of the time into an adventure story that is the stuff of legend, giving insight into the gritty, drug-fuelled outlaw nature of those who stood up to the tyranny of authoritarianism. Another such account is with the former LSD chemist and psychedelic advocate Casey Hardison, whose account of his experiences having been arrested and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for producing vast quantities of LSD to turn on minds and spread consciousness, and who catalogued a meticulous ideological defence, is also a vital part of the modern story of drug prohibition and the mindset of authoritarian western governments and law enforcement.

In posting his own creative prose and poetry, Andy Roberts is also bolder here in his second book on LSD. These creative interludes are important because of their familiarity. Their literary similarity to so much noted psychedelic literature published over the years is evident. Straight society might scoff at such surreal meanderings, but there is a syntax and imagery that, while it may jar with the more rational and ordered literary critic, will nevertheless be familiar to anyone who has taken psychedelics and may have sought to express the experiences creatively, rather than give a solely objective account. But even here Andy is sparse and succinct, one piece a short account of a particularly inspiring early LSD trip, the other a Kerouac-like travelogue, which still retains the dry wit and unique rhythms of contemporary English language mixed in with acid-tinged imagery. And finally, while musing on so many historical figures, Andy takes the opportunity to deconstruct a more recent myth, that of the co-discoverer of DNA, Francis Crick, taking LSD and discovering the double helix through visualising it in a trip. He does not dismiss the story entirely, but he meticulously investigates the journalist’s background and possible motives, the historical account from contemporaries of Crick, and he concludes that, though nothing can be stated as definitive, it is highly unlikely Crick would have taken LSD at the time he made the discovery. This is journalistic work of the highest standard, which is why Andy is held in such high regard, both by scientists and mystics.

Acid Drops is needed at this time. It is important that the resurgence of interest and research into psychedelics does not become defined solely by a reductionist, materialist, scientific approach, as important as that approach is to ground the experience in the language and understanding of the rational. The history and the cultural value of the experience is beyond that, in many ways it is beyond an ordered definition. It is by its nature resistant to order, the weirdness and radical nature of the characters and their experiences cannot be allowed to be categorised as separate and distant from our daily existence. It cannot be isolated from our present experience. Investigations into the nature of this substance and the messy, often discordant nature of humanity struggling against the strictures of an authoritarian society are often at odds with societal evolution. Disorder is as intrinsic to the creative human experience as order and we can only get a handle on the healthy societal use of these substances when we are able to bring the darkness of our unconscious mind to light and recognise also our shadows.

Much can be learned from Acid Drops and from Andy Robert’s approach, his meticulousness, clarity and courage in cataloguing all aspects of the psychedelic experience, both historical and anecdotal, including his own; his affection for the times, the places and the people involved, both the celebrated and the often nameless and derided, and his willingness to both accept the mythology as a necessary part of the journey, without getting too lost in the absoluteness that others have often claimed for such experiences. This is a vital addition to the growing body of psychedelic literature and stands as an anthropological and sociological testament to the resilience and genius of this compound and its effect on humanity. I would recommend it to anyone who wishes to educate themselves in the history, experience and use of this most fascinating of substances, and who may wish to join in the campaign to end the blight of prohibition, which has destroyed so many lives and which has only temporarily halted the inevitability of human progress and the understanding gained from its use.

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