To make an attempt at condensing our reaction to and – pontifical as it may sound – the importance of Patrick Lundborg‘s masterful book, “Psychedelia: An Ancient Culture, A Modern Way of Life,” we can only say that there exists no other book quite like it.
Which may be as much of an understatement as saying The Beatles are pretty well-known. Yet both understatement and overstatement, like all things, exist in the eye of the beholder, and when these eyes beheld the words and scope of Lundborg’s massive, extraordinarily well-researched and highly entertaining testament to all things mind-manifesting, we knew instantly that it would be among our very favorite books of the past year, and also one which we will return to for many, many years to come.
And while “Psychedelia” is the second book of Lundborg’s to rest on our bookshelves – following 2006’s “The Acid Archives,” a collaborative effort overseen by Lundborg – we can’t overstate how much more panoramic in scope this book is. While “The Acid Archives” surely established Lundborg as a bona fide expert on all things musically tangerine tree-esque and marmalade sky-ish, “Psychedelia” is … well, again: it’s a book unlike any other. It spans the entire universe of psychedelic history, from the Eleusinian Mysteries to the Joshua Light Show, and back again, and far beyond that, too. And that it does so with an equal measure of academic integrity, grace and humor … to employ a phrase, “Psychedelia” is a trip.
We recommend no book to the readers of this ridiculous website more highly than Lundborg’s monumental achievement, and we would not feel more fortunate than to have him share his answers to our ridiculous questions below. Enjoy.
If you were forced to do so at gunpoint, which one album would you select as the definitive psychedelic album? What are the attributes of this album that makes it definitive, in your view? What was your own introduction to this album, and how have your thoughts about it evolved over time? Similarly, can you select one album that you would define as almost purely psychedelic that you feel is often or consistently overlooked, even among fans of psychedelic music? Why do you think that is?
1a.) This question is fairly easy for me to answer—it’s “Easter Everywhere” by the 13th Floor Elevators. On an analytical level it fulfills all the criteria one can set on a rock record: songwriting, arrangements, vocals, creativity, originality, artistic commitment, etc, is all there. By meeting these criteria one has already left 99% of the rock music behind, and moves among the truly classic stuff like the Beatles, Dylan, Neil Young, etc. On top of this are the lyrics by Tommy Hall, which are never less than great, and brilliant poetry in some cases (“Slip Inside This House”, “Dust”). They are more than lyrics however, but statements about a new lifestyle that the band promoted and which they lived themselves. If you put these things together there really isn’t much that can compete, except maybe Velvet Underground and Dylan … neither of which are psychedelic. On a non-analytical level, “Easter Everywhere” is an amazing, hypnotic experience that is surreal, yet somehow still grounded in profound human emotion that demands your attention. Roky’s vocals are a vital piece in this regard. While it deals with a utopian psychedelic way of living, it does not abandon the reality of our everyday lives, but rather shows both places at once, a double positive as I call it in the Psychedelia book… I think I discovered “Easter Everywhere” in 1985—I had bought “Psychedelic Sounds” the year before (a crappy stereo mix reissue) and sort of liked it, but people told me “Easter Everywhere” wasn’t as good (this was the sentiment among punk rock and 60s garage fans) so I didn’t check it out until 1-2 years later. Needless to say I was blown away. I immediately proclaimed it better than “Psychedelic Sounds”. Around 1989 I finally got to hear an original mono mix of “Psychedelic Sounds” and realized how great it actually is, and this was the time I became a hardcore Elevators fan.
1b.) I’ve done my share to turn people on to the great “Square Root Of Two” LP by Nightshadow, aka Little Phil & The Nightshadows, yet for some reason it is hardly ever mentioned. I think it’s better than 95% of the late ‘60s ‘psych’ albums floating around, and more than that, it is one of the very few album-length documents of the acid punk style of psychedelia, a special sub-genre otherwise extant mainly on 45. Side one of “Square Root” is pretty deadly, with fuzz guitar leads, snotty vocals, druggy sound effects, spaced out lyrics but most importantly also very good songwriting. People need to recognize this album as one of the big ones from garage/psych cross-over era, easy on level with something like the Bohemian Vendetta LP.
Your own book aside – and with the same gun pointed at your temple (sorry!) – can you select one book that you feel is definitively psychedelic, either in its content or construction? What are the attributes of this book that makes it so, in your view? What was your own introduction to this book, and how have your thoughts about it evolved over time? And can you select one book that you would define as almost purely psychedelic that you feel is often or consistently overlooked, even among fans of psychedelic literature? Why do you think that is?
Literature is not a very strong field for psychedelic creativity. I think it’s simply a case of the constrictions of language and grammar that interfere with the boundless type of creativity that is unleashed in the psychedelic state. I think poetry, great poetry, can be written in the state, but when it comes to prose texts and whole novels, these are the fruits of long and hard labor that correspond better to amphetamine type drugs, or no drugs at all. That said, it is of course entirely possible to generate ideas for short stories and novels in the psychedelic state, ideas which are then revisited in a baseline state of mind and turned into actual writing. I do believe a lot of modern science fiction has come about this way, although it’s usually easier to tell in the format of a feature movie rather than a printed book. Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow” is often cited as a psychedelic novel, but to be honest I didn’t really experience it like that when reading it. There was a lot of inventiveness and strange transitions, but it just seemed like experimental prose without any distinctive psychedelic fingerprints. I think some of Ray Bradbury’s short stories have a definite psychedelic quality in the way he deals with fantasy and strange ideation, and the relationship between the subject’s perception of the world and the “real” world. Ditto for Philip K Dick, whose psychedelic qualities I describe at some length in the Psychedelia book. Somewhat similarly, William Gibson show clear psychedelic inspiration in some of his stories, and there is no doubt that it’s authentic. Looking at the classic prose tradition, Hermann Hesse’s books are given favorites among psychedelicists, and it is very peculiar how they form a trajectory that seems to follow an acidhead’s development, from the despair and awakening in “Steppenwolf” through the mystic insights of “Siddhartha” and the bonding of psychedelic friends in “Journey To The East” and the ultimate formation of a utopian state of learning and imagination in “Glass Bead Game”. It’s all there. Of all the fiction works I’ve mentioned here, I think “Journey To The East” is one that psychedelicists may want to pick up, not least since it’s much lesser known than Hesse’s major novels. In total though, the most rewarding psychedelic books can be found in the fact section, rather than fiction—Huxley’s “Doors Of Perception”, Watts’ “Joyous Cosmology”, etc.
The amount of research, the breadth and depth of “Psychedelia,” is nothing short of staggering. Do you feel that, by some definition, you had been doing this research for years, unconsciously, and this book is the end result? Was there a single event that convinced you to engage in a more disciplined approach to your research, with the book as a goal? What information did you find most difficult to uncover, that you wish you could have incorporated more of into the book?
The way this began was that I was part of a psychedelic artist collective here in Stockholm called the Lumber Island Acid Crew (I named it—”Lumber Island” is a literal translation of Stockholm), which had formed in the late 1980s. It was primarily a music scene, but there were all kinds of artists and scenemakers. As a member of this group my natural activity would be writing, which I enjoyed and often received appreciative comments upon. I managed to get some of my psychedelic poetry published in Sweden’s largest literary magazine in the mid-90s, but ultimately I realized that poetry wasn’t the ideal channel for me, and public interest in contemporary poetry was shrinking fast anyway. I discussed my situation with a friend who was a successful author, and he suggested that I could try writing in English. So I began writing reviews and articles for various magazines, gradually developing English into my primary language for writing. The Acid Archives book I published in 2006 was a big success, and after that I felt that the time had come to do something with all the psychedelic information I had gathered over the years via newspaper clippings, notes, rare books, trip reports and so on. The problem was that I couldn’t find the proper angle on the material, and I knew that I needed to find a perspective that was both new and strong enough to carry a book. So I kept doing my music writing, publishing the second edition of Acid Archives (2010) which again did very well, and waiting for the last piece of my psychedelic writing puzzle to appear. And finally the angle for my next book did present itself, back in 2010, a process which I describe in the foreword to the Psychedelia book.
When re-reading some texts on modern philosophy I realized that the question of a true psychedelic culture had never been properly studied or even identified, and that became my mission with the book—approaching psychedelia as its own culture and way of life. This new perspective helped me discern patterns, both ancient and contemporary, that hadn’t been dealt with before, and it also encouraged me to re-examine the modern history of psychedelics, which began with peyote experiments in the 1890s and grew massively important after Albert Hofmann discovered LSD. Writing the Psychedelia book took about 2 years of intense work, but I had actually prepared myself for it for 20 years or more. As to what was most difficult to research, I think the chapter on Communes and modern spiritual churches would have been much weaker if I hadn’t been fortunate to connect with a fellow Swede who specialized in the topic of modern communal living, and in fact lived at a self-contained rural farm himself. He’s quoted and credited repeatedly in that chapter, and I think there is a lot of info in there that has never appeared in a printed book before. He observed that no one had written about the commune phenomenon from a psychedelic perspective before, and found it an interesting angle. That chapter turned out very well, but beforehand it was the one where I had the least knowledge myself.
The chapter in “Psychedelia” that compares and contrasts the psychedelic experience to Eastern religions – or perhaps more specifically, the modern West’s relationship and interpretation of Eastern religions – was an absolute mind-blower, and perhaps begs to spun off into a book-length narrative of its own. Can you tell us a bit more about your own experience with Eastern religion and how that experience has evolved over the years? Is it attributed to the somewhat ham-fisted early efforts of Leary, Metzner and Alpert to tie the psychedelic experience – or maybe more accurately, their psychedelic experience – to “The Tibetan Book of the Dead”? What is it about the book that makes it so cringe-inducing to you today, and did you always feel that way about it?
This is a vital topic, and I’m happy to hear that you enjoyed that chapter. The field is still today surrounded by a lot of myths and self-deception, which is probably inevitable when you deal with something as fundamental as people’s spiritual beliefs. I wouldn’t have been able to write it in such a straightforward tone unless I had had some experience with the Eastern schools myself, and this is something I’ve built up over a long period of time. Initially I was interested in Hinduism as I found their idea about the ultimate metaphysics—the joining of the human ‘atman’ soul with the universal ‘brahman’ soul—to correspond well to my own ideas. But with time I gravitated towards Buddhism, which of course rejects the Hindu metaphysics and states that there is no human soul, only the deluded idea of one. This no-soul rejection, ‘an-atman’, is in fact a fundamental idea within the philosophical side of Buddhism. Parallel to these spiritual studies I had taken up meditation in the classic styles of single-point concentration and witness-‘watching’ one’s mindstream. I was not a diligent meditator, but went through periods when I did it every day, and the rewards were obvious. Due to my psychedelic inclinations I would at times have these visionary experiences when meditating, which kind of goes against the idea of a purified mind, but I was never that religious (ha-ha) about following a strict path. While I left the Christian Protestant Church long ago, I have never done a formal conversion to another religion, as I prefer to keep the doors open. What I observed, as mentioned in the book, is that the supposed overlap or similarity between visionary psychedelic experiences and the spiritual development from following a formal Eastern school of meditation and insight, didn’t really exist. It bothered me somewhat, since so many people (particularly in the late ‘60s and ‘70s) had talked about how they didn’t need to get high on drugs anymore, they replaced it with meditation practice and various yogas, etc. This didn’t ring true to me—I didn’t find the Eastern methods to replace or surpass the psychedelic experiences at all. In fact, I found them so different that I didn’t understand why they were compared in the first place.
I came across a lecture by Terence McKenna where he expressed much the same thing and basically dismissed the idea that the traditional Eastern schools offered any competition for the experience of psilocybin or DMT. His idea was that people in the 70s were simply burnt out and fled from the psychedelic realm into anything that was less demanding and less unprecedented. I think he was basically right, but want to add that Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism are paths that offer enormous rewards for those who follow them diligently and are able to progess higher with the help of a teacher or guru. What is wrong is this bizarre idea that it’s an “either or”, because there is so little resemblance between the psychedelic innerspace and the meditative realm. As for myself, in recent years I have deepened my practice to include Tibetan tantrics, which are special tools and techniques to push you closer to liberation without all the rebirths and begging for alms and so on. These tantric methods are typically secret and not revealed for the student until after several years, but Western-oriented lamas have begun to share some of the methods, which include very detailed instructions on combinations of breathing, visualizations, and mantra. One tantra I tried was so powerful that I had to put the whole thing on ice, because I could see that the stability of my ego and personality would loosen up so much that it might freak out my two young sons and the rest of the family! So, much like high-dose psychedelics, this will be picked up later on, when I have better opportunity to explore higher states.
Regarding The Psychedelic Experience book, the whole thing is built on an almost random assumption that the LSD trip somehow corresponds to a certain ritual for dying people within Tibetan Buddhism. I’m sure they felt strongly about the similarity at the time, but it didn’t take many years for Leary & co to abandon the idea—already in 1966 they were trying out other ‘metaphors’ for the psychedelic trip. To understand how absurd the supposed connection is, try following the instructions and read the book to a friend who is on a psychedelic trip. He or she will probably crack up, or maybe get annoyed. The Tibetan death ritual is a metaphor, but not for the ego-loss of a psychedelic trip—it is used (in addition to actual deathbed situations, of course) for very advanced students who go through a ‘dark cave’ retreat, which is what it sounds like. After some weeks in complete darkness, an experience parallel to that of dying is to come over the student, who will then go through the stages of the Book of the Dead, and following its instructions arrange a rewarding rebirth for himself or herself. The psychedelic trip can, at higher doses, trigger a death-rebirth experience, but it’s far from a mandatory event, and there are other ways to go through ego-loss than entering something close to dying. So, in short, it was simply a poorly chosen metaphor for a psychedelic peak experience. As I point out in the book, the error runs even deeper, as it’s the whole idea of looking for a metaphor for the events in psychedelic Innerspace that is wrong from the start. It is an experience in and of itself, it does not need metaphors, but needs to be studied with a phenomenological approach, so that we can finally begin to understand what does on in the higher realms of the trip.
Don’t you wish there was an alternate universe where The Third Bardo recorded a handful of really, really extraordinary albums?
That sounds like one of those rhetorical questions you hear about!
One of our favorite books of the recent past is Peter Bebergal’s memoir, “Too Much To Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood,” and when we had the good fortune to interview Mr. Bebergal ourselves, he had this to say:
“I think we often ask too much of these chemicals. I know people who use these drugs regularly and while they have profound experiences, not much happens, except that they have these profound experiences over and over again. They are after some perfect awareness that will set them free, but I’m not sure that exists. For myself, any lasting spiritual experience is going to come from the long haul. Psychedelics might reveal the path, but for me they could never get me to the top of mountain.”
That is sort of the standard view that came out as a result of the second wave of modern psychedelia, meaning the counterculture wave with all those acidhead hippies. I could agree with this in the sense that the psychedelic drugs will not bring you to some sort of lasting state of religious revelation like that of a saint. But at the same time, the whole perspective is wrong, as it is based on the idea that the purpose of taking psychedelic drugs is to attain nirvana or satori or whatever perfect end-state you imagine.
As we covered in an earlier question, and I make clear in my book, it is a largely meaningless conflation of two different schools; one which is the Eastern religious path, and one which is the path of psychedelic drugs. What people need to do is to forget that whole idea and stop confusing these two paths. Nirvana is the specific end-state of a specific spiritual advancement that has been developed within a certain culture, a culture moreover which does not seem to have dealt much with psychedelic drugs. People who take psychedelic drugs need to imagine quests and states within their spiritual path that are specific to the psychedelic experience, and stop meddling with buddhism and hinduism as though there was some shortcut between the two. There isn’t. You can save yourself some time on the Eastern path by taking psychedelic drugs, but after that your work towards Nirvana will have to be done within the realm of Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana, as the psychedelics drop off from the buddhist path at a fairly early stage and set course for their own goals, which are full of colours and visions and very strange experiences. So, in short, the kind of “conclusions” that a lot of baby-boomers reached concerning their psychedelic trips were merely the natural outcome of an incorrectly defined path. What is needed now and for the future is a Western Shamanism that draws on the spiritual wisdom of several schools to develop techniques, paths and end-states that are unique to the psychedelic compounds.
Despite having been perhaps overly fascinated by his lectures for some time, we had never heard of the Alan Watts album, “This Is It,” until reading your excellent article about the album some years ago. How did you first become introduced to this album? Have you ever been able to substantiate that the album was, in fact, recorded on LSD? Which band should release a cover of “The Onion Chant”?
Like so many other underground albums from the 1960s-70s that have become famous in recent years, I first learned of the Alan Watts LP through a small group of collectors of rare psychedelic records that had been digging up obscurities since the late ‘70s. I remember first hearing about it in the legendary Paul Major’s mailorder list, where he had another Alan Watts LP and commented that it “wasn’t the mindblower that ‘This Is It’ is…”. And so obviously I became interested in “This Is It” from that. This was all back in the 1990s when the LP was unknown to exist among most, it wasn’t even included in Watts’ bibliography. A friend of mine located a copy of the LP, which sold for $500+, and after hearing it via him I felt that it was a necessary item for my psychedelic record collection. A little later I came across a copy which I bought. In the early 2000s I launched a website about the album and published an article in a music magazine, calling it “the first psychedelic LP”, and over time people have come to accept this view. Today it’s become fairly well-known through such publicity, recently reissued and clearly recognized as an important piece, but more significant is that people enjoy listening to it, crazy freakout that it is. I don’t think anyone ever asked Watts if the LP was recorded on acid, but everything points to this being the case, so the burden of proof is on anyone who wants to deny it. I have more to say about this and the LP in the Psychedelia book. The bottom line is that “This Is It” stands shoulder to shoulder with Eden Ahbez’ “Eden’s Island” and together they form a terrific prototypical foundation for the psychedelic recordings of the acid rock era. Between Watts and Ahbez you have covered almost every aspect of the psychedelic explosion, and this already in 1960-62.
What music have you been listening to lately? If push comes to shove, what is the best album to have emerged out of “The Lumber Island Acid Crew”? What is it about this album that makes it a stand-out in your mind? Please show your work.
I listen to all kinds of music all the time, but I do go through these phases where there is a certain theme or orientation. I guess 2013 has been a lot about finding the right kind of hippie music—music that embraces the positive, free-spirited, independent drive of the hippies, but at the same time does not degenerate into empty-headed flower-power clichés or naïve, childlike sentiments. It’s sort of what the San Francisco scene was originally about, before media distorted the image with all the silly “flower children” nonsense. The real, original hippies were like the Diggers – adults who had been around a bit and whose estrangement from society was both mature, serious and intelligent. You can find some of this in the big SF ballroom band’s music, but it’s not so easy to find 2nd and 3rd tier bands that have the mature westcoast style on record. Bob Smith’s LP is an example, also Spirit’s best albums, and Kak. Stalk-Forrest Group is another one. In England you had Mighty Baby. So this is something I’m interested in right now, and well-known groups are as welcome as obscure ones. I’ve also been listening to ‘70s punk rock quite a bit!
The best album from the Lumber Island Acid Crew is an easy pick for me: it’s the Entheogens’ “Gnostic Mass.” Not only does it feature great acid jams with almost all the people from the Crew involved, but it continues a classic Nordic tradition of droning semi-acoustic psychedelia, from early 1970s bands like Handgjort, Furekaaben and Trad Gras & Stenar. To me, everything that our psychedelic Stockholm scene was about at its peak around 1990, can be found on the Entheogens LP. Too bad it’s so rare, but there may be a reissue.
Huston Smith said the following in a 1995 interview:
“One the dangers of our time is that we are inundated with information. We’re aware of a lot more things but it also has a danger. The danger I think comes out clearly in T.S. Elliot’s couplet where he wrote, ‘Where is the knowledge that is lost in information, where is the wisdom that is lost in knowledge?’ We’re in danger of being swamped, deluged by information, but how does it fit together? Synthesis, that’s the question. Rebecca West was asked, ‘What do you sense as the dominant mood of our time?’ She became reflective for a moment and then answered, ‘A desperate search for a pattern.’ That search is still in place because the fragmentation and the deluge of information and the sound bites get shorter and shorter until it becomes a kind of chaos. So the need for synthesis, or a pattern, in Rebecca West’s words, is the dominant issue of our time.”
Well, we lost the pattern of the state founded upon religion, and we’ve lost the pattern of the good state serving the needs of the people, and we’ve lost the pattern of man’s innate stability and natural drive to do good … so I would agree that patterns, structures, anything that is both steady and supportive, is sorely lacking. Each generation responds to this modern vacuum its own way, although an exaggerated reliance upon romantic love and sexual fulfillment seems to be a recurring theme over the past 50 years. I can’t comment much about those younger and older than me, but for us ‘Generation X’ children, the solution has been a fundamental skepticism that is expressed along a sliding axis between cynicism and irony. Actual beliefs have often been directed towards things untouched by older generations, such as pop and underground culture phenomena, which are examined for undiscovered values, enjoyed, analyzed, contextualized, turned into art, and so on. It is a fruitful enterprise in the sense that something novel is achieved and a vast gallery of artefacts is available to discuss, but of course there is no fundamental pattern in this quest that can offer any deeper sense of satisfaction. The other alternative, which is shared with the so-called Silent Generation that preceded the Baby Boomers, is to turn one’s profession into the axis around which one’s entire life spins. This is very common, but hardly a working solution, unless one is among the lucky few who can find an occupation that meets all of one’s creative desires while still offering a paying career. As for myself, I do believe that the path opened by the psychedelic drugs opens up doors towards a lifestyle whose structural nodes are steady enough to carry a person through one’s entire life. The problem is that this pattern is not yet in place, because the psychedelic researchers of the past have spent their time on everything except the issue of how a psychedelic lifestyle might look. In my book Psychedelia I take steps towards defining this, but this must be a broad, consensual development that is tried and tested around the Western world. The psychedelic experience will provide spiritual and intellectual rewards that supports the everyday life, and the energy released can be directed towards finding ways to put bread on the table without suffering the boredom of a 9-to-6 job. It can be done, but no one said it was going to be easy!
What’s next for Patrick Lundborg?
Writing and more writing. I took stock of all outstanding assignments I have, and it was 7-8 projects that are to be completed before year-end 2013. It’s mostly essays, liner notes and short pieces. For major undertakings I have plans for two future books, one which will deal with anti-drug propaganda on record and in print. I have what I believe to be the world’s largest collection of anti-drug LPs, and the topic seems perfect for a coffee table type book, with plenty of images and an essay or two. The other book project is a kind of trip journal, where I offer my contributions to the mapping out of psychedelic Innerspace in the form of analyzed trip reports, commented paintings of drug visions, trip poetry and also a couple of essays that discuss the subject. In the Psychedelia book I urge people to contribute to our discovery and mapping out of the space where our consciousness goes on psychedelic drugs, and this planned book would be one of my contributions. Many people believe that Innerspace is wholly subjective, but our experiences with psychedelics, the tryptamine drugs (mushrooms, ayahuasca) in particular, clearly indicate that the experience not only follows a recognizable trajectory, but that a solid chunk of the visionary content is, in fact, also recognizable and recurring. While neuroscientists work on solving the mystery of consciousness via their hi tech tools, psychedelicists should work from the other side through phenomenological study of psychedelic states so that ultimately, in 50-100 years, the two parties can meet at some halfway point.
Patrick Lundborg’s “Psychedelia: An Ancient Culture, A Modern Way of Life” is available from many fine sources. You can spend hours exploring the multiverse Patrick presents on his essential and robust home on the Web, Lysergia.