What Isn’t Psychedelic (and Contemplations on the Nature of What IS)?
One long drawn out note from a cello echoed from the Veteran’s Hall in Marfa, TX.
“This is bullshit,” I said to Beth, my girlfriend. I had reached my tolerance for drone earlier at the Suzanne Ciani concert. Our Chihuahua opened her mouth to harmonize.
“I’m putting Cricket in the car,” Beth said, hand over her snout. “We have to go in there, this is really good.”
We were both tripping on a half a hit of LSD. The sound was utterly unknown to me and that’s probably why I met it with total resistance. Curious now, I followed it into the hall and took a seat on the soft wood floor.
Kelsey Lu was standing in the center of the room with her cello, barefoot, her tall white platform boots set to the side. We only saw her from the back. Her torso was impossibly still as she played. A trail of incense smoke rose from her microphone where a single tropical plant leaf was attached.
“I’d be lying if I said I was ok, but I’m not,” she sang.
It was a church song, a lament suffused with accessible hope. I was slayed. The architecture of the song filled the room and lifted every single person up to a higher plane. It was intricate, deliberate and impossibly beautiful. It was so trippy, that when her set was over, I immediately googled “Kelsey Lu psychedelics” and sure enough, an interview with Pitchfork came up where she explained there are bite marks on the top of her cello from when she was tripping on acid and trying to eat it.
When something is psychedelic as f–k, it’s a moment that helps define the vague notion of what exactly the psychedelic, IS.
With music, it’s often about a spacial quality. Brian Eno, Laraaji, Onyx Ashanti and Tara Jane O’Neil, whose cover of “Believe,” can be seen in Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Room,” all accomplish the psychedelic task of creating novel interdimensional spaces, as visual as they are made of sound. Blackwater Holylight, a genre-defying metal band, does the same by lifting Portland stoner rock to a higher psilocybin mushroom realm. Vocals that meet the ear like whispers on the wind, intricate chord progressions, keyboard riffs that invoke the Beach Boys and Pat Benatar, disorient and make a new landscape, all for Laura Hopkins’ lead guitar to grab you by the scruff of the neck and slam you into her idea of a righteous psychedelic journey.
The psychedelic is marked by zones of restraint carefully positioned to disturb the real; the shocking softness of Jerry Garcia’s lilting guitar for instance, or the pared down punk of The Velvet Underground. Listening to music on psychedelics, silence is on equal footing with sound. Excessive affectation gets easily busted for its waste of space.
The first time I did LSD, I remarked that it was “nothing like the font.” The aesthetics of the psychedelic are always in flux. The cartoon, however, remains explicitly psychedelic, though the bulbous 3-d line from the 60’s has given way to the stark 2-dimensional, as in the art of Mike Perry and Pendleton Ward’s animation in Midnight Gospel. Meaning is generated on a plane of limited options, implying a terrifying collapse of the real. Psychedelic cartoons are happy and violent. Whoever has tried to get some sleep on the ninth hour of an LSD trip has been treated to such behind the eye-lid Looney Tunes. Color palette tells a different story, apart from the theme. The psychedelic is about something-else-altogether-going-on from what seems to be intended by the host. Star Wars is not psychedelic, but Star Trek is, because of the surfaces, the colors and the stiff, creepy space-vibe.
Aldous Huxley writes about his experiences with mescaline in Doors of Perception, an essay which also functions as a treatise on art in antiquity. While tripping, he lands on “Judith,” a painting by Botticelli.
“My attention was arrested and I gazed in fascination, not at the pale neurotic heroine or her attendant, not at the victim’s hairy head or the vernal landscape in the background, but at the purplish silk of Judith’s pleated bodice and long windblown skirts.”
Textiles. Huxley was blown away by the representation of textiles in art. Surfaces were where it was at. How had he been so blind? After being bothered by Cezanne, for relief, he looks at the folds in his trousers.
“These are the things one ought to look at.” Things without pretensions, satisfied to be merely themselves, sufficient in their Suchness, not acting a part, not trying, insanely, to go it alone, in isolation from the Dharma-body, in Luciferian defiance of the grace of god.”
Poetry is the textile of the written word; the most trippy form of language. It’s not surprising that a poet’s memoir about a dog, Afterglow, by Eileen Myles, is one of the most psychedelic books I’ve ever read. Whether Myles has been influenced by actual experience with psychedelic drugs, I don’t know. A famously now-sober writer, photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe and given nods to their persona in the TV show Transparent and the movie Grandma, Myles in Afterglow views the world from the vantage point of what I’ve come to recognize as mushroom-mind. Alcohol is described as having a quality of “thickness,” dogs are possessed by ancestors, and like Huxley in Doors of Perception, Myles veers into art criticism and lands upon a central metaphor of FOAM, which, “behind the apparently random appearance hides a strict geometry found in natural systems such as crystals, cells and molecular structures.” FOAM has much to say about queerness, art and how the universe works, as does their dog Rosie. That a small thing holds within it the entirety of the cosmos is a concept belonging to Jorge Louis Borges and The Aleph, and is also a stalwart loop in psychedelic realms.
The psychedelic also exists in instances of mysterious vacancy. Keanu Reeves is psychedelic, Ethan Hawke is not. Laura Dern is psychedelic, Drew Barrymore is not. Taylor Swift is psychedelic, Lady Gaga is definitely not, because “spectacle” is not psychedelic, hence Rihanna is psychedelic and Beyonce’ is not, not just because of what vogue-ing culture has named “realness,” not just because of “Diamonds,” which is a medicine song, but because instead of a giant marching band, Rihanna’s Anti-Tour closed with a ten-foot wall of FOAM. FOAM is not spectacle – it’s a happening. FOAM is never not psychedelic.
In the culture of Instagram influencers, those who borrow from the psychedelic, wearing desert music festival fashion, who use triangles over landscapes in their graphics, are usually not psychedelic. “This is more of a Kombucha, Adderall and Lexapro crowd,” I said to my girlfriend when we accidentally found ourselves at a hipster wedding photographer festival. If I come off a tad elitist, it might be because the psychedelic IS elitist, but not in a capitalist way having to do with hierarchies of structural power. The psychedelic is a codified form of meaning in which people can locate each other based on rarified ideals, not shared by everyone, and impossible to articulate through ordinary language. Like being an artist, the psychedelic is a thing earned and paid for, often with toil and sacrifice and no small risk to one’s civic standing within the community.
Poet Ariana Reines’ award winning, A Sand Book, takes its title as a reference to Jorge Louise Borges,’ The Book of Sand. Named by Michael Silverblatt as “a crucial voice of her generation,” Reines has done during the pandemic what the psychedelic does best – create a whole new form. Using Zoom and Instagram, she gathers with others from the new moon to the full, to read poetic texts and have conversations. “Rilking,” “Inanna Days of Sumer,” and “The Joe Brainard Brain Trust” are all titles in the series.
“Language is a living being,” she says. “I’m interested in alchemy, and in bringing a hermetics into this project, a kind of quantum or psychedelic approach to the rudiments of intellection itself. I’m interested in the old arts of memory before the technology of writing was the primary mode through which meaning was transmitted. Most of those ancient texts that we still get a lot of our identity from even though we don’t know it, they were passed down orally. And it’s very interesting to think about the edifices of the mind through which people have transmitted these medicines, and they are medicines, from body to body, and world to world.”
These “classes” have become a mystery school. Participants share their own work, details from their daily life, a dream archive is kept. Coming from very different disciplines, they connect in ways that resemble a mycelial network, lighting up at the intersections generated by the living being of poetry.
What exactly IS the psychedelic, is not a question that can be answered by books on substances or by speakers at conferences. To ask the question one must turn ones’ sensitivities outward to the world in its entirety, in all its mystery, in order to invent new language and forms that speak to the way we see things, hear things, feel things.
“There is no psychedelic without culture,” says Kathleen Harrison, botanist and former wife of Terence McKenna. It’s through culture that the story of our collective psychedelic exploration is reflected back to us. May we continue the journey from where those that went before us, left off.