Showing posts with label LSD-25. Show all posts
Showing posts with label LSD-25. Show all posts

Friday, July 18, 2008

Psychodramas and Traumas

The decades-old debate over the meaning of The Association’s first big hit, “Along Comes Mary,” is due to the basic slipperiness of its lyrics. Who, or what, is “Mary”? A standard interpretation is that “Mary” is short for “Mary Jane,” a coded reference to marijuana. If so, there’s nothing regarding that particular drug, lyrically speaking, that makes it the least bit desirable or attractive (“does she want to see the stains the dead remains of all the pains/She left the night before”). Indeed, if Mary were a female character in a movie, she’d be a femme fatale. I reproduce below what I believe to be the accurate set of lyrics:

Every time I think that I’m the only one who’s lonely
Someone calls on me
nd every now and then I spend my time in rhyme and verse
And curse those faults in me

And then along comes Mary
And does she want to give me kicks and be my steady chick
And give me pick of memories
Or maybe rather gather tales of all the trials and tribulations
No one ever sees

When we met I was sure out to lunch
Now my empty cup tastes as sweet as the punch

When vague desire is the fire in the eyes of chicks
Whose sickness is the games they play
And when the masquerade is played and neighbor folks make jokes
As who is most to blame today

And then along comes Mary
And does she want to set them free and let them see reality
From where she got her name
And will they struggle much when told that such a tender touch as hers
Will make them not the same

When we met I was sure out to lunch
Now my empty cup tastes as sweet as the punch

And when the morning of the warning’s passed, the gassed
And flaccid kids are flung across the stars
The psychodramas and the traumas gone
The songs are left unsung and hung upon the scars

And then along comes Mary
And does she want to see the stains the dead remains of all the pains
She left the night before
Or will their waking eyes reflect the lies and make them
Realize their urgent cry for sight no more

When we met I was sure out to lunch
Now my empty cup tastes as sweet as the punch

While “Along Comes Mary” is more redolent of meaning than it is explicitly meaningful, I think the proper noun “Mary” functions as an empty signifier, a placeholder in the phrase, “And then along comes ________, meaning the next “craze,” the next fad, the next “Big Thing"--the latest way to get your "kicks." As a signifier, it substitutes for any popular social or cultural practice that promises individuals a transcendent experience (“And does she want to set them free and let them see reality/ From where she got her name”), but one that is ultimately empty and without value ("Will their waking eyes reflect the lies and make them/Realize their urgent cry for sight no more"). In this sense, “Mary” may not be necessarily short for “Mary Jane” (although perhaps intended to invoke it), but might represent the drug culture’s endorsement of LSD as the preferred drug of choice: “sweet as the punch” is perhaps an oblique reference to LSD-laced sugar cubes or Kool-Aid. “My empty cup tastes as sweet as the punch” strikes me as another way of saying, “I’ve got plenty of nothing" (if the line said, "My cup tastes as sweet as the punch" it would mean something else entirely. The fact that the cup is empty makes all the difference.) The irony is that the song is often perceived as advocating drug use (at least marijuana use), but in fact it would seem to be doing just the opposite, a song that was reactionary in nature, one that, at the time, would now be called an “anti-drug” song. “And does she want to set them free and let them see reality/ From where she got her name”: one wonders whether there might be a subtle joke embedded in this lyric. Is "her name" . . . dope?

Thanks to fred for his welcome correction to my original set of lyrics (see comment).

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Albert Hofmann, 1906-2008

Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who devised the technique to make derivatives of lysergic acid and who eventually synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), has died of heart failure at the ripe old age of 102.

Hofmann was a chemist at the Sandoz Laboratories in Basel, Switzerland, when in the late 1930s he turned to the study of ergot, the name for a fungus that grows on rye, barley and certain other plants. Studying the active ingredient of ergot, a chemical identified by American researchers in the 1930s as lysergic acid, Hofmann invented a method to synthesize a series of compounds of that substance. The 25th one he synthesized was lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD-25. As is well known, he subsequently, in 1943, became the first person to take an acid trip. LSD-25, Hofmann’s so-called “problem child” as he referred to his creation in his autobiography, subsequently influenced an entire generation, and had a profound influence on the lives of individuals such as Timothy Leary.

Thus Albert Hofmann can be understood as an author, although not necessarily an author of the novelistic sort (he did, though, author numerous scientific articles). In calling Albert Hofmann an author, I have in mind Michel Foucault’s essay, “What Is an Author?,” and his discussion of an uncommon but profound kind of author that Foucault named a “founder of discursivity.” About such authors, Foucault wrote:

They are unique in that they are not just the authors of their own works. They have produced something else: the possibilities and the rules for the formation of other texts. In this sense, they are very different, for example, from a novelist.... Freud is not just the author of The Interpretation of Dreams or Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious; Marx is not just the author of the Communist Manifesto or Capital: they both have established an endless possibility of discourse.... the initiation of a discursive practice is heterogeneous to its subsequent transformations. To expand a type of discursivity, such as psychoanalysis as founded by Freud, is not to give it a formal generality that it would not have permitted at the outset, but rather to open it up to a certain number of possible applications. (See Josue V. Harari, Textual Strategies, Cornell University Press, 1979, p. 154-56.)

Albert Hofmann was an author of the sort Foucault outlines here: he enabled and initiated the creation of many other texts, in film, literature, art, and perhaps most especially, in music--particularly the form of music that developed in the 1960s, psychedelia. Hence Albert Hofmann can be understood as one of the more significant and influential authors of the twentieth century, and perhaps should be remembered as such.

A compelling obituary can be found here.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Friday, January 1, 1960

To fathom hell or soar angelic
Just take a pinch of psychedelic.

--Dr. Humphry Osmond, in a 1957 letter to Aldous Huxley (quoted in Acid Dreams, by Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain, Grove Weidenfeld, 1985, p. 55)

According to John Tobler's book, This Day In Rock (Carroll & Graf, 1993, p. 6), Johnny Cash gave the first of his many free concerts at Folsom State Prison, Folsom, California, on January 1, 1960. He continued to give these free concerts there and elsewhere (San Quentin, for instance) in the years after; eventually these concerts would be recorded and become the basis of hit albums in the late 1960s. At five years, six months, and a few days old on New Year's Day, 1960 (I was most likely tucked into bed long before midnight on New Year's Eve, unless we'd gone to my paternal grandparents, who lived about two blocks away, to celebrate) I'd heard neither of the singer nor the prison--at least that I can remember. By this date, Cash had, a few years earlier, had a hit record with "Folsom Prison Blues" (recorded 1955, released as Sun 232 early in January 1956), but the song was inspired not by his experience or knowledge of the actual Folsom State Prison, but instead by the Hollywood movie Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison (1951), which, according to most accounts, Cash had seen while stationed in Germany in 1953 as a member of the U. S. Air Force. Art had inspired art.

In 1973, slightly over an unlucky 13 years later, Dr. Timothy Leary, one of the primary advocates of psychedelic drugs and a figure forever associated with the tumultuous 1960s, would be imprisoned at Folsom State Prison and became one of its most infamous inmates, certainly as infamous as another inmate also incarcerated there at the same time, and a figure also indelibly associated with the 1960s, Charles Manson. So, as it turns out, on the first day of the year 1960, Folsom State Prison was poised to become a potent signifier in the decade of the 1960s, a decade that, considered in this light, was not so much about "peace, love, and freedom" but about drugs, violence, and imprisonment, all of which find their emblems in Johnny Cash (whose drug problems have been well-documented), Folsom Prison, Timothy Leary, and LSD-25 (declared illegal in 1966). Moreover, as Lee and Schlain observe in Acid Dreams, LSD itself is duplicitous, as it has been used "both as a weapon and a sacrament, a mind control drug and a mind-expanding chemical" (Acid Dreams, p. xxi).

The year 2008 represents the 70th anniversary of the discovery, by Dr. Albert Hofmann, of lysergic acid diethylmide, popularly known as LSD-25, a drug which would influence--and change--so many lives in the second half of the twentieth century, including, especially, Dr. Timothy Leary, whose life took a big swerve after being introduced to LSD around 1960. Dr. Hofmann discovered the drug while working at Sandoz Pharmaceuticals in Basel, Switzerland, in 1938. His 1938 discovery was shelved at the time, but retrieved by Hofmann five years later, and in April 1943, he ingested a dose of the drug and experienced an hallucinogenic experience, later immortalized in "psychedelic rock" (or rock music which used electronics to aurally simulate an hallucinogenic experience) in psychedelia such as the British band Tomorrow's "My White Bicycle."

By January 1, 1960, however, drug researcher Dr. Humphry Osmond (pictured above) in a 1957 letter to Aldous Huxley, had already coined the term "psychedelic" to describe the effects of hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD-25, a neologism suggesting "mind manifesting." (See the epigraph to this blog entry.) It was under Dr. Osmond's supervision that Aldous Huxley first ingested mescalin, on 4 May 1953, at Huxley's home in Hollywood (around the time Johnny Cash saw Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison?) I hadn't even been conceived at the time Huxley took mescalin, although I had been by the time Huxley published The Doors of Perception, early in 1954, philosophic speculations prompted by his drug-taking experiments. I suppose I'm attracted to these dates in part because my birth, in late June 1954, occurred about four months after Huxley had published The Doors of Perception and about two weeks before Elvis Presley, while at Sun Records, recorded "That's All Right (Mama)." A little over a year later, Johnny Cash would record "Folsom Prison Blues."

What, then, was the link between drugs (and, especially, halluncinogenic drugs) and rock music? How and why did these two independent developments converge in the 1960s?Certainly drugs had been a part of the jazz scene for decades (Charlie Parker's addiction has been well-documented, and Louis Armstrong was a life-long smoker of marijuana), and perhaps became part of the rock scene through the interaction of jazz and (what would become) rock musicians. But rock musicians would seem to have been drawn to hallucinogenics, perhaps because they were perceived as more contemporary and perhaps because they were associated with the philosophic speculations of authors such as Aldous Huxley. Moreover, drugs such as mescalin (and therefore hallucinogenics in general) were associated, rightly or wrongly, with Native American ritualistic practices, and hence perceived as more "authentic" (in the Modernist mind associated with the "primitive") as opposed to the inauthentic, civilized (industrialized) world.

Serendipitously, the two movements converged in 1960, in the form of The Gamblers' 45 rpm single issued that year, "Moon Dawg," which contained, on the flip side, the instrumental "LSD-25."