I think a lot about music these days. Acquiring and screening new music is a very big hobby for me; I remember making a pledge to myself that I would never let my musical taste freeze and calcify the way my parents’ seemed to, and that means trying to be open to a wide range of sounds and styles. Lately that got me thinking about how much I owe that attitude and approach to the fact that my musical exploration seemed to coincide so directly with my psychedelic exploration when I was younger. And that got me thinking about some of my most memorable psychedelic experiences.
The first time I ever did LSD, I was halfway through the night and had absolutely zero understanding of what was happening to me. I locked myself in a darkened room, and someone started playing Peter Gabriel’s Security album at a very high volume. The first track on that album is a very intense number called “The Rhythm Of The Heat”, which builds to a fairly explosive climax over the course of almost seven minutes. I devolved into a primordial writhing goo as I listened to it. (Some would say I have not yet re-volved back into a normal person, but that’s really the least of my worries.) I was so insanely blown away by the song that I promptly started it over and continued working myself into an epistemological lather – for the first time in my life I actually questioned the nature of my personality. Fat lot of good it did me in the short term, but eventually that process caught up to me.
Throughout the early years of my psychedelic career, Peter Gabriel’s Passion album, the soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ, was a recurring, almost overwhelming presence. There was a long chunk of time where you couldn’t really make it through one of our drug parties without the telltale opening bars of “The Feeling Begins” eventually causing your hair to stand up on end. The album seemed almost directly aimed at the wide-open mind of the psychedelic voyager; we would zone in and out of the rich tapestry of the music and imagine ourselves careening across the fabric of human experience. Probably the most intense time I had listening to that album was when I had an opportunity to trip with some new theatre friends that I’d made. I put it on in the background without really mentioning anything to anyone about my expectations. By the high point of the album, an entire room of us was immersed, silently absorbed in the music; I hadn’t even realized how powerful the experience had become as the music progressed, only noticing as it started to end that I literally felt myself to be hovering near the ceiling.
My first exposure to The Orb and my first exposure to large quantities of nitrous oxide on top of large quantities of LSD happened all in the same night, on a trip to the southeast to visit friends. Someone put in The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld, a fairly mind-blowing slice of sonic wizardry to a yahoo from Iowa who’d grown up listening to classic rock. Every five minutes or so, I would ask myself, “What the hell is that sound?” only to realize that it was still the stereo, playing the same album. It seemed very much like impossible music, music made by aliens, or music that was conscious and piercing its way into this dimension from some strange reality where sound was governed by different rules. I remember asking to hear the album repeated as I sank into a two-hour relationship with a big green tank of gas and faded in and out of awareness of music, time or anything else. Years later, this early exposure to techno music would eventually lead to the pleasure of listening to Banco de Gaia’s Last Train to Lhasa album during my first AMT trip, and not realizing for almost half an hour that the first track had been skipping on the CD player, because, you know, techno music does that kind of stuff.
The first time I went to see the Grateful Dead, I had no conception whatsoever of what I was getting myself into. I was going for “the experience” as it had been described to me, not because I had any connection to the music itself. The scene seemed huge and overwhelming to my limited worldview, but I was a game little trooper in those days and I soldiered on at Soldier Field, hopped up on vastly more LSD than I had a right to be doing in public. Moving from the parking lot into the stadium and trying to find our seats seemed like a tremendously complicated algebra problem, where the penalty for failure was being arrested. It seemed like hours passed as I attempted to keep in step with my compadres, until finally we arrived in a massive clump as the opening band began to play. The opening band was Traffic, and when they launched into their classic hit “Gimme Some Lovin’” with its rousing refrain of “And I’m so glad we made it, yes I’m so glad we made it”, a river of relief swept through me as I finally relaxed and began to enjoy myself. I also have memories of the Dead eventually playing “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” that night and receiving a very enthusiastic response, but those memories are likely apocryphal.
Eventually I would learn that the right choice of music was absolutely pivotal for engineering a properly out-of-this-world ketamine experience. Armed with blindfolds and headsets, every person seemed to have a different approach to choosing music. I learned quickly that music with lyrics was often too overwhelming, although I did enjoy an absolutely insane concert performance by Tori Amos on a grand piano inside my head before I finally came to that conclusion. Eventually I settled on a one-two punch of the Russell Mills dark ambient album Pearl + Umbra, followed by the surreal but optimistic Ambient Collection by The Art of Noise, for my full-scale explorations of ketamine ontology. The sounds from those albums are burned into my brain; I can hear the first tone from any composition on those albums and immediately, if very briefly, find myself still lying on my back somewhere, joyously lost in the confusing morass of ketamine.
These days, such “archetypal” experiences of music are becoming less and less frequent for me, largely because a) my actual psychedelic experiences have also become less and less frequent, and b) the world of MP3 players and Internet radio has severed my connection to “albums”. Rock critics in dinosaur mags like Rolling Stone bemoan the loss of the album format, but to me, the most wonderful experiences I have with music and psychedelics these days are when I have a chance to trip and put on a huge archive of disparate styles of music on random, and just wait for the serendipitous moments when individual tracks seem to perfectly intersect with individual moments, as though the drug brought a DJ to the party.
One of my most powerful psychedelic experiences overall occurred years ago, after a day of fasting and a sweat lodge ceremony that was followed by a large bag of psilocybin mushrooms. As I sank back into my chair, behind my blindfold, an elder sitting across the bonfire from me played a slow simple heartbeat on a drum while we all came up. The drum was a soothing reminder of where we had come from, a simple, plaintive rhythm that helped anchor me as an overwhelming slew of sensations began to transform me. The drum was a tether, a safety line. I know a simple rhythm isn’t really in the same category as a full-fledged piece of music, but in those moments, the drum clearly had a voice, calling out to me, “You are here… you are here… you are here…”
And then, abruptly, the drumbeat stopped. The tether was snapped, and I spent the rest of the evening in a state of existential freefall. Of course, the rest of that story remains classified.
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