I worked at a big concert venue for a couple of years in the early ’90s, way back when I was first coming on to my vocation as a tripsitter. I was a Peachy Puff, which means I wore a tiny spangled outfit and carried a heavy box around my neck, slinging melted two- dollar candy bars by day and light-up toys at night.
I was a veritable tripper magnet. Just by virtue of glowing in the dark I became a beacon for the easily amused, and for the lost.
“Hi!” the addled apparition before me would begin, perhaps in greeting, or possibly in an awkward attempt to communicate his current state of being. “My name is Jimmy. I’m sixteen and I just took a few tabs of acid a little while ago and now things are starting to get a bit strange around the edges. Can I just stand by you for a little while?”
Sure you can, Jimmy. Sure you can.
Most nights I ended up with a little flock of lost lambs following me around. The other girls all seemed to regard them as a nuisance. I had only recently discovered the awesome and unpredictable power of psychedelics in my own life, so, for me, taking care of them was a sacred mercy mission.
Of course there were thousands of trippers at shows like the Grateful Dead (this was still in the Jerry days), but in any other concert crowd of 20,000 there were also always a few. Punk shows, country music festivals, rap, and even Christian rock concerts all seemed to inspire their share of intrepid souls; and the Teafaerie was always there to walk them to the bathroom, help them find their people, and listen to whatever they needed to say.
I started peachy-puffing around 1993, and while the internet was up and running then, it was not yet on the radar of the likes of me; as far as I knew, nobody had ever done any serious psychedelic research on a massive scale. I eventually printed up little questionnaires and started giving out lightsticks or candy to anyone willing and able to answer a few deceptively simple questions. I also took to carrying a micro-recorder around to collect live testimony.
I asked people what substances they were on and what sorts of effects they were experiencing. Regular Erowid readers will not be astonished by my discoveries. At the time, though, I thought I was breaking new ground. I was blown away by the results of my informal surveys. I started keeping tallies and drawing up little charts. The variation was striking, and, as far as I was concerned, the similarities were even more so.
About thirty percent of respondents said that they had, at some point, experienced something that met their personal definition of telepathy. Interesting. Seventy-five percent had experienced moderate to intense time dilation. Cool. Three different people reported being blown back to the beginning of time, traversing all of human history, and then passing through the present moment into a bright but indescribable event in the near future, barely missing some sort of target and getting blown back to the beginning of time again in faster and faster cycles until they whited out. Wow! The first time I heard this story it went down as an anomaly, the second time elevated it to the status of mystery, and the third one shocked me to the core.
I became obsessed with trying to figure out answers. I served as Ground Control for anybody who would let me. I attended conferences. I put on raves, I went on Phish tour, and I started going to Burning Man. I talked to hundreds upon hundreds of psychonauts; current, former, and habitual.
The responses I routinely got to one question in particular haunt me, confuse me, intrigue, amaze, and terrify me more than any other.
That question is WHY? Why did you do it, Jimmy? Why did you choose to embark upon a risky and potentially life-transforming journey at Lollapalooza? Almost invariably, the answer was, “I don’t know”.
And they really didn’t know. Ingesting psychedelics in a crowded public place is dodgy at best. Taking a handful of mystery drugs procured from some shady-looking character in the parking lot is downright stupid. I suspect the revered elders of the old guard would mostly be shocked and dismayed by my temporary charges’ choices of venue, and appalled by the apparent nonchalance with which such a profound endeavor often seemed to be undertaken. I was appalled too, at times, but also intrigued. I felt like I was discovering and documenting a whole new species of human being, one to whom such extreme forays were commonplace, easily entered into, and just as easily forgotten.
By doing my amateur research at concerts, raves, and festivals, I’ve had an opportunity to study the habits of a unique and fascinating demographic, one which I cannot entirely deny being a part of, though I like to fancy myself more thoughtful and sophisticated than the mean. We are largely young, hip, fairly well-off and well-educated, and willing to go to extraordinary lengths to be Truly Amused. Born when the Sixties were already history, we came of age in an environment that was largely manifested by the psychedelic vision in one sense or another. We’ve been soaking in its imagery since we were born. The current youth culture takes digital telepathy entirely for granted and gets impatient when it takes all of fifteen seconds to literally pluck any bit of information in the world out of thin air. We’ve been trained by consumer culture to seek maximum overload.
We want it brief, bright, interactive, hyperconnected and coming at us at a million miles per hour. Ecological collapse is practically a foregone conclusion, and if we manage to dodge that bullet, novel doomsday scenarios are waiting in the wings. We have always assumed that the Eschaton would come within our lifetimes in one form or another, and yet we carry on watching cartoons and playing video games. We’re like stunned bunnies frozen by the dazzling light of the onrushing singularity. We have 50,000 songs in our pockets and can’t think of anything we want to listen to. It should come as no surprise that some of us are willing to die for fun from time to time, so long as we stand a decent chance of living to tell about it. The thing that is urgently manifesting itself on this planet burns brightly in our hearts. It’s calling us, shaping us, training us, and goading us to push the envelope. The future, if any, is going to be much more intense than an acid trip and however clumsily we go about it, I do truly believe that we’re preparing ourselves to meet it head on.
Almost every night for two springs and summers, I watched thousands of young people pour into that amphitheater in their mommies’ SUVs, looking for an authentic experience. And once in a while a few of them found, for a change, more than they bargained for. So be it. You buy the ticket and you take the ride. I’m lucky to have had the chance to help a few fellow travelers make their way through the night. In the process, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to learn a great deal about the actions of these puzzling and impressive substances that humans have discovered or created, and the light they may shed upon who we are and where we’re going.
This was a couple of years before Erowid first appeared, and nowhere near as awesome, but I like to think that I was driven by something like the same spirit that moved its founders, Earth and Fire, to start providing data online. Direct experience may be the only true knowing, but in order to establish any kind of consensus we are obliged to ask, report, analyze, and speculate. It took me about five years to give up on my naive fantasy of finding all the answers and settle into the serious business of trying to figure out what the questions are. The project continues apace.