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Haight Ashbury Flashbacks
by Stephen Gaskin
Ronin Pub. 
Book Reviews
Reviewed by Scotto, 5/19/2005

Stephen Gaskin’s Haight Ashbury Flashbacks is a mind-blowing “diary” of his days as a teacher at San Francisco State College during the Summer of Love. Gaskin would go on to help found The Farm, an influential commune that has survived for decades in Tennessee, but this book documents his formulative, pre-guru years, as he and his fellow teachers, teaching assistants and students became immersed in acid culture.

To appreciate Haight Ashbury Flashbacks on its own terms, however, is no simple task. The way Gaskin describes San Francisco in those days, he and virtually half the city dropped LSD nearly constantly, smoked marijuana or hash almost as much, and made sure to squeeze time for peyote and mushrooms into their schedule on a fairly regular basis. The result of all this mass tripping is that “flower power” was a real, tangible, magical force, wielded by newly minted telepathic magicians. Power- and ego-tripping black magicians were an integral part of the scene, drawing their energy from pride, materalism and basic insanity. Astral projection, aura manipulation and “mind copping” (taking over someone’s trip and replacing it with one of your own design) were common tools in the arsenal. It’s no coincidence that Gandalf the Grey and Doctor Strange are invoked early on as reference points.

These wizards of San Francisco include such colorful characters as Rockin’ Jody, whose forceful presence and clever style hijacked dozens of Gaskin’s trips and knocked them off course; Psychedelic Bob, whose use of fear as a psychic weapon met its match when Gaskin and his housemates applied the counter-spell of putting on a different Beatles record in every room in the house; Patrick-and-I, a “telepathic shark” who figured out exactly what trip you didn’t want and then proceeded to lay it on you thick; and dozens of others, on a continuum from speed freaks and evil dealers all the way to Margaret and Ina May, the two beautiful hippy chicks that appear among Gaskin’s primary sidekicks. These folks spend hundreds and hundreds of hours tripping together, popping acid and heading out into the streets on one adventure after another.

Modern readers who missed the Summer of Love might be tempted to interpret Gaskin’s use of magical terminology as metaphorical, but that would be a mistake. He takes great pains to avoid the language of “it felt as though” or “we perceived it to be”. No, the magic that Gaskin and his compatriots practiced was very real to them, and its effects were everywhere. The book demonstrates how those who actively sought the power of that magic inevitably slid into the “black arts”, while those who pursued a path of psychedelic honesty and compassion were rewarded with these magical powers, the side effects of bliss and transcendence.

The book makes for some wildly interesting reading and offers a very vivid perspective on the life of the Haight. However, the structure of the book – originally released under the title Amazing Dope Tales – turns Gaskin’s slim narrative into a psychedelic comic book. The book is 52 chapters comprised of one or more wacky trip stories, each one following Gaskin as he confronts a huge array of strange situations (dosed on chloroform by a Hell’s Angel! defusing a riot through the power of smooching! calming an unruly crowd at a Grateful Dead show! barfing on peyote while Rockin’ Jody mind cops him yet again!) that all have binary outcomes: Gaskin’s mojo wins out, or Gaskin’s mojo is beaten down. Because we see nothing of his life when he wasn’t on acid, we’re left with the impression of a costumed crusader cleaning up his community through the power of positive vibrations.

The entertainment value of Gaskin’s tales is undeniably high. But the cumulative effect of his stream of consciousness riffs is the realization that if Gaskin had to spend so much time in psychic combat with his peers, it’s no wonder the so-called revolution failed. Moreover, by the end of the book, Gaskin’s own behavior is tending toward pride and over-confidence, though he doesn’t seem to recognize that evolution in himself; his snap judgments of people and situations based on nothing more than the magic of instinct introduce questions about why his use of magic is any more pure than anyone else’s. There’s almost always a play for dominance involved in the use of magic in this book, and by the end, it starts to feel uncomfortable, even when it’s our hero getting the upper hand.

But Haight Ashbury Flashbacks isn’t meant to be a spiritual guidebook, and Gaskin was just getting started on his path to becoming a spiritual teacher and founder of The Farm. The “acid aphorisms” in this book are paper thin, and the lessons and advice for tripping that Gaskin offers are so embedded in the “head games” of magic and telepathy that the book’s utility as a practical set of techniques for the modern reader is very limited.

Instead, Haight Ashbury Flashbacks is best appreciated at face value – these are indeed amazing dope tales, evocative stories of a scene from history that won’t likely be repeated.

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