Acid: A New Secret History of LSD by David Black

Acid by David BlackOriginally published in 1998 with the subtitle ‘The Secret History of LSD’, ‘Acid: A New Secret History of LSD’ is written by David Black, and is a revised and expanded edition released in 2001. Black is a freelance writer and journalist who has also worked in the theatre and as a musician and songwriter.

There have been a number of excellent histories written that concern themselves with d-Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). Among the most notable are Storming Heaven (1987) by Jay Stevens, Acid Dreams (1986) by Martin Lee and Bruce Shlain, and Albion Dreaming (2008) by Andy Roberts. Each has its particular focus, and David Black’s Acid comes closest to Acid Dreams so far as it concentrates on the murkier side of psychedelic history: intelligence agencies, conspiracies, and counterculture politics.

This story, while taking into account a number of interconnected threads from both sides of the Atlantic, centres on the figure of Ronald Stark, who came to light in The Brotherhood of Eternal Love (1984) by Stewart Tendler and David May. One of those slightly mysterious, multi-lingual, globe-trotting and well-connected individuals (to people and intelligence services) who seem to crop up regularly in psychedelic history. Indeed, psychedelic history is a web of interesting connections and acquaintances, and one of the most remarkable points about this book is the circle of people who were inter-related.

“The man who was to become the greatest LSD producer of his time had unpromising beginnings for a super-criminal. Ronald Stark’s interest in biochemistry seems to have dated from his juvenile delinquent days in the 1950s nd it has been suggested that he was introduced to psychoactive drugs by a New York psychiatrist” (Black 2001, 23)

Stark weaves his way in and out of the history, from the US, to his involvement with the UK Underground scene, and eventually to Italy where he became involved with the political double-dealing and revolutionaries (and where he was eventually jailed.) His move across the Atlantic is particularly interesting because he is an important link between the Brotherhood of Eternal Love – who were major LSD and cannabis dealers – to the events of Operation Julie, where large amounts of LSD were being manufactured in Britain. With recipes and many identities in hand, it is unclear whether Stark was working for any organization in particular, or whether he was using the secret services for his own ends.

In terms of the UK, Black’s history is very interesting as very little had been written about it prior to the publication of Acid. As well as describing important (conspiratorial) contacts between the psychedelic movement in the UK and US, he wonderfully describes the emerging psychedelic web, which is more thoroughly examined by Andy Roberts in Albion Dreaming. While Stark plays a role in this emergence, especially in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the web had already began to form and, as is a very typical story for the time, writers and psychiatrists formed the core of this.

For instance, the Scottish poet and author Alexander Trocchi, who was involved with Guy Debord’s Situationist International, and was turned on by Dr. Oscar Janiger in the United States. On returning to Britain, he held talks with psychologist Timothy Leary and ‘anti-psychiatrist’ RD Laing, and hosted the Poetry Incarnation event at the Royal Albert Hall in 1965 – arguably the seminal founding event for the British Underground. However, as the Underground movement took shape, Stark soon entered the fray.

 “Steve Abrams did not meet Stark when he attempted to obtain THC formulas from SOMA [Society for Mental Awareness] in Summer 1969 but the following year, accompanied by David Soloman, Stark turned up at Abrams’ place of residence, Hilton Hall, near Huntingdon. This classically landscaped property had been the well-known haunt of the Bloomsbury Group; and busts of Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey stood in the hall.” (Black 2001, 102)

One of the key informants for Acid is Steve Abrams. Having trained as a psychologist and parapsychologist in the US, Abrams became a PhD student at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford University, between 1960-1967. His studies were actually being funded by the Human Ecology Fund, a front organization for the CIA and its MKULTRA project, which was investigating LSD and other altered states of experience. Yet, while Abrams was researching, he was also active on the Underground scene, and this dual role in the history demonstrates the extent to which counterculture and the intelligence services were, often without the knowledge of the former, linked.

Stark, of course, is one of the murky characters that underscore the aforementioned link, but after Britain he went forth into Europe. He spent four years in jail in Italy for his role in revolutionary activities, was released on bail, and he disappeared from view until he was arrested in the Netherlands in 1982 for possession of a large shipment of hashish. He was deported to the US without trial and was arrested there for a passport violation. A Bologna prosecutor sought his extradition to face more charges in Italy, but in 1984 he received a copy of his death certificate, which stated he died of a heart attack in December 1984. Some suspect he lived on under an alias. The conspiracy, while opened, is still very much far from being fully explained.

Acid is a fascinating and well-researched history that, in one stroke, reveals a host of interesting components in psychedelic history, but simultaneously poses a raft of questions – especially relating to Stark’s role and connections with intelligence services in relation to his counter-cultural dealings. Essential reading for psychedelic historians.

Robert Dickins

Robert Dickins is a historian, writer and editor. He is the founder of the Psychedelic Press, co-director of the Psychedelic Museum, and is currently undertaking his PhD at Queen Mary, University of London. His research interests focus on the history and literature of psychedelic substances, and the role of writing in spiritual and magical traditions during the 19th century. He is also the author of the novel 'Erin', and has occasionally be known to perform a poem or two.

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