Psychedelic War Stories & Cosmic Flights: An interview with Andy Roberts
Andy Roberts is well known in the psychedelic community as the author of Albion Dreaming: A popular history of LSD in Britain, which was published in 2008. He is also a UFO folklore researcher, a prolific journalist on matters psychedelic and Fortean, and an active presence on the event and convention circuits, giving lively lectures and contributing robustly and colourfully to discussion sessions.
I first met Andy on Facebook in 2010, when he provided a lot of kind support and valuable feedback on my then newly-published memoir, The Mad Artist, concerning my psychedelic adventures in the 1970s. As Andy is much the same age as me, we found we had many congruent historical experiences—acid war stories, one might say—we’ve continued to exchange lively chat on such matters, and we eventually met in the flesh last year. For a long time I’ve wanted to delve a bit deeper into his head and ask a few possibly difficult questions. And now with the publication of his new collection of writings, Acid Drops, I’ve finally got my chance.
Roger Keen: Andy, congratulations on publishing Acid Drops. It contains a miscellany of pieces, some already familiar to me and some not so. When you composed them, did you have the idea that they may one day come to together to form a whole, or did that notion take place more spontaneously? And how did you decide to arrange them in order to create a total effect within Acid Drops?
Andy Roberts: Thanks! There was never any real notion they may coalesce into a themed collection until sometime in 2015, when Psychedelic Press supremo Robert Dickins suggested the idea and it grew from there. At the time I was deep in research for the Michael Hollingshead biography I am still writing (of which more later) and, like any good writer, looking for diversionary activity 😉 and an anthology of psychedelic writings seemed like an excellent idea.
Even though I’d had an abiding interest in psychedelics since 1971, until I wrote Albion Dreaming I’d actually written very little else on the subject; a very early short piece after my second trip, a few articles for Fortean Times relating psychedelics to flying saucer belief, and a piece about the Grateful Dead’s acid-inspired telepathy experiments, and that was about it. But since the publication of Albion Dreaming I’ve written quite a few pieces, some of which have been published in Psychedelic Press, some in more obscure journals, and I had a few pieces kicking about in note form which I breathed new life into. Being able to publish all these bits and pieces meant that others have the chance to see at least the tip of the ‘research iceberg’ that is my archive!
Some of the real treasure came in the form of interviews I had carried out for Albion Dreaming or for the planned Hollingshead book, because usually only a tiny percentage of an interview actually makes it to the final edit of a book, and the chance to print some of these interviews in full was too good to miss. I also generated a few pieces specifically for Acid Drops, such as the interview with psychedelic alchemist Casey Hardison, which I think is a corker! I was also very pleased to be able to include a long form poem written by my good friend Graeme, about an experience we shared on a psychedelic quest for a mysterious and now long gone sculpture deep in the heart of the Lake District in Grizedale Forest.
I also have several pieces that didn’t make or weren’t submitted for the final edit, plus a host of interviews which have yet to be transcribed, and lots of other ideas that might make it into a second volume if Acid Drops sells well enough.
The final order of pieces in the book was entirely Rob’s and it makes perfect sense, being a mixture of the chronological and the themed.
RK: Albion Dreaming, is a history—largely a work of impersonal journalism. Acid Drops has much more personal content, including accounts of your own trips. Have you felt a greater degree of satisfaction and fulfilment in adding your own experiences to the canon of your acid scholarship?
AR: Yes. I wrote Albion Dreaming because, to my surprise, there were no books dealing specifically with the history of LSD in Britain. Obviously I’d known that for a long time but kept hoping someone would eventually do something like Jay Stephen’s Storming Heaven, the history of LSD in America. But years passed and that didn’t happen, and I couldn’t let this influential period of Britain’s hidden history go unrecorded.
The media, in its usual shallow way, invariably portrays psychedelic history as starting and finishing in America when in fact the British side of things is just as important, not least for the fact it was ex-pat Brits such as Heard, Huxley and Hollingshead who were at the root of it. Albion Dreaming was essentially a social history, and by definition had to be impersonal, methodical, chronological, referenced and factual.
That perspective, of course, is one side of acid’s history in Britain, a valuable one which urgently needed to be recorded. But it lacked the depth and complexity of the psychedelic experience itself, the experiences, the speculative, philosophical side of tripping as a way of life, a practice. So by being able to ground Acid Drops in some of my own experiences, pulling no punches and trying to write honestly about what it was like, especially in the 1970s, did give me great satisfaction as did being able to reflect and refract the psychedelic experience through the eyes of others, and thus hopefully personalizing and celebrating the psychedelic state of mind, and the insights and adventures that come from being in what I think Robert Hunter, lyricist for the Grateful Dead, sums up as ‘In another time’s forgotten space’.
I was also very interested in trying to express in words what the psychedelic state feels like, something that is not at all easy to do in a way that others recognise as an experience they have also had. I must say Roger that your descriptions of tripping in The Mad Artist were spot on and totally resonated with many of my own!
RK: Thank you, Andy! As an ‘old man’ of 60, you were of an age to experience the mind-bendingly powerful Operation Julie acid of the early ’70s, as I did myself. That acid really was of another order of magnitude altogether. How does it compare to the less potent stuff of later years? Of course it’s all the same molecule, but notwithstanding do you think there was something qualitatively different about Julie acid beyond the factor of mere strength?
AR: I’m loving the ‘old man’! I’m pleased you were lucky enough to have that acid, too, Roger. As soon as I read of your early trips in The Mad Artist, I just knew we had taken the same substance! But it’s a hard question to answer definitively and it can be difficult to talk to people who never had that experience, and I sometimes find I end up sounding like Grandpa Simpson, talking about the good old days!
I took what I believe to be ‘Julie’ acid many times between late ’71 and 1977, and it really was ‘something else’. I’ve heard people over the past few decades talking about their acid experiences and how they’ve gone out to see a band or to a pub or whatever and I marvel, because on what we believed was ‘Julie’ acid, even when reasonably used to it, the very idea of going out of the room we were in or sometimes even the concept of a ‘door’ were incomprehensible notions, at least for the first few hours of the intensity. And boy, was it intense! I know the acid experience is subjective, can often be ‘learnt experience’, subject to who you are with, set and setting etc. but the ‘Julie’ acid always seemed to me to be electric in nature, capable of completely and utterly changing your visual and mental reality in the same way that DMT trips are described or visually pictured and so on.
It also came freighted with the ability to cause ideation that made me, and many of my tripping partners, focus on the strange, the wyrd, the existential, the cosmic, the ‘secret of life’ and so on. I met ‘entities’, had shared and solo visions of gods, goddesses and elementals, and all manner of what have you, all in multi-coloured, many dimensioned splendor. However weird the experiences I have described in Acid Drops may sound, in our reality at the time they were ten times weirder!
And just one microdot was enough! At least for me and certainly for a few hours before a re-dose. And there was none of this ‘four or five hours of psychedelic high and then down again’—with ‘Julie’ acid dropped at 8pm, you could often still be going strong long past dawn, not sleep all day and still be seeing ‘steel birds’ as we used to call them (tracers left by birds and cars and any moving other moving objects). Maybe I was a lightweight, but that’s how it was for me and others I knew. It was powerful stuff!
Some people believe Julie acid was as good as it was because of the techniques [Richard] Kemp and to a lesser extent [Andy] Munro used in making it. Others have said it was also because of their mental intent, which added to the qualities of the acid. It could be that it was just good, clean acid and the doses were high (200μg in the case of Kemp’s acid—a hefty dose) whereas doses since then seem to have fluctuated widely and have been as low as 80μg.
I have spoken to lots of people whose early acid experiences in the ’80s and ’90s were mind blowing but clearly not of the same visual or mental magnitude as ‘Julie’ acid offered, and in many ways the formulation of the acid and its dosage doesn’t matter—it’s the effect in the individual that does. A sort of chemical version of ‘the meaning of the message is the effect it has’!
RK: I note with interest that your first ever acid trip was an overwhelming, engulfing total experience with a dimension of cosmic horror, as again was mine. And you describe other negative, existentially nightmarish and downright pants-wetting scary moments on trips. Such accounts have become the ‘war stories’ of our generation. But despite this, you were never decisively put off acid; you kept coming back and developed into a forward-thinking acid aficionado. Why is it, do you think, that some trippers are put off and say ‘Never again!’ whilst others ride out the bumps and carry on?
AR: Many reasons. It depends, for a start, on why people were taking it. Some people took it because it was the ‘in’ thing to do, did it a few times and never again, either because they didn’t like the experience (good or bad). Some did it and it literally blew their minds and as a result of the psychedelic revelations they felt the need for some form of structured system to shield them from the chaos of what they had experienced. I knew a couple of people whose first experience was as powerful as mine but in different ways and both turned to religion; one became a fundamentalist Christian preacher, convinced acid was a tool of the Dark Forces (aka the Devil in his recently acquired world view) and another who went into the Divine Light Mission for a few years until he had sorted himself out. The DLM and the Krishna people were heavily populated by ex-acid heads, and at one time the DLM’s advertisements specifically targeted acid heads.
I suppose I was lucky in that I had a small group of like-minded friends, and was part of a wider circle of trippers who shared my interests. I was also very lucky indeed to meet two people who were unconnected, older, but hardcore trippers, and these unwittingly became my acid gurus. One taught me about the wyrd side of acid and the other taught me about the more ‘hippie’ side of acid. Two friends had their own houses where we could wig out without fear of disturbance, and they were both in the same semi-rural village so we had fields and woods at our doorstep, all of which helped enormously. I learnt a lot from tripping in the company of those and a few other people.
Yes, the ‘war stories of our generation’ (without in any way diminishing combat experiences) is a good description, and as with war some people have a ‘good’ war and others have much more traumatic or interesting ones. But to go back to the gist of your original question, the rationale I used for continuing my exploration of the psychedelic realms after the first, soul-shredding trip was I thought: right, here’s something with ‘power’, and as with any form of power if you misuse it can destroy you, so I thought I’d better work out how to use it. It’s a lifelong pursuit!
RK: In Acid Drops you mention various weird acid synchronicities, where tripping consciousness appears to bend external objective reality. These include a Pink Floyd poster manifesting in a field, Tarot premonitions seemingly coming true, and plastic ducks that apparently can be conjured up by a tripper’s will. You love this kind of thing, I know, and without wishing to over-pressurise you into defining the ineffable, what are your theories about what is happening here?
AR: From being small child I was a bit of a nature mystic. I’d pinch bits of my mother’s jewelry and leave it in ‘special’ places where the sun’s rays could infuse it with imagined ’power’ and I’d sit very quietly in woods hoping to see beyond the veil of nature, that sort of thing. That lead to an obsession with witchcraft, the occult generally and outsider culture such as the Hell’s Angels, hermits and the like. Anything weird really. So when I heard about LSD when I was about 13, I thought here’s something interesting, something created by science that can apparently take you beyond the everyday mystery and into other realms. Prior to my first trip I had read Leary’s Politics of Ecstasy and that cemented in my mind what I was going to do. I told my mum and dad at the time, because I never lied to them, but I don’t really think they understood!
So my motivations for taking psychedelics were to do with all the above and, as I read about the hippies’ use of psychedelics to search for ‘enlightenment’ or ‘spirituality’ that seemed like the road to go down. I wanted the experience of what Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band calls ‘the sheer unspeakable strangeness of being here at all’—for me the recognition of that state was enlightenment, and once you realized we were infinite minds in an infinite multiverse, anything then became possible.
So the synchronicities on trips started to mount up; they even appeared to be something that with a little bit of intent and a nudge could actually be generated, although that was by no means a certainty. But that was part of the attraction, being on psychedelics, with others who broadly shared the same beliefs was like a huge amazing game where ‘reality’ and ‘belief’ could be played with. The trick was never to invest absolute belief in what happened because that usually ended in tears and I saw many people end up scared to death and taking up various religions because of the certainties these gave them about life, the universe and everything. To me it was the malleable uncertainty that was the attraction!
I have seen people refuse to believe things that have happened while they have been tripping because, well, because these things don’t happen, do they? But they do! For me, the psychedelic experience is all about increasing awareness and directing attention—what you do with it after that is up to you! That’s why in Acid Drops I discuss the role of intent in taking psychedelics and how it all boils down to Crowley’s dictum that if you do certain things, certain things happen, just don’t attribute them to god, the devil, the little imp who lives in the tree down the road, or any other limiting belief for the downright wyrd experiences psychedelics can engender.
So, can psychedelics reveal the secret of life to you? Many people think they can, I don’t. As Robin Williamson sings, ‘Stranger than that we’re alive, whatever you think it’s more than that’, and so it is. Psychedelics taught me that, and they also taught me the truth of the old Zen conundrum, ‘Things are not what they appear, nor are they different’. Well, you did ask, Roger!
RK: Finally Andy, in your Introduction you mention a psychedelic renaissance, with greater interest present in the world at large, a more open understanding approach in some parts of the media, conferences such as Breaking Convention and indeed this very magazine, exploring all aspects of the phenomenon. There have been several ‘new beginnings’ before and things have faded; is it different this time, and if so why?
AR: Several reasons. In the ’60s and ’70s psychedelic drugs were, in many areas, quite hard to obtain and supplies were intermittent, whereas I am told these days, in most part of Britain they are easily, widely and cheaply available. Psychedelic drug use was often limited to small parts of towns and cities, certain pubs and clubs and small groups of friends. Now you can’t easily spot a psychedelic drug user; the visual, musical and iconographic tribal distinctions between straights and heads are largely gone, the age range of psychedelic users now goes up to people who are at least in their seventies and there is no such thing as a ‘typical’ psychedelic user anymore—you are as likely to find your local estate agent is as much an acid head as that weird guy who lives on his own down the road and has a Grateful Dead sticker on his car. As the Dead themselves say, ‘We are everywhere’.
In addition there are numerous festivals between May and October at which psychedelics are widely available, and the variety of psychedelics is far wider than ever—when I were a lad it was just acid, the occasional bit of mescaline and from the mid-‘70s onwards psilocybin mushrooms, with an underpinning of hash and grass (and people forget that good hash/grass, prepared and smoked correctly can be stronger than some weak acid!).
References to psychedelics are everywhere. Famous people jokingly reference their use in their memoirs; journalists mention them in articles either factually or via the cultural shorthand of referring to something as, for instance, ‘like Walt Disney on acid’, to refer to something mundane exhibiting strange qualities. It’s not uncommon for psychedelics to be plot devices in films and TV dramas and indeed only a few weeks ago there was a six-part period supernatural tale set in 19th century England, called The Living & the Dead in which psilocybin mushrooms were a crucial plot device on which the entire story hung! And they were presented not in a good or bad light, but just as a substance which alters perception and may offer access to, well I won’t spoil it for anyone who has yet to see it.
There are several stories every single day of the year in major media sources dealing with the growing evidence of the positive effects of psilocybin, LSD or MDMA, far outweighing the scare stories of the past and there’s a sense we are perhaps, my earlier caveats notwithstanding, nearing a tipping point.
Add this to this cornucopia of the simultaneous rise of the internet and social media and you have a vibrant cauldron where no user of psychedelics is alone or separate from whatever aspect of psychedelic culture they wish to be part of. Whereas in, say, 1974, if I wanted to find anything out about acid I had to go to a bookshop, order a book, wait weeks for it to come etc. Now we have access to every possible aspect of information on psychedelics at the click of a mouse! The internet also acts as a source for psychedelics for those who want to risk the Dark Net, and if you are alone, tripping and it’s all going Lovecraftian, you can easily and quickly find a supportive person or people on an appropriate Facebook page who will talk you through it.
This gyre of information and accessibility shows no signs of abating. In fact it just seems to expand. Just how this explosion in interest, this renaissance of psychedelic use will pan out is anyone’s guess. But it’s time the myths and misinformation about psychedelics were put to bed once and for all, opposition to their use and legality challenged at every point with facts and the positive, medical, social, personal, transformative revelatory aspects of the psychedelic experience— however it is accessed—celebrated as being a human right for those who wish to explore themselves and the multiverse they inhabit.
RK: Andy, thank you very much and good luck with your future endeavours!