Unlikely Texas music historian Ben Graham talks San Antonio acid, 1960s psychedelic rock and writing Scatological Alchemy, his new book about the Butthole Surfers
By Michael Pinchera
In May 2015, Brighton, England-based author Ben Graham visited Texas for the first time. The impetus for the trip was to see the 13th Floor Elevators’ 50th anniversary reunion show at the Levitation festival in Austin — the first time in decades all living members of the influential Texas psych band would play together—yet it also acted as the U.S. launch of his book, A Gathering of Promises.
“I was a little bit embarrassed about that because A Gathering of Promises was all about the 13th Floor Elevators and the 1960s psychedelic scene around the Austin area. And I basically wrote that without ever having been to Texas,” he explains. “I felt a bit like one of those 19th-century explorers who writes entire books on Africa whilst in the comfort of their sort of drawing room at home.”
On paper, this is an incredible setting for a book launch party; in reality, the last-minute arrangements he’d made with Levitation festival organizers basically meant A Gathering of Promises would be available at the event’s merch table before any other outlet in the U.S. But he was given a pass to the three-day, outdoor music festival—covering it for a couple of publications—and was finally able to spend a week in Austin, an almost mythical place about which he’d been immersed on a time-traveling, research-and-interview level.
“The people I met there were super friendly, especially all the older guys who’d been around, all the musicians, just so happy and interested that this younger English guy had written a book about their music and their scene, and they were really happy to share their stories,” he says. “A lot of the people I interviewed or people who were just around in that scene were amazed that I’d captured it so well, certainly without having been there in the 60s, but I hadn’t been to Texas at all.”
Having entirely missed the 1960s, the closest that 40-something Graham had previously been to the Austin area was 1,800 miles away, decades earlier, during a six-month American Studies college program in New York.
“I went [to the Levitation festival] because I’d finished the book and thought I’d never get to see the 13th Floor Elevators live—even though I’d seen Roky Erickson play in the U.K. a couple of times,” he says, summarizing the rationale that started the narrative you’re reading.
Recipe for a memorable Texas trip: Take one music journalist/fanboy, add an essential 1960s psychedelic band that’s reformed for one time only, add a tab of San Antonio acid and levitate. Wait a second…“San Antonio acid?” Since when is that a brand of prestige?
“I think that’s the way I described it to friends when I got home,” Graham says, indicating that in all likelihood, someone from San Antonio simply provided the substance. “You know, I’m an English guy, there’s an exoticism to the phrase that conjured up something a bit Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas to me: ‘Yeah, I had some San Antonio acid!’ I have no idea of the provenance—it may have been made in a lab in London.” Read more “Making Sense of the Butthole Surfers”
The story of Timothy Leary’s conversation with William Gibson is here. This is most of the text as it was published in the first edition of MONDO 2000 magazine
TIMOTHY LEARY: If you could put Neuromancer into one sentence, how would you describe it?
WILLIAM GIBSON: What’s most important to me is that it’s about the present. It’s not really about an imagined future. It’s a way of trying to come to terms with the awe and terror inspired in me by the world in which we live. I’m anxious to know what they’ll make of it in Japan.
WG: Oh, god. I’m starting to feel like Edgar Rice Burroughs or something. I mean, how did Edgar Rice Burroughs finally come to feel about Tarzan in his own heart, you know? He got real tired of it. Wound up living in Tarzana, California.
TL: You’ll end up living in a space colony called Neuromancer.
WG: That would be OK. I don’t think we’re going to have this kind of future. I think this book is so much nicer than what seems to be happening. I mean, this would be a cool place to visit. I wouldn’t mind going there.
WG: To the Sprawl, to that future.
TL: Go up the well?
WG: Yeah. Go up the well and all of that. A lot of people think this is a bleak book but I think it’s optimistic.
TL: I do, too.
WG: I think it’s actually gonna be more boring. I think some kind of Falwellian future would probably be my idea of the worst thing that could happen.
TL: Yeah. That was a wonderful scene where you have those Christians who were gonna mug those girls in the subway.
WG: It’s not clear whether they’re going to mug them or just try to force some horrible pamphlet on them or something. Personally, I have a real phobia about guys like that coming up to me on the street . . .
TL: That’s a powerful scene! And you describe the girls as like hoofed animals wearing high heels.
WG: Yeah. The office girls of the Sprawl.
TL: Yeah, and they’re wearing vaginas, and — Oh, God! That’s a powerful scene.
2024 presidential candidate Bob Glitch is preaching to the Republican Party faithful: “With God as my witness, we’re going to bring morality and family values back to America and we’re going to turn back the homosexual agenda…”Anonymous member Bob Dobbometer joins the cheering throng, raising his fist in the air and points his magnetic truth ring right at the candidate. Glitch continues. “I have nothing against homosexuals. Jesus said we should love every… (Glitch pauses, twitches slightly) “Man, that dude in the muscle shirt is freaking’ hot. I’d like to meet him in a men’s room and…” The mic goes dead.
Of course, the early truth machine will not come in the form of a handy dandy decoder ring and anyway the assumption is that it will be used only on “criminals”… and by criminals we of course mean poor criminals without connections and armies of attorneys. But what might it be like sometime during the coming years of radical technological evolution, if its use becomes generalized and it becomes really hard to tell a lie?
In a piece for H+, I asked whether enhancement seekers really want to know themselves. This piece could be seen as asking a similar question: do we really want to know what other people are thinking… about us; about treasured beliefs; about anything?… and do we want them to know what we’re really thinking?
One group that would say yes are the practitioners of “radical honesty.” Focused mainly on total truth telling in interpersonal relationships, the advocates promise to “transform your life.” I wonder.
“How’s my hair?” Jill asks, pointing the truth ring at Jack. “It looks terrible,” Jack replies. Jill is unhappy. She runs off to the beauty parlor and gets a new look and returns. “How’s my hair?” she asks, and points the truth ring again. “I think that’s a trivial dumb question,” Jack replies. “You should be thinking about the crisis in East Blogostan.” She moves the ring closer. “What do you care about East Blogostan?” she shouts. “You don’t do a fucking thing about East Blogostan?” Jack twitches slightly. He sinks deeper into his real thoughts. “You’re right. I don’t give a fuck about East Blogostan. I’m actually unhappy because my dick is only 4”. He frowns and now he points his ring at Jill. “So am I!” she screams.
If Jack could have simply said, “Your hair looks beautiful,” Jack and Jill would have each gotten a pleasant little jolt of oxytocin which would have made them both feel good and decreased their stress… and, as you know, stress is a major cause of health problems. Instead, they bitched at each other for several months until they got a divorce. Soon thereafter, Jack died of a heart attack and Jill got kicked out of the health club when she tells the owner, a large black man with a gigantic magnetic truth decoder neck chain who had just asked her to dinner: “Black men like you scare me.”
On the other hand, Radical Honesty advocate Brad Blanton has run for Congress in Virginia and that seems like the sort of place where my imagined Magnetic Truth Decoder Ring could be quite useful. Of course, politicians would resort to headgear to protect their brains from forced magnetic transparency; or if that proves to be too obvious, they would likely opt for surgically implanted firewalls against forced truth telling . Early adopters of this surgery would have a huge advantage. They would be able to spew political and personal homilies and everyone would assume it was true.
OK. I’m being playful here, but — as with the other column I referenced earlier in this piece, it poses a serious question. Is enhancement simply a matter of more?… more years, more muscle, more copies of the self, more brain power — or is it a matter of depth and complexity? Are we better humans because we have replaceable parts or because we have been transformed in our thoughts and behaviors by technologies that are challenging and perhaps painful to utilize? I’m not suggesting that the answer is obvious but I do think it’s a worthy area of discourse
What if six months after the 2016 election, California secedes from the union and promptly releases the Jerry Garcia virus on the Pentagon, appropriating the U.S. nuclear arsenal? Oops! Somebody’s been asleep at the wheel for years, because California is now three decades ahead of the Feds technologically on land, sea, air, and even in space.
This is not Calexit. This is Free the Bear! In this first installment of speculative fiction meets literary fiction, utopian ideas lead, artificial intelligence advises, and human foibles continue to mess things up. The story plays out against a backdrop of U.S. treachery and current world events. An ingenious chaos theorist and his team of Silicon Valley scientists withhold key discoveries from the Feds, aided by an ally that nobody saw coming. What? An AI that meditates? The fledgling nation wages a bloodless secession, while a million gamers direct roving, benevolent telefactors (aka drones) to keep the Feds at bay. Quirky “Happy Camps” delight captured U.S. soldiers with a taste of California life. (“Please don’t send me back to the Feds!”) Utopia? Dystopia? You decide. This science fiction tale will have even the most cynical U.S. citizens waving their Free the Bear flag!
I have said that the internet is a wilderness, where predators roam. Sure, sex predators, spammers and scammers, but there are sites that are mostly quite reputable — and yet they host con artists. This kind of thing is “very internet.” There is a hothouse atmosphere of haste and desperation, that sizzles around finding ways to monetize websites. CNN dot com, even MSNBC online, BBC news — they’ll monetize by putting up sponsored “stories” and flatout ads, without checking the companies (or “companies”) out. In fact, cable channels do the same thing — ads for fly by night, often outright fraudulent products they should know perfectly well are bullshit…but the online links, if you accidentally click on them or are seduced to do so, are worse, because they’ve more fully drawn you into the world of their bogus ad. The initial “headline” makes it seem like an actual news or “scientific discovery” link… they’re often with a group of other links and I have three times clicked on one when trying to click on a legit link, just a slip of the finger. In one case I found myself in a website that seems to advertise something and then turned out to be a delivery system for actual ransomware/malware. I was able to defeat said ransomware, but it made me furious that it was caused by a link these ransomware scumbags had paid for at a reputable site. But that’s rarer, I think. Mostly what you end up at is fraudulent product sales, often taking advantage of the dotty elderly or poorly educated people.
This happens because CNN or CBS, whomever, has a separate sub sub sub dept that sells ads, and gets to put them up wherever, to make the website profitable, without any oversight. No one seems to vet the ads and it’s crazy irresponsible. I just ran into one that sent me to an ad for a fake substance (a fake herb, which does not appear in any legit place if you google it, I checked when I reported it to the FTC) for losing bellyfat and there was an “endorsement” by Oprah Winfrey — only, she never endorsed it. It’s really common for these online con men to have a made-up, utterly fallacious endorsement — one was for a brain enhancement pill “endorsed by Stephen Hawking”! Oh yeah, Hawking “takes it every day!” they told us. The celebs being used this way — Neil Degrasse Tyson was another — should work to take these guys down.
There is no address given for the “company” selling these goods. Just an online ordering system. By allowing scumbags to sell via their site, CNN and others — even the Raw Story — are in effect lending credibility to these con artists…One common “story” repeated with variations is about how “veterans don’t know about special twenty thousand dollar payment due them” — if you follow it, as I did once to confirm my suspicion, it’s a come-on for a company that says it’ll help you get the money, if you pay a fee. But they don’t actually exist, except as an entity taking your fee. So they’re screwing over veterans. And CNN and pals are blindly, stupidly, helping them do that. The internet’s hothouse of monetization desperation has grown some strange fungi. It has allowed in predators, or, if you like, invasive species of scammers who could be easily weeded out. But somehow the whole “anything goes on the internet” myth allows otherwise decent websites to shrug off responsibility..
I don’t think anyone would have suspected it back in the ’60s and ’70s, but the author Robert Anton Wilson may have emerged as the most influential counterculture figure of those times. Who else has massive followings of fans fighting over the implications of his politics and philosophy? I can’t think of anyone.
RAW requires no introduction with this crowd but for those of you stumbling in, here’s a wikipedia page with a full bibliography.
PROP ANON is the author of the upcoming Chapel Perilous: The Life and Thought Crimes of Robert Anton Wilson, the first official biography of the late counterculture philosopher. He started his career as a Hip-Hop artist whose 2010 albumSquat the Condos presaged the Occupy movement. In 2014, Prop switched musical gears and released a Stoner Rock album called HAIL ERIS! with his band, HAIL ERIS!
R.U. Sirius: Is there anything about Bob’s childhood that indicates that he will become a counterculture philosopher of note?
Prop Anon: Bob was born in Flatbush, Brooklyn and spent his childhood in one of its most remote neighborhoods, Gerritsen Beach. He described the one-road-town as an “Irish Catholic Ghetto,” as he grew up a prodigious youth who survived two bouts of Polio, child abuse at the hands of the nuns who ran his grammar school, and a narrow-minded working-class neighborhood. The polio that nearly killed him was almost completely cured by The Sister Kenny Method — which today is considered ‘alternative’ medicine, but in 1935 denounced as quackery by the medical establishment. Sister Kenny proved everyone wrong and eventually was considered an alternative medicine pioneer. More indirectly he received inspiration from his favorite contemporary artist, Orson Welles. Welles played with the notion of uncertainty in nearly all his work, and this spoke to Bob. Bob was a fan of Welles’ since his 1938 ‘War of the World’s” was performed on the radio, which catapulted the then 23-year-old Welles to fame. Events like these, and more, sent the message early on to Bob that a keen sense of self was a necessary survival tool. He possessed the desire and capacity to live counter to the dominant culture, and he did. Wilson, like many of his generation, faced some serious existential threats living in a society deeply immersed in bullshit. As a response he developed a highly functional ‘Bullshit Detector.”
RUS: Were you able to learn much about Bob’s time at Playboy? Fun stories from the Bunny Empire? Did he like Hef?
PA: There are some stories about Bob’s time at Playboy, which he never wrote about in his books. One story he called ‘How I became a Paranoid,’ which began when a mysterious Playboy executive visited his office during a workday and told him that his name was added to Chicago PD’s ‘Red Squad,’ which was a list of radical people the authorities put under surveillance. An early example of Red Squad behavior was seen in 1886, when Chicago agents targeted Anarchists with surveillance directly after the Haymarket Affair in 1886. 85 years later, there were specific Red Squad agents that targeted people like Bob, who they would have called a ‘closet hippie.’ In others, a person who had a regular job and didn’t dress like a hippie yet were protesting the Vietnam War. During this visit, Bob and Arlen, were at their peak of political activism. Both were involved with local Anarchist groups; Arlen was an early member of the Anarcho-Feminist group and magazine, Siren. She was also a part of the Chicago Woman Liberation Union (CWLU) Bob was exploring a Surrealist angle of Anarchism, through his associations with Franklin Rosemont and the Chicago Surrealist Group. They were both part of an Anarchist group that changed its name for every event. On top of that, Arlen and Bob were sociable people who hosted parties and discussion groups at their apartment.
In Bob’s office the mysterious executive had shut the door and told him that a police informant had tipped the Chicago PD off to Bob’s activities as a gunrunner for the Black Panthers. Bob said that he and Arlen were actually helping the Panthers with their influential Free Breakfast program for local children. After Bob denied the accusation he asked how Playboy was able to find out about police informants circulating through radical circles within Chicago. The executive told Bob that Playboy had their own cadre of informants, who heard the whispers of police informants and then reported to Playboy, especially when it concerned someone who worked at Playboy. Perhaps this Playboy editor was playing a prank on Bob. There was never any tip to the ‘Red Squad,’ just a great bullshiter who wanted to test Bob Wilson. However, the FBI’s COINTELPRO was going strong during this time, and the extent of the spying on activist communities by law enforcement agencies was not fully known to the public as of 1971. Bob later said this conversation sparked the idea for the character Tobias Knight from Illuminatus! Knight is a quintuple-agent and is the punchline to the joke highlighting about how many agents and informants there were in resistance movements of the late 60s, and continue to be today.
As far as Wilson and Hefner went, from my research, it seems like Bob did not really know Hefner on a personal level. He and Arlen, did however, attend some of Hefner’s movie nights at the Playboy mansion while Bob worked at Playboy. Wilson appreciated Hefner’s stance on Civil Liberty issues within the United States. Both were committed to the First Amendment, and Playboy was a progressive voice within the media when it came to such issues. Something about his job at Playboy must have worked because Bob was able to harness his ability as a writer. He honed his craft while working at Playboy, wrote Illuminatus! with his co-worker and friend, Robert Shea, and managed to provide full medical and dental insurance for his family while getting paid, Playboy worked well for Bob and his family.
R.U.S:Robert Shea — coauthor of Illuminatus Triology — sort of ended up being “the quiet one”. What can you tell us about Shea and he and Bob’s relationship?
PA:Wilson and Shea became fast friends at Playboy. They would hang out together at the bar on payday. They, and their wives, would all hang out, smoke weed, watch TV or listen to records and think of funny sketches that made each other laugh. They had a lot in common: Both raised Irish Catholic, both left the Church young, both seeking to become full time free-lance writers. They both really dug into the Anarchist perspective. After Illuminatus!, Shea went on to start an Anarchist newsletter called No Governor, which Wilson contributed to. Wilson had a talent for collaborating with like-minded artists and thinkers; his and Shea’s collaboration resulted in Illuminatus! and that was itself a further collaboration out of their involvement with The Discordian Society. The two continually spoke of writing their sequel, Bride of Illuminatus, which they barely started before Shea was diagnosed with cancer. Shea’s death left Bob deeply distraught. Michael Shea, described seeing Bob at his father’s funeral looking shook by the whole event. Bob’s eulogy, Chimes at Midnight, published in Cosmic Trigger vol. III, written shortly after Shea provides a glimpse into Bob’s thoughts about his dead friend. Read more “Chapel Perilous: The Life and Thought Crimes of Robert Anton Wilson — An Interview with Prop Anon”
This essay was written for an exhibition by Marion Garrido at Art Centre La Casa Encendida in Madrid designed around the online adventures of “John Titor” — an alleged time traveler who lit up the web and conspiracy radio at the start of the 2000s. Keep in mind that this was written for a Spanish audience and some of the things I say about U.S. culture may seem a little obvious.
On November 2, 2000 an obscure group called Time Travel Institute received a note on their website from someone calling himself TimeTravel_0. The person claimed to be a US military time traveler from 2036. He discussed some of the details of the time machine that had brought him.
This “arrival” remained obscure until January 27, 2001 when this (virtual) person showed up on the bbs of the Art Bell Show under the name John Titor, writing, “Greetings. I am a time traveler from the year 2036.” Titor claimed that he had been sent back in time by the US government to 1975 to grab an ancient IBM 5100 so that a legacy UNIX problem that was causing future trouble could finally be debugged.
On his way back to 2036, Titor had stopped off in 2000/2001 to visit with family. The alleged time traveler proceeded to entertain, inform and enrage Art Bell show users with details about the future and the time machine, which he described as “a stationary mass, temporal displacement unit manufactured by General Electric… powered by two top-spin, dual-positive singularities that produce a(n) … off-set Tipler sinusoid.” Titor provided images and descriptive specifications of said time machine.
Additionally, Titor warned of a US civil war in 2004 and a nuclear war in 2015 – with Russia and the US on the same side. He told that he was living in a future that was a mishmash of post-apocalyptic poverty — with people in survivalist mode, growing their own foods and fending for their own survival as individuals and in small groups — and pockets of advanced technology; advanced enough, for example, to build the Tippler time machine.
Titor remained on the Art Bell BBS for about four months, answering any and all questions about his life and his machine. He did not come on like a man with an important message from a more enlightened or chastened future civilization. He was casual. Titor seemed like a regular fellow who was just passing through and felt like chatting.