MEMOIRS OF AN ACID-SALVED WAR PHOTOGRAPHER
I CAN NEVER BE SURE why my mind is in the condition it is: if it was the European acid I did before I had brain surgery, the prescriptions I took afterward, or the various combinations of substances I've taken, legal and illegal, throughout but especially since.
In the early summer of 1967, I moved to Paris after two and a half years shooting the war in Vietnam and then the Six Day War in Israel. Four women came through my bed one night when I was tripping on acid for the first time. I was in my dirty mood about sex in those days, enjoying a noisy and scratchy fuck. I got up at four in the morning and drove down to St. Tropez with one of the birds for a summer of acid.
The occasion was a production by the happening artiste Jean Jaques Lebel of Picasso's only play, Désire attrappé par la coeu ("Desire caught by the tail"), which was performed only once before, in the forties on French Resistance radio by all the luminaries of underground Paris. This time, Taylor Mead and Ultra Violet put it together with strippers from the Folies Bergère, Julian Beck and Judith Molina's Living Theater (an American avant-garde troupe who'd done Mysteries in Smaller Pieces), and music by the Soft Machine. Mike Rutledge (who started the Softies) arrived from Switzerland with an old-fashioned fluted apothecary bottle with a glass stopper full of liquid Sandoz LSD-25. It was like carrying nitroglycerin around.
I licked a few droplets off the web of my thumb and forefinger, took a couple of blasts of good Moroccan kif and the whole wobble machine kicked in. It was almost like snorting, a real screaming head, with weird patterns up the sides of my skull. Somebody said, "Let's all go jump in the surf," so we dove about in the waves for a while.
I was driving a group of us in my Volkswagen squareback into town for the performance and started seeing things that weren't there: sheets of light-montage video graphics coming at me like incoming fire, the Jupiter sequence in 2001, and the trailer for ABC's Movie of the Week, the most advanced television graphics of the time. I had to give the steering wheel to someone else, and curled up in the firewall like a GI in a foxhole. These were my first hallucinations.
The next thing I knew I was in a beautiful villa that belonged to some contessa, taking pictures of a candle burning, with a giant window overlooking a valley, a lava lamp going, LP records scattered, a woman wearing only a bra. Then I found myself walking down a dirt road. I have no idea how I got there. I had two Leicas and two Nikons, a pair of shorts, and a T-shirt. I got in the car and some cohorts took me down the mountain to the main road. But I couldn't handle being in the car again, so I got out and walked, taking odd shots of fields and vineyards. I must have walked ten kilometers back to Gassin outside St. Tropez, where I was staying at this communal house with the cast of the show and all the assorted extras and hangers-on. It was like something out of Hair. I had a bed downstairs which was my zone. I spent the whole six weeks on acid, wine, and good food.
When I went back to Saigon in 1968, there was a continuous supply of acid in the flat where I was living, but it never occurred to me to take any. It seemed inappropriate. Vietnam was plenty weird enough, and I was only a moped ride away from the best opium on the planet. A man would come over and lay on my floor with a long pipe filled with the stuff. On weekends, I went to a neo-Taoist peace island on the Mekong Delta to meditate or smoke dope, eat macrobiotic, then come back to the madness of Saigon and the war. You didn't meet a lot of people who tripped in Nam, though I did know a chopper pilot who flew on acid, who used to land his gunship and leave his calling card: "The Acid Killer Has Been Here." John Steinbeck, Jr., working there as a deejay, did acid sometimes. He got busted for smoking dope, and became a Taoist peace activist, once marching a cat and a rat into the foyer of the American Embassy to show people how to live in harmony.
I've never had a really bad freak-out while tripping, where God and mother demand all. Maybe this is because I've been DOA twice and because I've been like the snail on a razor edge described by Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, witnessing and even recording the conflict and madness of war. It was the craziness brought on by my injuries that put me about as far out as one would like to get.
The first DOA experience was a 1962 motorcycle accident that split my head open and parted the temporal artery. The second occurred in 1969 in Vietnam, when a 250-pound antitank mine exploded three meters in front of me and I took a piece of shrapnel in the right side of my forehead, which lodged in the back of my head. I recall a complete meltdown of color, a brilliance bled of all chromatics. By the time they opened my head up at a field hospital at Long Binh, the hemorrhage was the size of an orange, two hundred cc's, which they took out. The neurosurgery was done by a guy who happened to be one of America's top brain surgeons when he was drafted. After this blow to the head, I didn't start taking acid again until 1973.
For a year after the initial surgery, I was hemiplegic, with no use of my left side for a year. I walked around with just the scalp pulled over the hole, until the trauma of the skull injury went down. I went to a rehab clinic, then to a hospital for a year to have a second load of plastic surgery. My whole head was rebuilt. It's plastic up on the right side, laid in at the Good Samaritan Hospital in L.A. by the guy who tried to save Bobby Kennedy. I never say "touch wood," but say "touch plastic" instead.
I went off the deep end for a few years when I didn't understand the difference between joie de vivre or madness. I went into a downward spiral of self-abuse, painkillers and other pills, booze, violence to every woman I loved, unemployment, all the worst shit of the Vietnam War veteran. Nothing worked out and no one seemed to understand my case. In Rome I loaded a six-shot .38 special, removed one round, spun it, held it to my face, and pulled the trigger. It came up empty, one chance in six that it would -- a breakthrough.
Finally, in 1973 I got wrecked on acid, throwing caution to the wind and taking a thousand mics, boosting the high when it slackened. I did it for the erasia, the forgetfulness, trying to wipe away the present the way alcoholics and junkies do. I had a complete catharsis in which I careened and cascaded through whole reams of cycles. It could be disputed that it was the best medication under the circumstances, but then who's to judge? The most obsolete word in our vocabulary is "if." I wrote my entire autobiography (Page After Page) without using the word until the last line: "There's no ifs and buts. You only go around once."
From 1973 to the end of the seventies I lived in California, where I hung out with a sordid assortment of journalists, artists, and Vietnam vets. We were all caught up in the postwar whiplash. I lived for a time and did a lot of acid with one of the staff writers at Rolling Stone. I catered the Bicentennial Acid Freak Out for Rolling Stone in Sonoma. I tried to count the number of trips I'd taken, but I gave up trying to distinguish one from the other. There was one five-month period mid-decade when virtually every day was touched by psychedelics. I don't recall any planning in that time. I didn't make more than a few thousand dollars a year. I lived by the grace of friends.
Acid fused this block of years together. I have a lot of trouble pulling apart a series of experiences and metamorphoses, including getting myself admitted to a psychiatric hospital and being a guinea pig for a number of shrinks, getting deported from the United States, coming back, and winning my court case against Time-Life, for whom I was working when I spilled some of the contents of my cranium in Vietnam.
When I was living in San Francisco, destitute to score a lid, I rang a friend I'll call Tony in Berkeley. Two weeks later I moved in with him, launching some demented days indeed. Tony was one of the original army disk jockeys in Vietnam, doing "Camp Malaria" ads and all this wacky Armed Forces Radio stuff. I stayed on the floor of his apartment up above the campus in a place called Channing Way behind the fraternity and sorority houses. There were a minimum of three people-squatters is perhaps more accurate-per room in this building of eight Sheetrock student flats. I had an affair with a girl upstairs. There was a Swiss mechanic and a gay bookbinder who grew orchids next to the bonfires we always had.
Tony had a yellow Volkswagen he drove around to colleges, reading modern stoned poetry out of the back. I took some pictures and painted houses to earn a few bucks. We had a little plastic vial with a cork cap filled with a thousand hits of Windowpane, four hits in each pane. Whenever we dropped, we were always barbecuing on the hibachi, breaking up pallets, and using junk from the streets to feed the fires, because we couldn't afford charcoal. Whenever I've taken acid, I don't care where it's been, I've always had the desire to search for twigs, things combustible. It's the cave mentality. You must have a central point where people can find each other.
Everybody who set foot in the apartment either came or left treed out of their brains. Tony bumped into William Burroughs, Jr., fresh out of prison, and brought him over. He eventually stole my Frye boots. When his dad came to visit shortly afterward, I moved in with an anthropologist lady upstairs until we fell to blows. A sign of Bill Sr.'s doings was the plastic swing-top garbage pail in the corner of the kitchen , which had melted down into the linoleum. All that was left were two hypodermic needles.
A neighbor would turn up and participate in the ongoing frenzy. "Have you dropped? You want some?" He'd have a term paper to write or a course to attend. "Well, come back later," we'd tell him, and he would. No sooner had you come down from one trip than you'd start another. We'd do up some acid and drive a '53 Chevy over to Mendocino County, stopping off for a six-pack of Dos Equis and gasoline we'd pay for with food stamps, pulling over again to smoke another joint. It was like a continuous Furry Freak Brothers cartoon. As with an alky, the straight moments were no longer delineated. I tripped at Death Valley with Tony and my girlfriend Carla. It was magical, desert perfect, like dissolving. I could reach the stars. We started a little fire with some brush and had the tape deck in the car going with Van Morrison singing "Listen to the Lion" from St. Dom-inic's Preview. Tony had made a tape of all our favorite trip music, long tracks by the Doors, Paul Horn inside the Taj Mahal, "Going Home" by the Stones. Then he got all freaked about snakes and religiously got up and drew a circle around us.
The only thing you'd have to worry about out in Death Valley is rattlers, which are heat-seeking. It's not unheard of for them to crawl into sleeping bags. Now, the thought of waking up to a rattler in my sleeping bag in the desert is not the sort of thing you dwell on when you're on acid, because it conjures up all kinds of ghastly, horrible, hell-like pictures. I've watched a snake slither under my knees. You panic and you're fucked. But the snakes didn't come and we took another dose of acid.
In a motel room in Ensenada, Tony and I did twenty-five hundred mics and started drinking mescal and lots of Dos Equis. Then we went around to the little strip clubs. By four in the morning we were literally crawling down the main street of town. We vaguely came to as the state governor showed up for the unveiling of one of these awful concrete statues of a presidente. The pictures I shot that day were very, very weird.
My photography career was treading water. While others were busy building up their archives and businesses in the post-Vietnam years, I was out there screaming at the moon, crawling around deserts on my hands and knees, drooling and spewing in Ensenada, or leaning out of the back of a truck to check out where we'd parked -- McDonald's or Pizzaland, California -- en route to the ocean or the next party. It seemed kind of fun to be with ten people whose brains are dissolving too, going down the Pacific to find a place like Mont Tamal Pais in Marin County to watch the sunrise on the beach. Central casting would send everybody. There was always some fool there in an Afghan and playing a flute. The women would sit around blowing bubbles. The children, who all had names like Sunrise and Roach, must have presumed their parents were off their rockers. There was no control. The last thing we would have thought about was the children.
Acid enabled life to go on without regret or remorse. It was like surfing. Over the years, tipping sackfuls of LSD into my system was like putting a Zip drive on my photo library to cram more pictures onto the hard disk. There was a period when I did so much acid that I assimilated more than I could have in a normal existence. It acted as a RAM byte cruncher, like force-feeding geese with information and experience. I used to wish I could jump ahead and come back with all the experiences I would have had in the interim. Acid enables you to take that leap ahead and come back ten years richer, to stand away from the planet and beam into it, to observe it and also be part of it in a new and strange way.
Acid was the devious mad path I snuck down, half-afraid of the medical consequences, but it fortunately acted as a balm and capacitor. It wasn't quite the glue itself that held me together, but it created a reserve current and an auxiliary trajectory chamber where I could dump a lot of psychical stuff I could sort later. When it all surfaced eventually, it came out with a clarity that wasn't frightening but revelatory.
The pictures I shot on acid are good, provided it was a good place to shoot in the first place, particularly a frame I shot in Yosemite, which is quite strong, as though I'd tapped into something. I stopped there with Tony on the way back from a trip to Oregon. This was before the park was compromised, when there was still a bit of Ansel Adams left in the place. It was autumn and there were rainbows in the waterfalls.
I'd trained in forestry for a bit, and I like being out in nature, but I hadn't until then experienced a wilderness trip with the same bright revelation or the ability to transcend mere vision, ambience, and feeling, and interface all that into a photograph. There were no people in these pictures. They were of patterns of leaves, mists breaking a bit of water, the themes of classic oil paintings. It could well have been that it was simply time for this to happen. There was a synergy to the whole undertaking. For some reason, there was a perfect wind on the roll, so there wasn't even half a frame missing. I even took a picture of an oil spot on the road that could have been a junker, but it too was on the money. I used some of the shots from this series in an exhibition. They continue to earn money for me at the agencies that represent my work.
That day in Yosemite, the acid locked something in, as though a giant switch were thrown deep within my aesthetic consciousness. After that, my landscape photography became stronger. It helped me to take pictures with "paint," to use the photographic medium in a more Zen-like way. Rather than doing some demented hippie-trippy bullock through the pastures, I'm able to take the freaky sides and wobbly bits when I'm really peaked out, to take all that fairground spring energy and align it so I can really use it.
Acid wired in an understanding of the Other Side that enabled me to resume my will to live while pointing out that though death is something feared, 'tis better to countenance it with a certain Buddhistic flexibility. By that, I don't necessarily mean "faith," though one does have to attune one's psyche to the forces in control. In Thailand, for instance, you can't ignore the pi, the spirits. If there's one lesson I've learned from being in Southeast Asia, it's that there are energies that comprise a continuum. So it makes sense to have a pi house in your garden to keep them sweet.
Today I'm too old for the uncertainty of LSD. I do enough weird things going off on the road for long periods of time. To minimize the unpredictable, I travel business class on airplanes and stay at nice hotels. Even with the end of the conflict, I just can't take acid in the middle of downtown Cambodia, though I know people who do. The Indochina I've seen, and can still see through the veil of modernity, was weird enough. Everything you saw in Apocalypse Now was real.
Today I meditate before my Buddha each morning. When I find center, when there's nothing to see or touch, I'm in a space that appears to be made of clouds, a marvelous, seamless igloo which is lightly thawed, a sort of inflatable cocoon lined with a plush surface like the long, beautiful white fur I had in my Paris bedroom, which used to be great to fuck on. Then I'm in touch with my missing dead friends to whom the Requiem project is dedicated.
All these faces appear to be seated on banquettes in little sentry boxes or
Orthodox pews like you find in Baltic graveyards for talking to spirits. I'm
standing offstage and they're talking quite audibly. I have remarks to make that
are completely out of place -- as per normal -- and try to project my voice into
this ambience. I seem to be screaming, much as I imagine I did as I woke from
the anesthesia after the head surgery, though in reality it is a mere whisper
they cannot hear.
Excerpted from the anthology: Tripping: An Anthology of True-life Psychedelic Adventures (Penguin), edited by Charles Hayes.
Tim Page is a photographer, journalist, and author of Page after Page: Memoirs of a War-Torn Photographer; Tim Page's Nam; and the coeditor of Requiem: By the Photographers Who Died in Indochina and Vietnam, the 1997 winner of the Robert Capa Gold Medal Award, the International Center of Photography Infinity Award for Best Publication, and other awards. He resides in Kent, England.
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