Editor’s Note: Today we’re excited to feature a Points Interview with David Black, the author of Psychedelic Tricksters: A True Secret History of LSD (independently published, 2020). Black lives in London and is an independent journalist and author. His previous books include The Philosophical Roots of Anti-Capitalism: Essays on History, Culture, and Dialectical Thought and 1839: The Chartist Insurrection.
Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.
Psychedelic Tricksters: A True Secret History of LSD tells the story of various people who made that, beginning with the discovery of LSD’s hallucinogenic properties in 1943 by Albert Hoffman. In the late-1940s psychiatrists started using it as “psychosis-inducing drug” for schizophrenics. CIA officers investigated LSD’s potential as a weapon of mind-control and became enthusiastic trippers themselves. But the CIA and the medical establishment wanted to keep LSD out of the hands of “undesirables.” The “undesirables” included those in the new youth counterculture who challenged the official line on LSD and explored its potential for creativity and spirituality. So, in the 1960s, as LSD “escaped” into the counter-culture, the producers and distributors were forced underground.
I’ve titled the book Psychedelic Tricksters because in mythology the trickster is someone who “unwisely” defies the powers-on-high, as when Prometheus steals fire from Zeus for the benefit of humankind. The trickster’s rebellion always fails and yet is seen as necessary for the origin of civilizations, or perhaps, as in the case of psychedelics, a new beginning for a society that had lost way in war, racism and sexual oppression.
What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?
In the 1980s, some important books were published on the subject, notably Tendler and May’s The Brotherhood of Eternal Love: From Flower Power to Hippie Mafia – The Story of the LSD Counterculture, and Lee and Shlain’s Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD. My research shows that a lot of the information in these books about the acid-producers and their connections was inaccurate or incomplete. The new book updates these previous findings and charts the operations of underground production networks on both sides of Atlantic and their effect on the counterculture, especially music.
I owe a lot to Owsley Stanley’s brilliant apprentice chemist, Tim Scully, who was associated with the Brotherhood of Eternal Love. Tim helped me considerably in my research. The Brotherhood certainly weren’t any kind of “mafia”; indeed, compared to the Hell’s Angels – who also figure in the story — they were… angelic. There has been a lot of myth-making and conspiracy-theorizing about the Brotherhood’s connection to the LSD-producer Ronald Stark, who got out of prison in Italy in 1979 after he convinced the appeals judge that he had been a US intelligence agent all along. In fact Stark, like Timothy Leary, Alfred Hubbard and a lot of others I write about, was a trickster, though no less fascinating for that.
The book’s subtitle is A True Secret History or LSD (note the singular; I don’t claim it to be the secret history). “Truth” has been relativized in our post-modern world, so my use of “true” is a bit of a provocation to conspiracy theorists. The book certainly deals with “conspiracies” but, in this strange history that has affected all of our lives, theorizing is worse than useless without trying to show and tell what actually happened.
Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?
The authors of novels and narrative history tell stories, though for each the rules are different: the novelist who gets too close to empirical reality runs the risk of boring the reader and becoming irrelevant; the writer of a history has an obligation to suppress fantasy and to root facts in sources. Writing this strictly non-fiction book I found myself empathising with the tricksters, whether I liked and admired them or not. In both fictional and non-fiction narrative, the aim is to get the reader to care about what happens to the characters. I explore, for example, the motivations of Timothy Leary, “guru” of the counterculture, and Sidney Gottlieb, whose biographer describes him as the “CIA’s Poisoner-in-Chief.” They were on completely opposite sides ideologically, but both of them as scientists thought they were acting in the best interests of humanity; and both were tricksters, dedicated to impossible goals.
Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?
For British researchers of psychedelic history the holy grail would be to find and interview Richard Kemp, the leading British underground LSD chemist, who wanted to revolutionize social consciousness with LSD. Since he came of out prison in the mid-1980s his whereabouts have been a mystery. If he’s alive he’ll be 77. But if is he still around he might just want to be left alone.
In an audio version of the book, who should provide the narration?
As a former actor, I’m minded to do it myself, but failing that I’d go for Michael Caine.