Be Not Content: A Subterranean Journal, by William J. Craddock. Originally published in 1970 by Doubleday. Reprinted in 2011 by Transreal Books. Available for Kindle and NOOK from publisher Rudy Rucker, $6, or in paperback from Amazon, $16.
Reviewed by Steve Silberman
A Place You'll Never See
In the late 1960s, my family lived in a middle-class housing development in New York City called Fresh Meadows. An attempt to build a suburban-style utopia in the middle of Queens for returning World War 2 veterans, it was a cheerful place to grow up, with lots of trees, playgrounds linked by winding paths, and a grassy slope behind our apartment complex that was perfect for sledding in the winter. It was on that hill, one day in 1968 or so, that I met a group of refugees from another brave attempt to construct utopia in the midst of an American city.
It was a strange time to be a kid. Every night the sober, gray-faced men on TV issued dispatches from the ongoing apocalypse: liquid fire raining from the sky onto huts in Vietnam; mobs of police charging into crowds of college students, clubs flailing; flags torched, ghettos ablaze, and an actual pig running for President. Meanwhile, when my mother and father took me and my sister to Central Park on Sundays, Bethesda fountain was filled with longhaired men and women splashing around naked. I decided that when I grew up, I wanted to be like them. I turned my room into a little shrine of freakdom lit by candles weeping rainbow tears down the straw sides of chianti bottles.
In that context where anything at all might happen, it didn't seem unusual to walk behind our building on 69th Avenue one day and find a group of older kids lying on a blanket, limbs intertwined, gazing up at the clouds and giggling occasionally between lengthy intervals of silence. Always curious, I walked right up and started asking questions. They were very friendly, and invited me to join them in playful activities like cutting leaves out of paper and hanging them in the trees. Every now and then, one of them would utter a cryptic remark along the lines of, "Should we drop another tab of blue or wait?" Even at age nine, I was savvy enough to realize that they were talking about something illegal, probably drugs. It didn't matter. The sly elves that had mysteriously appeared in my backyard were obviously harmless, and I wasn't surprised when I walked out the next morning and found them still camping out beside the basketball court.
After another day of soaking up the ambience of their psychedelic idyll, I invited them upstairs to meet my parents. This wasn't as foolish as it appears: my parents were anti-war radicals, albeit of the academic, buttoned-down, cigarette-smoking, Marx-and-Engels-quoting, Mao's little-red-book-reading, New Leftist type; but I hoped everyone might see eye-to-eye on the coming revolution. I don't remember how my parents reacted to my new pals from the backyard, but all seemed to go well. And I'll never forget what one young woman in the group said to me, right before they were sucked back into the space-time continuum, when I asked them where they came from: "We're from a place you'll never see -- the Haight-Ashbury."
O the patchouli-scented portents, O the irony! Because, dear reader, I have now been a resident of the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in San Francisco for 33 years -- a fact I definitely attribute to my chance meeting in Fresh Meadows with those echt hippies. But in truth, the nice lady in the purple paisley schmatte was right on. As it has been since I moved here, Haight Street is a tie-dyed dump, a dreadlocked tourist trap lined with sleazy smoke shops and prep-school refuseniks on the road to rehab under macabre murals of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix -- hardly the shining New Jerusalem that the first-generation hippies hoped to build here in the belly of the beast.
As it turns out, even seeing the Haight-Ashbury of that era through the borrowed eyes of eyewitnesses and historians has been difficult. The Paradise Now! aesthetic of the lysergic lotus-eaters didn't lend itself to careful chronicling and recollections in sober tranquility, as anyone who has tried to sit through the cosmically tedious home movies of the Merry Pranksters sloshing in the mud can attest. Ironically, a book that was thought to be insufferably square by anyone who appeared in its pages -- Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, published in 1968 -- has stood virtually unchallenged as the most vivid literary representation of the era, with its hurtling descriptions of the young Grateful Dead in full fury at Ken Kesey's multimedia clusterfucks, shining in the chaotic din "like a light-bulb in a womb."
Few certifiably clued-in alumni of that scene, it seems, were left with enough cognitive fortitude to compile the definitive tale of the tribe. Charles Perry's The Haight-Ashbury: A History is a dutifully researched, workmanlike account of events, but it lacks the bravado and flash that gave the era its lasting mythological dimension. Before ODing on a New York subway, Emmett Grogan, the swashbuckling founder of the Diggers -- the prototypical commune that kept the pilgrim hordes fed with dumpster-dive cuisine until the Mafia, speed, and busloads of free-love rubberneckers trampled down flower power for good -- wrote a memoir of the Haight called Ringolevio that had an appealing hip swagger, but never quite rose to the level of great art, as Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" and Jack Kerouac's On the Road had done for the previous Beat generation of seekers.
Now, however, another title has been added to the very short list of engaging books about the golden age of neuro-hacking, when a bunch of scruffy street kids laid claim to the most potent "mind-manifesting" molecules in history, and used them to storm the synaptic gates of Heaven. First published in 1970 and long out of print, moldering on a few select dusty bookshelves beside copies of A Separate Reality, Das Energi, and The Whole Earth Catalog, William Craddock's Be Not Content is now back as an ebook and limited-edition paperback, snatched out of the memory hole by Rudy Rucker, the computer scientist and mathematician who helped launch the cyberpunk genre of fiction with his Ware tetralogy and "transrealist" novels like White Light.
Ballsy, redemptively honest, astonishingly inventive, flawed, and ultimately heartbreaking, Be Not Content made a significant impact on the handful of freaks who read it, including Rucker himself, who writes on his website, "I quickly began to idolize Craddock. I had my own memories of the psychedelic revolution, and when reading Be Not Content I felt -- Yes. This is the way it was. This guy got it right." Rucker's act of digital resurrection also represents another appealing potential for the ebook format: the revival of obscure, obsolete titles by readers obsessed enough to secure the reprint rights.
No Business Like Show Business
The Icarus ascent of Craddock's protagonist -- the deliciously named Abel Egregore -- begins in the high schools and garages of the South Bay, where the Dead also came of age in the subculturally pregnant interval between Beat and Beatles. Egregore's inner monologues in the first chapters of the book -- the musings of a teenage pothead who is too clever by half -- still ring true and sharp. "I scoffed at the so-called teachers and their pitiful, limited power… I saw myself as a kind of super-being -- homo superior -- observing lesser creatures from a lofty height, dabbling in their affairs when the mood hit me, when it was to my advantage… A calculating glint in my eyes informed people that I'd seen through the structure and couldn't be touched. And the sad thing was, I received validation. It worked. Easy. Too easy."
To bestir himself from his suburban ennui, Egregore restores a vintage Harley and starts hanging around with the Night Riders, one of many local gangs -- including the Hell's Angels and Gypsy Jokers -- who fancied themselves the last true American outlaws, the "1% free," while throttling alleged pansies with pool cues and treating women like disposable shop-rags for mopping up excess splooge. Into this Pabst-drenched milieu, Sandoz chemist Albert Hofmann's "problem child" -- LSD! -- arrived like a Zen bomb, opening unutterable chasms of profundity between those who could Dig It and those who couldn't.
With each safari into hyperspace, that "It" became more and more vast, swelling in significance until it became a free-floating cypher standing in for the whole universe. There are no better descriptions of what it must have felt like to be a head in the first days of the acid flash -- when it was still a secret, self-selecting club of adepts -- than those in this book. Egregore instantly disowns the "hard-guy game" and casual brutality of his biker brothers, and embraces a munificent Eternal Now uncovered by the drug, "a zone where everything's just about ready to have already happened, making it all cool."
This zone was disorienting at first, as the gaga scripts and hollow pantomimes of ego and consensus reality were sandblasted away, but "it was good," Egregore concluded. "A new kind of good. No, an old kind of good, almost remembered from early inferred promises." Of course, soon he had a new problem -- figuring out how to stay in the zone, when the Tao grace of the golden molecules only lasted for 8 to 12 hours. But with new shipments of synthesized enlightenment arriving daily from the labs of highly skilled and meticulous (artisanal, one might say) underground chemists like Owsley Stanley, there was no need to ever come down. Right?
In one of the many virtuosic passages in the book, the author recounts an epic trip at Big Sur in which multiple eternities of experience are compressed into just a few hours on Earth. Unlike, say, Timothy Leary, who hyped acid to potential Harvard dropouts as Siddhartha meets the Bhagavad Gita, Craddock is pitch-perfect on the uncanny juxtapositions of sublime and ridiculous that are the texture of actual psychedelic experience. Fans of writers like Philip K. Dick, Hunter Thompson, and William Burroughs will appreciate passages like this:
The landscape, my body, everything around me changed form and color and validity so rapidly that it was useless to move in any one direction. There was no direction that couldn't shift without warning. I vaguely remembered a man named Admiral Dewey and then, with absolute clarity, a portion of the Book of the Dead. Wise teaching which applied perfectly to my situation. I began to meditate on the protective figure of Admiral Dewey… with poor results. Gray smoke swept in to cover everything. A horrible stench filled my nostrils. "Burning brain cells," hissed a coiling energy snake, encircling my left leg. "There's no business like show business!" sang Milton Berle, accompanied by a brassy band composed of mummified fire-men, plucking strings, tapping keys and pushing valves with brittle brown french-fried fingers.
Craddock makes an ingenious distinction between ordinary, mundane "clock-time" and "lived-time," the vastly elongated subjective experience of those taking the drug. A study of psilocybin conducted at the University of Oxford last year may offer a glimpse into the neural underpinnings of Craddock's lived-time effect. While the hoary cliché is that psychedelics are a "turn on" for the brain, the researchers' fMRI scans of subjects taking the potent hallucinogen found the opposite. A dose of psilocybin -- the active principle of mushrooms that have been employed in religious ceremonies in Mexico and Guatemala for thousands of years -- triggered a decrease of blood flow to brain areas like the anterior cingulate cortex and medial prefrontal cortex, which act as filters for the incoming flood of sensory data, and as hubs for relaying this data from one region of the cortex to another. The Oxford team speculated that by temporarily throttling these mechanisms for making sense of the environment, the drug enables the brain to experience "unrestrained cognition" -- the world naked, before the internal censors get to work.
A parallel phenomenon may be behind the familiar experience of subjective time seeming to dilate during an emergency. Survivors of car accidents often report that the crash "seemed to take forever" to happen. The work of neuroscientist David Eagleman confirms this phenomenon, but suggests that the dilation happens in retrospect, when the brain attempts to reconstruct the experience in memory. The more frightening or thrilling an experience, the more lived-time seems to elapse while it unfolds. Most acid trips (I say after reading several notable academic papers on the subject, dear editor -- SS) are more-than-you-can-eat smorgasbords of joy, terror, wonder, and emotions for which words haven't been invented yet, which may be why memorable books on the subject are so scarce. There's just too much to say, and too little to say it with (and music usually says it better). Craddock's characters are often reduced to monosyllables of awe: Wow and Om and Ah!
Who knows how much lived-time unfolded in the minds of my visitors from the Haight-Ashbury between their first and second day of camping out behind our apartment building in New York City? It may have been centuries. "If the doors of perception were cleansed," wrote British multimedia pioneer William Blake in the late 18th Century (to be quoted by Aldous Huxley re: mescaline in the 20th), "every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite."
Well, OK! Scrub away, my man. But then what? Ultimately, all this "lived-time" took its toll on the early psychonauts, and Craddock's description of the aftermath is darkly hilarious:
So much “lived-time” used up in so little “clock-time” and the world still pretty much the same and us still pretty much the same except for having grown even farther away from the straight-world and its children, having grown hairier on the outside and older-younger on the inside because of the passage of so much lived-time…“Decrepit, old, tired minds,” said Baxtor, “being carried around in twenty-year-old bodies. A ludicrous spectacle. People have been conditioned to expect some sort of body-mind correlation. How will they react to the sight of a drooling, senile twenty-five-year-old being wheeled into the park by attendants? What excuse would you give? You couldn’t say, ‘Well, there’s nothing really wrong with him. He’s just old.’”
After the Ecstasy, the Laundry
If you've lived in the Haight-Ashbury as long as I have, the sight of wizened, prematurely demented 25-year-olds being wheeled into the park is no mere figure of speech. The problem with seeking Buddhahood through a steady diet of psychedelics is not that you never find it -- it's that you find it and lose it, again and again, while the mundane particulars that you're too stoned to deal with (like your marriage, job, kids, health) are sliding downhill.
That's why seasoned practitioners of mindfulness meditation like to remind one another, "After the ecstasy, the laundry." One of the practical problems with the Haight was that it was a Nirvana predicated on staying high 24/7 while someone else did the washing and preparation of the macrobiotic stew -- such as your girlfriend or your mother. (The word chicks is the most jarringly pervasive archaism in Craddock's book.) That's not a path to supreme enlightenment, it's a junket on someone else's karmic credit card.
The final chapters of Be Not Content chronicle Egregore's increasingly strung-out friends' ragged descents to Earth on molten wings after one too many fly-bys of naked infinity, plunging toward the ultimate comedown: Baxtor's realization that "We’re going to grow old and die. That’s all. That’s all there is." (For some characters in the book, the dying comes first.)
But without spoiling too much of what happens, after grueling ordeals, sidetracks, and setbacks of his own, Egregore finally reaches a place of profound peace and acceptance of the way things are, including the inevitability of aging and death. Having blasted his subjective universe down to a bare nub, he finds a way to allow the cadences of the human world to begin again, and for him to be in tune with them. It’s as much enlightenment as can be had from relentlessly overclocking your neural networks, and Egregore comes to it with unusual honesty and humility.
It's hard to read Be Not Content, however, and not wish that things had unfolded differently for the psychedelic revolution. The hyperbolic self-promotion of carnival barkers like Leary, for instance, only gave the always-eager authorities more excuses to shut down dozens of promising avenues of research. After decades of delay, this work is finally revving up again through the diligent efforts of groups like MAPS.
The Haight could have learned a lot from civilizations that have employed psychoactive botanicals for thousands of years without producing generations of burned-out, spaced-out, used-up former psychonauts. One key difference between those civilizations and the first hippies was that psychedelic experience was part of their culture, structured by collective rituals, and sanctioned by the tribal elders as a path to wisdom and healing. The first hippies, on the other hand, took drugs to "transcend" their own culture and put distance between themselves and their fellow citizens, and rejected their elders -- other than the gurus smiling mildly down from posters on the wall -- as having no authentic guidance to offer ("Don't trust anyone over 30").
Also, while psychedelics were certainly used in sacramental settings in the early days of hippiedom, they quickly became just another way to get wasted. By contrast, in the Native American Church -- one of the only denominations to earn a religious exemption from U.S. drug laws -- peyote is employed as a means of getting truly sober and freeing oneself from bondage to alcohol. (Anthropologist Warren d'Azevedo's fine book Straight with the Medicine is a collection of oral accounts of this "Tipi Way" to sobriety by Washoe elders.)
Of course, once the war on drugs was in full swing -- hastened by ubiquitous, fact-free media reports of broken chromosomes and acidheads blinded by staring into the sun -- the notion of using psychedelics in structured settings for psychotherapy and other paths of personal growth was out the window. Having to constantly watch over your shoulder or listen for the inevitable knock on the door practically guarantees a paranoid trip.
The youth culture's emphasis on, well, youth -- and its dangerous habit of mistaking innocence and naiveté for forms of wisdom -- also meant that there were precious few elders to be found among the peripatetic tribes of freakdom. Egregore's mentor-oracle is the disembodied voice of Bob Dylan on a turntable (when Dylan himself was only still in his 20s). One of the few voices of experience that intrudes into the Peter Pan landscape of Be Not Content is Allen Ginsberg, who shows up at a rowdy gathering and asks the narrator's biker buddies, "Don't you people want to be happy?" They jeer the poet and call him a "dumb-ass faggot," but Egregore knows he's on the level, which marks the beginning of his disillusionment from his outlaw heroes.
Thus a melancholy father-hunger haunts the margins of this book, as it did the whole of Craddock's generation. It's no wonder that many survivors of the Haight implosion ended up seeking out paternal figures from traditions like yoga and Tibetan Buddhism in the '70s, as well as falling prey to charismatic predators and shysters like Jim Jones, L. Ron Hubbard, and Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.
Astonishingly, Craddock himself was only 21 when he wrote Be Not Content, though he was already a wily old man in lived-time. It would be his one shot at immortality; Doubleday rejected the sequel in favor of Twilight Candelabra, a post-Manson potboiler about cocaine and Satanism. He wrote more novels in the coming years, but no publisher saw fit to print them.
"It’s not the publishing that matters," Craddock would tell his wife, Teresa, "it’s the writing." He died in 2004.
Steve Silberman is writing a book on autism and neurodiversity called NeuroTribes: Thinking Smarter About People Who Think Differently that will be published by Avery/Penguin in 2013. He is a contributing editor of Wired magazine and a blogger for the Public Library of Science. He lives with his husband Keith in San Francisco.