9 February 2012
It's the summer of 1971 and an eighteen-year-old Bill Booker has reached an important developmental point. With a childhood lacking in self-confidence behind him, he's branching out, finding new friends, thinking about purposeful journeys and being lured by the exciting scent of changing times. There's a host of new music to dig, from serious cred stuff such as the Floyd and Syd Barrett, King Crimson, Cream and Beefheart, to the more middling cred ELP and Hawkwind, to the downright lightweight, such as the Osmonds. When it comes to reading material there's Hesse, Heinlein and Jung, International Times and Oz, the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and Mr Natural...all of it imbibed through `a scented blue haze of joss and marijuana smoke.'
Bill and his gang see themselves as `Freaks' with a capital F--a new incarnation of youth culture at the start of a new decade--and one Saturday the group identity gets expanded to `The Semi-Secret Fellowship of Freaks'. With suitably raised consciousness, Bill attempts to define his goals. `I wanted to be creative. I wanted spiritual enlightenment, although I only had a vague idea of what that meant. I wanted a girlfriend. I wanted true love. I wanted to be wise, joyful and fulfilled. I wanted to always know that life was meaningful. I wanted to know that there were mysteries to contemplate.'
One might well ask what is the difference between Freaks and good old hippies? As they both tick so many of the same boxes--long hair, alternative dress and lifestyles, anti-establishment, mystically orientated, into dope and acid, listen to Pink Floyd--it's hard to get so much as a tissue paper between them. Yet early in the 1970s there's already a sense that being a hippy is a bit old hat, you know man, so '60s, and now we're in a bright new decade with bright new decimal currency replacing that old £.s.d. (not LSD!) and we need to carve out a fresh identity. Being a Freak then is a reaction against the perceived countercultural conformity of hippiedom--Freaks are a bit rawer, edgier and less pretentious.
There is also the parallel to the aforementioned comic book characters, the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, created by Gilbert Shelton. In one scene the quartet of friends assign the identities of the Brothers to one another, with Jake becoming Freewheelin' Franklin; Bill, as the clever one, becoming Phineas; Syd, as the least skinny, becoming Fat Freddy; and resident misanthrope Ray settling for Fat Freddy's Cat.
But of course it hardly matters what they call themselves; be it angry young men, beats, mods, rockers, hippies, freaks, bikers, greasers, punks, new romantics or whatever; the point is that each successive manifestation owns the stage for a limited, ephemeral period--that magic time after the final sandbags of childhood have been thrown overboard and before the claims of adult responsibility start to bring the balloon back down and the next generation take over the spotlight.
As for LSD (not £.s.d.!) that plays a pivotal role in the proceedings, and our Freaks, naturally, are also Trippers, as the book's admirably straightforward title suggests. And Bill's trip descriptions are right up there with the best. In one session he's sprawled out on the sofa, going up and reaching the end of the first transformative hour, and The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is on the turntable. `I'm grinning the Grin of Madness; my face stretched wider and wider, the corners of my mouth pulling away in opposite directions until my grin encompasses the universe. Habitual thoughts fall away like dry scabs. My mind is borne into clear, cool space. It is a clean page upon which each experience is imprinted with icy crispness. With the eyes of my soul I stare into the maelstrom of possibilities that is Existence--and grin.'
The familiar twists and turns of the ride that is the acid trip are put across marvellously in several accounts throughout the book. Walls perform deep breathing exercises; a carpet becomes a seething mattress of giant frogspawn; strange `entities' and apparitions are mutually sighted, such as pair of figures in a churchyard who disappear on closer inspection. Then there's the problem of tripping in pubs--thinking people are watching you, so you look to see if they are and they return the looks, locking in the dreadful self-fulfilling loop of paranoia. Yes, we've all been there. But as a counterbalance there's the magic of outdoor night tripping, a Lord of the Rings-style adventure with a conjectured soundtrack of early Floyd and Hawkwind. `Under the ribcage arches of laneside trees we walk, zigzagging, amid green-purple meshes spiralling from clumps of foliage to the earth, like animated three-dimensional wallpaper patterns, or what wallpaper patterns seem to aspire to but never attain.'
The bulk of the summer's adventures involve a low-budget trip from hometown Leicester to Weymouth, hitchhiking, sleeping rough and camping in true Kerouac `bumming around' style. Long distance hitchhiking is now a rarity, an anachronism, but in those days everyone indulged; and its precariousness and unreliability as a mode of transport are well captured. Fruitless overheated hours on the roadside are punctuated by `stupidly grinning prats in suits who shouted some unintelligible insults at us, swerving towards us and away at the last instant before gunning their motor off down the road.' After a night on a footpath, yielding an insect-bitten face, Bill and his mates are rejected from a campsite for their freaky appearance, and they eventually find an out-of-town site, involving long commutes. But none of it dampens their spirits, and they revel in the simple things, such as the coastal atmosphere, pints of bitter and their relentlessly unvarying diet of egg and chips, which makes one fear for the lack of roughage in their diet and their cholesterol levels. Such is the solipsism of Trippers, egg and chips becomes the best possible meal in the entire world...and why not?
A fortuitous encounter with another Freak in Weymouth leads to a party invite in Leamington Spa, and here Bill gets involved with a new set, some more acid and has a brief affair, all simultaneously, with pyrotechnic results. `Each thrust into Nell ignites a blast of brilliant light through my body, releasing a flood of spectral images in my head. I'm rushing through a tunnel of trees towards a castle gateway with delicate tracery cut into its stonework and lit from within by a thousand glimmering oil lamps. I'm flying through the castle gateway into a corridor where light from dozens of chandeliers sparkles from prisms of crystal, on into cloisters lined with gothic arches rich in erotic scenes...onward through aisles, passages, gangways and tunnels without end.'
But there's a downside too, and one of Bill's mates, having had too much possibly adulterated acid, ends up in the local nuthouse. This scene and several others make you aware of how much the world has changed in forty years. Back then the mere fact of long hair marked you out as a renegade, a waster, and was sufficient in itself to induce gangs of skinheads to throw bricks at you. And in the world of Cuckoo's Nest psychiatry, acid was considered on par with heroin as addictive, and part of the `cure' for acid psychosis involved an enforced haircut that left the hapless victim looking, according to one mate, like Joan of Arc. What a telling comparison!
Trippers ends with some philosophical ruminations--`The Grail is the meeting place where the light of understanding and the light at the heart of manifestation are one'--and as the narrative fades to black, we're left to wonder about the rest of Bill's life. That's the beauty of selection by book-ending, presenting a chosen vivid slice of life to synecdochically represent the whole. Ultimately Trippers is about the small writ large, the accumulation of much diverse detail to make the past live again in thrumming eidetic vibrancy. Like the best of those '70s album covers whose designs leap out at you, at once specific to a milieu yet archetypal, the adventures of Bill and his mates celebrate both idiosyncrasy and commonality. Four decades on those happenings have matured like good port, and the taste is sweet to those who've trod similar paths and no doubt to those who maybe wished they had.