Thursday, May 1, 2008

Albert Hofmann 1906-2008

Left: Albert Hofmann shows us the molecule. (But first, are you experienced?) Photo from the New York Times.


Albert Hofmann was always pretty freaked out by the massive amounts of LSD taken in the USA. No wonder; he seemed transformed by only a small amount. At his 100-year-birthday celebration, covered by the New York Times two years ago, he described the experience of working for Swiss pharmaceutical company Sandoz Laboratories, isolating rye-grown, poisonous ergot fungus, used successfully by midwives for millennia to precipitate childbirth. He finally isolated the compound, lysergic acid. Tinkering a bit, it was his 25th compound that unlocked the stratosphere, lysergic acid diethylamide.

As legend and myth tell us, if you get any onya, well, kiss it goodbye for 10-12 hours. The stories are never-ending--one of my favorites involves an old friend who was cutting tabs of acid and looked down after about an hour to see his hands melting. (Humorously, he told me "I knew I'd never get any work done with hands like THOSE!")

LSD is tasteless, odorless, colorless and can be absorbed right through the skin. What, did you panic and decide you didn't want any after all? Ha! Too late, babe. Toss your cookies into the toilet all you want, but it's too late, ignition is imminent and your ticket to Andromeda will NOT be canceled, however much you barf up that little tab of paper with Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer's Apprentice printed thereon. You don't even have to swallow it; in fact, when some Yippie (I think it was Paul Krassner) spat on somebody important (possibly Richard Nixon?), law enforcement analyzed the saliva to make sure no LSD was present. (Chatter of dosing Richard Nixon was constant. Not as punishment, but to enlighten him, which as we know, he sorely needed.)

It was said that Hizzoner, Owsley himself, CLOSED THE LAB during the final stage of chemical composition, whatever IT IS that makes it happen. WE ARE CLOSING THE LAB, announced Bear. And if you were inside after the doors closed, you stayed in--and you went to Andromeda with everyone else. Those not ready for space travel waited patiently outside for the batch to be done, several hours it was, and then the magic batch was ready. Owsley's famous product, the veritable Cadillac of psychedelic drugs, then went into the eager hands of the Bay Area's prodigious acidheads, always up for infinite experimentation. The FINAL STAGE (more mythical terms) means one must inhale it, and then, like it's inventor, you are tripping.

At left: Owsley's acid tabs were often printed with R. Crumb's underground comic-book character Mr Natural on them, and this became a sign of quality as well as a brand name: "Does anyone have any Mr Natural?"

In the late 70s, various university towns hosted many tales of disreputable chemists, dropouts from various nearby schools, synthesizing LSD in the garage, but UNWILLING to go to the much-heralded, necessary FINAL STAGE--then selling this inferior, not-completely-synthesized product on the street as acid. Many of the bad trips, muscle-squeezing aches (imitating strychnine poisoning), crashing headaches and other bad side effects of late 70s acid, were said to be caused by this not-LSD, that was known as LSA. I have no way of knowing if these stories are true. Alas, one of the negative side effects of the drug war, then as now, has been to keep people uneducated about the basics; the street thrived on rumor. (And BTW, you are invited to post your own mythology and rumor in the comments!) Personally, I've always enjoyed these stories as spiritual dharma-talk: you know the disreputable acid-manufacturer by the fact that he is not willing to take his LSD himself.

But Dr Hofmann did. Of course, as stated above, he had to.

It was as he was synthesizing the drug on a Friday afternoon in April 1943 that he first experienced the altered state of consciousness for which it became famous. "Immediately, I recognized it as the same experience I had had as a child," he said. "I didn't know what caused it, but I knew that it was important."

When he returned to his lab the next Monday, he tried to identify the source of his experience, believing first that it had come from the fumes of a chloroform-like solvent he had been using. Inhaling the fumes produced no effect, though, and he realized he must have somehow ingested a trace of LSD. "LSD spoke to me," Mr. Hofmann said with an amused, animated smile. "He came to me and said, 'You must find me.' He told me, 'Don't give me to the pharmacologist, he won't find anything.' "

He experimented with the drug, taking a dose so small that even the most active toxin known at that time would have had little or no effect. The result with LSD, however, was a powerful experience, during which he rode his bicycle home, accompanied by an assistant. That day, April 19, later became memorialized by LSD enthusiasts as "bicycle day."
Riding the bicycle, Hofmann famously said "I was seeing what Adam had seen on the morning of his own creation - the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence."(1) Words quoted over and over again, it was the statement heard round the world.

The rest, as they say, is history.
Mr. Hofmann participated in tests in a Sandoz laboratory, but found the experience frightening and realized that the drug should be used only under carefully controlled circumstances.
And this is what brought the CIA knocking. You have WHAT? A scary drug? When the Generals come calling, you know you got trouble.(2)

Thus, Hofmann learned the Gospel Rule of LSD (SET AND SETTING!) before anybody else:
In 1951, [Hofmann] wrote to the German novelist Ernst Junger, who had experimented with mescaline, and proposed that they take LSD together. They each took 0.05 milligrams of pure LSD at Mr. Hofmann's home accompanied by roses, music by Mozart and burning Japanese incense. "That was the first planned psychedelic test," Mr. Hofmann said.

He took the drug dozens of times after that, he said, and once experienced what he called a "horror trip" when he was tired and Mr. Junger gave him amphetamines first. But his hallucinogenic days are long behind him.

"I know LSD; I don't need to take it anymore," Mr. Hofmann said. "Maybe when I die, like Aldous Huxley," who asked his wife for an injection of LSD to help him through the final painful throes of his fatal throat cancer.

But Mr. Hofmann calls LSD "medicine for the soul" and is frustrated by the worldwide prohibition that has pushed it underground. "It was used very successfully for 10 years in psychoanalysis," he said, adding that the drug was hijacked by the youth movement of the 1960's and then demonized by the establishment that the movement opposed.
Indeed, we might name Timothy Leary the PT Barnum of the we go from bourgeois, ultra-civilized Hofmann and his Mozart (the museum or the drawing room, if you will) to the Merry Pranksters, Ken Kesey, Leary and the Grateful Dead, signifying the carnival, the circus, the traveling show, scary gypsies.(3) As LSD made it's way down the social ladder, it would become more dangerous, as indeed, life on the lower rungs is more fraught with danger in general. Dangerous, my late Native American friend Steve Conliff used to say, like gunpowder or nuclear fission. In the right hands, great, useful, incredible! But in the wrong hands?

I repeat, in the wrong hands? (4) When administering LSD, mind control is fairly easy to accomplish. And it was that hugely scary, almost effortless mind-control--the various vampiristic elements of the counterculture--that gave everyone pause. (They liked to call it "suggestibility" in the mental health literature.) As Leary was busted by none other than G. Gordon Liddy at Millbrook (5) the whole enterprise came crashing down, at least for awhile. But alas, the myth, the legend, the concept, would never die.

"Wanna buy a space ticket/see God?" is a pretty amazing selling-point. As we say in retail, it sells itself. The echoes of Eden, the invitation to bite the forbidden fruit and ye will be as Gods, is just TOO MUCH for some of us.

As lesser psychedelics, such as party-friendly Ecstasy, would take over the kids' market, LSD now remains in the hands of the psychedelic connoisseur, or the interrogator.

And now, the man who gave us the key to the golden door, has passed:
Mr. Hofmann rose, slightly stooped and now barely reaching five feet, and walked through his house with his arm-support cane. When asked if the drug had deepened his understanding of death, he appeared mildly startled and said no. "I go back to where I came from, to where I was before I was born, that's all," he said.
Goodbye, Dr Hofmann. And thank you for Andromeda. It was beautiful.


1) See Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream by Jay Stevens.

2) Heartily recommend the highly flawed but fascinating LSD-inspired movie, Brainstorm. Not entirely the movie-makers' fault that the movie ends badly, since Natalie Wood died during filming, re-arranging the plot. For a comprehensive account of extensive CIA research into LSD-based interrogation techniques (testing LSD on regular people who had no idea what awaited them), see the invaluable Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties and Beyond by Martin Lee and Bruce Shlain.

3) See The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, by Tom Wolfe.

4) See THE FAMILY: The Story of Charles Manson's Dune Buggy Attack Battalion by Ed Sanders--the best book to place the whole Manson-family saga in the social setting of the times. (COURT TV groupies, take note, has tons of great observations, hippie history and creepy connections that you'll never read anywhere else.)

5) For both sides of this bust, see Flashbacks, Timothy Leary's autobiography. G. Gordon Liddy gives his version in his own autobiography, Will. Interestingly, they mirror each other's account of the bust remarkably well. Later, they would serve time in the same prison! (Is America great or what?)


Ted said...

So why aren't you writing for Rolling Stone?

Ravenmn said...

Really great story, Daisy. Love the linkage and the connections you've made.

John Powers said...

Yes I'll pile on: "Great writing!"

I'm particularly happy that you note the dangers, and obliquely the military use of the LSD. I don't know the stories, but being "of a certain age" I remember that the public was generally aware of the mischief made possible by LSD. Regular people worried about the water supply, for example. Drugs as an instrument of rogue state power, seems out of mind these days--not that we need yet another thing to be afraid of.

It's bad form of me but here's a link to post that gives the basic outlines of the strange case of Dr. Frank Olsen, a CIA operative murdered to prevent his telling about mind-control projects. Notable story for many reasons, and one side note are the roles of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney played as the story developed.

A. J. Luxton said...

Thanks for this.

In response to the article, and to your comment on my entry -- I'm responding here, not there, for various reasons at the moment -- well, first, I'm really glad you wrote this. Someone needed to. I didn't know about his death until seeing your entry. I'm glad he lived such a long and wonderful life.

One of my best bonding moments with my father was talking to him about Albert Hoffmann.

When I first arrived -- on the internet, into adulthood, more or less simultaneously: just plain arrived -- entheogens were one of my major interests, and I found, on Usenet, sources that got me past all the rumors and nonsense, other sources that led to books and further information and, yes, the history of all this, Hoffmann's famous bicycle ride and the rest...

I'm doubly glad for that this week, and finding it harder to talk about it than usual, because a friend's adult son just ended up in a tragic car accident, his fiance dead, triggered by incautious use of these things.

I'm usually one of the loudest advocates of knowing the territory, of informational access and cautious use, but I'm staying far away from anything remotely like speechifying, for a while. Otherwise I would link your entry in my post (and may do so anyway, next week -- or if I start that secondary blog I've been talking about doing, sooner.)

La Lubu said...

Wonderful post!

That day, April 19, later became memorialized by LSD enthusiasts as "bicycle day."

After I read that, I thought, "Bi-cycle! Bi-cycle! I want to ride my bi-cy-cle I want to ride my bike..."

Dave Dubya said...

Wonderful post, Daisy.

I do believe Albert's "problem child" did, indeed, slow down the end of the world.

Sadly, authoritarians with their alchohol-fueled perspective have done more damage to humanity than even the most visionary artists can repair.

However, we still have the personal choice between "You're either with us or against us" and "All You Need Is Love".


Vanessa said...

Hey, Daisy, you're an excellent writer.

I've never heard of Bicycle day. Maybe I'll find a babysitter and convince the husband we should celebrate it next year!

Winter said...

I and my best mate took some LSD once, but we were too scared to take enough to have a serious effect. So, we ended up re-potting all the plants in the house because they were just "so green" (never seen them that green since) and kjust looked like they needed re-potting all of a sudden. There was one plant that was too big to re-pot so my friend put fresh earth on it anyway so that "he wouldn't feel left out." All the while, we were saying to each other, "It's not having any effect is it?" A good afternoon.

jollyroger said...

Proving that "only the good die *young..."

Acid saved my life--still does when I can get it (someone scared the shit out of all the chemists...)

*Please do not remonstrate on this point--the sainted doctor was young; his paperwork was old.

Anonymous said...

nice eulogy.