Monday, November 16, 2009

Happy Birthday LSD.

LSD is old enough to be your grandfather today. On this day, November 16, 1938, Albert Hofmann was lead by a "peculiar presentiment" to synthesize LSD for the first time in Sandoz laboratories, Basel, Switzerland. (As a historical moment, it is as good a candidate for the Also Sprach Zarathrustra treatment as any I can think of.) Whether a molecular door into a Higher Reality, or a aimless game of neurochemical pin-ball with your brain as the board, acid is a pivotal part of the cultural matrix that has made us the multi-media mutants we are today.

Acid has a complex cultural legacy. One of its great condtradictions lies in the fact that it provided the youth of the West with a Door into a re-animated cosmos - a world of mystical rather than rational connections and significances. Yet there is no purer product of the rational scientific edifice - LSD came from a laboratory, not an ashram. As Mark Dery points out in his book Escape Velocity, the hippie appropriation of the slogan Better Living Through Chemicals was layered with irony - the notion of enlightenment in a pill was as much a product of technocratic capitalism as it was a reaction against it. In tandem with this, LSD produced a kitsch iconography of kaleidoscopes and sitars, much of which had very little to do with the actual experience itself. (In more recent times, what the trobbing bargain bin techno of psytrance has to with the psychedelic experience will always be a mystery to me.)

But if LSD didn't, contrary to popular expections, make everything beautiful overnight in any kind of lasting way, it crept slowly into the collective bloodstream, mutating twenieth century culture in a variety of subtle, incremental ways. LSD re-invigorated a notion of William James - that everyday consciousness was not the totality of reality, but rather a form of reductive valve that simply made that reality easier to navigate and survive in. For a variety of musicians, writers, artists, and future Silicone Valley visionaries, acid opened up a variety of other channels that the brain could be tuned to - a multiplicity of exotic frequencies that differed in every regard to the base-level signals of survival, status, and compeition that normally predominate in our civilisation. So this day, 71 years ago, can be envisioned as a mutation of the medium of consciousness, as something akin to the movies becoming talkies - or, more aptly, the monochrome of Kansas giving way to the technicolour of Oz.

Boing Boing celebrated the birthday with a wonderful audio visual piece by Larry Carlson, which can be seen here. Linked to that was another Carlson piece, which, in the interests of synchronisity, I feel compelled to post here. The Great One gets around:

Jackie Gleason Manipulating Space and Time from Larry Carlson on Vimeo.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Curious Tale of Jackie Gleason, Richard Nixon, and the Dead Aliens.

Our tale begins in May of 1986, in the Westchester County home of an aging legend: the Great One himself, Jackie Gleason. First we must be introduced to another man: Larry Warren. Warren was a member of the US Air Force Security Police; in 1980 he was stationed at the RAF Brentwaters base in Rendlesham forest, Suffolk, England. Something really strange happened in Rendlesham Forest in December 1980, which is the source of great controversy to this day. A group of RAAF airmen stationed at the base claim to have witnessed the landing of an extraterrestrial craft in the forest. The event, which remains unexplained and hotly debated today, came to be known as the Rendlesham Forest Incident, and the “British Roswell.”

Warren wrote a book called “Left at the Gate” about the incident. In 1986, he was in New York, contributing to HBO and CNN specials about the Rendlesham incident. In his own words: “Through mutual friends who knew members of his family, I was told that Gleason would like to talk to me privately in his home in Westchester County, and so the meeting was a set for a Saturday when we would both have time to relax.” The pair adjourned immediately to Gleason’s recreation room. According again to Warren: “There were hundreds of UFO books all over the place, but Jackie was quick to tell me that this was only a small part of his collection, which was housed in his home in Florida.” The two men commenced drinking (Warren on beers and the Great One on scotch) and talking saucers. It wasn’t until late in the session that Gleason dropped a bombshell: “At some point, Gleason turned to me and said “I’m going to tell you something amazing that will probably come out some day anyway. We’ve got ‘em.” Got what, I wanted to know. Aliens!” Gleason spluttered, catching his breath.” Within a year, Gleason was dead.

Flashback to Florida in 1973.

Jackie Gleason is a show business aristocrat in America. He will be remembered chiefly for two iconic roles – as the luckless, temperamental bus driver Ralph Kramden in The Honeymooners, and as Paul Newman’s sagacious opponent Minnesota Fats in The Hustler. (Kramden provided the model for Fred Flintsone, and thus a whole sub-species of luckless American husband is born, extending into modern times through Al Bundy, Homer Simpson, and a variety of others.) What is less known about Gleason at the time is his fascination with the paranormal. Gleason is a chain smoker of the old school, averaging between five and six packs a day. He apparently suffers from insomnia, and reads long into the night, slowly assembling a collection of fringe/UFO literature which will one day be donated to the University of Miami libraries. He has also built a futuristic house on the outskirts of Peerskill, New York, which resembles, well, a flying saucer. Popular Mechanics run a feature on it, revealing that the “Mothership” contains an eight foot bed with a television built into the ceiling above it. On February 19, 1973, Gleason is in Miami, running a charity golf tournament at the Inverray Golf and Country Club.

Enter Richard Milhous Nixon, 37th President of the United States of America.

Gleason is a keen supporter of both the Republican Party and the FBI, and he and Nixon have been friends for years. The two men play golf on the eighteenth hole of the Inverray Golf course. According to the second-hand testimony of both Frank Warren and Gleason’s second wife Beverly, the conversation soon turns to the subject of UFOs and aliens. Gleason expresses his interest in the subject, and Nixon archly suggests that he, too, is interested in aliens. But he refuses to say too much, and the two complete their game in high spirits.

Now here is where things start to get strange, and increasingly subject to Ripley’s caveat. Apparently, later that night at around twelve o’clock, Nixon shows up at Gleason’s house, by himself, in a private car. Enigmatically, he tells Gleason he has “something to show him”, and the legendary comedian and infamous president head off into the night. Their destination is Homestead Air Force Base. They finally arrive at a segregated compound in the base, and enter a heavily guarded complex of laboratories. Nixon first shows his puzzled guest what he insists are parts of a flying saucer. Gleason is at first convinced that Nixon is playing an elaborate prank, but there is more to come. Ralph Kramden is about to go where he had so often threatened to send his television wife, with the lo-fi rocket propulsion of domestic violence; the Great One is about the come face to face with the Secret of Secrets. “Next, we went into an inner chamber, and there were six or eight of what looked like glass-topped Coke freezers. Inside them were the mangled remains of what I took to be children. Then – upon closer examination – I saw that some of the other figures looked quite old. Most of them were terribly mangled as if they had been in an accident.” According to Warren, Gleason insisted that the bodies had three or four fingers on each hand, and were definitely not human.

What really happened? If the alleged midnight run to Homestead actually happened, was Nixon merely playing his Hollywood buddy for a chump? Was the story a witty invention on Gleason’s part, or perhaps a senile fantasy spun out in later life? Was it merely bid for outrĂ© publicity on the part of Larry Warren and Beverly Gleason? (Are people called Larry inherently untrustworthy?) Or….what if it is entirely true? What if there really was a weird singularity in the history of the twentieth century, a secular miracle that crash-landed onto the soil of the Heartland of Dreams, and found itself buried in reams of secrecy and tabloid myth, and lived on only in that country’s brawling, paranoiac dreamlife? Fact or gonzo folklore, the curious tale of Jackie Gleason, Richard Nixon, and the dead aliens is far too good to resist. “Bang! Zoom! Straight to the moon!

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Way Out World of Long John Nebel.

The America of the 1950’s was a joyfully weird place. The rapidly emerging grids of suburban housing suggested a social planners dream – a Norman Rockwell ideal of prosperity and conformity for the age of rockets and tailfins. Meanwhile, the feverish realm of the b-picture suggested a country – or a psyche – which was perpetually at the mercy of a never-ending tide of monsters, mutants, creatures from outer space, and the occasional gang of beakniks. It was an era of phenomenal growth and security on the one hand, and Creatures, on the other, all of whom Came from very clearly specified locations, and all of whom, for very obvious reasons, Had to be Destroyed.

The continuing UFO saga was beginning to yield its first shivers of kitsch spirituality, in the form of the contactee movement. The contactees were a disparate group of citizens all of whom claimed to have met and established a kind of diplomatic rapport with the denizens of flying saucers. The aliens of the early contactee movements came from our solar system – Mars, Saturn, mostly Venus – to preach a treacly gospel of cosmic brotherhood. They were perfectly anthropomorphic, Hollywood beautiful Aryan humanoids, and they came to be known, hilariously, as the Space Brothers. Needless to say, all of these cosmic diplomats were sorely lacking in credibility. Some, however, were worse than others; the aptly named hillbilly contactee Buck Nelson claimed he was unable to see the sun during a jaunt in a flying saucer, because “space was very dark.”

Happily into the midst of this madness came the pioneering broadcaster Long John Nebel. Nebel was born in Chicago in 1911, and it is said he dropped out of school in the eight grade to commit the archetypal act of defiance against the real world – he ran away with a circus. Nebel wound up in New York in the early thirties, working a variety of gigs until he finally established an auction and consignment store in New Jersey called Long John’s Auctions. Show business was never far from his mind, however, and even then he was a flamboyant personality, known as “Long John, the grab and gravel man.”

In the early fifties, Long John gravitated to radio, establishing a paranormal chat show, the first of its kind, at New York’s WOR AM station. Nebel’s programme basically established the template which Art Bell’s Coast to Coast would later follow so successfully – a freeform nite owl radio forum, in which people with bizarre claims and belief systems were given a non-judgemental podium to spin their tall tales. Long John himself was no true believer, describing himself as a curious sceptic; like Art Bell, he realized the extraordinary riches that existed at the weirder end of the free speech spectrum. Nebel’s programme gave a voice to the burgeoning contactee community, as well a dizzying variety of occultists, conspiracy theorists, and cranks, who would otherwise have remained silent in the staid mediascape of fifties America. He also conducted various interviews with Richard Shaver, whose paranoid schizophrenic visions of a race of nefarious underground robots called the Deros became an minor sensation in the late forties.

Alongside his various guests and callers, Nebel’s show frequently had a studio discussion panel. Regulars in this coterie of the bizarre included Arthur C. Clarke, Frederick Pohl, conjurer and sceptic James Randi (the Great Randi), and the Honeymooners TV star they would later call “the Great One”: Jackie Gleason. As well as being an all-around comedic genius, Gleason had a voracious appetite for the paranormal, and was said to possess the largest private library of books on the subject of UFOs in America. At one time, Gleason was offering 10,000 dollars (later a million) to anyone able to furnish him with physical proof of the existence of aliens. (Although the prize was never claimed, some say that Gleason would, in time, be shown the proof he required. More of this in a later post.)

Though a confirmed sceptic, Nebel’s private life would itself become entwined with what he called “the way out world.” In 1972, Long John married Candy Jones, a fashion model who had been a popular pin-up during WW2. Jones had an erratic, unstable personality, and under hypnosis (by Nebel himself) it emerged that Jones may have been a victim of CIA mind control experiments, carried out under the notorious MK-ULTRA programme. These claims remain controversial to this day, but produced a non-fiction book with a pitch perfect b-movie/grindhouse title: The Control of Candy Jones.

Wading in the weird waters that he did, in an era long prior to caller ID, Long John Nebel was inevitably the victim of many pranks and more abuse; however he gave as good as he got, as these clips amply display:

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Invasion of the Image.

When asked Where do UFOs come from? most saucer buffs are content to say outer space, and leave it at that. This is because most saucer buffs like to regard UFOs as basically physical objects, like trucks or air planes. Trucks or air planes, that is, that come directly from the impossible, yet strangely intelligible, curve of advanced technology represented by outer space.

The problem with this lies in the fact that UFOs derive much of their appeal from the fact they have never been a definite object of any kind. UFOs are tiny smudges on an otherwise pristine canvass; tiny blurry spaces in a moving image that was meant to capture something else. They seem to exist, if they exist at all, to dart across the world's peripheral vision, and prompt people to say things like Did you see that? or What the hell was that?

The human mind abhors blank spaces and fuzzy anomalies as much as nature is assumed to disdain the vacuum, and thus projection, interpretative frames of reference, and belief systems begin. It is for this reason that the real study of UFOs cannot be simply a study of physical objects, at least until someone is lucky enough to capture one in a butterfly net. Their real fascination lies in the study of how information is processed, how it is continually mutated by categorization, and by the assumptions and myths we project onto slippery pockets of raw, unruly data. Semantically, the UFO is an oxymoron: an indefinite object that nevertheless conjures a solid, tangible concept in most people's minds, i.e. a vehicle from outer space, piloted by the strangely blank, iconic figures that are believed to pilot such things. If you think about this at all, the UFO begins to appear less a dynamic, physical object, and more like a newspaper cartoon, with it's alien pilots golem-like agents of the absurd, perpetually caught in the act of asking some befuddled passer-by to Take me to your leader.

UFO historians who have a particular investment in the extraterrestrial hypothesis rarely acknowledge that ufology is at least half a cultural history, in much the same way that sceptics insist that it is nothing but. The idea of invaders from outer space is as old as the hills, but its modern formation began with the cool, unsympathetic Martian intelligences of H.G. Wells, and really assumed its iconic form through a series of static images - those appearing on the covers of science fiction novels and pulp magazines. The idea that our culture selected to animate the aerial Rorschach ink blot of the UFO came from inner space, and was the fruit of a gradual invasion of the subconscious by the imagery of the pulp imagination.

It was via the pulp imagination - itself a peripheral phenomenon, populated to a large degree by weird outsiders, hacks, and troubled visionaries - that many of the salient elements of the UFO belief system took shape. It was through sidelong glances into the pulp pressure cooker that we learned, basically, what aliens look like - massive brained, bug-eyed, spindly-limbed creatures - and what, basically, these creatures spend the bulk of their time doing - the aliens spend a lot of their time being interrupted in the act of abducting beautiful women, carrying out experiments, generally committing menacing acts in spaces that resemble both hospitals and laboratories.

There are an endless amount of reasons why the alien meme stuck. The alien and the UFO facilitated a marriage of the driving engines of the modern world - high technology and progress - with the perennial desire of human beings to have some kind of congress with intelligent, non-human beings, be they angels, demons, gods, or monsters. It is this contradictory synthesis between the demands of the modern mind and the prehistoric one that chiefly illuminate the UFO. During the forties and fifties, many people felt an unavoidable presentiment of this contradiction inhering in humanity itself. The Bomb, like the UFO, reflects an indivisible synthesis between technological mastery and dark primitivism, and flying saucers emerged, chronologically and geographically, in the shadow of the Bomb.

Regarding UFO lore as being somehow inherently a literalization of pulp imagery - a collective reverie composed by half-remembered magazine covers and movie scenes - would certainly explain some of the stranger aspects of alleged UFO encounters. First of all, it would explain the high percentage of absurd, almost cartoonish material recorded by apparently credible witnesses - stories of aliens in diving suits asking farmers for the correct time, and making saltless pancakes for other befuddled humans. Jacques Vallee often argued that the alien behaviour reported by alleged abductees in the seventies and eighties simply made no sense - there is no reason why an advanced race would need to preform the same essentially primitive medical procedures, over and over again, on thousands on people. But if the Greys were somehow composed of cultural memories, often of static illustrations, then they would be trapped in a perpetual loop, forced to perform their generic function over and over again.

If ufology is a simply a history of cultural contagion, then it gives us a valuable insight in the process whereby imaginary imagery gradually becomes a reality - to a certain marginal percentage of the population. The late John A. Keel's theory of ultraterrestials, however, suggests an another possibility. Basically Keel claims that beings that exist in a different dimension from ours - which he christened ultraterrestials - are constantly manifesting themselves in our reality:
"Instead of thinking in terms of extraterrestrials, I have adopted the concept of ultraterrestials - beings and forces which coexist with us but are on another another time frame; that is, they operate outside the limits of our space-time yet have the ability to cross over into our reality. This other world is not a place, however, as Mars or Andromeda are places, but is a state of energy."

Keel knows little for certain about these vaguely Lovecraftian entities, except that they like to play games with us - games whose pieces are our belief systems, frames of reference, and explanatory manifestations. The ultraterrestials appear to us in the forms we have created for them - they adapt themselves to the prevalent belief system of any given period, and escalate those beliefs by manifesting them. Hence, everything from the appearance of a Homeric deity in ancient Greece, to an angelic visitation in medieval England, to a flying saucer hovering over the New Mexico desert "are not real in the sense that a 747 airliner is real. They are transmogrifications of energy under the control of some unknown extradimensional intelligence." Returning to information, we simply process these energy frissons in the language of our dominant mythologies.

Whether you think that Keel is On to Something, or has simply injected an industrial dose of Philip K. Dick paranoia into the insights of cultural anthropology and postmodernism, there is a certain irresistible elegance to his theory:
"If you saw a strange light in the sky in 1475 you knew it had to be a witch on a broom because you had heard of others who had seen witches on brooms skirting the treetops. Now in 1975 you might decide it is attached to a spacecraft from some other planet. This conclusion is not a qualified deduction on your part. It is the result of years of propaganda and even brainwashing. If you are under thirty, then you grew up on a diet of comic books, motion pictures, and television programs which educated you in to believe the extraterrestrial hypothesis. A small knot of nuts has talked to you year after year on interview programs, telling you how the sinister air force has been keeping the truth about flying saucers from the public; the truth being that UFOs are the product of a superior intelligence with an advanced technology, and that the flying saucers have come to save us from ourselves. The gods of ancient Greece are among us again, in a new guise but still handing out the old line. Believe.
Belief is the enemy."
Just as the rickety old space faring Venusians and Martians were a perfect folkloric foil for the modern period, Keel's ultraterrestial tricksters are a potent myth for the hyper-sceptical, post-quantum, postmodern condition of today - a unified field theory and Copenhagen Interpretation of the paranormal. If the alien invasion was really an invasion of images - and, as such, an invasion of media technologies - then this myth can only continue to resonate, as that invasion continues apace into the fabled uncanny valley of perfect simulation.