Interviewed by Todd Brendan Fahey
May 26, 2014
An outdoor deck overhanging the Pacific blue, Santa Barbara, California, must have been September 1988, was when I first heard of an entity known as R. U. Sirius. Whatever it was, I was told by a university-era pal who I trusted, I should pay attention.
And I said, “Are you serious?”
This hep buddy slid a half-dozen thin-paper tabloids across the table of the Sea Cove — at which we were dining on calamari and strong iced tea; the LSD was just coming on — and having flipped through the indices and a couple of interviews, I knew that he was. Very.
I don’t believe in accidents; following having pulled the rip-cord the year prior, of “life as an attorney,” I moved from Arizona and back to my birthplace of Santa Barbara, committing mineself to prose and consuming unusually large doses of acid whilst simultaneously working a 50-hr/weekly job as technical writer at a Pentagon subcontractor and engaging in my first semester as a graduate student in Professional Writing at USC, commuting in rush-hour traffic down Highway 101 and into Watts — and always with a headful. I was doing things a bit differently.
I was and had also been “an early adopter” in tech, taking a loan from my folks in 1985 and purchasing a $2,400 computer with no hard drive — just the standard 5 1/4″ dual floppies that required boot-up each time I turned the goddamn thing on, and treated always in line-command DOS. A black and green screen; no mouse; no built-in data storage.
I thought I was cutting edge. After landing in the same November 1991 issue of High Times with none other than Ken Goffman/R. U. Sirius and hanging out with him in 1997 at a Berkeley house party with John Perry Barlow holding court; at the millenium Disinfo Con(ference) in central Manhattan, with Robert Anton Wilson in “the green room” and Marilyn Manson in address via satellite connection…and of one probably-not-legal evening at the O’Farrell Theater, it was like unto following in the paw prints of Sasquatch — and watch those droppings!
MONDO 2000 and its lesser-budget wood-pulp predecessors High Frontiers and Reality Hackers merged counterculture and tech culture. How did you develop those influences?
I think I probably became a countercultural person when I was shuttled off to Kindergarten and the teacher immediately had to assert her authority in a firm sort of voice and tell us what the rules were. And I had been a little fellow who was comfortable socially with all the other little kids in the neighborhood — a bit of a leader of activities, in fact — but this freaked me out. My parents were very liberal and easy going, so I guess I was unaccustomed to stern authority. So I had a bad imprint regarding institutions right from the start. I withdrew whenever I was in one.
So, in spring of 1967, at 14, when my friend Vinnie brought around Life Magazine that showed hippies having a “be-in”… well that was pretty much that. They looked like they were having fun. And who, besides rock stars, was having any fun? For me — and for the kids I was hanging out with then, the future that was planned out for us — college and jobs and being like the grown ups seemed like the most tedious thing imaginable. It wasn’t even like we were alienated from it. It was literally unspeakable and unthinkable. We were a group of smart kids who had already slipped off the tracks. We were into the garage rock of that time — the Standells and the Troggs and the Seeds, of course, the Rolling Stones. We already had longish hair, so the hippie thing… which quickly became the freak thing since hippie seemed too wimpy… just fit. Hippie was more available than the beat thing, which was very literary. You could sort of jump right in… although Vinnie eventually decided he was a beat and died of a methadone overdose in the early ‘80s.
The tech thing was not so natural a fit for me. I wasn’t a science or science fiction nerd. But one of the ideas that was going around in the counterculture of the ‘60s was that technology would eliminate boring and alienating types of labor. For some of us, this functioned as an excuse to live the way we wanted to. And then, a number of counterculture spokespeople, including William Burroughs, Stewart Brand, Timothy Leary and Robert Anton Wilson were talking about tech and science as being a way towards a transformative and far out future — what Leary called science faction. I was utterly infected by that thinking. But I was also infected in the ‘70s by punk and new wave. So these various forces, psychedelia, tech/science and the speediness and sharpness of punk and new wave kind of collided in my brain. After a 500 microgram LSD trip, I decided to create a “neopsychedelic wave” combining those influences. So I moved from upstate New York to Berkeley California and that intention eventually became Mondo 2000.
You helped Timothy Leary write his final book, Design for Dying — while he was, in fact, dying. How did you get that gig (sorry to be crass, but…), and what was that process like?
Actually, he was already dead when I was hired to finish the book which made him far less argumentative.Originally, someone named David Pierce, who was part of the throng of young people living with him in his Beverly Hills house as he was dying of prostate cancer was supposed to write it. And when it came long past due time, he turned in a bunch of random unedited notes. The book company wanted the Leary Estate to return the advance, which was over $100k. Doug Rushkoff, who had arranged the deal for Tim, called me and asked me to get together a book in three weeks. If I recall correctly, I would get $12,500. That’s a huge amount of money for me — well worth destroying my health and my life during the Christmas season. I finished it in three and a half weeks and the book company was pleased with what I slammed together.
I never got any notes from whatever effort went into it prior to Tim’s death. I used stuff he had written or said in interviews and articles about dying and I used other materials to present his philosophy of death and life. I also knew that our mutual friend Eric Gullichsen had worked on a book with Timothy that never got completed that looked at these issue and also looked at potentials for digital immortality and cryonics and hyperlongevity. So all that went into creating this book. And then I asked people who were around Tim during his latter years to write something about how he performed dying… his last great show. I got great stuff from a bunch of his friends, mostly the less famous ones. Ken Kesey growled at me because I called him while he was writing. (Use a freakin’ answering machine then!) Yoko Ono had a panic attack that someone had her home phone number. I meant to call her office, but called the wrong one.
I had Tim’s phone book! Susan Sarandon. Sean Penn. Nancy Reagan. (kidding)… Hunter never responded. Ginsberg never responded. Gordon Liddy promised to send something but never did.
Rumor has it, you’re working on a memoir now of your days within the late, great Mondo 2000 magazine — which was America’s hippest glossy for the better part of the 1990s.
It’s part memoir and part oral history — with participants telling the story, although if enough people continue to be difficult about being interviewed (mostly by other people, not by myself). I might have to call it an anal history. I don’t think there’s been one of those yet.
It was the hippest magazine of the ‘90s. I think the narrative really represents a time of transition when technoculture transformed from the new thing on the fringe threatening to take over and mutate the culture in cool and possibly liberatory ways to another brick in the wall…so to speak.
What is your sense of the Amerikan trajectory insofar as Washington (state) and Colorado having legalized marijuana for consumption and nominal sale; plus, California being a medical dispensary free-for-all? Obama, of the Choom Gang, surely can’t say squat about smoking dope. …but he is on his way out. Any prognostications?
Best bet is that the trajectory will continue. We’re accepting marijuana as an intoxicant and as a medicine in equal measure. But there’s always the possibility of a backlash. A few people behaving particularly badly related to legal weed could set that off. It’s ridiculous, of course, but the residual taboo around certain drugs means they’re still subject to irrational reactions.
Look at it this way: It’s said that over 22 US Army veterans commit suicide every day. Imagine if 22… or 12… people whose only commonality was that they’d… let’s say… used psilocybin a few times recently committed suicide every day. There’d be generalized drug panic. It’d be the top news item almost every day. There’d be emergency laws passed. Weeping parents would appear on just about every talk show… ad nauseam.
But more likely, we’re on our way to accepting pot. What we may be seeing is a trend in which we’re widening the margins on certain behaviors — like pot or gay rights — and then we’re getting an utterly surveilled society to monitor those margins. With a few liberalizations, you can say, “If you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about,” and people might actually believe you.
You raised the subject of psilocybin. There’s been some legal experiments with psychedelics as medicine over the last couple of decades. Do you think psychedelic drugs might go the same way as pot soon in terms of becoming more legally acceptable?
I would guess that we might see some legalization of prescription psychedelics and/or MDMA some time in about ten years (barring the utter collapse of everything), but it would be held on a very tight leash, unlike medical marijuana. That’s my best guess anyway. Incidentally, I don’t think the mass use of marijuana is likely to lead to peace ’n’ love or higher consciousness or the immanence of Jah or anything. It’s just not strong enough. The normalization of psychedelics could possibly raise the level a bit, in a Bell Curve sorta way. In other words, not everyone will gain perceptually. Some people will just realize that Buckethead is like totally shredding on guitar, dude… but averaging it out, it might lift the level a little bit. Maybe…
As jazz players and underground artistes in Amerika have found notoriety in Europe, whereas our own cornfed “audiences” could/often care less, have you experienced any interest in your shenanigans across the pond?
I always had a good response from Europe, although I haven’t heard much from folks there lately. I have a fine collection of press clippings from the mid-90s and got to tour… mainly Scandinavian countries during that period. I suspect the Mondo 2000 story will be of interest to Europeans. I once headlined over Neal Stephenson in Munich Germany.
What have you in the hopper? You’re a man known for projects; what’s next?
I completed a book titled Transcendence: The Disinformation Encyclopedia of Transhumanism and The Singularity, written with Jay Cornell, that will be out at the start of next year. It’s a fairly straight up A-Z account of the technologies and sciences that may be mutating the human condition during this century… but I’m also subverting the notion with my Steal This Singularity site, although admittedly I haven’t been terrible active there lately.
My greatest enthusiasm is for completing the Mondo 2000 history book, which has been a tough challenge. I think the rest of this year will be a hard charge at telling the Mondo story through the voice of as many of the participants as possible. I feel like I’m just starting to understand my own role in it all… digging a little deeper after three years coming up with showy text.
What happened to Mondo 2000? Here you had the bleeding edge of cyber-/counterculture, in a slick glossy: hands-down the best design, original graphics and Who’s Who of artistic/revolutionary minds in (primarily) the USSA, and the ride suddenly same to a halt.
So take all those qualities that you correctly attribute to Mondo 2000 and put them in front of a hardnosed businessman or a corporate ad buyer… and watch him (or her) shrug. You can even add that the sales of issues are at about 100,000, which was the case, and that it has a reputation for being passed around. Still, most likely, you’ll get a shrug.Magazines are… or perhaps I should say were… since print magazines are in a sharp decline… a hard business that requires regularity and… if you’re a glossy… high paying advertisers. Mondo 2000 may have been too anarchic; too irreverent; certainly too pro-psychedelic to get enough advertising — particularly the sort of tech advertising that we were courting when Wired came along and swept them off their feet with something safer preaching a similar techno-revolution.
Also, it didn’t suddenly come to a halt. It was produced almost regularly for 2-3 years at the start of the ‘90s when it hit its peak popularity and then it only came out about once a year until it finally crashed at the end of ‘97. So there was a five year decline. That story is dramatic and personal and will have to wait for the book, but whatever madness and psychodramas we managed to cook up amongst ourselves, the overwhelming reality is that you couldn’t do a fuck-all, we-do-whatever-we-want, partly surrealist, quasi-pornographic, expensive commercial magazine that leaned towards tech culture, even in the ‘90s. Rock magazines did it for a bit in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Evergreen Review had its day back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But Mondo was probably a bit too iconoclastic — too much its own thing and screw whether people understand it or not — to get much past our 100,000 in sales.
Just the facts: R.U. Sirius was founder, editor in chief and co-publisher of the legendary early ‘90s cyber/counterculture magazine MONDO 2000. He has written for Time and Rolling Stone and had a column inARTFORUM International and San Francisco Examiner. He has authored or co-authored nine books ranging from the historical Counterculture Through The Ages to the tabloidesque Everybody Must Get Stoned: Rock Stars on Drugs as well as Design For Dying with Timothy Leary. He blogs occasionally at StealThisSingularity.com while working on several other projects.