My Life’s Soundtrack – Part Four
I only ever took acid once. Not for lack of wanting to – just that it seldom came my way. Magic mushrooms, on the other hand, were a staple part of my diet. OK, I exaggerate slightly, but I did have numerous – mainly bad – trips on fungi which failed to make me a fun guy (excuse the bad pun)!
This is now Sept or Oct ’87, in Portland, Oregon, out partying with friends. That is, Leon & Gary, and their friends: I’d met these teenage brothers 2 years earlier after Doug, their truck driver Dad, had given me and Sue a lift for several hundred miles. We had then stayed with Doug and his family at his house in Portland.
Unfortunately, by the time I returned to the States in ’87, Doug and his wife Lyn had separated, but Lyn very kindly resumed the hospitality. She also found me work with painter/decorator Ray Galloway, who was a key player in my journey to new life, and I remain incredibly grateful to both Lyn and Ray.
This night in ‘87, much weed had been smoked, and a fair amount of crank snorted (not crack, but crank, which in more recent years hit the UK press as ‘crystal meth’ or methamphetamine), before a single acid (LSD) tab was ingested by each of the group. It seemed to take several hours for us to ‘come up’ on the acid – then in the early hours Leon invited me for a drive down the freeway. He liked to night-drive whilst tripping.
Remember the racing car game, Pole Position? I used to play it in the Brighton arcades, and now with the all the lights and coloured cat’s eyes, the road before us had become an animated arcade screen, like Pole Position. Only even more vibrant. As we drove in spaced silence, I assumed that Leon was sharing the same experience.
Band on the Run by Wings played in magical, crystal clear quality in my head, and I assumed this was running through Leon’s brain too, as he drove quietly and confidently down the night-time Oregon highway.
Later, though, when real music played on the radio, Bob Dylan came on, interrogating me with incisive questions about my itinerant life:
…When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You’re invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal.
How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?
I was abruptly confronted with my loneliness. The song pointedly proclaimed my inner aloneness…rootlessness…aimlessness…homelessness…friendlessness….invisibility. At this time, I had no passport or ID after everything had been stolen (details later), compounding my anonymity.
I had nothing to lose and no one. Perhaps I had chosen that path, or perhaps I’d been steered, destined by childhood conditioning, down the lonely road. Either way, it was no longer something desirable.
Taking hallucinogenics may heighten or release existing emotions, and this moment, this encounter with Dylan’s words, confirmed semi-suppressed feelings already emerging in my soul.
Don’t get me wrong. This LSD trip was not a religious revelation. I don’t subscribe to George Harrison’s description of his first acid trip, as the late Beatle recounted:
“The first time I took it, it just blew everything away. I had such an incredible feeling of well-being, that there was a God and I could see Him in every blade of grass”.
Many ancient cultures and religions see the use of hallucinogenics as a pathway to some kind of divine consciousness.
In my experience since that time, God the Father, who is love, does not readily share space with our addictions and our chemical-induced mind-messing. After coming to a simple faith in Jesus a short time after this night in ‘87, the experience of being filled with the Holy Spirit eluded me until I desired him more than drugs, music or anything else.
When I finally reached that moment in 1989, the sense of being infused with his love and forgiveness left me with no desire to get stoned or drunk ever again. Satisfaction comes in the shape of sacrificial love.
Hallucinogenics and the true God, in my view, do not easily mix. He wants the very best for us and that best is himself living in us.
But prior to this night trip through Oregon, a variety of (non-drug-related) experiences had been gradually shaking my atheism.
The origins of the universe, the purpose of existence, and the strange world of the microcosmos – questions that haunted and taunted me – now all seemed to point to something or someone greater than the human mind can comprehend. The fact that existence existed blew my mind.
Simultaneous to an evolving conviction that ‘God’ was the only logical explanation for the existence of anything, emerged a pattern of experiences on the road, of either coincidental good luck or provision by a higher power.
On one occasion, with no prospect of earning any money, and just $28 to my name, I lost a $20 bill.
I had jumped an open freight train and enjoyed the unique experience of journeying 1700 miles of wild western landscapes, over about 36 hours, through several states, from Boise, Idaho, to Chicago.
I was meeting with my sister, who was on holiday visiting a friend. We hitched together for a couple of days from Chicago to Detroit, and caught a ride with a father and son who were on their way to a Pentecostal conference. Ruth and I sat in the back, as the middle-aged son drove. During the journey, the elderly Dad in the front passenger seat turned to us, and without asking our permission, took our hands and prayed! It was a long, fervent, heartfelt prayer. I’ve never remembered what he prayed, even at the time, let alone now, but I’ve never forgotten the effect: I felt uplifted, upbeat, like nothing could go wrong.*
This godly father and son, as they dropped us off in Detroit, not knowing about my $20 loss, gave us $40, which Ruth left with me, as I had the greater need. It seemed like God or Something had doubly covered my loss.
Another time, after spending the night in a homeless hostel, I stepped out onto the city streets that were beginning to simmer under the Kansas sunrise, with no money, no food, and one cigarette to my name. I’d just walked out the door when I was approached by a stranger asking for a cigarette. “Why not!” I thought, and gave him my one last smoke.
Later that day, a driver I’d hitched a lift with offered me a cigarette, which I accepted. As we continued along the road, he told me that when he’d bought his usual pack of cigarettes that morning, he’d discovered they were Buy One Get One Free, so he gave me one of the two packs, not knowing about my gift to a stranger that morning. God or Something (?) had given me 20 times return on my giving. (I quit smoking tobacco just a few months after that).
At least once, I looked up to the sky and suggested jokingly, “Someone up there likes me”!
After a few more such ‘coincidences’, I began to wonder seriously, “Maybe someone up there really does like me”!
As I began to think maybe there could be a God helping me, and as I also met travellers who carried virtually nothing, I started to wish I wasn’t ‘burdened’ by my big rucksack with sleeping-bag, tent and clothes and could have the opportunity to see whether ‘God’, if he was there, would provide if I had literally nothing!
One time, I ended up travelling with a gay guy called Richard, who was in effect moving house and had all his valuables with him, including a ton of bling! As two males hitch-hiking together, it’s pretty difficult to catch rides, and we found ourselves stuck going nowhere on the freeway.
In hindsight, what happened next was an incredibly stupid thing to do, but chaotic, messed-up people don’t always make the wisest decisions. We hid our rucksacks in some bushes a short way from the freeway and walked to the nearby town where we’d heard there was some kind of hostel. The next morning we returned to our rucksacks, to find a few of our possessions strewn around the ground and the rest gone! All Richard’s gold jewellery. My passport, credit card (which I never used but kept as a back-up), tent, sleeping-bag etc. All gone.
Richard was understandably furious. I didn’t like to admit it to him, but I felt relieved to be travelling really light and strangely happy with anticipation at a new opportunity!
The next few days were difficult, as we ended up in some bad company, so as soon as I could I slipped away on my own again, eager to see whether God would provide. Very soon, I was taken into the home of a wonderful couple, who gave me everything I needed for now.
Some drivers who gave me lifts were Christians, who took the opportunity to tell me about how their lives had been changed by Jesus. Their faces seemed to glow with genuine passion and their eyes seemed to shine with joy. Jesus said the eyes are the window to the soul.
Amongst people of all sorts of faiths and denominations, I remember catching a ride with one particular young Mormon man, who was out to spread his message. But the message and the messenger were dry – there was no glow, no vibrancy, about this man. No hint of transformation, of Holy Spirit power. Unlike the Christians.
I argued with these drivers. I disagreed with preachers at nightshelters and hostels run by Christian missions and the Sally Army. Some of them made you sit through a talk before being given a meal. Although I wonder about the ethics of this now, I guess it worked for me!
Then I worked with Ray, the painter, in Portland. He’d been a Christian for 3½ years. He told me how his life had been turned around, and his lifestyle confirmed his words.
As we worked together, I told him what I thought about Christianity, how I believed in some Buddhist ideas and how the Universe was probably just a dream of itself (figure that one out?!). Over about 6 weeks of working and debating with Ray, my initial arguments turned to questions, and my protestations turned to serious consideration of the claims of Christianity.
It was during this period, that Bob Dylan, via Leon’s car radio, questioned my free, solitary lifestyle and demanded my honesty to myself:
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?
Interesting that just a few weeks later, some time around my 22nd birthday in October 1987, after deciding that I actually believed this Christianity stuff and genuinely prayed for the first time in my life – that England, became my ‘direction home’.
As Jesus came into my life, I sensed an irresistible call back to my home country, to do something with my life. This land that I’d wanted nothing to do with, now had a pull on my life, not because it had something to give me, but because I felt I had something to give to it.
Amazing how I came to find dignity, value and identity as a child of God. No longer a complete unknown, but fully known. Known to the Father, and beginning to know myself.
Astounding that since that first moment of faith in Jesus, I never, ever felt lonely or alone again. Ever.
How does it feel now? Pretty darn good!
*After the father and son had dropped us off, I left my sister in Detroit city centre, where she was catching a bus into Canada.
I felt completely fearless – even more so than at the start of this trip, as described in Here I Go Again. In fact, looking back, this was an extension of that initial trust that everything was going to be OK – trust that had been sown deep in my heart, first through those words of Jesus in Matthew, now strengthened through this old man’s prayer.
Detroit was a big city and I knew I’d have to walk several miles to reach the start of a freeway to begin hitch-hiking. Having worked out which direction I needed to go, I just walked.
The city had a reputation for some pretty dangerous areas – I had no idea where these were or what they were called, but I wasn’t concerned.
I walked mile after mile through street after straight residential street. After a few miles, I became aware that I hadn’t seen a white face for a long time, not that I was in any way concerned by this observation.
Despite my obvious conspicuousness – a white stranger with a big red rucksack – I felt far from threatened. People sitting on the steps of their homes waved cheery ‘hello’s to me as I strode through their neighbourhood. It felt like community.
I’d walked about 8 miles, when a white couple suddenly pulled up in their flashy car, wound down the window and with a sense of urgency, warned me: “What are you doing here? This is a dangerous place. Let’s give you a lift outta here!”
I tried to protest, “No, this a great area, people are really friendly”, but at the same time wanted the lift, to get moving on.
It seemed that my fearlessness after the old man’s prayer was founded. From somewhere deep in my memory, I vaguely recalled the words of the Psalm: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil”.
Perhaps Detroit’s crime statistics confirmed people’s fears of this area, but my experience at the time felt like a lesson in white people’s prejudice and racism. As a white stranger in a black area, I was out-of-place, but had been warmly accepted.