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Terence McKenna Interview, Part 1

James Kent

Terence talks about his childhood and early years in the first part of our interview

HE IS A RENEGADE SCHOLAR, an outspoken advocate for high-dose tryptamine experimentation, and yet he has a book deal, a worldwide lecture tour, a visiting professorship at Esalen, and a growing mass of followers who he sometimes refers to as his "fans", sometimes as his "constituency." Either way, you could not help but be delighted by his voice and style. His syntactical razzle-dazzle, mad-scientist voice, and dead-aim comic timing left us in grinning awe. We loved him. We nodded and said, "Right on," yet many of us still wondered, "who is this guy?"

At this time in our not too distant past, I was a young freelance writer set to the task of interviewing Mr. McKenna for a small New Age newspaper in Southern California (don't giggle, it's true). They only wanted 2100 words, but being a fan of psychedelic exploration and skeptical by nature, I didn't pass up this perfect opportunity to spend a few hours getting to know Mr. McKenna and finding out what he was really up to. I wanted to know who his publicist was, if he was represented in Hollywood, how his career had been orchestrated, what kind of twisted childhood he had, all the strange drugs he did in college, all the isolated rainforests he'd trekked through, and, probably most of all, was he was actually managing to make a living at being a full-time psychedelic guru for hire — have rap, will travel.

So the following is a transcript of the interview which took place on the day I met with Terence in search of those answers. The three hour discussion took place in a small restaurant and later on in his then-home in Occidental, CA. We talked about his life, his theories, and his career. What appears here is only part one of the dialog we had on that day, but stay tuned for more (because we always want more) to be broadcast in the near future right here at TRP.

James Kent: I've read a lot of interviews with you which were aimed at people who already knew who you were, but I wanted to try to get a broader view of who you are and what you do for a living. When I tell people I have this Terence McKenna interview, they're like, "Terence who?"

Terence McKenna: It's not possible to be famous enough. (laughs) I recently heard that Michael Jordan was retiring... and, I have to confess, who? This giant was passing from the scene and apparently I was going to become aware of him only at the last moment.

JK: I never watched much basketball, but I would sit down and watch if he was playing. It was pretty amazing to watch him play, he was...

TM: Just because he was so good.

JK: Yeah. When he was on it was like nobody could touch him.

TM: Umm..

JK: Well, one of the main things I wanted to cover today was a little bit about your life, your career, your day to day schedule, your itinerary...

TM: You mean at the moment?

JK: Well, what is it you do?

TM: Oh, what is it I do.

JK: Yes. I mean, I know you're a writer...

TM: Yes.

JK: And you're also called a "shamanist," but that is sort of a vague term. What do you call yourself?

TM: Well, I just think of myself as an itinerant intellectual, trying to stay afloat by writing, lecturing, film consulting - some friends of mine and I have formed a company to develop software... But basically I'm an unassociated intellectual, of which there probably aren't more than half a dozen in the country. I mean, I do not work for any university...

JK: Have you gotten any offers?

TM: No (breaks into laughter). But how perceptive. No, I do however work for a couple of the world's largest corporations, but that's....

JK: Which ones?

TM: Well, Food of the Gods is published by Bantam, that's Bertlesmann, which is the world's largest publishing consortium. And Harper, which publishes all my other books, is wholly owned by Rupert Murdoch.

JK: Oh? And how do you feel about that?

TM: Well, he never bothers me, so... (laughs). But it just shows how difficult it is to remain unentangled these days. "Publishing" now means multinational corporate association. What are you gonna do?

JK: And when was True Hallucinations released?

TM: April [1993].

JK: And you're doing a lot of promotion for that?

TM: I did a lot of promotion work for it. It followed by a year my previous release, which was called Archaic Revival, and it preceded by a year — in other words, next April 15th will be the release of a book called The Invisible Landscape.

JK: That's a reprint, isn't it?

TM: It's a reprint but in the first edition no more than 1500 copies were sold. Most people have never seen this.

JK: No. I haven't. So what is the "Invisible Landscape?"

TM: Have you read True Hallucinations?

JK: No, I had a copy being sent to me, but it didn't arrive in time.

TM: Well True Hallucinations is like the easy-to-read narrative anecdotal version of what The Invisible Landscape is the no-holds-barred, all the footnotes, all the citation...

JK: A recounting of your experience at La Chorerra?

TM: Yes, though The Invisible Landscape is more talking about the ideas that came out of the event.

JK: Like Timewave Zero?

TM: It's in there. So are many of Dennis' theories.

JK: Hypercarbolation?

TM: Exactly. It's all there.

JK: Well, I've been doing some research. It's funny, when I told my editor I was thinking of doing a story on you, she was very excited. I first heard of you, I think I heard you on public radio somewhere, and I tracked down some of your books and interviews, found a set of your tapes... I actually saw you speak somewhere around LA.

TM: Chapman College?

JK: Yes, Chapman [note: Future site of Meeting of the Minds]. I even found a bootleg of one of your weekend seminars at Esalen that I listened to while driving up, so I've compiled quite a wide assortment of topics that I'd like to cover today. Lets start off with personal background here just to get some reference. You were raised in Colorado, in a small mining town. Does the town still exist?

TM: Oh absolutely.

JK: Where is it?

TM: It's called Paomia, Colorado. It's actually become quite hip because in the '70s and '80s freaks moved in and bought all the apple and peach orchards.

JK: When you say "freaks" what do you mean?

TM: Hippies. (laughs)

JK: Oh, hippies. There's all different kind of freaks...

TM: And they went organic, the whole scene went organic. So when I was there it was absolutely podunk. I mean if you read Time Magazine you were suspected of Left leanings.

JK: Do your parents still live there?

TM: My mother died in 1970. My father remarried later and lives in Mesa, Arizona.

JK: What did they do when you were growing up?

TM: My father was a... Paomia was the town where my mother grew up, actually. My father was a salesman for a very large industrial electrical equipment company — switches, transformers, this sort of thing — and visited mines. He had a lot of uranium mines and lead mines. He had a four state territory which he worked with an airplane. The thing which was unusual about my growing up is in this small town, I guess we were close to being the richest people in town on close to fifteen thousand dollars a year. This was a county in Colorado where even up into the 1950s thirty percent of the county was on welfare. So it was a real hard-scrabble sort of environment.

JK: Now, your brother is Dennis, you're the oldest, right?

TM: That's correct.

JK: Growing up were you maladaptive?

TM: To the extreme.

JK: What kind of social difficulties did that bring you. Peer harassment?

TM: Well I had bad eyes and I was uncoordinated. And in an environment where there wasn't winter, spring, summer, fall, there was baseball, football, basketball, and... something else...

JK: Hockey?

TM: (laughs) Yes. So I was marked out early as the peculiar one. Also, I was smart, so I was very accelerated in one dimension, very embryonic in another dimension.

JK: Were you picked on?

TM: There were bullies. There were certainly bullies who occupied a huge amount of my time. I mean on one level I think my supposed brilliant speaking ability comes from understanding that the problem is to keep them from killing you until the bell rings, and if you can just hold them five minutes longer by any means necessary, it'll be over. But as I grew older I became more seriously alienated. I mean, a lot of kids have those kinds of problems, but I began to realize that somewhere there was something called "Western Civilization" — there was philosophy, music, art, possibly even Jews. I mean, who knew how wild it could get. And here I was in this town where, like I say, Time Magazine meant you were an intellectual. So I left when I was 16.

JK: For?

TM: Los Altos, California, which is down on the peninsula. I lived there with relatives for a year. Then I finished high school in Lancaster, CA, which is a city up in the high desert north of LA.

JK: Ugh. So by this time what kind of exposure had you had to alternative sciences, philosophies, drugs, psychedelics?

TM: Oh drugs and psychedelics, not at all. I think I became aware of — oh I know where I became aware of psychedelics. It was the Spring of 1963. I read The Doors of Perception.

JK: And when were you born?

TM: November, 1946.

JK: November what?

TM: Sixteenth (double Scorpio). I read The Doors of Perception in early 1963. Then there began to be articles in the newspaper that spring about morning glory use. And I immediately started tracking down these morning glories. And, I just pursued that. I read everything I could...

JK: Did you experiment with Morning Glories?

TM: I did.

JK: Did you find them satisfying?

TM: I'm not exactly sure I would call them satisfying. They showed me that there was something there worth pursuing.

JK: So you attended college at Berkeley.

TM: Right.

JK: You studied art?

TM: Art history.

JK: Is that what your degree is in, a B.A.?

TM: No no, my only degree is — I switched majors. My only degree is Bachelor of Science degree in Ecology and Conservation. It's complex to explain, but I arrived at Berkeley the year after the free speech movement and in an effort to keep the place from blowing sky high they had told this left-wing professor that he could have an experimental section of the university. But out of the incoming class of 15,000 or whatever it was, he could only take 150 freshman and design a special curriculum for them, and classes would not be in the regular university, they would be in an old frat house.

JK: This was a pilot program?

TM: Yes, it was an experimental program. So that's what I did. It was this thing called the Tussman Experimental College.

JK: Is that still around?

TM: Oh no no, it was run for a total of 6 years and then it was discontinued.

JK: Hmm. Okay. I'm going to shift gears here and get back to some personal questions. I didn't see you pull up, but what kind of car do you drive?

TM: (laughs) I drive a '75 Ford Grenada.

JK: Really?

TM: My only car and I'm fiercely proud of it.

JK: How long have you had it?

TM: I've had it for five years. I bought it with 12,000 miles on it, now it has 80,000 miles on it.

JK: Hmm. Do you have cable TV?

TM: No. I don't have TV period.

JK: No TV?

TM: Well I have a VCR. I don't have an antenna to any broadcast television.

JK: As far as entertainment goes, what is your favorite venue for the arts? Music, movies...

TM: I listen to a lot of music. In terms of time commitment, I listen to music a lot.

JK: What's your favorite musical genre, style, or composer?

TM: I've been listening to a lot of house music.

JK: Really? Like techno?

TM: Techno, house, ambient, you know. Well I'm in that business partially. Also people send me stuff, and I'm very interested in it. I think it's very exciting music. I listen to a lot of baroque music, I guess. Those are the two categories. I have a lot of Rock-n-Roll but I don't listen to it much anymore. I have a lot of '80s New Age stuff which I've found doesn't wear well at all.

JK: As far as house music goes, do you have any groups you like?

TM: Well, I really like Coil. I really like Orb. I'm working with Szvuyu, which is an English group. I'm releasing a CD this Halloween with Spacetime Continuum. In fact I'm doing a rave on Halloween.

JK: While we're talking about it, tell me how you got introduced to the rave scene.

TM: I went to England and I gave lectures — the bouquet of flowers, pitcher of water, chair and podium lectures, and a lot of ravers came, and they came up to me and just sort of swept me along. They said, "You've got to see this scene. We're doing what you're talking about." Which seemed to me to be true. It's an incredibly — I mean I'm totally up on youth culture. I think media has done an incredible savaging of youth culture. I don't know what it was like to hang out with the Sex Pistols but it's lots of fun to hang out with the Shamen, or the various DJs, and you know there is a very lively house scene in San Francisco.

JK: What do you think the driving force of this scene is?

TM: Do you mean in terms of cultural agenda... drugs, or money?

JK: In terms of cultural agenda.

TM: Are you familiar with my notion of an Archaic Revival?

JK: Sure.

TM: Well there it is. This has been going on throughout the 20th century.

JK: But why are the youth of today so into it? What void in their lives in this rave scene fulfilling?

TM: Well England, which is where this was born, like so much, has been a Thatcherite hell for 15 years. A whole generation of kids have grown up in those steel towns in the midlands with absolutely no hope of bettering themselves and absolutely no faith that mainstream acculturation in Britain held anything out to them. And rather than producing an anger movement, like punk or something like that, it has produced a dropout movement more like the sixties. People aren't angry, they're just not participating. They're creating their own value systems and I think it's very healthy. I think a lot of this kind of thing comes out of the unconscious. Nobody sits around and figures this stuff out.

JK: Do you think this is an attempt to step away from cultural norms to reprogram their values, or at least deprogram the messages they receive from corporate media culture?

TM: Yeah, I think they're very aware of media culture and they're very anti media culture. For instance, in the clubs in London there's no stage, there is no cult of celebrity. The dancers are the show, the performers are pushed into the corners or locked in a box on a different level. And the whole macho rock-n-roll groupie destruction-derby psychology is not welcome in these scenes. People are a lot cooler. To somebody as cynical as I am a lot of it seems Polyannish. Songs about saving the wetlands and stuff like that. But on the other hand it's real and it's the right message. The right message is not the skinhead message or the "become a yuppie stockbroker" message. The real message is ecology, community, and feeling. And they've got it right. Now they have to get through the gauntlet of evil record companies, the communications media...

JK: Exploiters?

TM: The exploitative machinery waiting to make t-shirts and...

JK: Movies?

TM: Exactly.

JK: So when you're called upon to join one of these ceremonies what sort of function do you fulfill?

TM: You mean at a rave?

JK: Yes.

TM: Oh I go on stage and I improvise some kind of stem-winding soliloquy to contact the self-transforming elf machines in hyperspace (laughs). It seems sort of weird to me, you know, a 46 year old man at three in the morning hanging out with a thousand loaded teenagers exhorting them to the eschaton.

JK: You use the term eschaton to describe some kind of singularity at the end of time. What is your definition of eschaton?

TM: Well all esch words derive from the greek notion of something final [gr. eskhatos - last]. So eschatology is the study of last things. There is a branch of theology where you study the end of the world and the general judgement and second coming. So the eschaton is the last thing. That would be a definition. It just simply means the last thing.

JK: Interesting. Who would you consider to be your peer group?

TM: My peer group?

JK: You know, contemporaries... collaborators.

TM: You mean people who I agree with? Who I'm most comfortable with?

JK: Close friends, people you find interesting or bounce ideas around with on a regular basis.

TM: Did you read Trialogues at the End of the West?

JK: No, I haven't.

TM: That was a book that I wrote with Ralph Abraham and Rupert Sheldrake, who I would consider peers. We don't see eye to eye on everything, but we get along very well as people, and we spend a lot of time together. Do you know who Sheldrake is?

JK: No, I know of Ralph Abraham.

TM: Well Sheldrake is a very controversial British theoretical biologist who wrote a book called A New Science of Life that Nature, the British journal of science, said was a candidate for burning. It created quite a controversy.

JK: Who else? What about in the literary world? Do you have any favorites?

TM: You mean who do I like or who do I spend time with?

JK: Either or?

TM: Well, I read and spend time with Tom Robbins, he's a friend of mine. Great guy. I read Steve Ericson, Lucious Shepherd, I don't know these guys but I would like to know them. I think they're very exciting. Steve Ericson wrote Tours of the Black Clock and Art Dense and Rubicon Beach.

JK: So what do you do for fun?

TM: What do I do for fun...(pause, thinking)?

JK: You know, leisure activities.

TM: Well I'm going through a divorce right now so excuse me if I can't remember (laughs).

JK: Do you want to talk about that at all, or say a few words?

TM: Well, it's certainly just punishment for being stupid enough to get married in the first place. It's kind of a little self-correcting mechanism there.

JK: So what is your relationship like now? Your family is still here in Occidental?

TM: Well my son lives with me, he's just at school.

JK: Your son?

TM: Yes, I have two children. A son who is 15 [Finn, now 21] and a girl who's twelve, about to turn 13 [now 17]. They were definitely the best thing to come out of the relationship, but I don't blame the personalities involved. I think marriage is a curse for everybody. I'm not too crazy about monogamy either. These are social styles that have very disruptive consequences on the psychic life of the individuals. But I was married when I was 30 years old. I hadn't really thought all this through. It was the only bourgeois value system I ever committed to, and as it turns out I should have stuck with my consistency.

JK: While we're on the subject of consistency, when someone asks Terence McKenna to speak, what topic is most requested?

TM: All they want to talk about is drugs.

JK: And how do you feel about that?

TM: I wish they'd go to the library or buy a tape or a book. I mean, I'd like to move on. I've said everything I have to say at least ten times, and, you know, I said it well, I hope. So, enough already.

JK: It seems to me that, when talking about drugs, you just elaborate a few simple positions over and over. Why is that?

TM: Well really, you see my position on drugs ultimately is that what I think about them is not important. What's important is that people be allowed to check it out for themselves. So consequently, if I'm succeeding at this my crowds should not get larger and larger, people should come once or twice, hear it, understand it, and go get a life.

JK: So how do you feel about having devotees who preach the McKenna party line, call you a guru, want to save your fingernail clippings for future generations...

TM: Well, as I've said on this subject if you think I'm a guru you haven't taken enough psilocybin (laughs). And I don't know what to tell people like that. "Take more! You're not figuring it out!" What makes the whole psychedelic thing so exciting to me is that it's for ordinary people. I am an ordinary person. It's not false humility, it's true. And so if it's for ordinary people then there's nothing to be learned from some advanced personality — assuming such a thing exists. And, what's so wonderful about psychedelics is their effectiveness and how democratic they are. That's what I would like people to get on to. In fact, a lot of people do. A lot of people pass through the thinking I'm a guru and take enough trips to understand that no, I was just a witness. I was just a witness.

JK: What were your initial goals when you first started on this journey. Coming back from La Chorrera you had quite a lot of information to mull through. Has everything sort of fallen into place since then or were there a lot of stages you had to go through to get where you are now?

TM: You mean did I ever drift away from it?

JK: Yes, sure.

TM: No, I never drifted away from it. Once I got the concept... I'm incredibly patient. I mean, for instance, my prediction of the singularity in 2012 is 20 [now 25] years old. the prediction is 20 years old. It's something that I've lived with for 20 years and I'll live with for 18 more. I'm very patient, but my attitude is that this thing that went on at La Chorrera was special enough that it's worth spending one life on. And it'll be my life. What I spend most of my time doing is reading philosophy, history, science, sociology, literature, and what I'm trying to figure out is am I out of context? Or, to put it another way, am I crazy? And the answer is no.

JK: No?

TM: Well something very unusual happened down there, and the world is in a very unusual circumstance, which most people don't seem to perceive. Weather we're talking about Bill Clinton or someone living under a bridge, we have never been here before. This is not business as usual. Management techniques that worked in the past are not going to work in the future.

JK: So what sustained you financially through those dark years in the '70s and '80s when Terence McKenna wasn't a big name?

TM: Well Terence McKenna wasn't a big name but O.T. Oss was.

JK: Ah.

TM: And, umm... I am O.T. Oss.

JK: Of course. So you lived on the royalties of the Magic Mushroom Growers Guide alone?

TM: And something which we should probably describe as "consulting".

JK: I see (laughs).

TM: (laughs loudly).

JK: (regaining composure) Well, I guess that's what I was shooting for with that question.

TM: Yes, there was a lot of "consulting" in the '70s. (laughs).

Stay tuned for more...

Tags : psychedelic
Rating : Teen - Drugs
Posted on: 2003-12-02 00:00:00