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Josiah M. Hesse Josiah M. Hesse

How Tom Robbins Taught Me to Use Drugs Like a Grown-Up

I was a God-fearing hedonist when I first encountered the author of "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" and other counterculture classics. His new memoir reminds me why he set me straight.

6 Substance

In his new memoir, Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life, novelist Tom Robbins writes, “Not one word of my oeuvre, not one, has been written while in an artificially altered state. Unlike many authors, I don’t even drink coffee when I write. No coffee, no cola, no cigarettes.”

Despite being hailed as the man who introduced hippies to literature—this ginger-journalist who refers to his first LSD trip as “the most important day of my life,” the correspondent of the kaleidoscopic who gives his books such vivid titles as Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas and Wild Ducks Flying Backward—it came as no surprise to me that Tom Robbins has been as sober as baby Jesus while writing his stories.

In addition to giving me the courage to unshackle myself from the mind-crushing bonds of evangelical Christianity, Tom Robbins long ago taught me how to use drugs with verve and a modicum of class. More than just the self-respect of not turning your brain into a Chernobyl salad, Robbins’ approach to drugs was that of a holy sacrament, something to be feared and revered—unlike many of his carousing contemporaries, who tackled substances like an unending gang-bang.

“Certainly the downfall of the ’60s, that era of such promise and hope, was due in no small part to the misuse of potentially ‘good’ drugs—such as LSD, psilocybin and mescaline—by ‘bad’ imbibers,” he writes in Tibetan Peach Pie, responding to his friend Timothy Leary’s assertion that there are no bad drugs, only bad drug users.

Though for Robbins—the man referred to as “the most dangerous writer in the world,”
 by an Italian critic, and suspected of being the Unabomber by the FBI—there are most certainly a few “bad drugs.”

“There are, as far as I can see, no hidden virtues, no positive potential whatsoever in methamphetamine or crack,” he writes in Tibetan Peach Pie. “And I’d be inclined to include regular cocaine on the cur list, despite the sorry fact that I extolled the virtues of coke, my biggest regret as a novelist, in Still Life With Woodpecker….It took me so long to recognize the hairy truth that cocaine makes smart people stupid and stupid people dangerous.”

When I first discovered a weathered copy of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues in a San Francisco hostel (which was as surprising as finding Guns & Ammo in an Alabama outhouse), I’d been enamored of Dionysian drug writers like Hunter S. Thompson and Hubert Selby Jr., the ones who sprinted toward intoxication like Kenyan long-distance runners and centered their stories around drugs as if they were the lead character.

At the time, I was 23 and in the familiar phase of young evangelicals where sex, drugs and foul language had become an acceptable practice—but belief in the existence of an almighty remained firm. For me this was a contingency plan in case the threats of an eternity in Hell for nonbelievers turned out to be accurate. A single thought against the Lord had the potential to damn you, and I’d spent many years placing militant checkpoints on every road of thought in my brain. But after finishing Even Cowgirls Get the Blues late one night, lying in the dark of my hostel bunk bed, I developed the brief courage to whisper, “I don’t think there is a God.”

It wasn’t so much Tom Robbins’ sassy jibes against Christianity that inspired me (though those are plentifully peppered throughout almost every one of his books) as the gorgeous fresco he painted of an expansive, complex and beautifully troubled world that exposed the primitive myths of my youth as a tool of oppressive terror.

“Most of the harm inflicted by man upon his environment, his fellows and himself is due to greed,” I’d read in Cowgirls earlier that night. “Most of the greed (whether it be for power, property, attention or affection) is due to insecurity. Most of the insecurity is due to fear. And most of the fear is, at bottom, a fear of death….Why do people fear death so? Because they realize, unconsciously at least, that their lives are mere parodies of what living should be.”

I’d spent many years placing militant checkpoints on every road of thought in my brain. But after finishing Even Cowgirls Get the Blues late one night, lying in the dark of my hostel bunk bed, I developed the brief courage to whisper, “I don’t think there is a God.”

Similarly, the hedonistic approach I’d been taking toward sex and drugs at the time began to seem childish to me in the face of all this wisdom. Instead of mindlessly gorging myself on every narcotic, psychotropic and warm body I could get my hands on, reading Tom Robbins exposed me to the idea of binding myself to each experience, to stare down the present moment with a coherent affection, not just zip along the horizon of life with a headful of whiskey and rotten memories.

Despite his reputation, there isn’t really an exceptional amount of drug use in Tom Robbins’ books, particularly when placed next to Requiem for a Dream (Selby) or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Thompson). It just feels that way because of the vivid images the work burns into your mind’s eye. Three random examples: A former stockbroker named Larry Diamond “busily stuffing green leaves up his rectum” (Frog Pajamas); a princess’ silent maid “sniffing coke out of a plastic frog” (Still Life); an Arabian playboy, “in an absinthe, champagne and cocaine frenzy, bit the right nipple off a Warner Bros. starlet and spit it into a bowl of blue-cheese dip” (Skinny Legs and All).

In Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Robbins’ most famous novel, Bonanza Jellybean defends the decision to regularly feed peyote to a flock of endangered whooping cranes—which leads to a standoff with the FBI—against the accusation that she’s “drugging” them:

“What you mean ‘drugged’? Every living thing is a chemical composition and anything that is added to it changes that composition. When you eat a cheeseburger or a Three Musketeers bar, it changes your body chemistry. The kind of food you eat, the kind of air you breathe, can change your mental state. Does that mean you’re ‘drugged’? ‘Drugged’ is a stupid word.”

While directing the film adaptation of Cowgirls, director Gus Van Sant described the book as “one of the first hippy novels.”

Recently speaking with National Public Radio Books, Robbins said that he wouldn’t give up having experienced the ’60s “for a billion dollars.” And while it was his intention to inject the psychedelic culture he’d witnessed in San Francisco and Seattle into his work, he says he wanted “not so much to describe the ’60s as to re-create them on the page, to mirror in style as well as content their mood, their palette, their extremes, their vibrations, their profundity, their silliness and whimsy (for despite the prevailing political turmoil, it was a highly whimsical age).”

I ended up staying in that San Francisco hostel for a year, working in the breakfast cafe downstairs while reading every Tom Robbins book I could get my hands on. Soft-eyed homeless hippies, dripping with gray hair, would see me reading the books and launch into long-winded stories of eating peyote before a Tom Robbins reading, or dropping acid and reading Still Life With Woodpecker.

To me, this seemed excessive and unnecessary.

Just as Robbins didn’t want to write about the ’60s but actually write the ’60s, he very rarely wrote about drugs so much as his writing makes you feel like you were on drugs. The pictures he projects are so mind-bendingly bright, so rich in calories, you often have to take a moment to digest each sentence.

A former art critic, Robbins writes like a painter. He’s often said that it was late one night in 1967, as a young journalist writing a review of The Doors debut performance in Seattle, that he made the initial discovery of his own vivid voice:

“My God, what Doors are these?!? Imagine jeweled glass panels, knobs that resemble spitting phalluses, mail slots that glow like jack-o-lantern lips…The Doors. The musical equivalent of a ritual sacrifice, an amplified sex throb, a wounded yet somehow elegant yowl for the lost soul of America, histrionic tricksters making hard cider from the apples of Eden while petting the head of the snake.”

Just as Robbins didn’t want to write about the ’60s but actually write the ’60s, he very rarely wrote about drugs so much as his writing makes you feel like you are on drugs. The pictures he projects are so rich in calories you often have to take a moment to digest each sentence.

When I first heard these words in 2006, spoken by Robbins on the audiobook of Wild Ducks Flying Backward, while I lay naked on the roof of my San Francisco hostel, smoking a joint and lost in headphones, I had assumed that he was on acid that night in 1967.

After all, Ken Kesey was zonked out on mescaline and LSD (working the graveyard shift at a mental hospital) during most of the writing of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. And when William S. Burroughs composed Naked Lunch in Tangiers, he was on a wicked combination of pot and opiates that would turn the strongest mind into gravy.

Obviously, Tom Robbins likes drugs. (Or at least some of them.) Whether he’s drinking gin and tonics with mythologist Joseph Campbell or dropping acid and letting “my consciousness enter a daisy…It was like a cathedral of mathematics and honey,” this Seattle shaman is a fan of the fucked-up. He most likely wouldn’t appreciate me phrasing it that way, however.

“There are people to this day who equate being high with drunkenness,” he writes in Tibetan Peach Pie. “The two conditions are diametrically opposed, the one opening up consciousness the way 15th-century explorers opened up new worlds, the other shutting it down like a bankrupt pawnshop.”

I saw Tom Robbins at one of his readings last month. Dressed in a pinstripe jacket and an oddly placed stripe of bleached hair, he read three anecdotes from Tibetan Peach Pie at Denver’s Tattered Cover Bookstore, and then, when finished, said “I’m turning 82 next month” and therefore wouldn’t be able to stand up for pictures—you’d have to come down to him for one.

Here was a man who, at the age of 20, met Jackson Pollock in a New York bar. A living human who took acid two years before the Beatles did.

The last time he’d visited Denver was 2009, only a few years and a few miles from where Hunter Thompson shot himself in Woody Creek at the age of 67. He was touring for his children’s book  B Is for Beer. Full-grown men in the front row cracked beers open during this bookstore reading, high-fiving each other and looking to Robbins for approval, as if he were their older brother. Very young women skipped about in leather miniskirts that wouldn’t have looked out of place at a Motorhead concert, but stood out with violent sexuality within the chaste walls of the Tattered Cover.

“It’s not a matter of how long you live, it’s all about how long you can go without losing your moxie,” the writer Charles Bukowski once said, and by that measure, Robbins is still very much alive. Some may disagree, but I believe that this is most likely due to his tempered, conscious drug use throughout his life.

Keith Richards may have survived turning his body into a biochemical black hole for a few decades, but he hasn’t written a decent tune in 30 years. Hunter Thompson became an adored legend for the Herculean amounts of acid and booze he could consume, inspiring generations of boys to get competitive with their drug consumption, but he also went limp around the same time as Richards.

Whereas Tom Robbins has simply been a wide-eyed giggly tortoise, modestly nibbling at the world’s spirits, its women, its fame. Modestly observing. He even writes slowly, spending years researching only to compose a novel with pencil on paper. He may not appreciate being crowned with the word “modesty,” but at least when placed next to his creative contemporaries, Robbins remains that rare unicorn that has never (a) died, (b) become strictly “sober” (presumably) or (c) begun making disappointing art.

In proper Robbins fashion, I’ve never taken his words as scripture or become a sycophant of his persona. I’ve sometimes found his sentences unnecessarily dense, and his descriptions of women to be marginally sexist. It’s been eight years since I first discovered that weathered copy of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues in San Francisco, and in that time the world has become, for me, an even more complex and beautifully troubled place.

Though they will never be my bible, the arsenal of Tom Robbins books on my shelf still act as a guidepost for me, injecting Technicolor paint into my mind’s eye whenever my imaginative muscles grow limp, and reminding me that drugs (or at least certain drugs) should always remain a decorative seasoning on the meal of life—never the main course.

Josiah M. Hesse is a Denver-based journalist who covers marijuana, politics, entertainment and pop culture. His work has appeared in Westword, Colorado Public Radio, Out Front Colorado and Vice magazine. He has also written for Laugh Spin, The Spit Take and Splitsider. HIs previous piece for substance.com was about how he quit smoking using pop culture and unlit cigarettes.