In October 2019 my wife and I went to the Disney Hall to hear members of the LA Phil play Beethoven’s string quartet, op. 132. I put it like that because rather than an established quartet this was just four players from the orchestra. It was OK – which is to say it was also inadequate. They weren’t able to generate enough resistance to the leaving-everything-behind soul of the third movement, the ‘Heiliger Dankgesang’. The regret at leaving – the reluctance – has to be immense in order to enhance the achieved leave-taking. So it ended up being just an amazing piece of music, finely played, when it has to become so much more. That, in a way, is what it’s about; leaving even music itself behind . . . Certainly that’s how these late quartets struck Beethoven’s contemporaries. There’s something there, one of them remarked, as if peering dimly at another world through an inadequate telescope, but we don’t know what.
But the above formulation, about leaving music behind, was incomplete. The goal was to leave music behind while still being music. (‘Nothing transcends,’ Adorno reminds us, ‘without that which it transcends.’) For Beethoven what greater repose could there have been?
All of this was in my mind during the concert – a sure sign of not being completely transported by it – because I’d spent the weekend at my friend Tao’s place in Joshua Tree. I drove out there with Jamie, a laid-back, broad-shouldered surfer. Half the population of Southern California surfs but Jamie had been a pro. He’s in his mid-fifties now: the Cliff Booth, we agreed, to my Rick Dalton. I didn’t just like hanging out with him; I also felt a kind of pride at having such a dudely friend, as if I became cooler by association. We were dressed almost identically – skateboard shoes, jeans, plaid flannel shirts – and it was easy to forget, as we sat side by side in his clapped-out station wagon, that rather than making me seem cool, those wide, easy-going shoulders of his made me look even scrawnier and more uptight than usual.
On pre-Covid Friday afternoons it often felt as if California was so jammed with cars that it was impossible for anyone to get anywhere until Saturday morning. We were in the car for ages, stuck in traffic for hours in LA and then for hours more in Riverside. It was a relief to get to Tao’s but it’s intimidating turning up at a place where people are already lounging round the pool or soaking in the hot tub, especially when they are all naked, some are already tripping, and, on one of the loungers, there is a water-wrinkled copy of Being-in-the-World, Hubert Dreyfus’s commentary on Heidegger.
I’d warned Jamie about this, about the initial intimidation factor, and I’d also told him that while every weekend at Tao’s place was guaranteed to be wonderful, each weekend had its own distinctive and unpredictable character of wonderfulness. The previous time I was there I’d held a human brain in my hands (a visiting neuroscientist happened to have one in the trunk of his car). This weekend came to be defined by DMT, something I’d been very keen to try twenty years earlier during my last phase of psychedelic experimentation.
There was some doubt about how best to ingest it. All we had was a little pot pipe. Tao said we needed to mix the DMT with tobacco but I knew, from the few times I’d attempted to smoke hash mixed with tobacco, that this would make me nauseous. In the end we settled for sage instead of tobacco. In every other respect our preparations were meticulous. A comfortable chair was set up facing a dull brown mandala from Bhutan in the living room – home to Tao’s superb McIntosh sound system. One person would hold the pipe for whoever was doing the DMT and would then leave, rejoining the others waiting in the kitchen. On the Friday night I sat down comfortably in front of the mandala. The music on the stereo was by SUSS: ambient country, open-sky soundscapes. I took a scorching hit on the pipe, held the smoke in, and then took another, holding it in for only a short time before coughing. I felt a brief inner turbulence and then the mandala glowed a radiant gold and became infinitely three-dimensional. But I always knew exactly where I was and who I was and was fully conscious of the passage of time. Everyone else had similar experiences.
I had another go on Saturday morning and the effects were milder than the night before so three of us – Jamie, me and our friend Danny – set out to buy the correct equipment. This meant, not to put too fine a point on it, buying a crack pipe – easy to do in Joshua Tree as long as you did the polite thing and asked for a glass pipe. After buying the glass pipe that was really a crack pipe that was really a DMT pipe we had an epic breakfast at the Crossroads Cafe, where, as we waited for a table, I received a text from a friend in Dublin. ‘This is of the utmost importance: go all the way with a breakthrough dose. Otherwise you won’t get what makes it unique.’
For some reason, in addition to a huge egg breakfast each, we had also ordered an enormous helping of pancakes which Danny proceeded to divide up with his fork. Because he had what looked, relatively speaking, like a pancake-sized cold sore on his lip neither Jamie nor I wanted our share of this shared item so Danny set about methodically scarfing the lot. It was such a massive undertaking that Jamie asked if he had ‘ever eaten competitively?’ This was probably the most unusual question I had ever heard anyone ask and although I had not included questions of any kind in my list of things that might make a weekend at Tao’s wonderful this was one of the details that contributed to the wonderfulness of this particular weekend. It’s also important to mention that we always refer to Danny as Crop-Top Danny because he wears these crop tops to show off his impressively muscled abdomen, which showed no signs of expansion even after he’d worked his way through both his own breakfast and the bonus pile of pancakes.
We drove back to Tao’s in Danny’s car, a Buick LeSabre from the 1980s, moving surprisingly fast over the ruts, craters and boulders on the dirt road up to the compound. The car had amazing suspension – though by the time I returned a month later it was out of action, because of a problem with the suspension, which, for all we know, might have been put under additional strain by the quantity of food Danny had snaked away.
To make sure everything would be done properly we watched public-spirited instructional DMT videos on YouTube. There are a lot, some featuring teenagers in their bedrooms, most hosted by older, more experienced heads, at least one of whom looked like he was still recovering from the trauma of Jerry Garcia’s passing. A scrupulous evangelist said we needed scales to measure out a fifty-milligram dose. We didn’t have scales so we cleverly crushed a two-hundred-milligram ibuprofen pill and divided it into four piles so we’d know roughly what fifty milligrams looked like. The rest of the afternoon was spent hiking up a nearby hill, charging down it again – which I managed to do without twisting my ankle – and hanging out by the pool and hot tub. I was wearing shorts and a faded T-shirt from a bicycle cafe in Sedona. A new couple arrived, at the same time that we had the day before. I expected to be able to enjoy their slight self-consciousness but they felt immediately at ease and were naked in the hot tub within minutes of arriving, leaving me feeling so self-conscious in my T-shirt and shorts that I ‘read’ Being-in-the-World, conscious that I couldn’t understand any of it, before getting up to fiddle with the sound system.
For the Saturday night DMT session the living room had been even more beautifully prepared. To one side of the mandala there were lush plants, with a cuddly toy propped up beside them. In The Celestial Hunter Roberto Calasso writes of a time when you never knew if an animal you saw might be a god. Looking back it seems clear that this adorable cuddly toy was a god, even though I can’t remember which animal it was supposed to be. A cool friend of Tao’s who lived nearby had come for dinner: a musician in her mid-thirties, called Janie, confusingly. The identity borders built around these neighbourly consonants proved too porous to be effective; several times in the course of what turned into a long evening I said Janie when I meant Jamie, and Jamie when I meant Janie, as though, along with everything else going on, they were turning into each other. Janie took the first hit of the properly administered DMT and reported very mild effects. Then it was my turn. The experience was even more diluted than it had been in the morning (which had itself been a diminution of what had happened the night before). Surfer Jamie: ditto. Had the DMT gone off? The well-fed Danny went next, lighting the pipe himself. Having broken through multiple times before he was well-placed to deliver a definitive verdict. It works, he said when he came back into the kitchen, but not as powerfully as some he’d taken before. He’d had to breathe his way into it.
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