How An Obscure Marvel Superhero Saved My Sanity On My First Acid Trip
The first time I did acid was 1991 or 1992. I would have been 17 or 18. It was definitely one of those two years because by June 1993 I had been doing acid quite a bit and dropped two tabs before seeing Jurassic Park (not as bad an idea as you might think). I can’t quite pin the year down, but I know it was the summer, one of those sweaty New York City summers that drain everything right out of you.
Acid wasn’t my first drug experience - we had smoked plenty of pot, and we had huffed all sorts of things from under the kitchen sink, and one time we even tried smoking chopstick shavings because we heard it got you super high (the plastic coating on the chopsticks just got us super sick). Acid was a big step, though, and we had been kind of building up to it for a while, experimenting with different sorts of pills (including quaaludes, the drug recently hyped by The Wolf of Wall Street). We were slacker grunge types with deep punk and metal record collections, but we all had the psychedelic sixties as a touchstone. We grew up listening to The Beatles and watching weird 70s kids shows clearly produced under the influence of psilocybin; we had been indoctrinated into the idea of tripping for a long time now.
“We” in this case was myself and my two best friends, a younger kid named Chris (who was the biggest of us) and my best friend Fred. If this was 1992 Fred, a squat, hairy Puerto Rican kid from Richmond Hill, wasn’t going by Fred anymore. He had traveled far north to Oswego to attend the state school there, and part of his journey was a personal one. He had taken on a new name. He was now known as Stu… a name he took from Stu Redmond in Stephen King’s The Stand.
So yeah, we were those kinds of kids. Chris was less nerdy than Stu/Fred and I; he was a skater and part of an art group/graffiti collective that called itself the Plaid Fish Crew. All the comic books that Fred and I read religiously appealed to Chris mostly as vehicles for artistic inspiration, even though mostly he drew fish. But Fred and I would go to Little Nemo’s Comics in Forest Hills every week and drool over the new issues; sometimes - and I’m not proud of this, twenty plus years later - we’d steal them. Fred was a master; he would walk out the door with not one, not two but three or four Cerebus phone books stuffed in his pants.
My first acid experience wasn’t their first acid experience. I don’t know where they got the LSD, but they had acquired a whole bunch of tabs and had dropped the first ones a few nights before I came over. They had just one trip under their belts, but they were old hats at it by that point - at least they acted like it. It’s that swagger of late teen boys, the idea that you know everything and you have all the energy and ability to conquer anything. You did acid once? Move aside, Timothy Leary, we’re the Titans of Trips now.
I remember the tab: it was a plain white square of paper, and I placed it on my tongue like it was a Communion wafer. I am not just making that comparison, I know that I was enough of a pretentious dweeb to have that in mind as I did it. Again, you grow up surrounded by the remnants of psychedelic culture you end up with some lofty ideas about tripping balls. I placed the paper on my tongue and it dissolved and I waited.
The slow onset of signs would later become familiar, but that first time I didn’t even notice that I was beginning to trip. The stiff pain in my lower back (we always thought it was because the acid we were getting was laced with strychnine, or at least that was the story on the streets. Later research showed that it’s probably just what happens with acid sometimes) was ignored, and the speed-like effects - I started getting antsy, twitchy, talking fast - just felt like the natural progression of hanging out with my friends and having fun. It wasn’t until the tip of Chris’ cigarette traced a blazing red line through the air that I realized this shit was real, and I was tripping.
There’s no good way to tell you what it’s like to trip without devolving into bullshit pseudo-poetry or portentous Indian gobbledy-gook. If you ever want to know what it sounds like to trip, the way that your ears interpret everything from ambient room tone to the speech of others, I strongly recommend listening to The Butthole Surfers’ Locust Abortion Technician. That sounds a lot like what tripping felt like.
In my experience you don’t hallucinate much on acid (although I have certainly hallucinated, including a terrifying experience in Times Square where people seemed to be werewolves) but your thought processes change immensely. You just don’t process information in the same way, and it’s not helped by the fact that your sensory input is profoundly changed. Your synapses are firing in weird, different ways, and sometimes it feels like they’re firing in the ways that they were always meant to fire, like you suddenly experienced true clarity and absolute understanding. One night I laid beneath the trees in Forest Park in Queens, looking up through the laced branches at what passes for a night sky in New York City and I realized the branches were forming a fractal pattern of some sort. I was looking into a blueprint of the universe, I saw. As above, so below - there was an infinite series of refracting patterns and I had glimpsed them. I had more secrets, secrets that were revealed to me through careful examination of the fractal patterns of the branches of dead trees, but when I was straight again none of it held. It’s easy to laugh at it, but it’s an amazing feeling, even if it is just likely a phantom chemical recreation of a eureka experience. If we all were able to have that feeling a couple of times a year I think we’d be happier as a species.
Any good psychoactive drug is going to give you a peaks and valleys experience. Sometimes you will be royally fucked up - possibly to the point of absolute noncoherence - and sometimes you’ll be very chill and in the moment. With mushrooms it’s like taking big, deep breaths, an organic series of exhales and inhales that are wonderful and nourishing. With ecstasy it’s like a fun rollercoaster where you’re up and down but always having a good time. But acid is a bruiser; where shrooms lead you merrily through experiences, acid grabs you by the wrist and drags you along behind it. Being on acid can be like being on a plane that keeps climbing crazy high, giving you a view of all the world and the stars, and then suddenly drops ten thousand feet. It can be the most exhilarating experience ever followed by the most profoundly terrifying experience. But good or bad you rarely feel totally in control. Somebody else is flying that plane.
That night when the trip kicked in I was loving it, and doing all the stuff you see people do in movies - waving my hands in front of my face to see trails, moving weird to experience sensations, putting my poor ears too close to the speakers to soak in the sounds. I babbled and laughed and pontificated and danced about. It was amazing.
But it only takes a small thing to derail you on an acid trip. Chris thought it would be funny to throw his lit cigarette in my face; it wasn’t a big deal and I wasn’t burnt or anything, but it created this sudden, overpowering mood shift. Suddenly I didn’t feel safe. I was the only newbie in the room, and I didn’t know if these other two guys had led me into a trap. Yeah, they’re my best friends, but Chris threw a cigarette at me! That was Hitler level evil. It was a sign of truly sinister intentions.
Fred wanted to go to the park. That seemed like the worst idea in the world. It had gotten dark - we started tripping at around dusk, and we had been going for a few hours now - and the idea of walking into a New York City park at this hour in this state of mind froze me. I was kind of a pussy back then - maybe I still am, although I now view that pussiness through the prism of wisdom (ie, don’t go into a New York City park at midnight in 1992 seems more wise to me at 40, as opposed to cowardly), and while these guys knew what to expect from their trips I was still feeling it out. They got really irritated with me; I was totally whining and maybe even kind of rocking back and forth like some kind of autistic kid who happened to be experiencing the world through the perspective of the seventh dimension (one where sound has physical texture).
And then it was an argument and I actually began to freak out. I began to have what they call a bad trip. In the years after I had way worse trips (all with these same two goons, so maybe that was the common denominator for psychedelic excursions going awry), but this was my first time out of my head, and it was feeling really bad.
Here’s another thing about tripping: it destroys reality. I don’t mean that in some kind of metaphorical way, I mean that very literally - what you understood as reality before you tripped is proven absolutely wrong while you’re fucked up. You may be able to say to yourself, logically, that you understand what you’re hearing isn’t the sound of Death itself waiting and breathing heavily in a shadow or that the walls are not actually rippling or that the shag carpet is not truly merging with your flesh (all bad sensory experiences I have had on acid), but logic has no place in a trip. Your brain acknowledges the logic and then keeps on freaking the fuck out. You are trapped in some kind of crazy feedback loop where the thing that freaked you out makes your body feel freaked out and send freaked out messages to your brain, which is already freaked out but now thinks it’s getting another indication that there’s a good reason to freak out and so it freaks out more, which makes your body feel even more freaked out…
Anyway, I was freaked out, and it was getting worse, building on itself. And Fred could see it. And god bless him, he knew exactly how to unfreak me.
“Think of Quasar,” he said. At this point we were walking around the neighborhood, each side having made concessions - yes, I would leave the house but no, we would not go into the park. He sat me down on a strip of grass between the street and the sidewalk - a strip probably just littered with dog turds - and said it again. “Think of Quasar.”
We were nerds, so I knew what he meant. He wasn’t talking about astronomy or TV brands, he was talking about Wendell Vaughn, a SHIELD agent who had become the Marvel Comics superhero Quasar. We loved the book, a title that never quite caught on with the mainstream but that spoke to us on some weird level.
Vaughn was a blonde Wisconsin boy, very unlike the trembling Italian and swarthy Puerto Rican sitting on a Queens, New York curb. When he graduated from SHIELD Academy he got a bum assignment because he wasn’t an alpha male; he didn’t have that ‘killer instinct’ that so many masculine heroes have. I guess we identified with that; we weren’t total pushovers, but we weren’t jocks and we weren’t competitive the way other kids our age were. We had gone to an all-boys high school, so we didn’t have that experience of chasing girls very much; we were all sexual late-bloomers. We had had a glam rock period where we wondered if we were bi (we weren’t, it turns out).
That passivity ended up being the key to Vaughn’s superhero career. He was assigned to guard duty at a secret SHIELD facility where an alien, cosmic bit of jewelry was being tested. They were the Quantum Bands - basically gaudy cosmic energy-fueled bracelets - and they promised to give the bearer incredible power. During testing SHIELD’s hottest shots would put on the bands and find themselves utterly overwhelmed. These were the guys who had all the willpower in the world - read: Hal Jordan types - but they were being disintegrated by the immense energy they couldn’t control. And then one day superterrorist group AIM attacked the facility, and Vaughn put on the Quantum Bands to defend himself.
He felt the energy in the bracelets consuming him, and the more he fought it - the harder he tried - the worse it got. And so Vaughn, the guy who didn’t have the killer instinct, decided to just chill out and go with the flow. That was the key - by relaxing himself and accepting the energy, he was able to channel it. And thus was born the superhero Quasar (who eventually got killed off and used very badly, in my opinion, but that all happened long after my first trip).
“Go with it,” Fred said. “Don’t fight the Quantum Bands. Accept them. Let the power cosmic flow through you.”
He was right. If we were cooler kids maybe he would have quoted John Lennon at me:
Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream
It is not dying, it is not dying
Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void
It is shining, it is shining
I mean, that’s exactly what Fon-du-Lac’s own golden boy Wendell Vaughn figured out when he first donned those bands. If we were more scholarly maybe he’d have just gone to the Timothy Leary book, The Psychedelic Experience, where Lennon had gotten those ideas. Or if we were religious kids maybe he’d have gone to the Bardo Thodol, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, where Leary had done his homework.
But we were nerds, and it was Quasar, and his Quantum Bands, that brought me back from the edge of a really serious freak out, that calmed me down, that helped me get through the rest of the trip and be filled with awe and wonder and happiness. I had an amazing remainder of the night, and as the sun came up we sat in the park - after Quasar calmed me down I relented and we finally went in - and watched a dirty brown sunrise and felt magnificently strung out. I knew I was going to be taking a lot of drugs over the next few years, and I did, and I’m really happy I did.
Later we would go all Timothy Leary, including a period when we would lock ourselves in dark closets while tripping in order to better explore the spaces within (listen, I was young). We’d experiment with all sorts of drugs and experiences (for years Chris chased his dreams of shitting while on acid and falling asleep and dreaming while on acid), but no ancient text or sweaty rave or Alejandro Jodorowsky movie would ever guide me better than the stories of Quasar as written by Mark Gruenwald. I don't know much about Gruenwald's personal life, but in issue four of Quasar he had Wendell meet up with The Aquarian, a weird character created in the Jesus Freak hippie era, so I have to imagine that on some level he was getting purposefully psychedelic. But even if he wasn't, the universe can work in weird ways. It's pretty cosmic, man.