Tuesday, November 30, 2010


I read On The Road when I was young and it had a major impact and influence upon me. It is clear, poetic, raw, and written with an enthusiasm for life. It is a story of a passionate friendship and a search for revelation. Kerouac takes us through the highs and lows of hitchhiking and bonding with fellow travellers. On The Road expresses the restless energy and desire for freedom that makes people rush out and see the world. It is a cross-country bohemian odyssey that not only influenced writing in the years after its publication but also penetrated into the deepest levels of American thought and culture.

On The Road was published by Viking Press in 1957. It is an autobiographical work based on Kerouac's spontaneous road trips across America. It is one of the defining works of the Beat Generation that was inspired by jazz, poetry, and experimentation with drugs. It is a work of fiction but many of the characters are based on real-life people and friends of Kerouac's including Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs.

The myth is that Kerouac wrote On The Road in a three week period in 1951, typing continuously onto a 120-foot roll of teletype paper. This is true to a certain extent, but Kerouac had kept notebooks on his road trips from which he worked. He had actually started an earlier version in 1948 based on his first long road trip in 1947. Neal Cassady wrote him a 1000-word rambling letter in 1950 that inspired Kerouac to outline the "essentials of spontaneous prose" and tell the story of his years on the road. He wanted the novel to be like a letter written to a friend in a form that reflected the improvisational fluidity of jazz. The first draft was then produced on the roll in 3 weeks in April 1951. Over the next several years revisions were made and sections omitted and inserted, before it was finally published in 1957.

The narrator is Sal Paradise (Kerouac) and the catalyst for the adventures to come is his friend Dean Moriarty (Cassady). In the beginning Sal sees Dean as the epic hero because of his free nature, and his reluctance to conform to social demands. Dean had been in prison which solidified Sal's view of him and prison had fueled Dean's obsession with the road and the need to be free. Sal is fascinated with humanity, with his friends, jazz, the landscapes of America, and women. 

Sal takes off for Chicago, marking it as specific area of jazz history, somewhere between the bebop of Charlie Parker and the cool period that began with Miles Davis.

The automobile keeps Sal and Dean constantly in motion. Dean's madness is glorified and he does whatever he pleases. There are drugs and liquor, and a character loosely based on William Burroughs is into heroin. Women drift in and out and Dean treats everyone terribly, but still Sal sees him as a god-like hero.

As the book evolves, Sal becomes less idealistic about the road and being down and out, and his reverent tone for Dean changes to one of disappointment. When confronted about his abandonment of his wife and child, Dean falls silent. Sal notes that "in the past Dean would have talked his way out, but now he fell silent....He was BEAT."

Sal's last trip is through the Mexican countryside to Mexico City with Dean and another traveller they had met in Denver. They have a marijuana-infused introduction to Mexican culture, including a vivid and expensive sojourn to a bordello complete with mambo music and underage prostitutes.

Sal gets dysentery in Mexico City and Dean abandons him feverish and hallucinating. Sal reflects that  "when I got better I realized what a rat he was, but then I had to understand the impossible complexity of his life."

The novel ends a year later in New York, after a plan to move to San Francisco with Dean falls through, and Dean ends up going by himself. Sal ends up on a pier reminiscing about God, America, and the idea that "no one knows what is going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old."

On The Road takes you on a quest across America that you can see, smell, and feel. It inspired me to travel myself. Once, I hitchhiked from Tulsa, Oklahoma to San Francisco and back again with a friend, even spending three days in jail in Wanatchee, Washington. I experienced the highs and lows, living on peanut butter, down to a few bucks and still being a thousand miles from home, and then catching that magical ride all the way from Flagstaff to Oklahoma City. Another time I hitched with another friend to Mardi Gras which included sleeping under a bridge underpass in Mississippi. Many times, I took the bus between Tulsa and New York. Just thinking about it makes me want to chuck it all and hit the road, but of course we are tied down by responsibility.

On The Road is a great book that expresses the outlaw spirit that was the underbelly of conformist 1950s America.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Days of Heaven is a poetic and dream-like film. It has Biblical undercurrents in its plot, as the main characters go on a transformative journey from a hellish Chicago factory to a paradise of endless land and sky in the panhandle of Texas. The central character Bill (Richard Gere) has committed a crime and along with his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and his little sister (Linda Manz) they flee the city for the open fields of America where they find work on the harvest on the land of a wealthy farmer played by Sam Shepard. In the end, a swarm of locusts leads to a tragic conclusion where the images are consumed by flames.

Days of Heaven came out in 1978, and was the second work by Terence Malick. He made Badlands in the early 70s and after Days of Heaven he would not make another film for 20 years until The Thin Red Line in 1998. His fourth film The New World was released in 2005. 

All of Malick's work has a pastoral, humanist, and transcendental quality with an emphasis on image and music. The story is told through visuals, with minimal dialogue. All of his films use a voice-over narration by one or more of the characters to move and comment on the story. The music adds a spiritual and emotional quality to the cinematic experience. 

There is a dark edge to the films as well as they show human suffering and the inequality of the social order in the worlds they depict. Malick's films show the people in power, and those who have little or nothing, and the conflict that arises from this imbalance. 

Days of Heaven has amazing cinematography by Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler. They photograph America as a strange and beautiful place. It takes place in the early 20th Century and has a silent film quality. The landscape becomes a dominant character. It is larger than the people in the film.

Malick and Almendros didn't use studio lighting much and modeled Days of Heaven after silent films that used natural light. They were inspired by painters such as Vermeer, Edward Hopper, and Andrew Wyeth. A lot of the film is shot during the magic hour - in the 20-25 minutes between sunset and total darkness. In the incredible apocalyptic locusts scene, this lighting style creates haunting silouhettes of man against the horizon.

The production was not rigidly prepared and allowed for improvisation. Malick shot tons of footage and put the film together in the editing room. Often dialogue sequences hit the cutting room floor, replaced by long held shots of nature. There are shots of wheat fields swaying in the breeze under storm clouds. He begins scenes in the middle of a tracking shot and ends with cuts to black or dissolves causing a floating in and out feeling that contributes to the dreamlike quality of the film. The voice-over narration ties the elements of the film together without being too literal.

Linda Manz does the voice-over in Days of Heaven as Sissy Spacek did in Badlands. Manz was a non-actor who had a natural presence. She never seems to be acting, playing, or forcing her reactions. She talks about God and Satan, the value of people, and the coming of the apocalypse. Her words are full of wonder and cynicism, but there is a detachment as well. Her commentary portrays the world through the eyes of an innocent, which creates a distance between what we see and her character's perception of what's going on around her. 

Ennio Morricone's soundtrack is dark and foreboding. It is haunting and adds to the timelessness of the film.

In his last film, The New World, the last 20 minutes are transcendent as the opening of Wagner's Das Rheingold is put against a montage of natural images. Malick creates hypnotic experiences with his use of music and image.

Terence Malick's films are unique because they put a visual and aural emphasis on a vast natural world that would just be a backdrop for most filmmakers. Man is just a small part of a world full of life and death. Days of Heaven is a beautiful, strange, and haunting cinematic experience. 

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Sally Mann became well known as a photographer in 1992, with the publication of her book Immediate Family. The book consists of 65 black-and-white photographs of her three children, taken when they were all under the age of 10. Many of the images were taken at the family's remote summer cabin along the river, where the children played and swam in the nude. They explore typical childhood themes of skinny dipping, dressing up, napping, and playing games, but they also touch on darker themes such as insecurity, loneliness, sexuality, and death. When Immediate Family came out there was a lot of controversy, including accusations of child pornography, and of being a work of contrived fiction. Mann herself considered the photographs to be natural and honest - through the eyes of the mother - who lives with her children everyday and is aware of the various moods of their young lives. The book has an open candor and is photographed with maternal care. The photographs are beautiful, luminous, strange, and dream-like. She goes deeper into the meaning of family than most would be willing to go. 

In the mid 1990s, Mann started photographing landscapes on wet plate collodion 8x10 glass negatives. She also used a 100 year old Bellows view camera that she had used with her earlier work. Many of the prints were 40"x50" and manipulated with the wet plate collodion process. This gave the images a ethereal quality and revealed many flaws and artifacts from the process and the old sometimes cracked lenses that she used.

What Remains, published in 2003, is in five parts and is based on the exhibition that was at the Corcoran Museum in Washington, DC. The first section contains photos of Eva, her greyhound after decomposition. The second part has photos of dead and decomposing bodies at a federal Forensic Anthropology Facility. The third part details the site on her property where an escaped convict was killed. The fourth part is a study of the grounds of Antietam, the site of the bloodiest single day battle in American history during the Civil War. The final section is a study of close-ups of her children. All of the images have an element of decay in the way they are printed as they are faded and again reveal the artifacts of the process and the plates.

In 2005, Mann published Deep South that consisted of landscapes of the south, including battlefields, decaying mansions, shrouded landscapes and the site where Emmett Till was murdered. The images in Deep South hover somewhere between document and dream. They have a spiritual quality as if the history they depict still exists as a ghost.

Proud Flesh was published in 2009, and is a study taken over six years of the effects of muscular dystrophy on her husband Larry Mann. It consists of nude studies of a mature male body. It suggests a profound trust between woman and man, wife and husband, artist and model and reverses the roles in a male-dominated field by having the female artist turn the camera on her husband at some of his most vulnerable moments.

Recently, another book was published - Sally Mann: The Flesh and The Spirit, which is an exploration of her approach to the human body. It includes her earliest platinum prints from the late 1970s, Polaroid still lifes, early color work of her children, haunting landscapes, recent self-portraits, and nude studies of her husband.

Sally Mann makes exquisitely beautiful photographs that are personal, ambiguous, contradictory and center around the relationship between the human figure and landscape, and the history that resides in these places. The photographs are controlled but have an improvised quality as well. The compositions seem so perfect, as if they must have been planned out, but they also feel as if they could have only been captured at that perfect moment that only lasts for a fraction of second. Her photographs reveal the process of living and dying at the same time.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


Bob Dylan has been a major figure in music for five decades. He pioneered several  schools of songwriting, from confessional singer/songwriter to winding, hallucinatory, stream-of-consciousness narratives. He broke down the notion that a singer must have a conventionally good voice in order to perform, redefining the vocalist's role in popular music. 

He evolved in the 60s as a chronicler and reluctant figurehead of social unrest. His songs became anthems for the US civil rights and anti-war movements. His lyrics incorporated a variety of political, social, philosophical, and literary influences. Starting out as a folk singer inspired by Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson, and Hank Williams his music evolved into electric rock and roll, fusing poetry and music into his own ever-changing style. His work has incorporated folk, blues, country, gospel, rock and roll, jazz, swing, and Irish folk music. His influence is incalculable on all of the folk and rock music that has come after. 

Bob Dylan moved to New York City in 1961, hoping to perform and visit his idol Woody Guthrie, who was seriously ill with Huntington's Disease. Dylan played at the various clubs around in Greenwich Village and received positive reviews from Robert Shelton of the New York Times after a show at Gerde's Folk City. He came to the attention of the producer John Hammond who signed him to a contract with Columbia Records.

His first album simply called Bob Dylan, consisted of familiar folk, blues, and gospel material along with two original compositions. He did a version of House of the Rising Sun and wrote his tribute to Guthrie with Song To Woody. The album didn't do well and the jazz producer Tom Wilson was brought in to work on his second album.

The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan was released in May, 1963. Many of the songs were labeled protest songs, inspired by Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Oxford Town was a sardonic account of James Meredith's ordeal as the first black student to risk enrollment at the University of Mississippi. It also included his most famous song at that time Blowin' In The Wind which took its melody from a traditional slave song while its lyrics questioned the social and political status quo. A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall contained veiled references to nuclear apocalypse, and gained more resonance with the Cuban Missile Crisis. It also marked an important new direction in modern songwriting, by combining traditional folk with stream-of-consciousness and imagist lyrics. The album also contained love songs and jokey, surreal talking blues. Masters of War is a great song that made a powerful anti-war statement.

Dylan's third album, The Times They Are a-Changin' reflected a more politicized and cynical artist. The songs took their content from contemporary real life stories. Only A Pawn In Their Game addressed the murder of civil rights worker Medgar Evers. The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll was about the death of the black barmaid at the hands of a young white socialite.

Around this time Dylan was supposed to be on the Ed Sullivan Show singing Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues, but the producers of the show were worried about legal issues, so Dylan refused to appear rather than comply with censorship.

Another Side of Bob Dylan came out in 1964, and had a lighter mood than its predecessor. The surreal, humorous Dylan was reflected on I Shall Be Free #10 and Motorpsycho Nightmare. Spanish Harlem Incident and To Ramona are passionate and romantic love songs. Black Crow Blues and I Don't Believe You suggest  the rock and roll soon to enter Dylan's music. It Ain't Me Babe is on the surface a song about spurned love, but can also be seen as Dylan's rejection of the role his reputation had thrust at him. My Back Pages attacks the seriousness of his earlier topical songs and seems to predict the backlash he was about to encounter as he took a new direction. The incredible Chimes of Freedom sets elements of social commentary against a denser metaphorical landscape in a style Allen Ginsberg would call - chains of flashing images.

In 1965, Dylan made a huge stylistic leap with Bringing It All Back Home, featuring his first recordings with electric instruments. Subterranean Homesick Blues owed much to Chuck Berry's Too Much Monkey Business. Its free association lyrics contained the manic energy of Beat poetry and was forerunner of rap and hip-hop. It also had an early music video that came out of  D. A. Pennebaker's cinema verite presentation of Dylan's 1965 tour of England, Don't Look Back. The B Side consisted of four long songs on which Dylan accompanied himself on acoustic guitar and harmonica. Mr. Tambourine  Man became one of Dylan's best known songs when The Byrds recorded an electric version that reached the top of the charts. One of my favorite Dylan songs is on this album - It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) where the stream-of-consciousness lyrics are delivered in a continuous flow. He who is not busy being born is busy dying.

Also in 1965, He performed at the Newport Folk Festival with his electric band that included Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper. The crowd became hostile, and this performance provoked a negative response from the folk rock establishment. Some people saw this move in an electric direction as selling out, but Dylan was just wanted to go in a new direction and the next two albums - Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde are now considered two of his best.

In July 1965, Dylan released Like A Rolling Stone. At over 6 minutes in length, the song is credited with altering attitudes about what a pop single could convey. Bruce Springsteen, in his speech during Dylan's inauguration into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, said that on first hearing the single, that "the snare shot sounded like somebody'd kicked open the door to your mind." Rolling Stone listed it as the number one of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. He also released the single Positively 4th Street about this time which was full of angry lyrics and widely interpreted as Dylan's response to his former friends in the folk community. It can also be seen as reflecting his bitterness towards a past lover.

Like A Rolling Stone was the first song on Highway 61 Revisited, titled after the road that lead from Dylan's Minnesota home to the musical hotbed of New Orleans. Most of the songs were flavored by Mike Bloomfield's blues guitar and Al Kooper's organ riffs. There is an intensity on this album, and includes the dark and powerful Ballad of a Thin Man. Desolation Row offers the sole acoustic exception, with Dylan making surreal allusions to a variety of figures in Western culture. The song takes the form of a Fellini-esque parade of grotesques and oddities featuring a huge cast of iconic characters, some historical, some biblical, some fictional, some literary, and some who don't fit into any category.

Blonde on Blonde was released in 1966 and inverted the garage rock sound of Highway 61. It blended blues, country, rock, and folk into a wild, careening, and dense sound. Robbie Robertson played an intense, weaving guitar and the Hawks were the backing band. It is made up of songs driven by inventive, surreal, and witty wordplay, not only on the rockers but also on the moving ballads like Visions of Johanna, Just Like A Woman, and Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands. Blonde on Blonde is an album of enormous depth, providing endless lyrical and musical revelations. The music is filled with cutting guitar riffs, liquid organ sounds, crisp piano, and even a woozy brass band on Rainy Day Women #12 & 35. It's the culmination of Dylan's electric rock and roll period - he would never release a studio record that rocked this hard, or contained such bizzare imagery.

In July 1966, Dylan had a motorcycle accident near his home in Woodstock, New York. The extent of his injuries were never disclosed, but after the accident he withdrew from the public and only appeared at  a few select appearances for the next several years.

In the Fall of 1967, Dylan returned to the studio and recorded John Wesley Harding, a quiet, more contemplative record of shorter songs that drew its imagery from the American West and The Bible. All Along The Watchtower took its lyrics from the Book of Isaiah, and of course was later recorded by Jimi Hendrix, which Dylan felt was the definitive version.

His next release in 1969 was Nashville Skyline, which was a straight country album, featuring Nashville musicians, a mellow-voiced Dylan, a duet with Johnny Cash, and a hit single - Lay Lady Lay.

Dylan's work became more varied and unpredictable in the 70s. He appeared live at the Concert For Bangladesh that was put together by George Harrison. He put out a few albums with New Morning probably being the strongest, and acted and made music for the film Pat Garrett and Billy Kid. One of his greatest and most emotional songs Knockin' On Heaven's Door came from these sessions. He also produced a live album with The Band called Before The Flood.

My favorite album from the 70s was Blood On The Tracks. It achieved a sublime balance between his earlier stream-of-consciousness work, and the simpler compostions of his post-accident years. It is an honest account of a love affair, with the stunning and moving song Tangled Up In Blue as its centerpiece.

Also around this time The Basement Tapes album was released, which were recordings Dylan had made with The Band in 1968. The work had previously been available as a bootleg. It is a truly American album as it gets into the weirdness inherent in old folk, country, and blues tunes. It is lively and humorous and has full bodied performances. 

Desire came out in 1975, and contained the song Hurricane which was about Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, which presented a case for his innocence after he had spent years in jail for a triple murder committed in Patterson, New Jersey in 1966. The song was over 8 minutes long but was released as a single. The album had a travelogue narrative style, showing the influence of Dylan's new collaborator, the playwright, Jacques Levy.

In 1975, Dylan went on the road with The Rolling Thunder Revue. The tour had many performers including T-Bone Burnett, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Joni Mitchell, Roger McGuinn, Mick Ronson, Joan Baez, and the violinist Scarlet Rivera who played a prominent role on Desire. The Revue provided the backdrop for Dylan's nearly four-hour film Renaldo and Clara, which mixed concert footage with reminiscences. He also appeared at The Band's farewell concert in 1976, that was filmed by Martin Scorsese and released as The Last Waltz.

In the late 70s Bob Dylan became a born-again Christian and released two albums - Slow Train Coming, followed by Saved. In 1980, he released the album Shot of Love that contained the haunting song Every Grain of Sand. He released several other albums in the 80s with Infidels receiving the best reviews. Knocked Out Loaded contained a song Dylan wrote with Sam Shepard called Brownsville Girl, that some critics called a work of genius. In 1988, Dylan co-founded the group The Traveling Wilburys, with George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne, and Tom Petty. They produced two successful albums. My favorite record of Dylan's of the decade was Oh Mercy, which was released in 1989. It was produced by Daniel Lanois, and was attentively written, vocally distinctive, and musically warm. It contained several excellent songs including Most of the Time, Everything Is Broken, Political World, and What Is It That You Wanted.

In the 1990s Dylan started to release several albums under the name - The Bootleg Series - that included out takes, alternate takes, demos, and live performances. The first one - Volumes 1-3, was released in 1991 and had many great songs including one of my favorites Blind Willie McTell. Over the next 20 years other volumes would come out including live concerts from The Royal Albert Hall in 1966, where an audience member called Dylan " Judas" for going electric. Dylan responded with  "I don't believe you." Volume 6 was from the 1964 concert at Philharmonic Hall in New York. Volume 5 consists of concert performances from the 1975 Rolling Thunder Review. Volume 8 - Tell Tale Signs - covers rare and unreleased work from 1989-2006. Volume 7 is the soundtrack from the excellent documentary about Dylan by Martin Scorsese called No Direction Home.

Dylan also released an excellent album of new material in 1997 called Time Out of Mind. It contains carefully considered, bitter, and resigned songs that have a dark atmospheric edge. Love Sick, Not Dark Yet, and the 16 minute Highlands are beautiful and haunting.

Since the turn of the century, Bob Dylan has released several strong albums including Love and Theft, Modern Times, and Together Through Life. Just recently Volume 9 of the Bootleg Series was released - The Witmark Demos, 1962-1964.

In 2007, I saw him perform in Bethel, New York near the site of Woodstock. He played incredible reconstructed rock versions of many of his major songs, that at first were hard to recognize, including an amazing uptempo rock version of Blind Willie McTell.

Bob Dylan's musical life is still fascinating and his influence can still be heard in the music that comes out today.

Monday, November 1, 2010


Philip K. Dick wrote novels and short stories that questioned the nature of reality. His work often became surreal fantasies, as the main character within the narrative discovers that the everyday world is actually an illusion constructed by powerful external entities or vast political conspiracies. All of his work starts with the premise that there cannot be one, single, objective reality. Everything is a matter of perception. The ground may shift under your feet. A character may find himself living in another person's dream, or he may enter a drug-induced state that makes more sense than the real world. The protagonist may cross into another parallel reality or a completely different Universe. He explored sociological, political, and metaphysical themes in his novels dominated by authoritarian governments and corporate monopolies. He often drew on his own experiences and in his later work addressed the nature of drug abuse, paranoia, schizophrenia, and mysticism.

Most of his work was written in the science fiction genre, although he also produced several literary novels. There are several films made from his writings including Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, and A Scanner Darkly.

Dick's work was first published in the early 1950s, with his first novel Solar Lottery being published in 1955. in this book the ruler of the Universe is chosen according to the random laws of a strange game under the control of the Quizmaster. A research technician then comes to play an integral part in a plot to assassinate the new Quizmaster so the older one can resume leadership of a Universe that is not as random as it appears.

In 1962, He published The Man In The High Castle. It presents an alternative reality of America. One where the axis powers won WWII. Slavery is legal once again. The few Jews who still survive hide under assumed names. In San Francisco, the I Ching is as common as the Yellow Pages. All because 20 years earlier the US lost a war and is now occupied jointly by Nazi Germany and Japan. It is a meditation on the nature of history.

Martian Time-Slip, published in 1964, centers around the character of a ten-year-old schizophrenic boy who's disorder may be a window to the future. Dick uses power politics, extraterrestrial real estate scams, adultery, and murder to penetrate the mysteries of being and time.

Clans of the Alphane Moon depicts a distant moon that is ruled by various psychotics liberated from a mental ward. The story blurs the conventional distinctions between sanity and madness.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is a disorienting funhouse of a novel populated by God-like or Satanic take-over artists and corporate psychics. There are several layers of reality and unreality and is one of Dick's first books to deal with religious themes. Mankind has colonized every habitable planet and moon in the solar system. Life is physically daunting and psychologically monotonous so a company develops Can-D, an illegal, but widely available hallucinogenic drug allowing the user to experience a few minutes of an idealized life on Earth by participating in a collective hallucination.

In 1968, Dick published Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? the story of a bounty hunter who polices the android population. It occurs on a dying, poisoned Earth. The androids have a preset death date, but some are seeking to escape this fate and supplant the humans on Earth. What is real? What is fake? Are the human-looking androids fake or real? Should they be treated as machines or as people? This book was made into the very good motion picture Blade Runner starring Harrison Ford in 1982.

In Ubik, a group of psychics are sent to investigate a group of rival psychics, but several of them are apparently killed by a saboteur's bomb. Strange shifts in reality start to happen and things seem to be decaying. Messages start to appear in writing and television. Reality gradually shifts until the group finds themselves back in time to a world that resembles the US in 1939. In each time period they enter they find a mysterious product call Ubik which may be their only chance for survival.

Flow My Tears The Policeman Said, which was published in 1974, concerns a television star living in a dystopian near-future police state. After being attacked by an angry ex-girlfriend he awakes in a dingy LA hotel room. His identification papers are missing and he soon discovers that his whole identity has been erased. Nobody recognizes him now and he has no fame or reputation to rely upon. The themes of celebrity, genetic enhancement, altered reality, and drugs are interwoven into a narrative about the meaning of identity.

A Scanner Darkly, from 1977, is part science fiction and part police procedural. An undercover narcotics officer loses touch with reality after he becomes addicted to the same mind altering drug Substance D, he was enlisted to fight. Substance D begins with a pleasant euphoria but is quickly replaced with increasing confusion, hallucinations, and eventually total psychosis. Eventually the narcotics officer realizes he is investigating himself.

In February 1974, Philip K. Dick was recovering from the extraction of an impacted wisdom tooth in which he was given sodium pentothal. He answered his door to receive a delivery of more medication from the local drugstore. He noticed the delivery woman was wearing a pendant with a symbol that consisted of two intersecting arcs delineating a fish in profile. Vesicas Piscis was a secret symbol used by early Christians. After the woman left, Dick started experiencing strange visions. He described the initial visions as laser beams and geometric patterns, with pictures of Jesus and ancient Rome. He would see ancient Rome superimposed on California and felt that perhaps he was experiencing two separate realities at the same time. He believed he was living a double life - one as himself, Philip K. Dick, and one as Thomas, a Christian persecuted by Romans in the 1st century A.D. 

He felt his mind had been invaded by a transcendentally rational mind, as if he had been insane his entire life, and now suddenly he had become sane. He believed that an alien intelligence/technology, that could be God was communicating to him through an interface he called Valis - vast active living intelligence system. This system took the form of a ship in outer space that was delivering doses of information to him through beams of pink light. Dick wrote about these experiences, first in his semi-autobiographical novel Radio Free Albemuth and then in Valis, The Divine Invasion, and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer with these three titles becoming known as the Valis Trilogy. At this time in an attempt to understand the hallucinations and visions he was having, Dick also started an Exegesis that grew into thousands of pages. Besides being a mystical exegesis, it served as a daily diary, a prolonged self-analysis, and a dream journal. Some of it is published in The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick which is a collection of literary and philosophical writings.

In Radio Free Albemuth, a paranoid incompetent has schemed his way into the White House and has got America into a war against an imaginary internal enemy. A struggling science fiction writer named Philip K. Dick is trying not to become one of the war's casualities. His best friend Nicholas Brady is receiving transmissions from an extraterrestial entity that may also happen to be God - an entity that wants him to overthrow the President.

In Valis, a group of religious seekers forms to explore the visions of Horselover Fat. The group ends up on a rock musician's estate where they confront the Messiah: a two-year old named Sophia. She confirms their suspicions that an ancient, mechanical intelligence orbiting the earth that has been sending them information in the form of a pink laser light. It is written in a more autobiographical style based on Dick's visionary experiences.

The Divine Invasion, the second book of the Valis Trilogy, is more science fiction in its style than Valis. It asks - what if God is alive and in exile on a distant planet? How could a second coming succeed against the high technology and finely tuned rationalized evil of the modern police state?

The Transmigration of Timothy Archer is the final part of the Valis Trilogy and is more of a literary book about an Episcopal bishop who is haunted by the suicides of his son and mistress and goes on a bizarre quest for the identity of Christ. The character of Bishop Archer is loosely based on James Pike who in 1969 was found dead of exposure in the Judean Desert near the Dead Sea in the West Bank. This was Philip K. Dick's final book before his death from a stroke in 1982.

Philip K. Dick will expand your mind - you will never think of "reality" in the same way again.