There’s been a lot of talk surrounding the cultural phenomenon of “Borat” but I think I’ve got a take that you haven’t heard before. You see, I spent a truly mind-blowing summer back in 1982 with a psychedelic version of the character.
Let me explain: Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat is brilliant at playing games with the world, at pushing boundaries and playing people that don’t realize they’re being played. That summer I met someone not coincidentally also surnamed “Cohen” – I’ll call him “Skip” here – who also brilliantly played games with the world, games so powerful that I literally remember thinking someone could make a great movie about him someday…
I met Skip when we both had jobs as counselors at a Jewish overnight summer camp. The staff had arrived a few days before the campers in order to learn about the camp, clean the cabins, and basically bond with each other before the campers arrived.
My bonding with Skip was anything but basic. Within the first 5 minutes of meeting him I learned that he had brought with him an entire sheet of “green pyramids” acid, so-named because they were these little, um, green pyramid-shaped things. (My music-centered perspective was in place even back then – I wondered if they were also a reference to the Pink Floyd poster that came with “Dark Side of the Moon.”)
I was no stranger to psychedelics at the time but this guy was the pro of all pros. And the funny thing was he had an exact opposite approach to the experience. I was reading Carlos Castaneda and Aldous Huxley and listening to the Moody Blues – in other words, tripping was a grand and hilarious time but also very spiritual and profound. I distinctly remember telling him in that first conversation that I’d learned that you really have to respect the drug (one handy rule of thumb, for instance, is not to take it right after watching “A Clockwork Orange,” a lesson which I unfortunately learned the hard way) – to which he nodded sagely. In retrospect this was the first instance of his playing me because his whole mode of operation was in taking the ride full-on with no respect whatsoever…His Bible was a worn copy of Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” – and he said that was the only way to do it.
Thompson’s subtitle is “A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream” and that’s the book’s modus operandi – instead of using psychedelics to escape the world or transcend to a higher level, he hurls himself (like Borat) into its games head-on. One of its more memorable scenes is Thompson flying on acid in the middle of a convention of Drug Enforcement officers. Now that’s confronting the belly of the beast.
But to get back to my “respectful” tripping – Along with the Moody Blues, I was listening to bands like Pink Floyd (a friend had just made me a tape of “The Wall”), The Who, and Derek and the Dominos. All high drama, ultra-serious, operatic, and epic, just like those books I was reading. Skip, meanwhile, was always singing the Kinks’ hit of the time “Paranoia – the destroyer,” the first commercially-successful rap song “Rapper’s Delight” (he had the whole thing memorized), and, oddly enough, “Private Eyes – they’re watching you” by Hall and Oates. Nothing profound and everything playful. Which made sense since he was able to play anything, even the entire acid experience. I remember asking him once between waves of peaking if he was having a good trip and he deftly deflated the whole concept in one second by replying in a pitch-perfect Glenda the Good Witch voice “Is this a good trip…or a bad trip?”
I was taking people seriously, seeing what they had to offer, but he played everything and everyone like a game. But the thing is, he was so in the zone, that everyone loved him and he could get away with anything (predating, by the way, Ferris Bueller by a good 4 years). While I, meanwhile, trying to do the right thing or maybe more accurately trying to not do the wrong thing, ended up half-the-time awkward and out-of-synch. (Tripping rule #2: Do not offer to help someone carry their heavy sailboat down a steep winding mountain path to the water while tripping – you will be wildly unsuccessful.)
Once camp started we waited until our days off to take the pyramids. One such morning we were headed out to the woods and passed a big camp-wide Olympic thing that was going on all day. I wanted to be as far away as possible, to relax and not worry about trying to not appear completely weird to everyone. Skip, however, suggested we stop and watch the games. As I tried to be inconspicuous, Skip pranced off to partake in the festivities. Next thing I knew, he had been selected to carry the flag to lead the opening parade and there he was running at the front of the pack with half the camp behind him and the other half lining the sidelines and everyone cheering him on. As he passed me with his eyes blazing, sweating profusely and leading the charge at full speed, he flashed me a shit-eating grin so huge it made the Cheshire Cat look like the Mona Lisa, and I knew he was on to something.
I had an insight into him that no one else did. I made the connection that when he tripped he always wore a t-shirt emblazoned with the “Space Invaders” video game logo, a perfect inside joke. One day while I had my cabin at the art center he walked past me wearing that shirt and I could see in his eyes that he’d taken the pyramids. His kids were all behind him and he was leading them in a game of follow-the-leader. He began to skip and merrily called out as they passed the outdoor kiln, “Okay little Jews – into the oven…six million one, six million two, six million three…” and moved on in manic Robin Williams style to the next crazy adventure. Which was one of the most brilliantly audacious things I’ve ever seen, on a par with the final image of Monty Python’s “Life of Brian,” with the crucified singing from their crosses “Always look on the bright side of life.”
Crucifixion and the Holocaust – are there any cows more sacred? Any fears more horrific and unspeakable? Isn’t that what the most profound comedy does – bringing our anxieties and fears into the light, and thereby releasing us from their otherwise undealable horrors and expanding the boundaries of our experience? When we hide the ugly truth, we give it more power. Borat’s anti-semitism, sexism, and jingoism – his singing “Throw the Jew down the well” for instance, is funny because, out in the light, it’s so obviously absurd. (Of course, somehow we can tell that Baron Cohen is releasing his own anxieties – he’s Jewish, and not just by birth – according to his interview in Rolling Stone, he practices to the point of not working on the Sabbath.)
In meditation, music, or life, when thoughts are deemed “off-limits” they stay stuck and interrupt the flow. Skip’s skill was in not censoring anything and taking every ride with humor. No self-criticism, no anxiety. He didn’t allow himself to cling to or spiral into any one trip. He was free.
One night we were mellowing out in the lodge and I suddenly noticed he was sitting with his legs curled underneath him and wearing these oddly tight jeans and penny loafers, complete with pennies stuck in their little slots. I remarked that his clothes looked totally feminine and instead of getting defensive or self-conscious he said they were all borrowed from his mother – he then threw his hair back and laughed, popped his chewing gum and twirled it around his finger, transforming himself into the very image of a teenaged girl in the fifties – he could go anywhere, I realized and then, as he laughed again, he did, face glistening with sweat, eyes glowing, becoming the very image of Beelzebub with his minions gathered around in flames. (I guess my use of the phrase “mellowing out” to describe our state of mind should be taken with a grain of pyramid, here).
But this wasn’t just me hallucinating. Skip was a true shape-shifter (take that, Carlos Castaneda!) and Beelzebub is perhaps the ultimate trickster – the mythological figure who embraces the profane in all cultures, providing relief from their self-importance and high drama – which fit Skip to an L, S, and D. Still, the trickster needs some balance, too. Perhaps it’s relevant that Skip’s hero Hunter Thompson ended up committing suicide.
Speaking of which, I recall a night when Skip and I were out in the woods by a rope swing that swung out over a deep ravine. It was pitch black and not only had we taken the pyramids but we were finishing off an entire bottle of cheap wine. I asked him if there was anything that he took seriously and he asked me to tell him something that deserved seriousness. How about life and death I said. He answered that he didn’t care if he died right then, grabbed the swing, and swung out into the pitch black.
I couldn’t hear or see anything other than some lightning bugs. He had disappeared. But I figured if he wasn’t uptight about it all then I didn’t have to be either. I turned and went walking back towards the camp when a voice called out “Jeff! Don’t leave me here”. There was a line somewhere that he wouldn’t cross. He wasn’t out of control and over the edge and ultimately self-destructive like Jim Morrison or Keith Moon or Syd Barrett. He didn’t have the intense needs that they had. He had baggage like we all do, but he was able to leave home without it.
However, being a future Right Action columnist, I couldn’t help but consider the ethics of being a camp counselor on acid. It was more of a psychological than literal issue of influence. I never took anything while working but once the beefy baseball coach unexpectedly pulled me into the camp office on my night off because two of my kids had been caught smoking a cigarette. He sat behind his desk waving the telephone around and threatening to call their parents and send them home and wanted my authoritarian weight to add to their fear – however, I was finding it difficult to take the moral high ground on the evils of a cigarette while the woodgrain door behind him kept forming, dissolving, and reforming itself into patterns of classic 17th century paintings. I didn’t think they should smoke, but I could tell this blustery attempt to terrify them wasn’t the answer. And the way he was waving that phone around, I didn’t want it pointing at me…
I managed to walk my kids back to our cabin before heading back into my night off, and as they talked to me (and helped me find the cabin) I realized that they didn’t act out with me around, and it wasn’t because I tried to scare them. In the big picture (or classical painting as the case may be), they were good kids. Was it a coincidence, though, that Skip was smoking an evil cigarette when I met up with him on my way back?
Skip went full-out whenever he wanted. What kind of influence was he on his cabin? Like the rest of the camp, they all loved him, because he was so entertaining, but they had no idea what he was really up to. Still, making the Holocaust oven joke may have been bizarre, but I don’t think it even registered with them, and although he may not have been completely lucid with a head full of acid, he seemed to know his limits (they were considerably wider than the average bear’s but he knew where they were) and he wasn’t putting the kids into any danger – he wasn’t a lifeguard or firing range instructor (or page-emailing congressman) for instance. The other counselors, meanwhile, consistently found it riotously funny to lie on their backs with their legs in the air and light their farts. Not really lucid thinkers, either, I would say. And who would you rather hang out with?
I certainly related more to Skip. Near the beginning of the session one of my campers and I played some Who songs for the rest of the camp and finished our short set in true Who tribute by smashing, not our guitars, but the flimsy wooden chairs we’d been sitting on. One of the fart-lighting counselors stood up and started to lecture me about respecting camp property – he was shocked when I didn’t back down. I didn’t have a problem with the guy and later tried to talk to him about it and find some connection – but he would have none of it – he’d lost his alpha male position and that was all he cared about. He would have pointed a phone at me too, if he could.
The whole incident became one of those camp stories that take on legendary proportions. When we performed again at the end of the session, everyone – campers, counselors and administrators (except, of course, for one counselor) – cheered for us to smash up our chairs. But I had a plan: we folded them neatly, set them on the ground, took a big dramatic swing of our legs…and left them there, untouched. Like Pete Townshend said about the Who, I didn’t want to become a parody of ourselves.
That is, I didn’t want to play that game. Which I think hits the crux of the biscuit. In the world of Borat and Skip, there’s no escaping parody. Everyone is a joke. The Kinks’ “Paranoia –the Destroyer” song was on the album “Give the People What They Want” – a concept close to Skip’s heart, as he told me many times. He could play with everyone because, like Borat, he could sink to their level and jump into their game. Borat encourages people to show their ugly side – exposing some pretty awful prejudices to the light. It’s funny and disturbing but has hints of nobility to its cause – a truly savage journey to the dark heart of America. But that’s only step one.
“Is this a good trip or a bad trip?” There’s certainly something to be said for relinquishing judgement. I may be a guitar player in a rock and roll band but even I’m not going to argue with the primal power of the universe, beyond good and evil.
But I’m realizing I’ve always looked for a step beyond fear and loathing – after all, at some point maybe there’s not much difference between bringing a bag of poop to a dinner party (as Borat does in the film) and lighting your farts on fire. Yes, the Tao exists in the piss and dung, as the eastern sages claim – but not only there. There’s a higher heart perhaps, or one not as dark – and although it would be another year before I started really listening to the Dead – as Robert Hunter encouraged, you can hear it beat out loud.
4 RESPONSES TO “ SKIP TRIPS – BORAT ON ACID ”
- # 1 charlie nessonSays: December 16th, 2006 at 2:41 pm
- thanks for a beautifully written piece, deeply interesting to me. i find and struggle with similar issues of liberation and control in myself. what has happened to skip?
- # 2 Sal Says: December 18th, 2006 at 6:32 pm
- You’ve gone and lost it now Jeff. And I love it!
- I remember a friend of mine in school said that you have to explore your dark side, that there’s no light without dark, etc. I was trippin’ so I took him up on the challenge.
- It ended up with me in prison, if only for a few days. I went on a rampage smashing dozens of windows, mailboxes and lights.
- I guess that was a bad trip. So doesn’t this go back to what is your (very good) mantra? Balance. Maintain the balance and you’ll be allright?
- And, yeah, what the hell happened to Skip?
- # 3 peaceonearth Says: December 19th, 2006 at 2:40 pm
- Liberation and control is a good way of summarizing it Charlie.
- But aren’t we liberated by giving up control, and not to the dark but to the light? After all Skip wasn’t liberated by plunging into the dark night. Jeff was by walking away from it.
- Go towards the light Skip, go towards the light.
- # 4 Jeff Says: December 20th, 2006 at 9:46 pm
- Now those are some pretty cool comments – thanks for the all the props and thought…
- I kept in touch with “Skip” for about a year after these events but that was it – I tried googling him when I wrote this but couldn’t come up with anything – I’d love to know what he’s up to now, too…
Update 4/2011 – Last year I found a picture of Skip on Facebook and through a series of people who knew people…found out that he had died. Not a lot more info. You can read about it (and another friend who died) in this Right Action column from June 2010.
Update 7/2013 – Here’s a video of me doing a reading of this column, with some nice audience response…