E: The Incredibly Strange History of Ecstasy by Tim Pilcher

[2 July 2008]

By Rachel Smucker

Where does one draw the line between trendy and historically significant? Is there even a line at all? The so-called “designer drugs” of the early 1980s may have been more world-shaking than most people thought, as illustrated by Tim Pilcher in his latest drug-related venture, e: The Incredibly Strange History of Ecstasy. A self-proclaimed pop culturalist and drug expert, Pilcher documents the life of the “love drug” with the savvy tongue of a seasoned writer and some not-so-subtle references to personal experience. His claim in the introduction that “this book is in no way an attempt to glamourize or advocate drug use” doesn’t quite hold water, but what is to be expected from a book whose cover makes pills look like candy?

Looking back at Pilcher’s previous works, a pro-drug marketing scheme is not surprising. He is probably known best for The Cannabis Cookbook: Over 35 Tasty Recipes for Meals, Munchies, and More—a hit among college students—and for his contributions to the cartooning world, such as his recently co-authored book, Erotic Comics: A Graphic History From Tijuana Bibles to Underground Comix. Pilcher’s latest endeavor embraces both of these areas in The Hedonists’ Guide to Life, a collection of how-to essays on drugs, debauchery, and indulgence. While none of these books necessarily qualify Pilcher as an expert on MDMA, his heart is clearly in the right place.

Indeed, Pilcher seemed to truly come into his own while writing e. Don’t let his humorous take on drugs and comics fool you—he is all seriousness when it comes to the comprehensive history of the “happy pill”. Though Pilcher currently lives in Brighton, UK, his knowledge of the underground rave scene in other parts of the world is impressive, and includes not only DJs, but clubs, outdoor festivals, cartoonists (of course), and DJing equipment. He defines genre-specific terms such as “acid house” (it requires a Roland TB-303 Bass Line synthesizer, in case you were curious) and clarifies the difference between French and Detroit house music, which to non-ravers like myself was immensely helpful in understanding the ecstasy-dance club relationship.

“The drug fed the music, and the music fed the drug in an ever-increasing spiral of mental and communal bliss,” Pilcher writes of ecstasy use during the mid-‘80s, describing the symbiotic relationship between the head-pounding, 140 bpm house music, and rising drug consumption. He systematically covers regions around the globe to create a comprehensive, if not always relevant, catalog of major techno/ecstasy hotspots: New York, Detroit, Chicago, London, France, Belgium, India, Holland.

Yet in spite of this technical and methodical approach to ecstasy’s rise within the music world, Pilcher remains appropriately close to his writing. He never detaches himself from the text in an attempt to sound “official”; instead, he calls e “a fond scrapbook of amazing memories”. His passion shows through in everything the book has to offer, from its quirky layout to its unique images. He further personalizes the text by including “Serotonin Stories”, mostly anonymous accounts of ecstasy-fueled experiences that depict the good, the bad, and the spiritual sides of MDMA.

But what may be Pilcher’s major strength in e—his intensely personal relationship to the book’s content—may also be his downfall. His descriptions of the international club scene get increasingly tangential as ecstasy seems to drop almost completely out of the picture, replaced by discussions of various types of house music and the “alternative” club scene. Of course, the information on Dutch “happy hardcore” and the Burning Man Festival is not wholly unrelated, though for a book of this size and density, it should have been more smoothly integrated, or left out entirely.

However, it is possible that Pilcher’s tangents were not accidental. As the history of ecstasy parallels the history of rave, it is not surprising that the sensual, introspective properties of the drug become irrelevant to the cocaine- and methamphetamine-fueled ravers of Generation X. Looking at “A Catalog of Pills”. a chapter in the book that lists 91 different examples of ecstasy pills found everywhere from Ontario to West Palm Beach, it is easy to see how ecstasy, originally a plain capsule of pure MDMA, has changed from a chill-out hippie “love drug” to a heart attack-inducing cocktail of caffeine and crystal meth. Just as the music has changed, so too has its mind-altering counterpart.

Besides the handful of unanswered questions left at the end of the book—has the demographic changed over time? Where is the government headed in terms of cracking down on the latest versions of ecstasy? What else was going on at the time of this shift in drug consumption?—e managed to be incredibly thorough, with the added bonus of being an easy read as well. In the past, books on ecstasy—and drugs in general—have often been limited to the memoir or the textbook, leaving e nestled snugly in between. It has the visual allure of a coffee table book (check out your local Urban Outfitters to see what bits of alternative culture are gracing the tables of kids these days), and the name-dropping credentials of a well-researched encyclopedia.

And for a book of this style, nothing is more important than its versatility. e summarizes what may be a lifestyle to some, and a subculture to others, but doesn’t pick sides. It can be, as Pilcher notes in the introduction, “a trip down memory lane” or “a starting point ... to go and find out more.” Though the word “more” certainly insinuates personal experimentation, Pilcher offers readers less risky ways of exploring the world of drugs: film, literature, music, politics, science. There is much to be learned about this little pill, and it is a comfort knowing that everyone—raver or non-raver, pill-popper or anti-drug—is able to, in their own way, “keep it real”.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/e-the-incredibly-strange-history-of-ecstasy-by-tim-pilcher/