One evening four years ago, Daniel Pinchbeck, the 36-year-old founding editor of Open City , the once-hot literary magazine and independent book publisher, found himself in a small Manhattan apartment, blindfolded and wearing Adult Depends diapers.
“I didn’t need to use mine,” he insisted to The Observer on a recent Monday at Café Leibowitz in Soho. He was wearing them because he had choked down a foul-tasting liquid called yagé, a hallucinogen made from a South American vine, which sends drinkers into often messy digestive convulsions until their minds are transported to what Mr. Pinchbeck calls the “visionary realms”-populated, users of yagé report, by gray aliens and giggling elves.
In Mr. Pinchbeck’s view, there is another, more magical reality. “The astral plane, which is where we connect in dreams, is generally covered by masks,” he explained. Taking yagé-or its main ingredient, dimethyltryptamine, known as DMT-”is like just ripping the masks off, and you’re in this overwhelming encounter with the Other that is, you know, pretty scary.”
He gave a nutty little chuckle. “But also amazing .”
Sporting a patchy blond beard, a crisp white button-down, tortoise-shell glasses and a straw hat, Mr. Pinchbeck had the twee look of a 19th-century botanist. And indeed, the diaper incident was just part of his Dr. Livingstonesque exploration of shamanism, described in full in his forthcoming book, Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism , which was bought for $40,000 by Gerald Howard, editorial director of the Random House imprint Broadway Books. Mr. Howard hopes the book, which has an initial print run of 15,000, will grab the Men’s Journal adventure crowd and Carlos Castaneda–type spiritual seekers. It has already received an enthusiastic review in Publishers Weekly .
In the book, Mr. Pinchbeck details his five-year quest for truth through gobbling mind-expanding drugs, including LSD, psilosybin mushrooms, ayahuasca, DPT and other obscure hallucinogens. Our society, he argues, has become shallow and lost. Aligning himself with the narcotic literature of Aldous Huxley and Antonin Artaud, he writes of blowing his mind repeatedly while acquiring mystical transmissions and hobnobbing with “fairy folk” in a “sea of spiritual protoplasm.” He travels to Africa as well as the Burning Man festival-which he describes as “more decadent than Warhol’s Factory, more glamorous than Berlin in the 1920′s”-and becomes convinced of the existence of a parallel universe, complete with cosmic beings, including elves.
Mr. Pinchbeck has undergone more than a few changes since the 1990′s, when he was a highbrow bon vivant whose favorite plane of reality consisted of Open City readings held at Chelsea art galleries, attended by trust-funded literary types and slinky, serious girls in tiny T’s. The literary magazine, which once published David Foster Wallace and Mary Gaitskill as well as the scribblings of indie rockers like Stephen Malkmus and Will Oldham, appealed to a downtown crowd who enjoyed ironic T-shirt logos and Palace Brothers B-sides with their Graham Greene paperbacks.
Mr. Howard, who also edited the first books of Mr. Pinchbeck’s Open City associates Thomas Beller and Robert Bingham, called it “the Pavement of literary magazines,” referring to Mr. Malkmus’ ennui-addled 90′s indie rock band. In 1998, the magazine published a poem called “I Am a Pizza,” written by Monica Lewinsky when she was 11 years old.
For his part, Mr. Pinchbeck was known as a guy who liked to entrance horn-rimmed hotties at the magazine’s soirées with breathless talk of European philosophy and art criticism.
But Mr. Pinchbeck got fed up with all that. His new attitude includes an urgent desire to save the rain forests, a loathing of Western society, a paranoia about the media-”I think the whole media system basically works as an occult controlling system,” he said-and a deep ambivalence about the merits of art and literature.
In fact, Mr. Pinchbeck bristled at the mention of the literary magazine that still bears his name on the masthead. “I’m not that interested in talking about Open City right now. I’m having a lot of trouble personally focusing on fiction, poetry and art.
“Having broken open my head,” he said, “I haven’t quite figured out how to mesh that with the magazine.”
He is, however, still committed to Open City ‘s publishing unit. His latest discovery is a book called World on Fire , by fellow DMT-taker Michael Brownstein, a 175-page screed-in-verse against globalism and oil corporations. (Sample line: “I admit it, I’ve always wished for the end of our craven, unworkable civilization, no matter what the cost.”) Released in August, it’s the imprint’s fourth title. (The previous book was the essay collection My Misspent Youth by Meghan Daum, published in 2001.)
Open City ‘s profile has slipped since the death of the magazine’s benefactor and brightest star, Robert Bingham, who died of a heroin overdose in November 1999. The charismatic heir to a Louisville, Ky., newspaper fortune, Bingham became involved with Open City in 1995 and proceeded to bankroll the entire operation, from the print-runs to the parties. It was largely due to Bingham’s influence that the magazine was able to shuffle downtown lit-hipsters, groovy rich people and stylish debutantes into its events.
Still, said a friend of the Open City editors, the magazine never quite lived up to its founders’ sizable expectations, and the editors “were all kind of sad because the parties were better than the magazine.”
Open City is now a nonprofit organization funded by Bingham’s estate-he’s still listed as the magazine’s founding publisher-but according to several sources, the founding editors, Mr. Beller and Mr. Pinchbeck, have parted ways. “They don’t speak, and they haven’t for two years,” said the friend of both men. “They were kind of having artistic differences already. Then they had pretty different reactions to the death” of Mr. Bingham. Mr. Beller stepped in for Bingham on Charlie Rose to talk about Bingham’s novel and legacy. Mr. Pinchbeck was said to resent Mr. Beller’s limelighting: “Danny was getting overshadowed by someone he increasingly considered shallow,” said the friend.
Mr. Pinchbeck, drinking a tall glass of iced tea, denied that he is no longer talking to Mr. Beller, saying they were still “friendly,” but he added that Mr. Beller “has his own karma to work out.”
The 37-year-old Mr. Beller, whose current girlfriend is the actress Parker Posey, has a reputation as a self-styled ladies’ man who dashes from party to party. He runs a Web site called Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, which is devoted to personal writing by both famous and unknown writers. Mr. Beller agreed to talk to The Observer via e-mail, à la Dave Eggers. When asked whether he was still friends with Mr. Pinchbeck, he wrote, “I hope so.” Reacting to Mr. Pinchbeck’s negative assessment of Mr. Beller’s karma, Mr. Beller added, “We were both assholes.”
While the two men may or may not chum around the Open City office on 225 Lafayette Street anymore, Joanna Yas, Open City ‘s managing editor, said they are still actively running the magazine, coming into the office at least twice a week.
Associates of both men said Mr. Pinchbeck and Mr. Beller were always a bit of an odd couple. During Open City ‘s heyday, Mr. Pinchbeck had a taste for modern art and girls, Mr. Beller for short fiction and girls. It was this creative tension, they said, that made Open City a success. (That, and Mr. Bingham’s financial generosity.) Mr. Howard observed that Mr. Pinchbeck was the “intellectual conscience” of Open City , while Mr. Beller-well, “he gets to bring Parker Posey; that’s his job.”
“Daniel’s the priest, and Tom would be, like, the M.C.,” said Marisa Bowe, a friend of Mr. Pinchbeck’s who hired and then fired him from the now-defunct Internet magazine Word.com in 1996 because, she said, he did not work very hard.
As long ago as 1998, Mr. Pinchbeck was beginning to get disenchanted with New York. “For a while, I was very excited about the New York social life,” he said, peering through his glasses with sullen eyes. “And then there was a feeling that I’d been there and I’d done that, and I wasn’t gaining any new information and I wasn’t feeling revitalized anymore.”
As he writes in Breaking Open the Head , “I was in a worse place than Woody Allen,” suffering from multiple neuroses-including a hang-up over his last name, which means “false gold” and which he likened to “wearing a clown’s red nose.” (“Before the drug,” said Ms. Bowe, “he used to bitch all the time about how everything sucked.”)
And then a megadose of a gut-rending African hallucinogen called iboga cured him, basically reformatting his mental hard drive-”the equivalent of ten years of psychoanalysis compacted into one interminable night,” he writes.
Mr. Pinchbeck was raised amid New York bohemians: He grew up on the Upper West Side with his mother, the novelist and book editor Joyce Johnson, one of the few female figures of the Beat Generation. She was the on-again, off-again girlfriend of Jack Kerouac, and wrote about the experience in Minor Characters: A Young Woman’s Coming-Of-Age in the Beat Orbit of Jack Kerouac , published in 1999 by Penguin USA. His father, Peter Pinchbeck, was a little-known Abstract Expressionist painter. He died in September 2000.
Mr. Pinchbeck said he had wanted to recreate the mythic New York of his parents’ generation with Open City , but that it hadn’t panned out. “I always had this idea that we would have a movement that would move the culture somewhere, and it increasingly seemed that it just wasn’t going to happen in that context.”
It didn’t help, either, that Dave Eggers came along with McSweeney’s and trumped Open City ‘s claim to literary cool.
Mr. Pinchbeck went to great lengths to deny that he was now a Timothy Leary Jr., seeking to send the best minds of his generation to the astral plane. While explaining how difficult it was to acquire psychedelic drugs in Manhattan, Mr. Pinchbeck promptly added, “Not that anybody should do it!” He nearly toppled over his tea. “I don’t think anybody should do anything illegal. I took a risk, but I wouldn’t recommend them to anybody and I’m not interested in doing them now.”
He sounded rehearsed-and paranoid. He was adamant that he would not be taking drugs at this year’s Burning Man festival, and that his last drug experience was in June, in Amsterdam, where he ate hallucinogenic mushrooms-”and where they are legal!” he emphasized.
In the last three years, however, he took psychedelic drugs about 30 times, he said, including ingesting an herbal hallucinogen cooked up by a shaman in the Amazon (ayahuasca, reportedly tried by Sting, too) and traveling to Gabon, Africa, to drink iboga with the Bwiti tribe.
Meanwhile, hearing his tales of psychedelic adventure, Mr. Pinchbeck’s New York friends weren’t exactly stockpiling their Depends and getting flights to the Amazon-although they were willing to entertain the idea, according to Mr. Pinchbeck. “They’re very interested, and then there’s a level of reluctance,” he said. “They might be willing to see the castle and go up to the castle wall, but I’ve climbed up to the turret and I’m waving to them from the parapet.
“Some of them tried it and said it was pretty cool what their brain chemistry can do,” he added.
One friend who declined to be named said, “This is a conversation that in certain circles could ruin you. People in media circles could say, ‘He’s brain-damaged.’ So he’s trying really hard to create a cultural space where people can have a positive experience.”
Of course, stories about formerly hardened New Yorkers going to Burning Man and returning with freaky new lifestyles are nothing new. In his book, Mr. Pinchbeck tells the story of “J.,” an advertising director at “a major business magazine” who, after a foray in Nevada, ditched his media kits and became a raver called Machine Elf, “a sci-fi warlock with horns and cape at all-night outlaw parties he orchestrated under the city’s bridges.”
But initially, Mr. Pinchbeck’s Open City friends were surprised by his talk of mystical netherworlds. “At first, I thought he was out of his fucking mind,” said Jim Lewis, a novelist who lives in Austin, Tex. “The last time I saw Daniel, I ran into him on the street and he was going on and on about the eighth-dimension critters and how we’re ruining the world. He was really proselytizing hard.
“I think he’s nuts in an interesting way,” Mr. Lewis continued. “He’s obviously sincere and diligent. He’s worked really hard at it.”
Open City ‘s managing editor, Joanna Yas, told The Observer that Mr. Pinchbeck’s interests weren’t being foisted on her. “He’s not saying, ‘Hey, Joanna, go take ayahuasca and talk about Open City .’ Maybe he doesn’t feel like I’m into it-and I’m not into it-so he’s not going to push it.”
Mr. Howard, Mr. Pinchbeck’s editor, said, “I haven’t given up anything, nor have I taken anything” since editing the book. While he hopes the book connects with readers, he said of the drugs-as-social-healing theme, “I’m deeply unconvinced.”
Still, Mr. Pinchbeck’s interests seem to have served as a flash point for how some are feeling about post-9/11 New York, as writers grope around for a defining Zeitgeist .
“At first, I was a little put off,” said Sam Lipsyte, whose story collection, Venus Drive , was published by Open City in 2000. Mr. Lipsyte said he was harangued by Mr. Pinchbeck. “I was in my New York party mode and I thought, ‘Why is he getting up in my face about the rain forest?’ But the more I talked to him, the more it dawned on me that this wasn’t some dalliance on his part. He had been changed. That moved me.”
For many, it seemed, Mr. Pinchbeck had mined a vein of guilt in New York’s striving, self-involved 90′s literati. “He was voicing all my fears” about the environment, said the writer Jonathan Ames, recalling his last run-in with Mr. Pinchbeck, “but he seemed to want to do something about it-whereas I’m hoping that others will do something about it.”
If Mr. Pinchbeck was hesitant about proselytizing for drugs from a table at Café Lebowitz, he wasn’t holding back when it came to the revelations he said the drugs gave him. “Christ said, ‘Love your neighbor,’” he told The Observer . “Where is that happening? Give up your possessions; you don’t need your possessions. Go walking. Go talking. Open the doors and let some light in. We’re closing our minds down and allowing this technology to systematically destroy us.”
Still, Mr. Pinchbeck’s new asceticism appears to go only so far. When a stunning model walked in wearing an eight-inch jean skirt that rode well above her thonged rear, Mr. Pinchbeck’s eyes became two magnetized orbs. He gave a knowing chuckle. “This place is full of gorgeous 19-year-old models,” he noted with pleasure.
Likewise, Mr. Pinchbeck isn’t exactly living the possessionless life of the itinerant saint. He lives in a large loft apartment on Lafayette Street in Soho with his girlfriend, Laura Hoffmann, and their year-old daughter. Ms. Hoffman is an editor at ArtForum and the heiress to the fortune of German art collector Rolf Hoffmann, who ran the luxury-goods company Van Laack (and who was captured in portrait with his wife, Erika Hoffmann-Koenige, by Andy Warhol in 1980). Mr. Hoffmann, who died last year, bought the Dietz Lantern factory in Tribeca in the 1996.
But Mr. Pinchbeck said that he had gotten by for the last couple years on his book advance and on freelance writing for Men’s Journal and The Village Voice . (An excerpt from his book appears in the September issue of Details .)
It remains to be seen what Breaking Open the Head will mean for Mr. Pinchbeck’s literary fortunes. Gerald Howard pointed out that the book is in line with a long tradition of narcotic literature, from Aldous Huxley, whose 1950′s experimentation with mescaline led to the publication of The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell , to the late Terrence McKenna’s gonzo explorations of the DMT elves, detailed in The Archaic Revival .
In fact, William Burroughs was among the first Westerners to consume yagé, in Columbia in 1953. “Larval beings passed before my eyes in the blue haze,” he wrote to Allen Ginsberg. And long before Mr. Leary turned it into a counterculture cliché, LSD had its run in certain elite New York social circles: In 1958, Henry Luce and wife, Clare Booth Luce, took a trip to Arizona to eat acid, prompted by two psychologist friends. According to Jay Stevens’ LSD and the American Dream , “the tone-deaf and unflamboyant Luce wandered out into the yard, conducting an imaginary symphony; and later on a short colloquy with God assured him all was well with the American Century.”
But Mr. Pinchbeck, it seems, has had no such vision: “It would be nice if we were living in the 40′s or 50′s or 60′s, living large, but it’s over . It’s all over. It’s coming to an end. It’s done. And now we have to clean up the mess. And it’s going to take a jump from this frozen, adolescent nightmare that we’re in right now.”
Not surprisingly, Mr. Pinchbeck said he was considering leaving New York-for where, exactly, he’s undecided. But even with the most potent drugs he can get his hands on, his New York state of mind may be too deep for him to escape. During Mr. Pinchbeck’s trip on DPT, or dipropyltryptamine, he was transported to a distinctly uptown neighborhood of the astral plane. It appeared that even the extradimensional beings of the netherworld liked to party like, well, the Open City crowd of 1999: “At moments there seemed to be some incredibly elegant yet violently orgiastic party taking place with beautiful females in evening gowns and men in Edwardian topcoats in the spacious parlors of a huge and opulent mansion.” He was terrified.
“I had an impression of tremendous vanity,” writes Mr. Pinchbeck.
Follow Joe Hagan via RSS.