It may be true that everyone has a book inside them, but if you’ve ever tried reading Paris Hilton’s Confessions of an Heiress you know that not everyone has a story worth telling. Chris Rush, an artist and designer who lives in Tucson, Ariz., not only has one hell of a story, he also has the talent to bring it to life. You can open his gorgeous new memoir, The Light Years, to any page and the prose will leap out. It’s funny, charming and effortlessly descriptive.
You can see the writer he became in the 11-year-old New Jersey boy you meet in the book’s early chapters—a boy who sells his homemade paper flowers to the ladies at his parents’ bridge party, erects a life-size statue of the Virgin Mary in his bedroom and prances around in a pink satin Pucci cape he found at Polly’s Bric-a-Brac. “For a week, I wandered the neighborhood in my cape, feeling potent and magical, a vampire-saint prowling the earth,” he writes. “In a Transylvanian accent, I asked people: Do you like my Pucci?” When his father forbids him from wearing the cape anymore, Rush is puzzled. “Later, during an argument with my mother, I heard him use a new phrase. ‘The boy is a goddamn queer, Norma—it’s obvious.'”
The Light Years is about a gay boy who finds liberation in psychedelic drugs and the burgeoning hippy movement of the late 1960s, but it’s also about mothers and fathers, screwball friends, first loves and leaps of faith that sometimes land painfully. Although much of the action proceeds in a haze of marijuana, it’s less a drug memoir than a meditation on journeys taken, real and metaphorical, to find a home in the world. Rush writes without rancor about his philandering dad and suicidal mom, giving the book a clarity and generosity that makes the experience of reading it feel beneficent and redemptive. The characters that populate the pages feel fresh and true in ways that creep under your skin, and stay there.
Observer spoke with Rush about life on the road, the lessons he learned from dropping acid (which he first tried at the age of 12) and his never-ending quest for the divine.
Observer: The Light Years is truly one of the best memoirs I’ve read. The language shimmers in the same way I imagine it might feel to be on one of your many acid trips.
Rush: The great advantage I had is waiting 40 years to start writing about this, and I was surprised how well I remembered all these crazy events. But part of the reason I think I got to it without too much trouble is that I’d had a lifetime to work out those feelings—all the emotion and agitation and craziness and disappointment. So, I went into those memories like some great adventure because I hadn’t really thought much about that material. In the years between there had been too many things to do, and too many other lives to live. I didn’t need revenge—it was just this incredible story that was hiding in my mind.
Do you look at your childhood now and see the sum of it as a positive or a negative?
Entirely positive. While all these things were happening I was essentially a child, and I accepted what happened as real or true and didn’t necessarily spend much time reflecting on it. I was getting busy with the next thing. So even though, in retrospect, I see how extreme some of these situations were, for me they were my life, and I loved life and I wanted to jump right into the middle of it. And if some things worked out badly, I just moved on. It’s the way my whole life has been.
One thing I would say about that time in history, and perhaps my generation, is that we believed intensity was authenticity. That’s how you knew something was true—it was intense. I would say the point of maximum stimulation—and certainly drugs contributed to that—was that we believed that life was this incandescent event. We ran into it. My childhood was a very powerful rocket launch, and I flew into adulthood moving very fast and believing almost anything. I was not a cynic. I believed the important things in life were so good, I would almost call them divine.
For much of this book drugs seem almost benign. They are treated like a sacrament. You even work for a drug ring called The Brotherhood of Eternal Lovers.
That was an infamous drug smuggling consortium in the early ’70s, and they were responsible for getting America high—everybody took their drugs. The thing about drugs in America at that time was that it was really flagrant, garish, DayGlo. Drug-taking is such a universal human compulsion—it’s practically a literary form. And I tried not to fall into the hackneyed language that we have to talk about psychedelics, so I spent a lot of time really, really thinking about what happened, what it felt like and what the best possible way to discuss it is. Maybe it’s just in hindsight, but I saw the drug-taking as this real quest for story—a quest to find a place where life would be true—and this quest is probably my whole life at this point.
In the book your distinction between pure, plant-based drugs and artificial drugs seems very prescient given how plant-based psychedelics are being reconsidered by the medical establishment today.
The hippies were right about an awful lot of things. You might question their fashion, maybe even their art, but they were right about the efficacy of psychedelics. They looked into every possible culture in the world to find value, and they had so many interesting things to say about food and the environment. The people I took psychedelics with were quite reverent, and in certain ways quite conservative, even; they were not self-destructive. Things did not work out well for all of them. Some of them crashed and burned just as I did for other reasons, but 30, 40 years later the conversation is turning back to psychedelics.
One of the things that’s really interesting about the late ’60s and early ’70s is that psychedelic drugs were taken in very communal circumstances. In a way it was like a sacrament that you shared with those around you. Probably the most noticeable differences between how the researchers, scientists and therapists are looking at it now is that it was really a group activity then. It was often joyous, outrageous, comic, theatrical, and I think ultimately led to some changes in art and music and theater. Though I don’t take psychedelics anymore, I still talk about the experience, and many people of my generation are still considering, processing and benefiting from those experiences. I’m lucky—it took me into the arts, which I find another deeply evocative and psychedelic technology. It’s just a little safer and easier than taking powerful drugs. I like powerful art.
How do you think your childhood shaped or gave impetus to your career as an artist?
Well, I was a hippy, and then I came out and very much went through disco, punk and new wave. I became a designer, then an artist, with lots of detours into music and theatrical design, and I was very fortunate that I walked away intact from the madness of my childhood. I had this glow about me because I was a survivor, and I brought great intensity to my work. I don’t really make psychedelic art, but I am particularly concerned with light in my paintings. Part of the reason I live in Tucson is that it’s one of the sunniest and most sublime skyscapes in the world, and I am drawn to the light. I cannot escape the notion that if you just look at everything closely it’s dazzlingly beautiful, and that’s one of the lessons of psychedelics—that the world is an exquisite place if you can just stop for a moment.
Tucson is also the landscape of a very sublime experience you have with your first teenage lover, Owen—camping, hiking, having intense sex. Owen later disappears with a girlfriend. Did you ever see him again?
I did run into him a couple times after that, and we were polite, a little cool—there was no animosity or disrespect. He was going to have a very different life to mine. It was an interesting event for me, because I realized that I was going to have a long story and probably meet a lot of unimaginable people, that finding my tribe was going to take a lifetime. For me, Owen was this remarkable cowboy child. He was never going to be mine, but he was legendary, and in my life I think about him a lot. I know I’ll probably never see him again, and it’s really beautiful.
There wasn’t a lot of adult supervision in your childhood. You seemed to be able to slip away with ease in ways that were both freeing and dangerous. You hitched across Alabama and almost got killed by two malevolent men who offered you a ride.
It was both a blessing and a curse that my parents basically let me do whatever I wanted. I found a world of mischief, but I also found a world of wonder. Good and bad things happened that were crucial to who I am today. Another odd—and I think very common—thing that happened to me is that I knew nothing about queer life, and there was a long struggle to make sense out of what it probably was and where I belonged. There were a lot of wasted moments, but there were a lot of moments that were true and foreign to what I know of the queer world now.
I have two gay nephews and a gay niece, and I don’t think their experience is necessarily better for knowing the ropes quite young and seeing what’s ahead. I built my own mythological version of queer life, and Owen very much influenced that, as did all these other strange and marvelous characters I met on the way. I have my own legend of what love is. I think we all do, but the fact that I wandered was really crucial.
When I first started this memoir, I thought it was this rowdy road trip of a book because I think the whole country was on a road trip—everybody was trying to sort out where they belonged, and there was a real opportunity to do so. When you’re out looking for people like yourself it’s very interesting who you meet. You meet people who are nothing like you. And that is the problem with identity politics and the sort of gay ghetto as it exists now. When I came out, one of the best things that happened is that in those nightclubs and bars I would meet people who were queer like I was, and otherwise nothing like me, and because of the nature of partying and attraction and all the things that were mixed in to put us in that place, I met people I didn’t even imagine existed. I met older queens who basically told me how to act and what to expect and how to find my way in the world. It took me a long time to sort out that there were ways to be queer in America that were OK, and one of those was to become an artist.
One of the revelations in the book is your mother’s suicide attempts. Do you think her distancing herself from you—for example, sending you to Catholic boarding schools—was a kind of protection?
I do think that. She had a lot of kids; she had a difficult husband. I realize now—I’ve talked to her hundreds of hours about this period—that like everyone, she was just barely hanging in there keeping it together. What happened is that I got lost in the mix a bit, but I don’t think it was ever because she was unkind. She could just be a bit haughty and imperious in her own way.
In some ways, I see that being ejected from my home was not the worst thing that could have happened. I will say I know how to take care of myself, and I can start a campfire. I was lucky in a lot of ways that I landed on my feet. I have discussions with friends of mine, and many of the Depression-era parents were like mine—very aloof, not hands-on about this parenting thing—and we all say that it kind of turned out well. They throw you in the swimming pool and say, “Learn how to swim,” and those of us who lived to tell about it, we learned to swim.
There’s not a lot of comeuppance in this book—no one gets busted, no one goes to jail despite the huge amounts of drugs everyone is moving around the country.
Nature favors the bold. There was such audacity all around me. I will say some of those people went down later. Pretty much a year after I got out of it, guns were everywhere. It became extremely dangerous, and that was in the late ’70s, when cocaine was sweeping the country and it was a very different kind of business. The promise of the psychedelic revolution truly failed—it was a kind of slow-motion shipwreck, the whole thing. And I felt I was one of the last people to get off the ship. It did not go well for everyone. Some people quietly faded away or disappeared, but I was 20. It was time for my life to begin.
The Light Years is available now through Farrar, Straus and Giroux.