E: The Incredibly Strange History of Ecstasy
“Featuring more than 200 illustrations--including a visually stunning catalog of popular and unusual pills--E: The Incredibly Strange History of Ecstasy is the most comprehensive account yet published on the history and continuing cultural influence of the drug that changed the world”--whoa, not so fast there, back-cover blurb. The fact is, it’s difficult to know whom precisely this slim, small volume is aiming for. Hard-core collectors of drug paraphernalia represented decently and in color? The ’90s nostalgic? Folks for whom Simon Reynolds’ Generation Ecstasy, Matthew Collin’s Altered State, or any number of scholarly volumes on the chemical compound MDMA, all happen to be out of immediate impulse-buying reach, or maybe just have too many words and not enough pretty pictures? For the moment, let’s guess it’s the latter.
E is a nicely enough designed minibook: six and a half inches square, most of its 192 pages dominated by images ranging from micropress book covers by evangelical medical scientists to old exploitation-flick posters to European and American rave fliers to all manner of artist shots and movie stills to gaga fractal patterns. Not to mention that pill catalog, whose comprehensiveness is more workaday than dazzling. By this scheme, the book’s words are pretty incidental, and that’s the way the book’s author, Tim Pilcher, treats them. Into his facts and figures Pilcher (who has also authored three books about cannabis and a handful of comics-related titles) interjects tired jokes that feel designed more to keep himself awake than to entertain the reader, and he’s most amusing at his most true believer-like. “This book is in no way an attempt to glamorize or advocate drug use,” he writes in the intro, going on to list ecstasy’s “penalties,” such as “jail, loss of friends, family, jobs, and even life itself. But”--and even with that word uninflected on the page, you can feel him revving up--“the rewards could be a new perspective on life and hopefully a less selfish, less materialistic, and more empathetic world.” Could, eh?
The biggest misfire about E is Pilcher’s fumbling grasp of the music inspired by the marriage between futurist electronics and the drug more aptly nicknamed “empathy.” He clearly enjoys the stuff, but in his seeming rush to not merely parrot prior E chroniclers, Reynolds especially, he goes on bizarre tangents. Discussing the Netherlands’ fandom for gabber--the hardest, fastest, most absurdist and brutalist form of techno--Pilcher writes: “The commercial version of gabber--happy hardcore--topped the music charts across Europe, and as far as dance bands go, they didn’t get any more commercial than 2 Unlimited.” 2 Unlimited has zilch to do with gabber or happy hardcore. There is something to be said for attempting to cram in extra info about global dance culture most rave histories have left out; too bad it makes so little sense.