The Dream Machine

No living American writer has influenced rock'n'roll songwriters more than William Burroughs. Of the stars who have paid homage to Burroughs, none made as strong an impression on him as Kurt Cobain. It therefore came as a surprise to the editors of HIGH TIMES when on December 17, 1994, the magazine received a fax from a Seattle-based group, "Friends Understanding Kurt," laying partial blame for Cobain's suicide on the master himself.

The gist of the charge was that in the last months of his life, Cobain acquired a device called the Dream Machine, which had been created by Burroughs' friend and collaborator Brion Gysin and popularized by Burroughs. The Dream Machine, the group wrote, is "a dangerous trance-inducing contraption," and there has been a "string of suicides associated with the machine since the '60s." Furthermore, they claimed, it was "in fact, the catalyst in Kurt's unbelievably tragic, untimely death. To this day Courtney ponders whether the Dream Machine is really responsible for Kurt's death...If Kurt had not come into contact with its manufacturer, he would be with us today."

The Dream Machine consists of a cardboard cylinder with holes in it attached to a record-player turntable, in the middle of which sits a 100-watt light bulb. When the machine is turned on, the cylinder spins at 78 rpm. Subjects sit in front of the cylinder and close their eyes, and the light reflects through the holes in the spinning cylinder on the eyelids. The resulting flashes of light may, if the subjects are susceptible, create a mild sensation akin to the effect of the simplest light show. Aided by the inhalation of good pot and the sound of hot rock, the device might create at best a mild dreamlike sensation, or at worst (unless you're prone to epileptic seizures) an even milder headache. It's an adaptation of flicker technology, first seen with strobe lights and now packaged as brain machines.

Burroughs once said about the Dream Machine, "Subjects report dazzling lights and unearthly brilliance and color...Elaborate geometric constructions of incredible intricacy build up from multidimensional mosaic into living fireballs like the mandalas of Eastern Mysticism or resolve momentarily into apparently individual images and powerfully dramatic scenes like brightly colored dreams."

Following up the same fax, SOMA, the San Francisco "journal of Left Coast culture," found Steve Newman, a representative of Friends Understanding Kurt, who claimed Cobain had used the Dream Machine for "up to 72 hours at a time." Newman said the core of FUK was himself, Love, Love's attorney Celeste Mitchell and other friends of Cobain's, as well as various peripheral members." Love, he explained, played more of a "low-key role." HIGH TIMES' efforts to contact FUK were unsuccessful. Interview requests made through Love's record company, Geffen, and publicity agency, PMK, about this subject, were not answered. An attempt to acquire photos taken during Cobain's visit to Burroughs' home in Lawrence, KS in 1993--that had been given to Rosemary Carroll, Love's principal attorney--also didn't merit a return call.

However, we did locate David Woodard, the San Francisco businessman who manufactures and sells replicas of Gysin and Burroughs' Dream Machine for $145. In an interview conducted by Victor Bockris for HIGH TIMES, Woodard contended that Cobain called him as many as 20 times over a period of six months during 1993 and 1994 to talk about his life and the Dream Machine. "I got the sense that he was using it for long periods, but 72 hours? That's ludicrous."

Woodard met Cobain at a party in Seattle in the summer of 1993. He prefers not to detail the specifics of how and when Kurt bought the machine. According to the fax, "Woodard honorably complied with Kurt's very sincere wish, promptly and professionally shipping a freshly minted machine to Madrone [Seattle]: The state of California does not prohibit the sale of this fancy death machine to desperate young millionaires."

Surprisingly, Woodard admits that the Dream Machine may have compounded Cobain's problems. "If anything," he says, "the Dream Machine helped him to see that he was beginning to fall apart as a cultural figure. He felt like Andy Warhol, Wagner and Satan rolled up into one. He was in a very special place which invited timely suicide. It seemed like it was the perfect decision."

Does Woodard concede that the device he sold Cobain contributed to his death? "I pictured the suicide as being informed by an inner voice which was made audible through his experiences with the Dream Machine," he explains. "Yes, the Dream Machine played a part."

Perhaps Cobain knew what he was doing. Woodard leaves us with this image of his 27-year-old disciple: Kurt's in a full-scale Dream Machine-induced trance, his body hurtling from the glittering Manhattan skyline to a panorama of snowcapped Himalayas. His turquoise eyes are wide open. He's above the clouds now, contemplating the next stop on this magic carpet ride. Suddenly, he blasts off into deep blue space.

The controversy over what effect a psychedelic light machine had on Kurt Cobain during the last days of his life may be a smokescreen that plays into the hands of those who would have us believe he took his life two years ago. Tom Grant calls the fax a "confusion tactic" and "a futile effort to throw a blanket of deception over the truth." He clearly believes Friends Understanding Kurt is Courtney Love.

Hopefully, this article will stimulate discussion and lead to more revelations from those who really know what happened to Kurt Cobain and why he is no longer with us.

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