A young Sasha Shulgin in his lab (Photo via Flickr user Lorenzo Tlacaelel)
Alexander "Sasha" Shulgin—a person who could perhaps claim to have influenced global youth culture more than any other in the last 30 years—was not a DJ, a fashion designer, a singer, a sports star, a writer or a politician. He was a scientist. An esteemed and highly respected member of a profession renowned for its beards, bad hygiene and shut-ins. A man who paid his dues at Harvard and Dow rather than the Paradise Garage or the Factory. A man with a PhD in Biochemistry, who wrote for The Journal of Organic Chemistry rather than The Face—a man, with a beard, whose first big breakthrough was a pesticide.
Yet Shulgin was also the man who figured out how to hotwire our souls. He gave the world the drug that changed it—MDMA, which was already extant but not at all on the agenda until Shulgin introduced his synthesis to a gang of lucky eggheads on the West Coast in the late 70s. Whether in pill or powder form, MDMA went on to inspire love and legend, to map well-travelled paths to total abandon, absolute zero, mass euphoria, and moral panic.
Sasha has died, aged 88, after a lifetime of getting high on his own supply. A thoughtful, provocative man with a strong interest in humanity and the things that lurk beneath it, he was more than your average wreckhead cosmonaut—he was an advocate, an architect, somebody whose work concentrated on the long-term good, rather than the short-term buzz, that drugs could provide.
For that, he will go surely go down as a legend in the world of science. But while Shulgin's legacy as a scientist is surely only going to grow with time, for me, he'll always be more than an Isaac Newton who reached for the lasers rather than sat under trees. It's quite simple: Shulgin and his rave penicillin changed youth culture forever, along with the lives of myself and so many other people.
The author, far right, with obligatory bottle of water
I've written about my first pill before; it was a seismic event in my life, as I'm sure it was for most. But imagine what the world's first pill would've been like, and then imagine what the world would be like now had Shulgin never seen his ideas through. All those eyes-in-the-back-of-the-head moments—those tingly, clammy first kisses that feel like blasts of arctic air to the soul—all those moments of serendipity, rapture, sexuality, stomach-flapping fear, and confusing conversations with Italian tourists in smoking areas would never have happened. Without that weird, unexplainable, shivering thrill that Shulgin's wonder-chemical could give you, our collective existence would be a far shallower place.
And without those moments, that feeling, we would never have had anything approaching rave culture. We would have had raves, sure, and house and techno may have happened had it not been for ecstasy, but they would never have had the same profound impact upon people's lives without the love drug kicking them along. The music just wouldn't have possessed the same alien power without ecstasy. Kraftwerk may have brought the synths, Jesse Saunders may have brought the beat, but Sasha Shulgin brought the feeling.
Ecstasy slowly swept across the planet; mutating, gestating, multiplying, and dividing like a virus of raging positivity that no scientist could've predicted. Before too long, we'd arrived in the future, with computer music and man-made drugs becoming the driving forces of global youth culture. Pretty much every Westerner born after Shulgin first encountered the drug we now call ecstasy has in some way been affected by it.
Some took it, some were too scared to. Some had the best times of their lives on it, and sadly some died taking shitty versions of it manufactured by bastards far less scrupulous than Shulgin. Some packed it in when they left college; others found themselves still gurning their faces off at "Back 2 The Old Skool" weekenders 25 years after their first time. One guy even took it every day for nine years, peaking at around 25 pills a day (though needless to say, this probably wasn't the best of ideas).
Some comments left below 90s rave tracks on YouTube (from the article "Rave and Hardcore YouTube Comments Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity")
Ecstasy and the music it inspired helped change the world, but more than anything it changed people's lives. For many, it was the drug that hauled places like Britain out of the darkness of the 80s. When I spoke to Terry Farley, the legendary DJ, promoter, producer and magazine editor behind Boy's Own last year, he told me that ecstasy was the catalyst for change in a society that desperately needed it.
"I think it basically just took the edge off everything," he explained. "If you were out and you were acting a bit loud, people would think you were weird. Being nice to people suddenly became appealing. That wasn’t just because we were on drugs and a bit loved up but people were aware of everyone's well-being. People thought that everything was going to change.
"Within six months, everyone I'd known had given up their jobs and were all doing something creative."
Ecstasy simply made people happier. Yes, comedowns are shit. But would you swap your worst one for your dizziest high? I think I probably know the answer to that (although personally I've never been able to forget the moment my family cat of 17 years died right outside my bedroom door after a big night). Maybe some people overdid it, maybe the increased popularity has caused a few tragedies, but what other drug has so violently rewired our cultural understanding of the world?
The acid revolution of the 60s was important, but nowadays acid is just a bunch of hackneyed similes, jokes about pink elephants, and retro psych-rock. Meanwhile, ecstasy is continuing to shape our worldview, as rap's co-option of its hoodrat little sister "Molly" proves. Electronic music continues to prove its staying power while guitar music rots in a cokey grave. And anyway, all the best guitar bands—that is Oasis, the Stone Roses, Happy Mondays et al—they all fucking loved pills.
On a personal level, I think ecstasy probably made me more romantic. It made me see the world in a grander, more episodic way, where the things that happened seemed bigger, meant more to me. I think a lot of people would probably agree with that. I'm not saying it made me a better person, but it did make me understand being a person better.
High times with dancers at Amnesia, 1991
For that, and for everything else great that ecstasy gave us, we should remember Sasha Shulgin not just as a great scientist, but as a visionary, a world-changer—a hero, perhaps. For without him we wouldn't have had first raves, first kisses, Human Traffic, Future, The Hacienda, Trainspotting, "Voodoo Ray", "Blinded by the Lights", the Doncaster Warehouse vid, Deadmau5 (whether he likes it or not) or "Mr Vain". Ibiza would still be just a nice island in the Med, and so many wives, husbands, children and best friends would have gone missing from our lives.
Perhaps the most impressive testament is that nobody ever seems to regret the time they spent on ecstasy. Whatever the costs, those first pill/best pill recollections are still imbued with the kind of romance, passion and whimsy that you rarely ever find in life. It is, as the cliche goes, the drug that made hooligans hug each other and for that, it will always have a special place in our culture.
Perhaps Shulgin's legacy was, for him, a bittersweet one. In essence, he had wanted to use the drug for therapeutic rather than recreational purposes, and although he seemed to appreciate the press and the praise he got from his invention, his idea that MDMA could be used in the same way that SSRIs are never really came to fruition. I wonder if he ever had the chance to observe a gang of gurning middle-class kids having the best nights of their lives on ecstasy, when in actual fact he had really intended it for people suffering the worst times of their lives. I wonder what he thought about that.
But even if his legacy is an accidental one, it's still one the world will have a hard time forgetting. The name "Alexander Theodore Shulgin" might not be first thing that comes into our minds when we're rubbing our faces, grinding our teeth and bombarding our lovers, friends and parents with weird text messages, but maybe it should be. Because to me, Shulgin—whether he likes it or not—will forever be "The Gurnfather".
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