A couple of years later in Paris, Burroughs bought a book called The Living Brain by Dr. W. Grey Walter, and passed it on to Gysin. Inside this book there was a long account of the scientific study of the effects of flickering or flashing light on the human mind. Grey Walter discovered that flicker at certain rates synchronized with brain waves to give strange visions of color and pattern. Gysin immediately realized what had happened during his bus ride some time before.

In The Living Brain, Grey Walter defines the wave bands as follows:

Delta 0.5-3.5 cycles per second (c/s) Theta 4.0-7.0 c/s

Alpha 8.0-13 c/s

Beta 14.0-30 c/s

Grey Walter discovered the strangest effects were achieved on the Alpha band. He began by using a strobe light:

“The flash rate could be changed quickly by turning the knob and at certain frequencies the rhythmic series of flashes appeared to be breaking down some of the physiological barriers between the different regions of the brain (Breakthrough in Grey Room, Burroughs).”

This meant that the stimulus of the flicker received in the visual projection area of the cortex of the brain was breaking bounds; its ripples were overflowing into other areas. The consequent alteration of rhythms in other parts of the brain could be observed from moment to moment even by an amateur, as the red ink pen of the automatic analyzer flicked its new patterns caused by the changing flicker frequencies reproducing the effect of them in one channel after another. Walter discovered his subjects were experiencing “Strange feelings, a faintness or swimming in the head; some became unconscious for a few moments” and not only that, they were seeing “a sort of pulsating check or mosaic, often in bright colors” … “others see whirling spirals, whirlpools, explosions and Catherine wheels” … “feelings of swaying, of jumping, even of spinning and dizziness and organized hallucinations; complete scenes as in dreams, involving more than one sense.” A whole range of emotions were experienced—fatigue, confusion, fear, disgust anger, pleasure … “sometimes even the sense of time is lost or


Gysin was so impressed with what he read in Walter’s book he wrote to lan Sommerville, then at Cambridge University studying mathematics, asking him if it would be possible to make a machine like this at home? It was and they did it by suspending a light bulb in a metal or card cylinder with just regular slots producing a fixed rate of flicker; this was driven by a 78-rpm gramophone turntable. They experimented with a whole series of dream- machines from a very simple cylinder to, years later, machines which as the closed eyes are moved along the height of the column, produce all the gradations of the Alpha Band.

“Magick Square” watercolor and calligraphy on paper by Brion Gysin 1961. From the collection of Genesis Breyer P-Orridge

Brion Gysin’s own experiments are similar to those Grey Walter reported in his subjects:

“Visions start with a kaleidoscope of colors on a plane in front of the eyes and gradually become more complex and beautiful, breaking like surf on a shore until whole patterns of color are pounding to get in. After a while the visions were permanently

behind the eyes and I was in the middle of a whole scene with limitless patterns being generated around me. There was an almost unbearable feeling of spatial movement for a while but it was well worth getting through for I found that when I had stopped I was high above the earth in a universal blaze of glory.”

Gysin connected his experience with Nostradamus, according to Gysin:

“Catherine de Medici had Nostradamus sitting on top of a tower where with his fingers spread would flicker them over his closed eyes and interpret his visions in a way which influenced her to regard political power as instruction from a higher power.”

His experience utterly changed the subject and style of his paintings. He often painted the interiors of his machine, sometimes inserting whole canvasses. He would compliment this by listening to rhythmic Moroccan music while he was viewing.

“In the Dream Machine nothing would seem to be unique, rather the elements seen in endless repetition, leaping out through the numbers beyond number and back, show themselves thereby part of the whole. This, surely, approaches the vision of which mystics have spoken suggesting as they did that it was a unique experience.”

Ian Sommerville also made a comparison to mystical experience. “Elaborate geometric constructions of incredible intricacy build up from bright mosaics into living fire-balls like the mandalas of eastern mysticism surprised in their act of growth.” “The elements of pattern which have been recorded by subjects under flicker show a clear affinity with designs found in prehistoric rock carving, painting and idols of a world-wide distribution: India, Czechoslovakia, Spain, Mexico, Norway and Ireland. They are also found in the arts of many primitive peoples of Australia, Melanesia, West Africa, South Africa, Central America and the Amazon.”

“Catherine de Medici had Nostradamus sitting on top of a tower where with his fingers spread would flicker them over his closed eyes and interpret his visions in a way which influenced her to regard political power as instruction from a higher power.”

Gysin took out a patent on his invention in July 1961. Several large Dream Machines were made, mostly ending up in private hands or art galleries, but not in great enough numbers to become the drugless turn-on of the ’60s as Gysin had once hoped. He saw the Dream Machine as a gateway to a higher state of being. When talking about flicker, Grey Walter had written: “Perhaps in a similar way our arboreal cousins, struck by the setting sun in the midst of a jungle caper, may have fallen from their perch sadder but wiser apes.” Gysin looked a stage further.

“One ready ape hit the ground and the impact knocked a word out of him. Maybe he had an infected throat. He spoke. In the word was the beginning. He looked at and saw the world differently. He was one changed ape. I look about now and see this world differently. Colors are brighter and more intense, traffic lights at night glow like immense jewels. The ape became man. It must be possible to become something more than man.”


Gysin’s first encounter with magic was the medium Eileen Garrett. She had been questioned in England in 1920 under the Official Secrets Act because during a seance she had contacted the captain of the ill-fated British Airship R101, predicting its fate with great accuracy. They were introduced by Gysin’s friend John Latouche, frequently attending her meetings together; as recounted in Here to Go. He was well read in Greek and Roman mythology and in the late ’30s spent three years living in Greece. He later became very much a 20th century Dionysian figure.

It was after his first visits to Morocco that magic became of great importance to Gysin and became prominent in everything he created. Always willing to take risks, Terry Wilson commented:

“Gysin had a tendency to like to dice and flirt with fear, he liked to be afraid. He had an immense amount of courage, but there was also a side of him that was rather timid and cautious.” Further “He had always had a very powerful personality, he was a person who had tremendous power over other people and could certainly put people into a trance.”

Morocco has a long history of magic, especially before the coming of Islam.

The indigenous Moorish people have their own Shamanic tradition, as well as fertility cults and belief in Barakas or psychic power points. Many Mosques are built on the spots much in the same way as some Christian churches were sited on pagan sites. Some of this undercurrent survives in the Sufi tradition and the Islamic Mystical Brotherhood, who believe that by using shamanistic methods they can bring themselves closer to Allah.

While getting the restaurant ready one day I found a magical object, an amulet of sorts, a rather elaborate one with seeds, pebbles, shards of broken mirror, seven of each in a little package along with a piece of writing.

In 1950 the writer Paul Bowles took Gysin to a festival on a beach just outside Tangier. It was an old pagan festival based on the solar calendar. The musicians were from the Ecstatic brotherhoods and for the first time Gysin saw large groups of people in trance. The musicians were said to be able to heal by the sound of their instruments alone. This music captured his imagination and after years of searching he traced the musicians, with the aid of the Moroccan painter Hamri, to Jajouka, a small village in the hills outside Tangier.

Here they still celebrated an ancient Pan festival, a version of the Roman Lupercalia. Originally this had been a race from a cave under the Capitoline Hill; goats were killed and a young man chosen to be sewn into the bloody warm skins. At Jajouka he was called Bou Jeloud, the father of skins, the father of fear.

In ancient Rome, Mark Anthony was chosen to run the race on the Ides of March. The youth would run out of the city and into the forest to contact Pan, the goat-foot god, sexuality itself. He would run back through the streets with the news that Pan was still there fucking in the forest, all the time whipping the women in the crowds. In Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar asks Mark Anthony “to be sure to hit Calpurnia” his barren wife. Gysin thought, “Shakespeare dug right away that what it was, the point of sexual balance of nature which was in question.”

Due to Islamic influence men and women live very separate lives and men don’t always understand women’s language. In Jajouka the women sing secret songs enticing Bou Jeloud, the father of skins to come to the hills for the prettiest girls, “we will give you cross-eyed Aisha; we will give you

humpbacked, etc.” naming all the undesirable “beauties” of the village. Pan is supposed to be so dumb he falls for this and will fuck anyone. When he comes up to the village he is met by the feminine energy of the village in the form of Aisha-Aisha Homolka. This name may be derived from Asherat or Astarte. The role of Bou Jeloud is to marry her, although nowadays, young boys, dressed as girls, dance her role.

“Pan, the father of skins dances through moonlit nights in his hill village Jajouka, to the wailing of his hundred master magicians. Down in town, far away by the seaside you can hear the wild whimper of his oboe-like raita; a faint breath of panic borne on the wind. Below the rough palisade of ginat blue cactus surrounding the village on it hilltop the music flows in streams to nourish and fructify the terraced fields below.” (Gysin)

After Hamri’s introduction to these master musicians and many visits to Jajouka, Gysin invited them to play in his restaurant, The 1001 Nights. For a few years they did so until they fell out.

“I kept some notes and drawings meaning to write a recipe book on magic. My Pan people were furious when they found out. They poisoned my food twice then resorted to more efficacious means to get rid of me… While getting the restaurant ready one day I found a magical object, an amulet of sorts, a rather elaborate one with seeds, pebbles, shards of broken mirror, seven of each in a little package along with a piece of writing. When deciphered we didn’t even want to touch it, because of its magical qualities, which even educated Moroccans acknowledged. The message was written from right to left across the paper, which had then been turned and inscribed from top to bottom to form a cabbalistic (i.e. with hidden meaning) grid calling on the devil of smoke to “make Massa Brahim leave this house as smoke leaves the fire, never to return…and within a very short time, I indeed lost the restaurant and everything else.” (Here to Go, Terry Wilson)

A short while before this John and Mary Cooke had appeared at the 1001 Nights. They had sought Gysin out on the instruction of a Ouija board. John Cooke was a vastly rich man born of a wealthy and “far out” family in Hawaii. All his life he showed a great interest in magic and the occult. Before

coming to Morocco he said that he had been involved in a “billion buck scam” with L. Ron Hubbard called Scientology. The Cookes were instrumental in its foundation and had presumably sought out Gysin in order to incorporate him into Scientology. They claimed he was a natural “Clear” and “Operating Thetan.” Gysin was friendly towards the Cookes, even rushing to Algeria when John Cooke was stricken by a mysterious paralysis.

A civil war was brewing in Algeria and Gysin decided to leave North Africa for Paris. Of his time in Morocco he reflected:

“Both extra-ordinary encounters and unusual experiences have led me to think about the world and my activity in a way that came to be termed psychedelic. I’ve spent more than a third of my life in Morocco where magic is or was a matter of daily occurrence ranging from simple poisoning to mystical experience. I have tasted a pinch of both along with other fruits of life and that changes one’s life at least somewhat. Anyone who manages to step-out of his own culture into another, can stand there looking back at his own under another light…. magic calls itself the other method…practiced more assiduously than hygiene in Morocco, though ecstatic dancing to the music of the secret brotherhoods is there a form of psychic hygiene. You know your music when you hear it one day; you fall into lie and dance until you pay the piper. Inevitably something of all this is evident in what I do and the arts I practice.”


Gysin’s chance meeting with William Burroughs led to four years of collaboration on many projects. Based at the Beat Hotel, they were both certainly in the “right place at the same time.”

Gysin’s painting in Paris was greatly influenced by the calligraphy contained in the amulet that had driven him from Tangiers. His paintings increasingly became formulas, and spells intended to produce very specific effects. Burroughs, who was recovering from heroin addiction, often sat in whilst Gysin painted, seeing a work from conception to completion. “Brion” he said, “is risking his life and his sanity when he paints.”

With Islam, the world is a vast emptiness like the Sahara; events are written,

predetermined. Gysin’s works became “Written deserts,” appearing from right to left like Arabic, and from top to bottom like Japanese. Burroughs was impressed, and in his essay on Gysin in Contemporary Artists wrote “It is to be remembered that all art is magical in origin—sculpture, writing, painting and by magical I mean intended to produce very specific results. Paintings were originally formulae to make what is painted happen.”