Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Johnny Smoke is photographed with a Dream machine on Oct 19 2012. The machine, invented in the late 1950s by Edmonton-raised Brion Gysin uses stroboscopic lights for visual stimulation. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Johnny Smoke is photographed with a Dream machine on Oct 19 2012. The machine, invented in the late 1950s by Edmonton-raised Brion Gysin uses stroboscopic lights for visual stimulation. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

CULT ARTIFACT

It’s high time: The Dreamachine is no longer just a dream Add to ...

Maybe even bars and hospitals will make use of them. Writer Margaret Atwood already has one. Ditto actress Lisa Ray, Gysin literary executor James Grauerholz, record producer Rick Rubin and the lobby of the famous Beat Hotel in Paris, a favourite Gysin hangout. And you can too – if you have $399, exclusive of taxes and shipping.

Sacrilege, you say? In fact, this mass marketing of the Dreamachine represents the belated realization of an idea Gysin himself entertained. Dying at 70 in Paris in 1986, poor and embittered, he originally envisaged his co-invention as “the ultimate home leisure component,” in the words of his biographer, Toronto writer (and Globe and Mail editorial board editor) John Geiger. Instead of a TV set in the family room, the suburban North American bungalow would have a Dreamachine “broadcasting … homemade optic movies” created by each member of the household.

Over the years, many famous artists and inner spacemen have tried, owned or borrowed a Dreamachine, David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Patti Smith among them. The late Timothy Leary once called it “the most sophisticated neurophenomenological device ever designed.” Kurt Cobain also was an enthusiast – although it is not true the Nirvana main man used a custom-made Dreamachine non-stop for 72 hours before his 1994 suicide.

Smoke (real name: John-Mark Leonard; the nom de psychedelia derives from the 1988 Butthole Surfers song John E. Smoke) first heard of the device in the early nineties while working in a Niagara Falls record store where the proprietor was a devotee of Gysin and the many famous and semi-famous friends and acquaintances he had. (They included LSD synthesizer Albert Hofmann, poet Allen Ginsberg, poet and performance artist John Giorno and Rolling Stone Brian Jones). Smoke soon found design drawings for Dreamachines on the Web (Gysin himself included plans in a magazine in 1962) and started to make his own.

Smoke tinkered with the Dreamachine over the years, at one point selling cylinder patterns cut from styrene online, while the larger world seemed to nudge him toward a greater commitment. In the fall of 2009, for instance, during an evening of channel-surfing, he came across the final five minutes of FLicKeR, the 2008 documentary by Toronto director Nik Sheehan on the life of Gysin and the creation of the Dreamachine.

Another epiphany, in July, 2010, happened when Smoke travelled to Manhattan with Sheehan, whom he had befriended, to attend the first retrospective of Gysin art held in the United States, at the New Museum. By this time, he was entertaining the idea of mass-producing Dreamachines, even though “I was at a loss for any kind of production experience.” Still, Gysin associates were enthusiastic. Returning to Canada, Smoke phoned Weitner, a retired manufacturer whom he had met 10 years earlier while doing decor work on Weitner’s house in Burlington, Ont. “I told him I was tinkering around with this Dreamachine thing and he just said, “I’m in.”

For his part, Weitner prefers to be “the low-key guy behind the scenes,” staying mum about just how deep his pockets have had to be. “It could flop and we could be stuck with hundreds of these things,” he acknowledged in an interview. “But it’s kind of a unique item and there’s a bit of buzz to it; I’m not too concerned about losing money on it.”

Is he a Dreamachine believer? Does it allow access to a plane of reality usually hidden from us? “The Dreamachine is just a product,” Weitner replied.“Sure, I hope we do well with it, but I don’t love the thing. It’s just another business I’ve been involved in.”

Margaret Atwood, who was given her Dreamachine by Geiger, confesses that she has yet to do “full trials” with the apparatus. “But so far it’s very relaxing and aids lateral think-jumps … Good if you have a block or a problem to be solved. Unless, of course, you simply nod off, which can also be refreshing.” Is she a Leary-ite with respect to the cosmic claims for the machine? “Do I subscribe to any of the more cosmic claims for anything? Not yet. I’ll write home when I get there.”

Single page

Follow on Twitter: @Jglobeadams

 

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories