EP. 002 Does Philip K. Dick dream of Blade Runner?
Paul M. Sammon’s “Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner” (We can’t recommend it enough)
PKD speaks at Cal State Fullerton (1973)
PKD interview with radio host Mike Hodel (1977)
Full write-up of EP. 002 coming soon…
EP. 001 – Who was the real Philip K. Dick?
PKD in an interview with author Charles Platt in 1979: “I was told I was paranoid before my house was hit. That I was paranoid in thinking it was going to be hit. I remember when I opened the door and found nothing but ruins everywhere. The windows and doors smashed in. My files blown open all my papers missing, my cancelled checks gone, my stereo gone. I remember thinking, well, it sure is a hell of a mess but there goes that theory.”
In November of 1971, science fiction author Philip K. Dick came home to find his San Rafael home in ruins. What’s known as the mysterious break-in incident led to a famous interview in “Rolling Stone” magazine by the late, great Paul Williams… and many a conspiracy theory.
Dick thought he was being followed by the local police, the FBI… and other less official groups.
Some even think he made the mess himself.
It’s an infamous period in the life of a writer who would give us dozens of novels, hundreds of short stories and the inspiration for some of Hollywood’s most fantastic mind-trips. You probably know about Dick-adaptations like “Blade Runner,” “Minority Report,” “A Scanner Darkly,” “Total Recall” and “Man in the High Castle.” But there’s more to come and seemingly always a PKD film or TV show in the works.
Surprisingly, Dick never saw real notoriety in his life-time. In a life spent rapidly producing story after story, PKD spent most of his life struggling financially.
But now, his works are part of the canon and as a pop culture figure, he’s becoming more ubiquitous.
I wanted to know more the man and about this tumultuous time in his life, so I called up Tim Powers.
Tim Powers: “He had, in ‘71, had a whole bunch of disasters. His wife left him and he threw open his house to whoever wanted to stay basically. So he wound up with a bunch of disreputable people and runaways and whatnot. And the police told him he was not welcome.”
Author Tim Powers is credited as one of the founders of the “Steampunk” genre and he knew PKD well, spending time with him later in life. He remembers the break-in incident as told to him.
Tim Powers: “And then his house was weirdly broken into while he was out for the day. When he got back in a taxi because his car had been apparently messed with so that it wouldn’t work. When he got back in a taxi he saw that every window of his house had been broken in. And in the dirt below each window was like heavy boot prints and piles of heavy duty ziplock plastic bags. Then he found that his filing, locking, filing cabinet had been blown open — wet towels packed around it and then some sort of explosive. And the only things that I can recall that were missing were a handgun and a page of latin he had written while on one of his two LSD trips. And all open packages of perishable food had been taken away. So if there were two boxes of Cheerios in the kitchen and one had been opened, that opened one was gone. There’s all sorts of interpretations that half fit. Was the food exposed to something? But then why did they take the page of Latin?”
Whoever broke into Philip K. Dick’s house in November of ‘71, the fact remains that, if it weren’t for the break-in, Powers may never have gotten to know the man. The PKD powers knew lived in sun-bleached Orange County, CA in the 70s. He liked to stay up all night talking about philosophy and science fiction — and play the occasional joke on the gullible.
Powers picks up PKD’s story post break-in:
Tim Powers: “In any case, after all this he was invited to be a speaker at a convention in Vancouver, Canada. And he flew up there and at the end of the convention, instead of going home again he told the people at the convention ‘Can somebody put me up? I got nothing to go home to.’ They were very surprised because convention guests of honor don’t do that ordinarily. But they put him up there and he lived there for some months and attempted suicide and at the last minute called a helpline and then went to a heroin rehab place. And he pretty certainly was not any kind of heroin addict — his big drug was speed — but he wanted an environment where he would be closely monitored. After a few months he became a kind of employee of the place. Writing letters to places on the rehab letterhead and so forth. He wrote to a professor at Cal State Fullerton, who he knew, saying ‘I got nowhere to live. I can’t go back to San Rafael, my house was blown up and gutted and cops said if I go back I’ll get a bullet in the back or worse. And he was wondering what ‘or worse might be.’ And he said, ‘I can’t stay here I got nowhere. And the college professor read this letter to his science fiction class. And one of the girls in the class said, ‘We just lost a roommate, he can move in with us. And the college professor relayed that and Phil Dick said ‘okay’ and got on an airplane.
And so it was that the author of canonical science fiction put full trust in a few college kids he had never met…
Tim Powers: “Which shows how desperate he was. Because he had no idea even what Fullerton was or who these girls were or anything. And they said ‘Powers, we’re going to the airport to pick up Phil K. Dick. Do you want to come along?’ And I said ‘Yeah, sure.’ Luckily I had hardly read any of his work at that point. Because if I had, I’d have been speechless and stuttering and spitting with awe to meet him.
So there we were and here he came out of the airplane wearing a jacket that was now too small for him because he had been doing a lot of manual labor at the rehab place. And he had a suitcase that was held together with an extension cord. And he was carrying a New World Translation of the Bible which he said was to mollify customs. And he looked pretty desperate. Smiling and talkative, but like a guy at the absolute end of his rope.”
After Powers, the college girls and Phil piled into the car…
Tim Powers: “It was a 1970 Camaro… maybe 1968 Camaro.”
And then, and least in Powers memory, amid fleeting moments of paranoia… PKD — the author just out of rehab and still reeling from an unsolved robbery — became Phil… The guy who lived up the street.
Tim Powers: “My wife and I always had a gathering at our apartment and it was only a couple of blocks from his apartment in Santa Ana. And he would always show up there. He had to drive two blocks so all he wouldn’t drink anything but Orange Crush.”
Marc Haefele: “You know, of all the writers I worked with, there must have been somebody easier to work with that Phil.
That’s my friend Marc Haefele. A few years ago, as a young journalist obsessed with PKD, I was thrilled when a mentor of mine offered to connect the two of us.
Marc worked for the publisher Doubleday in the 60s, and edited PKD’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” and “Ubik,” to name a couple. It was actually Marc who wrote a note to his boss at Doubleday telling him to publish Ubik. You can find it in the archives at Cal State Fullerton:
“This is first-rate Dick, the best I have read since The Man in the High Castle. It is coherent… fast-moving, and indicates a reversion to some of the author’s ideas of a decade ago… I think it could insure a revival in popularity of Dick’s work that the recent psychedelic novels did not. There are one or two quibbles… but generally this is the best science-fiction novel by an American author I have read in several years.” — Marc Haefele, Jan. 10, 1967
Haefele has always told me that, he doesn’t remember Phil the drug-addled writer pop culture has typecast him as, but he does remember when things seemed to turn…
Marc Haefele: “And then, just like I went off into another phase of life, he went off into another phase of life. Where he was really struggling with his inner demons throughout the ‘70s and he was struggling with the milieu he was with up in the Bay Area. Struggling with things that only existed to him. And he was struggling with ex-wives and responsibilities. He just lost it for awhile there. And I think the indication of that was he sold us “Flow My Tears the Policeman Said”… This book, instead of coming in a small box with a manuscript — in that wonderful completeness of ‘I’m gonna open this up and read this’ — it came as just a two page proposal. And I think a brief outline.”
There are plenty of pictures of Philip K. Dick you might have seen floating around on the internet, but some of the most striking were taken in the early 80s by Nicole Panter.
Nicole Panter: “Phil at this point spent most of his time in his little dingbat apartment turned condo. Which had green shag carpeting and cottage cheese ceilings.”
Panter is a legend in Los Angeles lore. She influenced the early punk scene in L.A. as manager of the Germs. She was one of the creative forces behind the original Pee Wee Herman stage show at the Roxy Theatre. And she was a friend to Philip K. Dick later in his life.
There’s a great picture of Panter, sitting on the couch in PKD’s apartment with her husband and a couple young writers.
Nicole Panter: “We spoke on the phone a lot. At some points we spoke on the phone almost every day, if not every day.”
Panter tells me the story behind how they first met…
Nicole Panter: “I was married to an artist named Gary Panter at the time. And he was my however many boyfriend in a row who was completely obsessed with Philip K. Dick. And this series of boyfriends culminating in the husband would always try to tell me what the stories were about. And I finally just looked at him one day and said, ‘Why don’t you just write to him?’ Somehow I got ahold of the information that Phil lived in Santa Ana and I got a phone number.
In the friendship that ensued, Panter says she talked about a lot of things with PKD. She sensed a loneliness in him that she felt echoed in her own heart. Sometimes, their conversations would drift to yet another of Phil’s fabled experiences: The pink light, or VALIS encounter, in which PKD felt he had been communicated with by a higher power. It’s an experience he spent much of the rest of his life trying to explain. Here he is in his own words:
PKD in an interview with author Charles Platt in 1979: “VALIS. V-A-L-I-S. It stands for Vast Active Living Intelligence System. What happened was that some transcendent power — which was not evil but was benign — intervened to restore my mind. To heal my mind. And give me a sense of the joy of the world. The sanity of the world.”
Nicole Panter: “I think the experience he had several years earlier, which has been described as a mental illness — a psychotic break and also been described as a spiritual experience — was still reverberating. That kind of thing never really stops I don’t think. He and I had talked about that at several points, you know, as deeply as you can talk about it with a 20-year-old.”
So, who was the real Philip K. Dick? Was he a speed-eating psychotic? A genius paranoiac? A schizophrenic philosopher? Or someone far less troubled but just as genius?
Nicole Panter: “You know, I think there’s no way to know. The older I get and the weirder the experiences I have between this world and the next, I kind of can’t really tell you what I definitively think about it. I’m pretty grounded, I’m pretty no-nonsense I guess. But, I’ve seen some stuff that makes me wonder. So who knows about that experience of Phil’s. But the reality that I’m in, that I knew him in, that I’m conscious of, a late middle aged man. Well I guess he was 50 when we met him… Who was kind of stuck in Santa Ana in this depressing apartment… so he seemed a bit of a mess.
I put the question to Tim Powers too. Essentially: Did you ever get the sense PKD was… you know…
Tim Powers: “Never for a moment. He would get very depressed on occasion, where he would just sort of sit and skulk. But no he was always the most skeptical, rational, funny guy. I mean, late at night, he would tell us things like ‘My researches have lead me to conclude that, prehistoric man, fossils have been found in San Diego: Prehistoric man had one eye and two noses apiece. And this was the origin of the cyclops legend. And it scared the daylights out of me and [James] Blaylock. And next day I said, ‘Hey Phil, what about those one-eyed two noses guys?’ And he said, ‘Powers! Jeez that’s a bunch of crap.’”
Panter says PKD never got to see her Pee Wee shows at the Roxy — she might have gotten him out of the house for that.
Nicole Panter: “Yeah, Phil checked out and missed it, unfortunately. But I guess in another multiplicity of reality he would have been there.”
If I’d read the stuff that’s been written about him now and the general idea that he’s like a prophet and a philosopher, I might not have know how human and fragile he was as a person.
Everyone wanted to see Phil having a bigger life than he was… Or at least I did.”