Every Pill I Took

Prompted by Michael Lorenzini’s Every Pill I Took (2022), Peder Clark explores the materiality of Ecstasy pills, thinking about the possible meanings behind- and consequences of- their brash branding.

In the words of rapper Gucci Mane, New York-based photographer Michael Lorenzini is an “ex-X-popper”. Every Pill I Took, 2000-2001 (Lorenzini, 2022) is his book documenting his consumption of Ecstasy tablets (also known as 3,4-methelynedioxymethamphetamine) at the turn of the millennium.

Photos due to the kind permission of Michael Lorenzini and Printed Matter

For a few years, Ecstasy entranced Lorenzini and his friends. But it was not only the pills’ pharmacological properties and their pleasurable euphoric effects that fascinated him. It was also their materiality.  Each pill pressed with a logo, typically a logo of a multinational corporation such as a car manufacturer (Mercedes Benz, Ferrari, Mitsubishi and Volkswagen all featured). Other variants used iconic and instantly recognisable symbols from the scrapbook of American pop culture: Playboy, the Statue of Liberty, Pokémon, shamrocks, anchors, the dollar sign, and superheroes such as Batman or Superman. Lorenzini photographed every pill that he consumed, “shot on slide film with an extreme macro lens”, revealing each disc’s granular texture and minute imperfections. These close-up shots are organised into an A-Z of Ecstasy’s material culture, bookended by a short essay by cultural critic Carlo McCormick and an afterword by Lorenzini himself.

Lorenzini’s book is a snapshot of a certain era in New York City’s nightlife (the fallow years in the wake of Paris is Burning, the Club Kids and N.A.S.A., and Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s clampdown), but it has resonances with wider cultures of Ecstasy consumption. If you spend enough time tracing house and techno subcultures through looking at YouTube comments on the biggest tracks of the rave era, certain brand preferences will start to reveal themselves. “Mitzi turbos” with the iconic Mitsubishi logo, “speckled doves”, sunrise coloured “pink Calis”, “Supermen”, “Dennis the Menaces” and “rhubarb and custards” are all hailed as the best pills of their day, and remembered with deep affection by ageing ravers, triggered by the music of their youth.

Anecdotally, I know of a couple who have collected a personal archive of Ecstasy pills going back to the 1990s, much as wine connoisseurs might curate their own cellars of vintage bottles. The materiality of Ecstasy pills has also proved attractive to at least one visual artist; sculptor Dan David produces enlarged replicas of Ecstasy tablets in Portland stone, complete with Mitsubishi and dove logos.

The tendency of Ecstasy pill manufacturers to imprint their products with such logos led a reporter from dance music magazine Mixmag to mischievously contact global conglomerates’ press offices in the year 2000, to question them about such brazen trademark infringement. Sample response from Rolls-Royce: “Really? I wasn’t aware of this going on! You know, the mascot is called the ‘The Spirit of Ecstasy’ – that’s its actual name!” (Anon, 2000: 30). Just as in licit markets, such branding helped certain pills to achieve visibility and elicit consumer confidence. Mixmag ran a four-page investigative piece on the re-emergence of Mitsubishi-branded pills in April 1999 (Rolfe, 1999: 52-56).  

From a harm reduction perspective, such branding has, and continues to, help with identification. The Pill Reports website continues to carry numerous chemical analyses and user reports of different brands of pills in circulation in various geographical regions around the world. Even today, in the era of very strong “super-pills”, the most notorious pills are those branded with the Tesla logo or an impression of Donald Trump.

With the kind permission of Michael Lorenzini and Printed Matter

Historians of drugs and alcohol have not, by and large, paid such close attention to the paraphernalia that often accompanies cultures of intoxication. Such scholarship is yet to have its material turn. Nobody has written a social history of the bong, for example. This assessment might have to be revisited in the next few years. Art historian Hannah Halliwell is developing a project on how the “the hypodermic syringe and opium pipe were manufactured, advertised, and perceived in nineteenth-century French society”. Going further back in time, early modern historian Adriaan Duiveman published a fascinating study of wager-cups for a special issue of Cultural and Social History that I co-edited (with Alice Mauger) in 2023 (Duiverman, 2023). Meanwhile, cultural historian Erik Davis’ recently published book Blotter looks at the images printed on sheets of LSD, or “blotter art” (Davis, 2024).

Davis’ investigation of LSD sheets has parallels with Lorenzini’s project. McCormick notes these similarities in his introductory essay to Every Pill I Took, writing that “the logos, text and imagery of illicit drug packaging – what we might call a kind of cottage-industry folk art – signal the mindset of the users”. He suggests that LSD blotters often “feature[d] iconography borrowed from cartoons, comics and fantasy illustrations … to establish a visual tableau of innocence and optimism.” Heroin bags on the other hand would often feature the logos of either luxury brands such as Gucci, or more mordant imagery such as skulls, dividing “into signs of aspiration and glamour [or] emblems of their pollutive power of self-abnegation”. For McCormick, the visual culture surrounding MDMA consumption was an ambivalent marriage between these two antecedents of LSD and heroin: “in a way both about the idealism of psychedelic drug use and the tongue-in-cheek ironies of narcotic consumerism”. It is also worth noting the relationship between illicit drugs packaging, and that of the licit pharmacological industry, as Lorenzini briefly does on the back cover of Every Pill I Took, juxtaposing the Ecstasy pills with Advil ibuprofen, Viagra, Prozac anti-depressants, and Pepto-Bismal tablets. In short, the means, methods and mediums by which people consume their intoxicants is an important experiential history, and one that can show us much about its wider culture.

With the kind permission of Michael Lorenzini and Printed Matter

Of course, the taste and texture of these pills and tablets is also a highly important aspect of their materiality, one somewhat inaccessible to my research on Ecstasy for obvious ethical, legal and technical reasons. One can be slightly envious of scholars such as James McHugh (who incidentally told me about Every Pill I Took), who in the course of researching his outstanding book of a few years ago An Unholy Brew (McHugh, 2021) took the approach pioneered by experimental archaeology, and attempted to brew some of the alcoholic drinks from recipes found in his pre-colonial Indian sources. This is a line that many historians of drugs and alcohol have to walk; should we partake (or admit to partaking) the substances that we study?

For personal and professional reasons, my own experiences are something that I’ve been always been somewhat coy or reticent about discussing (not that that stops people asking). To my many interlocutors, the stock response has generally been to draw some vague comparison with military history and suggest that you don’t need to have fought in a battle to write such histories.

Drug experiences are inherently subjective and, as I’ve argued elsewhere, intoxication is always temporally and historically contingent; “taking a pill at a festival in 2019 was not the same as taking a pill in 1989 at a rave” (Clark, 2022: 137). But as drugs historian Mike Jay recently and perhaps more persuasively mused,

 “The analogy I use is travel writing … You could write a book about Venice without going there because you can read all the other books about Venice, but it’s hard to argue that your book wouldn’t be better if you had actually been to Venice yourself.”

About the author

Dr Peder Clark is a Research Associate at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. He is writing a new cultural and social history of Ecstasy in Britain, and can be found on Twitter/X @pederclark. His research is supported by Wellcome.

The book Every Pill I took, 2000-2001 is available from Blurring Books: https://www.blurringbooks.com/

References

Anon. 2000. Pilled to the Air Max. Mixmag.December 2000. 30.

Clark, Peder. 2022. Ecstasy: A Synthetic History of MDMA. 127-140. Geoffrey Hunt, Tamar M.J. Antin and Vibeke Asmussen Frank (eds.). Routledge Handbook of Intoxicants and Intoxication. London: Routledge.

Duiveman, Adriaan. 2023. The Drinking Table as Battlefield: Warfare Analogies and Masculine Emotions in Early Modern Dutch Drinking Songs and Wager Cups. Cultural and Social History, 20:1, 27-42, DOI: 10.1080/14780038.2021.1965733

Davis, Erik. 2024. Blotter: The Untold Story of an Acid Medium Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Lorenzini, Michael. 2022. Every Pill I Took 2000-2001. New York City: Blurring Books.

McHugh, James. 2021. An Unholy Brew: Alcohol in Indian History and Religions Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rolfe, Julian. 1999. The Mitsubishi Story. Mixmag,April 1999. 52-56.

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