The Starck’s dance floor was too small for a club its size, but that only added to the sweat and fervor. It was a pit of throbbing music and bodies driven by a new drug that accentuated every dancer’s touch and every beat of the steady soundtrack of synth pop, New Wave, Euro techno and Italo disco.
A month after opening, the Starck overflowed with ecstasy. Bartenders kept pills for sale in the quarter slots of their registers; at the end of the night, management would notice $200 tabs with $800 tips. They knew their staff was selling ecstasy, but it was legal, so there was no reason to stop it.
Stories seeped out of people having sex with strangers in the unisex bathrooms and coked-out Republicans running around the dance floor with drag queens. Management relaxed the door policy and began to stay open till eight A.M. People of all sorts—gay hairdressers, young Texas punks, rich debutantes, West Texas oil tycoons, Luxembourgian princesses and, eventually, Hollywood celebrities—flooded in. Rob Lowe was a Starck regular, as was the cast of Dallas. Oscar-nominated actor Thomas Haden Church was a college student at the time, working the concierge desk at an upscale Dallas hotel. When celebrities visited town, he would drag them to the club. Julian Lennon, Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, Dee Dee Ramone and members of New Order were all spotted at the Starck. “I was there at nine P.M. on a Saturday night one time. I look at the bar and John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page are standing there, drinking Heinekens,” McCone remembers. “Hey, half of Led Zeppelin, this is cool, I thought. Half an hour later, Robert Plant comes walking in, and I’m like, Fuck.”
When Ronald Reagan came to town in August 1984, there was so much ecstasy in Dallas, one thing was certain: It wasn’t all coming from Kerry Jaggers.
Michael Clegg stood under the stars on a beach in Tulum, Mexico and slipped a pill into his mouth. His brain flooded with serotonin and dopamine, his body tingled and his mind cleared. As he looked out across the black-molasses mass of ocean heaving under the glittering night sky, Clegg knew his life had changed forever. It was 1978.
“The night I took my first hit on the beach in Mexico, I said to myself, My mission in life is to get this to the entire world,” Clegg remembers. “If anyone was ever ordained with a mission, I was that night.”
How Clegg came to be standing on a Mexican beach, so moved by a drug that he would appoint himself its prophet, is a strange story of all-American self-realization and personal reinvention.
Clegg grew up on the South Side of Chicago; at the age of 12 he entered a Catholic seminary, where he studied Spanish, theology, psychology and tennis. In 1965, when he was 26, Clegg decided the priesthood wasn’t for him. Former priests often find it difficult to readjust to society, but Clegg was likable and funny, with a breezy demeanor and a keen mind. He had a natural feel for people. He shed the collar but couldn’t shake the priestly impression he left on people, a shamanistic charisma characteristic of natural-born salesmen.
Clegg also had a knack for spotting opportunity. After reading about a new technology, he built a security company that sold motion-sensitive alarms that automatically phoned police. To boost business, Clegg paid a night-watch captain in the Los Angeles Police Department to slip him burglary reports. Whenever someone was burglarized in L.A., Clegg’s sales staff was on the phone with the victim the next day.
The night I took my first hit on the beach in Mexico, I said to myself, My mission in life is to get this to the entire world.
He sold his business for $3.2 million in 1968 and spent the next few years drinking and screwing his way through a small fortune. When he ran out of money, he found ways to earn it back: a mercury mine in Nevada, imported microwaves from Japan, resorts in Texas and Mexico.
By the mid-1970s he was teaching yoga and tennis at an upscale residential development in tony north Dallas. Rich, attractive, bored housewives perusing the Yellow Pages found a photo of a spry, good-looking man with rosy cheeks and athletic legs offering “Zen tennis therapy.” Clegg promised clients more than a workout, but he didn’t know he was also building a network of people with untapped appetites for a pleasure-inducing designer drug.
Clegg was splitting his time between a condo in Dallas and his yoga resort in Mexico when a friend insisted he try a new drug called Adam. He immediately understood what a powerful product he had on his hands. “For the first time in your life there is no fear of anything,” Clegg says. “That is such a freeing sensation. You aren’t concerned with the details of life on earth. Health, business, relationships—none of it matters. Everything looks beautiful.”
After trying MDMA, Clegg wanted more. The only source of the drug, however, was the Boston Group, an underground legion of medical chemists in Massachusetts who produced the drug primarily for therapeutic use. So Clegg decided to make his own. He tracked down Alexander Shulgin, a towering figure in the history of psychedelic drugs who had rediscovered MDMA in the 1970s and turned psychologists on to it, but Clegg couldn’t win an introduction.
He did, however, make contact with someone who had access to the formula. Then he found a chemist. Armed with those, Clegg purchased a house in the remote mountains of northern California and had his brother-in-law learn how to make the compound. The lab began to produce MDMA, and Clegg threw parties in his Dallas condo where he handed out the drug for free. But there was a problem—it needed a name.
“When I first got it, I remember calling it Adam,” Clegg says. “I thought, This isn’t something I can market. What is the true experience of this? I had to convince people who didn’t do drugs to try one no one had heard of. I was telling people it would let them see God. Then it came to me: It was pure ecstasy.”Doblin first encountered MDMA in 1982 in the secluded confines of the Esalen Institute, atop the cliffs of Big Sur in northern California. Esalen was the birthplace of the New Age movement and a coastal highway for true believers of the 1960s psychedelic revolution. It was there that he heard about a new drug called Adam that had piqued the interest of psychotherapists at the institute. Adam was all the buzz, but Doblin was unimpressed. “It just looked like people were talking to each other,” he says. But when he tried Adam himself, he couldn’t believe what he had stumbled on: a powerful psychedelic that didn’t create hallucinations. It made his mind feel crisp and clear. It also offered a vision of what he should do with the rest of his life.
He formed a nonprofit, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, that conducted research intended to prepare for the inevitable illegalization of the drug. Part of that included sending letters and samples of MDMA to Polish rabbis, Austrian Zen Buddhists and American Benedictine monks. In the summer of 1984, Doblin conducted his first clinical trials of MDMA, keeping the results secret while quietly building a network of advocates.
When the DEA published its intention to ban MDMA in July 1984, Doblin flew to Washington to deliver a petition that would force a hearing on the ban. “Previously I had only thought of myself as a counterculture drug-using criminal,” he says. “But this was my movement into the mainstream. The American legal system allows nonprofit organizations to exist, and you can use them to fight the government.” He drove the issue through the courts in an effort to reclassify the drug as a Schedule III substance, which would allow doctors to use it for therapy. A federal judge ruled in his favor in May 1986, but after a series of appeals, the DEA ultimately overruled the judge’s decision and kept MDMA on Schedule I, citing its lack of FDA approval. In the process Doblin realized that his passion lay not in the psychology behind the MDMA experience but in the fight to change the legal structure around drug prohibition in the United States.
Doblin earned a doctorate at Harvard, and MAPS became instrumental in organizing clinical studies of MDMA. In 1992, the FDA approved the first clinical trials of the drug. Today, MAPS oversees much of the research, which involves Iraq War veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and people suffering from clinical depression. A study in 2010 found that 83 percent of subjects with PTSD who underwent MDMA-assisted psychotherapy expressed a significant drop in their symptoms. A follow-up study in 2012 showed that these benefits were sustained on average for 45 months.
With these kinds of results, Doblin hopes his organization can steer MDMA toward legalization the same way medical marijuana has become legal. He believes MDMA could be approved for PTSD treatment by 2021 and dreams of total legalization by 2032.
I ask Doblin if there is a place where fringe believers in MDMA therapy are continuing their work in secret, quietly and illegally. Doblin chooses his words carefully. “There are still underground therapists doing a lot of work,” he says.
It’s 2015, and I’m with Kerry Jaggers backstage at a concert in Dallas. I also meet Hatchett, who earlier in the day palled around with New Order’s Peter Hook, working out together at Life Time Fitness and catching up over smoothies. Hatchett, like Hook, is now sober. He’s married, runs a tattoo-removal business in Austin and has a teenage daughter. As far as Hatchett is concerned, there is no more MDMA—at least not the pure stuff he made back in the 1980s. But you can find the culture he believes the drug helped spawn: the music, the sense of style and a certain sensibility, an increased sensitivity and broad-mindedness he doesn’t remember seeing in the world as much before. “If you weren’t there, you don’t get it,” he says. “We were the creators of this movement that’s no longer a subculture.”
The Starck closed its doors in 1989, killed not by the outlawing of ecstasy but by the natural entropy of cool that eventually claims all hot spots. The shell of the space still stands underneath that highway overpass, mostly vacant but occasionally used for nostalgic parties at which former Starck regulars seek to recapture the feeling, if only for one night.
As they had with Hatchett, the feds caught up with Michael Clegg. In 1992, after more than a decade running what was perhaps the largest ecstasy-production company in the world, Clegg was arrested at an airport in Palo Alto, California. Federal agents slipped a tracking device onto his plane before he left Costa Rica, and when he landed to refuel on his way to Vancouver, they were waiting for him. His plant in Brazil, his cash in Switzerland and his barrels of safrole oil were all seized by the DEA. After a complicated legal battle, Clegg managed to save his resorts and reduce his sentence to four years in a federal penitentiary.
After manufacturing the purest, most perfect ecstasy in the world, does Clegg know if there’s any left? He doesn’t think so.
I find Clegg at his home in northern Georgia, overlooking a wooded ravine in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We sit in overstuffed leather chairs, drinking espresso from ceramic cups and listening to a New Age music station on DirecTV. Clegg says that jail—not ecstasy—was the best thing that ever happened to him. It prompted an authentic epiphany. When he left prison, he was no longer Michael Clegg, ecstasy kingpin, but Satyam Nadeen, an enlightened spiritual teacher on the path to spiritual awakening. He hands me a copy of his book, From Onions to Pearls, which boasts a Deepak Chopra endorsement on the cover. After years of drugs, he explains, he has found a spiritual happiness that far exceeds anything any drug produced.
“I spend eight hours a day blissing out now,” he says.
After lunch on the porch of his yoga resort up the road, Clegg takes me back to his house, where he produces a pyramid-shaped crystal tied to a string. He waves it over a piece of paper printed with black numerals. When the crystal comes to a halt, he tells me encouragingly that my consciousness level—the extent to which my inner being is tied into the all-infinite being of the universe—is above average. He won’t tell me his own reading but suggests that it approaches Buddha levels. Toward the end of the day, I ask him the question: After manufacturing millions of MDMA pills, the purest, most perfect ecstasy the world has ever known, does he know if there’s any left?
Clegg doesn’t think so. He tells a story about a woman in Seattle who, right before ecstasy became illegal, purchased 10,000 pills and buried them in her yard. Maybe they’re still there. Then he tells of a time a few years ago when his brother-in-law showed up with a handful of pills he’d been saving for two decades. They took them together, and to Clegg’s surprise, the quality hadn’t waned one bit. “It was pure bliss,” he says, “exactly like I remembered.”
The Starck Project, a new documentary by directors Michael Cain and Miles Hargrove, further explores how the Starck became ground zero for ecstasy and rave culture in the 1980s. Featuring original interviews with Peter Hook, Thomas Haden Church, Owen Wilson, Larry Hagman, Edwige Belmore and Philippe Starck, among others, The Starck Project offers an unprecedented, behind-the-scenes look at the "earthquake that would shake the world with the emergence of a new progressive subculture.” The film hits theaters next year. Watch its trailer here:
RELATED: How Harsh Laws and Enforcement Make Drugs More Dangerous