Karaoke is Alex’s main gig, but that’s not how he makes his money.
Produced by Alex Stern.Playlist
Nathan Wilkins & Midnight Mike Remix – STOP – B.W.H feat. Paolo Del Prete
Todd Terje – Myggsommer – It’s the Arps EP
Nico Motte – Cap de Creus – Five Years of Loving Songs
They Might Be Giants – Where Your Eyes Don’t Go – Lincoln
Bernie Kraus – Jungle Shoes – Gorillas in the Mix
Domenique Dumont – La bataille de neige – Comme Ca- EP
Marc Barreca – School For Whales – Twilight (Remastered + Expanded)
Geena – Metromind – Five Years of Loving Notes
Domenique Dumont – Comme Ca – Comme Ca- EP
Leonardo Martelli – Leonardo – Menti Singole
Todd Terje – Preben Goes to Acapulco – It’s Album Time
Marc Barreca – The Dream Time – Twilight (Remastered + Expanded)
Mary Lattimore & Jeff Zeigler – Music Inspired by Phillipe Garrel’s Le Revelateur
Unknown – From a DJ set by Felix Kubin
Cherushii – I Dreamed I Saw You by the Lake – Memory of Water
JD Emmanuel – At-One-Ment – Wizards
Mark Barrott – Brunch With Suki – Sketches from and Island 2
Indian Agent – Road Soda Reggae – Meditations in the Key of Red
Alex Spencer (aka Dr. Thunder) – Volunteer
Produced by Alex Stern
So I called up my contact at the facility in Long Island, though I didn’t have really two dimes to rub together at the time; I scrunched together 24 bucks to jump on the New Jersey transit train over to Trenton and then up to the tenth station. 20 minutes later a white stretch limo pulled up. I jumped in. The driver asked me if I was Alex Spencer and I said “Yes.” We headed off out into the countryside.
I sat all the way in the back, and the driver was like 20 feet away. I had rolled down the window to lean out and look at everyone, passing them by, hoping that they were wondering which dot com billionaire I was.
We pulled in and there was basically like a little town inside these gates, and kind of a blank atmosphere that gave the impression of one of those fake towns they would make to blow up with atom bombs. I would get my own little house to live in on what looked like a little suburban street.
The first thing I did is strip off all my clothes and just walk around naked. I watched some cable and used the free internet… Usually, you know, just out of politeness, put a towel down when you’re sitting on a chair, or something.
Once every day or two they’d bring me over to the pet scan facility and give me a dose of a radioactive element and some other drug, and scan my brain’s effects while my head was encased in styrofoam that had been formed perfectly to my skull.
* * *
Starting in the year 2000 I participated in over 100 clinical trials, and that was my main source of income for at least 10, maybe 12 of those years. I think we call ourselves guinea pigs to make light of it, in a way. Actually, my brother Herrick hated when I called myself a guinea pig, because he had pet guinea pigs. He didn’t wanna think about them being tested on.
Certainly, a scientist wouldn’t want any of the subjects to call themselves guinea pigs, because obviously guinea pigs don’t have the copious amount of rights that human subjects do.
Cameras in my rectum while I watched in on a screen… I’m strapped down to a table while they shot me full of ritalin. Put in a giant airtight tank. I’ve taken radioactive sandwiches, got to see my own stool before it came out… MRI studies at least 50 times. Little syringes that inject glue onto your scalp.
They would take me to a padded room… Some vials of liquid in front of your nose… Net of wires on your head watching a movie for two hours… Beeps and boops and buzzes and white noise… Two nurses, one with a testicle in each hand, measuring them with calipers.
They had me swallow a mechanical pill, which was clear and had all sorts of microchips and gears in it.
Difficulty sleeping, sexual thoughts, half-centimeter stripes in the inside of my forearms… Certain floaty or dreamy feeling, biopsy scar on my thigh… Shooting pain that would just travel up my arm. Too sick to eat again. Came back positive as an opiate addict. Constantly peeing. Lost my memory, like “Wait, am I allowed to be peeing in the toilet right now?” Track marks, dizziness, bad headaches, extremely nauseous, numbness, diarrhea, vomiting, gas…
* * *
Most people’s reaction when I tell them that I do medical studies is something along the lines of “Aren’t you worried you’re gonna have all sorts of crazy side effects? Like, later in life you’ll grow a third arm, or something?” My thinking around that is not only do I get all the information I’d ever want on the drug and what they’re gonna do, but also the things I would be doing otherwise, if I wasn’t in the study, are probably worse.
At a certain point I stopped wanting to try to fit in, I sort of embraced my own weirdness. I remember going to school wearing around my neck a “No Hunting” sign that I had found in the woods that was full of bullet holes, and I just wore that to school around my neck one day. That seemed to really work for me, and suddenly I had sort of fame around high school as the school weirdo.
I ended up walking to school a lot, just because I would sleep through the bus and say “Well, I gotta go there, I can’t miss all my classes today.” And that was three or four miles on a pretty major highway, and I would just kind of walk along, singing… Mostly, they might be Giant songs that I had memorized the lyrics to.[Where your eyes don’t go a filthy scarecrow waves its broomstick arms
And does a parody of each unconscious thing you do
When you turn around to look it’s gone behind you…]
As I was reaching the end of high school, I decided to take some time off and work before going to college, and that kind of turned into not really being interested in going into college. I just sort of felt like I’m just gonna live as weird and original a life as I can, just because it’d be a waste to just do what’s expected.
I was living in a big house along the highway in Jersey, with two friends, having parties all the time… Just a constant party, because we were the designated party house.
I was working temp agency jobs, worked in a library, spent a couple years doing the 12-hour night shift at a local Dunkin’ Donuts… And my friend told me about the medical studies he was doing, and how he had made 4k for spending maybe a week, maybe a couple weeks in the hospital. I was like, “What do you do in there?”, and he was like “Oh, you just watch cable TV and sit around and eat, and do whatever.” I was like, “Oh my god, this sounds so crazy. I just need to try this!”
* * *
So I walked into the room and it was basically the day room where they bring all the patients in. I was given an easy chair, and next to me they placed a big bottle of alcohol and Country Time lemonade, and parsed it out into a little plastic shot glass. They had a timer going, and I sat there and took a shot of it, winced a little, five or ten minutes later took a second shot. It was supposed to test the effect of both fish oil and red wine on heart health.
The portion I did was on the red wine side. Instead of actually giving you red wine, they decided to give participants ten shots of pure grain alcohol within about two minutes, then I guess afterwards test their heart health.
By the time I did it, they were diluting the alcohol slightly with powdered lemonade, and giving it to us over an hour instead of ten minutes. I took the one shot, felt that familiar burning in my esophagus; five or so minutes went by and they gave me another shot. I started to feel a little woozy, but I’m sitting down, so I don’t really notice it that much.
Five minutes later – another shot. As the hour went on, I kind of forgot what I was doing and why I was there and why I was drinking this alcohol, and I really didn’t wanna take another shot, but I kept taking them.
My inhibition started to go, I barely understood what people were saying or how to interact with people when they came in… Considering hitting on the nurses that were walking in and out, like “So I’m having a few drinks. Would you like one too, or…?”
You can imagine what happens… I puked my guts out probably three or four times. And I do remember the doctors who actually formulated the study coming in to say hi to me and shake my hand, probably while I was already pretty drunk. They said “Oh wow, you did much better than most of the other participants.” I thought, “Oh my god, what happened to them?!”
* * *
I’ve done studies for Pfizer, Merck, Wyeth and Bristol-Myers Squibb… Those are all pharmaceutical companies, the funders of the studies I’m doing. Some of the studies I do are first in man, meaning I will be among the first humans to try a drug. Before me there were rats, I assume, and dogs… Usually, it’s extremely high doses, to the point of death, or at least sickness.
And then after it’s tested in people like you, what happens?
Patients get to try it out.
Almost all the studies we do are for what’s called “healthy controls.” You don’t have any condition that the drug is treating. If you’re taking an Alzheimer’s drug, it means that you’re a healthy, younger person who doesn’t have any signs of the disease. Generally, you have to have a healthy lifestyle, because they’ll be testing your blood for every sort of substance and problem. If you come up positive for anything, you could not be allowed back. I actually wasn’t allowed back to several places for really benign conditions that I’m not even sure I had. Of course, I’m not gonna admit what those are, because who knows which study coordinators are listening right now.[“Hi, I’m a healthy volunteer. I’ve done studies there before, so I’d be in your database. I’m wondering if you have any studies that I’d be able to screen for right now?”
“Okay, what’s your social…?” “We do a study coming up. It pays $5,800. We have screening dates on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday at 8 AM.”
“Oh boy, I don’t know if I can get up there at 8 AM… But yeah, okay, put me down for Tuesday. Actually, no, Monday, because then I’ll be ahead of all the other people who are screening on Tuesday and Wednesday.”
“Okay. Well, don’t drink any caffeine 24 hours beforehand, no smoking three days beforehand, no navel oranges, no mandarins, no grape juice… Do you know how to get here? Have you been here before? Okay, good. Well, we’ll see you at 8 AM then. Oh, and don’t forget your social security card.”]
They bring you into a room with maybe three other guys who are screening at the same time. In order, we’ll all go in and give our urine sample and have our blood taken and blood pressure and EKG and all that good stuff.
Later that week, you’ll get a call, “Okay, well you qualified for the study”, and you’d go in for the actual study. They are calling people one by one to get their dose of the drug and take the pill at the exact time. Finally, they call your name, you walk smiling as bright as day because you know you’re getting that check, and you eagerly stand there, waiting to take that pill.
God bless America, I’m paying rent this month.
From what records I do have, it looks like I was making between 10k and 12k a year. It was, I think, my only source of income for most of those years. I was living in rooms in shared apartments, traveling around, staying on friend’s couches… I would sleep on a cot in an office space I was renting for a little while, living out of a storage space for about a year there.
I would eat ramen noodles and one-dollar sticks of teriyaki chicken from Lucky’s on Baltimore Ave, three-dollar tofu hoagies from Fu-Wah, fudge-covered Sunbelt granola bars and bananas.
Then when I would get a big study, I was in the money. Buying meals and paying my rent months in advance, because I would get maybe $1,000 at a time, maybe $4,000 all at once.
Generally, the people that I know who do studies are in bands, or radio DJs, or in school… One of them produced an award-winning movie off of money he made in a study, kind of following the footsteps of Robert Rodriguez who paid for his first movie (El Mariachi) with money he made in a study, and wrote the script while he was in the study.
So I’ve noticed in the guinea pigs I’ve met sort of a bohemian sense of accepting weird lifestyles or ways of making a living. Everybody seems to have like another odd thing about them. They’re like, “Wow, you make money off of that? Damn, okay…”
Whenever I would run into any of my friends who did medical studies, you talk about — for a couple months there was a study at Jefferson… A really nice facility, with great staff, and they would give these little five-dollar voucher meal tickets every time you would go in. So we would take our little meal tickets and go down to the cafeteria. We would sit around the table and share stories, and a lot of them would be about the weirdest studies we’d ever heard of.
I know a guy who they took him into a room and they stuck his hand in a jar and it was full of Africanized bees. As soon as his hand got stung, he would pull it out and then they would do tests on him, and they paid him $600 and he walked out the door.
Or you hear about that study where they cut off your toe and then reattach it? Or the study where they stop your heart and they restart it… “Oh, I’d never do that, I don’t know…” “Oh, my brother did that one. That’s a real one. No, no, seriously…”
You know, I signed up for a study – it was a $7,000 and we were gonna stay in there for a month. And the first day they brought us all in a room and the doctor came out and they said they were canceling it. They gave us the entire check that day. It was crazy. Everybody was like “Oh my god, that’d be incredible! Oh my god!”
So those are like the giant fish stories of the guinea pig community…
I think it was only $700 for two nights, if I’m remembering right… They assigned each participant their own nurse, which is very unusual. I was like, “Oh god, what am I getting myself into?” And the nurses were kind of talking freely and saying “Oh yeah, in about 20 minutes we’ll know whether you got the drug or the placebo.”
Some of the other participants were starting to turn a little green in the face, and holding the waste baskets and kind of rocking back and forth… I don’t think I saw any actual vomiting, but I did start to feel woozy myself, and I think that was the study when they were doing rectal temperatures, which was so much fun…
They would grease up the thermometer, and insert it… Curtains open, so that everyone passing by could glance and see you laying there. “Could you close those curtains, please? God dammit!”
She laid me down on my back, and I suddenly got erect and had an orgasm just in a matter of seconds. She kind of leaned down and whispered, “Um, Mr. Spencer, did you just have an orgasm? It’s okay, but just…” And I said, “Yeah…” I just had like a dumb grin on my face at that point. I was embarrassed, like “Sorry…”
Somewhere in my chart, in the files of Bristol-Myers Squibb there’s a record of an orgasm I had about ten years ago.
Because so much of my life is being in hospitals, being examined, laying flat on a bed with usually a bunch of women milling about, it seems like a pretty obvious subject of sexual fantasies.
I’d say the most common fantasy involves a study where semen collection is the main focus. Two at a time, the nurses come in to collect it from me in various ways, multiple times a day. Everyone kind of lines up and takes shifts, coming in and collecting it for the study.
Do you act these out in real life, or is it just in your mind?
Just in my mind. I haven’t gone to the lengths of buying a nursing outfit… Although I was dating a German nursing student for quite a while, so that probably played into it.
I wasn’t doing medical studies because I didn’t have any other options, I was doing them because it was an easy way to make money and still have all my free time. I almost felt like I was risking my health more going into an office every day. I was living an unhealthy lifestyle, working in factories, working behind the counter all night at Dunkin’ Donuts… It was physically demanding, the hours really wore me down, I was drinking more when I got home, drinking coffee to stay awake, I was staying up all night, and more depressed, because I had so little free time.
When I was doing studies, not only while I was in there did I have my time to myself, but when I was outside I didn’t have to worry about money for months at a time. And I was incentivized not to drink or smoke or do any of these unhealthy things. On top of that, the medical studies and the tests that were being done on me in there were the only medical care I had at the time. I didn’t have medical insurance, Obamacare wasn’t a thing yet, and some of those doctors were kind enough to, against regulations I think, either give advice or even sometimes treat different ailments I had.
How much do you think they have your personal safety and well being in mind, and as their first goal?
In the army, you would trust your sergeant. You might even trust your corporal or your captain to have your best interest in mind. You trust your government to have your best interest in mind – they’re a little farther up; they’ve never met you, and you’re kind of a piece on a chessboard sometimes. Maybe there’s a bad egg in office who doesn’t really mind sending someone into battle for less than extremely necessary reasons. So I trust the people in the room with me; all the staff members I’ve met seemed very professional and seemed to have my safety in mind. I trust the process, they go through all the consent forms with me, line by line…
As far as the pharmaceutical companies, I’m a data point. I wouldn’t necessarily say everybody in a pharmaceutical company doesn’t care if I live or die, I wouldn’t say that, but I’ve never met them, they’ve never met me… They have their investors to care about. I’m in the equation; they don’t wants deaths or injuries or sickness from the drugs that they’re putting out certainly, but I don’t trust them with my life.
It seems like the fact that they even have to tell people “Oh, don’t worry about it… You can leave, we’ll still invite you back” implies to me that there’s a psychology around people feeling obligated to stay, despite risks or despite their own concerns.
I’ve definitely stayed in studies that were unpleasant because I needed the money that month. I wouldn’t say that I’ve done studies where I thought I was risking my life. There’s a law that says you can’t pay a test subject more for additional risk. You can pay them for more time, you can pay them for traveling farther, but there’s limits. You can’t incentivize risking someone’s health.
Overall, in a sense, all medical studies of the type I have done are kind of risking your health for money.
* * *
All they had really told us was that I might have a certain floaty or dreamy feeling, but anyone who has heard about Ketamine knows that it’s one of the stronger psychedelics, some say even stronger than LSD.
It was just like the very early studies that they did with psychedelics. There was what’s called a psychomimetic and I may be mispronouncing that… But it’s supposed to mimic the state of your brain during psychosis. They were giving us one drug, Ketamine, to make us crazy, and then the next time we came in they would give us a drug that was supposed to prevent people from having psychotic episodes, and they would give us the Ketamine again and see if there was a difference in psychotic reaction to the Ketamine.
Ketamine, at least up until the ’70s, was not used for humans. I think it even carries a label that says “Only for cats and primates”, but a guy named Dr. John C. Lilly, actually whose books I’d read at that time, that I took it, started publishing books and memoirs about taking Ketamine as a psychedelic drug and using them inside sensory deprivation tanks and exploring different dimensions and meeting the gods of the different dimensions that he visited, and mapping out which dimension you reached through which dose of Ketamine.
When the Ketamine started to drip into the IV in my arm, immediately I just kind of fell through space, Alice in Wonderland style, and all the memory and chain of events coming up to that moment, being in that room, being in the study for the week, meeting the psychologist who was there talking me through – all of that kind of felt like a timeless thing; either it had always been happening, or it happened a million years ago… I sort of saw my consciousness as a balloon or a kite on a string, and it had this thin little tether that went down to Alex Spencer in a hospital room, laying in a hospital with an IV in my arm, and people around me talking to me, asking a series of questions…[Where are you…? What are we doing right now…?]
I should probably make a disclaimer that I wouldn’t recommend that anyone take Ketamine… I think it’s actually affected me somewhat psychologically. For at least a year or two after I felt like I — have I ever really left that room? Maybe I’m still there, and this is like the dream I’m having under Ketamine. I definitely took something with me from that experience.
It’s actually an interesting comparison between dealing with a psychedelic experience and dealing with doing studies… There’s a similar need to relax through some unpleasantness once in a while, like relaxing while a big needle goes into your arm, or while they try to get an arterial line into your wrist. There’s sort of a feeling of accepting that this is what’s happening right now and there’s nothing I can really do about it, so I’m just gonna go with it, and like “Oh, this is what pain feels like. This is what feeling like my body is expanding to the side of the universe feels like, and I’m just gonna relax into that and examine what that feels like when that happens. It’s not going to be permanent, I’m not going crazy…
I’m picturing a moment when I had an extreme amount of gear in my mouth, and up my nose, and down my throat… Just all sorts of unpleasantness happening. I could step outside and say “Wow, this is interesting”, and just like watch it from another point of view. Largely, both experiences – both psychedelics and doing studies are extremely pleasant.
When I do studies now it’s not only to get a little extra money, it’s also to get a break from life… Have a little vacation in the hospital – a paid vacation – where I can catch up on reading, and sleep, and watching TV, and writing. I do most of my writing when I’m in studies.
You talk about traveling a lot – so you’ve had like real vacations where you go to the beach, and you’re in Europe, right? So it just strikes me as really funny that you’d be like, “Oh yeah, I’m just going on a vacation in the hospital…” Like, why not just go to the beach? Help me understand why that’s appealing…
Well, there are two senses of the word “vacation.” There’s one where you’re going off and traveling, maybe seeing family, maybe relaxing on a beach, and there’s a lot involved in going on a vacation like that. You’re spending money, rather than making it… Arranging travel plans and traveling from place to place, and packing, and keeping track of this and that, whereas in the hospital you’re just relaxing. You’re in a predetermined, defined space, with a set of things that you brought to do. You can write in your journal, you can read the book you brought, you can type away on your laptop, write letters to friends, watch movies… You have a certain set of things you can do, and you don’t have to worry about anything else. It’s a break from everything.
* * *[karaoke background noise] It feels great. I like seeing people have a good time and express themselves… I love it when the crowd is really getting into it and cheering them on. I can make a living just off doing karaoke. I still do studies, kind of just for a little extra money and because I find them interesting, but I could just do karaoke and nothing else. And for most of the year I do.