Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Breaking Open the Head: Michael Hollingshead, the World Psychedelic Center, and Self-Trepanation - the Alternative Lifestyle Choice that Never Took Off.

This story is made up of a couple of curious and eye-opening foot-notes to the history of psychedelia.  My sources are Storming Heaven by Jay Stevens, Turn Off Your Mind by Gary Lachman, and some webpages that I'll link at the bottom.

In 1970, Amanda Feilding, the Countess of Wemyss and March, then aged 23, put on a bandana and went to eat a steak in a restaurant near the Chelsea embankment, London.  Feilding was tucking into her steak in order to replace the blood she had recently lost - by boring a hole in her skull with a dentist's drill.  The operation had been filmed by her boyfriend Joey Mellen, to be used in a documentary called Heartbeat in the Brain.  To elaborate on the milieu out of which this bizarre London evening emerged, we will divert to the life and times of another man who opened his mind - this time with a mayonnaise jar which would become the stuff of legend.

         Michael Hollingshead outside the Harvard building were he turned Timothy Leary on to LSD.

In 1960, Michael Hollingshead was an expatriate Englishman with a slightly shady reputation, living in New York and working in some kind of capacity for the British American Cultural Exchange Institute.  One day, a small package arrived from the Sandoz corporation in Switzerland, containing one gram of LSD, roughly five thousand hits.  (Hollingshead became interested in LSD after reading Huxley and experimenting with mescaline, and claimed he had persuaded a doctor friend to write the request for the acid on a hospital letterhead, ostensibly for the purpose of some kind of bone marrow experiments.)   He decided to mix the acid with water and confectioner's sugar, and store the whole fiendishly potent stash in a sixteen-ounce mayonnaise jar.  The problem was that Hollingshead had been carelessly tasting the mixture with his finger as he worked on it, later estimating that he'd unconsciously absorbed 5 strong doses of pure Sandoz before screwing the lid on the legendary jar for the first time!  He went off on a 15 hour trip from which he never fully returned:  "It was a very strange first trip indeed, and it was of many hours' duration, perhaps fifteen. What I had experienced was the equivalent of death's abolition of the body. I had literally 'stepped forth' out of the shell of my body, into some other strange land of unlikeliness, which can only be grasped in terms of astonishment and mystery, as an état de l'absurde, ecstatic nirvana. I could now 'understand' why death could produce the sort of confusion I was experiencing. In life we are anchored through the body to such inescapable cosmic facts as space, gravity, electromagnetic vibrations and so forth. But when the body is lost, the psychic factor which survives is free to behave with uninhibited extravagance."  (The Man Who Turned On the World, 1973.)

 On Huxley's advice, Hollingshead packed up his mayonnaise jar and headed for Massachusetts to seek out Leary.  The rest is fairly well-documented history: Leary had been on a kind of collision course with the straight, middle-class world for some time, but in the shattering nirvana of his first acid trip, the Harvard professor finally got off the boat and split from the whole fuckin' programme for good.  Everything was revealed to be a tawdry television-set, and like the WS Burroughs of Nova Express, Leary felt compelled to Storm the Reality Studio and Retake the Universe.  An anarko-hedonistic-egotist was born.

At the back of all this, Hollingshead's role as Leary's lysergic Svengali is somewhat murky.  There is the palpable air of a dark magus about him, the air of somebody who found anything but the Light on the Other Side of the Rainbow.  According to Lachman in Turn Off Your Mind:  "Hollingshead would get a reputation as a real demon of a psychedelic guide, spiking people with massive doses, or leading trippers down convoluted paths and then abandoning them....his penchant for manipulation, lying, and coercion are clear signs that he was basically interested in power.  Like Charles Manson and the CIA, Hollingshead 'grokked' LSD's potential for mind control."  At first falling at his feet like a student to his guru, Leary eventually wearied of Hollingshead's disruptive presence, and sent him to London to proselytize the acid revolution on his home turf.  Like Johnny Appleseed-cum-John the Baptist, Hollingshead set sail with another gram of LSD and thirteen boxes of psychedelic literature, quickly establishing a apartment, 21 Pont Street, Belgravia as "The World Psychedelic Center."

 The location of Hollingshead's Psychedelic Center (picture from The Great Wen blog.)

All serious misgivings about Hollingshead aside, the World Psychedelic Center sounds like a hell of a scene while it was was going; basically the ultimate chill-out zone with quasi-religious overtones.  The place was decked out with cushions and candles everywhere, a projector that showed slides of mandalas and Hindu deities and Bodhisattvas, a sound-system that played Ravi Shankar and John Cage space music and wild Moroccan pipes (and the ubiquitous Bardo or two, of course)....the ceremonies usually began at midnight, when grapes laced with 300 micrograms of acid were passed around.   I don't know who actually cleaned the place up, but I could definitely imagine curling up of an evening in 21 Pont Street.  Unsurprisingly, with acid in London in relatively short supply during this period, the World Psychedelic Center became a mecca for serious scenesters and a nexus point of hip London royalty and avant-garde notoriety.  During its short lifespan, Roman Polanski, Paul McCarthy, Eric Clapton, the Stones, Donovan, Burroughs, Alex Trocchi, and many others passed through, sampling the grapes and opening fourth, fifth and sixth eyes.....what a scene.  Fuck Clapton, though.

Needless to say, a visionary, Eleusinian speakeasy like this couldn't stay in business for the long haul.  For one thing, the host was gradually turning into a scarily drug-fried zombie of the highest order: "Hollingshead himself was increasing his drug intake to incredible levels, soaking his nervous system in hashish, methedrine, acid.  He never slept, and shocked himself out of a zombie-like walking coma with injections of dimethyltriptamene, a fast-acting psychedelic." (Lachman, Turn Off Your Mind.)  Yikes.  Eventually busted for possession of an ounce of hash, Hollingshead elected to defend himself, while dosed on acid.  The story just keeps on giving.  Sent down for 21 months to Wormwood Scrubs, Hollingshead receives a batch of acid from visitors Richard Alpert and Owsley Stanley, and decides to turn on his cellmate.....who turns out to the English double-agent and KGB-aiding traitor George Blake......who naturally enough freaks out, thinking Hollingshead is a spy.  Blake eventually escaped from Wormwood Scrubs with the aid of two anti-nuclear protestors, and fled for the USSR; Hollingshead's next port of call was the Scottish island of Cumbrae were he hung out with an acid cult for a while (assumedly no virginal constables were sent from the mainland to harsh up the scene)  before embarking on some globe-trotting.  Anyway, that's all I know of Hollingshead's story; let's bring it back to the gruesome head-trip we started at.

                                           Bart Huges Breaking Open the Head in 1965.

Just about every adult in the world must have an acute sense at some time or another of how much fresher, richer, and more expansive were their consciousness and perceptions when they were children, how much slower time seemed to move, and how more novel and interesting everything appeared.  In fact, we devote a great deal of time and energy to trying to restore this prelapsarian vivacity of consciousness,  this condition which Huxley in The Doors of Perception called "the perceptual innocence of childhood, when the sensum was not immediately and automatically subordinated to the concept", whether it be via drugs or sex or absorption in the heightened emotional landscapes of movies and music, or anything that might puncture the comfortable numbness of adult perception.  But all these restorations are only temporary; you can't stay high forever.  During the early sixties, a Dutch librarian turned medical revolutionary named Bart Huges thought he had found the answer to this perennial  problem - and it wasn't pretty.  Trepanation is the practice of drilling a hole in the skull, normally as a surgical procedure designed to alleviate some mental or inter-cranial illness.  It is in fact one of the oldest surgical procedures for which we have archeological evidence, and it was practiced all over the world.  Huges, however, came to believe that trepanation could restore the lost vivacity and intensity of childhood perception - could in effect "cure" the debilitating illness of adulthood - by increasing the flow of blood in the brain.  He was so convinced of his thesis that he performed the operation on himself, eventually unveiling the results to a crowd of hip cats at an art happening in Amsterdam in January of 1965.  According to John Michell in Eccentric Lives and Peculiar Notions "Babies are born with skulls unsealed, and it is not until one is an adult that the bony carapace is formed which completely encloses the membranes surrounding the brain and inhibits their pulsations in repsonse to heart-beats. In consequence, the adult loses touch with the dreams, imagination and intense perceptions of the child. His mental balance becomes upset by egoism and neuroses. To cure these problems, first in himself and then for the whole world, Dr Huges returned his cranium to something like the condition of infancy by cutting out a small disc of bone with an electric drill. Experiencing immediate beneficial effects from this operation, he began preaching to anyone who would listen to the doctrine of trepanation. By liberating his brain from its total imprisonment in his skull, he claimed to have restored its pulsations, increased the volume of blood in it and acquired a more complete, satisfying state of consciousness than grown-up people normally enjoy".

Huges, then, believed himself to be a self-mutanted child of the New Aeon; as he wrote in his manifesto Homo Sapiens Correctus, "Gravity is the enemy - the adult is its victim - society is its disease...I think that no construction of adults can work optimally unless each adult in the construction has been trepanned."  Needless to say, trepanning didn't quite take off with the same intensity as Leary's proselytizing on LSD's behalf - indeed the first response of the Dutch authorities to Homo Sapiens Correctus was to place Huges in a mental hospital.  But Huges did find a disciple in the form of Joey Mellen, who would become one of Hollingshead's main partners in the World Psychedelic Center.  Mellen first met Huges in Ibiza, and became so impressed by the trepanning philosophy that he eventually secured the fiances to bring Huges to London and set him up in a Chelsea flat.  (Where did these cats get all the bread for setting people up in flats from?)  Polanski and Clapton weren't lining up like they had been for Hollingshead's grapes, and a Sunday newspaper rather uncharitably suggested THIS DANGEROUS IDIOT SHOULD BE THROWN OUT.  Nevertheless, Mellen eventually followed in the footsteps of his master.  Unable to persuade any medical professional to perform the operation, he was forced to do it himself.  After a couple of grisly botched attempts - undertaken while under the influence of LSD....YIKES - Mellen finally performed the operation successfully.  (His partner Amanda Feilding followed him in 1970 in the circumstances described above.)  Joey Mellen documented his experiences in a kind of Doors of Perception for the drill-bit set called Bore Hole; its first line is up there with Call me Ismael:  "This is the story of how I came to drill a hole in my skull to get permanently high."

. “Gravity is the enemy. The adult is its victim – society is its disease…I think that no construction of adults can work optimally unless each adult in the construction is trepanned. - See more at:
Well, that's tonight's episode.  Are Joey Mellen and Amanda Feilding courageous mutants, harbingers of a new, free-floating and permanently childlike consciousness?  Or just suggestible people who followed the yearnings of a strange time for transcendence from the tedium of the adult world to a gruesome and insane extreme?  Whatever the answer, don't try any of this at home - except maybe mayo.

Secret London: LSD Experiments at the World Psychedelic Center.

The People with Holes in their Heads by John Michell.

Mad Scientist 6: Bart Huges.

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