I’ve just finished reading Divine Rascal by Andy Roberts. It’s the story of Michael Hollingshead, the English guy who first gave Timothy Leary acid, and by that means, it could be said, became “The Man Who Turned On The World.”
I put that last phrase in inverted commas because it’s the title of his autobiography, which is available to read online here. It’s not a very good book, badly written and full of cod philosophy about the benefits of LSD. Roberts says that Hollingshead wanted to be seen as a guru like Leary, but didn’t have Leary’s charisma. “He believed he was ‘spiritual’—I think he was lost in the glamour that acid often bestows and believed his own hype.”
The measure of the man is revealed early in the book. He had an upper class English accent which he’d deploy effectively when he wanted to turn on the old-fashioned English charm, but, in fact, he was from a poor, working-class northern background. He grew up in Darlington in County Durham, in the northeast of England, and would’ve had a Geordie accent as a child (think Sting, or Eric Burdon from the Animals). Somewhere between leaving his home town, in the early-1950s, and arriving in America in 1959 he’d jettisoned his past and turned into someone else.
This is emphasized by the fact that he wasn’t born Michael Hollingshead, but Michael Shrinkfield, although the name change came later, not in 1959 but in 1961. Why he wanted to change his identity isn’t clear, but it goes along with all the rest of the information we have about him, which Roberts has assembled into this biography.
It’s precisely the paucity of facts that makes this book what it is: not so much a biography as a detective story, painstakingly piecing the evidence together to create a portrait. It’s bit like one of those identikit pictures that the police use, where a series of stock images are put together into a semblance of a face. The information is often contradictory and exaggerated. Hollingshead himself was a consummate liar and his autobiography is a farrago of self-mythologizing fantasies dressed up to make him look more important. In the end we’re left with the image of a man whose only real importance lies in the fact that he happened to be there, in the right place at the right time, with a mayonnaise jar full of acid mixed with sugar paste, out of which he fed Leary for the first time, kicking off the psychedelic revolution.
He died in 1984 in Bolivia, caused by the hemorrhaging of a burst duodenal ulcer, probably brought on by excess alcohol. His occupation on his death certificate was given as “Professor”: one last lie to round off a lifetime of lies. His whole life was one of misrepresentation, misdirection and misappropriation of other people’s money, status and work. Many people described him as a con man, and he had some despicable habits, not least his tendency to use acid to get women to sleep with him: tantamount to rape in Roberts’ eyes.
I was puzzled by this. Roberts is one of Britain foremost chroniclers of psychedelic culture. It’s obviously something he wants to promote, and yet he has chosen this mountebank as the subject of his first biography. What made him want to write the book, I asked?
He’d come across Hollingshead in his teens when reading the histories of psychedelia, he told me. He’d been intrigued. Later, when doing research for his definitive exploration of psychedelia in the UK, Albion Dreaming, he came across more material that suggested Hollingshead had his fingers in many pies and wasn't quite what he seemed. He started to collect information.
Then, in about 2012, I located his daughter and she suggested I write the book with her full permission and involvement so I was off, thinking naively I’d have it wrapped up in a couple of years. But you know how it is with research and I had so much material coming in and many leads, hence why it took until 2019 for it to come out. Basically I thought he was a very interesting character who was the antithesis of what I thought acid was about, i.e. he was more interested in control, using it to gain ‘power’, influence and money and, unforgivably, using it as a way to fuck women who wouldn’t have looked at him twice if they weren’t wasted!
And yet, despite all this, despite the abuse of the psychedelic state to gain control over other people for various nefarious ends, Roberts clearly has a certain sympathy with his subject. I asked him about this.
I have sympathy for him but also quite a lot of dislike, not least because I spent so long in his mind as it were that I could feel his thinking creeping into my own! My sympathy is because, well, he tried didn’t he? And he was clearly battling serious demons but chose to self-medicate rather than seeking professional help (which he wouldn’t have gone for I don’t suppose, as he would have thought he was cleverer than any psychologist/psychiatrist/therapy).
“When he was good, he was very, very good, the life and soul of the party,” Roberts adds: “able to out think most people, an excellent acid guide.” And he summarizes him with these words:
A deeply flawed hero who touched many lives but often for the bad—his track record with women is atrocious, one ended up in a mental hospital as the result of his mind games and infidelities and addictions. And of course he turned Leary on, and had that not happened there may never have been a psychedelic culture in the first place. I have very mixed feelings about him and really wish he’d been alive when I was writing the book. He would have loved the publicity!
The title of the book is from Leary’s description, who added that Hollingshead was “a raffish sad clown of a god, but unmistakeably divine.” Other people noted a tricksterish quality in his behavior. Ralph Metzner described him as amoral, while Richard Alpert (later Ram Dass) thought he was a sociopath.
Later Hollingshead became a seminal figure in the British acid scene, creating various communes/psychedelic centers, none of which fulfilled their promise. Everything he embarked on was touched by his essential narcissism. He imagined himself as a writer, but never produced anything of value. Even his autobiography was written by someone else, and then ripped off, Hollingshead having promised his co-writer, Kristof Jastrzebski—a hippie poet he’d met in an ashram in Kathmandu in the late-1960s—50 percent of the royalties, and then reneging on the deal once the book was published.
This was my era: at least the later part of it was. I was a young hippie in the early-1970s and identified strongly with the psychedelic movement, though I was never very comfortable with acid. Reading about Hollingshead’s shambolic exploits reminded me of some of the things I’d got up to in my youth. I was there, sort of, in a dreamily befuddled adolescent way.
No words can convey the strangeness and profundity of the psychedelic experience, but Roberts gives it a good shot. Despite Hollingshead’s deviancy, it’s this that makes the book so compelling. We’re led down many extraordinary paths, passed exotic gardens of unfamiliar thought, to an era in which a whole generation felt that anything was possible.
I asked Roberts what lessons he’d learned from delving so deeply into the life of this half-forgotten figure of the psychedelic movement. His conclusion:
What I got from his life is don’t let the glamour of the psychedelic experience drive your life, always be good to people when they’re high, don’t take yourself too seriously and remember, it’s a drug and the effects will wear off eventually.