WALK ON GILDED SPLINTERS: IN MEMORANDUM TO MEMORY 13 APRIL 1969. ALEX TROCCHI’S STATE OF REVOLT AT THE ARTS LAB IN LONDON
The mid-sixties poetry extravaganza that posthumously became known as “Wholly Communion” after the film Peter Whitehead made about it is often viewed as acting as midwife to the emergent hippie culture in London. To some “Wholly Communion” was the last and greatest hurrah of the London beatnik scene, its fabulous death rattle, while for others it was the birth cry of psychedelia. Regardless of which view you take, for most of the seven thousand punters who trooped into the Albert Hall on 11 June 1965, “Wholly Communion” was a spectacular success. That said, the individual poetry readings were less inspiring than their ability to attract a huge crowd, since even the appearance of beat stalwart Allen Ginsberg was viewed as disappointing. More spectacularly, the British visionary poet and acidhead Harry Fainlight was singularly unable to complete a recital of his own work. Likewise, depending on which historical commentator is taken at their word, the British beat novelist and ungentlemanly junkie Alex Trocchi either succeeded admirably or failed miserably in his role as MC. Regardless, “Wholly Communion” is now a mythical event in the annals of the British counterculture, the first mass gathering of the tribes, and no recent history of London in the swinging sixties appears complete without its reverential invocation.
By way of contrast, the zombification of the British counterculture at the end of the sixties has for too long remained a taboo subject. Fittingly enough it was the “Wholly Communion” MC who acted as chief somnambulist at the London Arts Lab slumber party of Sunday 13 April 1969 that exposed the ‘Age of Aquarius’ as a complete non-starter. This, the apotheosis of post-hippie burn out, was promoted to an indifferent public as “Alex Trocchi’s State Of Revolt”. The evening featured among others Trocchi, William Burroughs, R. D. Laing and Davy Graham. What went down during the “State Of Revolt” wasn’t as immediately horrific as the murder of Meredith Hunter at the Rolling Stones’ Altamont concert, or as self-consciously staged as the “Death Of Hippie” happening organised by the San Francisco Diggers or the even the Manson murders; and it is precisely this that makes Trocchi’s 1969 Covent Garden debacle such an iconic event. “The State Of Revolt” marks the onset of countercultural rigor mortis and this living death occurred not with a bang but a smacked out whimper. It is also a death with implications that we won’t fully comprehend until the chatter of neo-critical production about the sixties ceases to mask the violent silence that lies at the core of that decade, and which will yet prove to be its most enduring legacy.
While smackheads failed to constitute a majority among those present at “The State Of Revolt”, both punters and participants shuffled through the Arts Lab looking like re-animated corpses intent on eating living human brains. And I say that knowing my mother who was present had been a vegetarian, as well as a junkie, since the mid-sixties. Footage of this Arts Lab death ritual makes up a good portion of the documentary “Cain’s Film” (1969) by director Jamie Wadhawan; and my mother Julia Callan-Thompson is visible in four separate audience shots. My mother was actually on the hippie trail in India from the beginning of 1968 until the summer of 1969, but she made at least one lightning trip back to Europe during her sojourn to the East. Both she and a number of her boyfriends were heavily involved in Trocchi’s drug dealing, and this probably accounts for her presence in the audience at “The State Of Revolt”. Although opium was readily available in India, heroin was harder to come by and so this more powerful sedative was highly prized by those my mother hung out with in Goa, all of whom returned to Europe strung out. They also had an omnivorous appetite for LSD.
I sent a copy of “Cain’s Film” to native New Yorker Lynne Tillman because after arriving in Europe straight from Hunter College, she’d asked Jim Haynes if she could put on a lecture series at the Arts Lab and he not only agreed but immediately suggested it should feature Trocchi. Tillman, who went on to become America’s greatest living novelist, quickly lost organisational control of the lecture to Trocchi who was determined to transform it into a junkie jamboree. Being new to London, Tillman knew virtually nothing about Trocchi at the time she first contacted him, and was unaware of his reputation as a dope fiend. On 28 February 2004, Lynne emailed the following observations about the DVD she’d received from me: “it’s the weirdest thing to watch – and sad and I can’t find the words – much of it was shot in the basement cinema after I had to move everyone downstairs out of Theatre 1 or 2 by 10pm to let the play go on, whatever it was…” The Tale Of Atlantis Rising was advertised in the underground press as taking place in the theatre spaces, while there was a screening of The Magnificent Ambersons in the cinema prior to it being overrun by Trocchi’s horde of bloodsucking freaks. Tillman concluded this email by saying: “I remember many faces… if I watched it with Jim H(aynes)., he’d remember more names… several of the women are very familiar to me, none was a close friend – seeing Lynn Trocchi and the children was deeply upsetting – and seeing their apt. was so weird and sad and empty – one of the strangest experiences seeing a night and remembering and not….”
Jim Haynes who’d set up and run the Arts Lab responded to my queries with the following email message sent on 25 April 2004: “I wish that I could help you, but my mind is a blank…” Jim’s amnesia is a fitting tribute to the nihilism of those times. 1969 is the year in which many of those involved with the infamous Notting Hill activist group King Mob got seriously into smack. King Mob were best known for the nihilistic political graffiti they sprayed around west London including the slogan ‘Christie Lives’ on the former home of the notorious sex murderer, and for contributing a float to the 1969 Notting Hill Carnival that featured a junkie beauty queen with a giant syringe protruding from her arm. My mother, of course, was on more than merely nodding terms with several King Mob activists, and the connections were through drugs rather than politics. Trocchi’s connection with King Mob had as much to do with politics as smack, since Chris Gray one of the mainstays of the group was a former member of the Situationist International, as well as being a drug scene acquaintance of my mother.
An unidentified underground press article about “The State Of Revolt” is reproduced within Jim Haynes copiously illustrated memoirs “Thanks For Coming!” It didn’t take long to discover the feature entitled “Alex Trocchi Gives A Party” and by-lined to Felix Scorpio, had been culled from issue 55 of “IT” (April 25-May 8 1969). Further enquiries revealed that Felix Scorpio was a pen name used by Felix de Mendelsohn. He is described in David Leigh’s unreliable authorised Howard Marks biography “High Time” as: ‘a Jewish Austrian… hippie entrepreneur’. De Mendelsohn was editing “IT” at the end of the sixties with Peter Stansill, and he went on to involve himself with another London underground publication “Friends”. One of the editors at “Friends” was Charlie Radcliffe, who got to know my mother in the latter part of 1969 when they were both regular visitors to the Notting Hill pad of their fellow dope smuggler Graham Plinston. Radcliffe had previously been a member of the English section of the Situationist International and had fleetingly come into contact with Trocchi as a result of this. De Mendelsohn went on to found the hippie sex paper “Suck” with Jim Haynes. Despite being arrested as a result of a journalistic tour of Belfast with the Republican firebrand and future international dope smuggler Jim McCann, de Mendelsohn had a reputation on the freak scene as a gentle and intellectual dude.
In his “IT” article, de Mendelsohn mentions Ronald Laing (celebrity anti-psychiatrist), William Burroughs (beat novelist and junkie), Ken Kesey (psychedelic novelist and Merry Prankster), Dan Richter (poet and junkie), Feliks Topolski (artist), Davy Graham (guitarist and junkie), Sean Philips (folk guitarist) and a whole camera crew as being present at “The State Of Revolt”. Unfortunately, he’s insufficiently hip to name check my mother as a member of the assembled cognoscenti, quite possibly because her leading role in Ladbroke Grove’s weirdest drugs and magic scene (which co-starred Terry Taylor and Detta Whybrow among others) is the stuff of reforgotten legend.. In an email of 24 March 2004, Lynne Tillman commented: “I don’t remember Ken Kesey’s being there – he was in London at some point… if Kesey had been there, I bet he’d have been filmed by Jamie, the cameraman, don’t you think?” That said, Lynne did clock Phil Green in Wadhawan’s footage despite his almost criminal omission from the IT listing of luminaries. Green is another Trocchi satellite and was also a close friend of my mother.
Rather than setting up a standard lecture with questions afterwards, Trocchi insisted “The State Of Revolt” should be considerably more experimental; de Mendelsohn describes the result as being like a hip version of the then current BBC television talk show “Late Night Line-Up”. In the end what Trocchi did was read a few of his own poems and leave most of the real talking to his friends. The discussion mainly took place upstairs in the theatre space, with Burroughs speaking on the underground media and R. D. Laing banging on about soft drugs. An “IT” feature on squatting also came in for some savage criticism. The event was transformed into a New Orleans-style wake in the downstairs cinema, with wailing folk guitars, deranged dancing and Trocchi’s poems. In an email sent on 26 April 2004, Chris Oakley who was at that time connected to the freak scene and later got involved in anti-psychiatry recalled: ” I was at that Arts Lab thing, the only time that I ever saw Trocchi in the flesh…inevitably the memories are considerably jaded…I was far less impressed by the bands than your man from IT. Nor was I particularly enamoured by Alex Trocchi that evening as I recall him coming across as unhappy, irritable, as if he didn’t really want to be there…Burroughs and Laing made far more of a favourable impression.”
Virtually everyone who encountered Trocchi seems to have a horror story to tell about it and the following example emailed to me by Lynne Tillman on 26 August 2003 is a relatively mild example: “…as to Trocchi: when I met him… he was considered the most evil man in England – people blamed him for bringing heroin in, not Burroughs — one day at his flat, I witnessed a weeping father sitting on his couch, hoping to find his daughter – it was a terrible scene, and one that probably happened often in their big apt on Observatory Gardens – I don’t think Alex felt much – and his ‘fate’ was terrible, if you think about how not feeling landed him into having to feel something, when his wife Lynn died and their very young and beautiful sons – it was all horrible – I wasn’t around him then – as I told you I saw him once later, on the street and don’t remember much – by then he had a bookstore I think, and was drinking – and fat – his indifference to others, his selfishness, was ugly – how he could’ve handled all those sad parents coming to their flat looking for their kids, I don’t know – but you’d have to have something turned off in you, absolutely – and it was he who got Lynn started on drugs, too, and she couldn’t ‘handle’ them as he could – I watched a scene or two between them that was pretty horrific…”
Likewise on 21 January 2004, the California based literary mover and shaker Tosh Berman emailed another relatively mild Trocchi tale: “…my parents knew Alex Trocchi… I am not sure if they met in L.A. or San Francisco. But recently we have been going through my father’s photographs for an upcoming show – and there are images of Trocchi. At this point I should mention that my father is Wallace Berman, and he was an artist. His creative time-period was mid-fifties to ’76. In 1967 the whole family went to London to see Robert Fraser – who by chance was in prison due to the Rolling Stones bust at the time. But one of the highlights of the trip for me was visiting Alex Trocchi at his flat. What I remember was that there was a small baby and just him. He was shooting up junk – and I was shocked/intrigued at the time. I think I was twelve years old. All my young life I was surrounded by drug addicts of all sorts (strangely enough not my parents – but some of their friends were into it), but this was the first time I actually saw someone shoot up drugs. Again my take on it was typical 12 years old – disgusting and kind of neat to see!”
There are legions of stories doing the rounds about Trocchi nodding out, and during The State Of Revolt he was almost doing so in public. He’d come a long way from his native Glasgow. Trocchi relocated to Paris in early fifties where he edited the literary review Merlin and was involved in the early English language publication of several influential writers including Samuel Beckett and Jean Genet. Simultaneously, Trocchi assumed membership of the Lettrist International, a group that mixed a revolutionary praxis with excessive drinking and which later transmogrified into the Situationist International. As well as writing high modernist literature of his own, Trocchi was churning out porn both to make money and as a vehicle for subversion. Trocchi’s best dirty book was a faked fifth volume of “My Life And Loves” by the philanderer and literary middleman Frank Harris. To secure publication for his first serious novel “Young Adam”, Trocchi added some pornographic touches. Trocchi moved to the United States in 1956, which is where he became a fully fledged smackhead with all the accompanying lifestyle trappings including prostituting his American wife Lynn to raise money for skag. Trocchi’s Magnus Opus “Cain’s Book” was published in New York in1961 and shocked conservative reviewers with its audaciously autobiographical descriptions of the drug underworld. Almost simultaneously, Trocchi was charged with supplying drugs to a minor by the American authorities, and with the aid of various people including future rock star Leonard Cohen he fled the US, returning to the UK via Canada. After a brief spell spent in Scotland, Trocchi found himself in London where he became a fixture of the sixties counterculture. As a famous literary drug casualty one of the many ways in which Trocchi demonstrated his disdain for the bourgeois book trade was by copying out his own novels in long hand and then selling these hoax productions as his ‘original’ manuscripts. Likewise, Barry Miles in his autobiography “In The Sixties”, describes Trocchi in a way that creates the impression Alex was a kleptomaniac, illicitly stuffing stock under his shirt more or less whenever he visited a London bookshop.
From the early sixties onwards Trocchi could no longer be bothered to write novels, although he did do translations and compose some impressive occasional pieces such as the manifesto “The Invisible Insurrection Of A Million Minds”. Instead of writing fiction Trocchi would come up with a synopsis of a planned work, take an advance from a gullible publisher who wanted the completed book and then move on to his next mark with a new abstract. Less admirably, Trocchi also took great delight in turning people – and particularly beautiful women – on to heroin, and he used drug dealing as a nice little earner. Towards the end of his life Trocchi appears to have been getting about a thousand pounds a day for the drugs he supplied to his key dealer ‘Grainger’, and there would have been other outlets for his gear. Not a bad turnover for a smack broker in the nineteen-seventies or even the early-eighties. Given that Trocchi managed to avoid being busted in London, it is possible he was bunging the notoriously corrupt but nonetheless remarkably well informed Metropolitan Police drug squad of that era a regular drink. I have no hard evidence to prove this, and the circumstantial case that can be made should not be treated as conclusive. Moving on, Trocchi greatly exaggerated the size of his habit telling whopping fibs to doctors in order to score large quantities of drugs on prescription, most of which he would sell on. When Trocchi was hospitalised this caused him some problems since medical staff directly administered him with far greater quantities of skag than he would normally take. Still, Trocchi survived such ill-advised medical assistance and the risk of an overdose no doubt palled in comparison to the possibility that the size of his drug script might be reduced.
Denis Browne emailed me the following observations about the scene around Trocchi on 18 September 2002: “I knew Alex (AT) from late ’78 up to his death in ’84. From early ’83 I worked with him as a kind of p.a. – the idea was that I’d help him get it together for a triumphant return to writing. I soon realised that this wasn’t going to happen, but at that time I wasn’t going to turn down the chance to hang out doing smack with such a cool guy (also helped run his 2nd hand book biz).
“By the time I met him he’d become a rather de Quincey-ish recluse, mainly due to Lynn & Mark’s deaths I think. Funnily enough I’d been introduced to Alex by a very straight relative who ran a club where he drank. They’d got talking & she insisted he meet her wannabe writer nephew. I’d been into smack & AT’s writing for quite a while, so it seemed a meeting which went beyond coincidence, & still seems strange to this day. I’d been hoping for Alex the mad beat writer, full-on junkie, 60s sigma activist/associate of Michael X etc., but by then experience had made him a much more withdrawn type (tho not affecting his drug of choice). I’d been hoping for all-nite drug sessions laced with exclusive tales of Burroughs & co, but Alex was more into sitting down with a drink & some Roman history… One time he did yield to my pressure & took me to Eric Clapton’s country mansion with him. My main memory of the visit is the Great Bluesman grouching out all afternoon over an Airfix kit he was trying to make (Lancaster bomber, I think)… Once I slagged off Colin Wilson as a typical hack who’d churn out books by the yard – turned out Alex had known him in the 50s & I was firmly & publicly slapped down – Alex told me that CW had lived on a tin of beans, 2 slices of bread & a can of Heineken a day while writing The Outsider as opposed my half-hearted, excuse-ridden attempts to get my writing together (still true!).
“Feliks Topolski used to have a kind of ‘open day’ at his house every Friday. I always wanted to go, but it was the same old story: – a few drinks at the Catherine Wheel, back to Alex’s for a hit en route to Topolski’s & that was that. I never knew Lynn – by the time I met Alex he’d got together with Sally Childs (much younger, didn’t use at all) who’d been living in as a kind of au pair. She always had a fantasy of straightening Alex out & turning him into a Proper Writer whatever that is. She & I never got on – she regarded me as a junkie hanger on….”
Browne’s portrait of Trocchi matches those of most other commentators who actually knew him. Despite this, Trocchi has recently undergone a kind of posthumous drug rehabilitation. The footage of “The State Of Revolt” in “Cain’s Film” shows enough bad craziness to make it glaringly obvious that this is the first and best in an endless series of somnambulistic wakes for full-on long haired freakdom. A few scraps of the Arts Lab slumber party as shot by Wadhawan were recycled in Tim Niel and Allan Campbell’s disappointing 1996 BBC TV documentary about Trocchi entitled “A Life In Pieces”. Here “The State Of Revolt” is made to look like a literary reading rather than the hippie die-in it really was, although Niel and Campbell did have the good taste to leave in one piece of audience footage featuring my mother. Regardless, the casual viewer is given no indication that what they are actually looking at is the onset of countercultural rigor mortis. Leaving aside the brief glimpse it affords of my mother, “A Life In Pieces” is not quite on a par with watching paint dry and considerably less educational. For anyone wanting to take a fresh look at the putrid corpse of the counterculture, “The State Of Revolt” in its dead to the world anti-glory (the fuller length Wadhawan version rather than the Niel and Campbell re-edit) is the place to start. What you see is not so much the death of revolt, as death reified into a means of revolt; a Baudrillardian short-cut to post-modernity where Marx’s critique of commodity fetishism is simultaneously preserved and reversed. This is the destiny of objects, leading to cultural black holes, anti-matter and implosion. It goes without saying that the proto-yuppies who went on to re-animate the corpse of hippie chic in the form of life-style consumer items (health foods, kung fu magazines, ‘alternative’ rock music etc.) self-consciously embraced rather than combated alienation. Objects are transformed into subjects and vice versa, and it’s not done with smoke and mirrors. The inhuman reality of alienated social relations is not so much Wholly Communion as incommunicado. Burroughs was wrong about many things but correct to portray heroin as the penultimate commodity.
Asking around about the fate of student director Jamie Wadhawan, I was unable to find anyone who knew what had happened to him. The consensus of opinion was he must have disappeared into Trocchi’s somnambulistic black hole. Wadhawan made one further documentary short with Trocchi and no one seems to have heard of him since. My mother followed a similar trajectory, eventually shacking up with Trocchi’s key dealer Grainger in the late-seventies and soon afterwards being found dead in their shared Notting Hill bedsit. She was thirty-five and the authorities didn’t consider it suspicious that she was found naked on her bed with the street door to her basement flat open. Inevitably the man who handled the inquiries was Paul Knapman, who subsequently became the centre of public disquiet about the coronary system due to his handling of the Marchioness disaster. Incidentally, while both my mother and the anonymous Go Go dancer featured in Wadhawan’s “State Of Revolt” footage also seem to be visible in Peter Whitehead’s “Wholly Communion” documentary, they haven’t to date featured in any account of the sixties that I’ve read. Similarly, memories of Trocchi’s Observatory Gardens pad have been exorcised from the South Kensington psyche, with the building he lived in being renumbered in an attempt to fox those searching out the melancholy ghosts of his smacked out bad craziness. About all that now needs to be said is that I remain almost literally Alex Trocchi’s illegitimate son; and, since the counterculture is dead, we are post-modern zombies…
This piece was first published in “London: City of Disappearances” edited by Iain Sinclair (Hamish Hamilton, London 2006) and was also published on Stewart Home’s website, The Stewart Home Society.
Information on Trocchi associate Julia Callan-Thompson
The Real Dharma Bums (on the beatnik frenzies of Julia Callan-Thompson & Bruno de Galzain)
On Trocchi associate Barry ‘The Daddy of all Junkies’ Ellis
John Latham and drug culture at St Martin’s College of Art
Above two photographs of Alex Trocchi’s friend and drug dealing associate Julia Callan-Thompson; she was present at The Arts Lab “State Of Revolt” event and her son Stewart Home is the author of the texts on this page.
Top: fashion shot taken in Notting Hill studio, London 1966. Photographer Carla Hopkins.
Bottom: Julia Callan-Thompson working as a hostess at Churchill’s Club, London 1964. Photographer unknown.