"This is the story of how I came to drill a hole in my head to get permanently high."
As far as opening lines to memoirs go, they don't come much more compelling than the first sentence in Joe Mellen's 1970 book, Bore Hole. It tells the story of how he dropped out of the square life in 1963 to become a beatnik, how he took acid in Spain during the psychedelic 60s, before looking for a more profound way to permanently alter his consciousness: auto-trepanation, the act of drilling a hole into your skull.
While this on its own was enough to guarantee Bore Hole cult status, Mellen – who has a fantastically readable and easy style – also managed to capture something of the spirit of the true countercultural 1960s in his writing. This would go some way to explaining why the 500 copies of the book that he originally self-published have long since become sought after artefacts from a vanished age. The book has been given a luxurious reissue by Strange Attractor, and has been doubled in length, bringing Joe's story up to date and making the case for trepanation in the 21st Century, not to mention his persuasive attempt to answer a very fundamental question about human nature: why do we love getting high so much?
Joe Mellen is an incredibly well preserved 76-year-old, and – just in case you were wondering – seems much sharper and more intelligent than the majority of people I meet on a daily basis, regardless of their age or their proclivity for taking LSD. I'm not particularly looking for it, but I do notice a large, finger-tip sized indentation on the top of his head after we've been speaking for about an hour. He later reveals that this is the site of an earlier, only partially successful attempt to trepan with a hand tool. The location of his successful trepanation, carried out with an electric drill in 1970, just a few weeks before he wrote his book, is actually at the top of his forehead in a "third eye", brow chakra position. It is, however, completely unnoticeable and he has to press it with a finger for me to see where it is.
The difference between an autobiography and a memoir is that the former is the story of someone's life, whereas the latter just deals with one specific aspect of their history. What memoirs tend to do, in the broadest sense, is to describe a journey. And Joe's journey didn't begin with his first spliff or tab of acid, but with him throwing off the square life that his establishment parents had planned out for him. He has a clear, RP accent, which isn't surprising given both his upbringing and education (he went to both Eton and Oxford). He had a glittering future in his father's firm of stockbrokers all lined up. In fact, he was just a few weeks away from his final post-graduate accountancy exams when he decided to jack it all in. (No doubt helped by the fact that he had just read Aldous Huxley for the first time and In Search of the Miraculous by PD Ouspensky.)
But as soon as he dropped out and started smoking weed, the rest of the pieces started falling quickly into place.
VICE: Were you part of the beatnik generation?
Joe Mellen: Yes, that's what it was pre-acid. But then, during the mid-60s, one began to hear about acid. In 64 I was staying in Torremolinos in Spain. There was a small clique of dope smokers there who listened to jazz. I met this guy Allan Cisco who had been turned on to mescaline by Timothy Leary in Acapulco. He told me about tripping on the beach and wrestling with an octopus in the waves. He had two trips left – and they were big trips, 850mg each. I took one and had this incredible trip. I thought it was amazing; heaven on Earth.
Can you tell me about meeting Bart Huges, the Dutchman who introduced you to both LSD and the concept of trepanation?
I was in Ibiza in 65 and everyone on the scene was talking about acid, but only a few had taken it. I overheard two guys talking about "the future for acid". It turned out that one of them was Bart. I'd heard about this guy who had drilled a hole in his own head, and I thought, 'Well, he must be a nutcase!' It turned out he was just on his way back to Amsterdam, where he had made some acid. He and his friend started off synthesising mescaline and then moved on to LSD… and it was really good acid.
He asked if I wanted to try some, and when I went over to his apartment he had a big brown paper bag with sugar lumps, and another containing lemons. He told me that I should dip the sugar cube in lemon juice and take them together. The trip was really wonderful.
Was it the full works? Time distortion, hallucinations…
Well, this is the beauty of it. If you don't take the sugar you'll certainly get hallucinations, and you can let it go as far as you want and then take the sugar and bring it back. The funny thing was, I thought I was hallucinating when I got back to my apartment. It looked like the pipes had sprung a leak and like my bedroom was flooded, but I thought I was tripping. Of course, when I woke up the next day, the bedroom was knee deep in water and it was real, so I hadn't been hallucinating at all.
The next day I went back round to see Bart and he gave me a type written page which was an open letter to a professor of psychiatry in Amsterdam. This scientist had asked Bart to be his assistant before he started taking acid and talking about it in public. In the open letter he described the mechanism that he had discovered. Basically it said acid was a vasoconstrictor; the scientist had been carrying out experiments into how acid could be used to slow down bleeding during childbirth, as well as a treatment for respiratory complaints and problems with blood circulation, but he hadn't made any connection to the idea of LSD and expanded consciousness. But this scientist wasn't a genius. He was a good chemist. Bart was a genius. He had a very good memory for everything he had ever learned.
Where does taking sugar lumps come into this?
Consciousness is a product of brain metabolism, which is the oxidation of glucose. Glucose is the only source of energy for the brain. That is the only way the brain works: by burning glucose. So as the oxidation of glucose increases, more and more cells reach that level of consciousness. So suddenly your consciousness is expanded.
In my little book, Bore Hole, there is a big idea, and the big idea is that humans have a problem. The problem is the sealing of the skull, which happens when we are fully grown [between 18 and 21]. Before that, the skull is in separate plates and there is some give. Think of the brain as a pudding: it can expand and pulsate, but once the skull has completely sealed round it, it can no longer do that. The pulsation is suppressed and the blood passes through without pulsating. And this is why all of us want to get high. We want to get back to that youthful state of being where we have more spontaneity and more creativity and more life. This is what we miss. It's paradise lost.
This brings me onto trepanation. So there is a historical and a pre-historical precedent for drilling a hole in your head, isn't there?
Yes. It's the oldest operation in the world and it has been done on every continent. They found trepanned skulls in Inca tombs in Peru: 14 skulls all in a row with trepanation holes. This was probably part of the initiation into a priest caste. I suppose the most obvious reason for doing it was to help people who suffered from head wounds. In battle a warrior could get an axe wound to the head, which in turn could lead to splinters of bone pressing down onto the brain. So you would want to remove the piece of bone. But today trepanation is still used in Kenya. The Gusii and Kuria tribes do it with very primitive instruments. It's a very simple procedure. In surgery it would be carried out by the nurse, not the surgeon.
I'm not a particularly squeamish person, but I did find parts of the book difficult to read. Do you understand the revulsion or discomfort the subject can cause in some people?
Yeah, of course I do. It's very understandable. When I first heard about it I thought, 'This is ridiculous!' And the idea that someone would do it to themselves was absurd. But you get used to ideas eventually, don't you?
Tell me about your first attempt.
I was living back in London and it was 1967. At that time I was broke and I certainly couldn't afford an electric drill, so I bought a hand trepan from a surgical instrument shop. It's a bit like a corkscrew, really, but with a ring of teeth at the bottom. It has a point in the middle, which makes an impression on the skull, and then you turn it until the teeth cut into the skull. It's slightly narrower at the bottom than it is at the top so it pulls the circular piece of skull out once you're through with it when you pull it out. It was difficult. It was like trying to uncork a bottle of wine from the inside. The trepan was blunt and I couldn't get any purchase on my own skull. I was tripping on acid. I thought that it was the only way I could get through doing it, but it didn't work…
I have to say, those bits in the book are hard to read… and the fact that you had two more attempts. Trepanning; it's not for everyone, is it?
Well, I think it should be for everyone. The simplest thing is this: the human being needs more blood in its brain. And this isn't a great high; it's just restoring you to that youthful level of vitality. This vitality that you lose when you hit adulthood. But it could just be done with an injection at birth. You could inject the cells round the fontanelle so it never seals. It would be very simple.
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When did you try for the second time?
Maybe a year later, and I used the same method with the hand trepan. I did remove some skull, but I was unsure as to whether it had gone all the way through or not, as it had gone in at an angle. At first I thought I'd gone through as there was kind of a schlurping sound as I took the trepan out and what sounded like bubbles. I think I went through a tiny bit, but I don't think it was enough.
Can you tell me about your third, successful attempt to trepan?
Yes. This was in 1970. I injected a local anaesthetic into the skin, muscle and membrane above the skull. I ended up with what looked like a pigeon's egg, quite a little lump. I cut through that with a scalpel. The local anesthetic has a lot of adrenaline in it, which is a vasoconstrictor, so minimises the bleeding. I wasn't high this time. With the hand trepan it took a lot of muscle, but the final time I was using an electric drill with a 6mm bit and that was a lot more straightforward. Unfortunately, the drill cable broke, so I had to stop, wrap a towel round my head and take the drill to Mr Lea, a man who had a flat in the basement of my building. He was brilliant, he could fix anything. He didn't ask me what I was doing. So he repaired the drill and then I got back on with it. It's really obvious when you get all the way through the skull. Quite a lot of blood comes out and the drill bit goes in by an inch. I bandaged it all up. It took two or three days for the skin to heal over the hole. I didn't need any analgesia and there were no complications; I was very, very careful to sterilise everything. The main danger is infection. I didn't even get a headache. It took half an hour all in all, including clearing up afterwards.
I was feeling great because I'd done it, but then I noticed after about an hour I started to feel a lightness, like a weight had been lifted off me. And then it grew a bit more and a bit more and it ended up being more than I expected. I did it in the evening and went to bed at 23:00 feeling good, and I could still feel it when I woke up the next morning. And then I realised, 'This is it. It's done.'
I've got a mate who wants to get it done – what should he do?
I wish I knew. I heard there's a guy doing it in Mexico for $2,000 [€1,800] and you can get it done in Ecuador and Egypt. There are doctors who will take your money. But we're talking a lot of money here. Bart always thought there should be an automat, a little booth where you go and put your penny in the slot, and zzzzzzzzt!
If people are going to do it themselves, what do you advise?
I don't advise people to do it themselves. I really don't. I had lessons from Bart and I'm not going to tell other people to do it to themselves. Really, there needs to be some sort of legal and social change in this country for it to happen. I just wish that someone would do some research into drugs that get you high and their properties as vasoconstrictors.
What are the benefits of getting high?
The ego is a mechanism for directing the blood in the brain where it's needed. It constricts the arteries in some parts to increase the blood flow to other parts. But the part of the brain that dominates everything is the speech system. We depend on the speech system for survival and it dominates brain activity. It does this by monopolising the supply of blood. The speech centres – which deal with talking, writing, reading and listening – were the last to develop in our evolution, and they're in the cerebral cortex, far away from the heart. To ensure constant blood supply to the speech centres, the ego represses function in other parts of the brain.
People get obsessed with the word chains they use for their identity, and it may be that these word chains identify people as a Christian, a Muslim or a Jew, or whatever. So your particular word chains become very important to you, obviously. And you can resist or even attack other people who have different ideas, whereas there is actually enough room for everyone to have plenty of ideas. This is the beauty of getting high. When you get high you transcend the ego, you get above the ego. When you are high you can see people operating on this level and you can see where you have been operating on this level also. You are given an objective view, as opposed to a subjective view. And that is the great beauty and great value of getting high. I think everyone should get high and I think that Vladimir Putin should drop acid.
Joe Mellen's Bore Hole is out now on Strange Attractor.
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