When the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, Luboš Kohoutek was working at the Hamburg-Bergedorf Observatory in West Germany. Watching events unfold at home, the young astronomer made the difficult decision to remain in the west, even though his visa was due to expire. It was only after the discovery of the comet named for him that the legality of his presence in the country was finally settled. In March 1973, Kohoutek realized that a faint fuzzy spot that appeared on a number of photographs taken in the direction of the constellation Hydra was an unknown comet. Soon it became obvious that the object was headed in the direction of our solar system and would be visible to the naked eye in a matter of months. Given its suspected properties, the scientific community predicted that it would put on a spectacular display, likely surpassing any celestial event in living memory. What scientists did not predict, however, was that the comet would turn out to be more important as a cultural phenomenon than a scientific one. The seeds of Kohoutek mania had been sown.
In the spring of 1970, a book called Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain appeared in American bookstores. Authors Sheila Ostrander and Lynn Schroeder recounted their findings from a trip in which they uncovered the “astounding facts behind psychic research in official laboratories from Prague to Moscow.” Much of the book dealt with the situation in Czechoslovakia, which at that time was a hotbed of new ideas and active research in parapsychology. While in Prague, the pair met researcher Zdenek Rejdak, perhaps best remembered today for coining the term “psychotronics.” They also met Karel Drbal, who had combined French dowser Antoine Bovis’ idea that food stored beneath pyramidal structures would not rot, with an earlier belief that razor blades could be kept sharp if aligned correctly with the Earth’s magnetic field. He patented the concept, and for a while marketed small, cardboard pyramids in which to store razor blades. Drbal’s story intrigued Ostrander and Schroeder enough that they dedicated an entire chapter to it, titled “Pyramid Power and the Riddle of the Razor Blades.”
Max Toth picked up a copy of Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain, and was fascinated by what he read. The book inspired him to begin making plans of his own to travel to Czechoslovakia, using it as something of a guide. While there he befriended Karel Drbal, who gifted him the rights to manufacture and sell his cardboard pyramids in the US. This eventually led to Toth’s own 1974 book, Pyramid Power. He also met Zdenek Rejdak, who pitched him the idea of a “psychotronic conference” to be held in Prague. Toth was offered the role of co-chair, responsible for locating and inviting researchers from the Americas, with Rejdak taking the same role for Europe. Back in the States, Toth began a letter-writing campaign to gauge interest in the conference. Positive responses were forwarded to Prague. Once all the speakers were identified and the conference had taken definite shape, Rejdak wrote to Toth telling him his participation was no longer necessary. Toth interpreted this to mean that Rejdak wanted both the revenue and the notoriety generated by the conference for himself.
The First International Congress of Parapsychology and Psychotronics was held in Prague in June 1973. Czechoslovakia was not a place most westerners traveled to in those days, so, when American physician Paul Ruegsegger was invited to present a paper on his work in “thermograpy,” he decided to bring his family along to share in the exotic adventure. His son Ted later remembered the event as being “like any high-class technical conference—elegant facilities, good food, plenary sessions, multiple tracks for presented papers, and even simultaneous translation for most of the languages spoken.” He observed that “[t]he delegates made, and received, claims of extrasensory perception, telepathy, telekinesis, out-of-body experiences, dowsing, levitation, and stuff I never heard of with the same tone and manner one might use to describe uncontroversial findings in biology or physics.” He added, “To be fair, there were a few honest research papers that presented interesting observations without wild claims; for them, sadly, the audience was reserved in its acclaim.”
Among the other westerners presenting at the conference were experimental psychologist William G. Braud and proponent of alternative healing Herbert L. Beierle. Given that the event was held behind the Iron Curtain during the height of the Cold War, it is striking that some of the speakers had alleged, and not-so-secret, connections to western intelligence agencies. Most prominent among these was Ingo Swann, who was at the time associated with the CIA-funded Stanford Research Institute and later with the legendary Stargate Project. This category also included attendees Stanley Krippner and Carl Schleicher, of the now mostly forgotten Washington-area think tank Mankind Research Unlimited.
According to an informational brochure released by the organization, Mankind Research Unlimited was founded in 1966, “to collect, study, develop and apply extensive and proliferating data on what may be called ‘the frontiers of science.’” The ultimate goal was to “stimulate research and technology applications in areas beneficial to mankind.” According to the brochure, MRU was interested in, among other things, biophysics, bionic studies, biocybernetics, biofeedback, telepathy, biologically generated fields, metapsychiatry and the ultraconscious mind, human subjective states, bioluminescence, radiesthesia, dowsing, and ESP. It went on to explain that many of its areas of interest were those traditionally seen as unorthodox by established scientists. This in turn had created a sort of scientific blind spot, “to the point where, in certain critical areas, the United States is falling behind existing technological state of the art in other countries of the world, notably those in Eastern and Western Europe.” In other words, MRU seemed to see itself at the forefront of a sort of psychotronic space race.
Of course, MRU’s public relations material did not specifically mention any connection to the intelligence community. Scanning through the biographical summaries of its researchers, however, it’s not difficult to read between the lines. While most seem to have had straightforward academic medical, scientific, and technical backgrounds, a number of individuals were described as having held military and government jobs that would certainly at the very least have required a security clearance. Perhaps the closest MRU came to divulging its true place in the web of clandestine organizations is the brochure’s disclosure that one of its principal researchers, Christopher Bird, had been the Washington representative for the Rand Corporation.
The June 1980 issue of Covert Action Information Bulletin, a publication dedicated to exposing secret nefarious governmental activity, carried a lengthy exposé on Mankind Research Unlimited, written by A. J. Weberman. The narrative is partly gleaned from the author’s unnamed “young friend” who allegedly knew MRU researcher Stanley Krippner. The friend had “succeeded in spending some time alone” in the MRU offices, where he “made off with a number of documents.” The article details the military and intelligence backgrounds of Carl Schleicher, Klippner, and Bird, among others, before reaching its intended conclusion: “For an organization devoted to peaceful activities, MRU is rather short of pacifists; its staff includes a group of Dr. Strangeloves with multiple ties to the armaments, aerospace, military, and intelligence establishment. . . . ’Peaceful applications’ of their research are the last things on their minds.” I will leave it to the interested reader to explore further and decide the extent of MRU’s involvement with the clandestine services, and whether this was simply a case of the US government throwing research funds at areas they knew the Soviet Bloc was also exploring, or something much more sinister.
Working in MRU’s offices in 1973 was a young typist named David Savage. At some point, either before or after Carl Schleicher and Stanley Klippner’s trip to Prague, he had heard talk around the office about the First International Congress of Parapsychology and Psychotronics and the bizarre and wondrous things being discussed there. These were, of course, the same sorts of bizarre and wondrous things being explored by MRU. This inspired him to write a song about the event, called “Parapsychology Congress Stomp and Romp.” Somehow Schleicher heard about the tune and decided that it was the perfect vehicle to raise funds for MRU.
A recording session was booked at John Burr’s JRB Sound Studios in Bethesda, Maryland. Savage went to the studio to audition in preparation for recording, but Burr wasn’t happy with Savage’s voice and instead hired local musician Holly Garber to do vocals. He also hired a drummer, and Burr himself played ARP synthesizer on the session.
“Parapsychology Congress Stomp and Romp” had a bouncy, singalong feel a bit reminiscent of the New Vaudeville Band, inhabiting a space somewhere between novelty, pastiche, and bubblegum. Its meter made effective use of the multisyllabic vocabulary of parapsychology: “Make a telepathic connection, in a bioenergetic direction, make a teleconnectic course correction of the future of humanity.” Ultimately, it could be read as a parody of the many dance crazes of the previous decade, enjoining listeners to “do the parapsychologic, esoteric, psychotronic, Czechoslovakian Congress stomp and romp.” Another line repeated in the song, “ride high on the comet,” places the song firmly within the mindset of 1973.
The announcement of the comet Kohoutek’s coming appearance earlier in the year had created quite a stir. Cultic millenarians, extremist Christian fundamentalists, amateur astrologers, strip mall psychics, credulous ufologists, and many adherents of various New Age philosophies all interpreted the comet’s arrival in different ways. The one thing they had in common was a belief that this astral traveler carried great meaning. For some it was a warning that great calamities were about to befall the planet. For others, it was a beacon announcing that the Age of Aquarius had finally arrived. For those who interpreted the comet in a positive light, terms like “cosmic consciousness” were commonly used when discussing its meaning.
The second song recorded at the session was aimed at taking full advantage of this growing comet mania. Savage’s “Kohoutek” was an almost bombastic counterpoint to the playfulness of the flip side. If the comet were a New Age-themed television series, this could be its theme song. With lines like, “Cosmic creation of the conscious void,” the tune felt specifically aimed at those who interpreted Kohoutek as the perfect symbol of the New Age. In fact, in a rather clunky metaphor, it painted the comet as something Messianic: “The gypsy fortune teller tells us what our fate will be. The cosmic rock and roller has come to set all of us free.” The addition of electric guitar added a radio-friendly vibe to the track. The song’s centerpiece, however, a repetitive chanting of the comet’s name, hinted at a ritualistic primitivism of the sort that might cause the less scientifically-minded to cower in awe of an unknown light in the sky.
With recording completed, the masters were sent to Nashville, and three thousand copies were pressed as a 45 on the Mankind Music label, credited to Herbie Angell. There was no accident in the selection of material for the disc. Schleicher had very specific ideas about where and how the record should be marketed.
In late 1973, a flyer created by the Mankind Research Foundation (the non-profit arm of MRU) appeared around the Washington DC metro area. It announced the availability of a charter flight from Washington to San Francisco to attend the Kohoutek Celebration of Consciousness. For $298 the cosmic tourist received round-trip airfare on Freelandia—a short-lived New-York-based travel club that owned one plane, painted “Buddha yellow”—as well as tickets to the event. The flyer also mentioned that, “Our own KOHOUTEK consciousness-inspired song entitled, ‘KOHOUTEK’, composed by Washingtonian David Savage, will make its debut at the celebration.”
By all accounts, initial planning for the Kohoutek Celebration of Consciousness began almost immediately after the comet’s existence was announced. It was the brainchild of Ann Howell, a former journalist who was heavily involved in the human potential movement. The event took place at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium on January 26 and 27, 1974, a full ten days after the comet’s peak visibility had passed. Slated to speak at the conference, among many others, were Stanley Krippner, Claudio Naranjo, John Lilly, Warner Erhard, Charles Tart, Ira Einhorn, Jacques Vallée, Jerry Rubin, Brad Steiger, Christopher Bird, and Uri Geller’s sidekick and primary cheerleader Andrija Puharich. Across its 50 rooms, participants were promised the ability to explore such things as aikido, Kirlian photography, psychosynthesis, holography, psychic therapy, biorhythms, polarity therapy, gestalt, dreamwork, biofeedback, and bioenergetics, along with many other topics. Musical acts were also scheduled. These included a group made up of followers of Yogi Bhajan, The Sufi Choir, and the legendary cartoon mystic Korla Pandit, who opened the festivities early on the first day.
Two of the passengers on the Freelandia flight to San Francisco were David Savage and another MRU employee, Tom “Mad Dog” Howell, carrying all 3,000 copies of the newly released 45. Carl Schleicher had paid for them to fly out and man a booth at the Celebration to attempt to sell the records. At this point in the narrative it becomes apparent that Schleicher knew just enough about the music industry to fail at it, the fate of so many would-be moguls who have seen music as a path to easy money. Just after the disc was recorded, he had hired a publicist to pitch the record to distributors in New York. According to Savage, their response was, “Let’s wait and see what the comet does.” In my experience this is a polite way of saying, “No thanks.” Had Schleicher been savvier, he may have used the publicist to pitch the disc to the Washington-Baltimore radio stations as a local novelty tune, or better yet, tried his luck with San Francisco stations, which may have offered a more receptive demographic. In any case, in those days no matter how good a recording was, a successful release was usually supported by a combined foundation of radio airplay, the artist’s active touring to promote the disc, and a robust distribution strategy making it available to those who wanted to buy it. Not understanding this basic concept often led to disappointment. And a true disappointment it was: Savage and Howell only sold two copies of the disc at the event. What’s more, these were the only two copies that ever sold during its original offering.
In a later San Francisco Examiner article, Berna Rauch said that Freelandia was not able to fly back the nearly 50 passengers it had brought out for the Celebration. She added that she was unable to discover why this was so, and conjectured that they might all still be stranded in San Francisco. Even though Mankind Research’s flyer clearly stated that the flight was round trip, other sources have mentioned that Freelandia often offered only one-way flights, leaving passengers to return on their own steam, although it is not at all clear what logic might lie behind such an impractical business model. David Savage doesn’t remember why he wasn’t able to fly back, but told me that he and Howell had to procure a “drive away” car in order to return home. Before turning east, the pair headed south to Los Angeles to visit the Griffith Observatory. While there, they also dropped in to visit Thelma Moss and view her work in Kirlian photography, including one of the famous “torn leaf” photographs. It took three days for Savage and Howell to drive home with a box of 2,998 records on the backseat, sleeping in movie theaters to save on the cost of motels.
In modern culture, the Comet Kohoutek has become a metaphor for the disappointment that follows something that has been over-hyped. The original predictions by scientists were that its arrival would be accompanied by a display so brilliantly mind-blowing that people would remember it their entire lives. This was based on a misunderstanding of the object’s true makeup, however, and when the comet did arrive, it was nothing but a vague smudge in the sky.
Mankind Research seems to have survived as an organization until Carl Schleicher’s death in late 1999. David Savage continues to write and perform music. He tells me that he believes he still has a box of 100 of the ill-fated 45. Shortly after Schleicher’s death, he tried to discover what happened to the other 2,898 copies, without success. I know of four copies that are currently owned by collectors or dealers, so it appears that at least some of them made it out into the world.
Even though the comet did not “set us all free,” usher in a new age of “cosmic consciousness,” nor even provide an entertaining evening of celestial fireworks, some were reluctant to give up on the idea that Kohoutek’s passage through our solar system was a meaningful event. In late March 1974, United Press International quoted astrologer Joseph Goodavage as saying, “Just because the comet has fizzled as it passed [E]arth does not necessarily mean that we aren’t feeling its effects. There has always been an increase in violence, extremely radical revolutionary movements and natural disasters [when comets pass by.]” This could either be read as an example of cognitive dissonance, or as evidence that Goodavage was still trying to keep interest alive in hopes of selling more copies of his book, The Comet Kohoutek: Greatest Fiery Chariot of All Time, released in late 1973.
In her San Francisco Examiner article mentioned above, Berna Rauch summed up the experience of Kohoutek mania nicely. Writing some four months after the Kohoutek Celebration of Consciousness, she remembered the event as having “a sense of some beautiful, sincere people, some wacky ones, and some cosmic con men. A sense of ‘consciousness-raising’ as a new American industry. A sense of the ‘psychic flea circus’ as the new American convention. A sense of guru-following as another form of religious ‘groupieness.’ A feeling that there are psychic mysteries still to be unveiled, which will lead to more questions and more conventions.”
(Special thanks to David Savage for sharing his memories of MRU and the Celebration of Kohoutek Consciousness, as well as photographs and items from his personal archive.)