Thursday, May 16, 2013

Tune in, Turn on, Drop Dead

We all have the proverbial skeletons in the closet. Yes, all. Among our hidden bones may be transgressions that are objectively serious, or they may consist entirely of events that merely are subjectively humiliating. Maybe, for example, you keep mum about a youthful Quick-E-Mart heist in Altoona, Pennsylvania in 1993. (This one is unlikely.) Perhaps you keep secret some particularly skanky past erotic fling for fear that no one ever would touch you again if it were general knowledge. (This one is pretty common, actually.) Maybe you cast a particularly embarrassing vote in some election. (This one is nearly universal.) Maybe you were a schoolyard bully. Maybe you cheated on [fill-in-the-blank]. Whatever. The point is, we all have them. When we tell our life stories, whether in social gatherings or in more formal biographies, we are pretty sure to tell an edited version that keeps the closet door firmly shut and the contents unrattled. We can learn a lot about a person by discovering what is omitted from his or her tales. The skeletons themselves matter less (once again, we are all flawed) than their storage in the closet, for what one person hides another proudly displays in the trophy room.

What brings this to mind is the film biography Timothy Leary is Dead, a title that references both a Moody Blues lyric and (with less intended irony than one might imagine) Friedrich Nietzsche. The film aired this month because, I suppose, Leary died in May of 1996. When Timothy Leary was diagnosed with inoperable cancer in 1995 and learned he had only a few months remaining to him, he commissioned this film, which consists largely of interviews with him and his associates. I should mention that the gruesome deathbed scene at the end, in which Leary’s head is detached and placed in cryogenic storage, is faked – Tim’s last little joke. In fact, Leary was cremated (head and all) and his ashes were launched into space. Otherwise, this is a broadly accurate and interesting bio-pic, and is definitely worth a look for anyone interested in the impact of psychedelia on the social history of the 1960s and 1970s. Nonetheless, I can’t help noticing a glaring omission. The generally pacifistic Leary went through a phase in the early 1970s of advocating violent revolution. This gets glossed over in the film. To his credit, Timothy Leary seems to have regarded this episode as an embarrassing skeleton best relegated to the closet. Nevertheless, it is worth peering inside, if only to learn how even a mild good-natured fellow such as Leary can hear the whispers from the dark if they arrive at an opportune moment.

Timothy Leary (1920-1996) was a respected psychologist in the 1950s who became interested in the use of psychedelics for mind expansion. Until 1963 at Harvard University he explored the potential of LSD, which was legal prior to 1966. In 1963 he left Harvard and continued his research at Millbrook, an estate in upstate New York, where he became a counterculture hero and guru. He advocated the substance as a way of raising consciousness. At this point he was decidedly apolitical in any direct fashion: “Don’t vote. Don’t politic. Don’t petition. You can’t do anything about America politically.” If enough individuals expanded their minds, however, he believed social change would follow of its own accord. Ultimately, raising one’s consciousness was a personal event. At the Human Be-In in San Francisco in 1967, he told the crowd, “The only way out is in. Tune in, turn on, drop out.” This is now, and was then, not only his most famous but his most misunderstood remark. He was not urging people to give up on life, sit around, and drop acid. He meant (and explained whenever asked) that the way to personal freedom was through inner space. Tune into yourself, expand your mind, drop out of the robot-like life-courses so many of us unthinkingly follow, and instead create your own destiny tuned to your own vision of reality.

Leary seemed to be everywhere in the 60s and 70s, and he developed the oddest connections. Millbrook was raided by G. Gordon Liddy, who later would conduct the Watergate break-in. (In the 80s the two went on speaking tours together.) Leary hung out with Aldous Huxley, Allen Ginsberg, and Ken Kesey. He was married briefly to Nena von Schlebrugge who later would be Uma Thurmon’s mother. He choppered to the Altamont concert with Mick Jagger. At a Congressional hearing he was grilled by an openly hostile Ted Kennedy, while Richard Nixon called him “the most dangerous man in America.” (At least he brought those two together on something.) He briefly occupied a prison cell next to Charles Manson, with whom he chatted.

By 1969 Leary (though it was hard to tell how ironic he was trying to be) ignored his own political advice and announced he would run for Governor of California against Ronald Reagan. His party was called FERVOR, for Free Enterprise, Reward, Virtue and Order. It advocated extreme free enterprise, the elimination of taxes, schools run for profit, legalization of drugs, and utopian hippie ideals. There is another word for this platform though it is not one he used at the time: libertarian. John Lennon wrote a campaign song for him.

Don’t come alone, come together
It’s the only way to come.
Don’t go away, come along, join the party
Everybody has to come sometime! Come now!

If this has a familiar ring, it’s because the song later was reworked into the “Come Together” number on the Abbey Road album.

Legal troubles interrupted Leary’s campaign and led to a radical change in his philosophy. In 1970 he was convicted in California on trumped-up drug charges; he had been in possession of marijuana, true enough, but the amount was so minute that it ordinarily would earn a wrist slap. The judge gave him ten years. Meanwhile the feds were building a smuggling case against him that threatened another possible twenty years. For a man his age, he was looking at life in prison. In order to determine to what prison to send Leary, court officials gave him a personality test. Leary must have laughed: he himself had authored the test in the 1950s. Naturally, he answered the questions so that he would be sent to the lowest security prison in San Luis Obispo

Enter the Weather Underground. The Weather Underground (aka Weatherman) was a homegrown self-styled insurrectionary group, an offshoot of the SDS, with Leninist rhetoric: "The goal is the destruction of US imperialism and the achievement of a classless world: world communism.” In the 60s and 70s the group was responsible for a series of robberies and bombings, including the bombings of the Capitol, the Pentagon and NYC Police Headquarters. A townhouse in Greenwich Village in 1970 also was destroyed when a bomb detonated accidentally, killing three members of the group. Numerous members of the group, including Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, were indicted, but due to FBI misconduct, charges on most eventually were dropped. In 1970 members of the Weather Underground assisted Leary’s jail break; they provided the getaway van and helped get him out of the country with an assumed identity and forged documents. The prison experience and the prospect of life behind bars had radicalized Timothy Leary completely. Leary released a Going Away Manifesto supporting Weatherman and calling for violent uprising: “The conflict we sought to avoid is upon us…There is no choice left but to defend life against the genocidal machine.”

Leary flew to Algeria, then governed by the Marxist FLN. Algeria hosted an embassy of the Black Panther Party, regarding it as the legitimate US government. The ambassador and Minister of Information for the Black Panthers was Eldridge Cleaver, who had gone to Algeria to avoid legal consequences from a shootout with Oakland police. On behest of the Weathermen, Leary tried to coordinate statements and activities with Cleaver.

In case there was any doubt about his change of heart, Leary spoke to journalist (and screenwriter) Donn Pearce: “Every policeman is an armed, fascist, bloody murderer. If he is not he should take off his uniform and quit. No one can be friendly with a pig, any more than you can be friendly with a Nazi. It is war. It is ‘our nation’ against the US government… In the very same way and for the same reason, the Weathermen might blow up Saint Patrick’s Cathedral with 5000 pigs inside. I would not urge or tell anyone to off a pig. But I would support, defend, and glorify such an action on the part of someone else.”

Despite the new rhetoric, Leary hob-knobbed with the rich and famous when he could, while continuing his hedonistic and pro-psychedelic lifestyle.

The Panthers eventually had enough of Leary, and also of the Weathermen. Cleaver: “What I’m saying here applies to the Jerry Rubins, the Stew Alperts, and the Abbie Hoffmans, and the whole silly psychedelic drug culture, quasi-political movement of which they are a part… we are through tolerating this madness; and we want everyone to know that the serious work of uprooting and destroying the empire of Babylon with its vicious fascism and imperialism, this has to be dealt with in the only way it can be dealt with, by sober stone-cold revolutionaries…Your God is dead and your High Priest is crazy.”

Leary was unconcerned. By now, well-to-do admirers in Switzerland were making his life easier. On an ill-considered trip to Afghanistan, however, Timothy Leary was arrested and extradited to the US. There he turned state’s evidence in exchange for reduced sentences. Governor Jerry Brown of California ordered his release in 1976.

Leary thereafter abandoned the Marxist Revolution and dropped the porcine element from his references to police. He once again became a pacifist. In 1988 he held a fundraiser for Ron Paul, the Libertarian Party candidate for President of the United States.

As it happens, Eldridge Cleaver abandoned Marxism, too. Disillusioned by his experiences in Cuba and Algeria, he returned to the US, voted for Ronald Reagan, became a Mormon, and ran for the US Senate in 1986 as a conservative Republican. Cleaver died in 1998.

So, Leary returned to his roots, but he packed away a pretty big-boned skeleton in his closet when he did. How did he transform back and forth so readily? Perhaps he explained it best at his trial for the 1970 escape after his return to the US: “I’m not Timothy Leary most of the time. I get into this uniform and turn a key and use the Timothy Leary identity to move through space and time as is necessary for the accomplishment of my mission and my survival…” He created his own reality as suited him, as he always had advocated. In this sense, he was consistent.

 Poster from Leary's Gubernatorial Campaign

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