Timothy Francis Leary (October 22, 1920 – May 31, 1996) was a more than an interesting, influential, and polarizing figure at the vanguard of the psychedelic movement that started at, of all places, Harvard (where he was on the faculty in the psychology department ever so briefly in the early 1960s) and gathered speed from there and continues to this day with a popularity and legitimacy that would surely make him smile.
A certain observation of his sticks with me:
The fact of the matter is that all apparent forms of matter and body are momentary clusters of energy. We are little more than flickers on a multidimensional television screen. This realization directly experienced can be delightful. You suddenly wake up from the delusion of separate form and hook up to the Cosmic Dance.
His friend and partner in crime (literally & figuratively) from those early days at Millbrook until the veritable end (of Leary’s body at least), John Perry Barlow had this to say in remembrance of his friend and psychonaught on the day of his passing:
A couple of hours ago, at 12:45 am Beverly Hills time, my old friend and the corrupter of my youth Timothy Leary made good on his promise to "give death a better name or die trying." Willingly, peacefully, and unafraid, he headed off on his last trip.
He spoke his last words a few hours before. On the phone to the mordant William S. Burroughs he said, "I hope that someday I'm as funny as you are."
He didn't, as threatened, commit suicide on the Net. Or have his head cut off and frozen. Or engage in any other the other spectacles of departure I had dreaded. In the end, he surrounded himself with the angelic band of twenty-somethings who have been uploading him into the Web these last few months and drifted peacefully out of here.
I was headed his way when he died. When I was with him earlier this month he said, "When I leave here, Barlow, I want your face to be one of the last things I see." I think that was one of the sweetest things anyone ever said to me, and I was trying to make it possible, but death proved itself once again to be bigger and faster than either of us. The phone just rang in the middle of this rainy Wyoming night, and now I'm here naked in the dark trying to think of something to follow him out with.
Two years ago, Cynthia and I spent our last day together with Timmy. When she died the next day and it became so shockingly clear to both of us how strange this culture has become on the subject of the second commonest event in the world, how weirdly shameful is dying in America, we both thought it time to bring death out of the closet. I did so by grieving her, and continuing to grieve her, more publicly than is polite in a culture that claims for itself the ability to conquer and control everything.
But Timmy beat me to the barricades. He flat died. And he died, without pretending that he was "really going to get well any day now," without permitting himself to become a ghoulish and futile medical experiment, without contributing to the stupefying mass denial that causes almost 80% of America's health care dollars to be blown on the last six months of life.
He died unashamed and having, as usual, a great time.
A few weeks ago, the denizens of leary.com and I rented a phalanx of wheel chairs and rode them with him into the House of Blues on Sunset Strip, a place that likely had never seen fifteen people in wheel chairs before. After a truly merry time, we were headed back to his house and on the way came within a smile of Tim Leary's Last Bust.
We cruising west on Sunset. And the sun was setting. The top was down on my metallic mauve rent-a-convertible. A couple of the web girls, Trudy and Camilla, were sitting on the trunk like psychedelic prom queens, shoop-de-booping to the funk station on the radio, volume at eleven. Both the girls were beautiful, Trudy like a character from Neuromancer, Camilla like a character from Botticelli. The air was sweet and soft as a negligee on our faces, and the light had that elegiac quality that makes people think LA might not be so bad after all.
Timmy gave me a high five and grinned. "Life is good!" he shouted over the music. As I looked up to meet his raised hand, I saw in my rear view mirror, past the swaying torsos of the girls, the rotating reds of a real Beverly Hills cop.
Of course we were in possession of several of those substances that we considered safe and effective but which this culture, in another of its dangerous madnesses, has declared lethal, probably to distract heat from its own deadly drugs of choice. Furthermore, I had only recently paid an astonishingly steep California fine for allowing a friend to stand up through the sunroof of a car I was driving.
He pulled us over in front of the Beverly Hills Hotel. He looked like an Eagle Scout.
"Officer," I said, nodding back at the still improperly seated girls, "I know what we were doing was wrong. But you see, my friend here is dying, and we're trying to show him a good time." Timmy, without saying anything, smiled sheepishly at the cop and nodded, caught in the act.
He looked like hell but he sure looked happy.
The officer gazed into Timmy's beatific skull-face and lost his starch. "Well," he said to the girls, "I'd be lying if I didn't say that looks like fun, but just because he's dying doesn't mean you should. Now get down in the seat and buckle up and I'll let you go." I felt like honest death had just made one of its first converts.
In thirty years of following Tim Leary around, he's given me some wonderful and hair-raising moments. He has been father, anti-father, partner-in-crime, and devout fellow-worshipper of all that is female in this world. We loved each other, and shared more memories than I will ever relate. But I think the look he gave that cop is the memory I will cherish most.
As usual he was "cocking snooks at authority," as Aldous Huxley once accused him. But he was doing it, also as usual, with wit. And with love.
America managed to forgive Richard Nixon when he died. I hope they will extend the same amnesty to a real hero, Dr. Timothy Leary.
Huelo Hale, Paumalu 2021
Perhaps a sequel might detail his other Harvard "partner in crime" Richard Alpert who would go on to become...... Baba Ram Dass.
Excellent. And a good description of LA. It’s not so bad. I recall a story about Timothy, of course an LSD story. Anyways there was some kind of art or other festival in Laguna canyon and Leary was flying over head in a Cessna and dropping acid out the window onto the festival goers. He was onto something.