Almost as advertised, it's a weird trip.
Up semi-bucolic, tree-shaded Angelo Drive in Beverly Hills, then right, onto Sunbrook. The car radio is tuned to rock station KLSX. KLSX is playing the Moody Blues. The Moody Blues are singing "Timothy Leary Is Dead."
Coincidentally, another rock group--unheard on this particular day--has a different version, a title cut: the Dead Kennedys' "Timothy Leary Lives."
Atop Sunbrook, resolution in gray slacks. Smart money is on the Kennedys.
Leary is not dead. Not even slightly. At 67, the familiar funky features are a bit sharper perhaps. On the other hand, so, it appears, is the brain--100 billion neurons strong, give or take.
An enterprising rock group, in fact, could probably cash in on a trendy new track: "Timothy Leary Is Hot."
On the Trendy A-List
That he is. In late 1987, Leary is on the A-list of the club crowd. Along with his wife he's a "must invite" to premieres and openings, to the party of the week. Leary is amused, but not surprised. He's been hot before.
Take 1970, at random. In 1970, Leary is on another Top Ten list. The one on the Post Office walls. Very much in demand, this Leary, by another select group: the FBI.
In 1970, Professor Leary, having long since been dismissed from Harvard for his controlled experiments with psychedelic drugs, is on the lam. He has escaped from jail in San Luis Obispo, where he was serving 10 years for what he calls "possession of two roaches." His companions are the Weather Underground, who helped him escape, and the Black Panthers, on a power trip in Algiers and holding him a virtual prisoner.
In 1987, fresh from a film premiere, Leary is holding his own court. Around his table at the Flaming Colossus--a raucous, scruffy but very trendy L.A. nightclub on 9th and Bonnie Brae--is a sampling of Leary's new companions:
Nancy Ferguson, multimedia avant-garde artist; Joan Quinn, writer, and her husband Jack, prominent show-business lawyer; Angela Janklow, an editor of Vanity Fair. ("A very interesting magazine right now," Leary says. "Kind of audacious, spicy, irreverent. A little too jet-setty, but written with some intelligence.")
And: Rebecca Allen, who teaches computer-art design at UCLA; Mark Ferguson, lead singer of the rock group Devo; Georgeann Dean ("from a prominent Fort Worth family; she's gone into computer art"); Roy Walford, author of "Maximum Life Span" and "The 120-Year Diet"; Michele Lamy, fashion designer; Richard Newton, film maker.
There is, of course, Leary's young wife, Barbara, whom Leary describes in his 1983 autobiography "Flashbacks" as, "in my scientific estimation, the sexiest, smartest, funniest woman in town."
Barbara has produced movies and edited scripts but is "not professionally active now," says Leary. "I must tell you, it's a full-time job just to be Barbara. She's aware, appreciative, cosmopolitan. I'm still basically a vulgar Celt. . . ."
In the main hall of the Flaming Colossus--a former Knights of Columbus lodge ill-disguised by a few large paintings and some ceiling nets--circles form, link, separate, form again, link elsewhere.
The group, Leary maintains, is a microcosm of the taste-makers of the Age of Information, the "deciders," the trend-setters in the trend-setting capital of the Solar System--a town Leary thrives on, and vice versa.
Other Meetings to Come
They and their crowd will meet the Learys again in weeks to come, at Helena's, another club, or, more quietly, to dine at Spago, Morton's, Le Dome . . .
For now, the scene is the Flaming Colossus, and the conversations among meshing circles are shouted into the ear, as a stupendously loud bongo band shakes stern Catholic shadows from the corners of the old K of C quarters.
At length, even Leary's decibel diet is sated. He lifts his drink--tequila and ginger ale in a plastic glass--and heads for the stairwell, where a man can make himself heard as well as seen.
On the stairs, the talk ranges wildly, bouncing like the bongos. Leary's brain is ever abuzz, with the new ideas, the new concepts of a man forever exploring, forever probing for the soft spots in the barriers of convention.
There is talk of the lasting effect of Dr. Spock, of Eldridge Cleaver's political affiliations, of Andy Warhol and Shirley MacLaine, of today's generations and tomorrow's. Talk of death as an "irreversible involuntary metabolic coma"; talk of freedom; above all, talk of computers and their almost infinite capacity to enhance human potential.
A young man perhaps a third Leary's age starts down the steps, stops, stares. "I know you," he says. "I admire you."
Knows All About Leary
The young man seems to know all about Leary. A lot of them do--at the Flaming Colossus, on college campuses, on the rock circuit. They are familiar, the young people, with the essence of the man, if not the particulars. A bare-bones news-clip history (particulars, not essence) would read like this:
The son of a U.S. Army captain, Leary left his first collegiate venue, Jesuit-run Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass., after little more than a year, followed by 18 months at U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he reportedly spent half his time in punitive isolation for rule infractions. In 1950, Leary earned a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of California at Berkeley, where he continued as an assistant professor. He also served as director of psychological research at the Kaiser Foundation Hospital in Oakland.
In the late '50s, Leary's first wife died, leaving him with two young children to raise and the awareness, as he wrote in his book, "High Priest," that he was "a middle-aged man involved in the middle-aged process of dying." After a year in Spain, Leary returned to the U.S. to become a lecturer at Harvard University, and began experimenting with drugs--first psylocybin (on a trip to Mexico), then mescaline, and LSD. Although Leary the scientist conducted carefully controlled experiments on which he wrote scholarly papers published in prestigious journals, the notoriety that attended his personal advocacy of drug use ("Turn on, tune in, drop out") embarrassed Harvard, and Leary and fellow Harvard researcher, Richard Alpert, were fired amid charges they broke an agreement against using undergraduates in their drug experiments.
During the '60s, Leary's legal troubles steadily worsened. There were Senate hearings, CIA questionnaires. By the late '60s, Leary had moved to California where he was arrested on a marijuana charge, sentenced to 10 years in the California Men's Colony near San Luis Obispo. Described as a model prisoner, he nevertheless escaped 18 months later and during the next 27 months made his way through country after country, seeking asylum. Finally, spotted in Afghanistan by U.S. agents, he was deported and returned to prison, this time Folsom. He was released in 1976.
"A martyr," said the rebellious youth. "Demented," said their elders.
"Thank you," Leary says to his young admirer.
In 1973, Timothy Leary, recaptured, is transported to Folsom prison where he now faces a 25-year stretch. In Folsom, the pits of the prison system, Leary is first assigned to solitary, to "the hole." A hole mate, known only by voice, is a Bible-quoting radical. Name of Charles Manson. It is, writes Leary in "Flashbacks," "the indisputable undeniable Dantean bottom."
In December of 1987, Timothy Leary perches on the patio of his aesthetically tasteful Beverly Hills aerie, sipping a Mexican beer. On a clear day, the house commands an unexcelled view of his beloved Los Angeles; if height confers status, it is perhaps notable that the Leary pad overlooks Cary Grant's old mansion.
Boeing, a beautifully tended, much-stroked golden retriever, plops around the yard, drooling over a tennis ball. "You can hold up his ears and look in and see blue sky," says Leary, "but he's certainly devoted." Inside the house is a sketch of Boeing, by Britain's renowned Malcolm Morley. On another wall is Keith Herring's portrait of Grace Jones.
A neighbor pops in--"the girl next door," Leary says--to spirit Barbara away for lunch. The Girl Next Door is Cornelia Guest, all-time deb, aspiring actress.
By the standards of '73--by any standards--it's not a bad life.
Leary, whose main source of income is the college lecture circuit, remains amused at his new portrait as social lion. "I am puzzled," he says. "I must confess, it's a new way of looking at myself.
"For me to go to that club (the Flaming Colossus) last night . . . It's my job. What I am is a philosopher of the Communications Age--anything in communications: movies, music, styles, fashion . . . I live on this mountain all by myself--Barbara's out a lot--and I don't have another house to go to so I wander down to the clubs. They're my country store, my cracker barrel.
"The Sunset Strip is my turf. It's like the Appian Way, the Boulevard St. Germain. Down there is where I meet old friends, new friends. There are always five, six, 10 people I want to meet--there, or at Helena's or at certain restaurants."
An almost fanatically dedicated champion of free choice--for everyone, in all things--Leary nevertheless finds the trend-setters irresistible, nor does he perceive a contradiction between the dictates of current style and individual choice.
"These people," Leary says, "and others in New York, are the people who package the ideas, decide how we dress, what we eat, how we look, what we surround ourselves with, how we smell, how we talk, what we talk about.
"Going all the way back--to the Egyptians, to the ancient Chinese--it's always been a function of the aristocracy. It's a dirty job, but someone has to pick the wine.
"What we have here--and it's forever changing, evolving--is just the opposite of, say, the fundamentalist religions where everybody dresses in black. The opposite of totalitarian regimes: Mao's China, the Soviet Union, 90% of the world.
"To me, the most significant evidence of Russia's glasnost was when Raisa (Gorbachev) started wearing Paris fashions, when they translated Vogue into Russian. That impresses me so much, because it's a sign of choice, of gourmet option, a selective consumerism. It's very crucial when you can decide what to wear.
"In the '60s when we started dressing differently--I let my hair grow, stopped wearing a tie--that was more important than many political events. You decide one way, I another. You're a hippie, I'm Brooks Brothers.
"That's what's lacking in the autocratic states . . . "
Leary speaks quickly, thinks quicker. Half-sentences, not quite cooked, are kneaded into ideas, ideas into concepts, concepts into newly minted tenets. One must be nimble to keep up, slier than the Master of Sly to nudge a nonstop stream of thought back into the requisite mainstream. Occasionally, one succeeds:
"Oh, the A-list," Leary says, coming to grips with his social status. "Our names were on that list of the 10 people you 'must invite,' and it's a little curious, because I didn't know the other nine--to identify, sure, but not personally.
"As it happens, Barbara and I have very close friends who are very influential. Through people we know, we meet others. I find it interesting as long as it's in communications: the arts, sciences, words, music, fashion, comedy . . ."
It is pointed out that even in less halcyon days--even in jail in Kabul, Algiers, Geneva, where baskets of food and stashes of drugs always found their way to his cell--Leary has always attracted a crowd of the top people.
Leary approaches the phenomenon obliquely:
"Remember, I am a philosopher. My ambition is to be the MVP of the 20th Century--Most Valuable Philosopher.
"So I take all this for granted. Voltaire had his patrons. Aristotle was tutor to Alexander the Great.
"I am a serious, trade-union, card-carrying, full-time philosopher, the Billy Rose of philosophy. I don't talk about it too much; if you say you're a philosopher you're probably a young professor bucking for seniority.
"But if you're a true philosopher, naturally you're going to be involved not with the political powers but the cultural powers. They're much more important. They change the songs, the language, the mores. And a philosopher's duty is to be where the action is.
"A Communications Age is about what? Thoughts. Knowledge. Processing information. So if you're a philosopher in the 20th Century, you've got to be a psychologist and you've got to be a communicator. If the Buddha were alive today he'd have a talk show (which is precisely what Leary plans, for sometime next spring).
"Many people don't know I'm a psychologist. I suppose that to the young, my role in this country is what they'd call, in Russia, a dissenter. I'm a Celt. 'Think for yourself; question authority' is my motto. I'm opposed to every regime, every party. Republicans. Communists. The 'Democratic' Party? That's an oxymoron . . . "
With reluctance, one harks back to the subject at hands, by way of a Leary quote in the current issue of Rolling Stone magazine: "Power, politics and culture are determined by who controls the screen." If so, doesn't that make Los Angeles/Hollywood virtually the cynosure of our Brave New Cybernetic World?
Again, an oblique approach:
"When I was younger, the best thing to be was president of a railroad. Richard Alpert's (the sometime Ram Dass and a former Leary Harvard colleague) father ran the New York, New Haven and Hartford. There was the president's private car--I rode in it with Richard, taking LSD . . .
"Then the auto industry was the big thing.
"Now it's the information industry. They call it the 'movie industry'--which is another oxymoron. The TV industry.
"But the money is here. The action is here. The power is here. The thrill is here, It's the front line."
With all that clout, then, why do they insist on force-feeding the public with "LaVerne and Shirley"? With "Nightmare on Elm Street"?
Leary looses a full-throated laugh, and returns, for once, to the subject of his own volition.
"The real A-list in Hollywood," he says, "well, I'm not even on the Z. I'm never invited to those parties in your society section where they have the big producers, Charlton Heston, Frank Sinatra, the old-line Chasen's crowd.
"They're the ones who have that power. I don't know why they do it. I don't spend any time with them."
Ever the enthusiast, though, Leary finds value even in the lowest of brow:
"They say 'I Love Lucy' is playing somewhere on the globe 24 hours a day. That's good, I think.
"Take 'The Cosby Show'--a black family, and the kids are sassing Dad and Mom's well-dressed and they can open the refrigerator and eat whatever they want, and they're all taking different paths to their own fulfillment . . . That's the message of America.
"America is a pop culture. Pop means people, democratization of taste and choice and dress. Ninety percent of the world is still feudal, so if you could take all of our junk TV shows and flood the world with them, it would be good. They'd see how we live."
(Commercial break: Leary will be appearing at Carlos and Charlie's restaurant on Sunset on Dec. 20, speaking, generally, on "The Roaring 20th Century." Don't go away. He'll be right back.)
"As for choice," Leary adds, "don't worry. Sooner or later the brain, if left to itself, gets bored--with TV shows, anything--and wants change. People are eventually going to say, 'My God, another one of those?' But first they have to go through that stage."
(Leary, who contends that drug use is "way down from the '60s and '70s," that "drug abuse is now considered to be moronic, akin to falling-down drunk," insists that "I never advocated something much more dangerous: Make your own decision; think for yourself.")
For Leary, intimate of the new elite, the future aristocracy as it were, remains both pop and populist.
"My main baby right now," he says, "is computer programs. I don't know much about computer innards, but I do know there's ROM--Read Only Memory that's in your machine-- and RAN--Random Access. That means my access, yours . RAN is what Jobs and Wozniak gave to that 7-year-old ghetto kid, who will be able to use the TV set to learn what she will, make any program she wants. Anything! Her choice!"
By the end of a hard day's afternoon, the epithet "trendoid" has ceased to bemuse Leary. In fact, it rather pleases him.
"It's good to be a trendoid," he concludes, "because the brain is a trendoid. Unlike the other organs that want only one thing--the lungs care only about air--the brain doesn't want to spend its life looking at desert sands. It wants change, variety, movement, sequence.
"You've got 100 million computers in there--neurons--and we're just now begining to realize that a neuron is not simply an on-off switch. The information exchange alone . . . "
Today Spago. Tomorrow the world. The next day . . .
Timothy Leary lives.