Sixties LSD guru Timothy Leary did his stand-up philosopher act at Carlos 'n Charlie's Sunday night on the Strip.
He wisely disclaims any pretense to comedy, since he has no respect for the form and tells truly dreadful jokes--and did his best to cash in on the only apparent currency his liberal left constituents have been able to transact since the era of Richard Nixon: an attitude of superiority.
Leary looks trim and even a touch elegant these days, his gray slacks and blue blazer topped off by a strong chin and magisterially white hair. Only the eyes, deep-set, icy blue and startled, suggest some heavy fuse-blown damage within.
He opened with a feel-good note about Los Angeles: "Nice, isn't it? This is my hometown. I've been here 20 years. This is my neighborhood, my street" (Was he referring to the strip joint next door?)
"L.A. is the capital of the information age, just like Pittsburgh was the capital of the industrial age. . . . You work in tune with books, words, scripts, decor, style and clothing to decide on your own individuality. We're in (tune with) the new teaching of civilization."
Despite this hearty booster note, Leary was the bearer of bad news: We're in, as he put it, Looney Tune times, rife with religious warfare ("I'll say this for the ayatollah, he's a real media hot dog"). The Pope is a media master, like Ronald Reagan ("Do you notice how the Pope looks like Tom Landry? I'll bet if you put him on the sidelines in a cowboy hat nobody'd know the difference, ha-ha"). Ed Meese has been called to the White House as a Bible-thumping German Lutheran, not to oversee the Justice Department but to exorcise the devil.
We're at the end of a Millennial Madness. The same Looney Tunes happened a thousand years ago, like the Crusades. Now we have Pat Robertson (Leary tells us how he happily accepted a magazine assignment to write about Robertson, undeterred by his total lack of knowledge on the subject). Robertson, Leary tells us, is like Shirley MacLaine traveling. "This is a full-blown psychedelic brain-transforming situation. . . . Hey, I've been to a Grateful Dead concert. Talk about visions and trances!"
Leary paced the little stage space in the midst of the packed house. He rambled. He wandered in and out of the spotlight, the true father of a host of younger performers who disdain the classical rites of public address, such as coherence, timing, self-discipline, the delivery of the gift of moment.
Leary called himself a stand-up conversationalist, though no one else shared in what he had to say. He pandered to his audience with vulgarisms, buzzwords. He played to their shared conceit that the best way to affect a bad political situation is to withdraw and snicker at it, as if to say the only good guys are those who are in on the joke.
It may be that once Leary came up with the line, as he did early on, "We're still acting out the script of Pericles," he had his forward-looking audience and its shared scripts, style, decor and clothing on the intellectual run. Nobody seemed to puzzle his chaotic reading of history. His naivete was as catchy as an ad slogan (men with the considerable power of a Ronald Reagan or an Ayatollah Khomeini may be many things, but they are far from stupid, even though stupid is how they play in Leary's act).
By the time Leary came up with the line, "The good news is that we are not alone," this observer was more inclined to think that that was truly the worst news of all.
And by the time he started on the romance of drugs, it was time to look for the door. There may have been a moment in history when certain drugs offered a vista of heaven on Earth, but that time was brief and is long since gone. Leary has nothing to say about a generation partially gutted by drugs, while the ills that generation should have fought mount up in its face.
And not the least of these ills is an old guru's smug irrelevancies.