In a world constantly rocked by advances in micro-specific, super-organized, sub-sub-disciplinary science, Terence McKenna is a rare forest-for-the-trees philosopher, a thinking man's man and . . . major stoner.
But while the '60s psychedelic philosopher Timothy Leary himself calls McKenna "the Timothy Leary of the '90s," McKenna, a full-time drug guru who spent most of his life in and around the psychedelic epicenter, Berkeley, doesn't seem to get half as much attention.
It's not that McKenna isn't publicly espousing the virtues of consuming legally dubious, mentally explosive psychedelic compounds. He is (to the nation's teenage children, and his own, no less). Perhaps it's that he lives in a different time, one in which the message he transmits is less shocking--the country seems more concerned with crack and speed than mere LSD.
He doesn't let that stop him, though. McKenna likes a manageable audience, preferring to peddle his pro-drug message through his books (five), at all-night dance clubs (he is a celebrity in the rave scene), through popular music (a song on which he sermonized about the nature of consciousness went double platinum in England a few years back) and during pay-per-spew lectures.
These days, as a terminally ill Leary passes on the psychedelic torch, the 50-year-old McKenna is hopping from town to town on his latest for-prophet lecture tour, dropping in to UCLA's Wadsworth Theater on May 10 (admission: $17.50). The message, however, has evolved since the days of Leary's low-tech tripping. Now it's "Log on, turn on, drop out," McKenna says.
On the eve of his national tour, McKenna spoke from the site of his dream-house-under-construction in Kona, Hawaii. His statements are meandering lines of logic that bounce above unknown laws of poetry, sounding like his own verbal computer code.
"My style of involvement is analytical and rational," he says in nasal nerd-speak. "Most people would think that that would melt the mystery away. That's not the case, actually. If you keep a rational mind when you explore the more peculiar edges of things, you will find odd possibilities."
Indeed. This much seems fair to pin on him:
* He gets stoned a lot.
"More than anyone else I've been able to talk about what the drug experience is like," he says, "not its chemistry, but what it is like to be stoned. And everybody who has been stoned recognizes it when I talk about it, even if they weren't able to articulate it themselves."
* He thinks others should get stoned a lot, and do other psychedelic drugs as well. In fact, McKenna believes that humans are naturally predisposed to eating modest amounts of "psychoactive" compounds, and that current drug laws only compound drug abuse because they go against our nature. He adds, however, that some people, including the immature or mentally ill, are not equipped to handle drugs.
"Drugs are heavy equipment and you have to learn how to operate heavy equipment," he says. "We have driver's education: We should teach people how to operate drugs.
"In a sophisticated aboriginal culture, learning how to use drugs is the central initiation of the young adolescent. In our culture there's denial, criminalization and hysteria. So [it's] no wonder that our young people create their own tribal cultures and initiations."
* He thinks most illegal drugs should be made legal.
"The idea that people should have their property seized for seeking spiritual insight is un-American," he says. " . . . Though Philip Morris marketing marijuana is a scary concept."
* He is discerning when it comes to drugs and prefers the natural to the synthetic.
"Human populations have taken psilocybin for thousands of years," he says. "We've had the test market. If you take a synthetic drug you may be a part of the test population."
* He thinks psychedelic drugs have played a key role in the evolution of mankind, the subject of his next book, "Casting Nets in the Sea of Minds," due sometime later this year. "I just don't see how you can have the psychedelic experience and not immediately grasp what an impact this has had on our remote ancestors," he says.
* He travels the world's rain forests and highlands in pursuit of spiritual awakening. He espouses shamanism, an Asian belief in good and evil spirits. And he believes that the world will end in 2012.
Of course, with this kind of talk, it's hard for some, both in science and psychedelia, to take him very seriously. Then again, he makes people think with his marathon musings: a drug trip memoir "True Hallucinations" (HarperSanFrancisco, 1993) and "The Archaic Revival" (HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), a compendium of outlandish rants on UFOs, evolution and the end of the world.
"He's 10 times smarter and more effective than I was," says Leary, talking from his Beverly Hills home, where he is dying of cancer.
"To the extent that he veers too far from fact . . . people will use that to discredit psychedelics," says Rick Doblin who, as president of the Multidisciplinary Assn. for Psychedelic Studies, is the leader of a movement to increase legitimate science about psychedelics. But, to be fair, Doblin added: "His message is much more balanced than Leary's was."
McKenna's younger brother, Dennis, is a doctorate-holding ethnopharmacologist who is a prominent figure in the fight to persuade the scientific establishment and the government to accept psychedelic drugs for medical uses.
"You could make the argument that Timothy Leary probably did more than any other person in the '60s to shut down psychedelic research . . . that is only now beginning to open up," Dennis said in an earlier interview. "I would feel bad if my brother were responsible for a similar shutdown in the '90s."
"My brother always had a talent for throwing things in people's faces," he explained. "Growing up, he always figured out just the thing to make my father furious."
The brothers McKenna grew up in rural western Colorado, where their dad, a traveling salesman, encouraged them to appreciate nature (but not to smoke it). That they did, so much so that by 1975, they worked on an underground classic, "The Magic Mushroom Grower's Guide" (And/Or Press).
It's four books later for the elder McKenna, and he's relishing kudos from the greats of his, er, field. For instance, before his death, Jerry Garcia said McKenna was "the only person who has made a serious effort to objectify the psychedelic experience--and done a good job of it."