Beat Portrait - Timothy Leary


Philomene Long admonishes me, wants me to minimize the drug element in these accounts. Don't make your people seem like a small, ratty bunch of heavy dopers. Who'd want to publish a book like that? So my love and I will probably have some classic shouting fights before the book is finished. Is she right? I don't know. But it's time to set down my recollections of Timothy Leary, and you can't write about Tim if you don't lay out the facts about ... call it "drugs in the subculture."

Marijuana was everywhere, of course. Even the Madison Avenue types smoked grass. Even Bill Clinton took a few hits, right? And heroin and morphine went into a lot of arms. For codeine, you scored Cheracol or Tusser from any pharmacist. Opium suppositories could be legally had, if you gave the doctor the right scam about diarrhea or Mexican dysentery. Slide them up your fundament or cook them down and hit a good vein. During the Eisenhower/Kennedy watershed period, little cross-grain bennies were a dime apiece in Venice. You usually bought ten at a time, rolled up tight in aluminum foil. Prescription uppers and downers floated everywhere; speed was more popular in San Francisco, barbiturates in Los Angeles. And bla bla bla, as Lennie Bruce used to say.

Psychedelics? "Mind-altering" drugs? We had them, sure. Mushrooms, peyote, ayahuasca, datura, all that good organic stuff was around. And not illegal yet, either. You could send a small money order to a cactus ranch outside San Marcos, Texas, and get a big box of peyote buttons -- legally -- through the mail.

If you were bold enough, and in a hurry to change your internal world, you could even go to the drugstore and buy Asthmador. I'm sure you've never heard of Asthmador. It was, as its name would indicate, an asthma medication. You were supposed to pour out a little mound of the powder, light it up, and inhale the smoke. To clear your bronchia. But if you scooped the powder into empty gelatin capsules (which you bought at the same pharmacy) and swallowed the capsules -- five of them, or ten, anyhow a lot -- you went on a trip. A rough ride, admittedly: it was like stepping off a cliff. Because Asthmador was compounded of belladonna, datura (loco weed) and some potassium perchlorate as an oxydizer, to help the stuff burn. Asthmador was not for the timid, let me tell you.

But LSD? There wasn't much of it on the set, and it was hard to come by, but it was there. Still, it only came into its own through the apostolic mission of Timothy Leary.

Turn on, Tune in, Drop out. Yup, that's what Tim said ... and (watch, here comes a brawl with Philomene) it's still great advice.

My first personal contacts with Tim began much later. The big publicity bashes, the magazine articles, the love-ins, the marijuana bust, jail time and his dramatic escape, the years in North Africa when he was avoiding extradition: all that was behind him and he was back in the States, free and clear, as glossy and eupeptic as ever.

He was a friend of my old friend Roy Walford, the scientist who was later one of the eight who spent two years sealed inside Biosphere 2. Roy you've heard of, I'm sure, or even seen on the box, in connection with the Biosphere. He was the one with shaved head and mutton chop whiskers, site physician and "Master of the Marsh."

Roy gives great parties, and we try not to miss any of them. But that's no effort -- he lives only a few blocks away, here in Venice. Well, Tim Leary was often at Roy's place, too, looking healthy and relaxed. He could "circulate" a lot, and infuse a happy spirit into any gathering. Enormous Irish grin, bouncy on his Hush Puppies, a dramatic talker and a maker of theatrical gestures. Of course, when you left, you couldn't remember anything he'd said. At Roy's sixtieth birthday party, though, his conversation was easy to recall. Hey, Roy, the big six oh! Over and over, all evening long. The big six oh! But it's not fair of me to bum-rap anyone's party talk. My own is scarcely worth preserving in The Treasury of Great American Conversations.

I saw Tim cornered, once, years ago, at a big party in Brentwood. At whose palatial house was it?
I forget. What the hell was I doing there? Why would I have been willing to endure an evening of moneyed Hell in a place like that, among creeps from Brentwood and Bel Air and Beverly Hills? I forget, I forget, I forget. Maybe I'm just too embarrassed to remember.

But Tim Leary was there, too. He never did mind money or wealthy trash. Not at all. In any case, Tim was there, and he was a Famous Name, so he was a schmooze-target for the rich under-forties. One young couple really roped him, saddled him for an hour, telling him all about themselves. His big face stayed genial, but there was some sagging around the eyebrows.

I had had my fill of jumbo shrimp and prime rib, so I sneaked out to the pool area, which was uninhabited, and chewed my beard in solitary self-contempt. Then out crept Tim. He looked at me, rolled his eyes, and walked to the far end of the pool, where he sat at a round table. But no luck for old Tim: the couple tracked him down. I watched as they produced a paper bag full of cocaine and poured a big mound on the glass-topped table.

Let's do a few lines, Dr. Leary, now that we're free of the crowd!

That was it. Tim grinned, accepted a rolled-up ten-dollar bill, and bent over the uncut mound. One long snort and then, his face still hovering over the coke, he sneezed a gargantuan sneeze. Shazam! A thousand dollars worth of cocaine blew off the table, most of it snowing into the swimming pool. Great move, Tim!

One of the last times I saw Tim Leary was in 1993. The occasion: the "re-entry" of the eight Biospherians from their two-year immurement in that huge structure in the Tucson desert. A lot of us flew out to greet Roy -- family, scientific colleagues, and friends (including Tim and Philomene and I). After the elaborate ceremonial emergence, we Californians sat around in a motel suite, feasting and drinking and smoking some world-class dope Tim had brought along. Philomene and I read some poems.

A stanza in one of Philomene's poems (which referred to a crummy apartment we'd once lived in) caught Tim's attention: At night / The cockroaches come out / They walk across my neck / To get to Masami Teraoka's print / 'Zen Monk on a Blue Whale' / Hakuin contemplates death / They take refuge in the Buddha / Little insect eyes. Sad. Sad. / But too many. A thousand at least / So they must die / We'll use the money from / Selling our books of poems / To purchase roach poison.

Then Philomene launched into a story about her ecstatic encounter with a young roach, which had approached her and touched her bare toe delicately with one feeler. This touch, she said, was a most tender sensation and had erased even the most subtle repulsion of roaches.

That says more about you, Tim remarked, Than it does about the cockroach. Philomene, you have more sensitivity, Tim solemnly avowed, than all the cockroach antennae in the universe! Tim kept repeating, Radical sensitivity! Radical sensitivity. Well, we were smoking some potent dope. But it's hard, after that, not to have good memories of the man.

Because, of course, memories now are all. Tim died a few years back, in his seventies, of a lingering cancer. He refused the usual treatment, stayed genial and smiling to the end. Surrounded by friends and heavily dosed with LSD in his last hours, he expired in an ecstasy of anticipation. It is said that his last words were Why not? Why not? Why not? And dig: his ashes were shot off into space in a rocket, along with those of a dozen others. He always was a party animal. So even as you read this, we may be breathing microscopic particles of Tim Leary. Reader, breathe deep!


2002 - John Thomas