I have been sick as a dog for over a week now. Miserable nights filled with intermittent sleep, and days filled with no energy and a general malaise. Other than a few bowls of soup and some oranges, I’ve been fasting this whole time. For those that know me, and use the word “legendary” when describing my appetite (which is everyone that knows me), you realize just how awful I must feel. I’ve had a fear of having to perform a big show while sick since Anjali, DJ Peregrine and I DJed the Medicine Hat for New Year’s Eve 2000. So of course I was as sick as I have ever been at a performance while DJing our five year Andaz anniversary at the Fez Ballrom last Saturday. Anjali posted some photos our friend Sarah Race took over on her blog. Maybe I’ll write about that show later. It was epic, and I want to thank everyone who came down on Thanksgiving weekend. Sorry to all those that had to wait in a line outside while the club was at capacity.
What I want to write about instead are the books I’ve been reading while I have been sick. The one bright side of my illness (other than my rapidly falling weight -too bad fat and muscle both go at the same time while fasting) is that while I haven’t had energy to do anything else, I have had the energy to read. I’ll start with the last book first: I Have America Surrounded : The Life of Timothy Leary by John Higgs. The title comes from a Leary quote where shortly before his death in 1996 he was asked about Richard Nixon famously referring to him as “the most dangerous man in America,” to which Leary replied “It’s true. I have America surrounded.” Always a joker. Or was he joking? His influence has certainly permeated America and the world in few ways most people could imagine. I’m writing this on a computer right now. Whether you are reading this blog post on a computer running Windows or a Mac, you wouldn’t be doing so without the influence of LSD-25. Don’t underestimate the fact that Bill Gates tripped on acid at Harvard, or that Apple’s Steve Jobs told writer John Markoff that “taking LSD was one of the two or three most important things he had done in his life.” Silicon Valley has always been awash in acid, read John Markoff’s What the Dormouse Said : How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry for the full story.
Consider the fact that any time you listen to a cohesive album by a pop or rock artist you are listening to the fruits of LSD. Before the Beatles produced Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Brian Wilson produced Pet Sounds, all under the influence of LSD, albums were nothing but collections of singles and filler tracks. LSD inspired popular musicians to start thinking of albums as cohesive artistic statements. It also inspired Bob Dylan to ditch folk music and go electric. So if you have favorite albums in your collection, as opposed to favorite singles, you can thank LSD. If you just have MP3s on an iPod, well, we are back to LSD again, thanks to acid-inspired CEO and co-founder of Apple: Steve Jobs.
While people might readily admit LSD’s influence on the last 40 years of popular music, they might not realize the important role it has played in modern developments in math and science. In molecular biology it inspired the discoveries of two Nobel Laureates, including Francis Crick’s realization that DNA had a double-helix shape. Kary Mullis, winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry said “I think I might have been stupid in some respects, it if weren’t for my psychedelic experiences,” and “Back in the 1960s and early ’70s I took plenty of LSD. A lot of people were doing that in Berkley back then. And I found it to be a mind-opening experience. It was certainly much more important than any courses I ever took.” Chaos mathematician (or dynamical systems theorist, if you prefer) Ralph Abraham says ““In the 1960s a lot of people on the frontiers of math experimented with psychedelic substances. There was a brief and extremely creative kiss between the community of hippies and top mathematicians. I know this because I was a purveyor of psychedelics to the mathematical community.” Richard Feynman may have been “embarrassed” by it, but he too experimented with LSD. Since Timothy Leary did more to publicize and encourage LSD use than any other human alive (he estimates that he was responsible for “turning on” seven million people) you can’t factor him out of the influence that LSD has had on the world we live in, whether most people remain ignorant of this influence or not.
What is so grating is that while LSD has radically changed the landscape of contemporary life, it is thought of as nothing other than the inspiration for a bunch of mythical “acid casualties.” Bill Gates, richest man in the world, an “acid casualty?” Multiple Nobel Prize winners: acid casualties? The co-founder and CEO of Apple/Pixar an acid casualty? I guess being an acid casualty is not such a bad thing. LSD is seen as something a few freaks did in the 60’s; they all jumped off buildings or went insane – end of story. Timothy Leary was a deluded madman who convinced young people to throw their lives away, and he ended up an acid casualty himself. Or so goes the standard mainstream American media narrative. A recent Leary biography Timothy Leary : A Biography by Robert Greenfield has attracted a lot of media attention seemingly because it is a hatchet job that takes none of Leary’s ideas seriously. Meanwhile John Higgs excellently-written and highly-readable Leary biography receives scant attention, seemingly because while it is not at all uncritical, it actually takes the man’s influence and ideas seriously. I am sad that it is given short shrift in favor of a tabloid biography. I thought it was an excellent book, totally gripping and something I had a hard time putting down. I am especially happy that it takes the time to explicate Leary’s 8-Circuit Model of Consciousness. Two of my favorite books -Robert Anton Wilson’ Prometheus Rising and Antero Alli’s Angel Tech : A Modern Shaman’s Guide to Reality Selection– are dedicated to explicating Leary’s 8-Circuit model. I am also happy that the book discusses Leary’s radical S.M.I.L.E. concept and his promulgation of the Panspermia hypothesis.
Timothy Leary lived a fascinating life. Kicked out of West Point AND Harvard. In fact, he was the first faculty kicked out of Harvard since Ralph Waldo Emerson. He’s in good company. For possession of less than 14 grams of marijuana he was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Fortunately the psychological profile test he had to take to determine whether he was a flight risk or not was designed by himself 14 years prior when he was Director of Psychology Research at the Kaiser Foundation Hospital. Acing the test, he was assigned to a minimum-security prison that he promptly escaped from with help from the Weather Underground. Then he lived the life of an international fugitive, spending some harrowing time in Algeria battling wills with Eldridge Cleaver who headed up the Black Panther embassy there. He ended up back in American prison sharing a wall with Charles Manson after being recaptured in Afghanistan. Yes, he was released after several years by working as an informant for the Feds, but history has shown that he intentionally told them a lot of unhelpful information that didn’t result in a single conviction. My only criticism of the book is that it dedicates 205 pages to the years 1959 to 1975, and only 26 pages to the next 21 years of his life. True, he may not have been an international fugitive then, or the leader of a worldwide psychedelic movement, but I still would have appreciated more information about his final decades.
I saw Timothy Leary on a lecture tour in Eugene, Oregon. I am going to guess this was in the Spring of 1993. Because Tim was such an LSD evangelist it was hard not to stare at the aged figure on stage and search for signs of LSD damage. He was a little “spacey” and not as sharp and fast as I expected from the books of his that I had read previously. Ken Kesey was with him and it was possible that they were both really high. Tim talked a lot about Socrates, and that both of their messages had always been “know thyself,” which he kept repeating. At the time he was into computers, the internet, raves, and Psychic TV. In fact Psychic TV (or some people affiliated with them) had designed psychedelic visuals for his lecture. They were standard early 90’s “trippy” digital imagery and did nothing for me. He would stop and start the visuals throughout his talk sometimes stopping just to stare at them as he wanted us to do as well. He claimed that raves were just going back to the Greeks who used to stimulate their minds with sounds and visuals. Hmmmm. As much as I admired the man, his books, and his ideas, I was very underwhelmed and disappointed by his appearance. His books from 10 years earlier seemed so focused and bright, filled with daringly next level ideas. His venerable personage on stage seemed unfocused and hazy, with little in the way of ideas other than “know thyself. ” The question and answer period involved Kesey tossing a basketball with a built-in microphone around the crowd. I was disappointed when someone asked about the Masons, and Tim shrugged it off saying he knew nothing about Masons, as if it was a silly and irrelevant question. At the time I thought that he was just not being forthcoming with his knowledge. I had read a lot of Robert Anton Wilson’s explorations of Masonic history around that time, and knowing he and Tim were friends, I just thought Tim was being disingenuous and ducking the question.
Was Tim as acid casualty? Or just an old guy, who wasn’t as sharp as he used to be? Or was he just high? Watching youtube interviews of Tim shortly before his death he appears a lot sharper than what I saw on stage that night in Eugene. I think he and Kesey were just having too much fun before the show, probably. I don’t regret seeing the man speak before he died, but I much more appreciate his early psychedelic instructional films where he plays the Acid guru. William Burroughs said, “It may be another century before he is accorded his rightful stature.” In no way am I asserting that the man was without flaws. Tim was far from perfect. It seems much more than coincidental that both his first wife and his only daughter committed suicide. He was clearly a bad parent. Many people in the psychedelic movement criticized his very reckless and public promotion of LSD to any who would listen, and his love of personal fame and celebrity. Tragically, his ex-wife who helped him escape from prison spent 23 years in hiding because Leary had given her name to the Feds. In an interview with Paul Krassner, John Higgs says, “Leary was too complicated a figure to dismiss as either a saint or a moron, as many people try to. He’s probably the best example of the “trickster” archetype that the 20th Century produced, and his ambiguity is key to understanding him.” For good or ill, Leary profoundly affected all those around him. As Hunter S. Thompson trumpets on the back of Higgs’ book, “Tim was a Chieftan. He stomped on the terra, and he left his elegant hoof-prints on all our lives.”
He certainly left his hoof-prints on mine.