By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
|Photo by Dean Chamberlain|
Shortly after I arrived in Los Angeles 12 years ago, Timothy Leary called me up and invited me to a party. Fresh from Minnesota and greener than I knew, I was thrilled — “the most dangerous man in America” was just on the phone with me! Then someone I worked with, a mentor and friend I relied upon for professional guidance, warned me not to be flattered. “He’s a media whore,” he said. “Don’t waste your time.”
A lot of people had similar reactions to Leary while he lived. If you grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, his name — along with his slogan, “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” and Nixon’s exaggerated vilifying of him and his crazy, crazy drugs — echoes through your childhood like an overplayed pop song. Researchers exploring psychedelics within the boundaries of the medical establishment found their work frustrated by Leary’s news-making shenanigans; even David Gates’ affectionate obit in Newsweekacknowledged in its headline Leary’s “well-advertised trip.” In fact, the perfidious psychonaut was agitating for media time right up until he died: The first (and only) time I talked with Matt Drudge was in 1996, when Drudge broke the news that Leary, terminally ill with prostate cancer, was threatening to Webcast his own suicide.
Last month at Light Space Gallery’s “23 Drawings by Timothy Leary and Other Works,” a show that’s been steadily expanding in content since it opened at the end of April, I had a chance to reflect differently on Leary’s media whoredom, such as it was. With the gallery’s walls now papered nearly solid with Leary memorabilia, the show has turned into a Burroughs-like cut-up of a biography, bits and pieces of a life scattered about without evident organizational sense, but from which the brain miraculously deduces order if the eyes stare at it long enough. Quotes from the man himself are interspersed among missives from others; works of art that bear only an oblique relationship to Leary (Tom Robbins’ tripper’s version of an alphabet, I Took Acid in the First Grade, for example) augment pieces that could be inspired by no one else (such as Robert Williams’ The Milk of Human Kindness: Leary at the Tit). The overall impression is not of a grandstander who narcissistically adored the attention of the media, but of an irrepressible spirit with an unusually exuberant constitution — a man who had discovered, when he first indulged in the mushroom at the ripe age of 40, a source of magic so delightful, so full of possibility, so unreservedly funthat he simply could not keep the news to himself.
Of course he knew it would piss off the authorities. “Anything that’s pleasurable is going to bring down the wrath of the power control people,” Leary complained. What might have surprised him — it surprises me — is that all his talk about evolution and magic, space and science, and above all the wonders of LSD, mescaline and psilocybin, would arouse the suspicions of other progressive writers and thinkers. “His was the saga of a brilliant academic,” writes Dr. Charles Grob in the introduction to his anthology, Hallucinogens, “having discovered a potentially valuable tool for remodeling personality, running headlong into a culture ill-prepared for radical change and increasingly antagonistic to his provocative herald of the New Age.” Still, he never gave up. Late in his life, people who dined with him only casually would take bets on just how long it would take Leary to bring every conversation around to drugs.
When I first saw “23 Drawings” the night it opened in April, Kenny Scharf’s Uncle Timmy’s Funbox stood at the center of the room, a diorama of fluorescent paint and toys; a video of Leary at home shot by Chris Graves and Joey Cavella — who helped establish www.leary.com — was playing near the front window. The room was packed and a little bit wild, and it was hard to spend enough time in front of a piece of drawing or writing to figure out what it was. But on my last visit both of those fixtures were gone, and the room was empty of all people but the gallery’s owners, Dean Chamberlain and his wife, Stacy Valis. Chamberlain had just come back from combing through Leary’s archives at Michael Horowitz’s house in Marin County, where he’d found a page from Leary’s 1937 high school yearbook. Under a classic graduation photo of a clean-cut, jovial teenager is a list of extracurricular activities (“Ring and Pin committee”) and scholastic honors five times longer than any other classmate’s. Chamberlain affixed the photocopied page to the wall next to a clipping from the school newspaper announcing that Leary had been named editor in chief — not, as one might expect, because of his unique vision as a budding sports reporter, but because of his “consistent punctuality and legibility of copy.” Under that the curators had posted a list Leary made at age 10 of things he hoped to accomplish. One of those goals: “Perform some adventure that is original.”
“I guess he can check that one off!” said Valis.