The hippies grew up in my backyard. I did not find them good neighbors.
It was nothing personal. I thought it terrific, in the early days of the Haight-Ashbury, that love children could put a dime in a parking meter and lie down in the street for an hour’s suntan (30 minutes for a nickel) and most people would be careful not to run over them.
I wrote a Ramparts’ cover story about the hippies at an early stage in the counterculture’s development that gained me the reputation, not entirely without warrant, of Billy Goat Gruff to the love generation. Some of the flower children went so far as to say they wanted to kick the shit out of me. For one thing, they took umbrage at what I said about their father goddamn, Timothy Leary.
In 1967 he was still a guru in Brooks Brothers clothing. His tweedy suit was Brooks Brothers ’54, the paisley tie more J. Press contemporary, and the carved-bone Egyptian mandala hanging around his neck had to be about 2,000 years old. Dr. Timothy Leary, BA-University of Alabama, PhD-University of California, LSD Cuernavaca, and 86’d Harvard, was out for a night on the town in San Francisco, and tireless proselytizer that he was, he invited me along, even though I had expressed some doubts about his act.
The mission for the night was for Leary to scout somebody else’s act, a Swami’s at that, who was turning on the hippies at the Avalon Ballroom by leading them in hour-long Hindu chants without stopping appreciably for breath. The Avalon was one of the two great, drafty ballrooms where San Francisco hippies, hippie-hangers-on and young hippies-to-be congregated each weekend to participate in the psychedelic rock and light shows that in the sixties were as much a part of San Francisco as cable cars.
This dance was a benefit for the new Swami, recently installed in a Haight-Ashbury storefront, with a fair passage sign from Allen Ginsberg, whom he had bumped into in India. The hippies were turning out to see just what the Swami’s schtick was, but Dr. Leary had a different purpose. He had a professional interest in turning people on, and here was this Swami, doing it with just a chant, without pills, like it was natural childbirth or something.
The word professional is not used lightly. There was a large group of professionals servicing and stimulating the hippie world—in reporting the Haight-Ashbury I called these men merchant princes—and Timothy Leary was the pretender to the hippie throne.
Dr. Leary claimed to have launched the first indigenous religion in America, Aimee Semple McPherson in drag. Leary, who identified himself as a “prophet,” had recently played the Bay Area in his LSD road show, where he sold $4 seats to lots of squares but few hippies. (Dr. Leary’s pitch was to the straight world.) He showed a technicolor movie billed as simulating an LSD experience — it was big on close-ups of enlarged blood vessels — burned incense, dressed like a holy man in white cotton pajamas, and told everybody to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” Leary was not to be dismissed as a cross between a white Father Divine and Nietzsche, no matter how tempting the analogy. He made a substantial historical contribution to the psychedelic scene in America, although his arrest records may figure more prominently than his philosophy in future histories.
Since he first bit into the sacred psychedelic mushroom while lounging beside a swimming pool in Cuernavaca, Leary has been hounded by the consequences of his act. He discovered LSD and was booted out of Harvard for experimenting a little too widely with it among the undergraduate population, and was asked to leave several foreign countries for roughly the same reasons. When I knew him, he was temporarily but comfortably ensconced in a turned-on millionaire friend’s estate near Poughkeepsie, New York, while awaiting judicial determination of a 30-year prison sentence for transporting a half-ounce of grass across the Rio Grande without paying the Texas marijuana tax, which had not been enforced since the time of the Lone Ranger.
If he were asked to contribute to the “L” volume of the World Book Encyclopedia, Leary would no doubt sum up his work as “having turned on American culture,” though his actual accomplishments are somewhat more prosaic. Together with Richard Alpert, who was to Dr. Leary what Herb Klein was to Richard Nixon, Leary wrote an article in May, 1962, in, surprise, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The article warned that in event of war, the Russians were likely to douse all our reservoirs with LSD in order to make people so complacent that they wouldn’t particularly care about being invaded, and as a civil defense precaution we ought to do it ourselves first—you know, douse our own reservoirs—so that when the Reds got their chance the country would know just what was coming off. It was back to the old drawing board after that article, but Alpert and Dr. Leary made their main contribution to the incredibly swift spread of LSD through the nation in 1964 by the simple act of publishing a formula for LSD—all that was needed by any enterprising housewife with a B average in high school chemistry and an inclination for black market activity. It would have been easier to take Dr. Leary seriously if he could have overcome his penchant for treating LSD as a patent snake-bite medicine.
I found an enlightening example of this panacea philosophy back among the truss ads in the September, 1966, issue of Playboy. In the midst of a lengthy interview when, as will happen in Playboy, the subject got around to sex, Leary was all answers. “An LSD session that does not involve an ultimate merging with a person of the opposite sex isn’t really complete,” he said, a facet of the drug he neglected to mention to the Methodist ladies he was attempting to turn on in Stockton, California. But this time, Dr. Leary was out to turn on the Playboy audience.
The following selection from the interview is reprinted in its entirety.
Playboy: We've heard that some women who ordinarily have difficulty achieving orgasm find themselves capable of multiple orgasms under LSD. Is that true?
Leary: In a carefully prepared, loving LSD session, a woman will inevitably have several hundred orgasms.
Playboy: Several hundred?
Leary: Yes. Several hundred.
After recovering from that intelligence, the Playboy interviewer, phrasing the question as diplomatically as possible, asked Dr. Leary if he got much, being such a handsome LSD turn-on figure. Dr. Leary allowed that women were always falling over him, but responded with the modesty of a Pope: “Any charismatic person who is conscious of his own mythic potency awakens this basic hunger in women and pays reverence to it at the level that is harmonious and appropriate at the time.”
Dr. Leary also said that LSD is a “specific cure for homosexuality.”
The final measure of the tilt of Dr. Leary’s windmill, his no doubt earnest claim to be the prophet of the hippie generation, must be made by weighing his beliefs against his frequent and urgent pleas to young people to “drop out of politics, protest, petitions and pickets” and join his “new religion” where, he said: “You have to be out of your mind to pray.”
Perhaps, and quite probably so.
I decided the paper should check out the roots of the New Jerusalem. The question was what, if anything, the hippie phenomena represented besides a pleasant excursion into love, fun and flowers by the overprivileged middle-class kids who comprised the bulk of the hippie overpopulation in the Haight.