People are wandering into the First Unitarian Church on Franklin long after the 7 p.m. starting time for Timothy Leary's memorial service. A piano in the choir's balcony plays “Miss You” by the Stones, a reminder that although those attending are the hippie revolution, they still have room for schmaltz. As with the San Francisco acid rock shows 25 years ago, the tech crew furiously tinkers with the sound and projection systems, trying to get everything to work. Some things never change.
Time is immaterial to this crowd tonight. So what if things are running late? Everybody has to say hello to each other. A bald man in a sweater sits in a padded pew next to a woman in a loud flowered blouse and chats with her about their LSD trips: “The visual overload is unbelievable. Things are going on all around you. … My first experience was with a doctor. He was with Dass, Leary, and Huxley.”
Most of this bunch are at least 45, and are no strangers to a hit of blotter. But youth still sparkles in their eyes, a playful gleam not seen in their straight, boozed-out predecessors. These people are the first acid generation — mellowed-out boomers who have become the prime marketing target for comfortable shoes, ashrams, vitamins, and shoulder bags woven from undyed cotton found dead of natural causes.
Of course, the immediate tendency here is to prejudge. Fucking hippies always told us young punks what to do. They knew better, because their eyes were opened to the bullshit, man. Fucking hippies always preached the power of the individual — and gathered in mass groups to prove their point. Fucking hippies thought if you scarf-danced to a guitar solo long enough, the bombing of Cambodia would cease. Fucking hippies are responsible for America's archetypal conspiracy-nut cliche, the Army-jacket guy standing at a microphone waving documents, yelling “In 1962, man, the CIA was running tests on me, and they were running them on you too, man. They still won't admit it! Release the files!”
All this was essential to our evolution, a necessary destiny in the course of our 20th-century cultural landscape. No denying that. But despite all the '90s ironies, tonight's slice of hippie wisdom is surprisingly riveting, even touching. Acid's heavy hitters have traveled to San Francisco for this service. Frank Barron is the first speaker, recalling his days as a young psychologist with Leary at Harvard, conducting America's initial psychoactive drug experiments. Another Harvard psychology crony, Richard Alpert (now Ram Dass), recalls how, when Leary died last week, the Washington Post called his home in Marin to elicit a quote.
“How do you feel about Timothy Leary's death?” asked the reporter.
“Fine,” Dass says he answered blankly. He gleefully describes the ensuing pause.
Author Robert Anton Wilson, also of the LSD gentry, takes the mike and repeats a joke he made on Politically Incorrect: “I haven't done acid in two days. It's great to be clean.” Wilson remembers Leary telling him years ago that most people are sheep. ” 'The Lord is my shepherd,' said Leary. 'Well, what does that make you? B-a-a-a-a-a-a-h-h!' “
It's John Perry Barlow's turn now, and in speaking about his friend Leary, the Grateful Dead lyricist-turned-cyberspace theorist is reminded of the words of Mark Twain: “If you're going to tell the truth, you'd better be funny. Otherwise, they'll kill you.”
In between the clever soundbites roll memories of the various Timothy Learys that provide some explanation to those of us under 40 who always wondered, “Who the hell is this guy?” Isn't he that “turn-on” acid guru who started telling us not long ago that he was going to kill himself on-line and freeze his head?
Yeah, that guy. He also wrote 30 books, everything from cogent psychology to impenetrable psychobabble. Millions of people took acid according to his guidelines. He was jailed for possession of two roaches, and watched them set his bail at $5 million. President Nixon called him the most dangerous man alive. He was sprung from jail, and after going back into the slammer, ended up turning over some names for a lighter sentence. Whether you liked him or hated him, you have to admit, the guy had some juice.
Another old Harvard associate, Ralph Metzner, speaks of Leary's interest in the old Indian custom of teaching by trickery. Others get up and say their piece — Paul Kantner, Diane di Prima, R.U. Sirius, Richard Katz, Leary's ex-wife Rosemary, his archivist Michael Horowitz, and Country Joe McDonald. Horowitz's wife reads a letter from their daughter, Winona Ryder. Leary's granddaughter, Dieadra, and son, Zach, share some thoughts. Diana Trimble sings a song, accompanied by a harpist, as the slide projector clicks off images of Leary throughout his life, and the overhead projectors in the balcony splash those amniotic-fluid bubble patterns across the walls of the church.
It's easy for a younger generation to scoff at Country Joe in thick eyeglasses leading the church in the dusty old “FUCK” cheer, or the video of Ken Kesey plopping a sorcerer's hat on Leary's head, or the service ending with the Moody Blues singing, “Timothy Leary's dead.” But this is exactly how you expect hippie pioneers to send off one of their own. Timothy Leary is dead, and this is how San Francisco remembers him. A letter is read from Hunter Thompson that couldn't be more succinct: “He is forgotten now, but not gone.”
Address all correspondence to: Slap Shots, c/o SF Weekly, 425 Brannan, San Francisco, CA 94107; phone: (415) 536-8152; e-mail: email@example.com.
By Jack Boulware