Legend Of A Mind: My Midnight Meal With Timothy Leary
“To breath in / You must first breathe out / Let go
To hold / You must first open your hand / Let go
To be warm / You must first be naked / Let go”
–Timothy Leary, chapter V-8, “Take In—Let Go,” Psychedelic Prayers, 1966
My only close encounter with the psychedelic shaman, suave showman, acid king, and high priest of LSD Dr. Timothy Leary was 28 years ago today, on November 12, 1986.
Everyone who writes (guilty, your honor, and please be merciful to me, a poor pensioner, your lordship) has had the eerie experience and benedictive blessing of rediscovering something fully forgotten written long ago.
One’s reaction varies between “Who did this dippy drivel and how dare he use my name?” to “I wrote that? Damn. Really? Me? I was pretty good.”
This fragment of fragments, typed on my old electric Smith-Corona with its wonky “w,” was found inside a slim (seven by nine by three-eighths inches) paperback of Psychedelic Prayers published in 1966, the year I bought it in a shop on Piper’s Alley in Chicago’s Old Town.
Based on the Chinese Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, written in about the sixth century before Christ, it is the Bible of Taoism. The author’s name literally meant “Old Master.” He was a record-keeper at the Zhou dynasty court.
Like many an academic (guilty again), Leary used this translated text, fully credited, for Psychedelic Prayers. Bettering in its brilliant beauty my best Bible, this gem of a rarity boasts a cover of old gold-colored paper embossed with a gorgeous red fantasia metamorphosizing into an illustration of a unicorn that’s a woman that’s three amoebae guaranteed to transfix any tripster longer than the cover of Neil Young’s first solo long-player.
But as with the Young disc, it’s what’s inside the cover that counts.
Divided into six “chapters” printed in cocoa brown, pale orange, Prussian blue, and light black, the book ends with these wise words:
“The lesson of the Tao is more likely / to be found among—gardeners / hermits / mountain men / smiling eccentrics / men who build their own homes / children / parent who learn from their children / loafers / amateur musicians / serene psychotics / animals / men who look at sunsets / men who walk in the woods / beautiful women / cooks / men who sit by the fire / wanderers / men who make bread / couples who have been in love for years / unemployed men / smiling men with bad reputations.”
Leary was many of these and certainly the last.
Pres. Richard Nixon called him “the most dangerous man in America.” Of course, Dicky The Tricky was really that most dangerous man.
Of course, when I bought this book, I was psychedelically innocent.
Indeed, I had first smoked pot late on the blizzardous night on my twentieth birthday, Dec. 28, 1966, after meeting and interviewing guitarist Jimmy Page and the Yardbirds (drummer Jim McCarty, singer-harmonicist Keith Relf, bassist Chris Dreja), at Peoria’s Exposition Gardens Youth Building for the Peoria Journal Star.
I had invited them over to join me and my friends from The Heard of Janesville, Wisconsin, for some Berkeley Boo in the attic of lead guitarist Bird’s parents’ home. McCarty wasn’t interested, but Page was. Finally, he declined: “We’re knackered.”
Non-cigarette smoker that I was, I didn’t get it.
Until I went to bed. I was sleeping with my dad because our home was housing assorted uncles and aunts from Stockton, California, and my insomniac eyeball movies had images of Love’s Da Capo album projected in Oz-like emerald green. Subsequent attempts were more successful.
I got it.
Fast forward to the summer of 1968. Dwarf, my best buddy since my first day at Marquette University, room-mate, fellow fan of The Heard, The Yardbirds, The Byrds, Love, and The Beatles fan, and eventually my wedding best man, as I was his, had come down to visit my family for our maiden trip.
Mindful of Leary’s advice of “setting [place] and set [state of mind],” we packed Psychedelic Prayers, some apples, a few cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, and drove up from the Foster ancestral manse at 2636 N. Prospect Road to the verdant depths of Springdale Cemetery.
We popped our Orange Sunshine caps, sat with the sun on our skin and the breeze in the trees singing soft melodies, and waited.
After about an hour, I said “Piffle” and we headed out to the back forty of a Spalding Institute friend’s farm near Kickapoo in my ’66 Ford Mustang GT to smoke some reefer.
On the way, we saw a venerable old man hitchhiking west on I-74. My charitable guardian angel said pull over and give him a lift.
So we did, intending to take him no further than the “Kickapoo-Edwards” exit.
Clad in a battered straw hat, faded blue chambray work shirt, and well-worn jeans, the beatific Mr. Bethel Wynn was hitchhiking from Kentucky to the Galesburg rail yards, planning to hop a freight train and ride to Nebraska to help his nephew harvest wheat.
“We’ll take you there,” I said. And we did. I dropped him off by the west end of the yards and I may’ve slipped him a fiver for the road.
And when we turned around to head back for home, we were flying Trans-Love Airways on Jefferson Airplane.
No screaming Hunter S. Thompson banshee pterodactyls on the eastbound interstate highway, just a general feeling of good humor, universal benevolence, and melting teeth. We were relaxed and paying attention, as The Byrds sang in “5D”:
“Oh how is that I could come out to here / and be still floating / and never hit bottom and keep falling through…”
We got back home just in time for supper. Dwarf recalls that “the family dinner table was rolling like a wave.” At every one of my dad Claude’s droll country-boy observations, Dwarf would cackle with laughter, which would set me off crowing along.
My mom and my younger sister Claudia could tell that we were, uh, altered.
Saved by a good word from the Bird. He’d left The Heard by then and wondered if we wanted to ride up to Dixon to see The Masque, the new band that his erstwhile bandmates Jim Croegaert and Billy Sutton had begun with lead guitarist Russell DaShiell and drummer Rick Jaeger, who later drummed with the Everly Brothers, the Pointer Sisters, and Crosby, Stills, and Nash.
Did we want to go to Dixon? You bet we did.
Exeunt Dwarf and Foster before our jig was further up and north we went in the Birdmobile. ‘Twas a mellow trip punctuated by a freight train that slowed us in some rural burg for about, oh, ten days, and sky divers parachuting into a field right by the side of the road, floating like a white swan’s downy feathers.
The Masque was marvelous, the beer was ice-cold, and I danced the night away to Willie Cobb’s ”You Don’t’ Love Me” with the bass player’s sweet sister: “What those young girls’ll do to you.”
First trip, check. Mind re-arranged, double check.
In the next six years, I took six more trips. One was with my other two senior-year Marquette room-mates, Greaser and Sebastian, before I married at a June, 1969, bachelor party at Big Pink, my rented rural pink cement-block palace out at the juncture of Koerner and Charter Oaks roads.
Greaser recalls 45 years later: “It seemed like lots of somewhat spastic Da-Glo Frisbee. Absolutely amazing the number of leaves on a single tree and how hard it was to get back to the house from a short walk in the woods.”
One other intercellular voyage took place out at the Kickapoo farm where Dwarf and I had been aiming in 1968. My darling companion laughingly coined the artful simile “loonier than a tune.”
My last trip was out here on Foster Farm in 1975. By then, I was the father of two girls and had been there and seen that sufficiently, thanks.
My last two gifts of wedding-present Owsley were partaken with Greaser that night, who by then a married dad, too.
We shared a star-studded summer night lazing on lounge chairs in our back yard here. I recall the grey omnipresence of the nascent Foster Farm Feral Feline Incest Project cats and stars and galaxies clear to the end of the universe.
“Mellow, mellow, mellow. Such a big sky and so many stars,” Greaser remembers.
At the first eastern gilded pinkening of rosy-fingered dawn and stirrings from the wives and kids in the kitchen, we went inside for cups of strong nectar coffee.
All of this came back when I met Timothy Leary.
Back then, I wrote it up as mere notes that I never turned into a published piece until this year.
“Mike Foster/My Dinner with Timothy
Illinois Central Performing Arts Center & The Lariat Club
Nov. 12, 1986, East Peoria & Peoria
Timothy Leary eats catfish backward.
He’s started at the head, forking toward the tail, and the meat resists this reversal, crumbling on his tines.
But Timothy Leary doesn’t seem to mind at all. He’s aglow.
It’s midnight on a Wednesday; last night he spoke in New Jersey; tomorrow he’ll be home in California; and just now he’s basking in the banking fire of a successful two-hour talk at Illinois Central College’s Performing Arts Center, animated with after-gig energy.
In his speech, he had been galvanic, riveting. Slender and silver-haired, lively and quick-voiced, he had talked for an hour about freedom, broke for a bit, and then came back for nearly another hour to talk more. It’s easy to see how he could be reputed variously as a guru, a stand-up comedian, a mystic Irish preacher, a candy man: all of the above he was by turns.
He earned laughs with snipes at Nancy Reagan and peeing-in-a-cup urinalysis. “I am an illegal drug user,” he declared, then defended his decision to be so. He took questions, his answers sometimes rambling, but usually fast and funny.
After this second hour, he waved and went backstage. Fifty of the crowd followed him in, and a Harbinger reporter ended up with the punkily leathered youngsters and talisman-bearing (mine was my venerable 1966 Psychedelic Prayers book I’d bought in a shop on Piper’s Alley in Chicago’s Old Town twenty years before; Leary autographed it with “Mike. Here’s a golden oldie!”) oldsters looking over the reporter’s shoulder. Swiftly smoking a cigarette, Leary, smiling and laughing, was quick to answer any question.
I was invited to join the crew for an after-show supper. But I had an 8 a.m. fantasy literature class followed by a 9:30 Honors English composition session before an 11 o’clock Journalism 122, Reporting class, three 75-minute full-speed-ahead teaching periods, one hard on the heels of another.
So I said “No.”
And then I went home like a dutiful dolt, kicking myself mentally, to my dear, wise wife Jo who had the sense to say, “Dolt! Go!” So back I drove to the Lariat on Glen Avenue in Peoria, arriving just before 11, just in time to order a Michelob and a steak sandwich.
By dinner-table roulette, late arrival earned me the seat at Timothy Leary’s right elbow. Two students, Student Program Board chair Kevin Holzhauer and Debbie Neumann, and student activities director Bobbie Wittmer (RIP) and SPB advisor ICC psychology professor and musician Tom Nelson also were there.
Leary was gregarious, still the laughing Irishman with twinkling eyes, drinking tequila on the rocks. My recovering Peoria Journal Star reporter’s questioning penchant seemed to draw him out, but he needed no prompting. He was wearing a classically inexpensive teacher’s uniform of blazer, striped shirt, tie, slacks; he’d come to the Midwest, in a near-zero cold snap, without an overcoat, and he didn’t seem to miss it much.
He said he still listens to music: Talking Heads, African “go” music, reggae. He laughed at the mention of the Moody Blues, and said he’d sometimes turned up onstage with them in the ‘70s, to beat a tambourine as they sang “Timothy Leary’s dead” in “Legend Of A Mind” at the end of their shows.
When I suggested that long out-of-print works of his like Psychedelic Prayers would be fitting subject for his “Hi-Tech High” speech idea of home-grown software, he seemed to brighten at the idea; his eyes sharpened a bit at the thought.
A merry companion, he spoke of the pleasure of good food and good talk with this tableful of strangers at the end of the meal. He blarnily begged Holzhauer, the student driving him, to go warm up the car, shook hands all ‘round, and left.
He had never stopped smiling the whole time.
Nearly three decades later, I still am.
Now Timothy Leary is really dead.
Or maybe he’s just outside, still looking in.
Thanks for the memories to Bird (April 4,1946-Dec. 22, 2013), Dwarf, Greaser, Sebastian, and Joanne Mary Clare, living the trip together since June 14, 1969 .