I first discovered Timothy Leary in the Haight-Ashbury, which just seems about right. Anyway, I bought a San Francisco Oracle from a Hippie for a quarter and it had an article that Timothy Leary and Ralph Metzner wrote called On Programming the Psychedelic Experience. It helped to prepare me for my first LSD experience.
A year later, I saw a Leary lecture on PBS, before it was even called PBS. Back then, it was called NET (National Educational Television) and I guess they felt a Leary lecture would be educational. It was, and luckily, I had the wisdom to get it down on tape, which I still have. Actually, this was a debate between Leary and some square doctor who's name escapes me at the moment (I'll re-write this when I've had time to pull the tape and find out who it was). I think both of them got an hour to make their point. Leary's part had Eastern music and a light show in the background. I think Leary won the debate because the other cat just said the usual fascist party line that everyone had heard a hundred times before, and Leary at least had something unique to say.
He did say a lot of interesting things, but the one thing he said that really blew my mind was he pointed out that the life in our physical bodies is much older than our chronological age. Only our current copy of DNA is that old. Why? Because before you were a single cell, you were a sperm and an egg, and before you were that...all the way back to the Big Bang...maybe. Anyway, the real kicker is that your life didn't suddenly start when the sperm and egg became one. Instead, it has been going on for millions, if not billions of years. Just think of all those cell divisions that you came from and how long they've been going. That's something to think about next time you're tripping on acid.
My first LSD experience happened about a year after that. Moody Blues Timothy Leary song had come out the summer before (the summer Woodstock happened), and it was a couple of weeks before Christmas that I first took acid. The big mistake I made the first time was not spending the day after the trip in solitude, same mistake John Lilly made, but it did not become as life threatening for me as it did in his case, but I never made that mistake again. Even with the hassles, it was an incredible trip and I don't remember having any fears or being paranoid about anything.
After a little experimentation, I learned how to get the most out of the LSD experience, and a lot of my successes came from many of the things Leary had written. He was the first to document the psychological aspects of the psychedelic effect, he came up with the words of set and setting and documented how these variables affect the outcome of the experience. When I think of the nightmares that could have happened if people hadn't known this, I'm really glad Timmy was around. He was a good guide.
I know Leary's gotten a lot of flack for "ratting on some good brothers," but I'm not sure that his critics would have done things much differently if they found themselves in a similar situation. Plus, when you think of all the positive ways Leary contributed to the drug debate, it becomes much easier to forgive him. He was the best antidote to the old "D.A.R.E to keep kids from thinking for themselves" fascist party line that we had.
The last time I saw Leary was at Highline Community Collage about 6 years ago. I took some careful notes at that lecture and now that he's gone, I'm glad that I did. Those notes have since become a review of the lecture, which you can read on my web site. A couple of months ago when Leary was threatening to commit suicide on the Internet, the students who had arranged for Leary to come to Highline were hunting around the web for Leary stuff and they found my review and they e-mailed me about it.
One thing that's clear about Leary was he wasn't afraid to take risks, but he didn't take them to the point where they finished him off at an early age except, ironically, for his use of legal drugs, namely tobacco and alcohol. So far, the moralists haven't gotten on Leary's case yet, the way they did when Jerry Garcia died. It will be interesting if they do, because in Leary's case, no hard drugs were used, except the legal ones. If they accuse him of killing himself with marijuana and LSD, we can have a field day for sure.
The risks that Leary took regarding the exploration of consciousness paid off and made the world a better place. Because of the work he did, thousands, perhaps millions of people had a better experience than they might of otherwise had. It is an experience that requires 30 years of training with a guru to have, or you can read Leary's instructions for a safe trip and take a little Hippie pill, and have the same experience in an hour. God, does that upset the moralists, and I'm glad that Leary got his kicks from upsetting them. Now we've got to find somebody else to do the job, and don't you all look at me, because I'm too old.