Friday, November 03, 2006

New Tim Leary Bio Is Less than Stellar

Jesse Walker, managing editor of Reason and author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America, reviews The Acid Guru’s Long, Strange Trip: Timothy Leary, A Biography, by Robert Greenfield, (Harcourt). He finds the book lacking any sense of what made Leary a cultural icon. Too bad.

Here is a taste of the review:

Scholars today generally regard the LSD scare of the ‘60s as a classic social panic. “Of all the widely used recreational drugs,” the sociologists Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda note in their 1994 book Moral Panics, acid “is the one taken by users most episodically and occasionally, least regularly and chronically.” It certainly poses risks, but the most disturbing rumors about its effects—that it causes chromosome damage, that it prompts teens to blind themselves by staring at the sun—turned out to be false. What’s more, the media scare arrived at a time when LSD use was at a relatively low level; the hysteria actually faded as the drug grew more popular.

What’s fascinating is Leary’s relationship to that panic. Leary has written that his best-known slogan—“tune in, turn on, drop out”—was inspired by a lunch with the media theorist Marshall McLuhan, who told him, “You call yourself a philosopher, a reformer. Fine. But the key to your work is advertising. … You must use the most current tactics for arousing consumer interest.” According to Leary, McLuhan even broke into a jingle: “Lysergic acid hits the spot/Forty billion neurons, that’s a lot.”

Leary was known to take liberties when recounting his personal history, and the McLuhan story sounds a little too perfect to be absolutely true. But the very fact that he tells it shows he was aware of what he was up to, as does his famous claim in Playboy that LSD “is the most powerful aphrodisiac known to man.” In his book The Politics of Ecstasy, Leary commented that if the Playboy interview “had been conducted for Sports Illustrated, the conscientious interviewee would naturally consider the question, How LSD Can Raise Your Batting Average.” Greenfield adds: “In other words, had he been talking to Popular Mechanics, Tim would have claimed that LSD could rev up horsepower and reduce engine knock while doubling miles to the gallon. Clearly, Tim Leary knew exactly what he was doing. In America, nothing sells like sex.”

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