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Timothy Leary, Party Animal : On the Lam in the '70s, on the Club Circuit in the '80s--Ex-Drug Guru Turns Social Philosopher

December 11, 1987|DICK RORABACK | Times Staff Writer

"To me, the most significant evidence of Russia's glasnost was when Raisa (Gorbachev) started wearing Paris fashions, when they translated Vogue into Russian. That impresses me so much, because it's a sign of choice, of gourmet option, a selective consumerism. It's very crucial when you can decide what to wear.

"In the '60s when we started dressing differently--I let my hair grow, stopped wearing a tie--that was more important than many political events. You decide one way, I another. You're a hippie, I'm Brooks Brothers.

"That's what's lacking in the autocratic states . . . "

Leary speaks quickly, thinks quicker. Half-sentences, not quite cooked, are kneaded into ideas, ideas into concepts, concepts into newly minted tenets. One must be nimble to keep up, slier than the Master of Sly to nudge a nonstop stream of thought back into the requisite mainstream. Occasionally, one succeeds:

"Oh, the A-list," Leary says, coming to grips with his social status. "Our names were on that list of the 10 people you 'must invite,' and it's a little curious, because I didn't know the other nine--to identify, sure, but not personally.

"As it happens, Barbara and I have very close friends who are very influential. Through people we know, we meet others. I find it interesting as long as it's in communications: the arts, sciences, words, music, fashion, comedy . . ."

It is pointed out that even in less halcyon days--even in jail in Kabul, Algiers, Geneva, where baskets of food and stashes of drugs always found their way to his cell--Leary has always attracted a crowd of the top people.

Leary approaches the phenomenon obliquely:

"Remember, I am a philosopher. My ambition is to be the MVP of the 20th Century--Most Valuable Philosopher.

"So I take all this for granted. Voltaire had his patrons. Aristotle was tutor to Alexander the Great.

"I am a serious, trade-union, card-carrying, full-time philosopher, the Billy Rose of philosophy. I don't talk about it too much; if you say you're a philosopher you're probably a young professor bucking for seniority.

"But if you're a true philosopher, naturally you're going to be involved not with the political powers but the cultural powers. They're much more important. They change the songs, the language, the mores. And a philosopher's duty is to be where the action is.

"A Communications Age is about what? Thoughts. Knowledge. Processing information. So if you're a philosopher in the 20th Century, you've got to be a psychologist and you've got to be a communicator. If the Buddha were alive today he'd have a talk show (which is precisely what Leary plans, for sometime next spring).

"Many people don't know I'm a psychologist. I suppose that to the young, my role in this country is what they'd call, in Russia, a dissenter. I'm a Celt. 'Think for yourself; question authority' is my motto. I'm opposed to every regime, every party. Republicans. Communists. The 'Democratic' Party? That's an oxymoron . . . "

With reluctance, one harks back to the subject at hands, by way of a Leary quote in the current issue of Rolling Stone magazine: "Power, politics and culture are determined by who controls the screen." If so, doesn't that make Los Angeles/Hollywood virtually the cynosure of our Brave New Cybernetic World?

Again, an oblique approach:

"When I was younger, the best thing to be was president of a railroad. Richard Alpert's (the sometime Ram Dass and a former Leary Harvard colleague) father ran the New York, New Haven and Hartford. There was the president's private car--I rode in it with Richard, taking LSD . . .

"Then the auto industry was the big thing.

"Now it's the information industry. They call it the 'movie industry'--which is another oxymoron. The TV industry.

"But the money is here. The action is here. The power is here. The thrill is here, It's the front line."

With all that clout, then, why do they insist on force-feeding the public with "LaVerne and Shirley"? With "Nightmare on Elm Street"?

Leary looses a full-throated laugh, and returns, for once, to the subject of his own volition.

"The real A-list in Hollywood," he says, "well, I'm not even on the Z. I'm never invited to those parties in your society section where they have the big producers, Charlton Heston, Frank Sinatra, the old-line Chasen's crowd.

"They're the ones who have that power. I don't know why they do it. I don't spend any time with them."

Ever the enthusiast, though, Leary finds value even in the lowest of brow:

"They say 'I Love Lucy' is playing somewhere on the globe 24 hours a day. That's good, I think.

"Take 'The Cosby Show'--a black family, and the kids are sassing Dad and Mom's well-dressed and they can open the refrigerator and eat whatever they want, and they're all taking different paths to their own fulfillment . . . That's the message of America.

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