Seemingly a near-last bastion in these days of "Just Say No," Timothy Leary, pioneer and veteran of the '60s counterculture/drug wars, manned what he called the "pro-choice" battlements Tuesday night at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano.
Addressing a mostly rapt, capacity crowd of about 350, the lean, feisty, silver-haired professor of psychology--who became something of a hippie guru after he was thrown off the Harvard faculty for experimenting with LSD 25 years ago--acknowledged, to applause, that with drugs "the further out there you go, the more firmly your feet have to be planted on the ground."
Still, he asserted, the "body count" of recreational drug casualties, compared to those of industrial pollution, AIDS or infant mortality, suggests that any national efforts against drug use are sadly misdirected. When it comes to the things that are killing people, Leary said, "marijuana and cocaine are way down on the list.
"I haven't heard Nancy (Reagan) 'just say no' to guns," he said. Noting the numbers who have died from exposure, he asked, "How about 'saying no' to homelessness?"
Striding back and forth across a stage where rock bands usually play, Leary, 67, recalled his own psychedelic experiments fondly, likening himself and fellow early-trippers Allen Ginsburg and Baba Ram Dass to Columbus and Magellan. "(We'd) leave the tiny islands of (our) minds," he said, "to explore the distant shores" of the world of information.
Why is it, he asked, that the only people acknowledged by anti-drug forces as "experts" in drug use aren't those who have taken drugs for years and remained productive but reformed "addicts"--he mentioned rock star David Crosby--who have "been in the gutter for 20 years?"
The bigger issue, though, Leary said, is authoritarianism in general: "There can be no difference of opinion," and not just about drugs. He characterized the notion that "there is one God" as an especially "malignant idea" that feeds upon itself until there is no room for disagreement.
All sorts of opposing factions claim that their "village is (God's) chosen spot, we are his agents and anyone who doesn't totally submit is fair game," Leary said. Hitler, he added, was "a master" of such thinking--as is "the Pope, who goes into (countries plagued by) overpopulation, starvation and AIDS and commands: No contraceptives."
Dismayed that society has returned to "superstition and religious fanaticism" so soon after the halcyon, "all-you-need-is-love" '60s, Leary urged his audience to "T.F.Y.Q.A--Think For Yourself, Question Authority.
"There are as many gods," he said, "as there are human beings having visionary connections."
Though none of what he said seemed all that original or profound, and though some of his offhand references to such things as "funny cigarettes" and the Grateful Dead drew more vocal response than did his more developed concepts, Leary seemed to engage the audience, a mix of '60s veterans and people of college age (and a much bigger crowd than a Coach House employee said was expected).
True, as one person in the audience noted, Leary was largely "preaching to the converted," and much of his cachet apparently came from simply being who he is and having done what he has done. "It's hard to imagine anybody else saying some of this stuff and commanding any attention at all," a listener from Costa Mesa said during intermission.
Still, largely because it is more organized and focused now, Leary's "stand-up philosophy" act is far more effective than it was when he first started appearing in nightclubs about 10 years ago. Back then, he seemed to be trying to be a hip Johnny Carson. Tuesday night, he seemed like a professor again.
Leary--who has spent a lot of time and, from his own reckoning, has taken a lot of trips in Orange County over the years--opened by saying how glad he was to be "back in Area Code 714. I've been to a lot of solar systems, but some of my highest and happiest times have been spent in Area Code 714."
After more than an hour on stage, he spent another hour or so hanging around the bar, autographing books and posters, chatting with people and generally, as he put it, "keeping it going."