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A Generation's Pied Piper : Timothy Leary played his own strange music to the end

June 02, 1996

Timothy Leary, who died Friday at 75 after, as he put it, "Mademoiselle Cancer . . . moved in to share my body," was a man who delighted in bending our minds with the contradictions of his life.

This countercultural icon who glorified LSD and advised the world to "turn on, tune in and drop out" also could swim like a champ in the mainstream, exploiting the media as deftly as his friend Marshall McLuhan. This teacher who excoriated students for following gurus and fads rather than thinking for themselves nevertheless delightedly played high priest to his disciples and prided himself on "joyfully surfing" the latest, hottest cultural trends, from hallucinogens to punk to cybertech (he dubbed the World Wide Web, with its ever-expanding network of alternative realities, the LSD of the next century).

Leary was not all high jinks. The son of hard-working Irish immigrant parents, he endeavored earnestly to heal those who came to him for therapy after getting his PhD in psychology from UC Berkeley in 1950. But his disillusionment with conventional therapies led him to experiment with alternatives such as the now-controlled substance LSD, which in turn led him to jail. He escaped in 1970, shinnying across a telephone cable in the middle of night from his cell in a San Luis Obispo prison, but he was captured two years later by the CIA on an airstrip in Afghanistan. He lost the support of many when in 1976 he was released from prison despite having been sentenced to at least 10 years; some speculated he had struck a deal with the government to save himself. Many others saw him as just another drug nut who tried to lead gullible kids astray.

As Leary boldly faced his death in recent months, however, many observers began to look on his life with new respect. Journalists wrote admiringly of his earnest message that when dying "people should not be alone . . . dying is a team sport." Fans guffawed at his gallows humor: "Actually, I'm not really dying. It was just a brilliant career move."

And surfers on the World Wide Web discovered that through an elaborate home page (http://leary.com), which Leary's legions of disciples plan to update regularly, this self-described "'arrogant communicator" has achieved a kind of cyber-immortality.

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