Pacific Rim Review of Books

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Big Tim, Ram Dass & the Pyschedelic Culture

review by Bill Pearlman

Birth of a Psychedelic Culture
Ram Dass and Ralph Metzner
Synergetic Press
2010, 240 pp

In Ram Dass’ and Ralph Metzner’s Birth of a Psychedelic Culture we get a terrific view of the early days of Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert’s experiments with LSD and the ramifications for the culture of the 1960s as well as different aspects of the principal players in that unfolding scene.

The 1960s may have begun with the election of a charismatic Irish Catholic by the name of Kennedy, but the real culture wars of the 60s were centered in many ways around another flamboyant Irishman by the name of Timothy Leary. Leary was by nature a complex figure—part showman, part psychologist, part guru, part messiah for a whole generation of anti-Vietnam counter-culture youth that wanted a rallying cry from an older brother who ‘knew where it was at’.
When I was a student at UCLA, the first doses of LSD came from our own Chemistry Department labs. This was 1964. We had heard about it through the doper’s grapevine. It was not yet illegal. We were living in Venice, not far from where Jim Morrison and the Doors lived. We’d do our trips in those days on the beach, and one of our friends had a place near State Beach in Santa Monica. The conditions of light and sound, the gorgeous surf, activators like Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, Watts’ Way of Zen, and the newly arrived Psychedelic Review all stirred our young college minds into trips suffused with ideas, vast sensations, hallucinations and wild excitement. The whole ritual history of mankind became part of our psyches. We were deeply stirred into states that were expansive, extravagant, wondrous and full of creative possibilities. It all could go off into a bad trip, but rarely for me. There was a day in Topanga Canyon (when Reagan was governor) that a helicopter buzzed us as we tripped and it felt like we were in Vietnam. In all honesty, I think we imaginally were.

But in Birth of a Psychedelic Culture, Ram Dass and Metzner take us back to the origins of the movement. Tim Leary was the center of the action and the first attempt at a group research project with LSD was in the Mexican beach town of Zihuatanejo, in the state of Guerrero. Leary and Alpert were earlier part of what came to be called the Center for Personality Research which was ended by the Harvard Psychology faculty:

Ram Dass: Brendan Maher and others were pissed off because Tim and I had so many graduate students. And the scientists around us complained because we were taking drugs ourselves as part of our experimenting. But actually the data we were collecting were our own internal stuff…(35)

Ralph Metzner: The Mexican LSD sessions were strikingly different from the Harvard psilocybin psychodramas. Zihuatanejo was still a sleepy fishing village with gorgeous beaches…Here the setting was exuberant lushness of jungle flora and fauna, the ceaseless rhythmic pounding of the surf, extravagant beautiful sunsets…The women often transformed mythically into sea nymphs or mermaids, the men into Aztec warrior chieftains or jungle shamans…At the suggestion of Aldous Huxley and Gerald Heard, we began using the Bardo Thodol (The Tibetan Book of the Dead) as a guide to the psychedelic sessions. Tibetan Buddhists talked about three phases of experience on the intermediate planes between death and rebirth. We translated this to refer to the death and rebirth of the ego or ordinary personality. (51)

Eventually, trouble from Mexican authorities stopped the Zihuatanejo experiments. There was a brief attempt to start up again in Dominica and Antigua in 1963, but that fell apart as well.

Ram Dass: Yeah. Tim was being irresponsible. Actually each of us was irresponsible at one time or another. I used to think Tim was the irresponsible one and I was the poor person to be in the middle of all the things. But I have re-evaluated it. I was just as irresponsible as he. (101)

And then came Milbrook, gifted by Peggy Hitchcock and her family to the group for psychedelic research and communal living. By this time, Alpert and Leary were fired from Harvard. As time moved on, the original impulse of the Harvard profs Leary and Alpert gave way to difficulties with law enforcement, and LSD was made illegal in 1966. Then came a series of busts & Leary’s outlaw/celebrity status. Tim Leary’s outright defiance and ego took him to new places of grandeur and jeopardy…

I remember one long Beverly Hills night doing acid with Leary; he had earlier that evening done a sort of psychedelic show (The Psychedelic Theater) at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. A young actor at the time, I was filming a scene just outside the hall with one of Aldous Huxley’s nieces, Elspeth Huxley as I remember.

Leary was a pivotal figure in the cultural wars of the 60s because he was a trickster as well as a serious actor, almost a King Lear and Fool in one character. His showmanship and his instincts were ritualistic and spectacular, but often with the edge of a cultural star. Alpert (later Ram Dass) saw Leary as the creative force in the psychedelic movement:

Ram Dass: Tim was just Tim. He didn’t have the intellect that Ralph had and he didn’t have the heart that I have, but he did have a sense of history and he was very much a scientist. And he was very expansive… (167)

The cultural wars were fought under the backdrop of Vietnam. Pynchon says on the first page of Gravity’s Rainbow that ‘it’s all theater.’ The psychedelic ride was extraordinary theater—combustive, rich in historical analogue and deeply fun. (We forget that one of the chief elements in the cultural wars was pleasure vs. the prohibition of pleasure—moralisms and the punishments of law enforcement.

When Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters got hold of the acid phenomenon, they pushed Leary’s theatricality even further: ‘the acid tests’ were total environmental theatrics: a veritable riotous fun-show, a Punch & Judy wilderness of strobe lights and confrontational sound.
A friend of Kesey from his Stanford days, Dorothy Fadiman described the arrival of Kesey and the Pranksters at Millbrook in the bus Further:

Fadiman: The moment when the bus appeared on the horizon, was completely surreal. The people on the bus—Ken Kesey and the Pranksters—lived in a reality that had never really been mine, but I hadn’t yet let go of the fantasy that I might someday be brave enough to join them. The Prankster path, as well I could tell, was to get high (not asking how much of what you were taking) and see what happened! That mindset was about to collide with this other delicately arranged, carefully crafted, but still elusive vision: the promise of a safe place to be guided, guiding each other through the terrains of consciousness with psychedelics. (135)

I spent a long stoned day with Kesey on his farm in Springfield, Oregon; I was living with wife and newborn daughter Wave Adrienne in Eugene at that time. Kesey took me around the grounds, showed me the famous bus Further, all covered with leaves and mist from the Oregon rain. Kesey’s living room was a theatrical trip: on the floor was a wrestling mat (he had been a wrestler at Univ. of Oregon) with theatre seats all around, and a little shrine with Ken’s letterman’s jacket hung up around a bunch of trophies. We had big Mason jars full of gin and orange juice as we wandered the fields: Kesey gestured at one point toward a couple of hummingbirds who were in full mating dive. He was a good storyteller, never stopped talking. Later in the day we had a meal and my family, Phil and Elaine George, Faye Kesey, and later Ken Babbs all joined in.

My own coalition of dropouts and back-to-the-land hippies created another dimension to the psychedelic circus. We built domes designed by a Buckminster Fuller-inspired builder, Steve Baer, and we took cues for how to live from a famous article in the old San Francisco Oracle which featured an interview with Leary, Alan Watts, Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg. Poetry and acid surged through our commune, first called Drop City South, (after a sister commune in Trinidad Colorado) and later re-named Manera Nueva (New Way). We also started a magazine which I called Fervent Valley, and we got submissions from Ginsberg, Burroughs, Bukowski, Fee Dawson, Robert Duncan, and many others. I also wrote a novel, Inzorbital (Duende 1974), which chronicled some of the cosmic dimensions of the psychedelic romp. This was a wild time in the whole commune movement and others were springing up all over New Mexico—the most famous probably was Steve and Barbara Durkee’s Lama Foundation, which became a home base for Alpert’s transformation into Ram Dass. About twenty or so years ago, I did an all day retreat with Ram Dass and found it happily refreshing. Sitting in lotus for several hours, he just talked about whatever came to mind— ‘and this too’—LSD, India, sexual perversion, piety, his guru, the courage of Tim Leary, who had been at one point he admitted one of his gurus. At the end of the session, participants stood in line and Ram Dass gave each one a joyful hug, but I simply observed. He had done his job and he soft-balled a kind of old/new wisdom of what Walt Whitman called The Open Road and it felt authentic and good-natured. His mentioning the courage required for Leary to keep going even when the forces of oppression were harassing him was good to hear, and a boon to those of us who feel strongly that something strange and powerful came into the world as a result of the experiments of the early founders of the psychedelic movement.

Bill Pearlman has published several volumes of poetry, including Brazilian Incarnation: New & Selected Poems (1967-2004). He divides his time between California and Mexico.