Timothy Leary Goes to Burning Man… but Wait, He’s Dead!

1 Burning the Totem of Confession at Burning Man 2015 c DG

As the Totem of Confession burns at Burning Man 2015, a pair of eyes seems to be staring out of the flames. Could it be Timothy Leary taking a last look around before he drifts off into space? The dust devil tornado on the right is a spin-off of the tremendous heat. (Photo by my friend Don Green.)

Susan Sarandon put on a low-cut white wedding dress. Her camp members walked beside her, stirring up the Playa dust. Timothy Leary came along behind, his ashes riding in a casket. A New Orleans style jazz band led the joyful procession of live and dead people making their way out to the Man and then on to the towering Totem of Confession. A 26 foot tall Octopus rolled along behind. Leary would have loved it. Maybe he did.

This photo of Timothy Leary was hung in the Totem of Confession.

This photo of Timothy Leary was hung in the Totem of Confession. The sign beneath declares, “Gone Fishing.”

Here's a view of the giant octopus, El Pulpo Mechanico, at night, with flames coming out of his tentacles and his head. El Pulpo transported Sarandon around Burning Man when she first visited Black Rock City in 2013.

Here’s a view of the giant octopus, El Pulpo Mechanico, that accompanied Leary out to the Totem of Confession. This is at night, with flames coming out of his tentacles and his head. El Pulpo transported Sarandon around Burning Man when she first visited Black Rock City in 2013.

They had toasted Leary a few minutes before the parade began, a communal act of mixing a pinch of his ashes with water (and possibly a tiny amount of LSD?) and drinking the concoction. It was bottoms up and goodbye. It wasn’t Leary’s first send-off, however. The majority of his ashes had already been shot into space, along with those of Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek. Leary had been promoting space travel and colonization at the time he passed way. He was looking for a one-way ticket into the outer beyond. “A few of us managed to accomplish that,” Sarandon reported in an interview. He died on May 31, 1996, just two days after he heard the news that he would be joining Roddenberry and a number of others on their journey into space, the final frontier.

Leary was to be re-cremated at the Totem of Confession. Before dying, he had requested that his remaining ashes be divided among friends. Sarandon had received a packet and kept it for almost 20 years. During her first venture out to Burning Man in 2013, she had decided to “gift” Burning Man for the experience. After pondering what to give, including a giant ping-pong table, she decided on Timothy’s ashes.

It was a major Burning Man event— and I missed it, wasn’t even aware it was happening. I would have been there, excited to toast the man Richard Nixon once claimed was the most dangerous man in America. Unfortunately, I had obtained my ticket the day before Burning Man started and hadn’t had the time to do the normal research I do on Black Rock City’s seemingly endless list of activities.

For those of you a bit fuzzy on Timothy Leary’s history, he is considered the father of LSD, or at least the man who brought it to the forefront of public awareness. The CIA had decided that the powerful hallucinogen might work as a mind control agent and experimented with it extensively in the 1950s and early 60s— often on Americans who weren’t aware that they were taking part in a CIA experiment, or, for that matter, weren’t even aware that they were being given the drug. In the mid 70s, when Congress decided to investigate the abuse, the CIA destroyed their files.

Leary, a psychologist, had begun his experiments as a professor at Harvard when LSD was still a legal drug. He was interested in whatever medical benefits the drug might have, and even more interested in the drug’s ability to lead people to a higher level of consciousness, something like Tibetan monks reportedly achieve after decades of meditation.

Research into whatever medical or psychological benefits might derive from the use of LSD came to a halt when the drug was made illegal in the mid-60s. Anti-drug advocates achieved a similar ban into research on the medical benefits of marijuana. (Different, but interesting none-the-less, the NRA was able to get legislation through Congress that banned research into the health benefits derived from reducing gun violence.)

My research on Leary for this blog brought up a few interesting facts in his history that I wasn’t aware of:

  • Gordon Liddy, Nixon’s lead burglar, organized drug raids against Leary as a local assistant DA several years before he joined Nixon. Liddy would later hit the speaker circuit with Leary in the 80s.
  • Leary made a short run against Ronald Reagan for the governorship of California in 1970. John Lennon wrote “Come Together” as a campaign song for him. (Leary’s run was cut short when he was thrown into Folsom Prison for marijuana use. Jerry Brown released him in 1976.)
  • Leary’s famous turn on, tune in, drop out rallying cry was suggested to him by Marshall McLuhan, famous for coining the phrases the medium is the message and the global village.

Susan Sarandon had befriended Leary in the mid-80s. By then, she was already an A-level Hollywood actress. I was amused that one of the first movies she starred in had been the cult classic, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Numerous other movies followed including Bull Durham, Thelma and Louise, Little Women, and Dead Man Walking, for which she received an Oscar. At some point along the way, she had an affaire with David Bowie. A strong advocate for liberal causes, she was selected to be the 1999 UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador.

Sarandon had originally planned to place Leary’s ashes in the Temple Of Promise, Burning Man’s main 2015 temple. A friend, however, had suggested that she get in contact with Michael Garlington of Petaluma, California, who at the time was putting together a 40-foot tall temple-like structure that he was calling the Totem of Confession. Michael was excited about the proposal and immediately said yes. Susan did more than simply offer ashes; the 68-year old showed up a week before Burning Man to help construct the temple and was handed a nail gun. She stayed in a tent that was constantly filling with dust and even blew down twice in high winds. I doubt many Hollywood types would participate in such an endeavor unless a movie contract and a few million dollars were added as an incentive. I admire her. Weeks later, she was still coughing up Playa dust during media interviews.

While the Totem of Confession had both a spire and a confessional, few people would consider it a church. It was too whimsical, and I might add, irreverent. Garlington used the word totem as in totem pole. It was chock full of strange photographs, plaster skulls, a goat head, Leary’s photo, hidden nooks and other miscellaneous items. I felt like an archeologist or possibly an anthropologist as I wandered through. Pictures tell the story best.

A day time view of the impressive Totem of Confession created by Michael Garlington and his partner

A day time view of the impressive Totem of Confession created by Michael Garlington and his partner

Each of the open spaces in Totem of Confession, as shown above, contains one of Michael's photos.

Each of the open spaces in Totem of Confession, as shown above, contains one of Michael’s photos.

A close up of the dress. Interesting, huh?

A close up of the dress. Imagine wearing it to a prom, or the symphony.

Another of the photos.

Another of Michael’s photos with a curious owl providing a photo-bomb.

This albino alligator, like the owl, and several other animals, decorate the temple.

This albino alligator, like the owl, and several other animals, decorated the temple.

Panel of door at Totem of Confession Burning Man 2015

The door into the Totem of Confession featured this elaborate front.

The confessional booth inside the temple included this tower of skulls. Strange, yes, but I once visited a church in Evora, Portugal whose walls and ceilings were made of skulls, real ones.

The confessional booth inside the temple included this tower of plaster skulls. Strange, yes, but Peggy and I once visited a church in Evora, Portugal whose walls and ceilings were made of skulls, real ones. More skeletons looked on from above.

The opposite side of the booth had quite the collection of "other" things.

The opposite side of the booth had quite the collection of “other” things.

The confessional booth. "Have a seat my dear, and tell me what you've been up to at Burning Man. Oh my, that will require 10,000 Hail Marys."

The confessional booth. “Have a seat my dear, and tell me what you’ve been up to at Burning Man. Oh my, that will require 10,000 Hail Marys.”

The best of horror stories my require a goat like this.

This guy would do well in the most pagan of temples.

And what is with these eyes. Is someone staring at you? Are you being recorded? Are you on Candid Camera? Do you dare look through the peep hole?

And what is with this eye? Is someone staring at you? Are you being recorded? Are you on Candid Camera? Do you dare look through the peep-hole?

Of course I had to look.

Of course I had to look. I suspect one could spend hours finding everything that had been hidden, incorporated into the nooks and crannies of the Totem of Confession.

A view of the Totem of Confession at night.

A view of the Totem of Confession at night.

The Totem of Confession was burned immediately after the Man burned Saturday night. Sarandon's wedding dress was included.

The Totem of Confession was burned immediately after the Man burned Saturday night. Sarandon’s wedding dress was included in the pyre. (Photo by Don Green.)

The temple burned quickly and fell to the ground. I wonder if the Burner was warming his hands or applauding. (Photo by Don Green.)

The temple burned quickly and fell to the ground. I wonder if the Burner was warming his hands or applauding. (Photo by Don Green.)

A final photo by Don. I really liked the way he captured the Totem of Confession in the broader Burning Man context.

A final photo by Don. I really liked the way he captured the Totem of Confession in the broader context of Burning Man. (Photo by Don Green.)

NEXT BLOG: Let’s take a detour and admire some Mutant Vehicles/Art Cars.

The Revolution of the 60s and the Occupy Wall Street Movement

“If you can remember the 60s, you weren’t there.”

Robin Williams

“We have to be careful not to allow this (the Occupy Wall Street movement) to get legitimacy. I am taking this seriously in that I am old enough to remember what happened in the 1960s…”

Peter King, Congressional Chair of the Homeland Security Committee

“Don’t trust anyone over 30.”

Jerry Weinberg during Berkeley’s Free Speech Moment in 1965

The forgotten 60s of Robin Williams is a legacy of the hippie era. Tune in and drop out became the rallying cry. Flower children flocked to San Francisco, Timothy Leary became the high priest of LSD and the Grateful Dead emerged out of the Bay Area. Ken Kesey, Neal Cassidy and the Merry Pranksters hopped on their psychedelic bus and toured America. “It is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius,” the Fifth Dimension sang and some 500,000 people trekked to Woodstock to see if it were true.

I skipped the drug-induced haze of the hippies, for the most part. I assume Peter King did as well. Our similarities end there. While he worked his way through private colleges in the East, became a lawyer and joined the National Guard, I went to UC Berkeley, majored in International Relations and joined the Peace Corps.

The challenge to become involved was what captured my passion in the 60s. “If you are not a part of the solution, you are part of the problem,” Pogo asserted.

John Kennedy kicked off the decade with his “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Later, his perspective was broadened by Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream,” Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” and Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” as well as others.

Like tens of thousands of young people across America, I felt that the times were changing, that we could make a difference, that there were solutions to international relations beyond endless war, that America could live up to her dreams of equality, that we could reverse and repair the damage we were doing to our earth, and that there were motivations to action beyond greed.

In other words, what was happening then with the civil rights, human rights, environmental and anti-war movements of the 60s, bears a strong resemblance to what is happening with today’s Occupy Wall Street Movement.

Then, like now, a massive, nation-wide grass-roots movement was founded on the concept of creating positive change, young people played a major role, and the establishment fought back. Those with wealth and power saw us as a direct threat to their ability to gain more wealth and power.

We were labeled as leftists, radicals and communists even though the vast majority of us were not. We were told we were anti-American bent on destroying the nation. And the police and the National Guard were called out to ‘restore order.’

Thus it is when the Peter King’s of the world describe participants of the Occupy Wall Street movement as “anarchists” who are “a bunch of 1960 do overs trying to create chaos” and that “ they have no sense of purpose other than a basic anti-American tone,” I feel compelled to respond.

What happened in the 60’s is relevant to what is happening today.

But the relevance lies in the vision of creating a better nation, not in Peter King’s McCarthy like posturing. I am proud of what we able to accomplish in the 60s.  I am proud of how so many young people of the 60s and 70s would go on to create positive change throughout their lives. And I am proud of the folks who are now participating in the Occupy Wall Street Movement.

Over the next two weeks I will revisit the early to mid-60s and reflect on how these years impacted my life and thousands of others who shared my experiences. And I will strive to make those experiences relevant to today.

I will start with how a small community college in the Sierra foothills changed my world-view and then move on to look at UC Berkeley in 1963. Next I will provide an inside look at Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement in 1964 and give an overview of the nation’s first major anti-Vietnam War protest at Berkeley in 1965. I will conclude with my thoughts on how the Berkeley experience reflected and influenced what was happening in the nation.