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. The sign beneath declares, “Gone Fishing.”
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
Each of the open spaces in Totem of Confession, as shown above, contains one of Michael’s photos.
A close up of the dress. Imagine wearing it to a prom, or the symphony.
Another of Michael’s photos with a curious owl providing a photo-bomb.
This albino alligator, like the owl, and several other animals, decorated the temple.
The door into the Totem of Confession featured this elaborate front.
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 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.”
This guy would do well in the most pagan of temples.
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. 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.
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.)
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.