Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Michael Johnson on the Leary biographies

After I made the offhand comment at one of Michael Johnson's blog posts that I plan to soon read I Have America Surrounded, the JMR Higgs biography of Timothy Leary, Michael responded that Higgs' book it the best Leary biography available, and proceeded to reveal that he had read all of them.

Once I got over feeling depressed over the realization that I will never be as well read as Dr. Johnson, I decided this his comment deserves to posted in a blog post over here. For obvious reasons, Robert Anton Wilson fans have an obvious stake in knowing where to go to find out more about Leary, a huge influence on Wilson's writings. Here are Michael's comments, with links to the books he is referring to:


Leary said everyone gets the Tim Leary they deserve, or something like that. I'd read at least four bios of TL before Higgs's and his was the first one that reflected the Leary I felt. I never met Tim.

The Leary I got through film footage, RAW's books and Leary's own large and uneven oeuvre finally glinted through with I Have America Surrounded. 

A difficult-to-find bio by underground press writer John Bryan (Whatever Happened To Timothy Leary?, pub while TL was quite alive and healthy), was the previous best bio I'd read.

The Leary that shows through in BH Friedman's Tripping was an interesting Tim, as were parts of Charles Slack's Timothy Leary, The Madness of the Sixties, and Me, which has Slack as a Harvard colleague and admirer, but not so much the evangelical drug stuff: more the irrepressible Irish modern-day Bruno/Zelda Fitzgerald of the 60s, very disappointed to track Leary down in Switzerland to see TL doing smack. When he encounters TL (who knows what the real story was with Hauchard?) doing smack, it reminded me of Mr. Bernstein coming to a darker understanding of Charles Foster Kane.

The Rbt Greenfield bio is one of the weirdest biographies I've ever read: incredibly well-researched, but seeming to miss the point totally. It's hard for me not to think that Greenfield blames his Sixties for being derailed by Leary, which to me is ludicrous. Greenfield goes a long - inadvertent? - way in showing that alcohol was the drug that brought Tim down, not LSD.

I enjoy the Leary I got in Flashbacks and other autobiographical writings.

There are little fugitive articles (pun intended) by people who knew him that are filled with, as Pound said, "luminous details." I forget who wrote a little piece about partying with Tim, and someone puts on a Billie Holliday song and Leary starts crying for the sheer pain in her voice.

7 comments:

Toby said...

Tim does seem to have enjoyed alcohol, and tobacco, and most other drugs.
I guess the smack interlude arose from his connection with Brian Barritt (you can find details in "The Road of Excess - a psychedelic autobiography"). They had already gone through the parallel adventures with Crowley's life, together, complete with echoes of Dr John Dee and Edward Kelly. Leary analysed it as a "euphoric downer" - and I guess enjoyed his brief trip to Circuit One - but did not recommend it.

BrentQ said...

I haven't read all the Leary bio's but I would highly recommend Outside Looking In which is a series of letters, essays, remembrances of Leary. It includes the contributions of many famous figures like Hunter S. Thompson, Allen Ginsberg, Winona Ryder and of course an essay by RAW.

Oz Fritz said...

Besides Flashbacks some of Leary's other books have a load of biographical detail about certain periods. High Priest and Changing My Mind Among Others come to mind in that regard

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