Whatever halo of countercultural glory shined over the late Dr. Timothy Leary dims to near blackness with the publication of the new biography by Robert Greenfield. According to reviews (here , here, and here), the world-famous avatar of expanded consciousness, who plotted with novelist Aldous Huxley on how to bring peace to the world through sharing their LSD stash with Kennedy and Krushchev, is revealed as a cold, selfish, drunken desperado who betrayed or sold out pretty much everyone everyone who helped him, including his own children.
Leary belonged to what we reverently refer to as the Greatest Generation, that cohort of Americans who eluded most of the deprivations of the Depression, grew fat in the affluence of the postwar years, and then preached hedonism and truancy to the baby-boom generation, which has taken the blame ever since. Great Ones, we salute you!
Menand sees Leary as having achieved his greatest influence through use of marketing messages that were immediately copied by Madison Avenue:
Leary’s immortal message to (his) audience—“Turn on, tune in, and drop out”—was quickly picked up on and widely pastiched. Greenfield cites a commercial for Squirt: “Turn on to flavor, tune in to sparkle, and drop out of the cola rut.” This is not very surprising, for a couple of reasons. One is that in the mid-nineteen-sixties the language of commercial culture was drug vernacular. Almost everything advertised itself as the moral, legal, and sensory equivalent of a drug experience, from pop music to evangelism. (Billy Graham: “Turn on Christ, tune in to the Bible, and drop out of sin.”) All sorts of products claimed to turn you on, get you high, blow your mind. But the other reason Leary’s phrase was adopted as an advertising slogan is that it was designed to be an advertising slogan. The inspiration came from a fellow pop visionary, Marshall McLuhan. In 1966, McLuhan and Leary had lunch at the Plaza Hotel in New York City; there, in Leary’s account, the media-wise McLuhan offered the following counsel:
“The key to your work is advertising. You’re promoting a product. The new and improved accelerated brain. You must use the most current tactics for arousing consumer interest. Associate LSD with all the good things that the brain can produce—beauty, fun, philosophic wonder, religious revelation, increased intelligence, mystical romance. Word of mouth from satisfied consumers will help, but get your rock and roll friends to write jingles about the brain.”
But Leary hardly needed this advice. Long before 1966, he made a point of giving then-legal LSD to intellectuals, writers, professors and other “influentials” who spread the word among kindred spirits, and then to their fans and followers. Musicians in particular proselytized by example, through the acknowledged influence of LSD on their work.
No different from putting a brand-name cigarette in an actor’s fingers, a bottle of beer in front of a ballplayer, or a designer outfit on a red-carpet regular. PR 101.