Sunday, September 23, 2012

Timothy Leary: She Comes in Colors

I'm wandering pleasantly through the wilds of Timothy Leary's The Politics of Ecstasy this sunny Sunday morning, trying to put together some narrative that makes sense. I don't know if it's the writer in me, or if this is the way everybody's mind works, but I'm always seeking a story that fits, no matter what elements get mashed together.

I suppose I came to this place because I recently read Oliver Sacks' personal history "Altered States" in The New Yorker, where he describes his self-experiments in the chemistry of chloral hydrate, morning glory seeds, morphine, LSD and various other druggy concoctions during his years as a medical student:

"I recall vividly one episode in which a magical color appeared to me. I had been taught, as a child, that there were seven colors in the spectrum, including indigo....I had long wanted to see 'true' indigo, and thought that drugs might be the way to do this. So one sunny Saturday in 1964 I developed a pharmacologic launchpad consisting of a base of amphetamine (for general arousal), LSD (for hallucinogenic intensity), and a touch of cannabis (for a little added delirium). About twenty minutes after taking this, I faced a white wall and exclaimed, "I want to see indigo now -- now!

"And then, as if thrown by a giant paintbrush, there appeared a huge, trembling, pear-shaped blob of the purest indigo. Luminous, numinous, it filled me with rapture: it was the color of heaven, the color, I thought, that Giotto spent a lifetime trying to get  but never achieved --never achieved, perhaps, because the color of heaven is not to be seen on earth."

Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out

Never having taken LSD myself, I became interested in learning more about the experience -- not by taking it, though who knows?, that may happen someday, but by reading up on it. For a few years, an old book has sat on my shelf, picked up somewhere, perhaps a Brooklyn stoop sale, and left unread: The Politics of Ecstasy, by Timothy Leary, Ph.D., a collection of essays written by and about the Harvard professor who spent the 1968 San Francisco Summer of Love defending his psychedelically assisted research into the inner spaces of the human mind. So this weekend, I finally picked up the book and started to read an essay titled "She Comes in Colors," which turns out to be the transcript of an interview Playboy magazine conducted with Leary in 1966.

Basically, the dude dropped a lot of acid. A lot.

"The lesson I have learned over 300 LSD sessions, and which I have been passing on to others, can be stated in 6 syllables: Turn on, tune in, drop out," Leary told Playboy. (Which means that he must have taken many more trips between the interview and the time of The Politics of Ecstasy's publication in 1968.) Click here for's complete transcript of the interview.

I was especially interested to learn what Prof. Leary has to say about LSD, women and sex. It's a mixed bag of drug-tested experience, scientific wisdom, unfiltered thought and a sprinkling of sheer nonsense that sounds dated.

For example, I now know that in a carefully prepared, loving LSD session, a woman can have several hundred orgasms! I also have learned that every woman has built into her cells and tissues the longing for "a hero, sage-mythic male, to open up and share her own divinity." Plus, LSD is a powerful panacea for impotence and frigidity, "both of which, like homosexuality, are symbolic screw-ups."

‘She Was All Women, All Woman, the Essence of Female’

But Leary was a brave thinker, a man ahead of his times in many ways, who pressed forward without shame in his belief that LSD opens a person to the fact that "every man contains the essence of all men and every woman has within her all women."

There’s a funny passage in the interview where Playboy keeps asking Leary variations of the same question, which is whether it’s easier for a guy to pick up chicks while tripping. The doctor warns against it, saying that on LSD, her eyes would be microscopic, and she’d see very plainly what the guy was up to, coming on with some heavy-handed, moustache-twisting routine: “You’d look like a consummate ass, and she’d laugh at you, or you’d look like a monster and she’d scream and go into a paranoid state."

Leary recalls an LSD session with his wife, Rosemary, when their eyes locked and she pulled him into the center of her mind, where he experienced everything she was experiencing. There's real beauty in his telling.

As he looked at her face, it began to melt and change.

Dr. and Mrs. Leary
“I saw her as a witch, a Madonna, a nagging crone, a radiant queen, a Byzantine virgin, a tired worldly-wise oriental whore who had seen every sight of life repeated a thousand times. She was all women, all woman, the essence of female – eyes smiling, quizzically, resignedly, devilishly, always inviting: ‘See me, hear me, join me, merge with me, keep the dance going.’”

Mrs. Leary was all women to her husband. He had no need for a constant, ever-changing parade of young female flesh, he told Playboy. During the six-year period of his extravagant, promiscuous, unchaste use of LSD, Dr. Leary was faithfully monogamous. “The notion of running around trying to find different mates is a very low-level concept,” he said.

There's something sweetly old-fashioned in his fidelity to Mrs. Leary. Say what you will about him -- and plenty of criticisms have been lobbed at him -- Timothy Leary was a man who clearly loved and cherished his wife.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Vaudeville Oddballs

Gypsy Rose Lee is my latest obsession. She got her start in vaudeville, you know.

So, I've been reading Gypsy's memoir, called, uh, Gypsy: A Memoir, the one that Gypsy the Broadway musical was based on, so I've learned that it was only after years of driving around the country, singing "I'm a Hard-Boiled Rose" on Orpheum Circuit stages and sleeping in a tent with her pushy show-biz Mama Rose and baby sister June that Gypsy became a fabulous burlesque star.
Vaudeville was dying, but before it was stone cold finished, Mama Rose kept dreaming up these cockamamie acts for the girls to appear in. For example, Mama had a cow made with a papier-mâché head and a body made of fuzzy brown-and-white material along with leather-spat hooves. One of the unpaid boys in their act occupied the front of the cow while another boy took up the rear.

And then l'il June sang this song:

I've got a cow and her name is Sue
And she'll do most anything I ask her to.
I took her to the fair one day
And she won each prize that came her way

Cornball, right?

As it turns out, this was typical fare back in the 1910s and 1920s before radio and talking pictures killed vaudeville. Gypsy mentions a number of the vaudeville performers she shared a stage with, and they're...odd. Hard to believe American culture created them, but you know that L.P. Hartley quote, "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."

Or maybe you don't. The point is, entertainers did things back then that you wouldn't see now. Here's a sampling of a few of the vaudeville stars Gypsy met back in the day:

Eva Tanguay:  Slate calls Eva Tanguay "the biggest rock star in the United States" from 1904 until the 1920s, although Eva referred to herself as "the girl who made vaudeville famous." Her big number was "I Don't Care," and she wore costumes like this:
"Billed as an 'eccentric comedienne,' her act—essentially—was that she was nuts," says the Travalanche blog. "A bad singer, and a graceless dancer, with hair like a rat’s nest, the homely, overweight Tanguay would put on outrageous outfits, sing provocative self-involved songs, commissioned especially for her, and fling herself around the stage in a suggestive manner."

Francis Renault: This drag queen billed himself as "The Slave of Fashion" and performed as a Lillian Russell [Note to self: Who? Must google.] impersonator before opening his own speakeasy in Atlantic City.
 "Is it proper also is it legal for a real ladylike man to further simulate femininity and appear on the streets dressed in woman's garb provided this man be a professional female impersonator?" asked the Atlanta Constitution in 1913.

Read more about Francis Renault at Queer Music Heritage.

Sophie Tucker: Actually, I think I've actually heard of Sophie Tucker before. Anyway, Gypsy mentions her as playing on the Orpheum Circuit. She was like a combination of Mae West, Janis Joplin, Bessie Smith and Francis Renault (see above). Apparently, she was born in 1886 and got her start by singing for tips in her family's restaurant.

She sounds tough and cool in her big number "Some of These Days":