Many decades ago today it was also my birthday and, as normal, I was doing what I always do, what I still do, what I'm doing right now, writing at my computer, when there was a knock at the door. I opened it and there was Timothy Leary who said "Hi, I'm your birthday present." He wouldn't explain how or why this came to be, or who in particular was bestowing him upon me. He was simply there, and he would hang out for at least an hour. All he would tell me was that he was told I was someone he should meet.
Whenever you meet someone famous in a personal situation, it's hard to know how to behave, particularly if they're enormous media stars. After all, you've spent hours gazing at them, thinking about them, perhaps days or weeks staring at their image. Imagine the hundreds of hours you've spent with certain stars broadcast regularly into your living room. They feel like a friend, like you actually know them. They're not and you don't, but it's a hard feeling to shake when they're standing right in front of you, coming into your house, sitting on your sofa, checking the place out while waiting for you to bring them a drink. No matter how many memories you have of them, they have none of you. To them, you are a total stranger. Act like a fan and you risk becoming part of their teeming crowd of lookie loos. Treat them like you don't know who they are and they could get insulted. No way to make a friend. Friendships deserve an even playing field, so it's hard to think of yourself as the friend of a celebrity until they know as much about you as you know about them. Which is why celebrities are SO interested when you interrupt them somewhere in public and tell them about your uncle Sid's gall bladder operation.
I wanted to be friends with Timothy Leary so he had a hell of a lot of catching up to do because he knew nothing about me and I knew a lot about him, or at least I thought I did. I shifted into show-and-tell mode, whipping out a book of Polaroids for him to peruse. He enjoyed my madness immensely and demanded I loan him the book which he promised to return.
I proceeded to tell him something I'm sure he heard a million times. My life was profoundly changed by his research into psychedelia, combined with reading Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, the Beatles, and meeting a guy named Mario in 1970 who claimed to be the husband of the actual Alice that Arlo Guthrie sang about but who supported his acting habit by selling acid at Lee Strasberg's studio where I happened to be studying at the time.
But I digress. The first and foremost influence that Timothy Leary had upon me was my art, which simply didn't exist. Before my first acid trip, I was an actor but not an artist. I had never played guitar, had certainly never created any impressionism, and hadn't written a single word other than school assignments. Maybe I would have discovered these talents on my own, but if my Polaroids remind you of acid flashbacks, welcome to the club. On acid, what I do to my Polaroids, you can do to reality. Move it around a little. Make big things look small, small things look big, marvel at the infinite depths you're capable of perceiving, as though reality were a 3D comic book and for the first time you were looking at it with the red-and-blue glasses.
Pre-acid, I was only interested in being an actor, moving to New York to study with Lee Strasberg, and getting in a Broadway play. On acid, I actually attempted to give a performance from Spoon River Anthology in front of the man himself, a performance he declared "interesting," a performance that convinced me that acting was a very strange profession. While personally communicating with the infinite miracles of the universe, I had an extremely hard time convincing myself that the most important thing I could be doing was pretending to be a fictional character while reciting dialogue written by a writer I'd never met. Post-acid I walked home from the Village to my boarding house at 39th and Park, picked up my roommate's guitar and started playing. It wasn't long before I was a better guitar player than actor, and I ended up composing music for several off-Broadway shows. Way off Broadway. The Company Theater at La Cienega and Pico in Los Angeles to be precise.
Other acid trips were less eventful and I stopped taking it, but not before playing with my first SX-70 Polaroid camera and discovering I didn't need acid to change reality to my own specifications.
We talked and talked. He wasn't a drug addled guru and I wasn't an acid burnout. He was extremely intelligent, certainly one of the smartest people I ever met. My vision of Leary had been fogged by his media image, and I had forgotten that he was a Harvard professor. Luckily, some others forgot too and that's how he escaped from prison. The most amazing story he told me was this one...
When he was busted by the Feds for possession of one single joint of pot and sentenced to 20 years in a Federal penitentiary, the prison officials did what they always did with new prisoners, they gave him a psychological test to determine whether he would go to a minimum or maximum security prison. He passed the test with flying colors and was sent to minimum security where he promptly escaped. What the officials didn't know was that Leary himself wrote the psychological test for the Federal prison system when still at Harvard, so he knew exactly what answers to give.
After an hour or so, my birthday present had to leave, but in his new life as Hollywood gadfly I kept running into him over the years at video shows and art galleries. I'm glad he lived long enough to experience the Internet, I'm glad I got my Polaroid portfolio back five years after his death when it was found among his belongings, and I hope some day to be someone else's birthday present.