My new book, The Harvard Psychedelic Club, is the story of four guys who crossed paths in Cambridge, Mass., in the fall of 1960 – Timothy Leary, Richard (Ram Dass) Alpert, Huston Smith and Andrew Weil. But the sound track that was floating through my mind while I was writing the book was laid down by another Fabulous Foursome from the sixties.
I refer, of course, to John, Paul, George and Ringo.
Like many people who encountered Timothy Leary, John Lennon had a love/hate relationship with “the high priest of LSD,” the former Harvard psychologist who advised a generation to “turn on, tune in, drop out.”
Lennon decided to try LSD after reading The Psychedelic Experience, a book Leary co-authored with Alpert and Ralph Metzner, based on their understanding of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Most of the lyrics to the spacey, sitar-infused Beatles song, “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the last track on the album Revolver, were inspired by Leary’s book. According to one authoritative account, the song was written in January of 1966 while Lennon was on an LSD trip in which he used The Psychedelic Experience as his guidebook.
Turn off your mind, relax
and float down stream
It is not dying
It is not dying
(Lennon himself later said, “I got a message on acid that you should destroy your ego, and I did, you know. I was reading that stupid book of Leary’s.”)
Another classic Beatle’s song, “Come Together,” was inspired by Leary’s whimsical 1969 campaign against Ronald Reagan for governor of California.
One thing I can tell you
Is you got to be free.
That same year, Leary and his wife, Rosemary, were seated at the foot of John and Yoko’s bed, next to Tommy Smothers, chanting away on the iconic recording and filming of the sixties anthem “Give Peace a Chance.”
But my favorite story about Leary and the Beatles is an account by John Perry Barlow about the day in 1967 when he took The Grateful Dead out to meet Leary at the high priest’s encampment in Millbrook, NY. Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatle’s album with fullest psychedelic flowering, had just been released.
in a boat in a river
With tangerine trees
And marmalade skies
Barlow and the Dead had a fresh copy of the album with them. They put the record on the turntable. It was the first time Leary had heard it.
They all sat in silent rapture until that final, fabulous crescendo at the end of “A Day in the Life.” The needle rose from the vinyl. Timothy Leary – a man always assured of his place at the center of the universe -- turned to the Dead and said, quietly, “My work is done.”