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Long Live Timothy Leary

Friday, May 31, 1996 by Dave Winer.

John Perry Barlow, barlow@eff.org, probably needs no introduction to this audience. Founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Grateful Dead lyricist and pounder of good and sometimes lost causes; Barlow speaks in lyrics, gets people angry, and makes fun of things that beg to be made fun of.

When I woke this morning I learned of the death of Timothy Leary thru this essay written by Barlow. It's beautiful. I wanted to share it with DaveNet readers.

Long Live Timothy Leary by John Perry Barlow Permalink to Long Live Timothy Leary by John Perry Barlow

A couple of hours ago, at 12:45 am Beverly Hills time, my old friend and the corrupter of my youth Timothy Leary made good on his promise to "give death a better name or die trying." Willingly, peacefully, and unafraid, he headed off on his last trip.

He spoke his last words a few hours before. On the phone to the mordant William S. Burroughs he said, "I hope that someday I'm as funny as you are."

He didn't, as threatened, commit suicide on the Net. Or have his head cut off and frozen. Or engage in any other the other spectacles of departure I had dreaded. In the end, he surrounded himself with the angelic band of twenty-somethings who have been uploading him into the Web these last few months and drifted peacefully out of here.

I was headed his way when he died. When I was with him earlier this month he said, "When I leave here, Barlow, I want your face to be one of the last things I see." I think that was one of the sweetest things anyone ever said to me, and I was trying to make it possible, but death proved itself once again to be bigger and faster than either of us. The phone just rang in the middle of this rainy Wyoming night, and now I'm here naked in the dark trying to think of something to follow him out with.

Two years ago, Cynthia and I spent our last day together with Timmy. When she died the next day and it became so shockingly clear to both of us how strange this culture has become on the subject of the second commonest event in the world, how weirdly shameful is dying in America, we both thought it time to bring death out of the closet. I did so by grieving her, and continuing to grieve her, more publicly than is polite in a culture that claims for itself the ability to conquer and control everything.

But Timmy beat me to the barricades. He flat died. And he died, without pretending that he was "really going to get well any day now," without permitting himself to become a ghoulish and futile medical experiment, without contributing to the stupefying mass denial that causes almost 80% of America's health care dollars to be blown on the last six months of life.

He died unashamed and having, as usual, a great time.

A few weeks ago, the denizens of leary.com and I rented a phalanx of wheel chairs and rode them with him into the House of Blues on Sunset Strip, a place that likely had never seen fifteen people in wheel chairs before. After a truly merry time, we were headed back to his house and on the way came within a smile of Tim Leary's Last Bust.

We cruised west on Sunset. And the sun was setting. The top was down on my metallic mauve rent-a-convertible. A couple of the web girls, Trudy and Camilla, were sitting on the trunk like psychedelic prom queens, shoop-de-booping to the funk station on the radio, volume at eleven. Both the girls were beautiful, Trudy like a character from Neuromancer, Camilla like a character from Botticelli. The air was sweet and soft as a negligee on our faces, and the light had that elegiac quality that makes people think LA might not be so bad after all.

Timmy gave me a high five and grinned. "Life is good!" he shouted over the music. As I looked up to meet his raised hand, I saw in my rear view mirror, past the swaying torsos of the girls, the rotating reds of a real Beverly Hills cop.

Of course we were in possession of several of those substances that we considered safe and effective but which this culture, in another of its dangerous madnesses, has declared lethal, probably to distract heat from its own deadly drugs of choice. Furthermore, I had only recently paid an astonishingly steep California fine for allowing a friend to stand up through the sunroof of a car I was driving.

He pulled us over in front of the Beverly Hills Hotel. He looked like an Eagle Scout.

"Officer," I said, nodding back at the still improperly seated girls, "I know what we were doing was wrong. But you see, my friend here is dying, and we're trying to show him a good time." Timmy, without saying anything, smiled sheepishly at the cop and nodded, caught in the act.

He looked like hell but he sure looked happy.

The officer gazed into Timmy's beatific skull-face and lost his starch. "Well," he said to the girls, "I'd be lying if I didn't say that looks like fun, but just because he's dying doesn't mean you should. Now get down in the seat and buckle up and I'll let you go." I felt like honest death had just made one of its first converts.

In thirty years of following Tim Leary around, he's given me some wonderful and hair-raising moments. He has been father, anti-father, partner-in-crime, and devout fellow-worshipper of all that is female in this world. We loved each other, and shared more memories than I will ever relate. But I think the look he gave that cop is the memory I will cherish most.

As usual he was "cocking snooks at authority," as Aldous Huxley once accused him. But he was doing it, also as usual, with wit. And with love.

America managed to forgive Richard Nixon when he died. I hope they will extend the same amnesty to a real hero, Dr. Timothy Leary.


John Perry


A great TV commercial from one of the life insurance companies. It's brave like Barlow's piece is brave. On the day after you die... The phone will ring. Birds will sing and the sun will shine. It'll rain somewhere. People will make love. Yeah! But your chair will be empty.

Events like this remind me that it's always the right time to have fun.

Life is an artform! Leary taught us that. Let's not forget.

Like Leary, I want to lead a designer life. Be true to yourself. That's what he said. That's how you have fun! The man proved it.


Dave Winer

PS: Leary's website: http://www.leary.com/.

© Copyright 1994-2004 Dave Winer. Last update: 2/5/07; 10:50:05 AM Pacific. "There's no time like now."