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The Parisian Jazz ChroniclesAn Improvisational Memoir$

Mike Zwerin

Print publication date: 2005

Print ISBN-13: 9780300108064

Published to Yale Scholarship Online: October 2013

DOI: 10.12987/yale/9780300108064.001.0001

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Timothy Leary

Timothy Leary

Voltage Smart

(p.51) 5 Timothy Leary
The Parisian Jazz Chronicles

Mike Zwerin

Yale University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter focuses on the author's thoughts on the death of American psychologist and author Timothy Leary. It discusses his meeting with Leary when he was in Algeria and explains that Leary and Cleaver considered themselves to be leaders of major international cultural revolutions with their group called the Black Panthers. The chapter also comments on Leary's role in American youth.

Keywords:   Timothy Leary, American psychologist, Algeria, Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panthers, cultural revolutions, American youth



Mike was stuck in Paris. Which was better than being stuck in, say, Algiers.

It's hard not to be stuck somewhere—stuck in real life, dealing with social benefits, utility bills, taxes, plumbers. Marie-France hooked Mike up with her plumber when he had a leak. Taking out his wrenches, the plumber asked him how come they were married and lived in two different places.

“She's my almost sort-of ex-wife,” Mike said. “We're buddies. It's complicated.”

The plumber wrenched and looked knowingly at Mike, and said, man-to-man, that he had two ex-wives in different apartments around Paris, and he was friendly with both of them. Not to say anything nice about the French, but Mike had good luck with French plumbers.

Being stuck in a place you like, doing something you want to do, (p.52) was a sort of libertarian house arrest—not all that bad, but stuck is stuck. Mike absolutely had to hang on to his French health insurance and, like most journalists, he was totally hooked on his byline. Everybody likes to see his name in the paper. And then there's the place itself. If New York is technology's victory over man, then Paris is man's victory over technology. At a cocktail party one Saturday night on Île St. Louis, a teenage girl came up to him and said that her mother—she pointed to a woman in a corner—had told her that Mike had played with Miles Davis. Was it true?

He said that it was.

“When was that?” she asked.

“Nineteen forty-eight,” he replied. He'd seen that look before. “I know, I know,” he said. “You weren't born yet.”

She looked over at her mother again, and then it hit him, and Mike said: “You mean your mother wasn't born yet?”

He'd better get used to it. It was not going to get any better.

Young people think that old people wear old people masks—that they had worn their real faces when they were young. Young people look in the mirror and wonder how they will look wearing their old person's mask. But when you actually get to be old, it turns out that the young face was the mask. Some young people already wear old faces. Was it Camus who said that everybody over forty is responsible for his own face?

The French media have a kind of gentlemen's agreement to dumb down Saturday night television. There are only game shows and reality programs on the national stations. The cable runs bad B-movies dubbed into French, or, more irritatingly, good movies by people like Bergman and Fellini dubbed into French, just in case you were tempted to stay in and watch the tube. It is a conspiracy to get people to go out and spend money at least one night a week. Social democracy at work. Saturday night is amateur night.

(p.53) Musicians rarely go out on Saturday night, unless they have a gig. In his winter years, Mike took to going to bed with a good book on Saturday night. The problem was that a good book would no longer keep him awake for long. There was no point resisting. Even his naps had naps. “How good it is to slip into the brief oblivion of sleep,” Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote about the ease of taking naps in old age: “And what a gift to wake once more in the clarity of your second or third morning of the day.”

Slipping into oblivion watching default cable one Saturday night, Mike chanced upon a documentary film on Canal Jimmy—a nice name for a French TV channel—about the death of Timothy Leary. It was like a slow-motion replay of a two-minute warning period in a lopsided football game, from the point of view of the loser. Leary was terminally ill from the opening credits. Time was cosmically out. Sudden-death. Leary was all pumped up. Nothing was going to save his ass but a Hail Mary.

Speaking on-camera to bedside friends and chroniclers about having terminal cancer, Leary updated his patented metaphysical raps with a new one about death. Death, he said, was the ultimate out of body experience. Good old Tim, a drug fan until the end.

He had lost his hair, and his eyes were deep-set and just about out of sight in his hollow face. His body was paper-thin. At the end of the documentary he died, and the doctors sawed off his head and put it in a jar so his brain could be frozen for posterity. No shit. That may sound spooky, but Leary had a healthy ego and a really first-class smile, and he was sure that it was all well worth preserving. Anyway, it was also a good hustle. The filmmakers paid his medical costs in return for the film rights. It took place in Los Angeles.

Mike had left New York to become the European editor of the Village Voice on January 20th, 1969, Richard Nixon's first inauguration day. It was not entirely coincidental. Obviously, the American (p.54) government could not get any worse. (He was wrong.) He had no contract; it was understood to be for two or three years. It didn't matter, he was just glad—he was surprised how glad—to leave America. Strange that he should feel this way about his native country. He began to travel so often to so many places in Europe, Asia, and Africa, with so many languages, currencies, male and female plugs, and electrical currents, that he began to think of himself as Voltage Smart (a good name for a rock band), like his laptop.

In Swinging London, his Bulgarian girlfriend gave him a threesome for his fortieth birthday. He was fucking Irish twins who lived in Belgravia; they liked to play with his head and he could never be sure which was which. He made it with his landlady, his literary agent, an airline stewardess, and a Hollywood producer's wife. Although there were also good music and good drugs, as has been said about Hollywood, Swinging London was mostly about pussy. It was not about contemplation.

Mike moved to Paris one right-hand-drive Beetle-load at a time. Driving a right-handed Volkswagen Beetle convertible with English plates in France was very voltage smart. Talk about the margin. He met Marie-France when she was the token woman in the office of the underground magazine Actuel. Her boss Jean-François was the Jerry Rubin of France. Or was it the Abbie Hoffman? No, that was Jean-Jacques. Keeping all those French hyphenated given names—Jean-Pierre, Jean-Marie, Pierre-Henri, Michel-Antoine—straight was like adding up the number ninety-nine. Four times twenty plus ten plus nine. French is not a language that prides itself on its simplicity. You have to figure four numbers to get one, remember two names for one.

It was either Jean-François or Jean-Jacques who gave Mike Timothy Leary's number in Algeria, where Leary was good and stuck at the moment. Mike had been introduced to him by Maynard (p.55) Ferguson, with whom he'd played the trombone for a minute. Maynard had been in on some early acid tests. Now Leary was on the run.

The Voice had been nagging their European editor to go and report on Northern Ireland, which was literally exploding. But there were already enough journalists sniffing around up there. Mike was not going to fight for a place on that long line. He was looking for the holes in the Swiss cheese. “The holes in your Swiss cheese are somebody else's Swiss cheese,” his friend Hamburger had said. If Northern Ireland was then the big cheese in the news, Timothy Leary in Algeria was a significant hole in it. One wire-service reporter told Mike that his article A Revolutionary Bust, date-lined Algiers, was “the biggest story since Jerry Garcia first dropped acid.”

Leary had escaped from a Californian prison, where he was serving time for something like corrupting American youth. He and his partner Rosemary Woodruff—both fugitives; she'd helped him escape—surfaced in Algiers. Not having an alternative, they'd put themselves “under the protection of” (Leary's words) Eldridge Cleaver and the Black Panther “embassy.” Other liberation fronts, the Ethiopian for example, had embassies in Algiers in the early nineteen-seventies. Algeria was the only country that did not consider them terrorists. They were all good and stuck there.

Cleaver and Leary both considered themselves to be leaders of major international cultural revolutions. While it lasted, their confrontation was, if not quite hard news, at least solid news. Both were wanted men in America. Oversimplifying the matter, but not by much, Mike figured that the city of Algiers was just not big enough to hold the two of them. It was a micro civil war. Cleaver was in the process of coinventing what came to be known as radical chic. Leary, always good copy, continually stretching the envelope, (p.56) with an outlandish tongue and a planet-sized ego, was handsome, lucid, funny, fearless, and usually stoned. Mike was fond of him.

When he called Algiers from Paris, Leary answered the phone and said sure, come down: “We'll pick you up at the airport.” In fact, Mike was met by a surly African American who did not introduce himself and asked a lot of personal questions. He said that the Learys had had a prior engagement and please get in the car. Under a bright blue sky, they drove through the white Mediterranean city and into suburban hills, arriving at a high-rent, high-rise seaside apartment building. Leary was at the front door of his large and airy flat. Mike asked him what was going on. Hugging him, wearing that well-worn shit-eating grin of his, Leary replied: “It seems that we are under arrest. And now, presumably, so are you.”

It was a benevolent detention. Timothy and Rosemary were bright-eyed, suntanned, well fed, and the Panther guards seemed more bored than unfriendly. Cleaver was accusing Leary of “compromising security” by entertaining visitors carrying drugs to get their guru high. He was right—Leary was being extremely uncool. Cleaver called it a “revolutionary bust.” After being restricted to the apartment for two days, they were permitted an unchaperoned drive to a nearby beach. Cleaver was not taking much of a risk. Leary had literally no place to run. Two Greek hippies introduced themselves on the beach, and everybody had a smoke. Leary said he wished he could get Cleaver stoned because “Eldridge is way too uptight.”

They both agreed to tape a debate for the Village Voice. Full of aggression, without self-doubt, the dialogue centered on the need for, and the nature of, revolution. Words kept coming back—“pig,” “man,” “righteous,” “downer,” “right-on.” Was it more important to free our minds or our bodies? Who were more oppressed, hippies or blacks? They both took themselves quite seriously. Talking like (p.57) entrepreneurs, each defending his own interests, they were energetic, sincere, dedicated, unquestioning. Who could have guessed how out-to-lunch that dialogue would come to sound? It was some sort of hippie Spinal Tap.

Mike went to the central post office in downtown Algiers to call his editors at the Voice, and tell them about his scoop. He was feeling good about himself. Having no local money, he called collect. There was a two-hour wait for an overseas line. It was hot, and very damp, and it smelled like an unwashed armpit in the central post office. His collect call was refused. It turned out that the editor had been waging a campaign against unnecessary phone expenses. A collect call from Algeria? Certainly not. The editor apologized later. Still, “A Revolutionary Bust” was buried on page twenty-seven.

After Mike left, Leary and Rosemary broke out, after which they broke up. Leary had further adventures in Switzerland involving a younger and richer lover, a Porsche convertible, and a screen test for a starring role in the movie of Steppenwolf. On the post-Panther lam, Leary was being handed from one Swiss canton to another on a series of three-month subleases. He drove his sports car around the Alps, the long blond hair of his new woman blowing in the wind. Not a care in the world. He was a star. Swiss hippies provided him with acid. When he met Dr. Hoffman, the Swiss inventor of LSD, there were articles about it in the local papers. Leary flunked his screen test for Steppenwolf, then in preproduction in Basel. Fishman, the producer, was a fan of his, and Leary's test was not bad, but he was not thought to be directable; and, star or not, he was not bankable. This was an uninsurable renegade dope fiend wanted by the FBI and Interpol. Max von Sydow got the part. More about that later. Leary was arrested by Interpol trying to go through Pakistani customs.

Watching his death documentary by default on Canal Jimmy, (p.58) Mike heard Leary's version of the end of the Algerian episode for the first time. Alerted by the press, Leary said, the government told the Black Panthers that they had no right to arrest anybody in Algeria. This was not their country, and they had better all start thinking seriously about getting their sorry, stuck asses out of there.

(p.59) Barbershops & Whorehouses V

I am not a socialist, I am not a capitalist. I am a saxophonist.

Janos, a Polish jazz musician