Timothy Leary Goes to Burning Man… but Wait, He’s Dead!

1 Burning the Totem of Confession at Burning Man 2015 c DG

As the Totem of Confession burns at Burning Man 2015, a pair of eyes seems to be staring out of the flames. Could it be Timothy Leary taking a last look around before he drifts off into space? The dust devil tornado on the right is a spin-off of the tremendous heat. (Photo by my friend Don Green.)

Susan Sarandon put on a low-cut white wedding dress. Her camp members walked beside her, stirring up the Playa dust. Timothy Leary came along behind, his ashes riding in a casket. A New Orleans style jazz band led the joyful procession of live and dead people making their way out to the Man and then on to the towering Totem of Confession. A 26 foot tall Octopus rolled along behind. Leary would have loved it. Maybe he did.

This photo of Timothy Leary was hung in the Totem of Confession.

This photo of Timothy Leary was hung in the Totem of Confession. The sign beneath declares, “Gone Fishing.”

Here's a view of the giant octopus, El Pulpo Mechanico, at night, with flames coming out of his tentacles and his head. El Pulpo transported Sarandon around Burning Man when she first visited Black Rock City in 2013.

Here’s a view of the giant octopus, El Pulpo Mechanico, that accompanied Leary out to the Totem of Confession. This is at night, with flames coming out of his tentacles and his head. El Pulpo transported Sarandon around Burning Man when she first visited Black Rock City in 2013.

They had toasted Leary a few minutes before the parade began, a communal act of mixing a pinch of his ashes with water (and possibly a tiny amount of LSD?) and drinking the concoction. It was bottoms up and goodbye. It wasn’t Leary’s first send-off, however. The majority of his ashes had already been shot into space, along with those of Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek. Leary had been promoting space travel and colonization at the time he passed way. He was looking for a one-way ticket into the outer beyond. “A few of us managed to accomplish that,” Sarandon reported in an interview. He died on May 31, 1996, just two days after he heard the news that he would be joining Roddenberry and a number of others on their journey into space, the final frontier.

Leary was to be re-cremated at the Totem of Confession. Before dying, he had requested that his remaining ashes be divided among friends. Sarandon had received a packet and kept it for almost 20 years. During her first venture out to Burning Man in 2013, she had decided to “gift” Burning Man for the experience. After pondering what to give, including a giant ping-pong table, she decided on Timothy’s ashes.

It was a major Burning Man event— and I missed it, wasn’t even aware it was happening. I would have been there, excited to toast the man Richard Nixon once claimed was the most dangerous man in America. Unfortunately, I had obtained my ticket the day before Burning Man started and hadn’t had the time to do the normal research I do on Black Rock City’s seemingly endless list of activities.

For those of you a bit fuzzy on Timothy Leary’s history, he is considered the father of LSD, or at least the man who brought it to the forefront of public awareness. The CIA had decided that the powerful hallucinogen might work as a mind control agent and experimented with it extensively in the 1950s and early 60s— often on Americans who weren’t aware that they were taking part in a CIA experiment, or, for that matter, weren’t even aware that they were being given the drug. In the mid 70s, when Congress decided to investigate the abuse, the CIA destroyed their files.

Leary, a psychologist, had begun his experiments as a professor at Harvard when LSD was still a legal drug. He was interested in whatever medical benefits the drug might have, and even more interested in the drug’s ability to lead people to a higher level of consciousness, something like Tibetan monks reportedly achieve after decades of meditation.

Research into whatever medical or psychological benefits might derive from the use of LSD came to a halt when the drug was made illegal in the mid-60s. Anti-drug advocates achieved a similar ban into research on the medical benefits of marijuana. (Different, but interesting none-the-less, the NRA was able to get legislation through Congress that banned research into the health benefits derived from reducing gun violence.)

My research on Leary for this blog brought up a few interesting facts in his history that I wasn’t aware of:

  • Gordon Liddy, Nixon’s lead burglar, organized drug raids against Leary as a local assistant DA several years before he joined Nixon. Liddy would later hit the speaker circuit with Leary in the 80s.
  • Leary made a short run against Ronald Reagan for the governorship of California in 1970. John Lennon wrote “Come Together” as a campaign song for him. (Leary’s run was cut short when he was thrown into Folsom Prison for marijuana use. Jerry Brown released him in 1976.)
  • Leary’s famous turn on, tune in, drop out rallying cry was suggested to him by Marshall McLuhan, famous for coining the phrases the medium is the message and the global village.

Susan Sarandon had befriended Leary in the mid-80s. By then, she was already an A-level Hollywood actress. I was amused that one of the first movies she starred in had been the cult classic, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Numerous other movies followed including Bull Durham, Thelma and Louise, Little Women, and Dead Man Walking, for which she received an Oscar. At some point along the way, she had an affaire with David Bowie. A strong advocate for liberal causes, she was selected to be the 1999 UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador.

Sarandon had originally planned to place Leary’s ashes in the Temple Of Promise, Burning Man’s main 2015 temple. A friend, however, had suggested that she get in contact with Michael Garlington of Petaluma, California, who at the time was putting together a 40-foot tall temple-like structure that he was calling the Totem of Confession. Michael was excited about the proposal and immediately said yes. Susan did more than simply offer ashes; the 68-year old showed up a week before Burning Man to help construct the temple and was handed a nail gun. She stayed in a tent that was constantly filling with dust and even blew down twice in high winds. I doubt many Hollywood types would participate in such an endeavor unless a movie contract and a few million dollars were added as an incentive. I admire her. Weeks later, she was still coughing up Playa dust during media interviews.

While the Totem of Confession had both a spire and a confessional, few people would consider it a church. It was too whimsical, and I might add, irreverent. Garlington used the word totem as in totem pole. It was chock full of strange photographs, plaster skulls, a goat head, Leary’s photo, hidden nooks and other miscellaneous items. I felt like an archeologist or possibly an anthropologist as I wandered through. Pictures tell the story best.

A day time view of the impressive Totem of Confession created by Michael Garlington and his partner

A day time view of the impressive Totem of Confession created by Michael Garlington and his partner

Each of the open spaces in Totem of Confession, as shown above, contains one of Michael's photos.

Each of the open spaces in Totem of Confession, as shown above, contains one of Michael’s photos.

A close up of the dress. Interesting, huh?

A close up of the dress. Imagine wearing it to a prom, or the symphony.

Another of the photos.

Another of Michael’s photos with a curious owl providing a photo-bomb.

This albino alligator, like the owl, and several other animals, decorate the temple.

This albino alligator, like the owl, and several other animals, decorated the temple.

Panel of door at Totem of Confession Burning Man 2015

The door into the Totem of Confession featured this elaborate front.

The confessional booth inside the temple included this tower of skulls. Strange, yes, but I once visited a church in Evora, Portugal whose walls and ceilings were made of skulls, real ones.

The confessional booth inside the temple included this tower of plaster skulls. Strange, yes, but Peggy and I once visited a church in Evora, Portugal whose walls and ceilings were made of skulls, real ones. More skeletons looked on from above.

The opposite side of the booth had quite the collection of "other" things.

The opposite side of the booth had quite the collection of “other” things.

The confessional booth. "Have a seat my dear, and tell me what you've been up to at Burning Man. Oh my, that will require 10,000 Hail Marys."

The confessional booth. “Have a seat my dear, and tell me what you’ve been up to at Burning Man. Oh my, that will require 10,000 Hail Marys.”

The best of horror stories my require a goat like this.

This guy would do well in the most pagan of temples.

And what is with these eyes. Is someone staring at you? Are you being recorded? Are you on Candid Camera? Do you dare look through the peep hole?

And what is with this eye? Is someone staring at you? Are you being recorded? Are you on Candid Camera? Do you dare look through the peep-hole?

Of course I had to look.

Of course I had to look. I suspect one could spend hours finding everything that had been hidden, incorporated into the nooks and crannies of the Totem of Confession.

A view of the Totem of Confession at night.

A view of the Totem of Confession at night.

The Totem of Confession was burned immediately after the Man burned Saturday night. Sarandon's wedding dress was included.

The Totem of Confession was burned immediately after the Man burned Saturday night. Sarandon’s wedding dress was included in the pyre. (Photo by Don Green.)

The temple burned quickly and fell to the ground. I wonder if the Burner was warming his hands or applauding. (Photo by Don Green.)

The temple burned quickly and fell to the ground. I wonder if the Burner was warming his hands or applauding. (Photo by Don Green.)

A final photo by Don. I really liked the way he captured the Totem of Confession in the broader Burning Man context.

A final photo by Don. I really liked the way he captured the Totem of Confession in the broader context of Burning Man. (Photo by Don Green.)

NEXT BLOG: Let’s take a detour and admire some Mutant Vehicles/Art Cars.

33 comments on “Timothy Leary Goes to Burning Man… but Wait, He’s Dead!

    • I think you are right Gerard, but it is impossible to predict the long term impact of the event, at least for me. There is no doubt that Larry Harvey has a vision of where he would like to see the event go, but I think it has a mind of its own… 🙂 –Curt

  1. Great photos and Leary trivia Curt. He was an interesting dude, no doubt. It was a strange time, and it becomes even stranger as we discover what actually was going on. What an impressive structure the Totem of Confession is. ~James

    • Still plenty strange out there, James. 🙂 But you are right. I was close to what was happening in the 60s and 70s, but hardly had a clue in ways. There was a totally different world that existed. It’s the same at Burning Man. I get a great deal out of my experience there, but I barely scratch the surface of what is happening. –Curt

  2. How fascinating Curt. I will never forget Tim Curry in Rocky Horror Show. Love this movie. Thanks for the walk down memory lane, at least for the memories that remail!! 😉

  3. Why do I have this sudden urge to re-read Tom Wolfe’s “The Purple Decades,” not to mention “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”? It’s not nostalgia, that’s for sure. What a long, strange trip those years were.

    • Indeed they were Linda, but I am convinced that today is equally strange and scary. It usually takes me about three minutes of the news to persuade me so.
      I reread portions of “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” when I was preparing for my series on Rancho Olompali north of San Francisco. Olompali was about as strange of a place that existed then.
      We had a friend of Peggy’s over for lunch this week, the local librarian. Turns out she was part of the Sawyer’s Bar commune in the 70s. It was a fascinating discussion. She still considers it one of the highlights of her life. –Curt

  4. That Totem of Confession is a magnificent example of creativity, giving the visitor more avenues of exploration than can ever be noted. The projects completely amaze me!

  5. Curt – you come up with terrific 20th century back pages history. A network of people, ideas, culture and events that seem all so foreign from today.

    Let’s not research the impact of guns on violence and Americans’ health. Who needs it when we have cable tv stations to make it all so clear and easy? They have all the answers to the important issues and we’re already paying hefty monthly cable bills. Why throw tax dollars at it too? Plus, the NRA is an subject matter expert and they say that we don’t need any more data.

    • I see you caught the little zinger I threw in, Bruce. I’ve seen where even the sponsor of the legislation is now claiming that he really didn’t mean “that.” Sometimes I feel like I am walking along in this world and suddenly fall into a hole in the ground dug out by a large white rabbit who keeps checking the time. –Curt

  6. Another wow post. Another wow piece of art. Extraordinary. And loved reading about Leary. Thanks Curt.
    I’ve heard of a church somewhere in Europe (forgotten where, but I’d like to remember so I can go see it one day) that is full of human bones of all kinds, arranged in patterns.
    Alison

    • Thanks Alison.
      There may be more than the Chapel of Bones in Evora, but it is definitely worth a trip, although a bit strange. My battery died after about two photos and I didn’t carry extras in those days. Otherwise it would make a very interesting post. –Curt

  7. Finally, I have made a moment or two to sit down and catch up on Burning Man stories. This one is wonderful. I imagine you have some regret at missing it, but lucky that Don was there and could tell the story and share some photos of flames. Isn’t that capture with the eyes in the flames and the dust devil just the greatest? Wow.

    The impact of Timothy Leary on the world is something I’ve never grasped, being born just a bit too late to comprehend the transition in society. This blog post helps me place him into context. What an end to this packet of ashes, too! Wow! I have to assume he would have LOVED it all.

    • Leary was part of the evolution of the 60s. And he just kept evolving. I was always aware of his connection with LSD, but wasn’t aware of some of the other things I included in the blog. Or I had forgotten. 🙂 –Curt

  8. Of course, I’m smitten by your photos (love the dress, by the way), but your information really caught my attention. All that stuff about Liddy, Leary, and Sarandon just adds to the mystique of Burning Man — and the Hollywood factor, too. This is just one heckuva fabulous event.

    • Thanks. 🙂 And I always find the stories behind the events and art fascinating, Rusha. I was interested to see the tie ins with the series I on wrote in California’s North Coast in the fall. –Curt

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