About a year earlier, Timothy Leary collaborated somehow with rock star Billy Idol on his Cyberpunk album, and the month before this event in Austin he’d starred in a tedious documentary, also called Cyberpunk. Clearly, his snappy patter would be predictable. I’ve already searched the Internet and came up empty. If someone were to find a video of the event it might be a little bit different from what I remember, but:
I divide the event into three stages.
The show began with Timothy Leary and his wife or girlfriend, or whatever she was, coming out to thank people for attending. Then Leary raised his arms and slowly intoned a deep sentiment about computers and cyberspace and the future of human consciousness. I thought he seemed a bit shaky, impaired, though clearly the crowd was loving his cyberpunk talk. He could hardly find a more receptive audience outside of the U.S. West Coast than in hippy-speckled Austin. Then we watched a trippy video, projected larger-than-life over the stage. This was at a time when video projection was still a new thing, and the crowd seemed to go with it.
Leary came back and stumbled through an introduction of the video of his arrest. Then he played the video.
Leary came back again after that and tried to win people back to his cause. It didn’t go well.
Here’s how the AP newswire service reported his arrest. You can unpack what no one liked about the story from the newswire article, but here’s the basic blow-by-blow.
He stressed in his introduction for the video of his arrest that he was striking back against the political-correctness that had developed a stranglehold on all of our minds, put there by the authorities to control our actions. That kind of thing. So were were expecting something serious.
His videographer traveled with him to Austin, and began recording, or at least we began seeing what they were recording, as they were stepping out of the old Austin airport, the one that had been in north Austin (again, now central Austin; the place has mushroomed in 20 years). They step into the heat of our early Summer and decide that they’re going to step back inside to have a smoke, having just gotten off the plane but apparently not wanting to arrive at wherever they were to be ensconced in Austin to have a cigarette in a not-stupidly hot environment. But someone waves Leary off: smoking had been banned inside the airport.
Leary throws a bit of a fit, waving his arms and cursing about how he should be able to do whatever he wants to do. He seems seriously impaired. He marches over to the closest person in a uniform with a badge. He’s a security guard, though, not an officer of the law. Leary tears into him about the insanity of this culture of political correctness, waving an unlit cigarette.
They guy looks extremely embarrassed and basically says, “I’d really, really rather you not do that. Can’t you please step outside?” Leary refuses, and asks for trouble. The guard explains that Leary would need to find an actual police officer for that. I recall him both wincing slightly over being asked to point out where a real cop might be while also intently looking for a way to get out of the conversation.
Then a suited person appears — I remember Leary calling out from the overall baggage claim area that he wanted to speak with someone in charge — and I forget if she worked for an airline or for the airport but she has her lips pursed and her eyes locked on Leary. She is listening to exactly what he is saying. And she nods, and she leads him to an actual, uniformed police officer. After asking for and receiving an explanation of the actual law, Leary belligerates the cop, and at the climax of his rant he lights his cigarette and begins smoking. The cop gives him a momentarily resentful look — like, “And you’re really going to make me do this” — before gently handcuffing him. I forget how much more the tape showed; not enough that I remembered. Maybe, like a lot of other people, I’d stopped paying attention. They’d taken him downtown and given him a ticket, basically. He didn’t get booked; he didn’t have to put up bail. He just got a lift from the airport to downtown, then the event organizers picked him up there. And he basically got a ticket for being a dick. And then he showed us the evidence.
Six months after this event, in his book Chaos and Cyber Culture, he wrote that he was “1,000 percent against the thoughtless use of ((drugs)), whether caffeine or LSD. And drugs are not central to my life.” Knowing how publishing works, that text was likely edited and ready to go many months before that event in Austin. I think he saw the cigarette smoking issue as a human rights matter rather than a form of drug use. Maybe it would be easier to whittle down from our culture — I’m against tobacco, personally — if we called it what it is: drug use.
Some months after that event, his home state of California would ban smoking in all enclosed workplaces, including restaurants (though not bars; that would take three more years). It would take Austin ten years to gain a similar smoking ban, though it wasn’t because the people in Austin were jerks. I’m not defending Austin — we weren’t suffering a jerk drought — but it’s more because people in Texas in general and Austin in particular, against what I’ve discovered the global media would have you believe, are extremely polite. No kidding, Canadians would wish they were Texans if it weren’t for all the gun violence and the infrastructure problems and the poverty. I can’t say there’ve ever been official reports about people being niced to dead, but it wouldn’t shock me. “An armed society is a polite society,” I used to hear. People were genuinely very polite, and part of being polite is to not figuratively or literally blow smoke in people’s faces. There was, again, no drought of young jerks who would sometimes do it on purpose because it was funny, or older jerks who simply couldn’t be troubled caring about other people’s opinions of something that hardly even registered anymore to them, with their severely dulled senses of taste and smell. But for the most part smokers were circumspect and wouldn’t smoke where it wouldn’t be cool. After all, being cool was the only reason they started smoking, anyway.
The sense in the crowd, as we watched the scene play out, was confusion, at first. Did he really do that? Is this a joke? Are we seeing what we think we’re seeing?
After coming back, he looked a little confused as to why he was losing the room. He fell back onto the old standbys, like how cyberspace is the psychedelic of the future, and how we will only be free when we free ourselves, but the crowd had already begun thinning, and it became more difficult to hear his amplified voice over the people in the corridors muttering to one another — and while I’m sure he’d respect that a lot of what was going on were drug deals, he no longer seemed to be having fun.
I hoped he was at least learning something. It turns out he already knew he had cancer. Two years and two weeks later, his consciousness passed out of this world. His body was cremated and sent up into space on the same launch that took Gene Roddenberry’s mortal remains, a final trek to the stars for them both.
Cookie and I shared a glance: It was time to go. We skipped out, hand in hand, past the throngs of skate punks out front, falling down again and again trying to hop the curb on a board. Oak trees shrouded our exit into the near dark. We slid into my car — my little red convertible, my other little love.
“I think that went well,” she said.
I placed my hand on her leg. “Oh, my,” she said, and laughed. I punched the gas and we tore out of there, towards home.
Standing as we had been, sometimes on opposite sides of the incoming throng, sometimes side by side, we felt very warm, very close to one another. We were giddy, feeling like we had just done a great thing. What I’ve failed to mention about Cookie is that in addition to being a stellar graphic designer, she was unfeasibly and almost impractically beautiful, coupled with a pure shyness that was two innocent steps to the right of being coy, but just two. There was a nearly unbearable frisson that came from seeing hundreds of people respond so positively to what we had to tell so many of them individually. They responded well in part, I think, because she was unreasonably hot, but the positive sense from it was boosted ten-fold for it being clear that she was with me. I liked that.
The next couple of weeks, as a growingly great mob of people signed up for the service, were great. The month afterwards, though, went as badly as any one month has ever gone in my entire life. I didn’t believe it at the time, I won’t be surprised if you don’t.
With a full-time staff on io.com, they didn’t need me or Jeff hammering out crappy Web pages anymore — which was good, because back on the game-company side of things, we had big problems. Getting out of the hole we’d unwittingly dug ourselves into would take nothing short of actual, honest-to-God magic.
Hang on tight.
NEXT: Making Magic — part 1