If I ever get around to writing another book, I will make sure to include the word “psychedelic” in the title. On three occasions in San Francisco, while carrying around the uncorrected proofs of Don Lattin’s new book, The Harvard Psychedelic Club, people asked me if they could have “a look at that ‘psychedelic’ book that you’ve got there.” There’s something magical in the word, I guess. Harvard has its own intriguing connotation, too. In an instant, one knows that this is the story of Dr. Timothy Leary, Dr. Richard Alpert (now Ram Dass), and a couple of famous confederates from the ancient 1960s – Huston Smith and Dr. Andrew Weil. All, except for Leary, are alive today.
Don Lattin, who was a religion writer at the San Francisco Chronicle for decades, has scored a hit. Some of us, as I do, remember Tim Leary, the so-called LSD guru from bygone days. I still hold a bit of affection for this charismatic madman who tried to get young people to “turn on, tune in, drop out.” When I was 15 years old, I saw Leary and Alpert, his colleague from Harvard, hold a seminar in New York City that had more the feel of a camp-follower revival meeting than an academic symposium. Leary, so wickedly charming, suggested that we all take acid by the fistful and throw off the shackles of convention. That could mean anything – as long as one no longer had to pay attention to parents, school, work, church, traditional marriage, or any of that kind of stuff. It was the Audacity of Dope.
Even at that tender age, I knew the feds would get Leary. They did. The FBI considered the Pied Piper of Lysergic Acid to be America’s Public Enemy Number One. But we had so many back then. They were far more interesting. Many were political derelicts. Young people today are truly curious about these four brilliant men from the Harvard Psychedelic Club who reaped the whirlwind and came out of it in such different, distinctive ways. Most are quite, forgive the expression, respectable. But they were seekers, explorers, if you will. Our fascination for explorers will never fade. There will always be a place for The Harvard Psychedelic Club on The Discovery Channel. They sure had moxie.
Some think that it’s high time we get back on the tripped-out, psychedelic horse, throw caution to the astral wind, and retrench the neuropaths. Others say that we, in the second decade of the 21st century, are already in the throes of a very bad trip, and that we best stick to nothing stronger than melatonin. The best part of a book like this is how it will engender argument. And, for people like me, it stirs some wistful memories of rebellion.
Lattin has always embraced the good qualities of being a religion reporter. He never loses his sense of humor. That’s a must for a writer who has to zigzag along the path of piety. And he never shows contempt for his subjects. There’s a kindness, an element of respect, in Lattin’s reportage. In fact, he shows, for the most part, a high regard for these four remarkable men. He does say that Leary is the most tragic. Few would disagree. More important, Lattin shows how this quartet of brilliant insurgents, a sort of Manhattan Project for dismantling the intellectual, scientific, conventional confines of the 1950s, have a lasting impact on how American life is perceived today. It leaves us with this question: where can we find more guys like these guys?
You’ve got to read it. It is supremely entertaining.
The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America, by Don Lattin (HarperOne, $29.99).
Bruce Bellingham confesses that he suffers these days from acid-reflux flashbacks. That’s a sure sign of advancing age. Advise him at email@example.com.