A full account of the two 1960s icons who made it their cause to launch the psychedelic age.
BOA Editions editor Conners (Growing Up Dead: The Hallucinated Confessions of a Teenage Deadhead, 2009, etc.) begins with sketches of his subjects’ early years, then moves to 1960, when they met. By then, Ginsberg was the famous symbol of the Beat generation, open about both drugs and sexuality. Leary, a Harvard instructor, had begun using mescaline to research schizophrenia and other mental illnesses. Another Harvard psychologist introduced the two, thinking Leary might find the poet an interesting subject. Each was convinced of the importance of psychedelics, and the two had complementary strengths: Ginsberg’s wide connections in the artistic world and Leary’s cachet as a Harvard researcher. In November 1960, they created a plan to spread the gospel of psychedelics. Letters went out to writers, jazz musicians, artists and others who might try the drugs and spread the word. But Leary underestimated how straight society would react as Harvard, then the world at large, became aware of his drug sessions. Losing his job in a blaze of publicity, Leary went on the road in his new role as prophet of LSD. Meanwhile, Ginsberg was pursuing mystical paths to enlightenment in India. They grew apart as the ’60s played out—Leary as the leading advocate of a drug-fueled counterculture, Ginsberg as an advocate of peace and social change. Leary increasingly became the target of busts and persecution, and eventually went to prison in California. After escaping, he fled overseas, but was recaptured and served hard time until he turned state’s evidence to gain his freedom. The two men were never really close thereafter, but their paths crossed from time to time, surrounded by a cast of characters ranging from Ken Kesey to G. Gordon Liddy.
Conners sometimes falls into hero worship, especially of Ginsberg, and the time frame is occasionally unclear, but he provides an entertaining overview of an era whose echoes still ring.