News & Politics

Timothy Leary: Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out


Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.

September 29, 1966, Vol. XI, No. 50

Dr. Leary’s Formula: Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out

By Stephanie Harrington

Not in lights exactly, but up there in big letters on the marquee of the Village Theatre are the names of the latest headliners at the old Second Avenue movie palace:


The irony is inescapable, “The Vaudeville Left,” one quipster called them. But so what? The Mayor of New York and the vice president of the United States get star billing on the Johnny Carson show, pursuing their political agendas before nationwide audiences of millions. Why shouldn’t the proponents of officially frowned-on points of view make their pitch to a couple of thousand people in a theatre on the Lower East Side?

Last Tuesday it was Leary’s night. The ex-Harvard psychologist was conducting “Psychedelic Celebration No. 1: The Death of the Mind.” It was the first of a series of such evenings launching the new psychedelic religion, the League for Spiritual Discovery (LSD), based on the sacramental use of mind-expanding drugs.

The line in front of the 6th Street box office stretched half a block up Second Avenue. In the lobby, at the press window, Time, Inc.’s girl on the scene was shelling out $6 for two tickets. Second irony: the Luce enterprises contributing to Leary’s defense fund. Five minutes before the announced curtain time the theatre was packed. And there was still that long line out on the street to be accommodated. Those already inside resembled the audiences that turned out for “Marat/Sade,” multiplied a couple of times, with the accent on the younger, hippy contingent.

The theatre was dark. Projected on a double screen on the stage as the face of a young man — middle class, educated, sensitive. A thin, uncertain, bespectacled face, waiting for some experience to lend it expression. Kaleidoscopic patterns of color played over it, temporarily filling the void. The shifting forms were projected by an “infinity” machine designed by Richard Aldcroft. The effect was dreamy, meditative. On the stage to the right of the screens two musicians played ragas on an electric guitar and an old English zither-like instrument. On the other side of the stage was an empty couch. That was the set up — altar for a night.

The ragas and the dreamy projections on the suspended face kept the audience occupied for about 20 minutes beyond the scheduled starting time. But the restlessness mounted and finally erupted into rhythmic let’s-get-the-show-on-the-road clapping. Not very decorous in a place of worship. Leary emerged, a dramatic figure in white — white collarless shirt; white pants a little too tight, a little too short; bare feet; prematurely gray, curling hair. He sat on the edge of the couch and intoned in a quiet, hypnotic voice:

“The League for Spiritual Discovery welcomes you…In the beginning let us pray. We pray for the courage and clarity to share with you our revelation. We pray for freedom from fear and from selfishness, which might disturb our message. We pray…the energies released by the new substances we use will be used for the benefit of mankind and all sentient beings, and not for our material benefit and psychological enhancement.”

All the while the beautiful, changing patterns of color continued to play across the screen beside him. Leary’s voice was lost in the color, secondary to it. The words came through like background music for the life on the screen, an effect that may not have been intended. The voice recalled the old religious myths — those of the Greeks, the Indians, the Christians — all dealing with “the ancient voyage…the death-rebirth experience.” That night a new myth was being launched, a new religious metaphor, a new symbolic figure to make the voyage through life, death, and rebirth. (Too much. Two thousand of us, products of a Christian society, crowded in to hear Leary’s message, and the cab driver that got me there was named Jesus…)

…After the demonstration came the pitch. Leary explained that the League for Spiritual Discovery is dedicated to a six-word proposition: “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” Translation: “Turn on means to go beyond your secular tribal mind to contact the many levels of energy which lie within your consciousness. Tune in means to express and communicate your new revelations in visible acts of glorification, gratitude, and beauty. Drop out means to detach yourself tenderly and gracefully from worldly commitments until your entire life is dedicated to worship and search.” The League, he said, will help other individuals and groups to “control and direct the wisdom now accessible” via mind-expanding drugs.

…He even outlined the League’s structure. There is a board of guides. “Fifteen people who have dropped out completely. Given up their jobs, homes, and possessions.” (They live with Leary on a 2400 acre estate at Millbrook in Duchess County, courtesy of a wealthy benefactor.) There are also “a couple of hundred” others, Leary went on, who “find their spiritual center in what we’re doing, but who live in your society. There is no hierarchy between priest and communicant. A member can become a guide simply by giving up,” he explained. “Slowly, gracefully, and beautifully, we can learn to drop out of American society as it is now set up…But,” he cautioned, with just a touch of irony, “no acts of rebellion, please.”

No acts of rebellion?

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]


Archive Highlights