Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Confessions Of A Hope Fiend

Confessions Of A Hope Fiend, by Timothy Leary
1973, Bantam Books

Here's a book that went through a lot of byzantine channels on its path to publication, a book Timothy Leary received an advance of $250,000 for (though apparently he didn't receive much of the money), a book that went straight to mass market paperback to get to as many people as quickly as possible. A book that shortly thereafter went out of print and has remained so since its publication in 1972.

This book was co-written by Brian Barritt. A fellow psychedelic traveler and Leary's pal in the early seventies, Barritt published his own bio decades later, 1996's "Road Of Ecstasy" (only published in the UK and mega rare and expensive these days). He's not credited anywhere in "Hope Fiend" (though of course he's featured as a character in the book itself), but parts of this book are so similar to the writing in "Ecstasy" that I asked Barritt via email if he had in fact ghostwritten a lot of "Hope Fiend." He kindly responded that he had.

But I wonder how much so. The thing is, this book is very well-written. It's almost too artsy for its own good. Parts of it seem cribbed from William Burroughs, other parts from James Joyce. Oft times the narrative breaks out into flight-of-fancy literary turns of phrase that I assume are meant to convey the rush of ideas awarded by LSD, and there are word tricks straight out of Joyce (ie "Eye sprang to the window."). According to Barritt's book (and "Hope Fiend" itself), Leary's early drafts of this book (all now lost, according to Barritt) featured even more of the Joycean puns, but I'm convinced the Burroughsian writing is Barritt.

Barritt's influence (or just Barritt himself, ghostwriting) can also be seen in the metaphysical/magickal connotations. This first shows itself in Leary's references to his wife Rosemary Woodruff. Never once does Leary refer to her by name. Instead, she is always mentioned as "She" or "Her," with the first letter capitalized. The same way a mystic would refer to the Goddess - the same way Barritt refers to her (uh, I mean "Her") in "Road Of Ecstasy."

Detailing the years 1970 to 1971, the book opens with Leary jailed in a minimum-security prison in California, busted for possession of a minor amount of marijuana (which according to lore actually belonged to his then-wife, Rosemary, though Leary doesn't state this in the book). He bides his time, meeting his fellow prisoners, one of whom in a literary wink is named Burroughs. Leary skews reality by introducing Barritt into the narrative early, even though the two really didn't meet him until Leary had escaped prison and fled to Algeria. But books need to be more fantastic than bare reality (right?), so Barritt here shows up while Leary's in prison, helping Leary plan his escape and giving him a copy of his manuscript "Whisper."'s not really Barritt! No, in a weird "surprise twist" that's never explained, this Barritt turns out to be an imposter, an albeit well-wishing stranger who just wants to help Leary escape for the kicks.

Leary was really escaped by the Weathermen, which he acknowledges in the book, but the money for the escape was provided by the LSD-as-sacrament group The Brotherhood of Love, something Leary does not acknowledge in the book. Anyway, the book presents the escape as it supposedly happened, Leary climbing the high fence during a minor break in security - all shortly before his fiftieth birthday, an admirable feat in itself. From there he's whisked away incognito by a group of Weathermen, all of whom Leary rhapsodizes about in the most idealized "freedom fighters for the soul of America" style possible. He briefly meets Weathermen leader Bernadine Dohrn, another recipient of Leary's gobsmacked idolatry (he describes her like some raven-haired beauty from a Hollywood blockbuster...after consulting a photo of Dohrn I can't say I agree with the good doctor).

Under an assumed name and wearing a disguise, Leary flies to Algeria, where Eldridge Cleaver, co-ruler of the Black Panthers, awaits him in his kingdom. The idea is, Leary, with his counterculture clout and heavy support from the white kids in the colleges of America, will unite with Cleaver, with his streetwise power and heavy support from the black kids on the streets of America, together engendering a nationwide insurrection in the US, leading to a better tomorrow. Unfortunately (?), it didn't happen.

If a movie's ever made out of Leary's life, then this chunk of it, with Leary and his wife ensconced within the paranoid confines of Eldridge Cleaver's Black Panther palace, would make for excellent material. It wasn't so excellent for spineless Leary, though. No, he allowed the increasingly-sullen Cleaver to harass and eventually imprison him - Cleaver, a lifelong con, had trouble getting away from the "cops and robbers" game, and there in his Algerian kingdom, realizing he was the ruler and no longer the "robber," decided he'd need to play "cop." It was the only game he knew, and Leary's LSD methods had no effect on him; Cleaver disdained drugs. So as you can see, this was not the dream-team that would bring about a new, psychedelic era of peace and love.

But yeah, Leary was spineless. We read dumbstruck as Cleaver bullies Leary to no end, and Leary offers no resistance. He puts up with it, offering us the lame excuse that Cleaver's people were imprisoned by whites for 400 years, so why should Leary get upset about being confined to lockdown in his hotel room for 4 days? But it just builds and builds, Cleaver outright threatening Leary, telling him what to do and when to do it, even installing a female Black Panther in Leary's apartment to keep an eye on him. Meek Leary accepts it all. You can't help but wonder how that other acid guru of the sixties, Ken Kesey, would've reacted. I figure Kesey would've taken Cleaver to the floor with a chokehold, forcing LSD down the Panther king's throat.

The real Brian Barritt shows up, having driven to Algeria to meet Leary and get him to pen an introduction for his book "Whisper," written while Barritt was imprisoned in England for carrying drugs. This is something else Leary doesn't mention, having presented "Whisper" earlier in the narrative as an already-published book. A few others come by to visit the safeguarded Leary, among them a reporter who apparently sells out to Cleaver, blaming Leary and his wife for ruining Cleaver's trust. It all comes off as a rather dry and rote political thriller, only the Burroughsian drug-trips in the desert saving it from total boredom.

The book ends right when it gets interesting. Leary escaped from Cleaver to Switzerland, where he became involved with the German krautrock scene. This is yet another fascinating period in Leary's life, recording the album "Seven Up" with German rockers Ash Ra Tempel and Brian Barritt (who provided his own view of these days in his "Road Of Ecstasy"). At the same time Leary and Barritt became fascinated with Aleister Crowley, with Leary even thinking he was Crowley reincarnated. But Leary's narrative features none of this, save for the title, a witty combination of Crowley's "Diary of a Drug Fiend" and his posthumously-published bio "Confessions."

Regardless, "Hope Fiend" cuts off with the arrival of "Goldfinger" (who literally shows up in the last sentence of the book): a millionaire drug dealer/arms financier who got Leary the $250,000 payment for this book...though in exchange Goldfinger himself retained the rights to it (just check the copyright), as well as the rights to all future Leary publications.

It would be great to have a republication of "Hope Fiend," with an afterword detailing what happened to the major players. After his brief tenure with krautrock (and "Seven Up" is one of my favorite albums), Leary was caught by US Feds and imprisoned again, this time in solitary confinement. Upon release he was more of a Robert Anton Wilson-type than his former "Tune In" self, talking about outer space colonization rather than inner space exploration. Barritt supposedly went into a decade-long heroin binge which provoked a falling out between he and Leary that wasn't repaired until Leary was on his deathbed in 1996. And Cleaver had the strangest of all fates, from a Black Panther leader crying out for Communist revolution to a staunch Republican in his final years.

The truth is stranger, and all that...

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