My Comic-Con Trip with Dr. Timothy Leary

January 15, 2010

By Barry Alfonso

Timothy Leary and Gabriel Wisdom in 1976

Dr. Timothy Leary (left) and Gabriel Wisdom in 1976

The San Diego Comic Convention hosted many stellar guests during its first decade, but perhaps the most unlikely among them was psychedelic guru Dr. Timothy Leary. Once labeled by Richard Nixon as “the most dangerous man in America,” he was still a notorious figure when he attended the 1976 Comic-Con. Not everyone on the Con committee was thrilled to have him there. Nevertheless, he did play a small but memorable part in the program. I know: I acted as his assistant, temporary sidekick and cohort in pranksterism.

Leary’s Comic-Con experience came about through the efforts of Gabriel Wisdom, at that time a popular air personality on San Diego’s KGB-FM. Gabriel was a supporter of the Con and had hosted its masquerade dressed up as the Mighty Thor, whom he had portrayed on television in Hawaii some years earlier. It seems that Leary had begun listening to Gabriel’s program while serving out his sentence at the San Diego Metropolitan Correctional Center. Tim contacted him and the two became friends. Gabriel envisioned Leary becoming a contributor to a new program called Conversations with Higher Intelligence. Leary, in turn, hoped to re-launch himself as a pundit of the New Consciousness – an effort that a radio platform could only help. After his release in the spring of 1976, he was ready to put his plans into action.

As the publicity director for the Comic-Con, I had turned to Gabriel as a mentor in developing my media relations skills. One day in mid-‘76, he called me and asked if I’d like to help him in a project involving Leary. Why I was selected for this mission seemed a bit unclear – I think the two of them liked the idea of having a youngster on board.

We first met at Leary’s new home in San Diego’s Mission Hills neighborhood. Gabriel, Tim and his then-wife Joanna Harcourt-Smith were there. I accepted the invitation to participate in various interviews/skits involving science or consciousness expansion or whatever – the whole thing was a little nebulous to me at that point. For some reason, the song “Winner/Loser” (from the Steve Winwood/Stomu Yamashta/Michael Shrieve album Go) was brought up. Leary objected to the fatalistic Buddhist attitude expressed in its lyrics – it didn’t gibe with his forward-looking, ultra-positive philosophy. I started to get the sense that Leary had some big ideas he wanted to advance over the airwaves, no matter how kooky his methods might seem on the surface.

Not long after that, we all met down at KGB studios for some initial recording. Leary wanted to use this program to promote concepts like genetic engineering, human longevity and space travel and enjoyed using unorthodox methods to do it. He and Gabriel started calling up various famous people and attempted to interview them for the show. Among them was scientist Carl Sagan, who suddenly came over the studio speakers one afternoon. I got on the phone line and spoke to him in the guise of David Phipps, who in real life was a renowned young physicist. Sagan was not amused by this charade – he apparently didn’t think much of Leary and felt he’d been roped into something he didn’t want to participate in. It wasn’t a very productive dialogue.

Perhaps the most memorable incident at the KGB sessions was the moment Leary put his hands around my throat and pretended to strangle me. I had said in passing that I liked Bob Dylan’s music, which elicited Tim’s mock-rage. (I learned later from Gabriel that Leary had known Dylan and thought he was a dark, withdrawn sort of person whose songs promoted negativity.) It was all meant in fun, though I did feel I had stepped into a vortex of counterculture rivalry.

Around the time this was going on, Gabriel approached the Comic-Con committee about having Leary as a guest that year. I remember a somewhat contentious meeting on this subject, with Richard Butner and myself speaking in favor of inviting Leary and Shel Dorf very much against the idea. Shel mentioned that representatives of the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate had heard about the possibility of Leary attending and threatened to not participate in the Con if he did so. We finally voted to invite him, though Shel was still concerned that the Comic-Con’s reputation would be hurt by the good doctor’s presence.

As it turned out, Tim didn’t have any negative impact on the Con that I could detect. Some people were not pleased, but overall he got along quite well with the guests and attendees. He decked himself out in a white hat with a small light-emitting diode on it and assumed the role of “Commodore Leri,” an agent of the future. It helped him to fit in with all the other fantastic characters crowding the El Cortez Hotel hallways.

I can recall hanging out by the hotel swimming pool with Leary, who sat shirtless and looked liked any other grey-haired, middle aged white guy on vacation. Still, no matter how low-key he was, you could sense something that set Leary apart – he had a definite raffish charisma. There was also a slight wariness about him that I attributed to his years in prison. No doubt he was simply getting used to being out of jail. (He did have a sense of humor about his ex-con status – while he lounged poolside, my mother sat nearby with a badge that read “parole officer.” I’m sure Leary noticed.)

Leary spoke as part of a Comic-Con panel with Gene Roddenberry, among others. (Gabriel remembers this was on the topic of Star Wars, which premiered at that year’s Con.) He added some unexpected zest to the proceedings – it’s easy to imagine writers and filmmakers getting a kick out of his predictions about the amazing future he saw ahead for us. The science-fiction element of the Comic-Con program fit right in with Leary’s interests. In truth, he was like some swashbuckling scientist character out of a novel or film – the hero or the villain, depending upon your point of view.

The oddest moment of Leary’s Comic-Con experience was the press conference he held in one of the El Cortez’s conference rooms. Tim, Gabriel and I sat at a table and faced a room of 20 or so reporters. My job was to manipulate the controls of an electronics panel, receive “messages from outer space” and whisper them into Leary’s ear before he answered a question. The media people weren’t very amused by this routine; some were openly hostile. I think one reporter said (more or less), “Cut the crap – now that you’re out, are you going to start peddling LSD again?” Leary used this occasion to advance his futuristic ideas, not caring how irritated his audience became. I just sat there spinning my dials, enjoying my part in this curious show.

The rest of my (you’ll pardon the expression) flashbacks of Dr. Leary are fragmentary: escorting him down the convention stairs, introducing him to friends, watching how he carried himself among admirers and detractors. He was good with people, with his broad smile and rascally charm. Leary was obviously something of a party animal, but he also seemed undeniably brilliant – subversively so. He projected the air of a man privy to secrets and able to see into the future. The wheeler-dealer and the prophet coexisted within him.

From what I understand, Leary enjoyed his time at the Comic-Con. He went on to become a regular on Gabriel’s “Brainstorm” syndicated radio show, made nightclub appearances as a “stand-up philosopher” and toured with old nemesis G. Gordon Liddy. It’s interesting that both he and Chuck Norris helped gain early exposure for their show business careers at the San Diego Comic-Convention. Too bad they never got to make a movie together.

While I stayed in touch with Gabriel after the 1976 Comic-Con, I never saw Leary again. I can’t say he totally transformed me – and no, he didn’t slip anything into my drink. But spending time with him and watching him mess with people’s minds was definitely a trip I’ll never forget.

(Special thanks to Gabriel Wisdom for sharing his memories of Leary and SDCC’76.)

Barry Alfonso is a professional writer living in Pittsburgh. His work has appeared in such publications as Rolling Stone, the L.A. Times and Songwriter. His liner notes for the Peter, Paul and Mary box set Carry It On were nominated for a Grammy. These days, he is a music reviewer for iTunes and is working on an assortment of book projects. In addition, he has written songs recorded by Pam Tillis (‘In Between Dances,” a Number One country single), the Highwaymen (Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson), Trisha Yearwood and Kathy Mattea. In earlier days, at the age of twelve in the fall of 1969, Barry was one of a group of five young comic fans who joined with Shel Dorf to start the San Diego Comic-Con.

To read Timothy Leary’s own account of one radio-recording session with Gabriel Wisdom and Barry, visit http://www.planetpootwaddle.com/timothy_leary.html. However, please note that the “the fifteen-year old boy” referred to therein was actually the eighteen-year old Barry.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Steve Chaput April 10, 2012 at 7:40 pm

I remember the convention vividly and my brief encounter with Dr. Leary was something I still tell folks about.

I was going upstairs to my room and waiting for the elevator door to open. A tanned and smiling gentleman got out of the elevator said hello and I responded. It was only as I got in the elevator that it hit me. I must have said something like ‘Oh, my god!’ as Leary turned and smiled again as the door closed. Sadly, I was too much in shock to think about trying to go back downstairs, assuming he had already left the hotel.

Thanks for telling us about your own experience. It makes me regret not returning to the con to see what might be going on.

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Chris Bakunas April 22, 2011 at 5:27 pm

Hah! I was a 13 year-old at that convention (my third Con), and I recall meeting Dr. Leary – he was selling a book titled ‘What Do Women Want” if I remember correctly. My Mom, who had allowed me to stay at the Con in the gopher room (I worked as a gopher at a number of the Con’s in the ’70’s) was terrified that Dr. Leary was going to turn me into a drug addict by his presence!

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Steve Brumbaugh February 3, 2010 at 1:52 am

Weird about Greg’s recollection of having the dealer’s table next to Dr. Leary’s, since I have the same recollection! (must have been the other side) I was helping manage the booth for Bob’s Comics (Hawthorne, CA) where I was working at the time. I don’t remember many details about what was said, etc., but it’s something I’ll never forget. This was where my “comic collecting identity” met up with my “hippie-radical identity”. Talk about your crossovers! I was extremely bemused by the whole situation. Ah, those were the days….

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Steve Brumbaugh February 3, 2010 at 1:55 am

Now I can’t get that Moody Blues song “Legend of a Mind” out of my head!

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GREG KOUDOULIAN January 15, 2010 at 9:05 pm

KOOL, THANKS BARRY
Great article. According to my best recollection., Tim Leary’s dealer table was right next to mine. He asked me how to deal at a comic con, and I explained and helped him some. Very charming person and very friendly.
Also met his new wife. They where real and had no facade. He was not at his table much of the time. So I helped the wife, the best that I could. Hard to remember the specifics. The U.S. MARSHALS arrived every day to check on him. He was recently released from the joint. It was really funny when the Feds arrived. I would tease them that they did not look like us. We all laughed, everyone had a good sense of humor. The Leary’s were fun, gracious and so respectful. Harvard psychiatrist was very kool, I am never quick to judge.
P.S.
BARRY, glad and proud you turned out great. Hope that us older farts had a good and positive nurturing influence on the younger farts. I still have the Denver shirt and value it highly. One small favor, please join THE OFFICIAL SHEL DORF FAN CLUB AND ENTOURAGE, which includes the George Clayton Johnson Entourage too. Your badge is on the way.

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