ACCELER8OR

Jan 24 2012

Pariahs Made Me Do It: The Leary-Wilson-Warhol-Dali Influence (Mondo 2000 History Project Entry #3)

 As I close in on the evolution of Mondo 2000 History Project book content to the point where I have to consider what the final thing will be — it becomes clear that it will be about 1/3 collective memoir; 1/3 my memoir and 1/3 scrapbook.  The challenge is to have all of it somehow fitting into my grand (or perhaps grandiose… apparently candidate Gingrich now think grandiosity is something to brag about politically and who am I to argue.  Well, actually, I would argue were I to take the time… but grandiosity in art/artifice can on occasion strike paydirt) scheme to have it all somehow fit together and read like a very dense and complex novel (but who would believe in these characters?)

In this context, some of the work involves me retrieving origin stories from my past to illuminate the influences that brought me to High Frontiers and eventually to Mondo 2000 and the cyber counterculture.

Recently, Boing Boing had me contribute to their marvelous weeklong tribute to Robert Anton Wilson — and only as I sat down to write something for them, I remembered that “The Timothy Leary/Robert Anton Wilson trip” was at the unfinished top of my outline of things I need to write for the book. I had put it off as a big challenge and had moved on to other stories and observations.

I originally imagined that this entry for the book would be largely about the philosophy or Reality Tunnel that some call the “Leary-Wilson Paradigm.”  I would — of necessity — interrupt a narrative flow that leans towards storytelling to explain ideas, since the “Leary-Wilson Paradigm,” more than anything else influenced the magazine I wanted to create.

But as my story about discovering the Illuminatus Trilogy emerged for the Boing Boing contribution, it became clear to me that I needed to explain my fascination with Leary in a somewhat similar style — ultimately merging the two stores into one short section of the Mondo book.

And it was while thinking about my initial fascination with Leary that this entry took a dangerous turn towards “confessing” my mid-70s fascination with famous pariahs…  outcasts from outcast culture. I have a touch of trepidation about presenting these thoughts in these knee jerk times… that people will think I’m speaking to today’s politics rather than the complicated and sometimes contradictory impulses that motivate activity  — and also wonder, often, if I’m going to be telling the MONDOids the stories they want to hear — or if I should care about it.

As to the stuff about Leary maybe being “a fink,” yes… I leave it hanging, as it will always be hanging.  I would say, though, that one of my favorite moments in Mondo history was when I began editing the conversation Leary had taped with William Gibson  (not knowing it would ultimately be transcribed for print) and came across Tim casually talking about being thrown into “the hole” in a Minnesota Prison because the feds were dissatisfied with his testimony about the Weather Underground. (You won’t find it in the linked segment, but you will find it in the magazine… if you have a copy.)

Anyway, for your reading pleasure… a possible fragment from the Mondo 2000 History Project book, tentatively titled “Use Your Hallucinations: A History of Mondo 2000 and the Cyber Counterculture.”

Pariahs Made Me Do It: The Leary-Wilson-Warhol-Dali Influence

As you already have surmised, I came up through the New Left Revolution years.  From 1968 – 1971 — during and just after high school, I knew that the revolution had come.   Some as yet inchoate mix of left anarchist radicalism and newly psychedelicized youth mutation was simply taking over the world by storm.  As Hunter Thompson famously rhapsodized, “There was madness in any direction, at any hour… You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.… Our energy would simply prevail…We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.”  Right (or left) or wrong, it was exciting and energizing to be a part of it.

But by the mid-70s, people on the left radical countercultural scene had become — at best, mopey and quarrelsome — and, at worst, either criminally insane or very tightly wound politically correct environmentalist/feminist/health-food scolds.  People were either bitchy; or in retreat — smoking pot and listening to the mellow sounds of James Taylor and Carole King.

I didn’t know it consciously at the time, but I needed to create a space within my psyche that liberated me from the constancy of moral judgment and eco-apocalypse mongering — and one that also didn’t represent a retreat into the mediocrity of middle class liberalism.

Thus, I was attracted to flamboyant “hip pariahs” who were very un-left, politically incorrect… even, in some cases, right wing.

There was the glam rock rebellion against blue denim hippie populism. These performers insulted egalitarianism by dressing and performing in ways that set them apart from their generation’s rock audiences . (Naturally, good old Mick Jagger was the major rock god who didn’t need to change to be a part of it.)  David Bowie, Alice Cooper, Lou Reed all nipped — in interviews and lyrics and musical styles — at assumed countercultural values while also mocking, at least, cultural conservatism by their very androgynous existences.

I gobbled up materials on, or by, Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali — each, in their way, pariah outcasts from political decency — particularly Dali.

By being an unsane solipsistic monarchist, loving money, supporting the fascist Francisco Franco, Dali seemed to me to be the purest of surrealists, running with his subconscious atavistic impulses against the earlier sympathies of the surrealists with the left and developing an utterly inexcusable (sometimes when I say — as I do at the opening of this book — that aspects of my story and my mind are inexcusable, I’m not just using colorful language. I mean it literally) but original persona.  His autobiographical and philosophic texts defied logic in ways that seemed to me to be more genuinely playful and funny than his former fellow travels in 20th Century Surrealism who had long since denounced him.

Warhol played an even more important role in liberating my soul and psyche from the depths of resentment and rational piety since his very role in art and culture was to create a space free from judgment.  While Andy was nominally a liberal, his deadpan consumerist art and aphorisms had a Zen quality — it could, paradoxically, cause you to embrace the flow of frozen moments and artifice for artifice’s sake by inducing silence in the chattering, protesting, judging brain.  To properly experience Warhol was to almost stop thinking… in the best possible way… while still hanging on by a thread to a sense of humorous irony.

And then there was Dr. Timothy Leary. There was the legendary Leary…  all that stuff about turning on tuning in dropping out the 1960s.  I had read and enjoyed his book High Priest, but actually thought of him as something of an old guy who seemed to be trying too hard to fit into the youth culture.  It was the Leary of the ‘70s that fascinated me.  During the height of my own romantic infatuation with “The Revolution,” Leary had made a heroic prison escape. He had been spirited away by the guerrilla warriors of the Weather Underground and had shown up in Algeria with Eldridge Cleaver’s exiled Black Panther chapter, pronouncing unity between the psychedelic and leftist and black revolutions and promising to help Cleaver form a revolutionary US government in exile.  At that time, all of these people — Weather Underground leader Bernadine Dohrn, Eldridge Cleaver, Timothy Leary, Stew Albert — who led a contingent of Yippies over there to cement the alliance — were icons to me, more or less on a par with The Beatles and The Stones (or at least, the Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix).

Then, after conflicts with Cleaver — and just as the buzz of the revolution was souring, he had disappeared, showing up only in a few gossipy pieces that portrayed him hanging out with fellow exile Keith Richards and issuing bon mots that were more of the flavor of Oscar Wilde than Che Guevara.

Then, he was caught in Afghanistan and shipped back in chains to the USA facing a lifetime in prison.  And not long after that, rumors circulated that he was ratting out the radical movement.   This was very depressing.  But at the same time, occasional interesting signals emerged — usually published in the underground press — from Folsom Prison where he was being held.  Strange little quotes about being an intelligence agent for the future; about “offering the only hopeful eschatology around today;” about dna being a seed from outer space; about “going home” to galaxy central and human destiny being in the stars; about how he was writing a  “science faction” book.  Odd signals not fully formed — nevertheless somehow intriguingly differing from the dour vibe emitted by the rest of those publications at that particular time. I couldn’t help myself.  My mutant brain was already starting to find the apostate Leary’s signals refreshing.  I was doomed to become a “science faction” mutant.

[ insert Robert Anton Wilson section here ]

It was several years later, in 1976, that I came across an edition of Crawdaddy, a very cool rock magazine with regular columns by William Burroughs and Paul Krassner that contained an article about the recently released Dr. Tim.  The writer hung out with Tim as he wandered around NYC rattling off his ideas about SMI2LE — Space Migration Intelligence Increase Life Extension — sending up the first coherent transhumanist flare of the 20th Century. There was a picture of Leary in a business suit standing between the newly built twin towers wearing a smile that laughed out loud and pointing, almost violently, with his right forefinger upward to outer space. This was something new.  The picture took its place on my wall in between the cover of the first Ramones album and the picture of Squeeky Fromme being arrested after her attempted assassination of President Gerald Ford.

My final “conversion” to Learyesque proto-transhumanism came in 1977.  It was summer and my mother had the intuitive sense to hustle me away from Binghamton, where my friends were becoming junkies, and moved me early to the college town of Brockport New York where I would start school that fall. The town was empty and there was nothing to do. But the town’s bookstore was open.  I walked in and there — on prominent display — were two books by Timothy Leary, Exo-Psychology and Neuropolitics. The latter also credited Robert Anton Wilson.

I read those books frontways and back and inside out.  And then I read them again. It all resonated.  It all made sense to me.  It was a way of interpreting the world that respected my psychedelic experiences and my times within the counterculture and gave them a new context — one that hadn’t yet failed!  These were now the evolutionary experiences of a premature mutant breaking at least partly free of the programming of an unhappy, repressive civilization so that I could move it towards a bright and expansive future.  The expansiveness that had so energized and delighted me during the late 1960s and early ‘70s would now be — at least partially — a science project to literally expand our space and time and minds perhaps unto infinity.

I was excited, but I was also tentative. I paced around my small one room apartment.  Was I crazy?  Was I wrong?  By now, self identifying as a 1977 spikey-haired hipster who liked to put his cheap punk nihilism unapologetically front and center (yes, trendiness haunts all my days), could I tell anybody about my philosophic attraction to the upbeat pariah and possible fink Dr. Leary?   Actually, that’s something I still ask myself today, although it is clearly too late.

 

Nov 29 2011

The Impatience (And Genius) Of Jobs: An Interview with Walter Isaacson

I never felt a particularly intense curiosity about the life and personality of Steve Jobs until the night he died.  Oh sure, he was a sort of hip entrepreneur from the baby boom, so there was always a glimmer of interest — somewhat along the same lines as the vague interest I would have in the life of Richard Branson.  But my tastes in favorite biographies would tend to the more extravagant; a Timothy Leary or a Keith Richards or an Antonin Artaud or a Salvador Dali (and I must confess to a taste for the occasional bio of a power mad dictator).   Entrepreneurs, however extravagant or autocratic in their realm, would come up short in terms of satisfying whatever perverse delights in abused privilege, eccentricity, cosmic ambition and/or mighty flame-out I might hope to find in my favorite biographies.

But on the night Jobs passed, I took a look around my home and realized that my world is intimately suffused with the ghost of Jobs’s creativity — all those beautifully designed complex and total-package mechanisms for communication and creation are deeply woven into the proverbial fabric of my life.  Plus, he was one of those successful acidheads whose embrace psychedelic veterans like myself like to wave as a banner against the clichéd assumptions the mainstream has about those who have dipped their psyches in that font of lucid vision and/or sensory overload (depending).

I immediately contacted Walter Isaacson to find out if I could get a copy of his then-upcoming official Steve Jobs biography for Acceler8or and interview him about it.

The bio did not disappoint.  While no one reading Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson would come away comparing Jobs’s excesses and temperament to, say, an original dadaist or a major 1960s rock god, by most lights, he had personality and artistic sensibility to spare — and his visionary sense of self and determined refusal to do anything any other way than his own — makes for a lively and compelling read.

Isaacson lets his own prose sparkle as never before — including a use of playful titles and subtitles.  It’s fun.

I conversed with Walter Isaacson via email.

RU SIRIUS: At the halfway mark in reading the book, my most prominent thought is…. nobody could emulate this guy – his behaviors or even his business strategies and methods — and expect to succeed in business.  More likely, someone else would get punched in the head fairly frequently.  So I guess to formulate this as a question: what do you think about this observation…  and… is Jobs the most unique dude you’ve ever covered as a writer and journalist? Would you compare him to anybody?

WALTER ISAACSON: Steve is by far the most intense person I ever met, and he’s filled with contradictions. Who can I compare him to?  NOBODY! He was more inspiring than anyone I ever met, and also the least filtered. “I’m a black-and-white kind of person,” he told me when urging me not to use a color picture of him on the cover of the book, and he even thought in black and white: You were a hero or a shithead. He could taste two similar avocados and proclaim one to be the best ever grown and the other to be inedible. Most of us have a filter, so that if our first reaction is that something sucks we pause or temper our words. Steve was brutally honest. That made him seem like an asshole at times. But it also ended up making him charismatic and someone who could create a loyal team.

RU. I’ve never seen Jobs’s acidhead hippie aspect foregrounded to this degree, particularly in the early part of the book.  It’s sort of a weird contradictory relationship to counterculture.  I have my own thoughts about this, but let’s start with yours.

WI: Steve represented the fusion of many strands. One was the hippie, counterculture, anti-authority, drugs, rock, rebel spirit of the late Sixties. Another was the hacker, wirehead, phone phreaker, geek hobbyist culture. You melded both of these when you launched Mondo 2000 in the 1980s. To these two cultural strands, Steve also added the entrepreneurial, startup, business mentality that was arising in the 1970s in Silicon Valley, especially after the advent of the microchip. He embodied a lot of contradictions. A seeker of Buddhist enlightenment who becomes a billionaire businessman. A misfit, acid-dropping, counterculture rebel who is a tough businessman. Someone with a new age and alternative spirit who also is a believer in technology and rational science. It all seems a bit weird, but it’s also kind of cool.

RU: Did you see any interest on his part in the political aspects of counterculture… aside from loving Joan Baez?  Did he ever reference the antiwar movement or civil liberties struggles or environmental issues or even the war on drugs, to your knowledge?

WA:  He didn’t seem all that interested in politics. His main interest was education reform. He really thought the school days should be longer; teachers should not have tenure, etc. He wanted to make ads for Obama in 2008, but wasn’t on the same wavelength as David Axelrod.

RU:  One area where he contradicts most countercultural sensibilities was in his making Apple very much the opposite of open source and free software and all that.  What intrigued me in the book was that he seems not to be motivated so much by greed as by artistic sensibility.  He saw himself as an artist and he was the director of these creations — almost like Hitchcock making a movie.  It had to be just so.

WA: He really looked at himself as an artist. And he had the temperament of one. He was demanding, a perfectionist, and sometimes a control freak. He said he cared more about making beautiful products than about making a profit, and I believe him.

RU: For those of us who were around in the early days of digital culture, you could say Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak in one breath… sort of like Lennon and McCartney.  So was Wozniak a fluke?  Did Jobs ever imply that he viewed it that way?

WA: Woz was not a fluke. Steve Jobs said he was 50 times better than any engineer he had ever met. He was particularly brilliant at a very specialized thing: designing circuit boards using the minimal number of chips. But the importance of that talent waned, and he did not care about the other aspects of Apple.

RU: Did he have a Sancho Panza… a partner outside of his family who sort of stuck by him?… or at least some career long accomplices about whom you could tell us a bit about their relationships?

WA: One of Steve Jobs’s longtime mentors was Mike Markkula, the first real investor in Apple. He became a mentor. He taught Jobs about focus and marketing and packaging. But he sided with John Sculley in the showdown of 1985, and when Steve returned in 1997 he asked Markkula to leave the Apple board.

RU: You were surprised that Steve asked you to write a biography and gave you free reign over it, given his love of privacy and control.  Did he ever waiver?  Any freak out moments when he tried to shut you down… or where you worried he might do that?

WI: The one thing I could never fully understand was why Steve Jobs did not insist on more control over the book. He kept saying he didn’t want to see it in advance. He said he knew I would write things that would make him mad, but he wanted me to be honest. He said he wanted to avoid any perception that it was an in-house book. He wanted it to feel independent. The only time he interfered was when he saw a proposed cover design and thought it was ugly. He asked for input into the cover. I agreed.

RU: What did you learn that surprised you most about his personal life as you researched the book?

WI: What most surprised me about his personal life was how it was connected to his professional life. He was intense and emotional in both. In both cases, he had a romantic new age side and a sensible, technological, rational, business side. These two sides ended up connecting in both his personal life and business life. In his personal life, the two strands connected in his marriage. It was both a romantic and rational marriage.

RU:  I indicated at the beginning of this interview that Jobs was so unique that no budding entrepreneur could benefit from emulating him.  But I wonder, what lessons are there in this bio for people who want to make world changing art or technology?

WI: The most important lesson is to have a passion for connecting art with technology. It was the lesson of the fusion of the hippie and tech geek of the early 1970s, as reflected in Mondo 2000, and it’s embodied in Steve’s life.

RU:  Have you had any interesting responses to the book — for example, was anyone shocked or dismayed by the LSD references… or anything else?

WI:  Some people responded to the book by focusing on, and being shocked by, his petulance. That misses the point. I tried to make the narrative a tale of how the petulant personality was connected to his passion for perfection — and how eventually he made that inspiring rather than off-putting.

RU: Do you think Apple can keep up the magic without Jobs?

WI:  Apple has been infused with Steve’s belief in connecting art to technology. Tim Cook and Jony Ive get it. So do the other members of his top management team. They can make it work.