Interview by R.U. Sirius
Zach Leary is the host of both the “It’s All Happening with Zach Leary” podcast and “The MAPS Podcast.” They have helped to cement him as one of the most thought provoking podcasters in the cultural philosophy genre of podcasting. He’s also a blogger/writer, a futurist, spiritualist, a technology consultant and sociocultural theorist.
Raised from a young age by Timothy Leary and his mother Barbara Leary, Zach had the ultimate front row seat to Dr. Tim’s later years. I’m excited to have him share some of his memories and thoughts with us about Dr. Leary’s final years as he was dying from prostate cancer.
R.U. Sirius: Was there any sign of illness that you were aware of before your stepdad got his diagnosis of prostate cancer? Anything you can tell us about this?
Zach Leary: Looking back on it, it becomes much easier to connect the dots and to make sense of what went on with his sickness and physical deterioration. Before the actual cancer diagnosis occurred, he expressed to me many times how he was brokenhearted and dejected that Barbara (Zach’s mother, Tim’s wife) had left him. I remember one night less than six months after she left where he confessed that he felt a sense of completion and a loss of a will to live. He simply had so many personal heartbreaks in his life that eventually caught up to him. I suspect from that point forward, he let his personal state of mind effect his physical one. He started to get old fast, so by the time the actual diagnosis happened, it didn’t feel terribly out of place. To me it felt like it might have even been what he wanted.
The fascinating part that makes him so different than most people is that he didn’t let it affect his work and prolific output. During the last 3-4 years of the downward life spiral he still found time to produce some of his most compelling work and inspire everyone around him. He had a stiff upper lip and marched forward.
RUS: How did you learn of Timothy’s cancer? How/when did he talk to you about it?
ZL: Honestly, I don’t remember the specific moment. I do remember him letting me know, but I can’t recall it being a formal “sit down.” The more severe talk/disclosure occurred after his one and only chemo treatment. He went to one chemo session and said “FUCK THIS. I’m not going to do it. From here on out, I’m calling my cancer Mademoiselle Cancer and we’re going to make friends with it!”
He did gauge my feedback by having a talk with me that he wasn’t going to get any treatment — which, in turn, meant he was going to let it kill him. I was young and didn’t know what to do with that information. He seemed to be at peace with it so I played along. That said, it took me awhile to really make peace with it. I was just starting to be an adult and the thought of not having his paternal wisdom in my adult life freaked me out. He certainly was very open and vulnerable to anyone wanting to talk about it, that’s for sure. He didn’t hide one bit!
RU: Was there a slow or immediate transition to “the mother of all parties” — his public celebration of the dying process? Do you remember any complications around that… practically or emotionally?
ZL: As far as I recall, the transition to what you’re calling “the mother of all parties” was immediate. He instantly recognized the juggernaut potential of making the death and dying process into the final act of his life’s work. That’s how I remember it anyway.
Once he decided that he wasn’t going to get any treatment for the cancer there was a short and very much unsustained grieving process. He somehow charmed us into making his dying into a celebration. Had I been older and more mature, I certainly would have handled that differently. His death, while of course profound and inspiring, hit me after the fact in a very challenging way. I was a lost young man with no identity of my own and part of that was due to me never really having much time to feel the loss and process. We had some really sweet father and son moments towards the end that contained some very necessary tears. But overall I think Timmy’s ability to barnstorm through emotionally difficult milestones was ultimately a downfall of his.
I’m glad the whole “designer dying” idea of his found such strong footing and uncovered so many important topics for our culture, but I do wish there was a more sensitive way to offset the public celebration with some compassion for those close to him. Immediately after he died, my life fell apart very quickly — when that happens it’s no ones fault, but I was by no means prepared for life without him.
RU: Many have commented on the youthful support group that gathered around him.
ZL: Of all the fantastic traits that made Timmy who he was, the ability to reinvent himself would certainly be at the top of the list. Decade after decade, trend after trend, he had the uncanny knack to surround himself with people who were at the edge of the current zeitgeist. After Barbara left him in 1992, he shrugged off the stand-up philosopher suit wearing schtick he’d honed for the previous 10 years and put on the cybernetic ring-leader preacher-man outfit. That morphed his lectures into a fast paced. highly-psychedelic multimedia extravaganza which was really more of an “event” suited for a rave than the traditional lecture circuit. His partners in these shows were young cyberpunk renegades on the early edge of MONDO culture, video art and EDM.
The point of this story was how one things just evolved into the next. When he started succumbing to the cancer, the people who were already around him were the aforementioned youth culture of this era. So they just transitioned with him. The young folks behind Retinalogic went from Leary lecture video artists into Leary.com designers into cancer caregivers. The collaborators behind Chaos and CyberCulture went from being book cohorts into part of the extended Learydrome nursing crew. And so on and so on. I think the “youthful support group” that was around during the last two years was more accidental and circumstantial than it was a deliberate choosing of who should be around. Of course, Timmy loved these guys and admired their passion for his legacy. It wasn’t trite or shallow. That said — I really don’t think much of it was conscious. It just fell into place.
So many of these guys were wonderfully thoughtful and provocative purveyors of the great ideas of those times, but I do wish we learned to develop a filtering system that maybe paired down the sheer number of people that were always around.
RU: Speaking of crowds of people around, his last years were something of a media circus. What do you remember about film crews, celebrities and all that sort of stuff? Did you find it exciting, alienating?… (both, I assume). And speaking of celebs, would you say who you enjoyed the most and, if willing, who you didn’t care for?
ZL: Right. There was a lot of activity in those final years, no doubt. The problem wasn’t the activity, it was that we didn’t have much of a filter. Our screening process could have definitely been more refined. For instance, we agreed to the crazy film about his head being cut off and cryogenically frozen…Timothy Leary’s Dead! And again, we gave too much time to Bob Greenfield and his disaster of a book. We were easily conned and swayed. That was probably due to a lack of a good manager and gatekeeper. There were simply too many gatekeepers. That said, we also had a lot of great media and had fun with it. He sure did!
As far as the celebrities go, 92-96 was a golden age in the Timothy Leary celebrity saga. Once Barbara left he turned the rock and roll volume on full blast and attracted so many great characters who lit up our scene. Perry Farrell was one of my favorite regulars, but it was the mega cameos that left the biggest impression on me. Actors and the generic “famous person” was fun for a minute but it was nothing compared to the giants of rock that changed my life. David Gilmour, Ringo Starr, Jerry Garcia…I mean, what’s better than that? I still can’t believe that I actually got to meet Jerry. Seems like another life.
There wasn’t anyone that I disliked at the time, but seeing how Al Jourgensen twisted his relationship with TL and got carried away with poetic license really upset me. What was said in his book was entirely untrue and a gross exaggeration. That has happened a lot over the years, people use what time they did have with Tim to tell a story that possibly wasn’t true.
RU: Did your mom visit during all this? How was their relationship after the split and how did it affect you?
ZL: Yes, she did. Not often but there were a few poignant visits that I recall. He certainly made the best of it and put on his best face and showed up to be present with her. I recall a fun dinner at Mr. Chows about a year before he passed. What I don’t recall is a visit during the final months when he was very sick. I certainly can’t speak for either of them so that might have been for the best.
From my perspective, their relationship was very sad after the split. She broke his heart. That’s the great tragic aspect of the Timothy Leary story — so much personal heartbreak. Every marriage ended poorly, Susan committing suicide, Jack being estranged, etc… Barbara was no different. She got scared, panicked and left when he started to age. I don’t judge or blame her. She was looking after her own well being. But it certainly crushed Timmy. They had a radiant love affair that I suspect never really ended.
RU: Any specific memories of outrageous playful moments? I read about a wheelchair march through downtown Beverly Hills or something like that. Were you a part of that?
ZL: The wheelchair march was wonderful! The big “wheelchair day” took place at the House of Blues. We arranged with Dan Akroyd to have a big room made available to host about 20 of us for lunch — all in wheelchairs. We then left HOB and cruised down Sunset Blvd stopping traffic and spreading laughter. Today, people might get overly PC about it… thinking that we were taking too much liberty with disabled people. That wasn’t the intent. His intent was to show the joy one could have while being in a wheelchair.
There are so many memories and stories of outrageous playful moments. The last four years was like a dream — rock and roll, parties, amazing work, ideas flowing, great people. Too many to many. But… just the two of us going to the Pink Floyd show on the bands’ bus while on LSD was once in a lifetime. I could write a book on that weekend! The 75th birthday party was a 700 person display of reckless good times, debauchery and reverence. That was one that people told me about for years after…
Perhaps some day I can sit and down and write them all out.
RU: Any last thoughts about what you learned from Timothy Leary, both inspirational and cautionary?
It certainly changes as I get older. I get more in tune with his brilliance and instruction to me personally. At the time, I brushed so much of it off because I was unfocussed, too young and rebellious. While not perfect as a father, his ability to play with and expand ideas and then turn them into “work” is something that I have yet to master. Nothing seemed laborious to him, he loved every moment of being alive.
Cautionary… because of his confidence, brilliance and notoriety he sometimes didn’t know how to lay back and let other points of view enter the picture. Even in casual every day situations this caused him to have not-too-many genuine friendships while also putting a strain on romantic relationships. He was such a dominant figure that I think there are times when his creation that was “Timothy Leary” confused even him and maybe got the best of him.