By Will Giles.
On Sunday, the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles celebrated the 50th anniversary of the British Invasion. In a night during which the boys from Liverpool were lauded for their musical contributions to culture in America, it is worth understanding their musical contribution to California politics, where the Beatles aided in a political “Revolution” against the incumbent Governor Ronald Reagan.
On October 6, 1969, the Beatles released “Come Together” as a double A-side with “Something”, rising to #1 on the US charts. The mostly nonsensical lyrics of “Come Together” contain a number of phrases that can be construed as drug and counterculture references. “Shoot me” is barely audible over the cascading percussion and bass-line; “He shoot Coca-Cola” alludes to the soft drink’s original ingredient. “One thing I can tell you is you got to be free” paraphrases the ideology of the counterculture movement and its support of ‘free love’ and the free usage of recreational drugs.
These allusions are not mere happenstance. The inspiration for John Lennon’s lyrics was Timothy Leary, the noted proponent of psychedelic drugs, particularly LSD. Leary participated in the sing-along session that produced Lennon’s single “Give Peace a Chance”. Afterwards, Leary asked Lennon to write a campaign song based on his campaign slogan “Come together, join the party” for his challenge of incumbent Governor Reagan in the 1970 California gubernatorial election. While we are all familiar with the Beatles’ “Come Together,” Leary’s campaign has been largely ignored by history—but his is a story worth telling.
Timothy Leary, who Richard Nixon considered to be “the most dangerous man in America” for his counterculture views, rebelled against authorities and ‘the man’ from an early age. Having received a number of citations and demerits for violating the Army’s honor code, Leary resigned from West Point before he had completed his sophomore year. He transferred to the University of Alabama, where he was expelled a year later for being in the female dormitory after hours. Having eventually righted himself, Leary earned a Ph.D. in Psychology from UC Berkley, where he would teach before joining Harvard’s clinical psychology department in 1959.
While at Harvard, Leary met Anthony Russo, whose previous research into the effects of psychedelic drugs induced Leary to try psilocybin mushrooms for the first time. Not only did this experience alter his mind, but it altered his career path; now, Leary would focus his research on the health benefits of the recreational use of drugs. In 1960, Leary, along with colleague Richard Alpert, founded the Harvard Psilocybin Project to study this phenomenon. The pair conducted a wide range of experiments, including the famous Concord Prison Experiment. Prisoners were given psilocybin and a rigorous regimen of psychoanalysis. The results, though now disputed, appeared to show that this treatment reduced the probability of inmates committing more crimes upon release from prison.
Leary’s experiments attracted widespread attention in the counterculture community, and his commitment to advocating for policy to match his findings eventually led to his firing for inexcusable absences from teaching. Out of academia, Leary continued to preach the health benefits of psychedelic drugs, carefully prescribed and administered by researchers. He hoped everyone would “turn on, tune in, drop out” and, therefore, open the mind-expanding world of opportunities only available with LSD. Soon the government would turn on, the Supreme Court would tune in, and Leary would drop out.
Governmental authorities began to take notice of Leary’s illicit activities; he was arrested on December 20, 1965 for possession of a small amount of marijuana. Despite the marijuana being in the possession of his girlfriend and hidden in her underwear, Leary accepted the blame. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison and fined $30,000 under the Marihuana Tax Act of 1935, which prohibited the possession of marijuana.
Leary appealed the decision, arguing that the Act violated the Fifth Amendment’s protection against self-incrimination. In Leary v. United States, Supreme Court agreed with Leary. The ‘highest’ Court unanimously overturned his conviction and ruled the Act unconstitutional. On the same day, he announced his candidacy for governor of California, stating that he felt “high and happy for [himself] and the thousands of young people who are imprisoned for psychedelic drugs.”
He quickly named his party the Free Enterprise, Reward, Virtue and Order Party or FERVOR. His platform, encapsulated by the slogan “Come together, join the party” advocated the legalization of recreational drugs. Along with legalization, Leary wanted to charge marijuana producers a fee of $1,000 for a license. One of his most audacious ideas was to eliminate the use of money in California during his term and return to the barter system.
A pamphlet entitled, “The Politics of Ecstasy”, was published in support of his campaign and contained quotations such as “Drugs Are the Religion of the People — The Only Hope is Dope!” Political buttons, such as the one pictured at the beginning of this article, began to appear on the tie-died shirts of his supporters; the slogan “Luv for Guv” was plastered on posters supporting his candidacy.
Leary represented the cause that Reagan crusaded against, making him a nationally-known figure in the process. During his first term, Reagan had sent the California National Guard to quell student protests at Leary’s alma mater, Berkley. He also vehemently denounced hippies and the counterculture movement in a number of his stump speeches. Again, however, legal troubles came back to haunt Leary. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison for a drug-related arrest in 1968. Thus, the man that “got hair down to his knee” and “got to be a joker he just do what he please” was forced to ‘drop out’ of his race against Governor Reagan; his ‘party’ was unable to ‘come together’ to support him on Election Day.
Governor Reagan relished the thought of facing Leary in the general election, but never got the chance to defeat his enemy. Leary, however, was looked upon more favorably by another California governor. Jerry Brown, in his first stint as governor, pardoned Leary in 1976.