Ty Burr
June 14, 1996 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Timothy Leary dies of prostate cancer

Timothy Leary’s dead/No, no, no, no, he’s outside, looking in.
— ”Legend of a Mind” (1968), the Moody Blues

In the end, you could have called it ”Timothy Leary: Unplugged.” On the morning of May 31, the 75-year-old former acid guru, Harvard professor, virtual-reality booster, and counterculture provocateur died with none of the multimedia fanfare he had promised since being diagnosed with inoperable prostate cancer last year. There was no Web hookup to netcast his final moments. His head wasn’t removed for cryogenic storage. He simply died peacefully in his sleep after muttering ”Why not?” in various inflections more than 20 times.

It was a fitting exit for the cosmic gadfly. Leary sold mind expansion to generations of willing listeners, and even if he espoused differing methods — first psychiatry, then LSD, then cyberspace, and finally ”designer dying” — transcendence was always the goal.

The Net, fittingly, is where the conflicts of Leary’s ambiguous legacy were most articulately debated after his death. ”He has consistently…forgotten his own…well-being for the overriding purpose of…’waking up’ humanity,” posted one online mourner. A more disillusioned observer recounted his own ”14-year journey of addiction: LSD, speed, and ultimately heroin.” Offline, California’s Gov. Pete Wilson decried Leary’s drug use, while G. Gordon Liddy, who once prosecuted Leary for possession, remembered a man who ”didn’t have a mean bone in his body.”

There is one last trip in store: Leary’s ashes will be launched into space this fall, alongside those of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and 29 others. Carol Rosin, an old friend who made the arrangements, recalls Leary’s reaction when he learned his remains would someday burst into flames as they reentered Earth’s atmosphere. ”That’s me,” he told her ecstatically. ”I’m going to be light.”

His detractors no doubt wish he had been sent into space decades ago. But his fans can take solace in the thought that the Moody Blues turned out to be right after all.

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