Acid Christ: Ken Kesey, LSD, and the Politics of Ecstasy
As representative of an all-American ideal, the dream of unlimited success and total lack of restraint, Ken Kesey remains hard to beat, and through his “freak freely” ministry great ideas flew from his head like illuminated dandruff.
Excerpted from 'Chapter 1: Requiem for a Heavyweight" of Acid Christ: Ken Kesey, LSD, and the Politics of Ecstasy by Mark Christensen, courtesy of Schaffner Press. Copyright 2009 and 2010 © Mark Christensen. All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form, except for use of excerpts in book reviews, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
A Christ figure who quit his day job as the new Norman Mailer to deliver millennial baby boomers the psychedelic New Jerusalem, Ken Kesey’s super hero career began with the biggest bang ever. Not even Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer or John Updike had, by age 28, enjoyed the double-whammy of two literary and commercial smash hit novels—only to then ditch literature to rescue mankind, hoping to “stop the coming end of the world.”
“The Chief” was an archetypical American Fair-haired Boy (sub-species Son of the West) madman for all seasons, as profoundly American as John Wayne, Hugh Hefner, Sonny Barger or Britney Spears. Writer, artist (Kesey’s illustrated jailhouse journal reveals a master of caricature), Olympic class (almost) athlete, musician ( his frog voiced “Jimmy Crack Corn” ranks with, if not “White Rabbit,” at least “Double Shot of My Baby’s Love”), lady’s man, magician, thespian, friend to those who had no friends, social architect, jail bird, original hippie cum great white father, the Great Truth Teller as consummate bullshit artist, he was that rare soul who had a talent for everything.
And as representative of an all-American ideal, the dream of unlimited success and total lack of restraint, Kesey remains hard to beat, and through his “freak freely” ministry great ideas flew from his head like illuminated dandruff. A writer who declared the novel was yesterday’s paper and abandoned literature to create “the Art of I,” starring himself as Pied Piper on the Seeker’s New Path, he was an actor looking beyond the footlights to his base: the flower-haired seekers in the cheap seats. In a stunning new take on the old Hollywood saw, “But what I really want to do is direct,” Kesey abandoned “archaic” prose to spend nearly every dollar he’d earned from his best-selling, culture-changing novels One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s and Sometimes a Great Notion, by shooting thirty reels of 16 millimeter film, recording the bohemian pranking of pure, government-inspected Sandoz LSD-25 acid-blasted, ex-college kids.
His famously unfinished capital M Movie was an epic tale of levitating hipsters on the road—the Kesey-invented Merry Pranksters, proto-hippie/neo-beats who, in tattered preppie dress, recalled body doubles off a Kingston Trio album cover. The Movie documented Kesey’s soon-to-be famous 1964 bus trip, which served as a sort of New Testament for his LSD ministry—a trip that would have likely been a lot less “famous” if not chronicled by Tom Wolfe, but a movie which could have been a smash.
Doubt it? Witness the early documentary sensation, Endless Summer: In Search of the Perfect Wave filmed by Bruce Brown at about the same time, and that reflected similar utopian themes (substitute acid for surfing). Had Kesey and his band of Stanford grads possessed the ability to match the recorded sound to the recorded film they shot (the single technical glitch that tunneled the Movie), Kesey might have become a sort of 21st century psychedelic Socrates.
Yet, courtesy Tom Wolfe’s book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Kesey became nevertheless a walking, talking, heaven-hawking, Technicolor catalyst who jumped from the page to change our culture. In Kesey’s wake Paul Krassner, Tim Leary, Wolfe and Hunter Thompson became the Matthew, Mark, Luke and John of the Love Generation, (with Charlie Manson later on taking a star turn as Satan Lite) whose sudden, huge young audience waited with baited breath for them to write the new social and psychedelic testament.
Kesey’s Kesey trumped Mailer’s Aquarius (for one thing, Ken had that posse. The Pranksters became Kesey’s beloved Beta house fraternity on wheels, the fraternity became the tribe—if not the Apostles). A Boho Robin Hood whose clubby sensibilities were expressed by his watch words: “You’re either on the bus or off the bus,” Kesey resembled a leader of a political party whose platform was party, party, party. He lived to get higher than high, take his mind to karmic Everest. Why? Perhaps, to paraphrase Sir Edmund Hillary—because it was there.
In the pre-metro-sexual, pre-Masters of the Universe universe, farm-bred wrestler/magician (he was able, among many other fitting illusions, to make his wedding bend levitate weightless above his dining room table) Kesey—shepherd to a Woodstock Nation of sheep—became an American icon, at least briefly, almost equal to the Marlboro Man. A master of product placement, a commercial for a more ethereal leaf.
A metaphysical monster of the midway, a man of near limitless abilities and startling limitations, Kesey was Pied Piper for a generation for whom the willing suspension of disbelief was key to the Holy Grail. Golden Boy writ writer, “wildly gregarious,” Kesey, with the build, as Cowley said, “of a plunging fullback” and the hail-fellow-well-met bonhomie of a literary Mad Man Muntz, posed an appropriate and puzzling Messiah for a generation that went from saving the world to selling it; from bongs to BMWs, in far less time than it took to go from “All You Need is Love” to “Cheeseburger in Paradise.”
Kesey was, among many other things, big on symbols, one of the first to take the American flag off its staff and really fuck with it. The new edicts and gospels and megalomanias were born not to stone tablets and mountaintops but TV screens and electric guitars. The acid prophets Kesey and Leary—preached not commandments as much as permission, the promise of Aquarius Now delivered by forces powerful, wise and, above all, unseen.
“I never knew anyone in my life,” novelist Robert Stone marveled, “before or since, who was a dreamer on that scale, who really believed in Possibility, the great American bugbear Possibility, to the degree that Kesey did. I never knew anyone who had his ability to communicate that sense of possibility.”
While first painted as a radical, the collective portrait of Kesey amounts to pastel idolatry. Though he dedicated a good part of his life to drugs, romanticized their use with terrible effectiveness, and ultimately died because of them, in most popular portraits of Kesey he appears as a gentle giant, and at worst the high priest of a failed religion. (Kesey on Kesey: “I’m a power junkie, I love power. For one thing, I think it’s not corrupting like some people think; it is purifying. People who think they have power, yet do not, are corrupted. People who really have power are humbled by it.”)
Many details of Kesey’s past have been lost to legend or convenience.
And too, his books are often oddly misremembered. Cuckoo, whose surreal narrative is often credited as psychedelia’s first great gift to art, has also been dubbed the primer for 1960s anti-authoritarianism, though its hero, roustabout R. P. McMurphy, is about as prototypically hippie-like as John McCain. Sometimes a Great Notion is similarly credited as a totem to free-thinking individualism, though its protagonists are as locked in their “never give an inch” beliefs as the Christian fundamentalist Ken Kesey himself often seemed to mirror.
So why did Kesey’s life seem to go so far downhill after those two novels?
It was certainly not for want of energy or ambition. No tendril-armed bi-focalist laboring in a cobwebbed garret, burly Kesey was the big man on campus writ artiste, acidhead alpha dog and action figure, an aging high school jock in flower power drag—and he was not particularly a free thinker, taking his cues not from proto-hippies Rousseau, Heathcliff or Walt Whitman but from his childhood comic book heroes, Superman, Spiderman, Plasticman, Batman, and Captain Marvel. But, fly as they might, comic book super heroes aren’t free spirits. They are cops.
Kesey’s novels were often populated by errant hollering Paul Bunyan manques from a wild west Oregon that most buttoned-down Oregonians barely knew existed: a dystopic realm in which brilliant rural rubes, “bull goose loonie” Ayn Rand types in cork boots, ruled a feral mythological roost. But cosmopolitan myth-master and university town homeboy Kesey, who owed as much to Joseph Campbell as he did to William Faulkner, was no Noble Savage. Nor—as a prophet and Great Truth teller rabble rouser—was Kesey a tub-thumping Commie Madonna kneeling at the altar of Karl Marx or Mother Bloor.
A man of many contradictions, Kesey was a walking talking proof that belief as well as beauty could be in the eye of the beholder. People tended to believe in Kesey as whatever they wanted to believe. The Republic’s favorite hallucinogenic, generous and lackadaisically self-centered, Houdini of hip, Kesey could write prose as tight or preposterous as the New Testament; yet he also banged out typed-by-the-yard speed rants you could edit with a blow torch. However, there was always vision in the visionary—Kesey’s ideas for an interactive “video democracy” were decades before their time. Sadly, though he had a transformative vision that went beyond hippie socialism, as a tribal genius but a corporate naif, he was unable to implement it beyond his Oregon statewide “Bend in the River.” As a manifestation of perhaps the greatest idea he ever had—a radical new “people’s democracy” created by shifting political power away from politicians to statewide referendums whose merits and shortcomings would be broadcast and debated on television and then voted on by ballots published in statewide newspapers—“Bend in the River” was truly revolutionary. What had gone wrong?
Copyright 2009 and 2010 © Mark Christensen.