New Kesey “Bio”: The Chief Deserves Better
If only I'd read the "Acknowledgments" first. Silly me, I read books front to back, and the “Acknowledgments” appear on page 415 of Mark Christensen's non-biography of Ken Kesey, Acid Christ: Ken Kesey, LSD, and the Politics of Ecstasy (Schaffner Press). So I was finished with the book and had already tossed it down in disgust when I read the author's "explanation" for his approach to the book:
"Acid Christ was born from my publisher's idea of a 'participatory biography.' Unlike conventional biography which keeps its subject at arm's length and attempts at every level to be fair and balanced, a 'participatory biography' would be the tale of how a major modern cultural figure, in this case Ken Kesey, effected [sic] the life of the author personally and subjectively. I believe this to be the best new format idea ever invented…"
Well, with no due respect, Mark, you are wrong. Day after day when I was reading this book, I would mutter to my wife, or even the cat, "This guy hates Kesey… He doesn't get Kesey… It's all about the author, and he's an asshole… Why should I care about his own tawdry drug stories and sex life?... I can't believe I shelled out nearly 30 bucks for this!" I can't recall if it was my wife or my cat that first asked me to stop whining. Alas, I could not oblige.
As one who has long been fascinated by Kesey, has studied his role in the development of the West Coast counterculture, and also had the good fortune to interview him twice for my Dead 'zine The Golden Road (including one story based on an entire day my wife, Regan, and I spent with him on his farm in the summer of '86), I was very excited when I learned about what was being touted as the first biography of the man. But it becomes very clear that Christensen, who admits early on he is a frustrated novelist himself, has very little respect for Kesey and the path he took; indeed as early as page 17, the author asks, "So why did Kesey's life seem to go so far downhill after those two novels [One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion]?" You see, Christensen adopts the typical straight-world line that Kesey threw away his talent and his future when he got into acid, hooked up with the Merry Pranksters and stopped writing novels. He believes Kesey turned into an ego-maniacal fame whore, though the actual details of Kesey's life post-Acid Tests hardly point to a person who's constantly seeking publicity and attempting to appear oracular; quite the contrary.
But then, there is precious little actual Kesey biography in this book — there's much more Mark Christensen biography — and what's here is at best surface gloss, at worst largely negative conjecture and opinion based on one or two oddball sources. For all the recounting of his own drug adventures, Christensen doesn't appear to understand either LSD or the acid culture, and he definitely doesn't understand the Grateful Dead and their role in the early story:
"And there was the New Music. From above or below. The Grateful Dead, Kesey's church choir, sang acid-blasted inverted hymns of deliverance and cohesion. But the Dead were not psychedelic or, even particularly, about peace and love. Their music wasn't half as spacey as David Crosby's, the Beatles or the Electric Prunes. I know of few Dead love songs, fewer Dead political songs — the themes that stagger to mind lean more to the side of drug bust, arrest, and incarceration…"
Uh, right, Mark. Whatever you say. Here's the thing: Christensen is actually a pretty good writer. He can be quite witty, clever and perceptive. His literary analysis of Kesey's books is well done. He peppers the books with juicy quotes from Kesey interviews (presumably what any biographer would do). His discussion of the controversy surrounding Kesey's late-life book The Last Go Round is eye-opening —but completely one-sided. It's significant that none of the major players in Kesey's life appear to have co-operated with Christensen. This is a guy who had an agenda.
I'm not implying, either, that Kesey was some sort of saint without flaws, above criticism. Far from it, obviously. But in the end, Acid Christ is not really a biography of Ken Kesey; it's more like a gangland hit job. Caveat emptor. Someday, someone will tell this story the right way.
By now, I should be used to people getting the '60s, and the counterculture, so wrong in books and films. But it still hurts every time it happens. I'm quietly living in fear of the film that's coming of Tom Wolfe's brilliant book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, 'cause I just know they're gonna blow it. And don't get me started on the prospective Jerry bio-pics…
What books and films do you think have succeeded in capturing some of the truth and essence of that era, or the hippie counterculture in general?
I remember seeing this when it was broadcast. My first show wasn't until 7/18/82, but I knew something was up with this bunch.
Thank you to Mike Morris for taking me to that first show.
This is a public apology to the same Mike, when I was a d-bag to him in '93. I doubt he'll see this, but at least I am putting it out there.
I loved Alan Watts. He used to be on the radio (KPFA) out here in the Bay Area quite a bit when I first moved here in the early 70s. In fact I recall he died right around the time I arrived, but they kept running his lectures and talks for a few years. Brilliant guy, obviously.I loved The Way of Zen and This Is It...
correction: substitute "anyway" for "anyone" above.
I chimed in earlier on this topic in mentioning the bohemian tradition in life and literature. Certainly Kesey was well aware of all of that. He was a reader. Robert Hunter was and is a reader. Jerry Garcia was a reader. The beats were a continuation of a bohemian tradition. They were readers and writers. Anyone, all I wanted to say is it all makes some interesting novels (Kesey), lyrics (Hunter) and musical directions (Garcia). Facile and puerile no one needs.
Does anyone still read Alan Watts' books? His writings had a big influence on me.
Thanks for the video had to stop what I was doing, and DIG!
" I got thrown outta work on the kokomo don't ask me what I'm doing cuz I don't know..."
been reading Kerouac and Patanjali, waiting for some "Light"
"mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time."
on the road
"When thought ceases, the true spirit stands in its true identity as observer to the world."
LOVE GRATEFUL DEAD!!!
Very interesting seeing all the lists of books best reflectling the times we're talking about.
Surprised not to see "Birth Of A Psychedelic Culture" by Ram Dass and Ralph Metzner. This softcover came out in 2010 and is something I've been hoping for for decades. An oral history of the Leary-Alpert-Metzner circle it's invaluable for anyone interested in Leary, Millbrook and the Harvard Experiments from those that participated. I still have Art Klep's "Millbrook" but for some reason I haven't really been able to get into it (tried several times).
Blair: you are so right-I was excited to pick up "Acid Christ" as a Kesey bio, but was stunned to discover how weak it really is.
Hamal-Perry's "Haight Ashbury" was recently in print, but the others seem to be out of print but available secondhand online.
I'm in total agreement with Hamal-I second all his selections, esp. "Acid Dreams" and "Storming Heaven" and Crumb/underground comix and Rick Griffin's work (a recent retrospective at the Orange County Museum of Art-of all places-with a beautiful catalog titled "Heart and Torch") and including (in no particular order):
"Weed" and "The Frisco Kid" by Jerry Kamstra
"Divine Right's Trip" by Gurney Norman
"Be Not Content" by William Craddock
"The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage" by Todd Gitlin
"Famous Long Ago" and "Total Loss Farm" by Raymond Mungo
the afore mentioned "Electric Kool Aid Acid Test" by Tom Wolfe
*"White Hand Society-The Psychedelic Partnership of Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg" " by Peter Connors
*"The Harvard Psychedelic Club" by Don Lattin
*(these two are very recent)
"The Movement Toward A New America" an anthology of the Underground Press ed by Mitchell Goodman
"The Making of the Counterculture", "Where the Wasteland Ends" and "Sources" by Theodore Roszak
"Be Here Now" by Ram Dass
"Earth House Hold" and "The Back Country" by Gary Snyder
"Planet News" and "The Fall of America" by Allen Ginsberg
"Performance"-a film by Nicholas Roeg
"Easy Rider"-a film by Dennis Hopper
"Blow Up"-a film by Antonioni
"The Oracle"-the complete newspaper on DVD by Allen Cohen
Blair: Thanks for this discussion thread. I guess we'll have to wait for a real Kesey bio.
I got yer youtube of a cat with bunny ears right here:
And now back to your regularly scheduled literary musings...
Conversation is always more interesting than recitation, so speak your mind and not someone else's.
I enjoyed Candace Brightman's sister Carol Brightman's "Sweet Chaos: The Grateful Dead's American Adventure."
"Sometimes the songs that we hear are just songs of our own."