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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?


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cosmicbadger's picture
Joined: Jun 13 2007
Drop City

Has anyone read TC Boyle’s 2003 novel Drop City? Boyle is one of my favourite novelists. Some of his writing is astonishingly good. Drop City is about a 1970 hippy commune from California that relocates to Alaska. It is also about Alaskans seeking their own, rather different (or not?) utopia in the backwoods. He certainly skewers aspects of the counterculture movement, but is also basically sympathetic. Some in the commune movement got upset by his portrayals of commune life and what they saw as stereotyping. Maybe not Boyle's very best, but an absorbing read, insightful, sometimes very funny, often very dark.

Joined: Nov 5 2010
What books ...?

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?
A book that I think should be republished or available as an ebook (maybe it has been?):

"The Music Never Stopped,"

at least it seemed so in the early '80s. I got more than a dozen copies & accidentally gave them *all* away.

Humm lets see, & I think that the author was ...Mr Blair Jackson

Thanks Blair!

Captain Stormfield's picture
Joined: Nov 4 2007
Cuckoo's Nest

Outside of Kesey and what he stood for/believed in, there is the literary legacy of 'Cuckoo's Nest'. In the decades to come, the book will undoubtedly stay in print. It is a tour-de-force. The novel continues to resonate with new generations. Even if a reader knows nothing of Kesey, the '60s and LSD, he/she can appreciate the novel's attack on conformity, authority, and how society defines "normal." I've always thought the novel to be incredibly lucid, and the whole thing was written with such precision and grace. And keep in mind the story is told through the eyes of a schizophrenic (if you believe Chief to be schizophrenic, that is). Writing such a beautifully clear novel with a narrator who suffers from hallucinations seems like an impossible task, doesn't it? But when you read 'Cuckoo's Nest,' you can marvel at the genius of the prose, to say nothing of the book's themes.

And the novel's dialogue? It's cinematic. You can almost hear McMurphy, or Billy Bibbit, or any of them really. Kesey had an amazing ear for dialogue. If you haven't read it in long time, get a copy and read it again.

Question for Blair: Did Kesey ever see the 'Cuckoo's Nest' film? I know he said he never would watch it, but I wonder.

Joined: Jun 6 2007
Actually, stoltzfus...

...he does make an attempt to explain the title, if obliquely. He talks about how the McMurphy character in Cuckoo's Nest has Christ-like attributes (which Ken talked about in interviews) and he views that character as an extension of Ken, ergo... I'm not saying I buy it; just saying that's not totally out of left field...

Joined: Jan 13 2010
The title isn't only wretched, it's disgusting and...

...offensive on many levels.

Just speaking the truth, y'all...

giantnerd's picture
Joined: Jun 24 2007
Hard to do

Phil Lesh's autobigraphy "Searching for the Sound" paints a good picture of what it would have been like to have been there when it all began. I forget what year he got involved with the band, but Steve Parish's "Home Before Daylight" also does a good job of describing the reality of life in the counter culture movement. I could have used a few less groupie stories though!!! The Keith Richards book "Life" describes the counter culture movement from across the Atlantic. He is generally dismissive of the the utopian visions he shared with Mick and the Stones while stumbling around Stonehenge, although he fully admitsmust to having them while wearing a feather boa around his neck. If you read the Miles Davis autobiography he dogs everyone. I mean everyone!!! He even gives John Coltrane a hard time. He then describes the scene when he brought his fusion band to the Bay area. He was suprised at all the young kids who were so into all of his experimental music. Like I said, he dogs everyone. However, he says something like "Jerry Garcia was a cool motherf@#$er." I always thought Jerry must have been very cool to get a compliment out of Miles. Electric Kool-aid Acid Test was a good read, but I feel Phil does a better job at describing the scene. Wolfe seemed to be forcing the story into a narritive form with a beginning, middle, end, heroes, villains, etc.
For movies The Grateful Dead Movie lets the counter culture speak for itself. Fillmore: The Last Days also shows the scene warts and all in 1971. Festival Express is a good snapshot of the scene as it travels to Canada in 1970, again warts and all.

Strider 88's picture
Joined: Jun 20 2007
Thanks for the heads up

I lived in Oregon a few years during 70s. Ken Kesey was one of the only true heros of the counter culture. Down to earth, funny, one of the great modern writers of America. I met him a few times and found him to be a straight up human being. I hate to see a hack writer put together a half assed bio on someone who had so much integrity. Better just to read, reread the great works of Kesey. He could never top his first two books. Great Notion is one of the great american novels. I've met quite a few people who consider it to be one of best books or the best book ever read by them. So I refuse to buy "Acid Christ". Better to go on memories of what I remember first hand. And reread his books.

Joined: Oct 24 2008
A time saver...

Thanks for the post Blair. I've been really into biographies the past few years and could easily have gotten snagged by this one.
Now that Kesey's been gone 10 years (wow! seems like less), I'm surprised that someone has not written the "definitive" bio.

Mike Edwards's picture
Joined: Jun 17 2007
deye-ssorc nrob

?yrots riew bob eht :deye-ssorc nrob

Mr.TheEleven's picture
Joined: Nov 28 2010
Weir bio?

Btw, I may be having a flashback, but I thought I had read somewhere a while back that Weir was writing his bio?
Any truth to that?
I would devour it.

Once in a while you get shown the light
In the strangest of places if you look at it right.


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