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?
Thanks for the review, Blair. I know that Zane and Stephanie Kesey are discouraging people from buying this book, but now that I've read your review, I'm discouraged from even reading it.
I did my MFA thesis on Kesey. took a weeklong writing class with him in boulder at Naropa's Jack Kerouac School and had the good fortune to be his Faculty Assistant and sell an interview I did with him and from '98 to the present have worked with Zane Kesey, selling his ephemera at music festivals around the country.
I have read all of Kesey's published writing and a handful of the unpublished writing from the U of O Special Collection and also really connect with the Prankster side of the Kesey story.
All of that said, I don't think I've let my cheerleading for The Cause blind me from seeing Ken's contradictions or his ability to infuriate people who knew and loved him.
I genuinely welcome any thoughtful critique of The Prankster Story, but a hit job doesn't appeal to me. Especially one where the tale is not even about the subject so much as it is about the impact of the subject on a guy who barely knew him, didn't understand him, and has little genuine respect for him.
You have convinced me to pass on this book entirely.
As for books that captured the Kesey Tale, hamal named many of my favorites. Charles Perry's "Haight-Ashbury: A History" is amazing. "Acid Dreams" and "Storming Heaven" are close contenders for me. And, of course, Tom Wolfe's Kool-Aid book can't be overstated. Kesey claimed it was "98% true" but added "it was Tom Wolfe's story, not mine."
I welcome all honest feedback.
Well, I haven't finished reading it yet, and my personal knowledge is of the times and not the people, but Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin by Alice Echols is impressing me with what feels like truth and insight. Hmm. Come to think of it, I guess I'd be interested in knowing what others think of it—whether it resonates with their recollections.
Thanks for asking, Blair!
its kind of sad that the only things we seem to share are the youtube videos you mention, well there's still music. Literature should be important, so many of the books listed are truly timeless, I keep waiting for books and literature to be rediscovered. I couldn't even get my 11 year old daughter to read the little house on the prairie books, she'd rather play with videos on youtube. Could the death of reading explain, at least in part, the current political landscape???????????
Nice honest review, Blair - I cracked right up at the quotation of the author's descriptions of the Grateful Dead as being "not half as spacey" as David Crosby or the Electric Prunes!
To have just finished TEKAAT for the first time in 37 yrs and to see this review pop up. Thanks, Blair, for a little deju vu all over again minute.
BTW, I did find the part in the Wolfe's book that answered Paul Hawken question that I posted in the "Dead-er" blog...Wolfe mentions a couple of things that Hawken has listed on his website bio: the march on Selma and working as a photograher for CORE. So the Smith and Hawken guy is the same Paul Hawken in "Acid Test."
....that so many have mentioned the same books as touchstones in various ways. I think it's true that certain books DID capture the imagination of large numbers of people back when reading books for pleasure and enlightenment was more common... It was deemed IMPORTANT to read certain books, because they unlocked some mystery about our lives or our humanity or our culture, or something deep. That doesn't happen so much anymore--where a writer undeniably taps into the zeitgeist and plugs us all into something profound in the process. Now, about the only thing we share culturally are YouTube videos of sinister-looking groundhogs and cats wearing bunny ears....
Garcia was a huge fan of the beats. Namely Jack. But I have been a huge fan of most beat writers for nearly 20 years (born '74) and it's no surprise to me how much of a catalyst their writing and lifestyle was for the counter-culture. Corso's Gasoline, Bob Kaufman, Lew Welch, and of course Howl, On the Road etc. And before them was another slew of brilliant visionary writers: Joyce, Pound, Faulkner, Huxley. I think when it comes to literature, the rebel visionary Spirit has always been there over the centuries. From Homer to Hunter.
Re this book & your review Blair, thanks for reiterating what I've already heard multiple times via Zane & Stephanie. Yours has been the most entertainingly scathing I've read. now who's gonna write a real bio on Kesey? Blair?
"It's not my objective to get people to read, but to get them to think." -Montesquieu
Appreciate the effort and sentiments expressed in your review.
Sure beats shilling for Rhino, but we all gotta eat.
"Sometimes the songs that we hear are just songs of our own."
When I was living in Oregon years ago I would backpack often. One of my favorite areas was a lake basin with about 50 little lakes. Muskrat lake was my favorite because there was a cabin there. The cabin was built in 1935 and had a bunch of visitors by 1979 (my first visit)
It was filled with writing everywhere but the floor. This was the register until a proper one arrived. The oldest entry on the wall was from 1953 by the Kesey brothers ( i think there was 5 names) It talked about catching 50 fish and burrying them in a snow bank, only to be eaten by a marten < little critter. I always thought this was cool since I was (am) a deadhead and all etc. A few years later I was laying on a cot inside enjoying the ride. I looked up onto the top window trim & in tiny letters was written: The Shit The Shingle Was Great - Kesey I pondered this for a long time and I still kind of get it. Just about everyone in 1953 when the first entry was written were probably straight. The second entry sounds kind of high, at least thats what was in my head.
Sailors Song by Ken is a fantastic book. Not a bio but full of a lot of magic that can make you feel good.
first: imho this is the most cogent critique of EKAAT that I have read, "Wolfe seemed to be forcing the story into a narritive form with a beginning, middle, end, heroes, villains, etc."
As to books, movies, films, etc, that captured the "sixties" (an era beginning as early as the late fifties and ending sometime in the seventies), the song "Alice's Restaurant" captures the anti war movement encapsulating the famous photo of a young man placing a flower in the muzzle of a soldiers rifle, while merging the folk tradition of protest with some of the nascent "hippie" ideas of using humor and love to combat hatred and fear.
One movie that really captured the absurdity that the Viet Nam war became was "Apocolypse Now" with the increasingly bizarre world encountered the further the boat crew gets from saigon, including the scene of the soldiers taking acid and shooting tracers into the night. The movie culimates with an Icon of the sixties, Marlon Brando, playing the narciscisticaly megalomaniacal colonel who has created a cult of personality around himself. This character could be viewed as a archetypal characterization of the Nixon presidency.
Have to agree that Cool Hand Luke clearly captures elements of the era, as well as defining an era of "anti-heroes" as leading characters in movies.
The classics of the era, slaughterhouse 5, stranger in a strange land, the lord of the rings, howl, on the road, really could be considered the literature that informed and inspired the generation, the things that everyone read that formed some of the basic underpinnings of how the world was viewed.
A cult classic, the peter fonda film "The Trip".
There are lots of things that capture bits and pieces of bits and pieces of the era, nothing could truly capture this (or any other) era in its entirety.