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 actually have high hopes for the upcoming Jerry bio-pic, the one that will concentrate on his pre-Dead days. In recent years, as you know, there have been some excellent Beatles and/or Lennon bio pics (Backbeat,etc.), and I'm hoping Jerry's will be made with the same intelligence, integrity and knowledge of subject.
Once in a while you get shown the light In the strangest of places if you look at it right.
I really enjoyed reading You can't always get what you want by Sam Cutler. The part where Cutler talks about how the Dead would make band decisions is especially telling. I think Cutler captures the cold cut throat business side of the Dead and the Rolling Stones in his book.
The title of Christensen's text worried me and the subtitle echoed that effect. Your review tells me that my BS detectors are still functional, in some ways at least. Thanks, Blair.
By the way, I've just finished writing a play for my Master's thesis that's set in front of the Warfield the hour before doors open that titled Waiting for the Show; if any of the readers of this thread would like to subject a copy to their scrutiny, literary or otherwise, I'd be happy to email out a copy as a PDF.
In-depth 1967 interviews with the entire Airplane, Jerry and Bill Graham, plus a long and detailed introduction about the rise of the SF scene based on his own reporting from that era mostly... I still have my dog-eared copy that I got for subscribing to Rolling Stone back in 1969. Also got one of the Don Juan books in that deal, too, I believe. Loved those, too, whether they're "real" or not... Speaking of Rolling Stone, the best $60 or whatever I spent in the past five years was buying the complete Rolling Stone on CD-ROM. I can't tell you how often I've dipped into that in the course of writing this or that, and also just for fun. It's easily searchable and it prints pdfs of the original pages nicely (albeit in pretty small print). It's one of the best late '60s music references you'll ever find, and the mag was tremendous in the early '70s when it was printing Hunter Thompson's campaign stuff, etc.
is Ralph J Gleason's "The Jefferson Airplane and the San Francisco Sound" (1969), Ballantine Books which, as far as I am aware, has been out of print for decades now. Obviously (from the title) it is more oriented to the San Francisco music scene than the counterculture in general, but the two were intimately intertwined. It is a fine book due to the fact that the author knew exactly what he was writing about, unlike Mr. Christensen apparently.
I just looked up "Be Not Content" on Amazon and they wanted $75 for a used copy. Perhaps my local library has it... Seems like something I should read, though...
"Be Not Content" by William J. Craddock. This one captures the acid tribe environment just prior to the ill-fated "Summer of Love". Adequately written it occasionally gets a bit too "cosmic" for it's own good but overall the feeling is there. There are descriptions of an early acid test and a ballroom concert with Country Joe and the Fish. Essential for those interested in the times told by someone who was actually there. Alas, out of print for quite a while. Followed up with "Twilight Candelabra" which covers the subsequent dark side (to say the least) of the scene. Lots of witchcraft and speedballs there. Books were published in 1970 and 1972. "Be Not Content" was written in 1967-68. Last I heard Craddock died a few years ago in 2004. Rudy Rucker has some information at http://www.rudyrucker.com/blog/2007/04/27/postsingular-cover-william-j-craddock/ He left a number of unpublished books...one purported to be a sequel to "Be Not Content" with the same characters. Love to read that.
... I watched some of "Alice B. Toklas" the other day on TCM and I was kinda embarrassed that I had liked it back in the 60s when it came out. I think the teenage me back then was smitten by the lovely Leigh Taylor-Young as the lead, rarely clothed hippie chick... Another film I liked back then but would doubtless hate today was "Joe," starring Peter Boyle as a working stiff who goes down to Greenwich Village to extract his daughter out of hippie colony there...Of course for pure camp value it's hard to beat "Wild in the Streets." And Russ Meyer's "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls"...
Totally agree about the Muddy Waters bio, too. Wonderful. The Howlin Wolf one "Moanin' at Midnight" is also excellent.
Couple of thoughts from someone who did not live through the era. I thoroughly enjoyed "Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests" while "Fear and Loathing in LV" and/or "On the Campaign Trail" should be essential reading in any course on 20th century literature. As I say, having not lived through the era, it is tough for me to gauge, but those books feel like an era.
A couple of Hollywood movies that I also like are "Shampoo" and "I Love you, Alice B. Toklas." Very funny movies-- in particular, the all night party scene climax of Shampoo is great.
For another era, I have one recommendation-- the biography of Muddy Waters, "I Can't Be Satisfied." As a blues-loving Deadhead who happens to be a historian, that book is fantastic. It really places Muddy in his time and historical context. It is an exceptional read, the finest music bio I have read (with Blair's book on Jerry being a close second).
Blair, I read your rant about the Kesey bio. I loved your Golden Road and couldn't agree with you more. Kesey deserves better, he was not perfect but no one is, last time I checked. In closing as Kesey said 10/27/91 as the Dead were playing tribute to Bill Graham, "In any given situation there's always more dumb people than smart people and we ain't many."