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 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."
Hey! I like THIS... I mean your scathing review. I hadn't read this particular book, & now, thankfully, Blair, I don't HAVE to. But this seems cool to me, a sifting review process. You are treading dangerous ground, tempting other writers to say: "HEY!, YOU CAN'T DO THAT!" But you just keep on doing THAT. I will read with itzy-bitzy grains of salt, Blair. Thanx ~~~~~~~
I had not noticed that the subhead on the book cover depicted is different than the one I have. I think we pulled the image from Amazon, so maybe they had an earlier version (much like my ill-fated "Feed Your Head" book, which was up on Amazon for a while, cover and all, and then vanished without a trace after the publisher decided not to publish it. And they still haven't paid the cover artist, who was our own Scott McDougall, the talented lad who does the Road Trips cover images. Scoundrels!)
Agreed, lamagonzo about Wolfe's book. "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" is absolutely essential reading for all Dead Heads. It's amazing through the years that nearly all the participants have said that EKAT got it mostly right--even though Wolfe never took acid and didn't take notes much, either. That book had a profound impact on me, for sure. (And influenced me to write a lot of really strange term papers in college trying out his style.)
Seems like "On the Road" is part of the basic libertine canon, as well...
BTW, the movie "Howl," a little indie release with James Franco as Allen Ginsberg that came and went very quickly last year, is worth your time and a place in your Netflix queue. It doesn't try to do too much, so I think it achieves its modest goal. It's about the poem and the reaction to it, not the characters so much (they're glossed over). NOT recommended is another indie called "Neal Cassady" with Tate Donovan (of "The O.C."), which tries a scattershot approach to different parts of Neal's life but misses the mark despite its earnestness. The "Bus" part is not good.
I guess his book on Kesey doesn't rate a mention because it seems to be a part of the Deadhead bible "Book of Revelations". Anyway, read that and both of Kesey's great works and you have all you need to know about the man, besides having been in Eugene in 72 or 82.
I would add the following title to those folks have already mentioned, since it may be out of the mainstream of the sort of things folks are familiar with, and it certainly does help illuminate part of the early scene that the Dead were involved with:
The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-Garde
too little recognition is given to that magic moment when "hippy" music and ideals merged with the then nascent electronic music avant-garde Anyhow, this book is worth checking out, and it comes with a CD of the sort of electronic music one might have heard at acid tests.....
...is a must. The sight and sound of those lovable freaks in the audience will be locked in my mind forever - and, I suspect, in yours too.
book: Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream by Hunter S Thompson.....
film: Alice's Restaurant
film: Magical Mystery Tour
a movie which comes to mind is "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid". Definately, as someone mentioned " Cool Hand Luke", "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers" is another. The book by Mailer "The Armies of the Night" got part of the political thing, certainly. With the Dead phenom, I think a lot of it was literary based and Jazz based. I always think of the Bloomsbury group in England, the Pre-Raphaelites, William Morris, Dabid Bryne-Jones, Rossetti, Aldoux Huxley, Ouspensky, Gurdieff, Beaudelaire, Byron, Poe, Yeats, the Theosophical Society, Nin, Radcliffe, and others as sort-of the intellectual precursor-the Bohemian underground that was sowing seeds from the 1800's onward. People were getting other ideas about reality. Most of it was not church based thinking. There was spiritual -humanistic thought, the individual was more central, women were demanding social equality, Morris was nostalgic for an idealized past which could become a new model for future community. I think Jerry as a voracious reader, autodidact person( and certainly Robert Hunter) drew on a lot of these ideas in fashioning a zeitgeist. Their vision was certainly steeped in a subjective version of Americana but it was literary based, I think. Just some thoughts.
The picture of the cover that you show has the sub-title "Ken Kesey, LSD, and the Last Great Gurus of American Dissent" whereas other cover pictures I have seen show "Ken Kesey, LSD, and the Politics of Ecstasy". Curious to know why.
I will not be spending money or time on this item. If you don't believe Blair's assessment try finding a good review of this thing somewhere. I haven't seen any reviews of this that have concluded anything other than "Crock of shit". As Ken Babbs said: "Those close to Kesey have made it clear Christensen missed the bus.". There are two types of books of this sort - the ones that try to convey what the person in question was really all about and the ones that are written simply to try to raise the profile of the writer and make him some fame and fortune. From what I have read, this book comes firmly in the second category. So Kesey and Christensen both hailed from Oregon - so what.
I was in SF for New Years,(coming from Australia and stopping off to see/hear Further on our way to Jam Cruise) and I picked up a copy of Acid Christ, to read while I was in the district. I think I was hoping that the book would help me get a grasp on the beginning of the whole scene and that reading it while in SF would make me more open to new ideas.
Not so, I agree with you Blair,a whole lot of self serving nonsense, no new insights and I left the book on my flight from SF to Lauderdale half finished. I'm not interested in getting to the end of it at all. On the other hand, I did pick up Peter Conner's latest effort "White Hand Society" at City Lights (the best book store on the planet) and I'll be delving into that again. A Tasty treat, interesting, fresh , well written etc