Tuesday, April 14, 2009
Kesey Week continues!!!
It all goes back to Morrison. I couldn't stand The Doors when I was younger. It was all so melodramatic and with Manzarek’s freaky organ the music seemed anti-rock to me. This all changed my sophomore year of high school when Brad the Lion loaned me his copy of No One Here Gets Out Alive. He’d been trying to get me into The Doors for weeks. He assured me there was more to them than the pop hits I’d heard on the radio. I don’t know why he didn’t just give me a tape instead of loaning me the book, but it worked. I became a fan of The Doors.
It wasn’t only about The Doors. I’ve written on this subject before, but No One Here Gets Out Alive featured a lists of writers and books that Jim Morrison admired. This led me down other avenues of corruption and potential dissipation. I hit the card catalog at Linebaugh Library like a thirsty alcoholic looking for the books mentioned. I grabbed an armful of Nietzsche, Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, a book about Allen Ginsberg, and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and I was on my way after the pleasant clunk thump of the card stamp machine.
Now let’s digress, regress, progress to a quick summary of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test: Soon to be famous author Kesey takes part in drug tests which include LSD. His mind gets blown and soon he’s taking trip after trip. Then a group of people coalesce around him and he becomes a sort of spiritual ringleader nicknamed Chief. They paint a bus (Furthur) of many colors and the man who was the inspiration for the character Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s opus On The Road, Neal Cassady, drives the bus across the USA so this group, dubbed the Merry Pranksters, can attend the World’s Fair being held in NYC. A big jug of orange juice laced with acid helps fuel the trip and many misadventures ensue as they shoot a movie of the trip. Kesey came up with a saying, "You're either on the bus, or you're off the bus." They make it back to California and the scene keeps getting bigger and bigger as the foundation of the Haight-Ashbury hippie scene is laid by the Merry Pranksters with their multi-media extravaganza events dubbed Acid Tests. Kesey gets busted and flees to Mexico. He comes back and after serving a few days in jail he gets out on bail and tells everybody they need to go beyond acid. They have an Acid Test Graduation and the book ends. If you want more detail then that you can go look it up on Wikipedia or buy the book and read it yourself.
Now let’s get into the pudding of this weblog post....my impressions of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test through time, space, and memory of my sci-fi life. What did I think of the book when I was high school age? I loved it. I was entranced, enthused, intrigued, amazed, and on the bus with the actions and with Tom Wolfe’s trippy prose which he wrote to give a semblance of the acid mind set. The counter culture icons leaped from the pages with their vivid nicknames and pursuits against the social mores of the time.
This isn’t too surprising considering my age of 16 when I first read it. Neal Cassady’s ex-wife Carolyn Cassady, in her book Off The Road, wrote “...understandably the children all got a big kick from the names as well and from the escapades Neal recited; no wonder, I thought, since most of them sounded on a junior high level.” The freedom and frivolity featured in the book cavorting under the quasi-mystical lysergic glow is captivating to a young mind while the traces of Wolfe’s more jaundiced takes on the scene is so surreptitious to be hardly noticeable to me then.
I dug the camaraderie. The day-glo painted bus and anything else the paint would adhere to were a cosmic kick to a kid that felt like high school was a prison gray world. The LSD portion of the story was another part of the appeal. It provided an undercurrent of fear. It had been drilled into our heads at an early age that drugs were bad and the initialized drugs LSD and PCP were the absolute worst. You’d find yourself jumping out of a window thinking you could fly or microwaving a baby if you took them. There were enough bad trip scenes in the book to lend credence to such admonitions. So it was all thrilling rebellion to read. Was this thrilling rebellion sustained for me when I read the book again about eight years later....read on and you’ll know.
I signed up for Dr. Gentry’s counter culture lit class for a few reasons. I had read every book on the syllabus so I knew if I need to I could slack off on the readings. I figured it would be an easy A and I thought I might learn something new even though I was familiar with the topics. I actually read each book again. It was an easy A, but I didn’t gleam any new insights from the class except for my re-appraisal of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and that this was the class where I became friends with Michael Gray which ultimately led to my 5 year stint at Phonoluxe Records which is a whole ‘nuther topic I’ve covered before. Right now it’s just the retroactive kool-aid drinking that matters.
The second time around through the book was something else. The Merry Pranksters came off as buffoons this time. They were just a bunch of clueless hippies only interested in sensory things with no real accomplishments or contribution to society. I had gone from open eyed sophomoric youth to punk rock veteran with a complete disdain for the co-opted baby boom Sixties fads and fetishes. It’s there in the book too. The justification for such an attitude is right on the pages when you read about former activists who had been doing great things for civil rights growing their hair, wearing beads, taking drugs, and basically walking away from it all to end up in nasty crash pads to burn out. And the way I saw it in my mid-twenties was that the ones that hadn’t burned out had become megalomaniacal yuppies and much the shame they weren’t all still on LSD. I may have even written a paper in this line and if I can find it I’ll be sure and share it with you.
The summary cliche of life is that you get more conservative as you get older or as they said in The Breakfast Club you lose your heart. I tend to disagree. When I was young, oh so young, I was open minded and ready to taste the freedom promised by the Merry Pranksters. I reached my mid-twenties and I was filled up with ideas and was set in my ways. Now I’m at the midway point of life I’m like a cracked vessel. I’m full of ideas, but the vessel is leaking and the elements are getting in. I read Wolfe’s hippie masterpiece again last week and my ideas have gone all Charlie Brown on me. I’m ambivalent as hell about its contents (read wishy washy).
The acidized text gets old and tiresome after awhile, but Kesey’s story is still compelling...perhaps even more compelling now that I've got a much clearer picture of what he perhaps gave up to become a champion for LSD. Unlike my college era critique, I can see some worth in the Merry Pranksters and their boundary pushing antics. They did add some color to people’s lives and I suppose their pioneering efforts in multi-media paved the way for better things. Even the mystical acid bent doesn’t seem too bad these days. The one thing above all I can give them is that they seemed earnest about their aims of a rather aimless life. You don’t run across much real innocent earnestness these days.
So I haven't turned a full circle regarding the non-fiction New Journalism classic or even place Kesey back on the high school pedestal. I guess you can boil it down to this:
high school - I wanted to be on the bus
college - I wanted to scrap the bus
middle age - I wouldn't mind seeing the bus rolling down the freeway. I might even get on it if I really need a ride.