ALL ELECTRIC KOOL AID ACID TEST MAN
JAMES CAMPION ON KEN KESEY 1935-2001
things don't happen," Harding said to the girl solemnly. "These
things are fantasies you lie awake at night dreaming up and then
afraid to tell your analyst. You're not really here. That wine isn't
real; none of this exists. Now, let's go on from there."
Ken Kesey from "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest"
I carried around
a dog-eared copy of "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" my entire
sophomore year of high school. It is hard to admit now, in print, but
it's true. I'd already read the damn thing twice, but hoped, in some
strange way, that the spirit of it would somehow work its way into me.
I tried a similar move with "The Great Gatsby", but that didn't
take. Not that "Cuckoo's Nest" took in any conventional or
tangible way, it's just that it spoke to me in modes that I needed to
be spoken to. It is hard to fully impart that experience now, some 25
years later, but needless to say, it was influential in all that word
denotes. It was training of the first degree, a lesson in language and
metaphor as bazooka, and for that I will forever be grateful.
You see, young writers love "Cuckoo's Nest", because there
is a freedom there, a real sense of creative liberty. And with liberty
there is the wonderful feeling of danger and confusion, and all the
elements of great art, the kind of stuff that makes a young man feel
alive and worthy of wasting his time in front of a typewriter or with
a musical instrument or any form of creative expression. It's like when
the Jazz guys talk about Coltrane or Monk or Miles Davis or the paint
crowd creams over Jackson Pollock's colorful mess.
There is a load of that same stuff in Jack Kerouac's "On The Road"
and Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas".
These are books that scorch the eyes and twist the brain, but, for me,
they came later. "Cuckoo's Nest", and soon after, Kurt Vonnegut's
"Slaughter House Five" were first for me. And firsts; first
kiss, first sunrise, first time behind the wheel, first drink, first
night on the beach, first ballgame, first published work, first true
love; these are the memories that stick and jab and keep coming back
to remind us that we feel, that we live.
Ken Kesey was one of those wonderful confused danger addicts who could
create something of this kind because he felt life to the core. And
"Cuckoo's Nest" was his manifesto.
Critically, his second novel, "Sometimes A Great Notion" received
more noise, but "Cuckoo's Nest" was immortalized in film and
theater, and has an edge to it that is eminently American in its reach.
It is free and wild and has an open air of possibility that reflects
what is truly great about the American literary spirit; check that,
the American spirit, period.
But if Kesey had merely written "Cuckoo's Nest" - he compiled
the notes for the book while volunteering for LSD experiments and then
working as a psychiatric aide at Menlo Park Veterans Administration
Hospital - there would have been sufficient enough evidence that he
was comfortable teetering on high wires.
But Kesey lived his art in the same fashion, by being the honest troubadour
of lunacy and mayhem, the quintessential Californian jester, the clown
prince of whimsical release. His gift was harboring energy, not letting
it go. He could let it engulf him, channel it, and make it into a book,
make it into "Cuckoo's Nest". Kesey was one of those nine
lives types, a genetic mutation of Baby Boomer angst and good old-fashioned
Great Depression bravado. Sadly, many of those lives were spent jerking
off around Mexico in a drug haze, or sitting as the Grand Poobah of
a lost gaggle of hippies in the California Mountains. But even then,
Kesey used the foul nature of the beast as performance art - the precursor
to Andy Kaufman - in what he called the Merry Pranksters.
Ah, the Pranksters. Never has a more meaningless endeavor culled the
imagination, while demonstrating how a warped cross-country bus ride
could capture the pointless rebellion of youth with hallucinogenic stupidity.
It was less fun, than militant madness, a stretch of mind-swelling,
spiteful counter culture hyperbole. And it was fueled by Kesey's formulaic
mania, sometimes satirical, sometimes emboldened farce. But a mere prank
was never really Kesey's style. He was what a very good friend of mine
calls the Balls To The Wall mentality. Kesey rode the sucker to the
bitter end, or in this case, New York's World Fair. Filmed the whole
thing. Naked, painted hippies, bikers and the human match stick, Neal
Cassidy behind the wheel, it was the true movable feast, a happening,
a ruckus. Tom Wolfe came along for the ride. He wrote a book and called
it "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test". The high brows called
it the new journalism; Wolfe became a famous novelist, Kesey became
an infamous one.
Kesey once said that a writer couldn't be famous because it was "hard
to observe when every one is observing you." Kesey said a great
deal of smart and insightful things about spirituality and politics
and art and literature, but that was buried beneath years of drug busts
and insurrections of varied kinds. The jester routine wore thin. The
maverick became the caricature, and then some kind of Buddha for the
sixties generation of aging optimists. And Kesey welcomed all monikers.
He didn't have a name for any of it. To Ken Kesey, it was just life
worth living until the end. The end always comes too soon for the hearts
of fire. I have another copy of "Cuckoo's Nest" somewhere.
Maybe I'll give it to my godchild, Nicole when she's fifteen.
The world needs more wonderfully dangerous, confused lunatics.
© James Campion
the past three years James Campion has been manning the infamous
Reality Check News & Information Desk for The Aquarian Weekly. The
rigors of dismantling the cloudy worlds of pop culture, politics
and the increasingly bizarre rituals of human degradation have resulted
in a preponderance of rabid fandom and rankled enemies. Those who've
tried to label him have come to realize that although rolling stones
gather no moss, fence sitting name-callers with press passes and
900 words a week are tougher to pin down. The Reality Check column
has not only brought Mr. Campion to the edge of journalistic Hades,
but also allowed him to gather most of the blather into his second
Fear No Art - Observations on the Death of the American Century.
His first tome, Deep Tank Jersey - One Man's Journey into the Soul
of a New Jersey Club Band nearly killed him, but exploded on the
scene in 1996 to frighten even the most hardened rock and roll veteran.
Filled with sordid tales of debauchery and mayhem it solidified
the New Jersey Club Circuit as truly the legendary hatching place
of Bruce Springsteen, South Side Johnny, Bon Jovi and the home for
a sub-culture of inspirational madness. After digesting Mr. Campion's
rambles weekly in The Aquarian, feel free to sample more of his
dysfunctional garbage at www.jamescampion.com. Both Fear No Art
& Deep Tank Jersey can be purchased on his web site, banrnesandnoble.com,
amazon.com, theaquarian.com and any Barnes & Noble location nationwide.
James Campion Reality Check News & Information Desk
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