My own life was wrenched round horribly when I was a teenager by Tom Wolfe's book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. I have not re-read it since I was about 25 when I found a copy in a friend's flat in Stockholm and slurped the whole thing up one hungover morning, lying on the floor incapable of further effort.
It struck me then that the story might not be such a simple matter of blameless heroism as it had first appeared. But for the eight or nine years preceding that, it had been a sort of lodestar.
The book tells the story of the men who invented psychedelia and especially of their leader, the novelist Ken Kesey. Starting in 1961 with controlled experiments run by the CIA and finishing in jail six years later, Kesey, his family and a group of friends discovered LSD, DMT, MDMA, peace, love and the joys of hanging out with the Hell's Angels.
They threw parties that lasted all night, with deafening electronic music, acid in the orange juice, light shows, and long periods of stoned confusion. They painted an old school bus in silly colours, and hired Neal Cassady, the hero of Jack Kerouac's book On the Road, to drive it to New York. They made reality and hallucination swirl together like a light show; and treated all this as a religious experience. In the end, when Kesey got out of jail, he took over the family farm in Oregon, and has run it ever since.
He's in Britain at the moment - performing in Islington on Wednesday after a brief trip to Edinburgh - so I had to go and see him last week at the Barbican theatre to see if he really exists.
He marched out on stage in a Stetson hat, a waistcoat cut from the stars and stripes, and with a bag in the shape of a hook-jawed red salmon three feet long hanging from a strap around his neck. The applause was tremendous. The house was almost full. Mostly these were believers, with the large eyes and clear, pale skin you get from a diet of vegetables and LSD. This, after all, is what Kesey is famous for, rather than his novels, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion.
He was appearing with his friend and fellow Merry Prankster Ken Babbs, a large man with a rocky grin who seemed here to show us what a really disgraceful old age should be like. Babbs was mostly doing stand-up comedy and had certainly mastered the art of standing up, despite long refreshing swigs from a tumbler on his lectern.
Babbs actually played some footage of the film the Pranksters made of their journey to New York which Tom Wolfe had turned into the central portion of his book. The film, never edited and never shown, was to have been the Pranksters' masterpiece; in Wolfe its abandonment becomes a symptom of the futility of the project.
The fragment we were shown had Cassady driving, and talking as he did so. It was like being trapped in a dream whose soundtrack was provided by a garrulous child. Everything almost made sense but the point of it all receded constantly round the bend.
I had spent years of my life believing that to be present on this journey could somehow have brought coherence to my soul. Now it was like reading a Babylonian scripture. Many of them are extremely dark. Cast your bread on the
waters and sometimes you get a lot of soggy crumbs back; the long elegy for John Lennon that he read at the Barbican contains some horrifying glimpses of the casualties of the revolution. And he still can't do foreign accents.
But there is an unquenchable current of hope running through it all, seen at its clearest in an essay on the most recent American schoolyard massacre which took place in his home town. Most of this is accessible on his web site.Reuse content