We Blew It: Outlaws in Edge City

30 Mar

This post contains part VII of my senior capstone paper, Speed Limits: The Formation, Dissemination, and Dissolution of the Counterculture in American Literature 1951-1972. Click here to view a full list of works cited. Click here to view all sections of the paper.

Ken Kesey and Neal Cassidy at the Acid Test GraduationImage from Huckmagazine.com

Ken Kesey and Neal Cassady at the Acid Test Graduation
Image from Huckmagazine.com

In 1965, Ken Kesey was arrested with 3.54 grams of marijuana. Facing a mandatory five years of jail time for this offense, Kesey decided his only recourse was to fake his death and go on the lam in Mexico (Wolfe 258). “If society wants me to be an outlaw,” he said, “then I’ll be [sic] a damned good one.” Kesey goes on to convince himself that outlaws are “something people need. People at all times need outlaws” (264). In a way, Kesey was right; English professor Gary Konas notes that America “secretly admires the colorful outlaw, especially if he is charming,” and that Kesey’s particularly roguish charm made him an ideal antihero for the counterculture (Konas 184). In the same way the counterculture admired Dean Moriarty, it also looked up to Kesey and hoped for the success of his outlaw “prank.” Wolfe’s depiction of Kesey’s flight to Mexico illustrates a progression from the idealized outlaw behavior of Dean Moriarty and exposes the problematic relationship between Kesey’s criminality and the growing population of youths who easily became “criminals” within the counterculture.

Criminalization of both pot and acid had led to the formation of what Wolfe termed “the Prohibition Generation,” referring to the thousands of young people who entered the legal system during this time because of drug use (Wolfe 360). As one sixties veteran remembers it, “When a young person took his first pull of psychoactive smoke, he…inhaled a certain way of dressing, talking, acting, certain attitudes. One became a youth criminal against the state” (Lytle 201). Needless to say, the antiauthoritarian appeal of this mass criminal movement made drugs nearly irresistible to aspiring counterculturalists; not only was it rebellious—it was also fun. Kesey himself actually “liked this Fugitive game” (Wolfe 299). He would hide out in the jungle “for two or three days and smoke a lot of grass,” devising secret codes and signals (299).

The sense of self-inflation that Kesey and others in the Prohibition Generation experienced was an extension of the Beat antiauthoritarian ideal. From a countercultural perspective, the outlaw was the only person who could live truly authentically, and this lifestyle gave one tremendous credentials as a cultural leader. It came to the point where Kesey felt that “the outlaw, even more than the artist, is he who tests the limits of life” (304). One no longer had to make art to speak to the counterculture movement; one simply had to live it. Participation in the counterculture became as easy as sparking a joint.

This large-scale drug use—a manifestation of the counterculture’s quest for authenticity and spontaneity—ultimately created a culture of excess and overindulgence that undermined the movement’s goals of affecting positive social change. Kesey had made his best attempt at living authentically, and in the process he had been “driven at last out onto the edge of [his] professed beliefs” (304). Despite his best attempts to invert the social order, there is no doubt that Kesey and the movement he represented ultimately failed. Not only was Kesey eventually arrested (after successfully hopping back across the border in full Prankster regalia—Furthur and all), but Electric Kool-Aid itself ends with the Pranksters gathered around for an Acid Test Graduation chanting “WE BLEW IT!” (411).[12] Drugs, specifically LSD, had become a binding force within the counterculture during the 1960s, but before the end of the decade it became clear that drug use had become a major liability for the political success of the movement.[13]

Hallucinogenic drugs made it easy for anyone to join the countercultural quest for authenticity, but overindulgent drug use became an ever-more visible aspect of the countercultural lifestyle. As literature and media coverage of the psychedelic movement grew, so too did a sense of despair and dissatisfaction within a movement split into factions by conflicts over politics and drugs. The counterculture had effectively reached pop-culture status, but it had failed to remake society in its own “out front” image. Much like the Beats before him, Kesey’s own countercultural community began to fracture before his eyes—doomed to failure by its own impossible pursuit of authenticity.

Wolfe represents the self-destruction of the psychedelic movement in Electric Kool-Aid through the “political crisis” that occurs when Kesey decides it is time to move “beyond acid.”  While it is not clear that Kesey himself planned to completely cease taking LSD, he expressed a desire for the counterculture to move beyond drug trips as the primary means of self-discovery. “You find what you came to find when you’re on acid and we’ve got to start doing it without acid; there’s no use opening the door and going through it and then always going back out again,” Kesey explains (363). The resistance from his group was predicable: “Bullshit, Kesey! It’s the drugs that do it. […] None of it would have happened without the drugs” (363).

Kesey’s push to go “beyond acid” is representative of his gradual swing from the extremity of overindulgent drug use to a more tempered approach of moderation, a point of view he tries to convey at the Acid Test Graduation, a publicized event the Pranksters hosted to promote life “beyond acid”:

“There’s cops and there’s policemen,” Kesey says, “The cop says, ‘Don’t do that. That’s forbidden and that’s all there is to that.’ The policeman says, ‘You can do that, but if you go too far, you’re going to hurt yourself.’ The policeman is the double line in the middle of the road. I’m talking about inside of us.” (396)

But Kesey’s realization of the “double line” of moderation came too late; the counterculture was not willing to give up one of its most cherished activities. With Kesey’s leadership of the movement in flux, other radical hippie groups jumped at the chance to gain power by portraying Kesey as a sellout, as part of the system that he had worked so hard to rebel against. Unfortunately, the psychedelic movement failed to live up to its own standards; it was content to challenge societal norms as long as that meant free love and drugs, but when it came to actually taking the next step—further, as it were—the hippies themselves became defenders of their own status quo.

The internal political conflict and subsequent fracturing of the psychedelic group depicted in Electric Kool-Aid was indicative of larger strife within the American counterculture. While the escalating political activities of the New Left[14] throughout the 1960s stirred up hope for the expansion of civil rights and an end to the war in Vietnam, visible societal change was overshadowed by increasingly violent race riots and antiwar protests across the nation, climaxing in 1968 when the CIA “engaged in deliberate, systematic and long-term programs to spy on Americans”—particularly those involved in campus protests—and submitted “Restless Youth” to President Johnson (Zegart). The relationship between the New Left and the psychedelic counterculture was consistently strained; Lytle observes that political radicals respected the “liberation aesthetics of the hippie universe,” but found its lifestyle “too frivolous for those committed to the politics of liberation.” Conversely, “the discipline required of successful political action was too severe for the free spirits” of the hippie movement (Lytle 201). By the time of the Kent State shootings in 1970, many who had felt so much hope during the sixties were left disillusioned and deflated. Thousands of countercultural youth had become outlaws, their very lifestyles shaped around antiauthoritarian ideals of authenticity, only to experience the harsh consequences of their actions—jail, injury, or even death—either at their own hands or by the hands of their government.

[12] This phrase was also uttered by Peter Fonda (as Wyatt) at the end of the 1969 countercultural film Easy Rider, expressing similar sentiments about the failures of the hippie movement.

[13] While Governor of California in 1967, Ronald Reagan was quoted as saying that residents of the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood—a concentrated area of drug use and communal living—“had a haircut like Tarzan, walked like Jane and smelled like cheetah,” portraying all hippies as comically lazy and uncivilized (H. Perry). Needless to say, characterizations like this by conservative politicians did not aid the countercultural quest to create social change. Reagan’s vocal opposition to the hippie ethos and drug culture became central to his political platform when he ran for President in 1980.

[14] The term “New Left” refers to youth-oriented political activist groups (most notably the Students for a Democratic Society—SDS) whose main goals were promoting participatory democracy, civil rights, and ending the Vietnam War.

Next Post: The Undisguised Menace: Participation as Protest


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