‘New Journalism’ Hits the Road

Picking up on the thread about Neal Cassady with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, and the evolution of the Beats with the hippy culture of the late 1960s, we have a detailed account left by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Wolfe caught up with the Pranksters in 1964 as they awaited Kesey’s release from jail for marijuana possession – a year after the Pranksters took their wild cross-country bus ride for an ill-fated rendezvous with Timothy Leary and Jack Kerouac, and the manic Cassady at the wheel, forever tempting fate.

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Tom Wolfe in his element: Taking a literary approach to journalism.

While Wolfe was not on the bus, literally or figuratively, in that drug-fueled mad dash across the country, he was an eyewitness to later trips as Kesey hosted the Hell’s Angels and Grateful Dead for parties, and met the infamous Owsley Stanley, grandson of a U.S. senator from Kentucky and principal LSD manufacturer on the West Coast, providing enough acid to supply a running series of Kesey “acid tests,” and finance a run by the Dead into the music consciousness of the era. Wolfe documents all the craziness.

Among the cultural collisions occurring during this period was the intersection of the “New Journalists,” and Wolfe was foremost in this category of reporters using the techniques of the novel, with the author becoming a player in the story. As the Hell’s Angels were preparing to invade the Pranksters’ encampment in La Honda, California, for a party, Wolfe and Kesey met with Hunter S. Thompson, who was imbedded with the Angels working on his own New Journalism account, Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, just the beginning of his “Fear and Loathing” reports. My favorite, a Thompson article for the now-defunct Ramparts magazine, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” deconstructed here.

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Hunter S. Thompson chronicled the saga of Hell’s Angels,  Kentucky Derby and Presidential  Campaign Trails, among other American vulgarities.

For his part, Wolfe went on to write The Right Stuff and Bonfire of the Vanities, both made into movies, and continued to report from his elitist, socially conservative point of view, criticizing the styles of modern art and architecture, for example. One of his earliest works, Radical Chic, pillories Leonard Bernstein in reporting on a fundraising gala for the Black Panthers. Most recently, Wolfe, now 85, has sought to debunk well-researched theories of Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky in “The Kingdom of Speech,” introducing his own rather preposterous theory about the origin of language.

With the “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” Wolfe seemed to fall in love with his chief protagonist, Ken Kesey, whose muscular prose and personality were pure poetry in Wolfe’s telling. It was Kesey’s first novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and the follow-up publication of Sometimes a Great Notion that drew him to the Pranksters and Kesey’s release from jail. Wolfe’s critics accuse him of deifying Kesey, making him a Christ-like figure in the evolving counterculture. While Wolfe clearly was a fan of Kesey the author, he swears he never drank the Kool-Aid.

Fifty years later, the story is different. People have moved beyond the psychedelic craze and, while drug abuse may be rampant in some communities, we are seeing the revival of natural approaches to improving human strength and balance. That is the story of Tai Chi and Qigong in America, and it is compelling. The New Dharma Bums are leading a spiritual and cultural quest for mind-body balance, for new Taoist sensibilities, yin and yang, building harmony within and out. They are also teaching a serious martial arts form, an intense mind-body exercise, providing a clear answer to the nagging question of balance.

My plan is to write about the promise of Tai Chi and Qigong in America, telling the stories of teachers and students who are opening new channels of energy and vitality. This strikes me as a grand adventure in New Journalism, and I look forward to becoming part of this story.

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New Journalist Michael Byrne, stepping into single whip, ready to help push Tai Chi into the mainstream

Thanks to all those who have supported this journey, either via the Kickstarter campaign or joining in the conversation on this blog or the Facebook page or group. I welcome all insights, such as the recent message from a hardwired Deadhead who wanted to make sure I understood just how close Neal Cassady was to the Grateful Dead. The band celebrated his memory in the eminently jammable “Cassidy,” which also referred to a love child of the Grateful Dead family, as explained by the lyricist.

Here’s how “Cassidy” went down at New York’s Radio Music Hall on Halloween, 1980.

 

 

The Round Trip

Neal Cassady was a magnetic character in Jack Kerouac’s books — a wild West antihero  who was ultra-cool and ultra-hot, a walking contradiction. He was also an object of affection for many Beats and their followers, the model for the charismatic Dean Moriarty in Kerouac’s On The Road, and known as Cody Pomeray in his later works. Besides the many women he loved and left, Cassady for many years had an on-again, off-again romantic relationship with Allen Ginsberg. He went back and forth, from coast to coast.

For all his babbling bop poetry, a muse for Kerouac, Ginsberg and latter-day Beats, Cassady never published anything. He inspired Kerouac to write like the wind, in a stream-of-consciousness style, with his constant patter, and no doubt induced Ginsberg to “Howl” and make other poetic sounds, but Cassady’s own writings were little more than notes left here and there.

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Neal Cassady in the driver’s seat of “Further,” Ken Kesey’s psychedelic bus. Pulled over many times, Cassady was able to talk his way out of every situation, distracting officers as he directed video crews filming the officers — as seen in the 2011 movie, Magic Trip.

Still, before his sudden death in Mexico in 1968, Cassady played a major role in the evolution of the Beat culture as it was transformed in the psychedelic brew of California. That’s where he was in 1963, falling in with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters as they prepared a cross-country trip to the East Coast to meet Kerouac, Timothy Leary and their East Coast countercultural counterparts, whoever they were.

As shown in Alex Gibney’s 2011 film, Magic Trip, which integrated original clips from the trip, Cassady was the self-proclaimed “protector” of the Pranksters, and sole driver of the well-painted bus, “Further.” He was the hyper engine of a bus that seemed to be careening wildly across the countryside, a speed freak leading wacky meditations on LSD and other psychedelic drugs.

The trip and “graduation ceremonies” are chronicled by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a New Journalism classic that I am rereading for context for my own trip in search of the new Dharma bums. Here’s how Wolfe described Cassady, when Wolfe first approaches the Pranksters working on the psychedelic bus:

“Off to one side is a guy about 40 with a lot of muscles, as you can see because he has no shirt on – just a pair of khakis and some red leather boots on and his hell of a build – and he seems to be in a kinetic trance, flipping a small sledge hammer up in the air over and over, always managing to catching the handle on the way down with his arms and legs kicking out the whole time and his shoulders rolling and his head bobbing, all in a jerky beat as if somewhere Joe Cuba is playing ‘Bang Bang’ …”:

Then later, when he learns the kinetic superman is THE Dean Moriarty, he is amused that “Cassady never stops talking. … (He) is a monologist, only he doesn’t seem to care whether anyone is listening or not. He just goes off on the monologue, by himself if necessary, although anyone is welcome aboard. He will answer all questions, although not exactly in that order, because we can’t stop here, next rest area 40 miles, you understand, spinning off memories, metaphors, literary, Oriental, hip allusions, all punctuated by the unlikely expression, ‘you understand …’”

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Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters named their psychedelic bus “Further.” Neal Cassady drove it from San Francisco to New York, but didn’t return with the group.

Dabney’s movie, available on YouTube at one hour, 47 minutes, follows the trip in all its creative chaos, with interviews with Kesey and other easy riders while also depicting the denouement of Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac, who had already begun to slip into an alcoholic stupor when he met Kesey, Cassady and the Pranksters. Everyone was in a bit of a stupor, though:

When Kesey mounted his cross-country journey, he had finished up his second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, which would be panned by media along with his psychedelic adventure. But Kesey already had his masterpiece, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, hailed as a great American novel, which had opened  on Broadway with Kirk Douglas in the role of the all-American rascal Randle McMurphy, later immortalized by Jack Nicholson in the great American movie.

Kesey also had a suitor in Tom Wolfe, the dapper Journalist (Big “J”) from New York City, seemingly always decked out in a white suit. Wolfe was in the midst of pioneering the New Journalism form, along with Norman Mailer, Hunter Thompson and a few others. The idea is to tell real-life stories in the form of a novel, injecting yourself into the narrative. Wolfe tracks down Kesey in 1965, as he is getting out of jail, having served three months for marijuana possession. That’s where we’ll pick up the thread in a future blog.