walsh slot diary
Everybody knows the power of cheap music — it's what makes rock stars millionaires. But the power of cheap literature is harder to admit. 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. I spotted few other grey-faced men worried about their teenaged children and looking like the villains out of William Burroughs books. 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. He also read solemnly great screeds of the speech of Neal Cassady both from transcripts and the accounts given by Jack Kerouac. Cassady was the real shaman of the group who came to live with them after his last marriage disintegrated. "There were about ten minutes every morning when he was more or less human, but by the end of the night he would be carrying on two or three conversations simultaneously" one of his disciples said recently, without adding what was obvious from the transcripts: that all the interlocutors in these simultaneous conversations were imaginary..
Babbs actually played some footage of the film the Pranksters made of the 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.
Yet there remains something inexplicable and rather wonderful in the whole thing. Through all these adventures Kesey remains a tremendous writer, exuberant without being mannered and forceful without being clumsy. His latest novel, Sailor Song, seems to have vanished without trace over here. But a book of essays, Demon Box, is a wonderful set of snapshots from his life after 1968. 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 it is up on his web site, at www.intrepidtrips.com.
I've been fooling around with my own web site in an effort to find out who actually comes to look at it. the answer should be "no one", since I don't advertise it, and hand out the address only to friends and people to whom I need to introduce myself: it is much easier to put a cuttings book online than to faff around with photocopiers. But two or three people a week do seem to stumble on it, and when they do, they leave an electronic footprint. I know which pages they looked at — everyone I met at the Lambeth Conference looked at the page labelled "dirty picture" which actually contains some Inuit grammar. I know what program, and so what sort of computer, they use. And I know something about where they came from, which is why I am left wondering why someone in Russia had a really long, considered poke around the site on Tuesday last week.
The only Russian I know who might have been there is Mischa Kukobaka, a friend of my wife's who spent eighteen years in the Gulag after he walked into the Czech embassy in Moscow in 1968 and told them that he thought the Soviet invasion of their country was a monstrous crime. She wrote to him once a week for eight years in the Eighties after Amnesty International adopted him as a prisoner of conscience. Not one letter got through, but they probably kept him alive, by reminding the KGB that someone cared. Since his release they have corresponded more freely, and even met once in Austria.
At first his letters were full of politics and burning indignation. Then they started to deal with the pains and difficulties of life in modern Russia, where your salary may be paid six months late — or it may not. Somehow, everything still works; and about two years ago he acquired a computer. After another year or so, he got hold of a printer, and then some truly remarkable translation software. Fortunately he still encloses the Russian originals, otherwise we'd have no idea what he was saying. Finally he acquired a modem. The consequence is that all his letter now are almost entirely about his frustrations and triumphs with the computer. Politics and even the struggle for existence are entirely forgotten. It is the conventional wisdom that the Soviet Empire fell because its economy was overstrained because it never dared allow personal computers to become widespread. Mischa's case, however, makes it perfectly obvious that the first thing any tyranny should do is give all the dissidents all the computers they want. It would be years before they noticed the outside world again.