The moment flickered past while I realized that the last of them was gone, the last of the sixties counterculture iconoclasts, those world shakers and rainbow revolutionaries: Lenny Bruce, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, John Lennon, Abbie Hoffman, Edward Abbey, Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, Hunter Thompson—all gone, the last by his own hand.
I met Thompson once, but I barely remember it. Part of it is time. Part of it is that in those days—the early nineties—the aging revolutionaries of the sixties were my mentors, my heroes, and I emulated them. The key to their genius, I thought, was their excesses, without understanding that their excesses were mostly countermeasure to the pain of genius. My memories from those years are washed with a psychoactive rose-colored tinge—fleeting, gossamer—like cheesy wedding photos.
Hunter Thompson, like his heroes Ernest Hemingway and Mark Twain, was an American journalist turned fiction stylist, another who fearlessly made himself a character in his own myth-making, carefully fictionalizing his own persona. When Hemingway killed himself, Thompson was twenty-three, still a young, ambitious, and undiscovered writer. He traveled to Ketchum, Idaho, to see the place where his hero stood in the foyer of his home, lifted a custom-made, silver-inlaid shotgun from the rack, put the muzzle to his head and tripped the trigger. Thompson saw a rack of elk’s horns hanging outside above the doorway. He took them, a figurative torch-passing, a talisman.
Thompson’s journey to Idaho was not unlike my own to Eugene, Oregon. In 1990, I went to the town of my hero, Ken Kesey, to find a torch. In a classic illustration of why we must be careful what we wish for, Kesey passed one to me.
I enrolled in a novel-writing course Kesey taught at the University of Oregon. True to form, he taught by doing. His approach was to co-author an actual novel with thirteen creative-writing students. (Our experimental, collectively written book was published as Caverns, by O.U. Levon—U.O. Novel, spelled backward.) Kesey’s nature, like Thompson’s, was to up the ante, to increase the stakes, to imbue the mundane with the mythical, to inflate, magnify, and intensify.
The motives of both writers were pure, almost childlike and naive; they were simple seekers of truth, like modern-day Huck Finns. Mix this with thirty years of fame, pursuits by police, pundits, and groupies, some jail time, and harsh literary critique. Boisterous in public, Kesey and Thompson were professional introspectives, molding myths with id and ego. As a consequence, they had to live up to their creations, which became golems that lumbered behind, pursuing and ultimately consuming them.
I didn’t understand this when I met Kesey. I wanted fame. But Kesey certainly knew the monster pursued him. He intimately recognized my desire, “those burning eyes,” as he called them, and so he allowed me to tag along a on number of celebrity-sprinkled adventures so I could write about them. My tape deck, notebook, and camera in tow, I rode with Kesey and the Merry Pranksters down to the Bay Area for a 1991 sequel to The Original Acid Tests. Among other things, we pranked the Smithsonian Institution, who wanted Further, Kesey’s famous multicolored schoolbus, for an exhibit. We campaigned for Wavy Gravy when he ran for mayor of Berkeley. I tried to write about it all, but the articles didn’t sell. Kesey gave me a job as a farm hand at his spread in Pleasant Hill, Oregon. Generous.
One day he called and told me that Hunter Thompson was coming for a University of Oregon Cultural Forum gig. “Bring your tape deck; get what you can get.” The fantasy was to pick up Hunter Thompson in Further, its interior tricked out like a Las Vegas casino. There would be Tiffany lamps, topless waitresses, chips, ice, Chivas Regal to complement other neurological ordnance, and a green felted eight-seat poker table—in short, everything needed to welcome the good Doctor of Gonzo and to hold an incredible high-level summit between two of the sixties’ highest minds. That was the fantasy. The reality never jibed.
Kesey published a calendar a year later, in 1992, with Thompson’s face on a monitor at the center of the poker table with the Thompson quote: “They dragged me aboard that bus . . . forced me to drink alcohol and gamble . . . then after I won, the twisted swine stole all the money . . . ,” which is pretty much what happened.
My role as observer put me outside the action, an uncomfortable place. I was not adding to Kesey’s story, but taking from it, energizing the monster that pursued him. Even writers that bestow immortality on their subjects—think of Jack Kerouac, who immortalized Neal Cassady in On the Road—are fashioning little golems that shadow their subjects the rest of their lives.
Thompson’s official appearance was like a political stump speech without a campaign. Fans called out questions and comments and Thompson rambled. The Pranksters called the night after a few hours, loading Thompson onto a gurney and whisking him from the hall. Swirling behind us was a vortex of local journalists and politicians, wide-eyed groupies and students, drunks and freaks, bikers, and Mad Dog-crazed trolls out from under their bridges to toast their knight and champion, many of whom climbed onto the bus and rode out to Kesey’s farm.
The trolls took bottles from the kitchen and faded out into the swamp in the first hour. The other reporters and students folded about 2 a.m., the groupies lying prone on the DayGlo bean-bag chairs scattered around the living room. The politicians, more familiar with madness and depravity, left shortly after 3 a.m.
It wasn’t until after 4 a.m.—after a brief incident with an old eight-gauge shotgun with side-by-side barrels like three-foot Coke cans, a goose killer that, happily, Kesey had no shells for; after the vodka, Wild Turkey, and Chivas bottles were empty and a bottle of cheap cabernet was still hopefully half full; after Thompson had requisitioned Kesey’s old Mercury for an early morning roundup of the cows, who lowed and bawled over the roar of the over-revved engine, loud and abusive in the early-morning quiet, which also stirred the iridescent, aggressive, and ill-mannered peacocks that Thompson had once given Kesey to serve as watchdogs, which in turn riled the neighbor’s roosters, and then their neighbor’s neighbors, creating a circle of unrest spreading like pond ripples in still black waters—it was after all this that Kesey and Thompson turned to their diplomatic and cultural negotiations. I switched on my tape deck and took out my notepad.
We sat at the Kesey’s kitchen table, which was decorated with sixties relics, baby pictures, and lurid DayGlo swirls, all preserved under layers of yellowing shellac.
It was February 28, 1991, the day after President George H.W. Bush ordered a cease-fire pending Saddam Hussein’s acceptance of terms. The heady, triumphant end of Desert Storm. Bush rode high in the polls. The other team.
Kesey: We really have suffered a bad blow these last few years, you know it. A lot of people fought a real battle and we thought we could beat them.
Thompson: We were fools.
Kesey: We were fools. We’re in for five bad years. Maybe a whole lot more, maybe fifty, maybe a hundred.
Thompson: It feels like a long time. Sure, a hundred years.
Then the talk turned local. The week before, the Grateful Dead had been banned from playing Autzen Stadium at the University of Oregon. A stunning thing. An insult personal and targeted, as close as you could get to banning the local team from their home field. The psychedelic mayhem that trailed the band was no longer welcome at one of the most liberal, hippie-dominated enclaves in the United States—as sure a sign as any that the sixties were finally and completely over. That President Bush’s New World Order reigned.
Kesey: It’s all about religion. It’s not drugs, it’s religion. These people don’t want heads getting together and feeling a way that is outside the boundaries of any kind of recognized religion. That is the threat. The Grateful Dead have amassed a real bunch of followers that are following them, really, for religious reasons. They really work hard at it.
Thompson: Jerry Garcia is the one that gets it.
Kesey: Yeah, he is just a very, very
Thompson: Jerry is a hard warrior.
Kesey: Plus, he is a very, very intelligent, hardworking man, working with the best tools he can find at this period in history. And we are privileged to run around in this same time.
Kesey, who was standing, looked at Thompson and laid a hand on his shoulder. Thompson had just published two books in the last year, and had been getting into his usual trouble with the authorities; earlier that year, his home had been raided and he was charged with five felonies and three misdemeanors, mostly related to illegal substances and explosives.
Kesey: And the same with you, old timer. Goddamn. You’re a real warrior, and each time I read this stuff of yours, I read it and read it, and read over it and go back to it and look at it and I’m just amazed at it. And I’m the only one who really knows how good it is, I think.
A crowd from the barn swirled into the kitchen at this point, friends of Kesey’s. They were arguing about the poker winnings.
Thompson: There was about forty dollars in there.
Kesey: I had to pay that last guy eight dollars to leave.
Thompson: So that’s thirty-eight dollars to me.
Kesey began to do sleight-of-hand tricks with a coin, the quarter flashing across his knuckles, disappearing from one hand and reappearing in the other. He kept talking as he performed the magic, and the group at the table fell silent watching him.
Kesey: Someone told me, “You have to support your leaders.” And I said, “No! I ought not to support my leaders. That’s not my job. My job is to always go against my leaders.”
Thompson: No, your job will be to go down in history as a card cheat.
(Kesey’s concentration was broken. He dropped the coin.)
Kesey: I would be good at that.
Thompson: Yeah, but is that the way you want yourself known, he cheated at cards?
Kesey: I cheated well at cards.
(Kesey flashed the coin, making it jump from one hand and appear in the other.)
Kesey: But I always have maintained that this is what literature and art, what everything is about. It’s about that moment when your mind goes boink. That little tiny moment of magic.
Thompson: Magic is when you get people to think you’re doing something else than what you’re doing with your hands . . . which is just cheating.
Kesey: Of course! Of course. But cheating is magic.
Their bravado, this many years later, can be mistaken for vanity, or the bloviations of faded superstars. But what these men had written, and their actions, had made them targets. And they had paid the price, again, and again. In Kesey’s finest novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, the main character grows up with a sign his father nailed above his bed, “Never Give an Inch.” And Kesey never did. Thompson either. Neither of them were political; they were radical, lived radically, wrote radically, and died young. I once asked Kesey what had happened to the sixties. Why the movement lost its steam. His eyes went wide at my naivete. “They threw us all in jail. Every one of us.” I pressed on— maybe their lifestyle had brought the thing down. He took on a harder tone—teacher to student. “If you stand in the spotlight for too long, someone will draw a bead on you. What didn’t you get about John Lennon?”
That night, Kesey continued the lesson, as the writers talked about spending time in jail, and the cost of being a critic of powerful institutions—the feeling of being watched, even when you’re free.
Kesey: The job of the writer is to stand out there alone and hammer these things home because nobody else will do it. And most of us writers have stopped. Thompson, you haven’t stopped. Burroughs has not given a goddamn inch. But that all draws heat. They just tried to bust you for it.
Thompson: These last ten years have seemed like a hundred.
Kesey: More and more I feel like that is our job. We must not become partisan.
Thompson: Who “we”? You we, me we or what? Who are we?
Kesey: You know it’s gotten down to this. Forget what’s just, forget what’s righteous, forget all that stuff, forget everything except the survival of a certain limited small bunch of people that carry the light. So—I made a sign.
Kesey digs through some of the posters and artwork that lines the wall. He pulls out a sign.
Kesey: When the war came down, a bunch of people went to the Federal Building in our hometown. Usually you see them out in front of 7-Eleven. They don’t have anything else to do. They beg money and try to pick up dope. They are the peace side. Then over here on the other side are the goddamn redneck, big old bearded sons of bitches and they’re all yelling and waving the flag. So I drove by with this sign.
(Kesey held up a STOP sign.)
Kesey: I sat out in the middle of the street, between the two with my sign, and I made enemies of them all.
(Thompson stabbed his long cigarette in its holder at Kesey.)
Thompson: He’s the same bastard that tried to persuade me, on the telephone, to call up the Hells Angels. That I could make peace between the Berkeley peace freaks and the Hells Angels.
Kesey: We came close.
Thompson: Ahh, no. No, we got to get them together.
Kesey: Creativity is the only thing that will see us through. Nobody is going to see us through. The fault always has to lie with the poets. When a poet presents a really great vision, the people will follow. You cannot expect the politicians or people in the media to supply the vision. It has to be the poet’s domain.
The writers talk more about heroes and villains, dying hopes.
Kesey: But we’re not going to move things like I thought we were back in 1968. I thought we were going to grab the tail of the dinosaur and flip him over on his back, and cut him open, and eat his entrails.
Thompson: We did pretty good, though. Flipped him hard and he’s still trying to get us for it.
Kesey: Yeah, we got him on his back, but we couldn’t put the knife in and we didn’t really want to eat his entrails anyway. We just wanted to flip him over, play.
Thompson: Just flipping him over was fun. And surprisingly easy then. But battle made the monster hard.
Kesey: There’s two ways you make the world work, with a whip or a carrot. We carry carrots.
And that is where my tape and notes ended early in the morning of March 1, 1991. The carrot has become an even less effective weapon than it was fourteen years ago, and the duo’s ugly, addled prophesies have played out. Jerry Garcia died in 1995; Timothy Leary in 1996; Allan Ginsberg and William Burroughs in 1997. Kesey died in 2001. And Hunter S. Thompson, sitting in his writing chair, full glass of Chivas at his elbow, his son and grandson in the house, his wife on the phone, put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger on February 20, 2005. He, like his hero Hemingway, ended his life as if it were a fiction, and he the author. Last week, in a private ceremony, he had his ashes shot from a cannon at Willow Creek.
Before I left his farm for good, in search of my own path, Kesey gave me an I Ching and some coins. I decided to throw the Ching as a meditation on this passing:
There is no water in the lake;
The image of EXHAUSTION
Thus the superior man stakes his life
On following his will.