The Points Interview — Mark Christensen

Editor’s Note:  Those who follow the Points Interview series know that Joe Spillane has managed this aspect of the blog since our founding.  While in today’s iteration we mourn Joe’s departure, we are also delighted to announce that Contributing Editor Ron Roizen has agreed to take over as our official interview steward.  A member of the merry research staff at the Alcohol Research Group at “Berzerkeley” in the early 1970s, it’s fitting that his first Points Interview is a “Freaky Friday” confab with Mark Christensen, another denizen of the Wild West.  In addition to publishing several novels, Christensen has written for Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Oregon Magazine.  Here he graces Points with his replies to our series of probing interrogatives on Acid Christ: Ken Kesey, LSD, and the Politics of Ecstasy (Schaffner Press, 2010).

How did you come to write Acid Christ?  And what’s its focus?

I was contacted by a former editor working for my eventual publisher, Tim Schaffner.  Tim had an idea for a new kind of nonfiction book,  a “shepherd and his sheep” biography in which the writer would tell the story of  a major modern “culture changer” and the change the “shepherd” brought from the writer’s own  perspective. As one of the sheep.  That would be me.  A former upper middle-class “suburban-urchin,” I’d written about counterculture icons like David Crosby, Richard Pryor and Paul Krassner for Rolling Stone and High Times and, so to speak, the paradise that was “pre-AIDS ‘Freak Freely’ America.” So I guess I was a good get.

As for the shepherd, larger than life Ken Kesey was an easy choice.  By age 28 he had two critically acclaimed bestselling novels, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion, a feat never bested by Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Saul Bellow or John Updike.

“Founder of the Counter Culture,” blond haired, blue-eyed  Kesey was the proto-typical all-American boy.  Beloved by his well-off dairy farmer parents, he was a handsome high school jock who could draw like a young Norman Rockwell, almost made the US Olympic wrestling team, aspired to become a movie star but discovered he could write like nobody’s business instead.   Yet for Kesey literary superstardom was not enough.  Gore Vidal had declared that both god and the novel were dead and so Kesey decided to fill the void, leaving his job as the new Norman Mailer to become a literally religious figure — if not a literal Acid Christ, at least the Pope of Permission, a messiah who set out to change America forever if not for better.

What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

Probably the extent, as illustrated in the book, that, largely inspired by psychedelics, American kids bought into the millennial vision of a coming drug-fueled heaven on earth. The 1960s were the last age of metaphysics.  It was also the heyday of sex, drugs and rock-reality-to-its-knees — at the feet of rock stars and sex and drug gurus.  Drug savants like Ken Kesey and particularly his charming extraterrestrial pal, Harvard “professor” (actually just an instructor) Tim Leary, thought “acid” was the Holy Grail in a pill.  And so did millions of their young Baby Boom followers.  If, as a young artist, LSD did not allow you to create the new Mona Lisa — and then sleep with her — at least you could hallucinate your rent check.

Also, regarding Ken Kesey, what I found particularly interesting was that as a “maniac for all seasons” and legendary cultural liberator, Kesey’s views were not particularly liberal.  Sometimes a Great Notion, for example, is a novel whose plot revolves around union busting and whose heroes are largely to the right of Republican.  And I discovered hanging around Kesey while I was a young journalist that his famous watchwords, “you’re either on the bus or off the bus,” were not his way of saying “welcome to the party” but instead “my way or the highway.”

The great liberator (aka “America’s First Hippie”) was, in fact, more akin to the college jock control freak he’d been before he’d discovered acid (his legendary “Merry Pranksters” were largely just extensions of his beloved University of Oregon frat brotherhood dressed up like the Pirates of Penzance).  In many ways Ken was about as free-spirited as a traffic ticket.

But he really let the genie out of the bottle (Acid Christ was originally paired with Keith Richards’ biography, Life, on Amazon and I got a kick out of Keith claiming that it wasn’t he who ignited the drug culture but Ken).  As a novelist, Kesey’s greatest feat was to rewrite the social contract.  I write about the new “Your place, my place or right here” sex culture.  Which was largely the product of another pharmaceutical– the birth control pill, but combined with “acid thinking” opened the door to lots of pre-AIDS early feminist experimentation, like “pussy power sex,” in which young women tried to usurp the “conquering” male sexual role by screwing as many desirable guys as possible.

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

Several things:  One was the extent to which the connection between schizophrenia and psychedelics has not been investigated.  In Acid Christ I tell the story of teenage lady killer Frank Merlino who was my best friend when I was a longhaired, pothead surfer boy in Hawaii.  Frank had everything — his dad was the architect who designed all the Baskin-Robbins — he was tall, handsome, had a Disney starlet girlfriend plus countless other girlfriends, was the Most Popular Dude on the Beach and then, boom, he dropped acid once, became paranoid, started shooting barbiturates to stay “sane,” and then boom II, shot himself.

Frank was one of several “acid casualties” I knew growing up.  When I mentioned that at a reading at the San Francisco library a college student asked why LSD hadn’t been vetted by more clinical testing to see if it catalyzed the onset of schizophrenia.  Before I could reply she provided the best answer I’ve heard: “I’d guess it’s because if you solicited test subjects, gave them LSD and some flipped out, their relatives would file lawsuits that could bankrupt the hospital or university.”

Also interesting was how fast the utopian 1960s hookah pipe hippie drug culture went from love and God to money and guns.  People recall “the Sixties” as a languorous, idyllic decade.  But, in fact, saints became sinners fast.  The whole “hippie heaven” in Haight-Asbury San Francisco went from a liberated free love New Jerusalem to junkie hell hole in less than a year. Finally, the extent to which “neo-hippie” culture still thrives on nobby college campuses like USC, UC Santa Barbara and Lewis & Clark College in Oregon, where the Grateful Dead and Bob Marley still wafts with the pot smoke from dorm rooms, and kids dressed like surfer Jesuses are still dying to save the world.

Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?

Let’s just say that even dead dope dealers have attorneys. Before Acid Christ was published the galleys were attacked by every other so-called 1960s “prankster” in America who thought he or she had a stake in the story — and a concerted attempt was made to “kill the book.” As a result some bodies remained buried.  Though the person with the most at stake in the story, Faye Kesey, was completely sane and gracious, asking only that an unsubstantiated claim about the Kesey family tree be cut and that a very contentious “he said, she said” scene be removed.  And while Acid Christ is fairly raunchy there were a couple very funny but very embarrassing “boudoir” scenes axed. 

BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration?

Sean Penn or the ghost of Walter Cronkite.