Long before he became a novelist and writer for such publications as Playboy, Wired and Rolling Stone, Mark Christensen was a kid growing up in Oregon in the shadow of one of America's greatest, most enigmatic literary figures: Ken Kesey. In his recent book, Acid Christ: Ken Kesey, LSD & the Politics of Ecstasy, Christensen explores the mystery of whatever happened to Kesey after One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and the Acid Tests. Christensen, who lives in Laguna Beach, recently told the Weekly about his experience writing the book.
OC Weekly: What inspired you to write a book that combines biography with autobiography?
Mark Christensen: It was a bolt out of the blue. I got a call from a guy in Portland who had been an editor of mine at Willamette Week, and he was a consultant for Tim Schafner, a publisher who had a new idea of how to write a biography. You take a modern cultural figure and write his biography, but also tell the story of how this person affected you personally. There are people who like this idea and people who don't, but I said yes without asking about money or anything. I just said I'm doing this.
Was writing about Kesey your idea?
The first guy I wanted to do was Paul Krassner, and he had recommended me to do this project. Krassner says no, it's too incestuous and too much Krassner stuff out there already. His idea was initially Hunter S. Thompson. I'd been briefly around Hunter Thompson and didn't really like him much. He was kind of an asshole, and at that point, he had just died and everybody who knew him who could work a pencil was writing about him.
Did you ever meet Kesey?
I had grown up in Oregon, where he was a literary demigod, and I had been around him when I first got out of college. . . . There is a chapter in the book called "Last Supper" with details about how I met him and how I expected this sort of hippie golden boy, and instead, I didn't get the great liberating figure. His famous quote "Your either on the bus or off the bus"--to me that means "It's my way or the highway.' He was not what I took to be a classic liberating figure, although he was a genius.
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What has been the reaction to your book?
The reaction is all over the place. There had to be a lot of legal revisions based on people recanting recorded testimony. This person gave me interview after interview, and then galleys come out, and the person said, "I'm taking this all back." There is a lot of bitterness out there. There's a lot of long-term drug use that didn't do anybody any good. I thought I took a pretty centrist look at all that stuff. But there was a fair amount of people pissed off. Here's my self-righteous take: The dream did not come true. As I say in the book, people believe that acid, if it didn't make you Nietzche's new man, it at least allowed you to hallucinate your rent check.
So what is Kesey's legacy today?
His legacy is two really good novels and some other writing, jail writing, that was quite good. He and Tim [Leary] changed the culture forever, if not for better. It was a much more conservative time, and they let the genie out of the bottle. He was a jock who could draw like Norman Rockwell, and he also could write. He had everything. And he took it down a pretty interesting road. He also has to take credit for much of the modern drug culture. What's really funny is that Acid Christ has been paired on Amazon with Keith Richards' Life. In Life, Keith Richards blames Kesey for the drug culture. He says, "It wasn't my fault; it was Kesey's fault."