Monday, June 19, 2017

Ken Kesey Talks About the Meaning of the Acid Tests

For me, there have always been at least three Ken Keseys. First, there was the antiauthoritarian author of the madcap 1962 classic One Flew over the Cuckoo’s NestInspired by Kesey’s own work as an orderly at a Menlo Park mental hospital, the author’s voice disappears into that of the narrator, Chief Bromden, and the dialogue of the most memorable ensemble of troubled personalities in twentieth century literature. Then there’s the Kesey of the 1964 Sometimes a Great Notion, a Pacific Northwest epic and the work of a serious novelist pulling American archetypes from rough-hewn Oregon logging country. Finally, there’s Kesey the Merry Prankster, the mad scientist who almost single-handedly invented sixties drug culture with his ‘64 psychedelic bus tour and acid test parties. It’s a little hard to put them all together sometimes. Ken Kesey contained multitudes.
The acid test parties began after Kesey’s experience with mind-altering drugs as a volunteer test subject for Army experiments in 1960 (later revealed to be part of the CIA’s mind control experiment, Project MKUltra). Kesey stole LSD and invited friends to try it with him. In 1965, after Hunter S. Thompson introduced Kesey to the Hell’s Angels, he expanded his test parties to real happenings at larger venues, beginning at his home in La Honda, California. Always present was the music of The Grateful Dead, who debuted under that name at one of Kesey’s parties after losing their original name, The Warlocks. The cast of characters also included Jack Kerouac’s traveling buddy Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, and Dr. Timothy Leary. Out of what Hunter Thompson called “the world capital of madness,” the psychedelic counter-culture of Haight-Ashbury was born.
In the interview above, Kesey talks about the acid tests as much more than an excuse to trip for hours and hear The Dead play for a buck. No, he says, “there were people who passed and people who didn’t pass” the test. What it all meant perhaps only Kesey knew for sure. (He is quoted as saying that he and his band of compatriots, the Merry Pranksters, were trying to “stop the coming end of the world”). In any case, it’s a strange story—stranger than any of Ken Kesey’s works of fiction: covert government mind control program turns on one of the generation’s most subversive novelists, who then masterminds the hippy movement. The video below, from the Kesey documentary Magic Trip, takes us back to where it started with animation of a tape recording of Kesey narrating his first government-sponsored acid trip.
Josh Jones is a writer and musician. He recently completed a dissertation on landscape, literature, and labor.

Monday, June 12, 2017

VIDEOS: The History of the Blues in 50 Riffs: From Blind Lemon Jefferson (1928) to Joe Bonamassa (2009)

If you’ve ever had any doubt, for some reason or other, that rock and roll descended directly from the blues, the video above, a history of the blues in 50 riffs, should convince you. And while you might think a blues history that ends in rock n roll would start with Robert Johnson, this guitarist reaches back to the country blues of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Black Snake Moan” from 1928 then moves through legendarily tuneful players like Skip James and Reverend Gary Davis before we get to the infamous Mr. Johnson.
Big Bill Broonzy is, as he should be, represented. Other country blues greats like soft-spoken farmer Mississippi John Hurt and hardened felon Lead Belly, “King of the 12 String Guitar,” are not. Say what you will about that. The recordings these artists made with Okeh Records and Alan Lomax, despite their commercial failure in the 30s, midwifed the blues revival of the fifties and sixties. Hear Lead Belly's version of folk ballad “Gallows Pole” above, a song Led Zeppelin made famous. Lead Belly’s acoustic blues inspired everyone from John Fogerty to Skiffle King Lonnie Donegan, Pete Seeger to Jimmy Page, as did the rootsy country blues of Lightnin’ Hopkins, who is included in the 50 riffs. As are John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and BB King’s electric styles---all of them picked up by blues rock revivalists, including, of course, Jimi Hendrix.
Hendrix’s “Red House” riff makes the cut here, as we move slowly into rock and roll. But before we get to Hendrix, we must first check in with two other Kings, Freddie and Albert—especially Albert. Hendrix “was star struck,” says Rolling Stone, “when his hero [Albert King] opened for him at the Fillmore in 1967.” For his part, King said, “I taught [Hendrix] a lesson about the blues. I could have easily played his songs, but he couldn’t play mine.” See King play “Born Under a Bad Sign” in 1981, above, and hear why Hendrix worshipped him.
Mississippi blues moved to Memphis, Chicago, New York and to Texas, where by the 70s and 80s, ZZ Top and Stevie Ray Vaughan added their own southwest roadhouse swagger. (No Johnny Winter, alas.) Many people will be pleased to see Irish rocker Rory Gallagher in the mix, and amused that The Blues Brothers get a mention. Many more usual suspects appear, and a few unusual picks. I’m very glad to hear a brief R.L. Burnside riff. The White Stripes, Tedeschi Trucks Band, and Joe Bonamassa round things out into the 2010’s. Everyone will miss their favorite blues player. (As usual, the powerhouse gospel blues guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe gets overlooked.) I would love to see included in any history of blues such obscure but brilliant guitarists as Evan Johns (above), whose rockabilly blues guitar freakouts sound like nothing else. Or John Dee Holeman, below, whose effortless, understated rhythm playing goes unmatched in my book.
Like so many of the bluesmen who came before them, these gentlemen seem to represent a dying breed. And yet the blues lives on and evolves in artists like Gary Clark Jr.The Black Keys, and Alabama Shakes. And of course there’s the prodigy Bonamassa, whom you absolutely have to see below at age 12, jamming with experimental country speed demon Danny Gatton’s band (he gets going around 1:05).
If you’re missing your favorites, give them a shout out below. Who do you think has to be included in any history of the blues—told in riffs or otherwise---and why?