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Why Norman is still on the bus
An excerpt from Literary L.A.
By Lionel Rolfe




I've always wondered what Benjamin Bufano's St. Francis of Assisi might have thought of that strange night back in 1966 when Ken  Kesey's Merry Pranksters reveled for several hours in front of the Longshoreman's Hall in San Francisco, shortly before departing for Los Angeles in their Day-Glo-painted bus. The great sculptor's rendition of the gentle, animal-loving Catholic saint looked enigmatic to me through the dope-hazed stroboscopic madness of that crazy evening that still lingers in my head as a time-frozen snapshot of the era.

I remember the outlandish costumes of Kesey and the Pranksters, the ugly and pervasive noise of the acid rock sounds of the Grateful Dead, as well as the startling sight of a phalanx of women dancing topless, and the cops who hovered as if they were about to pounce, but then didn't. Just as Kesey had intended, they had become part of the bizarre proceedings. The Merry Pranksters was an apt name.

It had been all over the papers. Kesey had just finished telling the court, suddenly sounding as chaste as an old Baptist woman that his new "Acid Tests," of which this was one, would be LSD-free. It would be the LSD experience without the LSD, he announced -- which everyone knew was a big joke. The joke was for the benefit of the courts, where Kesey was facing various marijuana charges. Another big prank. Too big a prank. For after the San Francisco Acid Test, Kesey had to escape to Mexico. The idea was that the Pranksters would drive the bus south, holding Acid Tests all the way down the coast into Mexico, where eventually they would rendezvous with the fugitive from justice. LSD was not yet clearly illegal -- it would be so in a few months, partly as a result of Kesey. No doubt one of the reasons it did become illegal were the various Acid Tests conducted by the Pranksters as they headed south, especially the four in Los Angeles, and in particular the Acid Test in L.A.'s Watts, where LSD-spiked Kool-Aid -- so called Electric Kool-Aid -- left a number of innocents so freaked out they had to be hospitalized. Kesey's Pranksters without Kesey were as outrageous as McMurphy, the main character in Kesey's 1962 novel, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

A couple of years later Tom Wolfe (again, the journalist, not the real novelist) published "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," his best-seller based on Kesey's adventures with his Merry Pranksters aboard their 1939 Day-Glo painted former church bus. I was one of thousands who rushed out to buy the book. Then the following year, which was 1969, I was brought full circle back to that original night under St. Francis's nose. A fellow from Filmways invited me in to discuss doing something about Kesey's thousands of hours of movie footage which, because of misfocusing and overexposure and other amateur problems, had boiled down to half an hour of usable footage.

Wolfe's book had already been published, so everyone was aware of the existence of "The Movie," shot by Kesey's Pranksters during their initial trip across the country.

The history of "The Movie" is another subject, and in fact Kesey still has a place and a movement, and they eventually edited the footage into an interesting video which they will gladly sell you these days. (The tape is $29 from Intrepid Trips, PO Box 764, Pleasant Hill, Oregon 97455. The Web address is http://www.intrepidtrips.com.)

Anyway, the studio wanted someone who would work with Kesey, a writer who could devise a script that could be shot around the usable footage. We talked a long time -- yes, I was anxious to work on the film.

Certainly I had heard of Kesey. The Filmways executive warned me that Kesey was difficult to work with -- in fact, several other writers had already failed. But the executive thought I might be successful with Kesey where others hadn't been, which he no doubt had told all the other writers.

But I did come away convinced that he viewed me as a more bona fide hippie than his other writers with their fancy digs in Malibu and the Hollywood Hills.

He had asked me some pointed questions, such as had I taken LSD. I had done LSD, and followed the doings although not always the philosophy of Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey. I  had read and been impressed by Kesey, although I didn't tell him there was an autocratic thing about Kesey that was a turn-off.

The executive all but guaranteed me he would hire me when got back, for no one was quite sure where he was at that moment, except that he was on the road in the Day-Glo bus. He had gone with a whole truckload of the studio's equipment to do what, no one was precisely sure. I knew enough not to cash the executive's word for cash at my local bank, for indeed he did get back only to to say the studio was dropping out of the whole project -- they had come to the conclusion that Kesey was simply impossible. As they said in the nineties, "Duh!!! Duh, dude!"

I spent much of that psychedelic decade traveling between Los Angeles and San Francisco, as did many of my generation. Gas was cheap, and the big old American cars we drove were, if nothing else, reliable and comfortable. The psychedelic ride carried us, the remnants of the late beatnik coffeehouse scene of the fifties and sixties, to and from from Los Angeles and San Francisco. When the waves were out, we always found ourselves in Los Angeles, waiting for the next tide that would carry us to the new Jerusalem that San Francisco sometimes was. We Angelenos saw ourselves as pikers when the psychedelic revolution overtook us; everything was happening up north, or so it seemed. With hindsight, it now seems as if that may not have been quite the full truth. For down here, we were reading Aldous Huxley's "Doors of Perception," in part, no doubt, because we were all impressed by the fact that the renowned British author who adopted the Southland as his native home for more than the last two decades of his life, went out on his deathbed in his Hollywood Hills home under the influence of LSD -- notes of which were dutifully kept by his wife, Laura Huxley.

Kesey and Leary may have been the gurus of the psychedelic movement, but it is doubtful if they would have found so many followers had it not been for the influence of Huxley's slim but potent little volume.

*
One day Jeanne Morgan, the first wife of Art Kunkin, left a note for me at Chatterton's Bookstore on Vermont Avenue. She was going to meet Norman Hartweg at a coffee shop across from the bookstore to talk about old times. Would I like to join them? Hartweg had been one of Kesey's Merry Pranksters. In fact much of Wolfe's book, since Wolfe himself never actually was on the bus, was based on material taped by Hartweg. Hartweg had been a major character in "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" as well, and his was, in a sense, the ultimate story of what happened to much of the writing talent of my generation in Los Angeles. He was the great writer who might have been, but he was living in obscurity in a tiny, dingy little apartment in North Hollywood and no longer writing. Hartweg survived Kesey's various acid tests as well as the notorious stoned driving of Neal Cassady. The irony of Hartweg's life is that he was a paraplegic, confined to a wheelchair as the result of a broken back suffered in an auto accident that occurred right after he left Kesey's bus in Los Angeles in 1967.

When Kesey approached him in 1964, however, Hartweg was riding high. He was a columnist at the Free Press, which had just started at the Fifth Estate on Sunset Boulevard. Hartweg also lived at the Fifth Estate, in a cheap basement apartment that had no windows. He had recently won an award for his play "The Pit," which the prestigious Tulane Drama Review not only published, but gave him an award for. One wonders, of course, if his apartment had somehow molded the title he gave the drama.

The play was performed all over the country, and eventually it would be produced on public television in Boston. Hartweg was deeply involved in a small Hollywood playhouse called Theatre Event in what was then The Bridge coffeehouse (later the Deja Vu). He had also directed the West Coast premier of Genet's "The Maze." Through the rumor mill, he had also heard that the New Republic, which in those days was still a quality product, was contemplating him for a position as drama critic. But he threw all this up, which included giving away his personal library, to go off and become one of Kesey's Merry Pranksters.

Hartweg wouldn't have been interested in Kesey's proposal that he abandon all that he had in Los Angeles and come up to his place in the redwoods (just south of San Francisco) were it not been for the mention of the legendary Neal Cassady. For Cassady was none other than Dean Moriarty of Kerouac's "On the Road," who Hartweg considered to be one of his biggest influences.

Hartweg could not resist the chance to be around Cassady. Their introduction, however, was not entirely auspicious. Cassady's first love was, of course, his love of cars and driving. He was a whiz with old cars -- and the bus was one of the oldest. He was a whiz at fixing it, and a whiz at driving. In Tom Wolfe's book there was some memorable descriptions of the Pranksters' first cross-country trip, some truly terrifying moments with Cassady, his mind blowing with too many mics of LSD, maneuvering the old beast down the slopes of the great mountains without the benefit of brakes.

Hartweg had a similar hair-raising experience when he first met Cassady. They had gone for a drive in the country around Kesey's home and Cassady was at the wheel. While he was driving, especially down one long winding curve coming out of the coastal mountains, Cassady kept up an incessant patter about the bus and old cars and anything else that crossed his fertile mind all the while looking not at the road but directly at the terrified Hartweg. Hartweg saw a truck coming up the grade, and he was also sure that Cassady had not. At the last moment, as the bus approached the truck, Cassady looked to the road, fishtailed the old bus out of the truck's path along the edge of the road, and without comment looked back against at Hartweg, his patter resuming where it had left off a second before.

Back at La Honda where Kesey lived, the famed author suddenly appeared before his guest, as if he knew that Hartweg needed an explanation, and said, "Cassady doesn't have to think anymore." By which, Hartweg presumed, he was supposed to believe that Cassady had moved on to ever higher and more noble plains of pure thought, helped, of course, by the huge doses of acid he had taken.

There was a lot of history behind Hartweg's journey to meet the prototype Dean Moriarty. In the early fifties, Hartweg had written a play called "Joe Brown," which was performed and won a prize in Oklahoma. "The play recorded my distress at just discovering racial prejudice," Hartweg told me at a second meeting in another coffee shop. He laughed at himself as he told me about it. "I thought this was really good stuff. I was going to write plays against war and mob violence and see if I couldn't straighten some of these things out." He also read "On the Road," which had a tremendous effect on him, introducing him not only to the fantastic character of Moriarty but the fact that marijuana was used elsewhere besides the ghettos.

Soon after this he ended up in the army and found himself stationed in Denver, which was extraordinary luck. He thought he could go searching for Moriarty's famous lost drunken father on Larimer Street, as described in "On the Road."

But Larimer had changed. It had gone uptown; the old slum part of town was undergoing urban renewal. As if to make up for the fact, however, the fates smiled kindly on Hartweg. He was assigned to work in the library of an army hospital, and mostly what he did was read. "There were five or six souls of my ilk on the post," he says. "We made up the 'Beat contingent.' We went out and got the obligatory bongo drums, berets, and Miles Davis records and had a good time. We managed to survive the army that way. We all wanted to be writers, but we also had trouble finishing anything." One of his buddies, a fellow named Kent Chapman, was from California and knew Venice well. In fact, Chapman had been portrayed as a Venice beat in Larry Lipton's "The Holy Barbarians," and that impressed Hartweg no end.

Chapman introduced Hartweg to names he had never heard of -- writers such as Malcolm Lowry and Christopher Isherwood and the Vedanta Society. the latter was what originally got Hartweg interested in going to the West Coast after the army, "for I heard there was this whole Eastern trip submerged on the West Coast."

The first thing Hartweg did on being mustered out in 1960 was to head for Los Angeles where he looked up his old friend Chapman. The two of them rented an apartment in Hollywood for $40 a month. The fascination with the "Eastern thing" persisted, and no doubt through the influence of Huxley and other writers, whom Hartweg avidly read, drugs were mixed into the brew of Eastern mysticism developing on the West Coast. At first, Hartweg says, "Marijuana provided a pleasant way to draw and write that made you think that what you were doing was terrific. You felt warm and relaxed and euphoric." So when Hartweg first decided to take Kesey up upon his offer to meet Moriarty, he thought he would find the Pranksters "into the Tibetan thing." What he found, instead, was not the "Tibetan," (meaning a lot of flies buzzing around a meditating wise man), but Kesey's own rather odd kind of Americana -- among the Day-Glo mania at La Honda were the Hell's Angels, all the movie-making gear, the sound equipment, and all the other paraphernalia of Kesey's northern loony bin environment. The only real "Eastern thing" around La Honda was Kesey's rampant anti-intellectualism, as revealed in his statement to Hartweg about the nobleness of Cassady's dope dementia.

The period 1964 to 1967 was an "extraordinary time in human history," Hartweg proclaims. "Leaders sprang up all over the place from the grass roots. They came in all types, colors and descriptions. They gave names to things for people. That's still what I'm most interested in now, and the physics of that phenomenon -- what it was that happened around them. It doesn't exist now. Maybe some of the same people  are around, but they're doing different things, or maybe even the same things. But the leaders and the clusters are gone."

Hartweg looked me squarely in the eye. "That's what the lamentation over coffeehouses and the sixties was all about when we met the first time with Jeanne Morgan. About how it's all gone, and how we wish it were back again," he said. I nodded my agreement that indeed this might be true. I wasn't convinced by all that Hartweg said, but I also felt
that his must have been the most archetypal sixties writers story ever to come out of the Los Angeles coffeehouse scene. Which means, naturally, that despite talent and intelligence, even brilliance, he ultimately produced very little. Hartweg explained the process precisely.

He said that the whole generation of young painters, writers and musicians stopped being painters, writers and musicians as a result of the psychedelic revolution. In his case, this voyage began with his leaving Los Angeles to join Kesey and the Pranksters. Basically, Hartweg insisted, his generation left their arts and went off into two different directions. One group went into radical politics, and the other went into psychedelics. "There just wasn't much writing or painting going on if you were going to be doing the other things."

 *
There is some sense of this parting of the generational ways in Wolfe's description of the meeting between Kesey and Kerouac in "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test." Here was the most important writer of the fifties in the same room with Kesey, who looked as if he were going to be the best writer of the sixties. And although it was as if Kesey had picked up the banner that Kerouac had wearily put down, in Wolfe's description, there was no rapport between the two men. Neither had much to say to the other.

To this day, Hartweg shares Kesey's militant anti-intellectualism, which was, of course, a hallmark of the psychedelic generation. Hartweg will hardly admit even to himself that he was, and in fact remains, a hero worshiper of Kesey. Hartweg argues that would be pointless to say what he felt, or feels today, about Kesey, the man who snatched him out of his developing career and former life. But he does observe: "Kesey was an enormously powerful personality," he says, "and he was also huge. He's not that tall, but he had neck muscles like oil field wire lines; he was a collegiate heavyweight wrestler aiming at going to the Olympics ... which he never did. Now, if you take an unsure person and run him across a huge man like that with a powerful personality who is dead sure of what he believes, you will find circles of insecure people around him, trying to figure out if they agree with him or not, sort of like the way little fish latch onto the side of a whale."

Later Hartweg insists that in actual fact Kesey did not seek out followers, that "he did not expect worship at all, that he simply one day looked around and realized he had acquired a lot of people who centered their identity on his, most of whom were underfoot, who were making it harder and harder for him to move." On the other hand, I pointed out, it was his money that supported all these people, to which Hartweg replied with what I thought was an unconvincing response, namely, that if "someone wasn't really contributing by doing his or her thing, they would eventually be kicked out."

For his part, Hartweg eventually left the Merry Pranksters. After the well-publicized Acid Tests in Los Angeles, some of the Pranksters continued south with Kesey on his Mexican sojourn, and others just "scattered."

It was in the process of scattering that the accident occurred that, more than any of his previous experiences with the Los Angeles coffeehouse scene or Kesey's Pranksters, changed the rest of Hartweg's life. Yet even the crash seemed to me a logical culmination for an archetypal Los Angeles coffeehouse experience. The sheer velocity of that generation could only end in a crash.

Hartweg and his old friend Evan Engber, and famed Prankster Marge the Barge, piled into an ancient, uninsured automobile and headed out to New York. Hartweg drove the first leg of the journey to Las Vegas. It was three in the morning when they arrived in town. They all had a quick sandwich, and then Hartweg curled up in the right front seat and went to sleep. He doesn't even remember who was actually driving after that.

"Halfway out in the desert, we banged into something. I don't know exactly what happened, except that I was thrown out and my back was broken. The other two sustained only slight injuries and bruises."

For a year after that, Hartweg lay in a hospital bed in his native Ann Arbor in Michigan. The convalescence gave him a lot of time to think. One of the things he thought about the most was his goal of wanting to be a writer. He came to the conclusion that it wasn't so much that he wanted to be a writer as he was in love with the idea of others thinking that he was one. Except for a few book reviews and articles, he has hardly written a thing since then. Instead, he spent the next ten years trying to regain his sanity after the turmoil of the sixties.

He went back to the University of Michigan, where he had already earned a master's degree, figuring that he would check things out "with the people who do philosophy for a living." He entered the doctoral degree program and also got a job teaching at the university. "They gave me easy stuff to teach, like symbolic logic." After three years he only had to write a dissertation to earn his doctorate. But he found he had nothing to write about. "The philosophy professors knew nothing, either -- only how to articulate the dilemmas." He now believes that the best answer to the old philosophical questions is the proverbial Zen reply, which is to hit anyone who asks such questions with a big stick, and then run away giggling. "I decided that anybody who giggles is probably all right," he said, giggling.

Hartweg also pretty much abstained from marijuana, alcohol and other drugs when I interviewed him. But he did like cigarettes and coffee. He was adamantly opposed to cocaine and speed and decided that LSD is really only appropriate for those whose situation is so hopeless that "They might as well try blasting powder. But then it's still very risky. You might blow up. People are in loony bins to this day from it."

He described some of the same things I had seen in the Haight-Ashbury -- where I lived in part of the sixties -- very vividly. "You'd find those dismal crash pads with people in terribly desiccated states, dark hollows around their eyes, still saying 'Wow' and 'Groovy.' They came out from Des Moines to San Francisco to wear flowers in their hair, but
they found only sharks who said they could score a kilo. Suddenly, instead of consciousness-raising, it became drug dealing, and it was scummy."

Having said all that, Hartweg still looked at the world somewhat psychedelically, and these very attitudes have effectively prevented him from finding his way to the typewriter. He had a natural gift for pouring out interesting words. He goes on, praising that old sixties media guru Marshall McLuhan, who said, "Words have just become reality probes. You try them out to see what works and what doesn't work. Words just aren't engraved in stone anymore. Don't look for the meaning of works, look for their use."

For a while Hartweg and I debated the meaning of great writing. He still retains the notion that says there is nothing but everyone's subjective truth, and hence no one statement is really more valid than another because there really is no such thing as truth. I argued that Mark Twain's words, for instance, have survived because their author had the breadth of vision that made his works immortal. But neither of us was convincing the other. To Hartweg, my statement was no more true and no more false than his or anyone else's statement. After fifteen minutes of that my head started to hurt.

Hartweg even refused to see any significance in his coming home again to Los Angeles in 1977, after his decade of soul-searching in Michigan. He admits that he had a "whole mess of California stuff still hanging over my head undone." He admitted that he "wanted to see what had become of the underground newspapers, the coffeehouses." And you certainly could sense his  disappointment as he discovered "every spit, every scrap" gone. "It was like an organism that had grown," he said, "lived its life, and then decomposed back into the initial elements from which it had sprung." The places were still there -- Venice, the Pacific Ocean, a whole mess of the individuals. but the group consciousness was gone.

Hartweg had originally come to Los Angeles in 1960, to check out the scene for a few weeks before going to New York to settle down. But he stayed. "You can spend 25 years in L.A. never buying a six-pack of Coke because at any moment you may be leaving for New York." Before he came back to L.A. for the last time, he had checked out New York once again. But he found the mobs and its "nastiness and tension inhuman. It was like finding good things in postwar Berlin. If you had to be there, fine, make the most of it." By then, however, it wasn't for him. Thus he returned West.

There was one brief moment after he arrived back in town when it looked as if some of the old gang would materialize. Art Kunkin and Paul Krassner hired him to be the editor of a new Realist that Larry Flynt, owner of the Hustler Empire, was planning to resurrect. But then Flynt got shot, and Kunkin, Krassner and Hartweg were on the streets again.

He still wanted to settle in. He drove up and down the old streets with names like Alvarado and Figueroa. There was also Hollywood Boulevard. He wanted to renew all "the tapes" and destroy the old mystique of L.A. that he had built up in his mind since he left it the last time in '67. He sat down with maps to figure out where the city's backbone, where its nervous system was. He even went out to look at the power lines and foundries. He read books on the unstable geology underneath. And he sat high on the top of the Hollywood Hills so he could contemplate the city as it really was, not as his own personal self, or the mystique, had made it seem.

He seemed please to report that the same "muscle layers" were there -- the big retail stores, the jammed freeways, the phone company, the service clubs. But he noted that the culture signified nothing. The art and writing of the seventies, which had gone on in his absence, affected no one. "In the mid-fifties and sixties art still mattered," he said.

"It had an effect. There was a great arch of the artistic, political and bohemian -- all linked in one great swirl. It made a difference. But nowadays, the fleas aren't jumping. They're not biting the dog. The exciting issues that inflame the human spirit are gone. Things still happen -- important things like the sun coming up, the tide coming in, and the flowers growing. But the fleas just ain't jumping."

Like many other people in town, Hartweg had a tough time surviving in the Reagan depression of 1982. Just finding work was tough -- he was running a one-man office for a man who sold drilling equipment to Texas oil fields. He was glad to have the job, which, from the trade journals spread all over his apartment, you could tell he took seriously. He was getting his rent paid. He conceded, with what seemed some wistfulness, that he could see some possible signs of a cultural awakening in Los Angeles. Hartweg firmly believed that art needs some oppression to give it impetus. For him, and for many of his generation, there was a spurt, an eruption and then the futility of the dreary seventies and eighties, when little was written, less was painted, and ultimately nothing said.

*
This is an excerpt from the new edition of Lionel Rolfe's Literary L.A.

*

Lionel Rolfe writes about coffeehouses and Los Angeles literature in his forthcoming LITERARY L.A., for which he will be having a book signing at Skylight Books on Feb. 3.

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Author Photo wcredit2.JPG (36700 bytes)Lionel Rolfe is the author of the ebook, "Death and Redemption in London & L.A." (deadendstreet.com), which contains an expanded account of the death of Kessler and Himmel. He also has authored "Literary L.A." (a third edition of which is forthcoming in February) and "Fat Man on the Left" Four Decades in the Underground," both from California Classics Books and available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble online.

 

 

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