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The Inspiration to Go Further
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Rock and Roll manifests itself in various ways. Of course, it's music, but it can also be an attitude, a way of looking at life. There are many musicians in the history of the music that define those qualities and personify them for the rest of us; performers such as Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, John Lennon, Mick and Keith, Pete Townshend, Johnny Rotten, (sadly) Kurt Cobain……well, you get the picture by now. We all know someone who is "Rock and Roll" when we seem 'em, don't we?!

All the guys I just mentioned, and many more, embody the qualities and ideals, both good and bad, that go into what makes Rock music what it is. They expand the boundaries of the music, always pushing deeper. This in turn inspires other artists to do the same, with the result being that the genre itself is changed and enlarged. The greatest Rock musicians change the form, expanding it and leaving it more than what it was before they came along. They push it further.

There are also other people, non-musicians, who have had a great impact on Rock. James Dean defined a certain defiant and troubled outlaw style that influenced what people thought of as a "Rock and Roll" attitude, as did a young Marlon Brando. In the Sixties there were a few people who came along and influenced an entire generation of young musicians. Timothy Leary and his philosophies of life, and Andy Warhol (and his New York art scene that spawned The Velvet Underground) both exerted quite an influence over the direction the music would take, as well over a certain susceptible segment of society.

There was one other man during that time who proposed a different kind of "Rock and Roll" attitude, one that became of central importance to many different young Rock musicians in San Francisco. He wasn't a musician, he was an author, and his impact was through his books, his lifestyle, and the force of his personality. Ken Kesey also had quite an impact on American culture itself, and his influence ranged far beyond the narrow confines of the San Francisco music scene.

It was there however, and because of his influence (and the influence of LSD), that these musicians pursued ideas that were innovations in Rock music at the time. The willingness to explore new sounds and (for rock and roll) exotic instruments, to improvise long instrumental jams, to mix and match genres in the course of a pop tune, these were all manifestations of a new attitude. The new attitude said, "Do your own thing, and take it all the way, as far as you can. See what happens when you take away the playbook and throw out the rules and just go for it." The music that was being made in San Francisco at the time was infused with this new attitude, and the catalyst for the new attitude was Ken Kesey.

His influence could be felt in the music being made outside the boundaries of San Francisco as well, as musicians in other cities and countries were influenced by what the San Francisco bands were doing. Rock became, for a brief period, very experimental. Many artists were pushing the boundaries of Rock, and doing so with much success. Many young songwriters were finding that you could write a song about, say UFO's or Greek mythology, and still get a hit. You could diverge from the usual boy-girl-car-party-socially induced teen angst subject matter and write about your own trips; fantasies, ecology, politics, whatever you were passionate about. You could vary from the usual three-major-chords-with-a-middle-change approach to Rock songwriting and put other stuff in there. Songs didn't have to be three minutes anymore; hell, they could be twenty minutes long, the whole side of a record! Rock concerts didn't have to be these sterile, sit down affairs. They could be wild and exciting with light shows and big, loud sound systems that could make you feel the physicality of Rock music while the audience writhed and leaped around on the dance floor in front of the stage.

Rock music changed as a result of Ken Kesey's influence. It was high-jacked by a new attitude, and sent careening down a different path. It was the path of self expression, of Art, and the artists began to address more complex ideas and issues with more expansive and elaborate music. Self expression trumped commerce for a lot of the best Rock artists during this time, and their successes showed that Rock could be capable of describing deeper emotions and more complex philosophical ideas than it had previously. Spiritual longing became a typical theme of Rock music, another idea that was new to rock before the new attitude came along.

So how did little ol' Ken Kesey change the course of Rock and Roll? To be fair, there were quite a few other factors working concurrently to affect the course of the music. The success of the Beatles (and the other British Invasion groups), the assassination of Kennedy, the Vietnam War and the fragmentation of the Folk music scene in the mid sixties all contributed heavily. So did a little drug called LSD. Mix that up with a large population of idealistic young men and women, and those were all the ingredients in the pot of the early San Francisco music scene. What Kesey did was stir the pot.

He was an inspiration for some of these quaint, "old" folkies to plug in and go electric. He was an inspiration to go all out and take it all the way; to "Freak freely and wail with it!". He was an inspiration to experiment with form and not be hung up by traditional formulas and m.o.'s. His ideas inspired the musicians in the San Francisco bands that inspired countless other musicians and bands worldwide. His notions about what constituted "entertainment", with wild lighting and sound effects, changed the way Rock concerts were produced. His conviction that "interactive entertainment", in the form of the Acid Test, could transcend the idea of entertainment and become something meaningful to the participants, perhaps even enlightening, altered the notion about what a Rock concert could be. His inspirations became the basis of a new attitude, an attitude that broadened the scope of Rock music and pushed it further.

Ken Kesey was an inspiration to go further. It began with his novels, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Sometimes A Great Notion". It deepened with the Bus Trip and the formation of the Merry Pranksters (all of which was immortalized in Tom Wolfe's chronicle "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test"). It quickened with The Acid Test. Kesey inspired because he truly was a prankster, a "trickster" in the purest since, who appeared in peoples lives to present them with alternatives or to teach them the things they needed to know in order to go on their own "hero's" journey.

Ken Kesey was an inspiration to me, and one of the reasons why I played music. Now that I can also claim writing as one of the things that I do, he was the main inspiration for me to do this. He was an inspiration for this website, as Steve Beck, the guy who founded OnlineRock, counts him as a major influence on his life. He was an inspiration to many of the musicians I admire, and he was an inspiration to many of my friends. He is an inspiration for anybody to take it Further, to push the boundaries and get off dead center and find that place that is yours, and wail with it. He passed away on November 10, 2001.

If you are curious to check out more about Ken Kesey, you can go to www.intrepidtrips.com.

Stay Tuned,

The Virtual Musician

 
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