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