Prophets of the Road

Ken Kesey died on this day in 2001. The author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and the ringleader of the Merry Pranksters, whose exploits on a psychedelically decorated bus were chronicled in Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, was buried on his Oregon farm, in a homemade pine box sprayed in Day-Glo, beneath a headstone inscribed with “Sparks Fly Upwards” (from the Book of Job: “Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upwards”). The coffin received an assortment of blessings and provisions:

Catholics anointed him, Buddhists chanted, Jews said Kaddish, a Christian blessed him, an American Indian called his soul home from the four directions. We formed a line, touching him, tucking talismans, crystals, beads, ribbons, flowers, buds, a wooden flute, into the coffin or his pockets. …[T]he head tilted back upon a small pillow unnaturally and a red Grateful Dead “Steal Your Face” beret perched on his head.

-From "Sparks Fly Upwards: Remembering Ken Kesey" by Jeff Forester, published in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Vachel Lindsay was born on this day in 1879. Sixty years before Kesey, and by foot rather than bus, Lindsay toured America in the spirit of the troubadour-prophet. As a “religious tramp” in the “church of the open sky,” his aim was to sell not just his poems but his message — #8 on his otherwise-practical traveling code: “1) Keep away from the cities; 2) Keep away from the railroads; 3) Have nothing to do with money; 4) Ask for dinner about quarter after eleven; 5) Ask for supper and a night's lodging about quarter to five; 6) Travel alone; 7) Be neat, truthful, civil and on the square; 8) Preach the gospel of beauty.” The gospel could sometimes get strident; the following is from one of his “War Bulletin” pamphlets, a 1909 series that combined verse with manifesto:

I have spent a great part of my few years fighting a soul battle for absolute liberty, for freedom from obligation, ease of conscience; independence from commercialism. I think I am farther from slavery than most men. But I have not complete freedom of speech. In my daily round of work I find myself taking counsel to please the stupid, the bigoted, the conservative, the impatient, the cheap…..

In “Kaddish 44,” Allen Ginsberg elegizes Lindsay as a road warrior, dead at age fifty-two, a suicide by drinking Lysol:

Vachel, the stars are out
dusk has fallen on the Colorado road
a car crawls slowly across the plain
in the dim light the radio blares its jazz
the heartbroken salesman lights another cigarette
In another city 27 years ago
I see your shadow on the wall
you're sitting in your suspenders on the bed
the shadow hand lifts up a Lysol bottle to your head
your shade falls over on the floor….

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