The last three years have, in general, been my attempt to finally "grow up," so that I might "give something back," presumably, tax dollars and interest payments on student loans. This trend led me to, among other things, support John Kerry, ignoring my life-long mistrust of either party. Nice move. The day after the election, something snapped in my head, and my careful accretion of straightness fell off me like a worn chrysalis.
The message that morning was one I had learned years ago and forgotten. High school was, like these three years, a period of relative conformity for me: I played lacrosse, wore Ralph Lauren, cheered on our glorious troops in Iraq and was basically a little jingoist punk. It’s probably natural, then, that after graduation I fell in love with a poet/musician named Sean who, over the next few months, systematically (and with great compassion) broke down all my patriotic illusions. I spent the next six years on the road, hitching and Greyhounding my way back and forth across the continent. It was a hell of a good time, all in all.
I haven’t seen Sean for years now, but the importance of what he said lies less in its accuracy than in its general tone. His cynicism towards government and politics was counterbalanced by a vibrant spirituality, a sort of playful genius as refreshing as a jump in the Clackamas. His approach bespoke an agility of mind, a deftness of response – basically, the ability to suss out the correct response to any situation. The only way I survived on the road was by internalizing this attitude. Done right, traveling is like dancing – one long improvisation. How else can you get from Key West to Santa Cruz with $5 in your pocket?
No one did it better than Oregon’s own Merry Pranksters. I can hear the reflexive moans of disgust from Willie Week now, but it’s sad to see the �ber-hipsters in this town, resplendent in pegged jeans and faux-vintage ’80s tour t-shirts, sneering at what is in many ways our most important social heritage. In the late 20th century, few groups made more of an impact on the consciousness of the times; certainly one can think of few Oregonians who did so.
Don’t confuse the Pranksters with modern-day jam-band kids – there are superficial likenesses, but to conflate them is like confusing Kenny G with John Coltrane. The Pranksters were the bridge between the late-’50s Beat movement and the rock ‘n’ roll generation. Their whole purpose was to break with the past and dive into the unknown, to push the envelope in every direction, to check out the space beyond form and delineation and see what the hell was going on out there. As such, there was very little about them that was overtly derivative, in stark contrast to the modern "hippie" scene.
We need this kind of essential lunacy in our society today – not its imitation, but the thing itself. In its absence, staidness, clich� and bureaucracy become ascendant. Listen, bureaucracy might be necessary to a business but it’s anathema to a life. We need to be able to step back for a moment, see what’s going on around us today and have a response other than despair or despondency. Anger, condescension and violence only beget more of the same. Isn’t it about time we all took a break, sat down and laughed our asses off at the sheer needless idiocy of it all? Remember that laughter is just as contagious as wrath.
It’s been almost forty years since Neal Cassady – crazy Abraham of the Beats and Hippies – laid down on the cold, wet train tracks outside San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and slipped into a coma. With the passing of Ken Kesey a few years ago and the latest tragedy, the suicide of Hunter S. Thompson, we’ve lost many of the people who pointed the way towards that kind of beautiful madness, and we need it back. Fierce hilarity and vicious iconoclasm are one essential step to balancing the Nazification of our society; being that it’s harder to live that way now makes it that much more necessary.
It’s not a path for everyone, but we need a few people to walk it. So dust off those old Grateful Dead tapes, dig the stash of 1992 blotter out of the garage freezer and run off into the hills. Paint your chest, rave at boulder and laugh. Smile at a cop and give money to a drunken bum. Trust me, you’ll be doing us all just as much good as you would by ardent support of the Green Party.
So, let me apologize to you all for my advocacy of the sell-out John Kerry. Next time I’m writing in Jerry Garcia.
Riggs Fulmer can be reached at [email protected]