The Day the Lampshades Breathed
“We must all be foolish at times.
It is one of the conditions of liberty.”
Like just about everybody else who lived in California during the 1960s, I Went Through a Phase. I grew me a mustache and a big wig, and got me some granny glasses and pointy-toed elf boots and bell-bottom britches (which did not, Charles Reich to the contrary notwithstanding, turn my walk into “a kind of dance”; nothing could turn my walk into a kind of dance). I threw the Ching. I rocked and I rolled. I ingested illicit substances. It was épater le bourgeois time, baby!
But this was not my first attack of mal de Californie. I’d been through it all before.
By way of explanation, let me go all the way back to 1952 just long enough to say that after that uninspired freshman year at Washington & Lee, I moved on for three more uninspired years at Miami of Ohio, where I majored in 3.2 beer and blanket parties on the golf course and published uninspired short stories in the campus lit mag. In 1955, I went to Stanford to try my hand at creative writage in graduate school.
Stanford was too many for me. I lasted just two quarters before I received a note from the chairman of the English Department inviting me to drop by and discuss my highly improbable future as a graduate student. I declined the invitation but took the hint, dropped out, and slunk back home to Kentucky to conclude a brief and embarrassingly undistinguished graduate career at the state university in Lexington. Thence to Oregon, and four years of honest toil at Backwater State College, in the freshman composition line.
But California had left its mark on me. For I had gone west as the blandest perambulatory tapioca pudding ever poured into a charcoal-gray suit, and I came home six months later in Levi’s and cycle boots and twenty-four-hour-a-day shades, with an armpit of a goatee and a hairdo that wasn’t so much a duck’s-ass as it was, say, a sort of cocker spaniel’s-ass. I had been to San Francisco and seen the Beatniks in North Beach, I had smoked a genuine reefer, I had sat on the floor drinking cheap Chianti and listening to “City of Glass” on the hi-fi. I’d been Californified to a fare-thee-well, and I’d loved every minute of it.
So when I weaseled my way back into Stanford—and California—in the fall of 1962 via a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Creative Writing, it was a case of the victim returning to the scene of the outrage, eager for more. Immediately, I sought out my old Stanford roommates, Jim Wolpman and Vic Lovell, who were now, respectively, a labor lawyer and a grad student in psychology, living next door to each other in a dusty, idyllic little bohemian compound called Perry Lane, just off the Stanford campus. Among their neighbors was Ken Kesey, himself but lately down from Oregon, whose novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest had been published just a year ago and was in fact dedicated to Vic—“Who told me dragons did not exist, then led me to their lairs”—for having arranged Ken’s enrollment as a test subject in a drug-experiment program at the local VA hospital. And the neighborhood was fairly crawling with writers and artists and students and musicians and mad scientists. It was just what I was looking for: a bad crowd to fall in with. I moved in a couple of blocks down the street and started my mustache.
In a lot of ways, it was the same old California. We still sat on the floor and drank cheap Chianti, though now we listened to Sandy Bull and called the hi-fi a stereo, and the atmosphere was often murky with the sickly-sweet blue smaze of the dread devil’s weed. The manner we’d cultivated back in the fifties was sullen, brooding, withdrawn but volatile, dangerous—if not to others, then at the very least to ourselves. Its models were Elvis, James Dean, Marlon Brando in The Wild One. The idea was to seem at once murderous, suicidal . . . and sensitive.
(Locally, our hero in those days had been, improbably enough, the president of the Stanford student body government, George Ralph, who’d campaigned in sideburns and Wild One leathers behind the sneering slogan “I Hate Cops.” George’s campaign was a put-on, of course—between those sideburns was a dyed-in-the-wool Stevenson Democrat—but he had the style down cold, and he beat the cashmere socks off the poor Fraternity Row cream puff who opposed him.)
But six years can wreak a lot of changes, and by 1962 the future was already happening again on Perry Lane. “We pioneered”—Vic was to write* years later, with becoming modesty—“what have since become the hallmarks of hippie culture: LSD and other psychedelics too numerous to mention, body painting, light shows and mixed-media presentations, total aestheticism, be-ins, exotic costumes, strobe lights, sexual mayhem, freak-outs and the deification of psychoticism, Eastern mysticism, and the rebirth of hair.” Oh, they wanted to maintain their cool, these pioneers, they wanted to go on being—or seeming—aloof and cynical and hip and antisocial, but they just couldn’t keep a straight face. They were like new lovers, or newly expectant mothers; they had this big, wonderful secret, and their idiot grins kept giving it away. They were the sweetest, smartest, liveliest, craziest bad crowd I’d ever had the good fortune to fall in with. And their great secret was simply this: They knew how to change the world.
“Think of it this way,” my Perry Lane friend Peter, who never drew an unstoned breath, once countered when I mentioned that my TV was on the fritz. “Your TV’s all right. But you’ve been lookin’ at it wrong, man, you’ve been bum-trippin’ your own TV set!”
For a while there, it almost seemed as if it might really be that easy. The way to change the world was just to start looking at it right, to stop bumming it out (ah, we could turn a phrase in those days!) and start grooving on it—to scarf down a little something from the psychedelicatessen and settle back and watch the world do its ineluctable thing. Gratified by the attention, the world would spring to life and cheerfully reveal its deepest mysteries. The commonplace would become marvelous; you could take the pulse of a rock, listen to the heartbeat of a tree, feel the hot breath of a butterfly against your cheek. (“So I took this pill,” said another friend, reporting back after his first visit to the Lane, “and a little later I was lying on the couch, when I noticed that the lampshade had begun to breathe . . . ”) It was a time of what now seems astonishing innocence, before Watergate or Woodstock or Vietnam or Charles Manson or the Summer of Love or Groovy and Linda or the Long, Hot Summer or even, for a while, Lee Harvey Oswald, a time when wonder was the order of the day. One noticed one’s friends (not to mention oneself) saying “Oh wow!” with almost reflexive frequency; and the cry that was to become the “Excelsior!” of the Day-Glo Decade, the ecstatic, ubiquitous “Far out!” rang oft upon the air.
The first time I ever felt entitled to employ that rallying cry was on Thanksgiving of 1962. That evening, after a huge communal Thanksgiving feast at the Keseys’, Ken led me to his medicine cabinet, made a selection, and said matter-of-factly, “Here, take this, we’re going to the movies.” A scant few minutes later, he and I and three or four other lunatics were sitting way down front in a crowded Palo Alto theater, and the opening credits of West Side Story were disintegrating before my eyes. This is . . . CINERAMA! roared the voice-over inside my head as I cringed in my seat. And though I stared almost unblinking at the screen for the next two hours and thirty-five minutes, I never saw a coherent moment of the movie. What I saw was a ceaseless barrage of guns, knives, policemen, and lurid gouts of eyeball-searing color, accompanied by an earsplitting, cacophonous din, throughout which I sat transfixed with terror—perfectly immobile, the others told me afterward; stark, staring immobile, petrified, trepanned, stricken by the certainty, the absolute certainty, that in one more instant the Authorities would be arriving to seize me and drag me up the aisle and off to the nearest madhouse. It was the distillation of all the fear I’d ever known, fear without tangible reason or cause or occasion, pure, unadulterated, abject Fear Itself, and for a hundred and fifty-five awful minutes it invaded me to the very follicles of my mustache.
Then, suddenly and miraculously, like a beacon in the Dark Night of the Soul, the words “The End” shimmered before me on the screen. Relief swept over me, sweet as a zephyr. I was delivered. The curtain closed, the lights came up. I felt grand, exuberant, triumphant—as if I’d just ridden a Brahma bull instead of a little old tab of psilocybin. If they’d turned off the lights again, I’d have glowed in the dark. Beside me, Ken stood up and stretched.
“So how was it?” he inquired, grinning.
“Oh, wow!” I croaked joyfully. “It was fa-a-ar out!”
And in that instant, for me, the sixties began. Characteristically, I was about two years late getting out of the gate, but I was off at last.
Ken Kesey was a singular person, as all who knew him will attest. But these were all singular people, this lunatic fringe on Stanford’s stiff upper lip. I should probably keep this to myself, but to tell the truth, the thing I remember best about the next few years is the parties. We had the swellest parties! Parties as good as your childhood birthday parties were supposed to be but never were; outrageously good parties, parties so good that people would sometimes actually forget to drink!
The best parties were immaculately spontaneous. Typically, they began with some Perry Lane denizen sitting at the breakfast table, staring out the kitchen window into the dappled, mellow perfection of a sunny California Saturday morning, resolving: Today, I’m gonna take a little trip. By early afternoon, two or three friends would have dropped by and signed on for the voyage, and together they’d choke down either some encapsulated chemical with an appetizing title like URP-127 or an equally savory “natural” concoction like peyote-orange-juice upchuck or morning glory seeds with cream and sugar (don’t try it, reader; it ain’t Grape-Nuts, and there’s nothing natural about it), and then for the next half hour or so they’d lie around trying not to throw up while they waited for the lampshades to start respiring. A similar scene was liable to be transpiring in two or three other Perry Lane households at the same time, and it wouldn’t be long till every lampshade in the neighborhood was panting like a pufferbelly. The incipient party would have begun to assert itself.
Under the giant oak by Vic’s front door—the very oak in whose shade Thorstein Veblen was alleged to have written The Theory of the Leisure Class—half a dozen solid citizens with pinwheel eyeballs might be banging out an aboriginal but curiously copacetic sort of hincty bebop on upturned wastebaskets, pots and pans, maybe an old set of bongos left over from the fifties, Vic himself laying down the basic bop lines on his favorite ax, a pocket-comb-and-tissue-paper hum-a-zoo. Next door at the Keseys’, they’d have drawn the blinds and hung blankets over the windows, and Roy Sebern, a wonderfully hairy artist who lived, apparently on air, in a tiny box on the back of his pickup in a succession of backyards, would be demonstrating his newest creation, a rickety contraption that projected amorphous, throbbing blobs of luminous color all over the walls and ceiling like lambent, living wallpaper, to the murmuring chorus of “oh-wows” and “far-outs” that issued from an audience of several puddles of psychedelicized sensibility on the Kesey carpet. Over at my house on Alpine Road, Peter and I would be feverishly juicing peyote buttons in my wife’s brand-new Osterizer.
In the late afternoon, Gurney Norman, another apprentice writer from Kentucky, might turn up, sprung from Fort Ord on a weekend pass. Gurney had made his way to Stanford and Perry Lane a couple of years earlier (it was he, in fact, who’d spotted the original breathing lampshade), and had then gone into the army to complete an ROTC obligation, and promptly bounced back to California in the guise of a first lieutenant, running recruits through basic training down at Ord during the week and expanding his horizons at Perry Lane on the weekends. The military was doing great things for Gurney’s organizational skills; within minutes of his arrival, he’d have a squad of giggling beardy-weirdies and stoned Perry Lane–style Wacs in muumuus hut-hoop-hreep-hoing up and down the street with mops and broomsticks on their shoulders, in an irreverent gloss on the whole idea of close-order drill.
Eventually, the party would assemble itself somewhere, more than likely around the corner at Chloe Scott’s house, to take on victuals and cheap Chianti. Chloe is at all odds the most glamorous woman I’ve ever known. A professional dancer and dance teacher, redheaded and fiery, a real knockout and a woman of the world, Chloe Kiely-Peach of the British gentry by birth, daughter of a captain in the Royal Navy, she’d come to America, to New York, as a girl during the Blitz, and had stayed on to become, in the early
fifties, part of Jackson Pollock’s notoriously high-spirited East Hampton social circle. Along the way she married a dashing young naturalist and spent a year on the Audubon Society’s houseboat in the Everglades, fell briefly under the spell of a Reichian therapist and basted herself in an orgone box, and at last, divorced, made her way west to settle in as one of the reigning free spirits on Perry Lane. At Chloe’s anything could happen.
And, as they say, it usually did. For starters, Neal Cassady might fall by, the Real Neal, Kerouac’s pal and the prototype for Dean Moriarty of On the Road, trailing adoring fallen women and authentic North Beach beatniks in his wake, looking like Paul Newman and talking as if he’d been shooting speed with a phonograph needle—which, come to think of it, he probably had: “Just passing through, folks, don’t mind us, my shed-yool just happened to coincide with Mr. Kesey’s here, and all that redundancy, you understand, not to mention the works of Alfred Lord Tennyson and the worst of the poems of Schiller, huntin’ and peckin’ away there as they did, except of course insofar as where you draw the line, that is, but in any case I believe it was at, let me see, Sebring, yes, when Fangio, with the exhaust valves wide open and the petcocks, too, that you’ve sometimes seen, starting with Wordsworth, you see, and working backward, in the traditional fashion, straight through Pliny the Elder and beyond, though it’s much the same with the fusion of the existential and the transcendental, or, if you will, the universal and the transmission, as in the case of the 1940 flat-head Cadillac 8, why, you naturally get your velocity mixed up with your veracity, of course, and who knows what that’s cost us? So I’ll just say how-d’ye-do to my friend Mr. Kesey, and then we’ll be on our way, have to get there in plenty of time, you understand . . . ” Neal never stuck around for long, but he was terrific while he lasted.
Then there was Lee Anderson, a roly-poly, merry little apple dumpling of a PhD candidate in some obscure scientific discipline at Stanford, who could sometimes, at very good parties, be prevailed upon to . . . play himself! Bowing to popular demand, blushing bashfully from head to toe, Lee would strip down to his skivvies (an effective attention-getting device at any party), wait for silence, and at last begin rhythmically bobbing up and down to some inner tempo, as though he were about to improvise a solo on an invisible stand-up bass, now lightly slapping himself with his open hands on his plump little thighs and roseate tummy—slappity-slappity-slappity-slap—now cupping one hand in his armpit and flapping the arm to produce a small farting sound like a tiny tuba—slappity-slappity-poot-poot, slappity-poot, slappity-poot—now shaping his mouth into an oval and rapping on his skull with the knuckles of first one hand, then the other, then both, making of his mouth a sort of reverb chamber—pocketa-pock, pocketa-pock, pocketa-pecketa-pucketa-pock—picking up the tempo, working furiously, sweat flying, the whole ensemble tuning in—slappity-pock, slappity-pock, slappity-pocketa-poot, slappity-pocketa-poot, pocketa-poot, pocketa-pecketa-poot, pecketa-pucketa-poot, slappity-pucketa-poot-poot, slappity-pucketa-poot-poot . . . It wasn’t the New York Philharmonic, maybe, but Lee’s was a class act just the same—as Dr. Johnson might have put it, the wonder was not that he did it well, but simply that he could do it at all—and it always brought the house down.
I’m not exactly sure what Vic means by “sexual mayhem,” so I won’t try either to confirm or to deny it. I’ll just say that during one party I opened the door to the darkened bedroom where the coats were piled on the bed and heard a muffled female voice say from the darkness, “Close the door, please, Ed. We’re fucking in here.”
Basically, though, the parties were just good, clean, demented fun. At any moment the front door might burst open and into the celebrants’ midst would fly Anita Wolpman, Jim’s wife, with the collar of her turtleneck sweater pulled up over her head, hotly pursued by Jim, brandishing an ax gory with ketchup. Or Bob Stone, a splendid writer who has also done some Shakespeare on the stage, might suddenly be striding about the room delivering, with Orson Wellesian bombast and fustian, an impromptu soliloquy, a volatile, irreproducibly brilliant admixture of equal parts Bard, King James Bible, Finnegan’s Wake, and (so I always suspected) Bob Stone. Or Lorrie Payne, a madcap Australian jack-of-all-arts, might wander in with a skinned green grape stuffed halfway into one nostril and part the horrified multitudes before him like an exhibitionist at a DAR convention. Or one might find oneself—literally find oneself—engaged in one or another of the goofy conversations that would be ensuing in every corner of the house, as did Gurney and I the night we determined that behind the peg-board on Chloe’s kitchen wall lurked an enormous baby chick, ready to pounce on us, bellowing, in a voice like Bull Moose Jackson’s, “PEEP! PEEP!” Or somebody might cut open an old golf ball and start unwinding the endless rubber band inside, and in moments a roomful of merrymakers would be hopelessly ensnarled in a rubbery web, writhing hilariously—a surreal tableau that, to my peyote-enchanted eyes, was astonishingly beautiful, and was entitled “We’re All in This Thing Together.”
At one party, Gurney maneuvered ten delirious revelers into the backyard, looped Chloe’s fifty-foot clothesline about them, and endeavored to create the World’s Largest Cat’s Cradle. “Awright now, men,” he kept bawling at his troops, “I want all the thumbs to raise their hands!”
Well, okay, you had to be there. No denying there was plenty of unmitigated adolescent silliness in all those hijinks—just as there’s no denying the unfortunate similarity between my experience at West Side Story and that of the celebrated Little Moron, the one who beats himself on the head with a hammer because it feels so good to stop. But like the man in the aftershave commercial, we needed that, some of us, to wake us from the torpor of the fifties. To be sure, there were casualties—those who couldn’t put the hammer down till they’d pounded their poor heads to jelly, those who blissed out or blasted off, those for whom dope was a purgative and every trip a bad trip, an exorcism. And I’m also perfectly willing to concede, if I must, that there were just as many others who successfully expanded their consciousnesses to wonderful dimensions through the miracle of chemistry.
But for weekenders and day-trippers like me, psychedelics were mostly just for laughs; they made things more funny-ha-ha than funny-peculiar. And for me at least, the laughter was a value in itself. I hadn’t laughed so unrestrainedly since childhood, and the effect was refreshing, bracing, invigorating—aftershave for the psyche. Nor had I ever in my life allowed myself to fall so utterly in love with all my friends at once. And there were several occasions, in the highest, clearest moments of those high old times, when I caught a glimpse of something at the periphery of my vision that shook the throne of the tyrannical little atheist who sat in my head and ruled my Kentucky Methodist heart.
It was all too good to last, of course. Quick as the wink of a strobe light, Kennedy had fallen to Lee Harvey Oswald, the Vietnam issue was as hot as a two-dollar pistol, the country was aboil with racial unrest . . . and Perry Lane had gone under to the developers. The times, they were a-changin’, and not for the better either. The first day of the rest of our lives was over.
Copyright © 2011 by Ed McClanahan from I Just Hitched In from the Coast. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint.