Elvis is of course Elvis Presley, Ken, Ken Kesey and John and George, John Lennon and George Harrison. They have all died, some longer than others; and I have named them in the order they were born.
Everyone my age and many others older or younger know Elvis. In the early Sixties in Wah Yan College, we had a very much-revered Reverend Jesuit Father who was not known to be modern, who would ask windows to be closed to keep off draughts in June, but who could name his songs. My parents never liked us listening to pop songs, on grounds that these western singers could corrupt our morals, and besides they wasted too much of our study time, but they knew who Elvis was and would waste no time to scoff him and his style of singing. Elvis would be close to 67 if he lived. He was certainly one of the most popular entertainers and icons in the last century and many would agree the greatest rock performer. There are 28 numbers in the RCA CD, Elvis, The Essential Collection, from Heartbreak Hotel, Don’t Be Cruel, Wooden Heart to Always On My Mind and Moody Blue. Any one song would jog some old memory, in similar fashion that one always remembers what one was doing on certain fatalistic dates.
Ken Kesey was the psychedelic pioneer who wrote in the Sixties novels “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Sometimes a Great Notion,” and who became famous as a counterculture figure after a cross-country bus ride with LSD drugs and pals who called themselves Merry Pranksters. He died from complications following liver cancer surgery last month, at 66. He said he wrote Cuckoo’s Nest from his experiences working at a veterans’ hospital in Palo Alto. Two years later, he wrote “Sometimes a Great Notion” which was widely considered to be his greatest book with the motto “Never Give an Inch” which was adapted into a movie with the same name starring Henry Fonda and Paul Newman. However, Cuckoo’s Nest became more widely known, probably because Milos Forman who also did Amadeus turned it into a movie in 1974, which claimed a few Academy Awards, including best director for Forman, best actor for Jack Nicholson and best actress for Louise Fletcher. My young friend Harry had cited the two books to illustrate his one-author-one-book theory. Thus, while he was conscious that Sometimes a Great Notion is a great work, he has so far successfully resisted the urge to acquire it, having read Cuckoo’s Nest cover to cover more than once and derived so much from it already. He was amused when I referred him to records showing that Kesey hated Forman’s Cuckoo’s Nest film and sued the producers on grounds that it was not true to the character of the schizophrenic Indian.
My young friend was unsurprised to find a litany of works by Kesey that he had never heard of or come across in any fashion and was equally unsurprising that these works had all gone unpublicized. He was certain that there were gems and outstanding material among them. True indeed, Kesey had written a variety of short autobiographical fiction, articles and children books, but he did not produce another major novel until much later. Kesey had said, “There’s a lot of stuff happens that happens because I’m famous. And famous isn’t good for a writer. You don’t observe well when you’re being observed.” But listen to what Zane Kesey, his son, said of him, “He had a full life, that’s for sure. He didn’t just sit around…. He was always writing. He was the total archivist.” When asked about whether he had any regrets about his past, Kesey said, “Anybody who says they have no regrets is either a dimwit or a liar – probably both.”
Still on Kesey, Harry thinks that Kesey had flourished in an era of American history when a growing iconoclastic sentiment was developing. I agree. Kesey symbolized anti-establishment and had the courage to articulate the public’s disapproval on tradition, authority, government and so on. He rode on public opinion and benefited from it consciously or subconsciously. He could have done well if he had gone into politics. He had chosen to stick to his pen, and the literary world benefits in turn. Berkeley and San Francisco have always embraced revolutionary or what they would call innovative ideas and movements, which is why I think Stephanie would almost certainly love Kesey’s works.
John Lennon and George Harrison were both icons of our time. Like Elvis and Ken in a way, they were all iconoclasts and anti-establishment at the time they shot to fame. The Beatles were four different and distinct personalities, but the four joined together created such unprecedented explosive and rebellious forces in the Sixties, sending vibrations all over the world that were felt long after they were disbanded and even to date. The Beatles had influenced everything, from hairstyles to music, fashion to lifestyles, art and culture. It is interesting, but perhaps not surprising that after the Beatles broke up in 1970, the four never managed to achieve such fame and success, individually and added together.
Sadly, John died in December 1980 when he was 40, and George, last month, at 58. John’s life was very much an open book after the Beatles became famous. Even his marriage to Yoko was much publicized, and under public pressure, the coupled separated for 14 months in 1973 before John openly said he could not live without Yoko. The media interviewed them in bed for three days and created a bit of controversy, again, not surprisingly.
George Harrison was a quiet and private person by comparison. He openly admitted he had problems handling the thrill and madness flowing from the group’s success. He said there was nothing good about the experience and that even the best thrill soon got tiring. He likened the group to monkeys in a zoo and he always cried out for more space. Nevertheless, he did say in an interview in 1972, “We had the time of our lives. We laughed for years.” A long time friend said, “He left this world as he lived it, conscious of God, fearless of death, and at peace, surrounded by family and friends. He often said, ‘Everything else can wait, but the search for God cannot wait, and love one another’” Paul McCartney on hearing of his death said from London, “I am devastated and very, very sad. He was a lovely guy and a very brave man and had a wonderful sense of humour. He is really just my baby brother.”
John Chambers of the Liverpool Beatles Appreciation Society had been hopeful of a reunion of the Beatles, with Julian Lennon standing in for John. He lamented that the death of George “really is the end of a dream, the end of an era.”
The Beatles will always have a place in my heart. I saw all their films and knew most of their songs by heart in the early Sixties. I can still sing many of their songs, albeit not very well, and I regularly listen to their hits. Our children know quite a few of these songs, through listening to them with us, which is why I find it interesting that McCartney’s friend Heather – they could have married by now – could not recognize some old numbers.
Memories and experience are perhaps what would be left in and of a person at the end of the day and essentially what matter most. One wonders whether these four icons of our time, or for that matter many icons who became idols among people of various ages and nations, were willing icons or had set out to become as such. We have seen that not all of them were willing idols or could cope with fame, which in itself speaks volumes. My young friend Harry had questioned whether these people should be aware of their social responsibilities and destinies and hence should behave in a manner and fashion appropriate to what the world expected of them. I think that is a very difficult and multi-faceted question and cannot be dealt with easily or monolithically.
Talk to you again soon.