Lee Quarnstrom’s memoir recalls the golden age of pyschedelics
After decades as a journalist, travels with Neal Cassady and Ken Kesey, countless Acid Tests as a member of the Merry Pranksters, and seven (7) wives, Lee Quarnstrom has not only done it all—he has lived to tell about it. And tell all, he does, in the smokin’ hot collection of memories, tall tales, and just-so stories about the golden age of psychedelics—“When I Was a Dynamiter: or How a Nice Catholic Boy Became a Merry Prankster, a Pornographer and a Bridegroom 7 Times.”
For better or worse, Quarnstrom not only tripped and toked his way through the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, but he remembers more of it than anyone still alive. Or so it seems, reading the anecdote-rich pages of this now pithy, now rambling, all-juicy memoir.
Students of late Bohemia and early Hippiedom will find much to savor in Quarnstrom’s long-overdue autobiography, though they might bemoan its lack of an index. Ram Dass, Hunter S. Thompson, Ken Kesey, Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia, Jerry Kampstra, Tom Wolfe, Paul Krassner, Alan Ginsberg, and several hundred hippie chicks who decorated the Summer of Love are all recalled here with surprising affection and candor. Quarnstrom’s “on the road” saga led from a Pacific Northwest childhood, to Chicago reportage, to Ken Kesey’s digs in La Honda, and adventures with the Merry Pranksters in their infamous bus, “Further,” to Mexico and back. Quarnstrom recounts his time as editor of Larry Flynt’s smutty porno-copia Hustler, as well as his friendship with and respect for Flynt’s wife Althea, who ran the show after Flynt was paralyzed by a wacko gunman. Quarnstrom spent almost two decades as the Santa Cruz rep for the San Jose Mercury News, until his son’s murder and the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 took away a huge helping of his joie de vivre, and triggered a move to Southern California. There, at a high school reunion, Quarnstrom met the woman who became—and thus far remains—his seventh wife.
Like many road trips, and certainly all acid trips, this literary journey bristles with sudden digressions, robust non sequiturs, and sudden bursts of insight. Some moments, like an infamous drug bust that put Quarnstrom and 13 other Pranksters in jail, or a hormonally drenched affair with a married woman in Mexico, saturate the pages with immediacy.
Save for a few tragic events, Quarnstrom has led a charmed life. He just happened to be a big, handsome blond who arrived—without any plans that couldn’t be ditched instantly—at the very epicenter of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll when he was 20. That culture—druggies, rock stars, poets, legendary beatniks, and easy women—took to Quarnstrom like a razor blade on a mirror. The fit was perfect, and as Quarnstrom recalls it, the ride was glorious.
I remember one of Quarnstrom’s birthday parties where the handsome host was already passed out on the floor by the time I arrived. So I joined a few other toasted females in straddling Lee’s huge body and writing birthday greetings, in waterproof magic marker, on his stomach. It was like that.
The life-changing friendship with the “psychedelic Pied Piper” Ken Kesey was riddled with alpha male posturing, as well as hero worship on Quarnstrom’s part. His detailed recounting of Neal Cassady’s fabled ability to multi-task while driving (it means what you think, and more), makes for a rollicking, drug-amplified read. Quarnstrom’s marriages—including one on-stage during a rock concert at the Fillmore—are recalled, but without many words of wisdom. Nor does he choose to examine his relationships with women past the point of penetration. If he gleaned any insights about his many, many lady loves, he isn’t telling. Closer attention is paid to male camaraderie and the varieties of psychedelic highs, including delightful details of a DMT moment: “I saw that my fingers had fingers that had fingers, and boy, were they tiny.” Many heads will nod in agreement.
“When I was a Dynamiter” will find the audience it deserves among those who lived along the lawless frontier of drugs and pranksterism, before the world became regulated for our own good. The book is slightly compromised by erratic formatting; indents too deep, paragraphs truncated, uneven line spacing. But the author’s unabashed pleasure in remembering a life lived to overflowing—and beyond—carries every word.
At the end, Quarnstrom admits he’s learned that “given the right circumstances, the right audience, we may be able to float again for a moment in familiar spaces where we have flown before.” And in these remembered spaces Quarnstrom floats mighty high.
‘When I Was a Dynamiter: or How a Nice Catholic Boy Became a Merry Prankster, a Pornographer and a Bridegroom 7 Times,’ by Lee Quarnstrom. Available at Amazon.com. PHOTO: Lee Quarnstrom’s memoir recalls road trips, acid trips, drug busts and hormonally drenched affairs.