Denis Kelly was about to commit ritual suicide.
He was sitting on the spotless hardwood floor of a friend’s beach house, his feet tucked onto the top thigh of the opposite leg in full lotus position. The house was nestled on a street overlooking the Pacific Ocean, only an hour or so from his flat in San Francisco. It was 1970, the height of the counterculture movement in the Bay Area, and Denis Kelly had just turned 28.
Kelly, as everyone knew him, was in the business of changing consciousness, and although he had never sought money or notoriety or the company of women, he wanted for none of those things. He wore fine clothes, lived in fine homes, drove fine cars, ate and drank only the very best. He was on a first name basis with members of the Grateful Dead and half a dozen other famous bands and personally knew many involved in the counterculture movement — ranging from the Buddhist philosopher Alan Watts to the founder of the Hell’s Angels, Sonny Barger.
Like so many of his Baby Boomer generation, Denis Kelly was an idealist bent on changing the world. Though his idealism had a distinctly different flair. The assassinations of JFK in 1963 and his brother Robert in 1968 had galvanized most of those around him, but those two events had hardly registered in Kelly’s consciousness. It wasn’t that he was cynical, self-absorbed, or didn’t care about the future of the country. He simply thought it futile to care for men he’d never met, moving the country in a direction he figured was well short of where it really needed to go. Perhaps more to the point, Kelly wasn’t the kind of guy that put faith in other people getting things right, in making the kinds of changes the world needed. He’d just as soon do it himself. It was necessary to have leaders, he knew, and it was good that men like JFK and RFK had risen to such prominence. Change, though, could only come from below, never just from above. The Kennedy brothers were a reflection of change, not a cause of it. They were murdered, yes, but the truth was if the change they represented was actually part of a larger social movement that was going to have as deep an impact as so many hoped, there would be no shortage of people to take their place. With Richard Nixon in office, the U.S. deeply embroiled in Vietnam, and deep fissures emerging around race, gender, and social class (4 college students had just been shot dead by National Guardsmen in Ohio), Kelly was suspicious of how much change the Kennedy boys would have been able to create had they lived. Kelly was doing his part to change the hearts and minds of the next generation of leaders, sowing the seeds of real change, he believed, that would percolate up through all parts of American society once enough people had been turned onto a deeper reality. At the core of his being, Kelly didn’t trust teachers, institutions, or authority figures. That meant that the only one left to trust was himself.
The house in which he sat was modest and modern, with hardwood floors and minimal decorations. In front of Kelly was a small makeshift shrine set up on a low, wood altar he had carried from his car. A statue of a 16th century silver Tibetan Amitābha, or Buddha, faced him, its face forever cast in an expression divine awareness. Fine ginkgo Aloeswood incense, imported directly from Japan, burned from a jade holder, its smoke curling languidly in ever-shifting patterns. To Kelly’s right were some organic fruits, juices, and water, and he was sitting on an antique blue Persian prayer rug, a gift from a friend.
Outside the house the sun moved closer to the horizon, its light dancing off the waves of the Pacific ocean in undulating currents, the shimmering and floating otherworldly light reflected onto the walls around him. Kelly was stripped to the waist, wearing only a pair of tight blue jeans, and his body’s leanness and flexibility reflected a disciplined physical practice. His brown hair was long and pulled back into a ponytail, showing off a prominent nose, cheekbones, and chin. His blue eyes were open, and Kelly began a kind of deep, formal yogic breathing known as Pranayama, designed to clear the mind, settle the body, and open the energy currents between the two. He pulled out a wooden box, the size of a pack of cigarettes, and slid open its lid. Inside were a dozen tiny glass vials, and Kelly methodically laid their contents into the 17th century, solid gold French chalice he owned.
It was time.