"The answer is never the answer. What's really interesting is the mystery. If you seek the mystery instead of the answer, you'll always be seeking. I've never seen anybody really find the answer-- they think they have, so they stop thinking. But the job is to seek mystery, evoke mystery, plant a garden in which strange plants grow and mysteries bloom. The need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer."
-- Ken Kesey
Ken Kesey was born in Sept 17, 1935 in La Junta, Colorado, the youngest of two sons. He grew up on a farm outside of Eugene, Oregon. His brother runs the Springfield Creamery - maker of the fine Nancy's Yogurt line of dairy products (many of them are organic!)
He went to high school and became an all-american wrestler and was voted "most likely to succeed". He married his high school sweetheart (Faye Kesey) in what is now the McDonald Theater on W. 13th Ave. in Eugene.
Kesey ended up going to the University of Oregon and then to Stanford under a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to study creative writing with the likes of Larry McMurtry and Ken babbs (an old friend from Oregon who had also done a stint flying helicopters in Viet Nam.
It was while studing at Stanford that Kesey began writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and working at the Menlo Park psychiatric hospital... and also participating in MK-Ultra drug trials including his first LSD trip.
Kesey was influenced by the Beats and Jack Kerouac in particular (this is more apparent in Sometimes A Great notion than in Cuckoo's Nest - see the way he handals non-linear timing and dialog).
Cuckoo's Nest was published in 1962 to great acclaim. This is Kesey's best known book, but it is not his masterpiece. That would be Sometimes A Great Notion - verilly the Great American Novel, published in 1964. (Kesey would once tell me that the novel is actually a modern invention and the word is descendant from novelty).
The interceeding years would find him all over the map... writing about the Beijing Marathon, hanging out with the Grateful Dead, raising three sons (putting one in the ground after a bus accident took his life), hanging out on his farm, etc, but not writing novels.
Kesey wouldn't publish his third novel till 1992. Sailor's Song while entertaining is nothing special. Whatever flair Keasy had for the novel (I think he still has it for non-fiction) was gone.
Kesey to me is far more than a simple author. He represents the American Spirit of get out there and Just Do IT! He is P.T. Barnum, Salvador Dali, and Old MacDonald all rolled into one...
To me Kesey is a hero. Uncompromising, irascable, eccentric, wise, and magical. Kesey is nothing short of an American legend. Not just for what he's written, but also for what he's lived through and the cultural frontiers he probed.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Viking, 1962.
One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (Viking Critical Edition, edited by John C. Pratt), Viking, 1973.
Sometimes a Great Notion, Viking, 1964.
Kesey's Garage Sale, Viking, 1973.
Kesey, Northwest Review of Books, 1977 (Edited by Michael Strelow).
The Day After Superman Died, Lord John Press, 1980.
Demon Box (short stories and articles), Viking, 1986.
The Further Inquiry (screenplay about the trial of Neal Cassady's soul, Viking, 1990.
Caverns (by O.U. Levon, a joint pseudonym for Novel University of Oregon - a seminar tought by Kesey - students included - Robert Bluckner, Ben Bochner, James Finley, Jeff Forester, Bennett Huffman, Lynn Jeffress, Ken Kesey, Neil Lindstrom, H. Highwater Powers, Jane Sather, Charles Varani, Meredith Wadley, Lidia Yukman, and Ken Zimmerman - ), Penguin, 1990. (Kesey wrote the introduction and is the "producer" of the book.)
Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear (childrens book), Viking 1990.
The Sea Lion (childrens book), Viking, 1991.
Sailor Song, Viking, 1992.
Last Round Up, (with Ken Babbs), Viking, 1994.
q. What is your idea of an ideal party?
a. No actual idea.
q. What is your idea of a not so ideal party?
a. Again, no idea. In fact the whole party idea has kinda drained away. I like getting together with people and doing something.
q. For example?
a. We performed a play in England in 1999 that I wrote and directed called "Where's Merlin". We took it on
the road and we traveled all over (the UK) performing this play. The object (of the play) was
to go through and teach people a number of songs they already kind of knew and teach a dance step,
so that at the end the audience joins in. At the end the object is to get everybody up on stage
and all of them singing. And what we finally came up with for that was the theme song - "Love Potion Number Nine" At the end of it when we have people all doing Love Potion Number Nine, everybody knows it, everybody understands it they know why it's appropriate, where it comes from, what it's about and how it relates to us and the acid test and back through that whole thing of Neal Cassady and Tim Leary and Allen Ginsberg and beatniks and on back on to Kerouac back of a tradition thatfs running though American culture, the whole psychedelic tradition. Everywhere we went in England performing this got huge crowds. And all of them knew what we were talking about. Most of the people in the audience were under 20 or over 50. It's an affirmation of something. To really keep your voice alive, you've got to actually go someplace and tell a story.
q. By focusing more on interactive performances and plays,
was that a conscious decision to bridge the gap between
Participants on the stage and audience?
Yeah, very much. The direction I wanted to go had to do with not going off and getting high by yourself, or writing by yourself, or practicing tai chi by yourself, where you're getting out there and interacting with people, you're plowing new ground. Actually you're plowing very old ground that has been around for
a very long time and nobody has brought the plow bit to it in a long time. Now this really relates: we've got a radio transmitter on the. It transmits about 10 miles and driving on the freeway we have a sign that blinks and says "Dial 105.7 KBUZ, Coming to you from the Guts of Nowhere." And people will drive along and they'll see it and give us the thumbs us, blink their lights or give us a little honk. So we'll have people out in front of us listening to our radio program and behind us listening to it.
Um, what was the question?
When you go out to tootle and hoot how important is the interaction with the audience?
The interaction with people is the most fun, whether they are on stage of not.
You were a key figure in the early days of the grateful dead giving them a place to perform during the acid tests.
Those concerts were for some the definition of the word
party. What did you think of the dead experience?
When the Dead were really going and functioning well, it was like a crack through the black wall of our consciousness and you saw on the other side there was light though this.
The Dead really had no more dogma than that.
They just wanted to get out there where they would do something and you would watch them play and every so often they would get it together and they would be on the same frequency as the audience and they would be the same and there would be a flash of realization that we werenft for a moment there we weren't in the same time frame as everyone else, we weren't in the same reality.
That's why people went to the Dead, because they were trying as hard as they could to be more than entertainers. They were trying to become the conduit to another light.
You joined phish on stage in 1997; they're another rock and roll band renown for the partying and carnival like atmosphere of their concerts. Did you see that same crack open up like with the dead?
Uh, no, but I wasn't payin' attention that much. But when we went up there we we're able to segue right on into the closing song, which was Gloria and everyone in the world knows Gloria and they all know how to sing it and they love to sing it. Just singing Gloria brings something into the heart.
You sent a copy of your film of the acid tests to the Whitney museum of American art for their millennium ending show. Why do you think such an esteemed cultural institution was interested in showing a film of a psychedelic drug party?
It's because at the end of this century and Millennium we cast our eyes back. We're seeing stuff through a brighter light. I think that the 60s and that whole movement of the Beats have become more important as time has gone by. And everybody is aware that something happened there, whether people admit it or not something happened in the 60s and it was unique. The human race has been trying to find something all its life. There's a thing in Joseph Campbell where he's talking about the seekers, the questers, the people who are trying to follow their bliss and the Native American potlatches were probably a version of the Dead concerts, getting together - drumming, drumming and trying to lift up out of the mire. That's what we've been doing forever. We're trying to build a track up out of the bog, so we don't have to bog around down there with the sea anemones and other things. Humans natural instinct is to rise up above the bog and to help others do the same. There's no way to know this or judge this, but humans have been on a long run and we have the opportunity now to really make a shift in consciousness, because of the Internet and computers and the way people are hooked together around the world. And it's not just the people with the guns and money who hold the reins to enlightenment anymore. It's anybody who has any kind of computer or can find one. They can contact people all over the globe and no one can stop it. It's loose.
Do you still do drugs?
No, I don't do too many drugs anymore, but every Easter some friends and family and I like to take some acid and hike up Mt. Pisgah (located near Kesey's home in Mt. Pleasant, Oregon). Not much (he says with a sly smile), just enough to make the leaves dapple.
Interview with the Chief: conducted by Matthew Crow AKA NothingLasts4ever
in Eugene, Oregon 1999 and cyberspace 2000
Kesey also is the team captain of the Pranktown Busriders, a Cosmic Baseball Association team.
Ken Kesey died on November 10, 2001 after surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from his liver. He is survived by his wife, son and several grandchildren. His legacy will carry on furthur.
In a recorded message on Kesey's office phone, Ken Babbs said: "Ken Kesey, a great husband, father, granddad and friend. Done in by a bum liver. As always, he gave it a great fight, but his body pulled its last dirty trick and done him in. If he has one legacy it is for us the living to carry on with courage, compassion, generosity and love."
TRIPS FESTIVAL, LONGSHOREMAN'S HALL, SAN FRANCISCO. 1966
"Then, just before the auditorium doors were opened to the public, I
looked across the hall to the opposite exit doors. There is this person,
this somebody in a silver spacesuit with a silver helmet, holding open
the exit doors to let people into the hall. Just ushering people into
this circus that I'd been trying to organize for the past four days. So
I rushed through the halls to the exits yelling 'What the fuck is going
on? What the hell are you doing?'
At the exit doors this spacesuited
person flips up the face guard and I recognize the guy who was at the
Fillmore for the Acid Test. He yells back, 'Hi, it's me, it's all right.
These are just a few of my friends.'
Well it sure as hell wasn't OK with
me. I didn't care who this guy was. I was responsible for putting on a
show and I damned well didn't want anyone ruining everything I had
worked so hard to do. So I screamed and yelled and carried on. Everytime spaceman tried to explain, I just cut him off by pouring more boil over, ready to burst, screaming, 'So do you know what I mean? Do you damned well know what I'm saying?' Space Captain flipped the lid on his space helmet shut and walked away.
At first I was stunned. I couldn't believe it. People don't do that. Then I began to laugh. My temper was broken. It made me feel good. The spaceman was Ken Kesey. That was the first time we met."
Bill Graham interviewed by Tom Wolfe for Electric Kool Aid Acid Test.