Ken Kesey could have been America's greatest writer.
He had the talent. Certainly he was the finest novelist Oregon ever produced. By age 26, he had penned two canonical novels: the mental-ward parable One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in 1962 and the Faulknerian logging saga Sometimes a Great Notion in 1964. Then he decided he didn't want to be a writer anymore. He wanted to be a messiah, traveling the nation in a multicolored bus and preaching the new gospel of acid.
THE ELECTRIC KOOL-AID AUTHOR TEST: Mark Christensen and the famous bus in 1976. IMAGE: www.clydekeller.com
Nine years after Kesey's death, former WW reporter Mark Christensen has written a book on the man, his times and his drug of choice. Acid Christ: Ken Kesey, LSD and the Politics of Ecstasy dives into the shimmering Kesey legacy and finds strange, disturbing shapes underneath.
Christensen takes us on a bumper-car ride through Kesey's fantasyland. He follows the novelist from his boyhood as the son of a dairy family, through wrestling stardom at the University of Oregon, and then to grad school at Stanford University—where Kesey volunteered for government-run tests of LSD. Soon after those experiments, Kesey wrote Cuckoo's Nest, which imagined all of America as a mental hospital: The book's narrator, the schizophrenic Chief Bromden, came to Kesey in a peyote high. Kesey's second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, was even more ambitious, a sprawling, multi-perspective saga of stubbornly libertarian Oregon loggers. Needing to appear in New York to promote the book, Kesey gathered a busload of acolytes—The Merry Prankers—tripping on LSD across the country as Kesey filmed them and Tom Wolfe took notes for his New Journalism book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. From there, it was counterculture stardom: Kesey went to jail on weed possession charges, fled to Mexico, was immortalized in Wolfe's reporting, and began holding court from his farm outside Eugene. Christensen shows how Kesey's gifts began to drown in drugs, booze and disappointment (he felt especially betrayed by the film adaptation of Cuckoo, even though it won five Academy Awards). But he became a magnet for artists, poets and burnouts, and he showed them flashes of brilliance, including an experiment in participatory government called Bend in the River.
WW has exclusive excerpts from Acid Christ, which melds Christensen's memoirs of the '60s—he was there and, yes, he remembers it—with an investigation of the high-stomping farm boy who made himself a prophet of psychedelics. The book is a helter-skelter mind-popper of a biography, skirling through the detritus the Merry Pranksters left behind in their bus and asking the question: Did acid free Kesey's genius or destroy it?
MASTER OF CEREMONIES: Ken Kesey appears onstage at his Poetic Hoo-Haw. This photo, along with the images on the following pages, were taken at the gathering on Kesey's farm in 1976. IMAGE: www.clydekeller.com
A Christ figure who quit his day job as the new Norman Mailer to deliver millennial baby boomers the psychedelic New Jerusalem, Ken Kesey's super hero career began with the biggest bang ever. Not even Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer or John Updike had, by age 28, enjoyed the double-whammy of two literary and commercial smash hit novels—only to then ditch literature to rescue mankind, hoping to "stop the coming end of the world."
"The Chief" was an archetypical American Fair-haired Boy (sub-species Son of the West) madman for all seasons, as profoundly American as John Wayne, Hugh Hefner, Sonny Barger or Britney Spears. Writer, artist (Kesey's illustrated jailhouse journal reveals a master of caricature), Olympic class (almost) athlete, musician (his frog voiced "Jimmy Crack Corn" ranks with, if not "White Rabbit," at least "Double Shot of My Baby's Love"), lady's man, magician, thespian, friend to those who had no friends, social architect, jail bird, original hippie cum great white father, the Great Truth Teller as consummate bullshit artist, he was that rare soul who had a talent for everything.
Kesey was a man of kaleidoscopic extremes—wildly imaginative in the smallest details of his life but otherwise about as free-spirited as a speeding ticket. Fair-haired farm boy turned messianic jock Apollo, Kesey sold himself as Mister Sixties. Rousseau's Natural Man for a post-Machine Age. But like most evangelicals, what Ken liked most was god and girls, an ethos at odds with the unalloyed idolatry he inspired as author of the new utopia that became the starry heart of the young national imagination.
That said, it's likely most everything people think they know about Ken Kesey is wrong. His decision to ditch literature was (or at least could have been) as brilliant and misunderstood as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and he never burned out—at least not in the sense that he lost his talent. The talent remained, if in later years reserved more often for the paragraph than the page. It was his concentration that became a problem. Kesey represented the Freest American Ever, a man who embraced Open Marriage in a way it rarely had been embraced before, and the soul of a lost civilization that flourished, however briefly in the time between the Summer of Love and Deep Throat.
As the Man Behind the Curtain, if not the Hero with a Thousand Faces, Kesey was a savant with failures more brilliant than a lesser savant's triumphs, but who as a man whose life ended mired in booze, drugs and litigation, had created his own moral Mars-scape and left a wake of those who felt both inspired and betrayed.
Flip open the 1956 University of Oregon yearbook to gaze upon—rank and file—the class photographs, the black and white pictures of gray to grayer nineteen-year-old old maids. Young women who with pale faces and crimped hair already look like elderly spinsters. Another reality. Ancient and distant as Oz. Here we find the 21-year-old Ken Kesey; pretzeling an opponent in a wrestling match; beaming confidently beside fellow staff members on the school newspaper.
Flip a few yearbook pages and see Kesey on stage in Macbeth. A man-child for all seasons. Kesey: "The guys on the wrestling team used to say, 'You write? You act? What the hell you doing over there with those people?' Over in the drama or writing department they were always bugging me about associating with a gang of thumpheads." So what were his motives? The best of both worlds, he was the center of attention in either realm.
[In 1958, Kesey enrolled in Stanford University's graduate program in creative writing and soon volunteered to be a test subject in a CIA-sponsored study of the effects of psychedelic drugs.]
For everything was about to change. Thanks to the good offices of the nearby Menlo Park Veterans Hospital, where the medical powers that be were employing the lesser academic locals to audition a new elixir miraculous. "I had a neighbor," Kesey recalled, "a psychologist booked to do the experiments (one) Tuesday, he chickened out." So for twenty dollars a session, Ken Kesey was presented with a kaleidoscopic array of mind-blowing drugs. For six months.
Kesey waxed philosophical. "The government said we've discovered this nice room, we need somebody to go in and look it over…Eight o'clock every Tuesday morning I showed up…ready to roll. The doctor deposited me in a little room on his ward, dealt me a couple of pills or a shot or a little glass of bitter juice." Then the doctor locked the door, but popped back every forty minutes to see if Kesey was "still alive." He took some tests, asked some questions, left leaving Kesey to "study the inside of my forehead, or look out the little window in the door. It was six inches wide and eight inches high, and it had heavy chicken wire inside the glass."
Sub nirvana but the road to nirvana still, and, thanks to Federal Government LSD, the best Kesey ever had. "They gave me mine—paid me and quite a few other rats both white and black…to test it for them, started it so to speak, then, when they caught a glimpse of what was coming down in that little room full of guinea pigs, they snatched the guinea pigs out, slammed the door, locked it, barred it, dug a ditch around it, set two guards in front of it, and gave the helpless guinea pigs a good talking to and warned them—on threat of worse than death—to never go in that door again."
To the extent great novels usually evolve from a trinity defined by character, place and action, Cuckoo's Nest was—its inverted locale and red hot lone anti-hero notwithstanding—about the latter, less about describing the symptoms than initiating the cure. By the time Randle McMurphy had worked his martyred magic in Big Nurse's loony bin, Holden Caulfield had spent at least ten years reminding adolescents that the sane were crazy and the crazy were sane. Before and after Catcher in the Rye, which was published in 1951, The Day of the Locust and On the Road had celebrated magnificent empty energy and the terminal restlessness of a motor-headed, empty-hearted Vacuityville that was all about getting drunk on the lost dream of the West and going nowhere fast.
Cuckoo wasn't so much a portrait as, like Christ's ministry, a call to action.
As novelist Gurney Norman claimed "when Chief Broom throws the control panel through the insane asylum window…that was the first shot of the revolution." Add that to reality as a conspiracy, psychedelics as reality, institutionalized insanity, wow. The time was right. Something exciting was in the air.
It is perhaps symbolic—or fitting—that the classic comic tour de lunacy, Animal House, which was filmed largely around Kesey's old Beta Theta Pi fraternity house at the University of Oregon, was set in 1962—the same year Cuckoo's Nest was published, and the same year that future Oregon Governor Tom McCall produced a film documentary, Pollution in Paradise, that revealed an Oregon being destroyed by industrial waste, a film that initiated the national environmental protection movement. It was a year later that the Kingsmen recorded the new national anthem, "Louie, Louie," for $36 in the basement of a Portland restaurant. In the years that followed, Cuckoo's Nest went on to sell 7 million copies in 66 editions and has never gone out of print, a perennial bestseller long after its message of liberation and misogyny and enlightened schizophrenia helped open the Pandora's Box that was the 1960s. And Kesey's next novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, made Oregon, or at least the idea of an Oregon, the protagonist; a wild dark-souled wilderness alive with spirits and horrors.
"The job of the writer," Kesey once said, "is to kiss no ass, no matter how big and holy and white and tempting and powerful."
So, on to Act Two. Sometimes a Great Notion was a veritable paean to not kissing ass…transforming a dysfunctional family of union-buster loggers into transcendent symbols of American individuality.
Especially given that it was such an unhappy book, driven by images of drowning, death and suicide—which came to haunt Kesey, who having returned to Oregon from Stanford, and before moving to the coast, began Notion in the lakefront home of a family friend who had recently committed suicide.
MEATBALLS: Kesey (second from right) turns the camera on a KVAL television crew while a young Bill Murray (second from left) holds a microphone. IMAGE: www.clydekeller.com
Huxley, Leary, Kesey. It is important to bear in mind that those psychedelic seers were at the very least almost a decade older than the sheep. Abbie Hoffman, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Joan Baez, Frank Zappa, The Beatles, The Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Country Joe, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the Doors, all had at least five years on the audience they were playing to. Kesey was a grown man about to lead a children's crusade; he and his band of acid-dropping shepherds were old enough to have been baby-sitters for their baby boomer sheep. Giving a new twist to the term in loco parentis.
And his Boswell? Tom Wolfe wasn't even a liberal druggie. Wolfe was about as left wing as the America's Cup. Of his one rather dainty 125 milligram acid trip, he recalled: "It was like tying yourself to the railroad track and seeing how big the train is, which is rather big."
By the Summer of Love Kesey—already on his way to becoming both a cause and casualty of the 1960s—had gone from writing the Word to spreading it. "I think," Robert Stone later observed, "he believed that he could somehow invent a spiritual technology, somewhere between Silva mind control and the transistor, that would spare all the humiliating labor that went into the creating of art."
Or maybe Kesey just once again took a long hard look at the ghost of his literary father Ernest Hemingway, and figured: what America wants was not a new writer, but a protagonist. A Man Among Men. A charismatic leader—athletic, fearless, solipsistic, no servant to the usual gravities.
For God and the novel were dead, Gore Vidal said so—and even if the novel wasn't it was, worse, still in the hands of adults—and how was Kesey to compete with the grown up likes of Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer on the long literary haul? Besides, there was no way in Helvetica the novel was up to delivering the new Word. Just go ask Marshall McLuhan now that he was ten feet tall. Movies—Kesey's super-sacramental cinema-verite in particular—would be the new literature. Far out.
Besides, it was a lot easier to dress up as a cross between Captain Hook and an Easter Egg than sit behind a typewriter. Especially if you held in your hands, courtesy Sandoz Pharmaceuticals, the keys to the kingdom. LSD was first-rate fairy dust for the man on the make. And an even better one for making, in Kesey-speak, "boogity, boogity, boogity."
Up to forty miles of film. Eventually that's how much the Pranksters shot. The Movie would change everything. Save the aforementioned world. Recoup Kesey's hundred grand. But complications soon arose. Namely because:
a) Just because you are a genius of the very words you are abandoning, doesn't mean you'll be a genius at film—no more than Babe Ruth could have been a great quarterback in the NFL.
b) As Kesey was about to discover: Making a great movie about the wonders of acid while on acid is tough.
Trying to make a great movie about being fucked up while you are fucked up means you'll fuck up. But Kesey, who bought the illusion that LSD was the end of illusions, was too fucked up to see that.
Kesey further explained to Burt Wolfe his decision to quit writing novels. "Well, like take McMurphy. He was just there, like antimatter. I didn't have to create him; the patients built him for me. But the Indian was different. I don't own the soul of that Indian. He just appeared while I was on peyote, and the first chapter of that book was written by him. So, that makes me wonder am I as talented as I might think or as others think? Or am I an instrument picked to make a statement, and after the statement is made, should I assume I've got the right to make endless statements? Oh, I like to write. I will write a poem for a friend on the occasion of getting married and I will put everything into it. If I were to write longer things now, I wouldn't sign them. I'd just write them and send them in to the publisher and have him put them out there for anybody to read. See, I know now that the Indian in Cuckoo was not my Indian. He was brought into being by some higher power to tell America where it's at.
"As for my children, I consider myself a devoted father. I've given my kids acid several times, so now they know what it is, they know where it's at, and they don't even want to take it now…I've put them in with the Pranksters so I know there will always be someone to take care of them no matter how high I am, and I am often high. They think they can keep me from getting high by putting me in this jail. They don't understand that anything that gives you a sudden flash is dope. I'll take a flash wherever I can get it: from acid, pot, people, music, jail, anything."
[In 1974, Kesey organized Bend in the River, a council intended to revolutionize American politics by deciding referendums at statewide symposiums.]
"All kinds of people are being elected delegates—farmers, housewives, city councilmen, longhairs. Human affection is being put on the line at Bend. I'm betting we can all stand each other's body odor, that we all like each other more than we dislike each other."
This would be accomplished at the intimate tactical level. "All the delegates will be living in dorms. By the conference's end—well, if you took all these people and boiled them in water, and if you drank the water, you'd get one of the greatest highs God has ever known."
Delegates wrote up a ten-point "media referendum." When the Bend Women's Caucus asked the "full conference" to stand behind a call for free abortions, Kesey announced, "I'm not against women. I'm defending the small. As a nation, we take the life of the small. Any woman who feels she wants an abortion because she can't take care of the child can give me the child."
Kesey's stand on abortion ran against the tide. "I feel abortion to be probably the worst worm in the revolutionary philosophy, a worm bound in time to suck the righteousness from the effort we are engaged in."
His wife Faye agreed, "Even if I were raped, I wouldn't get one."
Kesey wrapped the issue up with: "You don't plow under the corn because the seed was planted with a neighbor's shovel."
But Kesey's message, however reinforced by additional rape analogies, was otherwise pretty much eco über alles. At a Portland recycling meeting May 9, 1974, at Couch Grade School, he resorted to Old Time Religion: "Please don't mess up the earth. The rape of the earth is like the rape of a woman."
After the Academy Awards in which Cuckoo's Nest was nominated for nine Oscars and won five, including statues for Best Picture and Best Actor, Kesey was quoted by Bob Greene as saying he "felt pride and hurt at the same time" and that he didn't even want to see the movie after his rotten experience in its creation. He further lamented the fact that while the tale of Big Nurse and her sorry charges grossed between $40 million and $60 million, all he'd got out of the deal was a long gone $28,000, which he'd been paid 14 years previously. "That's the last money I've seen from it. Right now I'm broke. It's a beautiful day out here today. If I had $300 for fertilizer, I'd be out fertilizing my fields."
Kesey claimed he did not even receive an invitation to the Academy Award ceremony and that, further, "It was made very clear to me that if I showed up, I was going to have a hard time getting in. I'm just not a part of their Hollywood fraternity." For the legendary frat boy BMOC this was a bitter come-down. Kesey watched the Academy Awards on TV while playing poker—which he lost. "No artist wants to be raped; no artist wants to be poor. I'm broke as hell. It should be one of the great days of my life, like my wedding. What I'm working on now is gnashing my teeth and railing at the sky."
When the producers called to inquire if he'd like to attend the premiere of Cuckoo's Nest in Oregon, Kesey said no thanks. "That's like calling me and saying, 'Hey, we're raping your daughter down here in the parking lot, would you like to watch?'" Kesey claimed he couldn't afford a ticket to go to the Eugene premiere of Cuckoo and regarding his lawsuit against the producers: "It would have been great if the subpoenas could have been slipped into the winning Best Picture envelope."
ACID DAD: Ken Kesey and his son Zane. IMAGE: www.clydekeller.com
Well…in 1997 Kesey fobbed off his 1947 bus on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where it was parked between John Lennon's Rolls Royce and Janis Joplin's Porsche. A shameless Kesey declared, "I kind of feel bad about it because it's going to be so much more beautiful than the other rock and roll cars." Not long after, in 1998, he was interviewed by Nick Hasted of The Independent who wrote: "His face looks suddenly noble and serious; his eyes are revealed as piercingly, beautifully blue." Kesey declared he no longer had any aspirations as Great American Novelist. "I'm not gonna bark after that dog any more. There's plenty of books. I don't want to be Stephen King, and just do that because I can. A lot of my writer friends were hard-ass solid revolutionaries, but somehow they got off on the mezzanine, and they started writing fiction and novels. I see the internet as what's happening outside. This is the new way to speak, the way the shaman always would. I think it's very righteous, because it's mechanical, nothing else. It's not insidious. It's not a thing that's going to drain our minds."
He did not have optimistic words for himself and his. "The truth is, we're losers. You make enough fuss and you attract the real forces down on you. And then you have to hide. We're always gonna be in the minority, and we're always gonna lose. We've always lost, all through history. We're the divine losers. And I keep inviting all these young, smart people: 'Come with us. Lose with us. Lose beautifully. We're not meant to win.'"
What's the legacy? Walt Curtis says, "There was something about the man that I really trusted at a sort of primordial existential Alan Watts kind of level, Jesus Christ kind of level, Jesus Christ acid freak kind of level. I wrote, 'When I looked into those sky blue eyes, I felt the jolt of eternity. Ken Kesey was a warrior of the spirit.'"
Perhaps. At a time in his life, long after the flash and glow of Cuckoo's Nest, when he spent all night every night sitting awake in front of his typewriter waiting if not begging for the muse, Kesey had wondered, "It's 'why me?' What is it about me, my family, my father, this part of the country that caused me to be the one who wrote Cuckoo's Nest? It is not something I set out to do. It's as though all the angels got together and said, 'Here's a message that America desperately needs. Now let's pick him to do it.'"
Writing The Acid Gospels
WW: Do you think Ken Kesey squandered his talent, or was his talent the kind of thing that was inherently meant to be squandered?
Mark Christensen: That is the million-dollar question. There's that old saying that leaders don't create movements, movements create leaders. I think that Kesey, even without acid, would have been a freaking major writer. If you look at the archives at University of Oregon at his second [unpublished] novel Zoo that got him into Stanford—fucking good. He bought into what he thought was literally an elixir miraculous, almost like a metaphysical communion wafer. To cut to the chase: Acid giveth, and acid taketh away. I think you could argue that as he argued; I mean, he bet his life. But I don't think there was anything dishonest about the way he set off to step away from literature finally because he thought LSD was the bigger thing, that literature was the tail and not the dog of enlightenment. Acid was literally the secular version of the Catholic communion wafer.
He clearly saw it as a sacrament.
An absolute sacrament, I think!
Did he find anything in there?
That's part of the deal I get into in the book. You know, when I was a kid, before I had ever heard of Ken Kesey—in fact, before the world had ever heard of Ken Kesey—there was actually some stuff that came out about acid. I think it was in Life magazine or somewhere. And my dad was into it, and he was interested. He was an eye surgeon at the medical school, and he said, "Here's my guess: LSD will evoke the waking dream state and provoke schizophrenia in the early onset of those susceptible to schizophrenia." And I've never heard a better capsule description of LSD in my life. I took acid a bunch of times, and I definitely achieved the waking dream state, and thank God I wasn't down to be a schizophrenic.
What have you found out about Ken Kesey that is going to distress his fans?
That he was a god with feet of clay. When I was around him, I thought he was about as freethinking as a traffic ticket. He was a control guy. [One woman] lived next door to him for years and said that he was basically a high-school jock who came to a new idea, but the basic thing was: high-school jock. To me, he was a prototypical alpha male. I mean, there's nothing wrong with that. I suppose Barack Obama is too. And his mantra of liberation—"You're either on the bus or off the bus"—to me was never much more than, "My way or the highway."
Sometimes he reminds me more of the guy who is running the all-night kegger and won't let you go home.
There you go! I look at him as a theater person, and I think that's the way he looked at himself. But to be cute about it, he was almost terminally gregarious. Somebody once said he was a man who could not stand to be alone in a room with goals. As a writer, you're supposed to be. It's very hard to write books, or anything. If I'm going to take the image of Acid Christ, that he had apostles or whatever, and they were his followers—he literally had followers. I was down with him at the farm when I was like 26 or so, and it was like the head goose in a flight of geese above your head with a V of lesser geese behind him. He would literally have people follow him around, and I thought that was interesting.
He comes close to being a tragic figure.
I am not from the temperance union or anything like that. But a guy who goes to his grave site saying, "It's not over until the fat lady gets high," I mean, when you're a 16-year-old—what does that mean to you? It means go get loaded. And in terms of tragic figure, the thing that finally killed him—it wasn't acid. It was alcohol.
In some ways he died a very old-fashioned death.
Yeah, by drink. And I'm kinda cute in the book by saying he was a genius in so many things, but he was a genius best at outsmarting himself. But I never considered that guy a burnout at all. Just before he died, it was right after 9/11, he did a brilliant story in Rolling Stone. I mean literally, he's on his death bed, I think. I'm not sure. It came out days after his death. He may have written it a month before when he was feeling relatively fine, but this guy wasn't the walking wounded in any kind of classic way. He was brilliant to the end. There's no doubt about that. It's just—he made some curious choices. But if he wanted to be David Lean, maybe he could have been David Lean, but David Lean didn't drop acid.
How hard was it to get people to talk honestly about this guy?
People would literally want to talk on tape and then want to recant it. You could say in a simple way, you never trust a prankster. These are the original noble bohemians of America. And most of them, they're very smart and everything. But the rule is there are no rules. And so that was difficult. Every time I go talk to somebody or go to a bookstore or whatever, I hear the same versions of my story: I'm here, but my friend's not. There's not a lot of codified medical research out there, that I found, that tries to nail down to what extent psychedelics are found to be almost fatally damaging. But in my experience, if you haven't dropped acid, I just wouldn't.