|April 26, 2001|
Vol. 35, No. 17
By Tom Natell
Counterculture legend Ken Kesey keeps his hallucinogenic halcyon days alive through videos, books and the internet
During the 1960s, Ken Kesey produced two great novels—One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes A Great Notion—and gathered together a band of colorful friends who became known as the Merry Pranksters. They added a bright paint job to an old bus, then went on one of the most bizarre tours of the American roadscape ever recorded.
Many years have passed since those vibrant psychedelic days of yore, and some wear on the author’s health has begun to show. “I had a stroke three or four years ago—I’m fine now,” he says, adding that he thinks alcohol abuse was a factor in the stroke. “It caught me where I needed to be caught. Since then, I don’t drink near as much—in fact, I don’t drink anything now.” He admits that his alcohol consumption led to his being “real blurry there for a while. . . . Since I’ve stopped drinking, I remember a whole lot more stuff.” He’s also been diagnosed with diabetes, which he has been able to keep under control through diet.
Today, Kesey is a 66-year-old farmer keeping up a 70-acre spread in Oregon’s Willamette Valley with his wife of 44 years, Faye. “We’ve got 40 cows, two goats, one dog and six or eight peacocks,” Kesey says, adding that his farm, located near Eugene, has been in the family for a while. “My dad bought the place, which he moved on to my brother, and I got it from my brother.” The author and his wife live in a converted barn, which is located about a mile from the offices of Kesey’s company, Intrepid Trips. The company produces videos and sells goods over the Internet.
Kesey, who will be in the Capital Region for a May 1 speaking engagement presented by the New York State Writers Institute, has lived most of his life in the Willamette Valley. While growing up in the area, he spent much time in the woods hunting and fishing with his father, and sharpening his sense of the wild. He went on to attend the University of Oregon, where he first got serious about writing. Recalling those days, Kesey says: “I was first into speech and drama. But there was a guy there who, after he read a couple of the plays I wrote, told me that nobody’s going to produce these plays on TV. So I went into writing, and that’s what I did at Stanford too.”
Kesey was awarded a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to study writing at Stanford, where he joined Wallace Stegner’s famous writing program. There, he met Larry McMurtry, Robert Stone, Wendell Berry and Ken Babbs, who were also students at the time. Kesey looks back with pride at being part of that creative group of writers, because Stegner’s students went on to have a profound effect on contemporary American fiction.
It was while attending Stanford that Kesey had experiences that radically changed his life. In 1959, he was a subject in a series of government-sponsored drug experiments conducted at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Menlo Park. According to Kesey, he was never told what part of the government conducted the tests: “They didn’t give us any particular reason [for the study]. They just gave me $20 any time I went in and took some of their drugs.”
It later surfaced that the LSD, psilocybin, mescaline and amphetamines involved in the experiments were provided by the Central Intelligence Agency. Kesey said that he didn’t discover that the CIA was involved until many years later, when Allen Ginsberg shared his research about the matter. “Ginsberg had been going through some CIA files, and began to find evidence that they were the ones behind the whole thing,” Kesey explains.
The irony that the CIA may have been responsible for spawning a whole new drug culture doesn’t escape the author. “It’s one of those things that every so often happens, and you hear something from above—this deep, muted chuckle,” he says. “There is humor in the fact that the CIA were the people that brought LSD to the USA.”
The drug tests led Kesey to closely observe the psychiatric patients at the VA hospital. He eventually took a job as a night attendant on one of the wards, and freely acknowledges that “I wrote Cuckoo’s Nest on the ward.” The critical acclaim the book received gave him the notoriety and resources that led to the arrival of the Merry Pranksters and the wild times that followed.
Kesey’s company, Intrepid Trips, keeps the memory of those wild times alive. He describes the company’s focus loosely: “It covers a lot of different styles, but it’s stuff that I do, that I am really interested in, and I pay for [it] by writing every so often when I need some money.” Some of the more infamous Merry Pranksters, including Ken Babbs and Mountain Girl, work for the company.
The company’s Web site, intrepidtrips.com, features a cyberstore offering pictures, stickers for a “ban the bullet” campaign, updates on the health of a Kesey friend fighting leukemia, CDs and videotapes. (The store’s creed is: Our stuff is hot, but it won’t burn you.) The videotapes, which document some of Kesey’s most famous adventures, have been the focus of a lot of the author’s energy lately. Their genesis leads one back in time.
In 1964, Kesey was invited to New York City to attend publication events surrounding Sometimes a Great Notion. Instead of getting an airline ticket, he and the Merry Pranksters bought a 1939 International Harvester bus. They painted it colorfully (the bus’s destination sign said “Furthur,” and a sign in the back warned “Caution: Weird Load”), rigged it for sound recording and filming, and headed east. Prankster Mike Hagen (who now runs a restaurant in Eugene) kept a movie camera rolling during much of the trip. Kesey had been trying to do something with the 50-plus hours of film footage that resulted from that trip for more than 30 years, and he finally decided to produce it on video himself through Intrepid Trips.
When Kesey checked on the condition of the film, he found it was in surprisingly good shape. “The film hadn’t been shown that much, so it was pretty clean,” he noted. His son Zane and Ken Babbs’ son Simon worked together to transfer the film to videotape. “They’ll take a pile of film and project it on the wall with a special projector,” he explains. “Then it goes through a computer, and it’s all being adjusted as we’re doing it. We’re getting far better pictures than we originally took.”
The trip to New York and back is being released in two videos, collectively titled Intrepid Traveller and his Merry Band of Pranksters Look for a Kool Place. The first tape, Journey to the East, was released last year. It covers the preparation of the bus, its departure from Southern California with Neal Cassady (known for being the main character in Kerouac’s On the Road) at the wheel, and the ride east. The second tape, called North to Madhattan, is due for distribution this spring. It picks up with Cassady at the wheel, rapping along as the bus approaches New York. The Pranksters tour the town with their own provocative sense of theater, hook up with poet Allen Ginsberg, and visit Jack Kerouac and Timothy Leary before heading back west. The videos come in hand-painted covers done by the Intrepid Trips staff and signed by Kesey.
In addition to his farming duties and Internet activities, Kesey is still writing, and he has a number of projects in progress. “There are six things I’m working on: One of them is old, another is contemporary, and there are some in the future,” he vaguely explains. Together with his publisher, he’s “just trying to get it into one package.” He hopes the result will be “a lot of unfinished work brought into nice focus.”
The schedule for Ken Kesey’s Albany appearance begins with a screening of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at 7:30 PM tomorrow (Friday, April 27) in Page Hall, located on the University at Albany’s downtown campus. At 4 PM on Tuesday (May 1), Kesey will conduct a seminar in the Recital Hall of UAlbany’s Performing Arts Center, located on the uptown campus. At 8 PM Tuesday, Kesey will read from his work at Page Hall. All events are free and open to the public. Call 442-5620 for more information.