By DOUG BLACKBURN, Staff writer
First published: Sunday, April 29, 2001
Altered state

A counterculture legend, writer Ken Kesey's life is a little more subdued these days.

The cutting-edge adventurer gave way to his inner pragmatist two weeks ago when Ken Kesey and a few close friends went on their annual Easter Sunday hike up Mount Pisgah, near his home in Mount Pleasant, Ore. For the first time in more than three decades, Kesey opted to forgo LSD for the event.

The writer best-known for his 1962 novel "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'' -- and leader of the celebrated Merry Pranksters -- has recently been taking medication for diabetes as well as Hepatitis C. Adding another pharmacological substance to the mix simply wasn't necessary, Kesey decided.

"I felt like I was high enough just walking up the hill with nothing but adrenaline,'' the 65-year-old counterculture legend said. "Besides, I figured I ought to try making the hike at least once without psychedelics.

"The past few years that's been about the only time I've taken acid, and even then not much. Just enough to make the leaves dapple. When we take our Easter hike, people will bring along stuff to sip, but I haven't wanted to sip a stranger's jug as much as I used to.''

To quote Kesey's longtime friend, musician Bob Dylan, the times they are a changin'.

It promises to be, without question, a totally different scene this Tuesday when Kesey returns to the University at Albany for the first time since 1970, when he enjoyed a memorable visit. Kesey and a handful of Pranksters pulled in to the UAlbany campus in "Further,'' their wildly decorated day-glo bus, for Kesey to give a speech.

Someone very much in synch with the Pranksters had placed a large tank of nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, in front of the stage where Kesey was scheduled to give his address. So much for the speech.

"We got up there and started breathing this gas. Boy oh boy, stuff decided to happen,'' Kesey remembered during a telephone interview last week. "It was going so well we just slipped away.

"It was for the best. We were tired. We had been driving the whole night. I came back the next day and gave the speech.''

Writing the writer: While Kesey continues to write every day, it is unlikely there are many living authors about whom so much as been written. Starting with journalist Tom Wolfe's best-selling book detailing the acid-taking adventures of Kesey and his cohorts in the mid 1960s, "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,'' and continuing to this day with doctoral theses being written about him at college campuses across the country, people have been enthralled by Kesey.

He is a link to both the Beats of the 1950s and the Hippies who followed a decade later. He spent time with Jack Kerouac, and Neal Cassady, Kerouac's travel buddy, went on the road with Kesey as well.

Meanwhile, Kesey and his pals are credited with ushering in the psychedelic era of Haight Ashbury that many view as ground zero for the Woodstock Nation of the '60s.

"To be the bridge from the Beatniks to the Hippies shows that we don't exist in either world. We live in the cracks between them. We think of ourselves as crackers,'' Kesey said with a raspy laugh.

"I think that the '60s and the whole movement of the Beats have become more important as time has gone by,'' he added. "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, and that's what was happening then.''

Adventures with LSD: Kesey's adventures with LSD began with full compliance of the powers that be. He was a graduate student in a prestigious creative writing program at Stanford University in 1959. His classmates included Larry McMurtry, Robert Stone and Ken Babbs, a collaborator with Kesey to this day.

He volunteered to take part in a government drug research program at Menlo Park Veterans Hospital that tested a number of psychoactive drugs such as LSD, which was legal at the time. During a one-month period Kesey ingested LSD, mescaline and other hallucinogens and wrote of his experiences for government researchers.

Kesey used the revelations and other visions he experienced during that time to write "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,'' a metaphor for an oppressive society that was both a critical and commercial success. It became a popular Broadway play starring Kirk Douglas as Randle Patrick McMurphy and Ed Ames as Chief. Jack Nicholson would go on to star in the stage version of "Cuckoo's Nest'' before winning an Oscar for the 1975 film adaptation, one of five Academy Awards given to the movie.

Kesey claims to have never seen the movie version of his first book. He sued the film company making "Cuckoo's Nest,'' incensed that he was going to get nothing more than the $20,000 he agreed to for the movie rights. During depositions he swore to the two attorneys representing the film that he would never see the movie, a pledge he has maintained to this day.

"I'm curious to see it, but I'm also really glad that I haven't seen it,'' he said. "For one thing, I don't have Jack Nicholson walking around in my mind as that character. I kept telling them, he's too short, he smiles too much and he's smarter than McMurphy.

"Not seeing the movie, and not seeing him, has really kept that part of my mind open. My daughter told me not seeing that movie is the smartest thing I never did.''

"Cuckoo's Nest'' recently returned to Broadway, with Gary Sinise in the lead role. Kesey has made plans to see a performance during his trip to the East Coast this week. He described Sinise as "the least likely McMurphy I've ever seen,'' adding to his curiosity about the new production.

Kesey's second novel, "Sometimes a Great Notion,'' was published in 1964, two years after "Cuckoo's Nest.'' The story of a logging family in the Northwest fighting industry unionization, it was also highly acclaimed and was made into a movie starring Henry Fonda and Paul Newman.

Still on the books: While nothing Kesey has written since is anywhere near as well-known, he has nonetheless continued to devote himself to writing. He has also directed several plays, produced a movie and written children's books.

He is hopeful that later this year he will publish his first book since 1994's "The Last Roundup,'' which he wrote with Ken Babbs. He has almost completed "Cut the M***********s Loose,'' a book that is part prose and part paintings and sketches that he began during a six-month jail sentence for marijuana possession in the late '60s.

"One of the reasons it didn't get published before is that word in the title, because I was adamant that that would be the title,'' he said. "Now I think it would be a lot more interesting when you don't see the word.''

Kesey is also engrossed with producing videos from his celebrated psychedelic bus tour across America that took place following the publication of "Sometimes a Great Notion.'' Two videos have been made from 16-millimeter film shot during the tour that Kesey uncovered not long ago, and a third video is in the works. They are being sold through the Internet at the Web site

"I guess you could say I'm gathering all my eggs together and putting them out for the kids to find,'' said Kesey, who has been married to biblical scholar Faye Kesey for almost 40 years. They are parents of three children, Zane, Shannon and Sunshine. A fourth child, Jed, died tragically 20 years ago when the University of Oregon wrestling team van he was in went over a cliff traveling to an event in Washington.

"I've felt like I've had a lot of loose ends for a long time, and finally I'm beginning to gather them up,'' he added. "I don't know that I've got all the loose ends tied just yet. In fact, I know I don't, because I'm still gathering them.''

Ken Kesey will speak at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Page Hall, 135 Western Ave. at the University at Albany's downtown campus. For information, call the New York State Writers Institute at 442-5620.

Copyright 2001, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y. The information you receive online from Times Union is protected by the copyright laws of the United States. The copyright laws prohibit any copying, redistributing, retransmitting, or repurposing of any copyright-protected material.

Ken Kesey