On the Death of Ken Kesey
edited: Thursday, April 11, 2002
By Timothy V. Delaney
Posted: Thursday, April 11, 2002
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Thoughts on the day I found out that Kesey died.
Funny that, Ken. One more into the void, huh?
In 1993 I was a kid from Jersey in San Francisco for the summer doing volunteer work with Habitat for Humanity. August 9, 1993, I was preparing for the long drive back home that would begin the next day and I roamed around my neighborhood saying goodbye to the things and places I loved. Goodbye Joe’s Ice Cream, goodbye produce stand, goodbye fog goodbye store that sold underage me beer, goodbye goodbye. I needed a book, something new to entertain me on what was certain to be long and quiet nights in the desert.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kee-See. Sure I’d heard of it. Always wanted to read it, too. This version came with a bonus – text, literary criticisms, interviews with the author and comparative essays. Perfect.
Upon reading the first chapter I was stunned by his writing style. I later read a letter Kesey wrote to Ken Babbs called “Peyote and Point of View” discussing his thought process while writing the novel. He said, “Think of this: I, me ken kesey (sic), is stepped back another step and am writing about a third person author writing about something. Fair makes the mind real, don’t it?” The separation, yet seamless integration of the observer and the observed… I was hooked.
I immediately read Sometimes a Great Notion. I recall thinking that as much as I loved Cuckoo’s Nest, Sometimes made it look nearly like a high school essay – it is that good. Then, I stumbled across Tom Wolfe’s Electric Koolade Acid Test. Woah- That’s the same guy?! Amazing.
And I felt smug that I “knew” Kesey first as an author and then as a counterculture icon.
I got an email on November 10, 2001 from across the nation. The subject line was “I read the news today, oh boy…” Perfect. I heard it, too. I thought of Kesey’s essay in Demon Box called “Now We Know How Many Holes it Takes to Fill the Albert Hall,” about the day he found out that John Lennon had been shot and killed outside of his New York City apartment. How he felt. And the unity he experienced with a ruddy drifter who had ended up on his doorstep earlier that evening. The ties that bind. Sure. I get it.
“I read the news today, oh boy…” My first thoughts were of my old friend Keith. He reiterated the flood of memories we shared. So many evenings in 1994 he and I sat up until the daylight began poking through the windows of the apartment we shared, waxing philosophic about the nether regions of consciousness. But it was more than that. It was not just two friends giggling as our brain cells began the painful transition into death, being “deep” and “groovy” and “intense, man.” The circuitous journeys we took as we verbally sparred, making connections, creating then abandoning then re-creating multiple hypotheses, finding meaning in a single sentence or line of a poem – a well placed comma that tied an entire work together – always came back around until all of the holes were filled. The words not quite enough to contain the excitement – the very urgency of trying to get “it” all out – from awed, hushed muted whispers to wild gesticulating as yet another seamless connection was made. And of course, Kesey was a part of those talks – the very center of them, really. How appropriate. We felt a bond, there. Not merely a chemical bond, but one of respect for the better craftsman, “il miglior fabbro.” And we understood.
Then there was the time at the Aladdin Theater in Portland that Keith recalled. I think he put it best when he said we “saw Kesey, Babbs, Krasner and others swirling off a bottle of literature under the auspices of the Prankster reunion.” It was beautiful – a cadre of neo-hippies in the audience who had come to see this acidic living legend, probably hoping to be led like rats following the Pied Piper into a new drug-induced frenzy, a new cutting edge chemical that would be spirituality in a pill… And the Pranksters were aware of this, one could tell – if you looked just right. It was the Ultimate Prank. Right?
I believe this part of a 1971 interview sums it up. Kesey said:
“But, I’ll tell you, Paul, these are too-hard questions. I don’t like the sound of me answering too-hard questions….. I’m not qualified. No more than I’m qualified to make judgements regarding other people’s karmic state or depth of their revolutionary commitment. But I’m easy; some kid with big eyes and a notepad could come up to me and ask how the universe was created and if he looks like he thinks I know pretty soon I think I know and I’m running it down to him like the gospel. I’m easy but in no fucking way qualified!”
After the “show,” Keith and I milled around to talk to them. We waited until most of the audience had cleared. I said hi to Kesey, and we chatted only for a moment, and then Keith descended on him and they spoke for a considerable amount of time, obviously enjoying each other’s company. I cornered Ken Babbs. He and I spoke for about 15 minutes or so, and by the end we were laughing together like we had known each other for years. Comfortable.
In 1995 Keith and I had another late night evening. This time fueled by trace amounts of psylocybin. When the phone rang at 9 am and we heard the message that Jerry Garcia had died, I laughed and said that I had spread that rumor in high school, too. Keith looked at me and shook his head and said it was not a rumor. We were stunned. It was August 9. What made it so poignant was all night we had been discussing the connection between Keez and the Dead. Going so far as to say without Keez, the Dead probably would not have even happened, and the world would have missed out on a very “fascinating” time in history – a once in a lifetime era. It was an airtight argument.
And then there was the time in 1996 at the first Furthur Fest in Veneta, Oregon. Small doses of mushrooms and ahyuasca all day – to maintain the buzz. In comes “The Bus” with Keez on top and the Pranksters all around. The beauty as he assisted with a wild performance of Gloria – his face beet red as he jumped up and down yelling “G-L-O-R-I-A!” Laughing. Another joke. He disappeared, poof! Just like that.
Just like now.
And I suppose that it would be strangely appropriate, almost eerie, to recall what he said in the middle of a Grateful Dead show in 1991, after Bill Graham had died. Quoting ee cummings, he said “How do you like your blueeyedboy now mr. Death?”
Can you tell me?
Keith put it this way: “our heroes are fleeting…. the threads of our chemical past may fade from the culture, but they will always be woven into the fabric of my days.”
© 2001 Timothy Vincent Delaney
12 November 2001