High Times Greats: Ken Kesey

A mellowed Prankster recalls the good trips and bummers on the road.
High Times Greats: Ken Kesey
Ken Kesey by Brian Lanker

For the October, 1979 issue of High Times, Malcolm Cook interviewed Ken Kesey (1935-2001), who would have been 85 years old on September 17.

Author, Prankster, psychedelic pioneer, Ken Kesey is one of those rare writers who come along periodically who become better known than their work. His literary output is acclaimed but small—One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion—yet he so intensely lived what he wrote that Kesey the man became a far more exciting and inspiring figure to those growing up in the ’60s than any of his fictional heroes.

Born in 1935 in Colorado, Kesey has spent most of his life in rural Oregon, where his father managed a creamery. It was on a dairy farm owned by his grandfather that Kesey (who holds a pasteurizer’s license) claims he did the only legitimate work in his life. He graduated from the University of Oregon with a degree in drama and at one time hoped to become an actor. He was also a jock, a wrestler training to qualify for the Olympics who shunned drinking and smoking and never even thought about drugs.

His undergraduate prose earned him a Woodrow Wilson Foundation Fellowship to study creative writing at Stanford. He wound up living in the campus bohemian section, called Perry Lane. During his first days there, in 1960, Kesey, needing spending money, volunteered as a $75-a-day guinea pig at the Veterans Hospital at Menlo Park, undergoing experiments with new drugs. Across the continent, at Harvard, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert were first turning on to LSD.

At Menlo Park, Kesey joined the elite. Beginning with acid, he was given a wide spectrum of psychedelics including psilocybin, mescaline, peyote, IT-290, Ditran and morning-glory seeds. While his intellectual colleagues on Perry Lane continued their lofty discussions over glasses of cheap campus wine, the quiet Oregon rube was exploring inner space, coming on strong and vital, moving into the center of things. That experience, and a few subsequent peyote trips, inspired Cuckoo’s Nest, which was dedicated to the psychiatrist who turned Kesey on.

Kesey went on to pioneer recreational acid “happenings” with a band of psychedelic communications artists known as the Merry Pranksters, a series of adventures immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Shaping and savoring the lunacy of the ’60s, the Pranksters skirted the edge, from the festive ambience of free Grateful Dead concerts in San Francisco’s Cow Palace to drug paranoia in Mexico and murder at Altamont. It was too much to handle. Today, Kesey is back on his dairy farm in Oregon with his wife, kids and assorted animals. He has completed a new novel, The Demon Box, edits a small magazine called Spit in the Ocean, and says he is happy.

Though he moved out of the spotlight in 1970, Kesey was back in the news six years later when Milos Forman’s film of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest won six Academy Awards. The success was both elating and depressing. Kirk Douglas had bought the rights to the novel for peanuts in 1962, hired a hack to turn it into a play, produced it on Broadway (himself starring) to mixed reviews, then turned it over to his son Michael, who needed a job after his TV series The Streets of San Francisco got the ax. The younger Douglas produced the movie, which eventually earned Jack Nicholson $7.5 million. Kesey went to court, feeling entitled to a piece of the action. He settled for approximately $75,000.

Kesey takes a mellow, philosophical attitude to the incident and to all the madness that preceded it. Twenty years of smoking good dope will do that.

Tom Wolfe described Kesey as a handsome jock with thinning curly hair and a lumberjack’s build. That’s no longer the case. His hair is a fringe of gray on the sides and virtually nonexistent on the top. His belly sags a bit but never his personality. Ken Kesey remains vibrant, intelligent, funny, an expert at cooling bad vibes, a great talker. (continued on next page)

How do you feel about the acid-test days now?

Acid really relates back to the ’60s, when we thought the world was coming to an end. We painted a school bus red and put nationalistic signs all over it. We put two tubes on a moving turret on top and played military music, and we’d sing, “Bomb Vietnam, boys! Kill the gooks! Bomb Vietnam, boys!” And we’d drive through the middle of the towns of America, thinking we were bringing about the millennium. I still think the world is coming to an end, but I believe you’ve got to treat it like it isn’t. I can’t do a bunch of acid and go to a PTA meeting. Things have changed.

We got distracted by thinking we were going to win. We’re not going to win. It’s born for us to lose. We’ll always be the weird crew out on the edge of the majority who chose to go crazy. One of the ways I like to think about it is a story Dick Alpert (Baba Ram Dass) told me. A rabbi in ancient times comes to a king and says, “There’s a poison on the wheat, a blight, a strange fungus. When you eat it you go crazy.” The king says, “That’s terrible!” The rabbi says, “I thought you’d say that, so I gathered all the good wheat and have it stashed so you and I have got enough to last until the next crop.” The king says, “But since I’m the king of these people and you’re their rabbi, don’t you think we should eat the same wheat so we’ll know what they’re going through?” The rabbi pondered and answered, “I thought you’d say that, so I also brought some of the blighted wheat. But before we eat it, what do you say we make a mark on our foreheads, so when we see each other later on the street we’ll know that we chose to go crazy, whereas everybody else is just crazy.”

What are you doing now?

Living on a farm outside of Eugene, Oregon, in a little place called Pleasant Hill. We have about 67 acres, 30 cows, sheep, more horses than I care to think about, cats proliferating in all directions, kids, the PTA… the whole catastrophe! I’m trying to maintain the whole syndrome with the rep Tom Wolfe left hanging on me.

What was the turning point? When did you decide to change, to return to your roots, move to a farm in Oregon?

Nineteen sixty-nine—a bad year. Just out of jail; Altamont, Manson, a bunch of bad stuff… STP. I remember taking STP once. I was in a room with all my family and all my friends, and we realized if we didn’t really keep track of each other, we’d lose somebody. It lasted 30 or 40 hours. But we stuck it out and stayed together. This one guy that was with us kept saying, “No matter which way you turn, there you are.”

Another time I took it with an old black buddy who’s a good old alchemist and dope dealer from a long time back, and he and I ended up at a hot springs. Hours and hours went by and I got to looking at his hand. You can tell when you’re getting a brilliant whip from psychedelics. All you can do is say, “My God! Look at the picture.” His hand was like a great glob of black ice hanging in the mist….

There you are, two days, three days, pretty soon your eyes are going. You stand against the wall. You go through the door and you go near the edge. I realized that everybody knew something they didn’t know they knew—and I had forgotten; I had lost it.

Atoms bouncing off the atoms of my hand bouncing off the atoms on the table, and there was no difference. There was nothing around but this sweep of things moving through emptiness. I got panicked all right, but I knew that between these atoms things are tasty and worthwhile. Then I did one of the smartest things I ever did. I got my whole family and we went to England.

What I feel as I think back on it is that when we took the acid, we cut off our time sense of past and future. We said, “We are here. Let’s quit thinking about what we’ll be doing an instant from now. Or next week.” And, there we were, bobbing along. Finally, after being here for a long time we looked out and saw a light, or at least perceived something we thought was a light, and said, “Well, nothing else to do. Let’s head for this light.” We reached for the tiller and it was gone.

I got this sense that I had lost something. When I was in England, going to Stonehenge, seeing things that are old, churches that are old, seeing people who have been doing the same gypsy trips for the past six generations, I began to find it again.

I was sitting smoking a joint in a churchyard and I saw this 400-year-old grave, grass growing through the cobblestones, and I looked across the street at this little kid riding a bicycle. He fell off the bike in the grass. And it all came back to me. I remembered it again. The only way I can verbalize it is that I realized that the guy in the grave was not gone. Just his flesh is gone. But his spirit, there’s no way you can stop it. In spite of what Shakespeare says, it isn’t the good that’s interred with the bones. It’s the shit. The spirit continues. I maintain these spirits are not getting their due and haven’t for quite a while, because we don’t acknowledge the past enough.

A lot of people who had those kinds of experiences in the late ’60s got involved in the “born again” movement in the ’70s. What are your reactions?

I really object to the notion of someone being “born again.” In the Seth Speaks books [Seth Speaks and The Seth Material, written by Ouija-board medium Jane Roberts] this spirit speaks through a 47-year-old woman. I don’t care for the writing, but I do believe it. There have been psychics who drew pictures of Seth. He’s bald and looks like Genet. Anyway, one time they asked him about people who took acid, and he said, when you take acid you get right down to the kernel of your consciousness and start over again. What comes back may be healthier and clearer, but it’s always a little suspicious of you because you took this acid and killed the former ego. How does the new ego know that you ain’t gonna do it again?

Now, don’t get me wrong, acid ended the Vietnam War. It wasn’t marijuana, it wasn’t heroin. Acid was a blessed thing, a powerful thing. But the whole notion of taking it with an idea that you’re seeking this ego death…. A lot of people did that, and a lot of people who say they are “born again” do that. It’s like a guy I know who married six women. To be the seventh wife of this guy, you’ve got to mistrust him a little.

Well, that’s how I feel about the idea of being “born again.” I’m suspicious. I mean, who we are is what we are. I’m the first Kesey to complete high school, let alone go to college. How did that come about? My Okie parents put it all together. They got me into college and got me an education. How can I suddenly, by some acid flash or religious conversion, discard all that, turn my back on all that and say I’m born again, and all that means nothing? All that means a tremendous amount.

You were reared a Baptist, weren’t you?

Yeah, but it was no big thing. It was church every Sunday, until one day the family was driving to church. We had a brand-new ’50 Dodge. A guy ran a stop sign and rammed us. The car was totaled. My Dad said, “That’s it!” and we never went to church again. I really appreciated that. It was not like his faith was diminished in any form.

The Fundamentalist revival won’t last. I think it began to disintegrate with Jim Jones. I believe in Christianity—One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is, among other things, a Christian book—but I know what happens. It’s a dangerous religion. All you have to do is stray a hair and, boy, you’re into some weird superstitions.

It seems that with just a few changes in the scenario, you might have turned into a Jim Jones. How did you steer clear of that?

It wasn’t that I chose not to. I’ve got a very good wife. She’s the keel to my boat. I can sail into strange waters and not turn over. I’ve got some kids I care for. I’ve got land that’s important to me. I’ve got friends whose opinions I respect. The traditional things. I think I was given all those opportunities and would have done it if I’d been alone, but I was lucky. I could have led a bunch of people into God knows what. Taking acid off in Crete, leaping off cliffs.

I often felt like I was in cross hairs. You’re talking up on a stage and you feel this momentary passing of cross hairs, like from a gun on a roof. When the cross hairs touch you, you feel powerful, but they’re still cross hairs, and if you stay up there long enough, someone’s going to off you. So I was really lucky in having a lot of good people to steer me through. That’s why I survived.

Do you think that, conversely, that’s why someone like Kerouac didn’t?

I really believe that poor Kerouac… it was not meant that he survive. He had a task to do and he completed it, like Marilyn Monroe—he Marilyn Monroe’d out. Sure, she could be 55 years old and doing Bette Davis bit parts. It’s what I call “the Hemingway hump.’’ Who can make it over the Hemingway hump?

But really, we should canonize Kerouac. He was a saint. As we know more about this guy, he took in whatever came to him, like a liver; he just distilled the venom, and what came out was holy and made sense, and the poisons and the venom stayed in him and he died of it. This guy could write poetry about stinking dog shit in Central Park and make you realize that it’s beautiful—that’s a gift.

What about Neal Cassady?

He was a phenomenon… a dope-taking energy phenomenon. Everybody who ran across him couldn’t help but write something about him or be affected by him. Once we were very strung out and stopped in an Oakland bar. There were four black guys standing a white guy against the wall, and they were ready to lower the boom because of something that was said. Everybody was waiting for the fight to begin, and the bartender was on the phone. Cassady sized it up immediately, reached in his pocket and said, “Hey! You want some gum? Have some gum!’’ Everyone got confused. By the time the cops got there everything was cool. What Cassady was doing was saying that there’s always a third alternative.

One time we took him to the hospital when he had something wrong with his shoulder. The doctor asked him if he was taking any medication, and Cassady answered, “Speed three times a day since 1948, sir.” At the end, he was living in Mexico with people he didn’t know too well. These guys got him doing stuff and got him out there on the edge. Then they dared him to count the railroad ties between where they were and the next village, which was 30 miles away. The railroad crew found him the next morning and took him into the hospital, where he died of hyperthermia. His last words were, “Sixty-four thousand, nine hundred and twenty-eight.”

We’ve got 57 hours of film of the Pranksters, which in a way is a film about Cassady. I’m trying to write a fictional frame around it so it’s not just a documentary. What we have is—somewhere in this Kafkaesque castle in the sky—we’ve got Cassady’s soul on the carpet. How does he fare in heaven? What he did in the ’60s, was it a good thing or a bad thing? I, of course, think it was a good thing. But that is the issue. Was he blessed, or was he a Jim Jones who just never got that big? I don’t think Hollywood has the answer in the film they’ve made from Carolyn Cassady’s Heartbeat. I’d rather crank out an eight-millimeter under-the-counter film than do that.

Since the Pranksters, among other things that have transpired, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was made into an Oscar-winning movie.

I never saw it, but from what I’ve heard, all I can think is it must be hard to make brass out of gold. My only feeling is that Jack Nicholson, all five feet five inches of him, got seven million bucks. I got about $75,000, which is still better than most writers get. Now Hollywood is thinking of making a movie of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test with Richard Dreyfuss playing me.

The book and the movie really went right to the public’s heart. Did you expect that all along?

I used to get off on thinking, “I’ve written a goddamn classic!” I don’t anymore. People are attracted to McMurphy because he’s a simple American character, he’s everybody. It’s an easy book. But one thing a lot of people don’t get is that the Chief is what makes it work. I started off with the Chief—Christ, the first three pages of that book I wrote on peyote!

People keep trying to relate Cuckoo’s Nest to some kind of Freudian craziness, seeing Nurse Ratched as a mother figure. The real thing behind it is that it’s about America… and it’s about what’s crazy in America. These people are crazy because they’re Americans. America is built around the Chief. What has gone wrong has gone wrong with him. It has to do with this American Dream character and with American guilt. That is what the issue is. It’s not just a fight—or love affair, really—between McMurphy and Big Nurse. The hero is the Chief.

When I was talking to the movie guys, I wanted it to be like The Cabinet of Dr. Cahgari—guys glued to the walls and droooooooooling… being really crazy! Being crazy ain’t like being in “Delta House.” Being crazy hurts way, way down. Without that agony, it’s really a shallow piece of shit. They didn’t want to go into that.

When did you first turn on to pot?

After I’d been high on acid. And I took acid before I ever got drunk. When I first tripped, I was a college wrestler. I was trying to get in the Olympics.

The first time I smoked grass was in the Veterans Hospital doing the acid experiments. There was a little guy on the ward, a jazz drummer who immediately made me for a dope smoker, even though I wasn’t. He turned me on. We used to stay up late at night watching black-and-white dive-bomber movies.

Marijuana’s good stuff. Marijuana’s about the most intelligent plant. Probably only peyote is more intelligent. We have all these plants around. This one you can roll into a joint and it will actually communicate with you. It’s a godsend, and means nothing but the best.

In all you’ve gone through, has there been some sort of central goal, something you were working toward?

Civilization has always been my revolutionary goal. I’m a fan of civilization. So it’s a drag when you’re in a place where there’s no sense of it. There are a lot of things that give you that feeling from the beginning of morning until the end of day. Traffic, pollution… each one of these things nags a little at who we are and makes it easier to go home and be violent or do dumb things.

Sometimes I think of myself as the “scope”—the medieval traveler who went from castle to castle, talking about how the previous place was doing, someone who reports on the progress and failures of civilization.

Sort of a 15th-century Walter Cronkite. What’s on the news today?

Well, there are three things that denote the fall of civilization: one is the solemn squeak of the leak of a radioactive nuclear plant, the second is the foam on the edge of a rabid dog’s mouth, and the third is the green glint of broken glass in the goddamn gutter.

When you see something lying broken, it means more than you’re just losing a two-cent deposit. It says something about the way society thinks. Something about the yin force, about the container and what it’s good for after it’s empty. If we develop a society that believes once something is emptied it’s worthless—it’s been used, so we throw it away and go on to the next one—it’s exactly like getting your rocks off and moving on to a new container. The amount of broken glass you see in the streets is the way you register on the civilized scale. As far back as human consciousness goes—and as far forward—broken glass will indicate that civilization is suffering.

You can also judge a civilization by how it defends the small from the big. I’ll tell you what we have to do. We’ve got to take the guns away from the cops. I’ve been shot at twice by cops. Both bad shots. But both of them really convinced me that I’m not nearly as likely to get killed by a crook as I am by a cop. We don’t need guns anymore. Electronics can cover it. There are little electric guns now that shoot projectiles with nets that can catch eight people. Besides, even if you get away, there’s nowhere to go. This is what we found out—me, Leary, Cleaver, Bobby Seale. Everybody eventually comes back. Anybody who wants any part of the action is going to do it here in America.

But you still think we’re heading for Armageddon?

I believe the world is coming to an end soon, but I also believe more firmly that you’ve got to go ahead and continue to live as though it’s going to go on forever, in the hope that your actions will keep it going. Like, I was eating dinner in a restaurant in New York a few days ago, and just as I finished dinner a guy across the room had a cardiac arrest. There were 60 people running around in circles shouting for cold compresses. I went over and picked him up and looked at him. He was green and gone. I listened to his heart. There was nothing happening. I laid him down. Pound, pound, pound. Still nothing. I start breathing in his slimy old New York mouth. Pound, pound, pound. He suddenly comes back to life!

Edgar Cayce [world-famous clairvoyant and prolific writer on paranormal phenomena] says California is due to fall into the sea, but I don’t think it will as long as a number of people who really love the land are saying, “Wait! I’m not ready to end this reality. The play is not over.” It also has to do with getting it right. I don’t want to fall into the ocean until it’s right. I want all the guys in white hats to get a big hand and the bad guys to get booed.

You believe in Armageddon with a happy ending?

That’s just the way it is. There’s a Hasidic saying: “How can anything that hurts be the answer?”

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