November 12, 2001
Furthur took Ken Kesey on a long trip
Appreciation: The 'Cuckoo's Nest' author will likely be remembered most for his counter-cultural activities.
By Michael Hill
Ken Kesey was a writer, but he will forever be known not for what he wrote, but for what was written about him.
Kesey, who died Saturday at 66, authored a very well-known novel -- One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, in 1962. Its depiction of the confrontation between a rigid nurse and the mental patients under her care has much to say about the challenges to authority that characterized the '60s. But that story will forever belong to Jack Nicholson, who starred in the 1974 movie that Kesey reportedly refused to see.
Kesey also wrote a well-respected multi-generational tome, Sometimes a Great Notion, in 1964. It is about a family of loggers in his native Oregon. But lacking any resonance with Kesey's counter-cultural stance, it made only a minor impact. Though its movie starred Henry Fonda and Paul Newman, it is hardly remembered.
What established Kesey's place in the American cultural iconography was a book written by Tom Wolfe, then a young proponent of the so-called New Journalism that espoused combining a clearly subjective viewpoint with extensive objective reporting.
Wolfe's second book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, came out in 1968. San Francisco had its Summer of Love the year before. Chicago had its riot-scarred Democratic National Convention that year. All of America wondered where these long-haired crazies had come from, including many of the long-haired crazies themselves.
Wolfe's book told the story of Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters who spread the word of mirth and drugs from their California home to wherever their multi-hued bus -- with "Furthur" painted in the destination slot -- traveled. "Are you on the bus?" became a standard question to find out which side of the polarized cultural divide you were on.
Those who said they were on Kesey's side pored over the book as a historical artifact that explained the origins of the customs many now took for granted. The essential trip of Furthur took place in 1964. Like millions of Americans, the Merry Pranksters were headed for the New York World's Fair.
America was a different place in 1964, dealing with what it thought were major domestic disruptions -- the protests of the Civil Rights movement and the recent assassination of John F. Kennedy -- but little realizing it was on the cusp of even greater confrontations.
In 1964, a bus crazily painted in Day-Glo colors making its way across the country was not some retro-chic number dreamed up by an advertising agency to appeal to baby boomers. It was something no one had seen before.
Wolfe had yet to adopt his scathing skepticism about the proponents of these cultural changes -- that would come later with 1970's Radical Chic, a withering view of a party thrown by Leonard Bernstein to benefit the Black Panthers. In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, there is a feeling that Wolfe thought Kesey and company were on to something that was, at least, quite interesting.
At the center of it was the drug lysergic acid diethlyamide, better known as LSD. Kesey had first discovered LSD in 1959 when, as a graduate student at Stanford, he volunteered for some medical drug tests. He was given LSD along with other hallucinogenic drugs and recorded his observations for the doctors. He also smuggled out plenty of tablets and distributed them to friends.
Kesey credited LSD with giving him the insight to write One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
There was no drug war in 1964, only a few minor skirmishes. Marijuana and heroin were the province of jazz musicians, confined mainly to the black community, thus of minor interest to the white authorities. The drug culture as such did not exist. Though there was always a hedonistic side to the growing drug experimentation, those trying LSD were probably seriously reading Aldous Huxley's Doors of Perception about that writer's encounters with the hallucinogenic plant peyote.
The electric Kool-Aid in Wolfe's title was LSD-spiked punch that Kesey and crew served at gatherings that were some combination of bacchanalian festival and religious encounter group. The test was how you handled what you saw when LSD opened your doors of perception.
Despite Wolfe's admiring interest, you can find the seeds of the counter-culture's destruction in the pages of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. One of the Merry Pranksters, a young woman who spends most of her time nude in the back of the bus, simply goes crazy. Others start to spend more and more time on speed, the addictive amphetamines that were soon to spell the demise of the Haight-Ashbury, the San Francisco neighborhood that had been the center of the peace-and-love movement. There is an alliance with the Hell's Angels, the oft-violent motorcycle gang whose killing of a concertgoer at a 1971 Rolling Stones performance near San Francisco is sometimes marked as the end of the flower-power era.
In cultural terms, Kesey was the bridge between the beats of the '50s and the hippies of the '60s. Neal Cassady, who was the model for Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac's On the Road, was the driver of Merry Pranksters' bus. As the name on that bus implied, Kesey was interested in taking the beats' rebellion against '50s conformity further, adding to it a joyous playfulness that represented a more fundamental revolution.
The cross-country journey of Furthur was supposed to link the two coasts, joining the Merry Pranksters with Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg and the other proponents of LSD in the East. But when Furthur journeyed to Leary's compound, Kesey and company were snubbed. Those East Coast guys were not hip; they did not dig the clothes Kesey and crew wore. The now amphetamine-fueled pranksters headed back west.
Kesey belongs forever in that moment of the mid-'60s when it seemed to some that something truly different was about to happen, before the despair of drugs and the polarization of politics tore so much of it apart. For the past 35 years, Kesey had continued to write a bit, teach at his alma mater, the University of Oregon, and, in part, live off being Ken Kesey, hippie avatar.
It is when you remember how different America was in 1964 that you realize Kesey was part of something important. The best part of Kesey's Garage Sale, a rather pathetic 1973 volume he published, is the introduction by Arthur Miller. The playwright makes clear he doesn't buy this Age of Aquarius stuff, warning that "the tension with evil has no end, or when it does the man has died within."
But he doesn't discard the movement that Kesey had come to represent. "Nevertheless, when I loft back to what life was like in the thirties and see from that long-ago vantage point what is happening these days, I stand in the glistening presence of miracles." He goes on to list a variety of things he thought he would never see. Small environmental victories. Challenges to authority. "The stock market drops on rumors of war and soars on signs of peace."
As for Wolfe, he was to the Merry Pranksters as jeans-maker Levi Strauss was to the Gold Rush of 1849 -- the only one to make serious money off the deal. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test established Wolfe as a cultural commentator, allowing him to turn a jaundiced eye on whatever came down the cultural pike. His 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities was a scathing commentary on the shallow consumerism of that decade's stock market millionaires.
Kesey must have been pleased.