Sunday November 11, 2001
End of the road for a Merry Prankster
Ken Kesey, whose LSD-fuelled bus ride across America personified the psychedelic counterculture, dies at the age of 66
by Vanessa Thorpe
Ken Kesey, the influential American author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, died yesterday at the age of 66 in a hospital near his farm in Oregon.
The writer, who helped create the image of the Californian hippie and who was celebrated in the 1960s for his experimental high-living, had been suffering from cancer.
After writing his most famous novel at the age of 27 and then following up quickly with the acclaimed Sometimes a Great Notion in 1964, Kesey gave up serious writing for almost three decades.
A founder member of the subversive group the Merry Pranksters, he drove around America in a brightly painted bus called Further and established himself as one of the key figures of the psychedelic counterculture. The trip was inspired by Jack Kerouac's travelogue On the Road and Kesey took along Kerouac's former sidekick, Neal Cassady, as his driver.
The Pranksters' adventures - or 'happenings' - included gate-crashing a Unitarian Church conference and even staging Kesey's own apparent death. Their legendary journey, ostensibly to visit the World Fair in New York and to mark the publication of Sometimes A Great Notion, was chronicled by Tom Wolfe in his 1968 account The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Last year some rediscovered footage of the trip shot by Kesey and his friends was released. It had been intended to release it as a film at the time, but the sound system the group used was powered by the engine of Further and so it slowed down whenever the bus did. The reclusive Kesey sold the restored first instalment of the film, Journey to the East, via his website intrepidtrips.com last year. He was working on turning the footage of the odyssey into a trilogy and had been intrigued by the idea that the internet could be used as a medium to broadcast performance art.
Kesey was born to a devout Christian family in La Junta, Colorado, in 1935. At the local high school he attended, he was admired both as a champion wrestler and as the student 'most likely to succeed'. The path to that success was about as unconventional as it could have been.
After winning a fellowship to a prestigious creative writing course at Stanford University in 1959, Kesey spent much of his time volunteering to take part in experiments on mind-altering drugs, including mescaline and LSD, at the Menlo Park Veterans Administration Hospital. During this time he wrote a first draft of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, his powerful and allegorical study of the oppressive regime in a psychiatric ward. The book, a financial as well as a critical success, was based on his experiences as an orderly in such a ward and it tells of the struggle between McMurphy, a rebellious inmate, and the authoritarian Nurse Ratched. In 1975 Milos Forman turned the novel into an Oscar-winning film starring Jack Nicholson.
In the mid-1960s a small band of admirers had grown up around Kesey's Palo Alto home, where he was famous for throwing wild, drug-fuelled parties and where he developed the fabled Acid Test. A sometime music impresario championing the elusive Age of Aquarius, Kesey enthusiastically promoted a band called The Warlocks, who later became the Grateful Dead.
Kesey later published a convoluted screenplay called The Further Inquiry. Other later works include a performance piece based on The Wizard of Oz called Twister and the bizarre allegorical novel Sailor Song, which features an environmental crisis, a middle-aged writer resembling Kesey, and a rock band called the Dreadful Great.
Kesey's death yesterday followed radical surgery to his liver. His condition was complicated by diabetes and a minor stroke he had suffered in 1997. Yet he continued to write until two weeks ago, said his friend Philip Dietz, who calls himself 'the last Prankster'.
He is survived by his wife, Faye, his son, Zane, and his daughters, Shannon and Sunshine, and three grandchildren. A nursing supervisor at Sacred Heart Medical Center in Eugene, Oregon, confirmed that the author passed away peacefully in his sleep. His family was with him when he died.
When asked recently by a journalist if he had any regrets about his colourful past, Kesey replied: 'Anybody who says they have no regrets is either a dimwit or a liar - probably both.'