Although November marked the tenth anniversary of Ken Kesey’s death, he remains in my consciousness as a living touchstone. And 2012 will mark the fiftieth anniversary of his first book, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. “I wasn’t trying to write a novel,” he once told me. “I was trying to go all the way.” And all the way he did go, leading his Band of Merry Pranksters on a cross-country journey in the psychedelic bus recently memorialized in the film Magic Trip. That experience established him as a countercultural icon.
In 1970 publisher Stewart Brand invited me to come west and co-edit with Kesey The Last Supplement to the Whole Earth Catalog. When he told me that “Kesey said he’d do it if you would,” I replied, “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.”
There were a couple of hundred cartons in my Lower East Side loft, and I went through each one, throwing stuff away, saving an occasional item. I came upon this strange card, praising “The Anal Sphincter: A Most Important Human Muscle,” which “can differentiate between solid, fluid and gas.” I couldn’t decide whether to keep it, so rather than break my rhythm, I simply stuck it in my pocket. And in February 1971, I moved from New York to San Francisco.
Kesey had been in Palo Alto for a week when I arrived. He was sitting in the backyard at a table with an electric typewriter on it. His parrot, Rumiako, was perched on a tree limb right above him, and whenever Rumiako squawked, Kesey would type a sentence as though the parrot were dictating to him. Kesey looked up at me. “Hey, Krassner, I’ve just been sitting here, thinking about the anal sphincter.” I reached into my pocket, withdrew that message about the anal sphincter that I had transported 3,000 miles and handed it to Kesey. “My card,” I said. It was a mystically appropriate gesture for a new beginning.
Each morning, Kesey would come by the Psychodrama Commune, where I was staying. We’d have crunchy granola and ginseng tea for breakfast. Then, sharing a joint in an open-topped convertible, we would drive up winding roads sandwiched by forest, ending up at a large garage filled with production equipment. Kesey and I would discuss ideas, pacing back and forth like a pair of caged foxes. Gourmet meals were cooked on a potbellied stove. Sometimes a local rock band came by and rehearsed with loud amplification, drowning out the noise of our typewriters.
Kesey had been reading a book of African Yoruba stories. The moral of one parable was, “He who shits in the road will meet flies on his return.” With that as a theme, we assigned R. Crumb to draw his version of the Last Supper for our cover of The Last Supplement.
A pair of black women from the Jehovah’s Witnesses stopped by the garage one day, and within ten minutes Kesey had convinced them that where there’s talk of locusts in Revelation, it was really prophesying helicopters. Actually, he was a practicing Christian who also threw the I Ching every day as a religious ritual. When his daughter Shannon was invited out on her first car date, he insisted that she throw the I Ching in order to decide whether or not to accept.
Once he forgot to bring his family I Ching to the garage, and he seemed edgy, like a woman who has neglected to take her birth control pill, so I suggested that he pick three numbers, then I turned to that page in the unabridged dictionary, circled my index finger in the air and it came down pointing at the word “bounce.” So that was our reading, and we bounced back to work.