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.
After a couple of months, we finished the Supplement and had a big party. Somebody brought a tank of nitrous oxide to help celebrate. Kesey suggested that in cave-dwelling times, all the air they breathed was like this. “There are stick figures hovering above,” he said, “and they’re laughing at us.”
“And,” I added, “the trick is to beat them to the punch.”
* * *
I interviewed Kesey for The Realist at my new home in San Francisco—each of us using an electric typewriter on my dining-room table, passing paper with questions and answers back and forth—but first he boiled a pot of hash tea for creative fuel.
Kesey and I had discussed the fact that, during the ’60s, when abortion was illegal, I ran a free underground referral service. Now I typed: “Since you’re against abortion, doesn’t that put you in the position of saying that a girl or a woman must bear an unwanted child as punishment for ignorance or carelessness?”
He replied: “In as I feel abortions to be probably the worst worm in the revolutionary philosophy, a worm bound in time to suck the righteousness and the life from the work we are engaged in, I want to take this slowly and carefully,” and he proceeded to type a long, poetic justification.
Krassner: Well, that’s really eloquent and misty-poo, but suppose Faye [his wife] were raped and became pregnant in the process?
Kesey: Nothing is changed. You don’t plow under the corn because the seed was planted with a neighbor’s shovel.
Krassner: I assume that it would be her decision, though?
Kesey: Almost certainly. But I don’t really feel right about speaking for her. Why don’t you phone and ask?
I then—uncomfortably—called Faye Kesey in Oregon and reviewed that dialogue. She asked, “Now what’s the question—If I were raped, would I get an abortion?”
“That about sums it up.”
“No, I wouldn’t.”
A couple of years later, Kesey would change his position. He had become pro-choice. “I believe that a woman’s reproductive rights are inextricable from her freedom in general,” he explained. “She should have control of her body as well as her mind.”
In 1985 I moved to Venice Beach, but in October 1989 Kesey and I somehow found ourselves visiting New York without a place to stay. I remembered that my then–literary agent, John Brockman, was a big fan of his work. So Kesey waited on a bench in Central Park while I searched for a telephone booth (BC—before cellphones) and called Brockman. We stayed at his home that night. Kesey had recently completed a collaborative writing project with a group of students at the University of Oregon, and he was searching for some words to leave them with to fire their intensity. Now Brockman asked him to speak to his literary gang, the Reality Club. He did:
As I’ve often told Allen Ginsberg, you can’t blame the president for the state of the country; it’s always the poets’ fault. You can’t expect politicians to come up with a vision, they don’t have it in them. Poets have to come up with the vision and they have to turn it on so it sparks and catches hold.
What’s the job of a writer in contemporary America right now? I’m not sure. But here’s an example. We started off with what not to do.
You’re going to be walking along on the street one of these days, and suddenly there’s going to be a light over there. You’re going to look across the street, and on the corner over there, God is going to be standing right there, and you’re going to know it’s God because he’s going to have huge curly hair that sticks through his halo like Jesus, and he’s got little slitty eyes like Buddha, and he’s got a lot of swords in his belt like Mohammed.
And he’s saying, “Come to me. Oh, come to me, I will have muses say in your ear that you will be the greatest writer ever, you will be better than Shakespeare. Come to me, they will have melon breasts and little blackberry nipples. Come to me, all you have to do is sing my praises.”
Your job is to say, “Fuck you, God! Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you!”
Because nobody else is going to say it. Our politicians aren’t going to say it. Nobody but the writer is going to say it. There’s a time in history when it’s time to praise God, but now is not the time.
Now is the time to say, “Fuck you, God, and the Old Testament you rode in on. I don’t care who your daddy was. Fuck you!”
And get back to your job of writing. The job of the writer is to kiss no ass, no matter how big and holy and tempting and powerful.
* * *
Twenty-two years after Tom Wolfe published The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, mythologizing the cross-country trip of Ken Kesey and his Band of Merry Pranksters, they were once again driving the psychedelic bus Furthur (originally deliberately misspelled, a combination of further and future) from Kesey’s farm in Oregon to Washington, DC, where he was to deliver it to the Smithsonian Institution.
On a Saturday morning in November 1990, I flew from Venice to San Francisco to join the pilgrimage. The original Furthur, a 1939 International Harvester bus, was still resting in peace at Kesey’s farm, a shell of a shell, metal rusting and paint fading, a psychedelic relic. The bus I boarded now was a 1947 International Harvester. The Grateful Dead had donated $5,000 for a sound system, which was blaring out Ray Charles’s “Hit the Road, Jack” as we left San Francisco.
This version of Furthur had been deemed the Most Historical Float in the Oregon Fourth of July parade. It was painted by fifteen individuals starting in April. The result was a magnificent visual feast. A Sun God with refraction discs so the eyes followed you. A totem pole and a tiger. Adam and Buddha. Pogo and Silver Surfer. A lizard following Dorothy and her companions down the yellow-brick road—referred to as the Lizard of Oz. A banner on the side of the bus warning, Never Trust a Prankster.
Pedestrians flashed the V-sign and the Star Trek signal. Drivers waved and honked their horns. A police car was behind us, and the cop inside it used his megaphone to call out, “Good luck on your journey.” Our hood ornament was a beautiful sculpture of a court jester holding a butterfly net, named Newt the Nutcatcher, with a profile resembling Neal Cassady, legendary driver of the original Furthur.
On the inside, a picture of Cassady watched over the current driver, Kesey’s nephew Kit, who refused to wear a taxicab driver’s cap. Kesey’s son Zane was also on the crew, so the trip had a strong sense of continuity. Altogether there were twelve males plus one female, a 23-year-old Deadhead who got on the bus in Berkeley instead of going to a Halloween party dressed as Pippi Longstocking.
Lee Quarnstrom, who had quit his job as a reporter to join the original Pranksters, was covering this event for the San Jose Mercury-News. Quarnstrom and Kesey had something awful in common. They had each lost a son. Eric Quarnstrom had been shot in a meaningless street encounter. Jed Kesey was killed in an accident when the van carrying his wrestling team skidded off a cliff. I had just come offstage at the Wallenboyd Theater when the producer of my one-person show, Scott Kelman, said he had to tell me something. I assumed it was about my performance—Scott always gave me complete freedom and helpful feedback—but now he was telling me about Jed. Scott had held back from telling me before my performance.
I was shocked. Jed and I had a special relationship. I flew to Oregon. Faye was stalwart, but Ken was shaking with emotion as we embraced. “You were his favorite,” he sobbed. Kesey had always been against seat belts—“They sanction bad driving”—but after this tragedy he would campaign for legislation that would require vehicles to have seat belts, the kind that might have saved Jed’s life. For now he had only unspeakable grief. “I feel like every cell in my body is exploding,” he whispered.
During the reunion bus trip, Quarnstrom and Kesey talked with each other about their mutual tragedy for the first time, in the kitchen at Wavy Gravy’s house in Berkeley.
“I think about Eric every day,” said Quarnstrom.
Kesey said he thought about Jed every day, adding, “And it’s appropriate that we should.”
Meanwhile, a color photo of the bus had appeared in Time magazine, and an employee at the Smithsonian immediately recognized it as not being the original Furthur. Their spokesperson issued a statement: “The current bus he is using is not even close to the original. Even if it were, the Smithsonian is not interested in a replica.”
Kesey was aghast. “I don’t think of this bus as a replica,” he said. “The Smithsonian—they want to clone the other one from the carburetor, which is about all that’s left of it—the way they wanted to do in that Woody Allen movie Sleeper, when they only had the nose for that. And they wanted to put on new metal, new chassis, new motor, and hire some artists to paint, you know, they’re going to restore it, and I thought, ‘In what form?’
“Are they going to go back to when it was bright red and we all drove it into Berkeley on Vietnam Day with swastikas and Stars of David and American flags all over, with guns stickin’ out of the top? Or when we went to New York with Pop Art stuff on it? It’s had dozens of different permutations. If they really want to restore it, they’ll take it back to yellow.
“But the thing about the Smithsonian is that I’ve never spoken to them. They’ve been dealing with some rich people up in Portland—they wanted me to give them the bus—they’re going to fix it up and donate it to the Smithsonian. My metaphor for this is that they’ve also been negotiating for Tom Selleck’s dick, but they haven’t mentioned it to Tom.”
Actually, Kesey confided in me, the original plan was never to deliver the bus to the Smithsonian. “I always knew we wouldn’t carry this prank too far,” he said, adding in mock shock, “That’s not the real Elvis!” Never trust a prankster, indeed.
* * *
“I’m so sad about losing Jed,” Kesey had told me. “It made me realize that when I die, it’s gonna make a lot of people sad.”
And when Kesey died on November 10, 2001, a lot of people truly were saddened. Some were sad because they had been affected and influenced by the books he wrote. Others were sad because they identified with and were inspired by the mission of Furthur and its inhabitants, the equivalent of wanting to run away with the circus. Still others were sad because they had been charmed by his charismatic zest for life. Family and friends loved him simply for who he was.
“My energy is what I do,” he once said. “My image is what other people think I do.”
And then there was his little granddaughter. “Now,” she asked plaintively, “who will teach us how to hypnotize the chickens?”