Remembering Ken Kesey

I was never in his revolution and was a confused writer to boot, but he took me in.

I met famous people as a journalist. I may have believed their fame would rub off on me.

It did not.

Not only did their fame not rub off on me, I may have antagonized them.

Ernie Anderson, aka Ghoulardi, Cleveland cult hero who’d gone on to voice-over success in L.A., bristled at my chirpy nervous questions and had to have resented my leaving out of my Plain Dealer Sunday Magazine feature my meeting Mickey Rooney, who happened to be in the same radio-station waiting room as Anderson and me. Rooney mimicked me, taking my pen and pad and squinting at me as he lobbed mock questions. Anderson dutifully shared about growing up in New England, how the Cleveland TV guys let him be a late-night schlock sci-fi movie host, doing beatnik shtick, but I feel to this day my piece was dry and could have been better.

I antagonized Russell Means. I not only interviewed him stoned but offered him grass. This is but one wincing memory that sustains my determination to stay straight. In my piece in FreeTimes, I disdained to voice outrage at the local baseball team’s racist caricature, mascot Chief Wahoo, that had graced helmets and jerseys for decades, though (I like to think I had a hand in this) it no longer does. I sent Means a sheaf of printed bylines that embarrasses me now. I have it on good authority this leader of the American Indian Movement was angry I didn’t march with the protesters at Opening Day for the ball team. I should have. At the time I just thought he was a celebrity, and I wanted to know him. It didn’t occur to me I had a larger responsibility, writing as I was for a left-leaning alternative weekly and putting on parade the collective feelings of a people that had been fucked around enough.

These experiences, and the shame, guilt, and anger they engendered, made me decide not to be a writer anymore.

But here I am writing.

A blog reader asked for this one. It’s about one of the last celebrities I met, Ken Kesey, author of two great novels, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion.

He was in Cleveland in 1997 as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum staged a “Summer of Love” retrospective. From a money standpoint it flopped due to utter lack of corporate sponsorship; Rolling Stone missed this or chose not to rub it in. There was poor Donovan having schlepped from England to stand on a little windswept stage in the Rock Hall parking lot on an unseasonably cold spring day, wondering, as he played what I would call a “still palatable repertoire,” why he’d agreed to come.

My interest in Kesey was as an adoring writer. Maybe it was Robert Stone who, upon Kesey’s death of liver problems some years later, said he could have been “a writer for our times” had he not chosen to lead the “revolution.” Look around at today’s political and cultural mess. See any revolution? Me either.

The lingo has been coopted. Black folks say “You trippin” when someone’s acting wacky. We talk about “drinking the Kool-Aid” to refer to imbibing something from a shared cultural well. We would never be the same once Tom Wolfe published The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test about Kesey, acid trips, and public theater.

I had one foot in AA and another in the shaky conviction I had “every right” to take drugs when I took the Shaker Rapid from my apartment to the lakefront to meet Kesey and collect enough to deliver a piece to FreeTimes. The Bus rolled in containing geriatric versions of Mountain Girl, George Walker, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Ken Babbs as well as Kesey himself. They had to have been disappointed in the turnout. I’d thought throngs would swell past the perimeter of the lot, but only a hardy, diminutive host surged about the bus. I heard one cop walking around amidst the marijuana smoke say, “I don’t even care.”

A Plain Dealer asshole, who’d been given the honor of getting on the bus in Chicago and riding in with the Pranksters, told me he’d seen Kesey dispatch a whole bottle of gin on the ride. He spoke dismissively of him.

I had cynical thoughts of my own. LSD had given me some beatific experiences, but it also was present at some of the worst moments of my life, such as when in high school I took it the same night I thought I might have a sexual dalliance with a pretty girl it still wounds me to remember. Traumatized as I was, I still took drugs. That’s drugs to me.

Maybe I just loved those books. Nobody captured the myth of the American male, the American hero, the way Kesey did. The plotting, characterization, use of voice, and other elements of that first, blockbuster novel are, to my mind, unparalleled, the tragic ending perfect. And if you want to read a book opening that’ll knock you out, open Notion, the waters crashing through coastal Oregon, setting up the stubborn bastard at the helm of the action.

For some reason Kesey took me in, disdaining to speak with any of the other journalists pressing about the bus. He had me up on the psychedelically painted ride where I clutched an undersize memo pad to scribble his responses. Both on the bus and off, he answered me and let me tail after him. He seemed wistful, distant, yet deeply intimate, and there for me.

What was he reading? Nothing really.

I mentioned William S. Burroughs.

“Oh, he’s a heavy, like … like Beckett.”

Hearing him speak in cosmic ellipses, I had the uncanny thought he was precisely the character portrayed by Wolfe in Kool-Aid, though in a rap to the crowd prefatory to him and the Pranksters’ garage-band rendition of “Gloria,” he compared Wolfe unfavorably with Hunter S. Thompson.

I suggested his just-released, long-awaited third novel, the “fishing saga” Sailor Song, which felt attenuated, stoned out, and seemed a statement against corporate ownership, might have benefited from a honed “social message.”

He sneered. “That’s … Royko. I’m a fiction writer. Fiction has to have magic.”

There ended that encounter. But wait. There’s more.

When Burroughs died I posted on a memorial web site my feelings about his work, which Kesey read! He would give me his feedback in a strange yet somehow heartening way.

Kesey made a return trip to the Rock Hall, and I was talked into going by some lady I had already met on the first trip there. She had, uh, known his eminence biblically sometime back in the day. She seemed to be living out a celebration of the Sixties, with “Crystal Ship” by the Doors tinkling in her outgoing message. But I went with her. I guess we both needed somebody to go with.

Kesey appeared in the proscenium to act out his children’s book Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear. Wearing costume, and impeccably prepared, he read out the story, playing all the voices. Then he spoke to the capacity crowd and in that speech wound up speaking to me! I guess in the small theater he saw me. I do not remember him calling my name, but when he talked about the piece I’d run in FreeTimes, including its horribly disingenuous ending, and then at length about my eulogy of Burroughs, taking me to task for blowing a fact – it was Beckett, not Tennessee Williams, who’d condemned the cutup method – I knew. I felt as much glow as shame, though there was some scolding in what he had to say. Here he was, speaking directly to me, risking the bafflement of all the others here, because he saw me as a writer.

That was enough. To teach me. And to humble me.

One thought on “Remembering Ken Kesey

  1. I will always think of you as a writer and remain envious of your command of the English language.  Ease up on yourself, life is too short.Sent from my Verizon, Samsung Galaxy smartphone

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