Ken Kesey - great American novelist, acid advocate, hippie and Merry Prankster - is coming to London. What's in store from the Guru Gung Ho?
Click to follow
DRIVING towards the Oregon farm where Ken Kesey is celebrating the 4th of July, I've been told to expect a control freak, a benign fascist. The warnings are insistent, but the facts are scant. The man I'm about to meet has been little more than a rumour for 30 years. The only way of guessing what he'll be like is to review his legend.

Born in 1935, he was taken hunting and fishing in the Oregon wilds by his father almost as soon as he could walk. He was a star high-school athlete, a rugged all-American. But his debut novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962), showed that wasn't all he was. It was a tale of the rebellious Randall McMurphy's duel with a mental hospital nurse, working on behalf of "the Combine", Kesey's metaphor for America's systems of control. Look at photos of the young Kesey, with his clumps of red hair: he is McMurphy. Cuckoo's Nest made him a star. His follow-up, Sometimes a Great Notion (1964), showed a talent a single novel could barely contain. Hallucinatorily intense in its vision of Oregon rivers and forests, its most remarkable achievement was its protagonist, the logger Hank Stamper, whose super-human will surged against everyone except his family, whom he strained to raise on his god-like shoulders. The charismatic force of both books made Kesey seem certain to scale the American novel's peaks. But by 1964, Kesey had left literature behind.

It was by volunteering for a medical experiment in 1959 that Kesey's second legend began. He was given LSD, one of the first few dozen to experience it. He felt his mind break open. And, as messianic as his characters, he wanted to spread the word. By 1964, he had gathered a community of like minds around him: the Merry Pranksters, acid acolytes. The Hell's Angels joined the wildness, Allen Ginsberg anointed it, the Grateful Dead formed in it. Somewhere in this proto-commune's day-glo maw, hippie culture began. The commune could not contain it. A school-bus was bought, painted in a fountain of colours, then rigged to relay sound inside and out: a sensory bomb. The bus was called Further. Neal Cassady, Kerouac's model for On the Road's speed-talking hero, appeared to drive it. Its voyage was filmed, for an uneditable movie. Soon, Kesey was running Acid Tests in San Francisco, multi-media sound-and-light shows to aid hallucination. He was the counter-culture tribe's first chief. Tom Wolfe's book The Electric Kool- Aid Acid Test (1968) made his legend permanent. Flash-forward through all the art that spun on that axis, from Nic Roeg's cinema to rock 'n' roll, to the Ecstasy-anointed sound-and-light of raves and club culture. Ken Kesey lit the fuse.

In 1967, Kesey served six months for a marijuana bust. Neal Cassady, the embodiment of his best hopes, died the next year. Kesey retreated to his brother's Oregon farm with his wife, Faye, and raised his family. The Pranksters regrouped around him. They're still there. In a story about Cassady, "The Day After Superman Died", in the collection Demon Box (1986), Kesey characterised himself as "the Guru Gung Ho with his eyes raw, begging for some banner to carry on with". "What's the Good Old Revolution been doing lately?" a right-wing friend taunts. "Losing," he sags. In a piece on John Lennon's death, Kesey sees a darkening world of violence, closing in on his Oregon home. Two subsequent, slackly written novels, Sailor Song (1992) and Last Go Round (1994), show no return of Kesey the Great American Novelist. This week, he'll be in England for the first time since John Lennon invited him in 1968. No-one knows what he'll do. No one knows what's left of the man who changed the world. What has the Good Old Revolutionary been doing? What has become of the Guru Gung Ho ?

As I walk across Prankster Ken Babbs's yard, I see him immediately. Ken Kesey is a white-haired 62-year-old with a white beret, faded stars-and- stripes T-shirt, red-and-white striped shirt, Uncle Sam tie, cream slacks and self-painted stars-and-stripes trainers. His once bull-strong frame is carrying a little extra weight. He's surrounded by friends and family. A band is tuning up on the porch. Kesey looks content till I approach, after 20 hours and 6,000 miles of travel, specifically for this moment.

"You're Nick from England?" Kesey enquires, put out. "I didn't know you were coming."

And for the rest of the overcast afternoon, I am Pranked. Kesey seems to have no intention of being interviewed. Instead, he perches on hay- bales, inviting approach, like a motorist snickeringly waiting for a hitch-hiker. Then he darts off, to play games with children, or front some kind of performance-art acoustic-blues with his band; or to fire a Revolutionary War cannon into the sky.

The supporting cast, too, disappoint. George Walker, described as a kindly, blonde-haired boy in Acid Test, strolls up, screened by cowboy hat and silver shades. He starts telling me about the time Mick Jagger stayed on his yacht. Then he starts telling me about the coming Computer Bug Apocalypse. "I'm keeping a little money in the bank, in case there's a percentage-point computer error," he says. "I just need one more generator, and I'll be safe." Another old head talks about him and Kesey arranging "Timmy Leary's last trip". Everybody knows everybody there ever was to know. These were once the counter-culture's elite. They felt lightning bolts shoot from their fingers, and Acid Tested themselves till they broke. But now they're middle-aged hippies at a barbecue.

The gap between Walker's self-sufficient schemes and the survivalists in Oregon's hills feels slim. "Never trust a hippie," I think. "Never trust a Prankster," an old Kesey slogan preempts me. To confirm the point, Kesey is making for his car.

I clamber on board with photographer Bauguess, and Kesey snakes slowly home. His farm is invisible in the dark. Asked if it might be possible to sit and talk now, he's so delighted his interviewer has finally snapped, that he agrees to sit still. He's still not interested in revealing anything. Most direct questions are brushed aside. And yet, in a way he becomes generous. He doesn't want to reveal who he is. But he's happy to show me what he's done.

"This is coming out next year," he says casually, and shows me the luridly- coloured illustrations and scrawl-inked words of his Jail Journals, 30 years old. "I left them in jail, but somehow my writer friend Robert Stone found them again. It makes you realise the whole look of stuff back then: psychedelic, flower-child, tie-dyes." He laughs fondly, leafing through the old pages. "All this stuff. Look at that. Is that Sixties-esque or what?"

Step into another room, and a new Prankster bus sits gleaming, a lightning- bolt blasted across each fresh side, graffiti-influenced designs curling everywhere, sound systems laced for action. The Pranksters and their next- generation heirs have toured the West Coast in it; they plan to raid Europe at a later date. It's one explanation for what Kesey's been doing since he vanished. "We had five real hard years, everybody working, and we got it in pretty good shape. When people ask what I think my best work is, it is this without a doubt."

We move into a further room, and an intricate computer system. It's bracketed by shelves full of video-tapes marked "Cassady", and others of the bus's journey (when Kesey and Babbs reach London, parts of this will be screened). Elsewhere in the house are a tumble of snapshots of Pranksters and associates; a flood of simply stored memories. But the centrepiece for Kesey is his current obsession: the Internet. It's prompted what may be his final resignation as Great American Novelist.

"I'm not gonna bark after that dog any more," he says. "There's plenty of books. I don't want to be Stephen King, and just do that because I can. A lot of my writer friends were hard-ass solid revolutionaries, but somehow they got off on the mezzanine, and they started writing fiction and novels. I see the Internet as what's happening outside. This is the new way to speak, the way that the shaman always would. I think it's very righteous, because it's mechanical, nothing else. It's not insidious. It's not a thing that's going to drain our minds."

As he talks, he is playing his latest work in this new medium across the computer screen: a play called Twister, an attempted deconstruction of The Wizard of Oz, with a cast of family and friends, and Kesey, in black and crowned with a top hat, as the Wizard of Oz; it's edited together from multiple performances, a process that's taken years. It's like watching home movies on loop. After a while, Kesey wanders off. He punches an intercom in his desk as he leaves. He comes back after silence has forced discussion of his play. It only dawns on me later, paranoia fine-tuned by the day's manipulations, that he may have heard every word. He isn't alone among Sixties figures in recording every facet of his life. Lennon and Ginsberg did it, too. So did Nixon.

If Kesey did hear, he doesn't seem perturbed. Instead, he begs to show me "one more thing before you go". The last treat this 62-year-old could- have-been-a-Grand-Old man leads us to is the Woozle Hole. He bends down, flashes his torch into a rabbit-like warren, and yells "Woozle !" After much anticipation, a spectral animal sound replies. Kesey can hardly keep his chuckles down as he leads us back to the house.

It's a sight that, the more I think of it, warms me to him. My concern for his creative frailties - the unimpressive play, the average recent novels - seems irrelevant. Kesey's role as Wizard of Oz seems a better clue to who he's become. Fooling and playing and doing what he wants, he doesn't even attempt his old mask of authority. Like Hank Stamper near the end of Sometimes a Great Notion, one of those heroes shouldering the hopes of others while cracking inside, he has let his burden slip. He can't quite get off the bus, can't quite leave his legend alone. But he no longer cares about feeding it. The effort of trying to find it has exhausted me. But I ask if we can talk again, tomorrow. And that's when the end of the rainbow is reached.

The next morning, the sun is blazing high over Oregon. Kesey suggests we might find somewhere shady to talk. We turn a corner, and Further is in front of us. Caked with rust, used as a chicken coop for years; but there it is. I sit on its schoolbus steps, Kesey uses a chunk of metal for a stool. His face looks suddenly noble and serious; his eyes are revealed as piercingly, beautifully blue. He has no more intention than before of revealing anything about himself. But as he talks, he does so with relish. He's in the centre of what he calls the "real sweet part" of Oregon. But the state has been darkened for him recently. It was in nearby Springfield that a teenager shot over 20 classmates dead. In an article in Rolling Stone, Kesey's anguish about his own raising around guns was obvious.

"I think it came out of something that was so connected to the settling of this country, that it was our birthright, it was our initiation ritual into manhood," he says with care. "That's valuable only if it's necessary. There's a time when every culture has to change its rituals, or they become just litanies. And when you're taking a life, if it doesn't mean something to you, you'll pay for it later.

"When Faye and I were first married, we needed meat, and I got a special permit to go elk-hunting. I saw a big old elk and shot her with a bow and arrow. The arrow went ss-ss, right through her, shot her right behind the shoulderblade. She just took off, and I headed off after her, following the blood, for hours, and finally found her, at the bottom of the deepest gully in the coastal range. Went ahead and cut her throat, right down, and then skinned her, and gutted her. And inside of her was a living foetus. I went back up to the car, way up the hill from her. And I had a meatsaw and butchering tools. So I was able to cut her into chunks, and carry her up. I started that morning not long after sun-up, and went on all day. I finally brought up everything except the skin, and I felt like that was enough ritual. The thrill of hunting has to separate itself from killing, because it's not necessary to kill any more."

Does he think the myths his country was founded on are running out of control ? That the Western stories he fuelled himself on as a child are inseparable from the Springfield killings that now haunt him? "Very much. It rises right out of that culture. For us not to admit this is the worst of sicknesses. We've had our dreams chained and processed, and fed back to us in a new form. There's a great division in the United States now. There are two cultures. One culture is very strong, got a lot of dollars and guns, interested in keeping people down and addicted. The other culture is smart enough not to get in its face. One of the great revolutionary things I've learned is how to grovel. Let people see that you're doing your best to obey their commands. Faye was up really early this morning preparing her Sunday school class. She knows that's the way for a revolutionary to survive. To do stuff that people who have no notion of drugs and have never read Kerouac can understand. Don't fly in their face with it. Don't try to browbeat them with your point of view. Like it says in the Ching, just agree with everybody, and pretty soon, who you are affects who they are."

Accordingly, Kesey has attempted a restoration of American balance in his own backyard. Deer and ducks and geese come to his farm to rest, because they know he won't kill them. He raises what he eats. Does he think of his farm as a sanctuary?

"A mission. There are various missions that we know of. Gus Van Sant's got a place up in Portland, a big mansion where all of his buddies go. You know that you can always go by Gus's if you want to, and find a refuge, and get out of the rain. These places are everywhere. When the Dead come around ... used to come around, they were always amazed that all of the hippies were still here. They'd come out of the hills. Good-looking, tall old guys with sun-beaten faces, smiling wives, 50 years old, four or five kids, trying to raise their own food, and still with that consciousness. You can't kill it. No matter how you try, it's gonna spring back up, because it's got life within it. You can harm it, and suppress it, but you can't really do it in. It's always there, and it's like Marlon Brando's horse in Viva Zapata! It's in the hills, waiting. It'll come back down."

Kesey chuckles, and gets ready to leave. But he shows me Further first.

"The Smithsonian wanted to buy it and restore it," he smiles, looking at its half-exposed engine and fatal rust. "It made me think of that Woody Allen movie, Sleeper, where they're going to restore the Fuhrer by his nose." He picks at the crusted frame. "As each little layer comes off, it drops down to another layer. That red stuff, I know that red stuff very well. That's when we did the Vietnam Day thing, painted it entirely red. Sometimes you can look clear down and - look at that, isn't that beautiful, the colours in there? The way it's coming apart ? To restore it, that's like saying, we're going to stop it here. You stop it here, you wouldn't even be seeing this."

I clamber up its steps, and peer through its empty windows. Everything's been left as it was. There are faded paintings of superheroes and lightning bolts, scattered seats. Every part of it looks solid as iron, as if the decay is actually holding it together. It's more impressive than the new bus, or than it could ever be in a museum. Like its creator, it's living, not a relic. Rusting, soaking up the times, it refuses to break or stop. Perhaps this is Zapata's horse. Hidden away, unbending, the secret, strong motor of the Guru Gung Ho's still firing, still infuriating faith.

8 Ken Kesey appears this week: Tuesday, signing at Tower Records, Piccadilly, 6.30pm. Weds, launch exhibition of the Jail Journals at 63 Charterhouse St, EC1. For details of Fri/Sat performances at the Barbican, see Events p23. The CD `Merry Pranksters Acid Test Vol 1' is available at all venues