When I heard the unexpected news of Ken Kesey's death from liver cancer, aged 66, on the radio last Saturday, it didn't make me think of the 1960s, or his great debut novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962), or all the profound ways in which he changed the world we live in.
Certainly, Kesey's trip across America in the psychedelic bus Furthur in 1964, with his acolytes the Merry Pranksters, handing out acid like Johnny Appleseed, as well as the multi-media Acid Tests he conducted, make him a historic American hero to a degree that this week's tributes didn't grasp. The mental leaps he made in those hothouse years sparked California's counter-culture, which then re-routed the world: you can lay Acid Rock, hippie Hell's Angels, and the hippie dream-destroying Altamont concert at his door; hippie clothes and communal living, widespread LSD use and its shifting of consciousness; and today's dance culture, its combination of chemicals, light and sound a direct descendant of those long-ago Acid Tests.
But none of that mattered to me. I'd encountered Kesey in the last years of his life, after his 1968 retreat, with all his Pranksters, from a counter-culture that had aggressively shucked off his control. I met him first in 1998, on the Oregon farm where he'd formed a kingdom in exile. I met him for the last time in 1999, when he came to Britain in the month of the solar eclipse, with a new "magic" bus and his Pranksters in tow. There were whispers then that it would be Kesey's Final Trip, a last look at the world he'd slipped away from. So it proved.
The trip was flawed, ill-advised, and often embarrassing. It saw Kesey and 1990's Britain stare at each other in suspicious incomprehension. It was by all normal measures a failure, and never properly reported, either out of respect or dismay. The rapport I thought I'd gained with Kesey in Oregon collapsed in mounting tension and misunderstanding. His main creative act, a play called Where's Merlin?, to be performed on a Cornish cliff-side at Minack packed with tourists at the moment of the eclipse, was a jaw-dropping farce. At times, it was like watching the Wizard of Oz unmasked, stripped of his protections from the world. At others, we all waited for Kesey, in ways that made Godot seem punctual. But always, Kesey stayed true to himself. And, through all the chaos and frustration, in unexpected, lasting ways, this ageing American lion gave me the time of my life.
He'd been trouble from the moment I first saw him in Oregon. Standing with his best friend Ken Babbs, he still had the bull-strong frame of the young dynamo described in Tom Wolfe's memoir, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968). He was dressed in clothes hand-painted in stars and stripes, the king of a different America. I introduced myself, after 20 hours and 6,000 miles of travel. Kesey asked: "Who are you?" He then spent the day letting me approach with my tape recorder, before springing away to speak to anyone else. That night, he showed me his new bus, talking, but never really answering; exhausting me, keeping control. I felt I'd found my own Colonel Kurtz, and wasn't far wrong. But next morning, Kesey let me sit on the original Furthur, the counter-culture's rusting, symbolic Excalibur, while he told me stories, transfixing me with his voice and piercing eyes. This moment of undimmed, charismatic magic was one I kept in mind, through all that would follow.
Few noticed Kesey's contrariness and need for control on his subsequent, brief visit to Britain that year, or considered why he so rarely left his Oregon Prankster kingdom. Instead, a riotous reading with Ken Babbs at the Barbican led to plans for a full-scale bus journey across Britain, the next year. It would be 1964 all over again. Channel 4 screened a documentary joining the dots between this almost forgotten man and its E'd-up target audience. Britain's slick 1990s media machine had been oiled. And on the first day, in Brighton, the disaster began.
The new bus pulled into sight, tinnily blasting the Beatles' "Magical Mystery Tour" for a fanfare. Painted with skulls and doves, snakes and superheroes, it already looked weathered; the gleam I'd glimpsed the year before dulled into something deeper. The Pranksters and their grown children peered out like they were in a time capsule, or we were. In the spirit of Kesey-sparked happy accidents by which they lived, there had been given no warning of their arrival in Brighton. But buskers, hip Brighton youths and suspicious but quickly charmed kids soon clustered round. Kesey, looking tired to his heart, sat, shaking hands, signing books. A Prankster let locals explore the bus, permitting the controlled freedom that worked so well at home. And that's when the beatific scene, and the Final Trip's sunny hopes, were torn to shreds.
Two ragged, drink-stinking Brighton "crusties" – the hippie movement's dark, desperate grandchildren – refused to leave the bus, itching to shake its utopian system with violence. Babbs momentarily disarmed them with goofy charm. But it was the bus that had to leave, to strange taunts of "CIA!". It was a messy, depressing scene. Kesey, never a fool, had known such serpents were in his hippie Eden from the start. His collection Demon Box (1986) described fanged stragglers from Woodstock stalking his land, and armed punks walking towards his house. The almost secret Prankster kingdom he withdrew to had served to keep them out. Now, he had left it, and was among them.
When I followed him into Cornwall two days later, I still expected a freewheeling time. Jarvis Cocker, Howard Marks and techno-Pranksters the KLF were among the famous fans rumoured to be paying their respects. Though Cornwall was supposed to be almost sinking with people during the eclipse week, its lanes were in fact eerily empty. In the quiet, I composed the questions that would finish me with Kesey. Why had he really disappeared into Oregon, all those years ago? Why had he all but stopped writing? I thought of his comment on the 1968 death of his friend and Kerouac's On the Road-inspiration, Neal Cassady: "He pressed the edges all the way to the end." Had Kesey seen his fatal limit, and swerved? My friend Sarah, at the wheel, wanted to tell him about the rave culture she knew and he'd caused, to lure him into the present. We'd have three days and nights – the only reporters there. "We only need 15 minutes," I thought.
But in the Pranksters' campsite, the willingness to engage with the world was already gone. There were other people in the field. But each morning, the Pranksters roped more of it off. The bus was first. Supposed to ferry the Pranksters to eclipse festivals and Cornwall's mystic byways, it didn't move. "Don't get off the bus," was Kesey's 1964 dictum. Now, the bus was parked. Kesey could be seen each morning. But his bearing warned you off. Stasis had set in. The Trip had stopped.
Kesey did briefly speak to us outsiders, and stoked up some of the mesmerising energy I'd seen in Oregon – perhaps from lower embers than we realised, then. He talked of bombing Baghdad with LSD. He dismissed rock'n'roll: "I've heard all the loud guitar solos I ever wanna hear. Rock'n'roll is just like Gap or McDonald's." He changed subjects with finger-snaps, and moved his hands like a showman, and riffed on about the eclipse warping time. Then he strolled forward, and said, half-mockingly: "I'm an American. Me and John Wayne."
Kesey showed still another side of himself on the last day I saw him, the morning of an eclipse so grey and drizzling that the sun's vanishing seemed redundant. He walked on to Minack's stone stage as his own grandmother, handkerchief on his head, to a crowd of middle-aged English tourists with little idea who he was. "One flew over the cuckoo's nest," he murmured, before roaring and rollicking through one of his children's stories.
Then it was that play, starring all his family and friends. From the first, fluffed lines, the great novels and the counter-culture's creation seemed far away. But the Kesey I knew was in everything that happened next. A child began reciting her own big school play speech in mesmerised sympathy with the struggling grown-ups on stage. Babbs's son leapt on to a parapet and tried to will the eclipse: "With enough psychic energy, we can blow a hole in the clouds!" A woman next to me said: "God, it's so bad, I'm complaining to the management." Babbs declared: "Just taking art back from the professionals." The eclipse approached like suddenly rolling thunderclouds, provoking anticipatory wonder but, like the play, it never quite happened. The performance carried on, climaxing in a children's balloon-popping contest. The audience looked bored, or shocked, or wore silly grins, as I did, at the shameless, incompetent anarchy they'd been pranked into sitting through.
I thanked Kesey afterwards, as he prepared to leave. I asked if I could get that 15 minutes in London, and he said, "Sure". I phoned, but he was somewhere else.
He must have realised early on in his Final Trip, maybe even before the Brighton boarding, that his tiring will-power and the sight of a painted bus was no longer enough in the harsher places outside his Oregon home. So he went back, and died quietly among his friends.
Even in his dotage, he had given me enough ridiculous, helpless trips of my own to remember him for some time.Reuse content