Article & photos by Tim Owen
Saturday, November 10th, 2001 marks a day of mourning and reflection here in Eugene, as we deal with the passing of our friend Ken Kesey, author, storyteller, cultural pioneer, innerspace astronaut, family man and salt of the Oregon earth.
A day as typically Oregon-beautiful as I've seen; warm, hazy sun, not the slightest stir of a breeze, upper 60s, a myriad of stunning cloud patterns floating ever so slowly across the sky... but the quiet stillness, the pastel colors against the glittering greens of the tree covered rolling foothills; an unmistakable omni-presence of magic, of energy release, of peace, of joy.
Kesey lived just a few ridges to the East of us, about 20 miles away. I saw him countless times about town and at events over the past 20-plus years I've been here. When I would bump into him on the way to the bank or store when we lived just a few miles apart, he was never in too much of a hurry to stop and exchange a few words. His mastery of word crafting was always at the ready. The first time we crossed paths was backstage after a Dead show outdoors in rural Oregon in '82. Mingling in the afterglow of a great day, my simple greeting led to Kesey spinning a 10 minute thought provoking tale about a frog and a muskrat. I wish like hell I could remember it now.
Ken's family here in Eugene has a vast presence as well as past. They moved here to live on his grandparents' farm in 1943, when he was eight years old. While attending the University of Oregon, where he became a star wrestler, he married his high school sweetheart, Faye Haxby, in 1956. Receiving a literary fellowship to Stanford, Kesey would then embark on a four year whirlwind that would produce the cornerstone of his most affective contributions to the changing and expanding face of America.
After volunteering for LSD experimentation at Stanford in '61 and '62, he completed his first novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Published in '62, the novel struck a nerve at the core of our society by serving as a wake up call on a nation stirring out of a long slumber, challenging the predisposed norms and the terms of sanity.
In '64, Kesey's second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, was published. A sprawling, ambitious work immediately heralded as a great American classic, Kesey had brought to life with his vividly captivating descriptions a unique, mystical land called Oregon, whose harsh and unrelenting nature shapes the tough and original members of the Stamper's, a rural logging family in the 30s.
That same year he had banded together some fellow LSD experimenters, called them the Merry Pranksters, and set out on the road as a traveling psychedelic show in a rainbow day-glo 1939 International bus called "Further," which he bought with earnings from Cuckoo's Nest. A notorious adventure of LSD-induced fun and chaos ensued as they pranked their way through America, forever immortalized in Tom Wolfe's book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. At that time, the relatively unknown Grateful Dead became the house band for the Pranksters, and they maintained friendships throughout the years.
In 1968 Ken moved back to Oregon and a rural farm south of Eugene, where he turned a huge barn into a large rambling house, raised a family, worked the land, raised cattle and immersed himself in the community. Ken Babbs, fellow Prankster and lifelong friend, lived nearby, and together they collaborated on Prankster adventures over the years. Ken's brother, Chuck, and his family founded and still run the successful Springfield Creamery, as well as operating a retail natural food store in Springfield until the mid 80s.
Kit Kesey, Ken's nephew, has been a concert and video producer over the years, and in recent months took over the McDonald Theater in downtown Eugene and refurbished it as a live music venue. Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters recently performed there at a benefit in October. The last time I saw Ken was in early September, the night he introduced Taj Mahal at the grand opening of the theater, while I was shooting the event.
Kesey contributed immensely to raising the bar in challenging the status quo to re-examine, renew, and embrace such fundamental American terms as "freedom," and "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," and to live them. He was full of stories, bigger than life, yet casually present, a ruggedly independent individual, who contributed endlessly to family and community, and the celebration of life. As one of Americas most affecting and colorful modern pioneers, he was truly a great American hero. Always ready to take a playful poke or a chastising swipe when he smelled bullshit, regardless of where it came from, he was never mean spirited. His approach to life was not from an adversarial or confrontational stance, but an offering of goodwill.
Ken's creativity wasn't limited to his immense depth as a writer. He continually sought new theatrical vehicles and happenings to relay his message, whatever it may be. You might be listening to him read a new children's book and tell stories, in full shaman's garb on the steps of the library, or hearing him recite his heart-felt tribute to Jerry Garcia, or watching him belt out "Gloria," with Kool-Aid jug in hand, wearing a U.S. flag suit and top hat, backed by Bob Weir, Jack and Jorma.
For a production of his childrens story, Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear, Kesey collaborated with the Eugene Ballet, with music by Art Maddox and sound effects provided by Keseys whimsical invention, The Thunder Machine.
Ken s generosity and compassion came across in many ways. He often teamed up with musician and friend Mason Williams for Mason's annual Christmas show with the Eugene and Portland Symphonies. A few years back in Portland, Kesey showed up on stage in the role of a street Santa. A down and out alcoholic with a pint in his pocket. Directing members of a choir into the audience to collect money for the poor, he and Mason were able to hand out over $6,000 to homeless street people. The shocked symphony was reluctant to have Kesey return the next night, but rather than more antics, he delivered a wonderful reading of St. Matthew's Christmas Story.
Sharing this valley and this community with Kesey has always been somehow comforting, being part in some sense of the continuing adventure, swept along just a little "further". His absence will leave a gaping hole around here, way bigger than you could drive a bus through. The world, as it is, will be a scarier place without him and his sometimes flamboyant but always thought provoking escapades.
His life was honored in a solemn and celebratory memorial service at the McDonald Theatre, drawing a full house that filled the lobby and spilled out onto the street, where admirers milled about the psychedelic bus waiting to take him on a last ride home to his resting place.
With Kesey's rainbow marbled casket center stage, speakers included his career-long literary agent, Sterling Lord, University of Oregon President Dave Frohnmeyer, musician Mason Williams (who spoke and performed) and close friend and fellow Prankster Ken Babbs. Zane, his son provided various video clips of Ken at home and performing that brought smiles, laughter and tears.
As the bus carrying Ken Kesey pulled out of sight, the clouds parted and a brief glimpse of a rainbow lit the sky. Farewell, my friend. " The answer is never the answer. What's really interesting is the mystery. If you seek the mystery instead of the answer, you'll always be seeking. I've never seen anybody really find the answer -- they think they have, so they stop thinking. But the job is to seek mystery, evoke mystery, plant a garden in which strange plants grow and mysteries bloom. The need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer."
(C) Article and Photos by Tim Owen