Ken Kesey hit the big time in 1962 or so with the publication of his first novel, “One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest.” It was a good thing too, because the world was about to change again and Kesey was right there between the two expressions of the American counter-culture, midpoint between the Beat Generation of the 50’s and the Hippies of the 60’s. Kesey first hit the road in his dayglow painted bus named Furthur with his group of weird friends called the Merry Pranksters in 1964 on his way to the East Coast for the publication party of his second novel “Sometimes A Great Notion. The bus was driven by none other than Neal Cassady, also known as Dean Moriarty, famous for making the rounds of Jack Kerouac’s novel “On the Road.”. The cross-country road trip, trip, trip was described by TomWolfe in “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”.
Kesey and the Pranksters held a series of multimedia parties around the San Francisco Bay Area known as the “Acid Tests,” in which lightshows whirled and the Grateful Dead would play blistering rock and roll and the beverage of choice was Kool-Aid spiked with LSD, the powerful hallucinogenic substance.
Considered one of the sparks that helped to ignite the Summer of Love in San Francisco, Kesey would later retire back to the country to his family farm in Mt. Plesant, Oregon. From their for the next 30 years he has directed several plays, written several additional novels and children’s books as well as produced a movie. Kesey remains a pioneer spirit in the land of the strip-mall. He is one of the last great showmen alive.
ML: What is your idea of an ideal party?
Kesey: No actual idea.
ML: What is your idea of a not so ideal party?
Kesey: Again, no idea. In fact the whole party idea has kinda drained away. I like getting together with people and doing something.
ML: For example?
Kesey: We performed a play in England in 1999 that I wrote and directed called “Where’s Merlin”. We took it on the road and we traveled all over (the UK) performing this play. The object (of the play) was to go through and teach people a number of songs they already kind of knew and teach a dance step, so that at the end the audience joins in. At the end the object is to get everybody up on stage and all of them singing. And what we finally came up with for that was the theme song “Love Potion Number Nine” At the end of it when we have people all doing Love Potion Number Nine, everybody knows it, everybody understands it, they know why it’s appropriate, where it comes from, what it’s about and how it relates to us and the acid test and back through that whole thing of Neil Cassidy and (Tim) Leary and (Alan) Ginsberg and beatniks and on back on to Kerouac back of a tradition that’s running though American culture, the whole psychedelic tradition. Everywhere we went in England performing this got huge crowds. And all of them knew what we were talking about. Most of the people in the audience were under 20 or over 50. It’s an affirmation of something. To really keep your voice alive, you’ve got to actually go someplace and tell a story.
ML: By focusing more on interactive performances and plays was that a conscious decision to bridge the gap between participants on the stage and audience?
Kesey: Yeah, very much. The direction I wanted to go had to do with not going off and getting high by yourself, or writing by yourself, or practicing tai chi by yourself, where you’re getting out there and interacting with people, you’re plowing new ground. Actually you’re plowing very old ground that has been around for a very long time and nobody has brought the plow bit to it in a long time. Now this really relates: we’ve got a radio transmitter on the bus. It transmits about 10 miles and driving on the freeway we have a sign that blinks and says “Dial 105.7 KBUZ, Coming to you from the Guts of Nowhere.” And people will drive along and they’ll see it and give us the thumbs us, blink their lights or give us a little honk. So we’ll have people out in front of us listening to our radio program and behind us. Um, what was the question?
ML: When you go out to tootle and hoot how important is the interaction with the audience?
Kesey: The interaction with people is the most fun, whether they are on stage of not.
ML: You were a key figure in the early days of the Grateful Dead giving them a place to perform during the Acid Tests. Their concerts were for some the definition of the word party. What did you think of the dead experience?
Kesey: When the Dead were really going and functioning well, it was like a crack through the black wall of our consciousness and you saw on the other side there was light through this. The Dead really had no more dogma than that. They just wanted to get out there where they would do something and you would watch them play and every so often they would get it together and they would be on the same frequency as the audience and they would be the same and there would be a flash of realization that we weren’t for a moment there, we weren’t in the same time frame as everyone else, we weren’t in the same reality.
That’s why people went to the Dead, because they were trying as hard as they could to be more than entertainers. They were trying to become the conduit to another light.
ML: You joined Phish on stage in 1997; they’re another rock and roll band renown for the partying and carnival like atmosphere of their concerts. Did you see that same crack open up like with the dead?
Kesey: Uh, no, but I wasn’t payin’ attention that much. But when we went up there we we’re able to segue right on into the closing song, which was Gloria and everyone in the world knows Gloria and they all know how to sing it and they love to sing it. Just singing Gloria brings something into the heart.
ML: You sent a copy of your films “Intrepid Traveller and His Band of Merry Pranksters Go In Search of A Cool Place” and “The Acid Test” to the Whitney museum of American art for their millennium ending show on American Art from the last century. Why do you think such an esteemed cultural institution was interested in showing a film of a psychedelic drug party?
Kesey: It’s because at the end of this century and Millennium we cast our eyes back. We’re seeing stuff through a brighter light. I think that the 60s and that whole movement of the Beats have become more important as time has gone by. And everybody is aware that something happened there, whether people admit it or not something happened in the 60s and it was unique. The human race has been trying to find something all its life. There’s a thing in Joseph Campbell where he’s talking about the seekers, the questers, the people who are trying to follow their bliss and the Native American potlatches were probably a version of the Dead concerts, getting together – drumming, drumming and trying to lift up out of the mire. That’s what we’ve been doing forever. We’re trying to build a track up out of the bog, so we don’t have to bog around down there with the sea anemones and other things. Human’s natural instinct is to rise up above the bog and to help others do the same. There’s no way to know this or judge this, but humans have been on a long run and we have the opportunity now to really make a shift in consciousness, because of the Internet and computers and the way people are hooked together around the world. And it’s not just the people with the guns and money who hold the reins to enlightenment anymore. It’s anybody who has any kind of computer or can find one. They can contact people all over the globe and no one can stop it. It’s loose.
ML: Do you still do drugs?
Kesey: No, I don’t do too many drugs anymore, but every Easter some friends and family and I like to take some acid and hike up Mt. Pisgah (located near Kesey’s home in Mt. Pleasant, Oregon). Not much (he says with a sly smile), just enough to make the leaves dapple.