Barlow on Kesey
Ken Kesey Pulls His Last Prank...
Saturday evening, I received this message from Carolyn "Mountain Girl" Garcia:
[Kesey is] gone from the planet as you probably know by now - about 3:35 this morning, while everyone was napping, he tiptoed off away from a hopeless body, out into the radiance. While I'm feeling lonely, and wondering how to cope, the truth is, there are a lot of his trainees out there to take over his work. Those training camps got pretty large sometimes. sadly, softly, love, MG
So Ken Kesey has shed his mortal husk. Damn! What a fine old wreck that was. Major meat.
So passes the last Titan of my young, bohemian admirings. How they all took flight, bang, bang, bang: Neal Cassady, Tim Leary, Jerry Garcia, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Terence McKenna, John Lilly, and now, magnificent, manly, irascible Kesey. I am blessed to have known all of them well enough to get past any distant awe to the better awe that beamed through full knowledge of their humanizing weaknesses.
I guess it's up to us now.
Of course, this would happen eventually. It's in the natural order of things here on the manifested plane. As I get older myself, it will become a commonplace. (My lamented mother used to say that she read the obituaries to keep up on news from her friends...)
And of course, we should not lament. As Mark Twain said: "Why is it that we rejoice at a birth and grieve at a funeral? It is because we are not the person involved."
Still, knowing that the loss is ours, not Ken's, doesn't make me miss him less.
I will miss as well that which has fallen victim to the "collateral damages" - to employ a current military euphemism - of his ascent. Also, dematerialized is the marvelous creature that lived in the space between Ken Kesey and Ken Babbs. During the four decades I've known them, they husbanded the best friendship I've ever soaked warmth from. Through the weirdest psychic weather imaginable, they kept that angel dancing, nanosecond to nanosecond.
With an economy that expands into unspoken encyclopedias of love, Babbs posted this on their web site (http://www.intrepidtrips.com/):
A great good friend and great husband and father and grand dad, he will be sorely missed but if there is one thing he would want us to do it would be to carry on his life's work. Namely to treat others with kindness and if anyone does you dirt forgive that person right away. This goes beyond the art, the writing, the performances, even the bus. Right down to the bone.
Just so. And never mind the fact that Kesey could also hold a grudge like the Celtic chieftain he resembled. Like all intrepid tripsters, Los Dos Kens knew that all such paradoxes were truths that hadn't had half of themselves amputated by some fool trying to resolve what he took to be mere contradiction.
Also seriously re-configured is the robust being that was his marriage to Faye Kesey, a true Christian, who remained as calm as Kesey was tempestuous during the 40 some years following their fresh-out-of-high-school elopement.
Wendell Berry once told me with admiration that of the astonishing cadre of writers that came to Stanford on Stegner Fellowships in 1962 - a group that consisted of Kesey, Berry, Babbs, Larry McMurtry, Robert Stone, Ed McLanahan, and Tom McGuane - only Kesey and himself had remained married to the same woman. (McLanahan described the 1962 Stegner Fellows as "the nicest group of bad people I ever had the good fortune to fall in with.")
Kesey used his time in Palo Alto to excellent purpose. First, he whacked out the canonical hip novel of his time, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," an accomplishment that occupied a only few weeks of 1962. Then he set about to turn on America to LSD, having been been rewired himself in 1959 while volunteering for psychedelic service in an experimental program at the Palo Alto Veteran's Hospital.
Even while plotting the overthrow of the Existing Paradigm, he found time in 1964 to write what I consider to be the best shot taken at The Great American novel since "Moby Dick," "Sometimes A Great Notion." Like its author, it was big, broad-shouldered, masculine, and sweet-hearted. It does for the Northwest what Faulkner did for the South. If you haven't read it, the best thing you could do in the service of Ken's memory - in addition to following Babbs' good advice above - would be to read it.
But scarcely had he finished it when he took his Merry Pranksters, a fine platoon of loons - out on the most culturally influential road trip since Kerouac's. (The events of the next two years are chronicled in Tom Wolf's jabbering account, "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.") Along the way, they commandeered venues and invited anyone who felt like it to come and drink their fill from bathtubs full of LSD-laced Kool-Aid. In the process, they were hugely responsible for turning the 60's into the 60's.
They also spawned a band that was called The Warlocks when Kesey decided to ask them to become the Muzak for this madness but who, after a few Acid Tests, became better known as The Grateful Dead.
I was shocked when I heard about these goings on. At the time, I was member of Eastern Orthodox Church of LSD, hanging out with Leary and Alpert at their compound in Millbrook, NY. There we took our acid very seriously. The thought of passing out massive quantities to total strangers seemed to us like, well, drug abuse. (As that point, I still didn't know that my best friend from prep school, Bob Weir, had become a central conspirator in this plot as the rhythm guitar player for the Grateful Dead.)
In any case, I allowed my ideological disapproval to cause me to miss that part of the fun, but it turned out there was plenty more to had in Kesey's presence, even after the Acid Tests were over, the Pranksters somewhat dispersed, and their driver, the avatar Neal Cassady was dead.
But you probably know all this. What you probably don't know was that Ken Kesey was an exceptionally good man. And I do mean good. And I do mean man. (He was, in college, the unlimited weight-class Northwestern wrestling champion and was built like a Humvee.}
I think one of the reasons people found him so disturbing was that he contained in plenty all the American virtues and looked the granite-jawed part besides. Ken was loyal, trustworthy, brave, kind, and irreverent. Babbs, who would know, was right. He was indeed,"a great good friend and great husband and father and grand dad."
He also suffered the worst thing that can happen to a father, and particularly one as devoted as he was. In 1984, the University of Oregon wrestling team was wiped out when their bus skidded off into a slick road and tumbled down a deep ravine. Among them was his golden son Jed.
Ken never got over it. But as I learned, only a little less painfully, there is a human soul and it persists with such timelessness as to render the bodies it wraps around itself irrelevant to all but the currently embodied.
One night, during the summer of 1987, I found myself on the road with The Grateful Dead in the service of a screenplay I was writing for them at the time. Ken, his Prankster buddy Mike Hagen, and a beautiful veterinarian Hagen was chasing at the time, had turned up in San Francisco in an entirely unroadworthy '72 Cadillac they'd picked up at a used car lot in Eureka when their previous (and similar) edition rolled right over her front end.
They were headed to LA where the band's next gig was to be played in Anaheim Stadium. Since I wasn't drinking at the time and had run up many hours at the wheel of hard-used Cadillacs, they decided I would make a good designated driver. Furthermore, they wanted to stick to the back roads, which I would have found to my own preference had the steering box not had a (crazy) mind of its own.
At some point in the middle of that long and perilous night, Ken and I started talking about the possibility of life after life. He believed in it. Since I was still a Scientific Fundamentalist at the time, I found it astonishing that someone so erudite could believe such primitive thing.
Finally, he trumped me. "I have to believe that," he said quietly, on the heels of a noisy debate. "It's the only way I'll ever see Jed again."
Well, a lot of things happened after that, including the death of Cynthia Horner, which had the same effect on me. It comes in handy at moments like this, because it it would also be hard to think I'll never see Ken Kesey again. It's only a matter of time. And time is always brief, whether nanoseconds or millennia.
I can't be in Pleasant Hill, Oregon when they bury him next to Jed tomorrow. I want to be there, but I have a speech to give at the Cato Institute in Washington, DC, where there will be a number of Senators and Congressman who might be able to stop the media conglomerates from their blitzkrieg aimed at colonizing the Global Mind. So I'll be fighting for the freedoms that Ken held so dear.
Instead, I took Mountain Girl up on her offer to read something I wrote over Ken's vacated remains, I sent her this:
Eulogy for Ken
Kesey. You are still a trip. And I will always be on it.
What a man you were. And do I mean man. What a bull, all beef and energy and power, and sometimes, wild craziness. The meat is now discarded. The power and the energy - and certainly the wild craziness - still snort through our consciousness, which you did so much to expand.
I don't grieve for you. You knew long before I did that there are meadows for the soul. Jed led you to them. Now you're there with him and your grief is over. I'm sorry for us, but because I know how little truck you had with self-pity, I'm trying not to be too sorry for us.
Still. I will miss your magnificent bullshit. I will miss the little Prankster smile at the corners of your mouth. I will miss your mythic stories and the life you led that was so rich in their production. I will miss the lean clarity of your words. No one of your generation wrote better than you.
I will miss your nearly concealed sweetness of heart, the softness that stirred beneath the muscle, the disappearing bunny of your soul. I will even miss your faults, the weaknesses that almost rendered you human scale.
You were the last Titan of my Bohemian life. The latest crop of us seem soft on the outside and hard within. There are no more Cassadys or Kerouacs. There is no more Kesey.
I wish I could be there to watch them plant you out in your garden. But I am in the Belly of the Beast today, Washington, DC, putting in a lonely word for freedom. You never gave an inch in its service, and I will live for it as you would have me do.
Maybe one day I'll be able to identify all the qualities that grew into me from you. I know that you became part of me, just as Neal lived on in you. But right now, you are too generally distributed in my psyche to sort out into anything but gratitude.
So. Thank you, Ken. Thank you for everything. Thank you for myself.
John Perry Barlow, Cognitive Dissident
Co-Founder & Vice Chairman, Electronic Frontier Foundation
Berkman Fellow, Harvard Law School
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People think love is an emotion. Love is just good sense.
-- Ken Kesey