Jamming with the Friendly Old Guy
I met Ken Kesey in 1982 at the big 'On the Road' gathering in Boulder, Colorado. Before that I had read 'Cuckoo's Nest', 'Acid Test' and 'Notion', and had seen pictures of the young prankster and fugitive, but had never laid eyes on the man.
One night there was a big party at a house where the poet Andy Clausen and his wife and kids were staying. I'll never forget sitting at the kitchen table talking with a group of people when Allen Ginsberg walked in, dropped a big baggie of pot with papers on the table, and walked out again. Thanks, Allen!
Sometime later I wandered out to the back yard and was drawn to a pretty blonde girl playing fiddle and an old guy blowing harmonica. The old guy was really friendly and enthusiastic. "I just me this girl!" he said. "She's great!"
His enthusiasm was contagious so I happily hung out and sang along on a few songs. They played "Oh, Susannah" and a few other folk standards. It was 4 AM or so by now so we sort of capped it off with "Goodnight, Irene."
"Sometimes I live in the country.
Sometimes I live in the town.
And sometimes I take a great notion
To jump in the river and drown."
I said goodnight and wandered away. Not long after I noticed the friendly old guy putting on his jacket getting ready to leave and I asked somebody who he was, kind of like, "Who was that masked man?" "Don't you know," the guy told me, "that's Ken Kesey."
Later in the week I attended a session where Allen and Ken were on stage together. I thought Ken squirmed a bit when Allen read poems about fucking young boys, but it was kind of funny and endearing all the way around.
The last day of the conference there was a picnic. Kesey and Babbs hosted a joke telling session and just generally carried on pranksterishly. They had driven a convertible from Eugene to Boulder and with them they brought a mirthful spirit and an enthusiasm that were essential parts of that great beat gathering.
So that's my Kesey story. I feel like he has left us much too soon. I have his books on my shelf and I'll read them all again. I'll remember him as a great writer and an amazing and courageous social experimenter. But mainly I'll remember his friendliness and good cheer, and what he told me about playing harmonica: " It's like what Kerouac said about falling off a mountain. You can't make a mistake in C!"