Comes Spake the Cuckoo

Ken Kesey: The Far Gone Interview


by Todd Brendan Fahey

It was just another Saturday on Ken Kesey's farm, but it felt like Shangri-La. Some shaven-headed freak stood staring down from the rough-hewn stage, glassy-eyed and grinning through a musky amalgam of marijuana and pine, slapping a pair of spoons against his chest and thigh--a demented rhythm section in an unknown band, one of the dozens to play in the moss-draped south-40 of a man uniformly known as America's First Hippie. While every cop in Eugene stood poised on the roadside overlooking a commercial replacement for the Grateful Dead's aborted late-August doubleheader, the Cuckoo strode around his own eight acres, miles away, in a striped referee's shirt, signing autographs and posing reticently for the cameras--an icon who, in the words of Hunter Thompson, "has found out a way to live out there where the real winds blow."

As the proud owner of a plane ticket to Portland, before Jerry Garcia's brief collapse in August of 1992 to thirty years of excess, I felt I had but one honorable decision: `Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride.' And so by 9:00 Friday evening, I had flown to Eugene and befriended a local bluegrass band with whom I hitched a ride the next morning to a rustic encampment in nearby Pleasant Hill. By noon, I had videotaped the infamous Bus from every conceivable angle, as it rested in all its brokedown splendor between a pair of Douglas firs. By 4:00, I was bearing witness to tree-people emerging from the hollow--a gentle, pachouli-scented race, bound by dreadlocks and sweet sativa. By 10:45, Ken Kesey took the stage, towering over the crowd like a redwood in a bayou of scrag-oak, to read from one of his children's books against an eerie Northwest sunset--an actor who somehow never made it in Hollywood, and a living testament that "the Sixties aren't over; they won't be over until the Fat Lady gets high."

INTERVIEW (By phone, September 13, 1992):

Fahey: I interviewed Timothy Leary a couple weeks ago over dinner, and he had some very kind and heartfelt words to say about you; and he was also talking about what he saw as the future of information. He felt that the novel is a somewhat archaic art form, in that the brain can absorb so much information so rapidly. I was wondering what you might think about the future of the novel.

Kesey: Uhhm...I agree. I have been sayin' for the few years that I've been working on this novel [Sailor Song, Kesey's first novel since Sometimes a Great Notion, thirty years ago]: it's a flash in the pan, as far as history goes, I think. Because the storyteller was there to begin with. He used the fire, and he used his voice; he used shadows and monsters, and he used poetry and music. And all those things worked on the audience. When you just get into print, you reduce the input quite a bit. But it makes for a nice thing to package and distribute--like a box of tampons. But I think that for us to really deal with a young audience, we're going to have to pick up the pace.

Ol' Leary's been saying this forever, and I've always agreed with him. It's kind of like a compulsory in the Olympics: every so often you've got to write a novel to make people pay attention to the other stuff you're doin'.

I just came back from a book tour, in which I had Viking not just line me up with bookstores where I was just reading and signing my book, but also line me up with theaters where I could perform my children's stuff. It made a lot more sense; also, it was a lot more colorful. When you're up there with robes and masks and monsters and dance and drums, the story gets up off the page and moves around.

Fahey: [Grunts in agreement.]

Kesey: When Shakespeare was writing, he wasn't writing for stuff to lie on the page; it was supposed to get up and move around. And I think that writers are going to have to face this; they were performers originally. That's what storytellers did--they told a story. And the better they were at telling it, the more famous it became.

The Chopes were writers that moved from castle to castle. The word `Chope, C-H-O-P-E,' means `see, too see, and be seen.' So you went from castle to castle and you told about the castle you just came from, and how beautiful the maidens were and how powerful and manly the knights were. You helped prop up a young civilization: They couldn't have done it without them.

Now, we've got electronic means to do that, so you wouldn't have to actually travel to castles. Come out of that box, there, and address the audience. The whole MTV audience, that is the new audience. And the people who are being purists and ignoring that, are those who are going to be left behind. As Dylan says, `it's a new road; if you don't like it, get out of the way.'

Fahey: Timothy felt that, in history, you'd be as famous for your computer book, the Caverns piece, as anything you've ever done.

Kesey: That's the only time it's ever been done like that. And it's a pretty good little potboiler novel. Tim was trying to have a thing where a person with a computer could plug into that [Caverns] and also add stuff, write stuff in. You've kind of got to have a love affair with computers that I've never had. He's always been plain infatuated with that techno stuff; where I'm more interested in gnomes and elves [laughs].

Fahey: Why did you decide to make a shift from the more obvious form of short stories to children's stories in the mid-Eighties?

Kesey: The audience was a whole lot better. You can put the same message in that kid's story and deliver it to quite a large audience, because it's the big folks who buy the books, and they always read the books before they pass them onto the kids. And so you're not only reaching a new, young audience, you're reaching your same old audience. And the messages in my kid's stories are the same message in my novels.

Fahey: Sure.

Kesey: Totalitarianism, and how you can overcome it. Which takes you back to a lot of old trickster stories and spider stories from Africa.

Fahey: Animal Farm.

Kesey: Uh-huh. And monkey stories from the Orient. [Pause] But the new novel, the real new novel, hasn't been written yet. It will be written with a new type of pen. If Shakespeare were alive today, he wouldn't be using the quill pen; he would at least be using at least the Pentel rolling writer, or something. You use whatever is available during your time. And the most powerful tool of composition we've got now is that camcorder. There'll be kids who write a novel using the camcorder as a pen; and the novel will sell as though it's a novel, but you'll play it through your video.

Fahey: That's another thing Leary said; he said, he thinks that anyone writing a novel these days should have it half videoed.

Kesey: Yeah. In fact, I'm taking Cuckoo's Nest and reading Cuckoo's Nest into a video camera, just sitting there--

Fahey: Fantastic.

Kesey: Viking wanted me to do a recording for an audio book. But when you're actually raising your face up and looking into the camera, as opposed to just having a microphone, you have a lot more presence. This is the new edition, this ability to have your face pop out of the screen. 'Cause a good storyteller uses his face a lot, uses his eyes.

Fahey: Let's go back to the very early Sixties, to Perry Lane.

Kesey: OK, let's do [laughs].

Fahey: I've always been curious whether you had a sense of being the role model, the leader...history has kind of pronounced you the Father of the Counterculture. I was wondering if you thought of yourself as that back then, or if that's been something generously awarded to you.

Kesey: Oh, no. I don't even think of myself as that now.

Fahey: But back, then. Back in those heady times of the Bus trip and Neal Cassady...did you have a sense?

Kesey: I really did have a sense that what we were doing was important, historically important, in a way that still hasn't been understood or recognized. [pause] The Sixties aren't over; they won't be over until the Fat Lady gets high.

You think of the stuff that came out of the Sixties: the environmental movement, the feminist movement, the power of the civil rights movement; but most of all, it's the psychedelic movement that attempted to actually go in and change the consciousness of the people, either back to something more pure and honest, or forward to something never before realized, knowing that the places we were in, the status quo, was a dead-end--a dead-end spiritually and, as we are finding out, a dead-end economically.

That stuff that happened in the Sixties, all of us who were part of it...you can tell when you break new ground. If you're a farmer, you can tell that this sod has never been broken before, the plow is laying open great, purple earth and something comes out of it and you can smell it. When you're a writer, when I was working on Sometimes a Great Notion, I could tell I was breaking now ground; there's an energy that comes out, that's probably not unlike the energy that comes out of nuclear fission--It wasn't just me. It was not anybody. It wasn't rock and roll; it wasn't art; it wasn't cinema or dance. Something was happening at that time, and it was a wave that some of us were able to surf on. And none of us started the wave; I don't think there's any way you could start the wave. The wave is still going.

After this recent tour across the country, I've run into people who I haven't seen the likes of for twenty years: really interested in something new, not just interested in sound-bites. There's a new seriousness, especially amongst college kids; they know that all of these simple old homilies really are not important.

I've been telling everyone that I'm mainly interested in warriors. Tim [Leary] is a warrior. Most of the people I run into are interested in being warriors. When they read Tim Leary, or when they go to see a movie by, let's say, Gus Van Sant, or when they go to a Dead concert, they're doing it not just to be entertained; they're doing it because they want to become better warriors. And we've had a real crackerjack bunch of warriors.

I mean, Allen Ginsberg is a tremendous warrior as time goes by. He's a warrior first and a poet second. There was a time when he forsook being a great poet, the future of poetry, and became a warrior. He uses his poetry to be a warrior. And that's the same way I feel about my writing: I'm much more interested in helping warriors know more about their task than I am in just trying to titillate them with stories.

* * *

Fahey: Did you ever meet Robert Hunter when you were in the Veteran's Hospital experiments?

Kesey: You mean the Dead's--

Fahey: The Dead's lyricist. Was he in there at the same time you were?

Kesey: Uhhm...yeah. I don't remember meeting him [fades]...he and Garcia didn't live far from us. There was a place called the Chateau; Hunter, I think, at that time roomed with Phil Lesh. And Garcia was at the same place. Oh, yeah. I've known Hunter for a long time.

Fahey: He's written some tremendous poetry.

Kesey: Yeah, he has. He was up here for our Field Trip last Fall. You know, everybody thinks Garcia wrote those songs; it was Hunter. Hunter doesn't perform or sing much, but he got out here and sung, and he couldn't remember the words to "Ripple," so all the audience had to help him out [laughs]. All those great dance songs; he's written so many. He's not as good as Dylan, but he's right up there.

I saw Garcia night before last down at Oakland. I emceed that show [audible smile]. It's like every ten years, all these people have to get together to check each other out and see what we're doing. 'Cause we don't see enough of each other; we're spread too thin. It's really good to get back together with Hunter; especially when you get [the Dead's second lyricist, John] Barlow. You get to talk about stuff that you've forgotten. That's why it's good to see Leary.

Leary can get a part of my mind that's kind of rusted shut grinding again, just by being around him and talking, 'cause that's where he works. He knows that area of the mind and the brain, and he knows the difference between the two areas. He's a real master at getting your old wheel squeaking again.

Fahey: I'm reading a quote by you--it was a little insert in USA Weekend back in July [1992]. Betsy Clayton has you quoted as saying, `the Haight is just a place; the Sixties was a spirit.' I've only been up to your place once, but to me it seemed like what the Sixties were all about. Do you try to keep that atmosphere alive, or is your place a pretty normal place most of the time and you just let loose once in a while?

Kesey: No, it's pretty much the same all of the time [soft chuckle]. It's nothing that you have to try to keep alive; it'll live on its own. I think you have to kill it. That kind of spirit doesn't die naturally; you have to lock it up in shackles and feed it lots of red meat and browbeat it into death. It doesn't die of its own accord.

Children keep it alive. The way the birds have been drunk today. All the grapes hanging out there fermenting. All the birds--a beautiful, sunny day--the birds have been eating those grapes and they're drunk and teetering around and the robins are falling off the branches and reeling around on the lawn, and the children are parading around with their fall garb, and it's always there. It's always anywhere. All you have to do is let it live. There's no effort that needs to be made to let it live; there's effort that needs to be made to keep it from dying.

Fahey: [Stunned] OK...What are your creative plans after Sailor Song, besides the videotaping of Cuckoo's Nest? Can you let us in on some secrets?

Kesey: Last night we got out there and we set off our big bonfire, and I had all my sea monsters dance and cavort around the fire. This is part of the movie that Gus Van Sant shot, The Sea Lion. Gus is, right now, involved in doing Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.

Fahey: Oh yeah, Tom Robbins.

Kesey: Uh-huh. And as soon as he's done with that, we'll get into editing the footage that he shot of The Sea Lion. And then I'll try to bring the Dead in to do the soundtrack for this, like they promised ten years ago. This is the thing I'm most interested in--to move a kind of Wagnerian drama into these rock and roll venues, so that it's not just playing "Uncle John's Band" [laughs] over and over again.

And whenever I get together and talk with the guys [the Dead] about it, oh, they're just so eager. But they go vehement that they have to move to do it. It's so cumbersome; it's hard for them to do it. They're almost run by their machinery.

But that's the thing I'm most interested in: performing a big rock and roll opera, where we move those ol' scrabbly-lookin' musicians down there in the pit where they belong, and put dancers and singers and magicians on the stage, and have that broadcast to large numbers of people, ten-, twenty-, thirty-thousand people. And do it with video enhancements, so that you are able to see faces up there.

The people who have this equipment, they keep making the mistake of thinking that you can endlessly watch Garcia's hand run up and down that keyboard [sic], but that isn't anymore interesting than watching Rachmaninoff's hand run up and down the keyboard. People want to see drama; they want to have a story told to them. They want to be part of some kind of beginning, middle and end that they can relate to, the same way as the tribe can relate the story about going out and killing the deer and evoking the deer spirit, and raising the spirits of the tribe with the blood of the deer. That stuff still has great potency.

And when you're around the whole Dead scene, like I was on Halloween, and you see out there in the parking lot as many people as are inside, they're there as a tribal thing; they're there as part of a rendezvous and a pow-wow. And all it lacks is that story. The only thing that has happened like it, that I've ever seen, is Tommy. I guess The Wall was something on the order of this, but I didn't see The Wall. And I know the Dead are capable of it, and I know the audience is ready for it. And it's what I'm most interested in.

* * *

Fahey: One last question: I saw the interview with you and Bob Costas, and he was asking why you did certain things that you've done throughout your life, and you said because you're an American; and that as Americans, we're searchers and pioneers. And I was wondering what frontiers are there left for Ken Kesey to explore?

Kesey: Uhhm...the frontiers that we broke into in the Sixties are still largely unexplored. When I was doing those experiments at the Vet's Hospital, they gave us an enormous array of drugs, and they gave us an enormous array of tests. They tested our motor skills, our memories, our ability to create, to imagine, they tested our urine and our blood--all the results of those tests still exist somewhere. For those to be valid experiments, we need to follow up on that--to see if our brains have deteriorated, to see if there's been any damage like they claimed.

When we first broke into that forbidden box in the other dimension, we knew that we had discovered something as surprising and powerful as the New World when Columbus came stumbling onto it. It is still largely unexplored and uncharted. People like Leary have done the best they can to chart it sort of underground, but the government and the powers do not want this world charted, because it threatens established powers. It always has.

People don't want other people to get high, because if you get high, you might see the falsity of the fabric of the society we live in. [pause] We thought that by this time that there would be LSD given in classes in college. And you would study for it and prepare for it, you would have somebody there who help you through it; you would know what to sing, where to be, how to stand out among the trees. We were naive. We thought that we had come to a new place, a new, exciting, free place; and that it was going to be available to all America. And they shut it down.

People ask, `what happened to you guys?' And I always tell them, `we got arrested.' Just everybody I know got arrested and had to serve time.

Fahey: But you got arrested for pot though; it wasn't LSD.

Kesey: Yeah, but it doesn't make any difference once you're arrested. The fact that they're beating on Rodney King--it didn't matter what they were beating on him for; they were beating on him.

And it meant that a lot of this stuff had to go way underground. And other drugs sprung up. I've never seen crack or a lot of these new drugs. Don't know anything about them. I don't know what they do for you, or whether they do anything good for you or not. But I do still have a lot of faith in the spiritual purity of LSD and pot. And I think that if grass were legalized, it would help our drug problem enormously. As John Madden said, `There've been a lot more people hurt on astro-turf than grass.'

[Laughter on both sides]

Fahey: Do you think that as long as LSD is illegal, the youth today will experience any of the same modicum of freedom that you had in the early Sixties?

Kesey: No, I don't. For one thing, all these people that were taking these drugs back then were college age; and we had all read a certain amount of Oriental literature, and we had read Hesse, and we had a spiritual underpinning of knowing the Bible and knowing the Bhagavad Gita, knowing the Judeo traditions. And that gives you stars to sail by. And without those stars, just thrown into chaos, a lot of people are lost.

Luckily, we've still got some old mariners around, like Tim Leary, who keep doling out enough clues that these young mariners keep afloat.

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