Down on the peacock farm

A previously unpublished 1999 interview with Ken Kesey reveals the "big-time generosity folded into gigantic nerve" that fueled the novelist's legend.


Down on the peacock farm

Ken Kesey was the kind of iconoclast who redefined an entire era, inspiring artists and encouraging other writers — myself among them. His passing painfully reminds me of a debt I can never repay. I met Kesey when I was a 17-year-old aspiring journalist and high school student, and he was a traveling author, returning to the literary scene after a long hiatus. He had just published “Sailor’s Song,” his first major work since the death of his son and his first novel in 28 years.

A big, barrel-chested man of intimidating size, Kesey and his wife, Faye, couldn’t have been more understanding as I bumbled through my first interview. During that session, he gave me advice that’s had a powerful impact on my career. He said, “Do what you love, do it now. Start early. If you want to be a journalist, dig in now. You’ll be so far ahead of the crowd later — it won’t matter. You may not end up doing what you thought you’d be doing, but you’ll be happy doing it.”

Kesey earned my respect later that evening after bypassing an entire room of chi-chi literati — ditching his own book party to color with the children of patrons in the back room. But Kesey was like that — big-time generosity folded into gigantic nerve.

When I chose a college, my decision was partially influenced by Kesey, who told me about the University of Oregon and the green splendor of Eugene. He was an alum himself and had just finished teaching a class there. Over my time there, we kept in touch and became friends — I even archived some of his personal papers and correspondence with the help of Faye.

Before I left Oregon after college in 1999, I made one final visit to Kesey’s Pleasant Hill farm. We sat outside at a splintered picnic table, and while we talked about his work, his health and his family, we ate cashews. A gifted, colorful raconteur, Kesey dodged as many questions as he answered and we kept chatting long after I ran out of tape. The article that resulted is published here for the first time.

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The peacocks on Ken Kesey’s Oregon farm sound like bawling babies. Their squawking drives Kesey nuts, but not half as much as when they climb on top of his writing sanctuary and pick fights with their reflections in the attic windows.

But it suits the literary renegade, the polychromatic birds somehow fitting in with the psychedelic décor of the place. With Faye, he calls home a fire engine red converted barn in the emerald countryside just outside Eugene, Ore. Kesey’s own wardrobe of tie-dyed work shirts and denim overalls make him look like the pit crew for Furthur, his blinding Day-Glo colored bus, the Merry Prankster mobile, nestled in the garage next to his computers and archived journals.

The original bus, the one driven by the amphetamine-fueled “fastest man alive” and Kerouac muse Neal Cassady, celebrates its 35th birthday rusting in a cow pasture. A plastic, science class skeleton wearing sunglasses sits in the driver’s seat, much as Cassady no doubt would be, had he not died in Mexico of exposure and drugs decades earlier. Not only was Cassady Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty in “On the Road,” he could also double for Kesey’s own tragic Randall Patrick McMurphy in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

That book, which launched Kesey’s career in 1962, has had its share of attention. His much-ballyhooed fight with the producers of the 1975 movie version of “Cuckoo’s Nest,” and subsequent refusal to see the Oscar-sweeping film, has received enough ink. But Kesey’s career as a counterculture icon began after the 1964 publication of “Sometimes a Great Notion,” a sprawling family epic that Kesey contends outshines his freshman novel. That same year, he used his fame and his book advance to fund a trip across America turning people on to LSD (then a legal substance) and encouraging the populace to live life as a work of art. His psychedelic bus with his Merry Pranksters, and ensuing entanglements with the law, cemented Kesey as a true literary outlaw, a legend chronicled by cultural scribe Tom Wolfe in “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”

But that was years ago. Time slows you down, even if it doesn’t change you. Sitting on his back porch, Kesey reflects on his double anniversaries, his life’s work and the friends not there to celebrate it with him. “I’m wiser, and I put more effort into trying to be thoughtful,” Kesey says, watching his peacocks run at one another in the yard. “As you get older, you begin to see life itself as being more wonderful, and you’re careful not to disturb it.”

Kesey, 64, still carries his barrel-chested wrestler’s frame with grace, but he no longer sports the papa bear paunch of past years. In the seven years I’ve known Kesey, this is the best he’s ever looked — trim, strong and healthy. His eyes crackle with electricity as he discusses his plans for the future. Kamikaze hummingbirds swoop past our heads to nearby feeders as he talks about life as performance art.

It wasn’t long ago that the curtain almost fell, prematurely, on his final act. A year and a half ago, Kesey suffered a mild stroke while going through some journals out in the garage. With immediate medical attention, and the use of an experimental drug t-PA (or recombinant tissue plasminogen activator), Kesey has suffered few long-lasting effects normally associated with stroke victims. He still has trouble writing in longhand, but his typing skills haven’t been affected much.

This was the second time Kesey has benefited from being a guinea pig for experimental drugs. (The first time: government-funded LSD experiments in Menlo Park, Calif., in the early ’60s. Coupled with his work in a mental ward, the experiences inspired “Cuckoo’s Nest.”) “It was more than the second time,” Kesey says in a mixture of deadpan seriousness and a spark of mischievous humor. He does not elaborate.

Faye half-jokes that she wishes the episode had scared him a little more, causing him to slow down. If anything, friends say, tasting his own mortality has made him work even harder. “He’s gone balls to the wall now on everything we’re doing,” says Ken Babbs, Kesey’s longtime friend and right-hand man. “His energies are focused, really focused. When you get older, time speeds up. Through time, he’s also grown more compassionate, loving and forgiving.”

Kesey, once the harbinger for change in pre-hippie America and leader of the consciousness-expansion revolution, hasn’t let anything alter his course, although the velocity has changed. There have been endless court battles and police harassment, drug busts, jail, diabetes and the stroke. The death of his son, Jed, in 1984 almost ended him, but he’s survived it all. Stubborn as hell, he’s outlived most of his contemporaries and friends. Even Jerry Garcia, whose Grateful Dead provided the soundtrack for his Acid Test “happenings,” has gone. Kesey sits relatively alone in the pantheon of ’60s counterculture icons.

Earlier this year, this fact was painfully illustrated when he was invited to the Sundance Film Festival for a screening of “The Source,” a new movie about the Beat Generation writers. An interview with Kesey appears in part of the documentary. “I don’t have a large part in it; I was too young to be a beatnik, and too old to be a hippie,” Kesey says. “But while I was there, I realized I was the only one of them left alive — Ginsberg was gone, Kerouac, Cassady, Burroughs.”

Kesey attributes his longevity to his family and friends. “Those guys really didn’t have a lot of family, and their circle was made up of literary professorial contemporaries,” Kesey says. “I’ve always stuck pretty close to my family, and I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve survived a lot of stuff that other people didn’t.” And he’s become more prolific. This year, Kesey has unearthed some of his jail manuscripts and journals, to be published as “Kesey’s Jailbook” later this year. [It has not yet been published.] He’s also started writing another book, tentatively called “Animals,” and in August finished with a Merry Prankster tour of England where the group performed the musical interactive play “The Search for King Arthur.”

Writing and performing are the same to him, although hes done more of the former in recent years. He quit writing for awhile, announcing that he’d rather live his life like a work of art, but that stage was relatively short-lived, his word-processor never really able to stay silent. Kesey continued magazine work, writing for Rolling Stone and starting his own literary magazine. The 1990s saw two new novels, “Sailor Song” and “Last Go Round.” Of his two children’s books, “The Sea Lion” and “Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear,” the latter was included on the Library of Congress’ list of suggested children’s books in 1991. Then came “Twister,” a multimedia stage version of “The Wizard of Oz,” with a dash of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” thrown in for interactivity.

“‘Twister’ falls midway between a very modern publication, and a very, very ancient publication,” Kesey says, feeling the cool of the evening and donning a sweater. “A publication is just that, when you put your work out in front of the public, that really opens it up … instead of saying publication is when you have something printed and distributed.” He continues: “I have a large body of work, that isn’t published by the East Coast — like poetry festivals, and the Acid Tests. I’m grateful to New York for putting it out there, but I feel obligated to the sport of storytelling, to spread that out wherever I can.”

More human than legend, Kesey works hard to preserve his standing as an accessible American icon. It can be an inconvenience from time to time, hosting strangers who show up on his lawn, but Kesey also understands the importance of legend, and he maintains it through constant contact with his audience. In addition to endless public appearances and support of community events, Kesey and Babbs also maintain a Web site to communicate with their community and fans. “The idea of crawling off into your ivory tower and creating this thing that you slip out under the door, and then people publish it and you become famous, it’s not healthy for the writer,” Kesey says. “It’s not really good for the public, because we’re never really there.

“Writers are constantly complaining that they have to go to bookstores, etc. … but for me, that’s part of the same job,” Kesey continues. “You owe it to the work, you owe it to the reader, you owe it to all the storytellers that have come through history that have maintained that connection between audience and writer.”

In part, the philosophy propelled Kesey’s bus trip across America. In the pursuit of a new consciousness and life as art, the Merry Pranksters spread a message about drugs, peace and love during a national identity crisis. Looking back on that time, Kesey says his association with psychedelic drugs wasn’t overstated. “I think drugs are tremendously important, and being high is important … but there are other ways to achieve enlightenment. Grief can do it. You can fast, you can pray,” Kesey says. “But acid came along and we were trying to body forth a new consciousness, a completely new way to relate to your world.”

Whether Kesey and company succeeded or not is up for generational debate, but his legacy remains forever tied to the ’60s and a multicolored, technology hot-wired, souped-up bus with crazy man Cassady behind the wheel. “When people ask me what my best work is, I always say the bus,” Kesey says, looking out into the fading evening light. “‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ and ‘Great Notion,’ they’re good novels, but the bus is a living work, a work that is absolutely unique. That doesn’t take away from the novels; I couldn’t have done it without the writing.

“I needed to have those type of publications under my belt before I could do something that outlandish. From that time on, I’ve never backed off from it,” he says. “I write because I have to write. But I’m not writing to reveal my soul to the reader, I’m writing to reveal the reader’s soul to the reader.”

If he discovers something about himself along the way, then those are more lessons to come away with. What keeps Kesey going, keeps him writing, is what he describes as a single note. “If you’ve got love in your heart, whatever you do from that moment out is likely to be right,” Kesey says. “If you’ve got that one true note ringing inside you, then whatever you do is going to be OK.”

The note? “It’s love, always love.”

Rob Elder's work has appeared in the New York Times, Premiere, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, Gear and the Oregonian. He is a features staff writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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