It's about life - not "lifestyle"
KEN KESEY with the original magic bus Furthur.
American literature and culture lost a great one on Saturday, November 10, when author Ken Kesey passed away in Eugene, Oregon. He had surgery for liver cancer but did not recover. He was 66 years old.

Word of his failing health began circulating by the previous Wednesday night in Grateful Dead circles when a radio show hosted by Prankster Mountain Girl broke the news and asked for prayers.

How one dies is usually not as important as how one lived, and if nothing else it is safe to say Kesey lived Well and lived Large. With tie-dyed clothes being sold as Halloween costumes in 2001, it would be easy to glance at pictures of the man or skim articles on his recent endeavours and conclude he was just another old hippie near the end zone trying to get his face on tv.

For the younger readers let me say this: he was the most visible of what was a shockingly tiny microcosm of free thinkers who by their actions and enthusiasms changed western society. Their "movement" was generated on the West Coast; their insistence on humor and do-it-theirself entertainments was Western to the core.

The bus trip which was featured so prominently in the Tom Wolfe book "Electric Kool Aid Acid Test" might seem nuts at this period of time, much as it did then - but safe to say had Kesey and the Merry Pranksters not taken it and had it chronicled, then you wouldn't have seen a bus in the Beatles "Sgt. Pepper" movie, nor for that matter would Charlie Manson have had a black bus. You probably wouldn't have seen "The 60's" as that era played out, either.You can't hide and you can't slide in a day-glo painted school bus.

Beyond this part of his life, Ken Kesey was a huge figure in American letters. His two best books were written early in his life. "One Flew Over The Cukoos Nest" and "Sometimes A Great Notion" are themselves modern westerns, celebrating independence and spirit and as readable today as they were 30 years ago. Kesey published intermittantly in recent years, most recently after the September 11 tragedy with an essay on his website.

I had a chance to hear him read and speak in Eugene probably 15 years ago. It was during the last day of the Eugene Celebration, a three-day city festival held in Autumn. The Hult Center was still fairly new then, a large and beautiful investment in the arts in a small city with one foot in a university and the other still fairly into logging. Kesey was the featured event on a Sunday afternoon.

Far from getting a sedate, Ivy League poetry reading, Kesey came out with all guns blazing. Mincing no words at all, he forthrightly, if gently, lambasted the full house for not paying proper attention to the four-piece chamber music group which was playing in the lobby. This "introduction" to his reading segued into a monologue about the place of the arts in American society, into his place in publishing ("I'm pretty much at the top of the heap" he said, and then went into detail about what he got paid for his most recent work. It wouldn't buy you a luxury car in 2001), and into the years of sacrifice anyone in any art field makes. The actual reading was not nearly as electric as just hearing what was on the man's mind at the time.

I can't imagine the man resting at all, even now. He seemed to live in peace, though; as if he maintained a pretty good balance in his life. If you aren't familar with his life and writings it's worth the time to investigate.

Nels Norene

View From The Beach
Text copyright (C) 2001. All rights reserved