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
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 :
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
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
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 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
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
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
Home(stead) Page: http://www.eff.org/~barlow