Kesey goes out in proper tie-dye

Thursday, November 15, 2001


EUGENE, Ore. -- Black or tie-dye? That was the fashion question at yesterday's multimedia memorial to the Merriest Prankster, the Impromptu Impresario, the Great Northwest Novelist and master of Now-ism, Ken Kesey, who went to his grave in a casket painted in psychedelic swirls of neon color.

Ray Sewell chose tie-dye for the service, a story-filled sendoff that drew a capacity crowd at the 800-seat McDonald Theater in Eugene.

"I decided to come as I am," said Sewell, one of the original Merry Band of Pranksters who tripped across the country with Kesey in the free-wheeling '60s Day-Glo bus "Furthur," made famous in Tom Wolfe's "The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test."

The graying, pony-tailed Prankster, with a bee's nest beard, tie-dye T, black jeans with red suspenders and a button given him by Kesey that read "High Pride," was teary-eyed as he recalled his last visit with Kesey Saturday at Sacred Heart Medical Center in Eugene, following surgery for cancer of the liver. Kesey was just 66. "He looked tired, worn-out. He had given everything, right to the last thought, right to the last flash."

Sewell, who moved from San Francisco to take part in the alternative culture that took root on the Kesey farm, shared hugs and stories with friends of "the tribe" who gathered in his eatery/diner Chez Ray's, prior to the noontime service. He reminisced about watching football games with Kesey, a pot of chili on the stove, wieners in the microwave and a cigar box of marijuana at hand. He remembered all the potlucks in Kesey's barn that turned into rehearsals for art performances. He remembered endless laughter. It was like a chant, he said. "You never knew what would happen with Ken. It was a constant stream of uncertainty."

Crowds began gathering outside the McDonald Theater two hours before the service, organized by Kesey kin. Outside were pictures from Kesey's multifaceted life: the pensive young writer of "Sometimes a Great Notion" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" with pen to mouth; Kesey as farmer, pitchfork in hand, red bandana around head; Kesey with grandkids, with Pranksters, with wife, Faye, his high-school sweetheart.

Many in attendance had driven hundreds of miles to pay their respects to a man who not only made art, but lived it. "He inspired me in many ways," said John Goldman, a computer consultant from Seattle who drove to Eugene with a picture of his own '60s bus, "Our Annex," on the dashboard. "It's like Ken said, 'You're either on the bus or you're off it.'"

The first speaker was the president of the University of Oregon, Dave Frohnmayer, who wore a traditional suit, with Jerry Garcia tie. He remembered Kesey as a stern disciplinarian in the writing classes he taught at the school, but a gentle-hearted man who sent him a box of books engraved with a dip of his "psychedelic pen" when Frohnmayer's daughter was diagnosed with fanconi anemia.

"He would be less worried about being a great man than a good man," Frohnmayer said, to a theater full of nodding heads, dampened sniffles and sighs.

Sterling Lord, Kesey's New York literary agent since the '60s, recalled the day when the leader of the Merry Pranksters finally arrived with bus in the Big Apple and called him. "He said, 'Sterling, when we hit New York, the city just rolled over on its back and purred.'"

A video presentation on large screen brought Kesey to life, performing as a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher in a Eugene production. "Please bow your heads in disbelief," Kesey told his audience. As he launched into "Shall we gather at the river?" the crowd at McDonald Theater joined in, under the sway of the larger-than-life figure on screen.

The master of Now was temporarily back in the moment..

Prankster Ken Babbs, who first met Kesey in writing class at Stanford University and joined in all his adventures, jumped on stage, patted the coffin and launched into tale after tale. He described rounding up recruits for the bus: "We were the astronauts of inner space." He described lying around on the floor with Kesey, microphones to mouth, lights off, making up novels beginning to end. He talked about the festivals Kesey organized, the pranks he played, the piles of manuscripts he left behind.

Though many now criticize the glorification of drugs in the '60s, Babbs declared the '60s, psychedelia, love and peace still alive. "Spread goodness!" said the grinning Prankster in the fringed leather vest.

After a tearful singing of "Amazing Grace," and an eloquent reading from "Sometimes a Great Notion," pallbearers carried the psychedelic casket down the aisles of the old theater to the street, where Furthur II, the latter-day knockoff of the original bus, waited in all its painted glory, with mandalas and doves, an oo-oga horn and a jester hood ornament.

As the body departed for a private service at the family farm, visitors clumped outside to cheer, some waving a memorial service program with Kesey's words at the bottom:

"The answer is never the answer. What's really interesting is the mystery. If you seek the mystery instead of the answer, you'll always be seeking."