Ken Kesey made his mark on 20th century American history in two significant ways: Firstly as the best selling author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) and Sometimes a Great Notion (1964), he garnered a deserved reputation as an important figure in American literature. Secondly, his drug-fueled activities and promotion of large public Acid Test parties in and around San Francisco in the early 1960s played a foundational role in the countercultural scene that would emerge there later in the decade.
Ken Elton Kesey was born in 1935 in La Junta, Colorado. As a young boy his family moved to Oregon, eventually settling in Springfield where his father worked in the dairy business. Kesey’s early family life gave him a connection to nature and the Pacific Northwest that informed much of his life’s work. At high school he was both a skilled athlete and an accomplished entertainer; winning applause for his victories on the wrestling mat and for his magic and ventriloquist shows. In 1953, he enrolled as a speech and communications major at the University of Oregon, Eugene where he continued to pursue his high school interests to considerable success. He acted in a number of stage productions, and wrote for the college newspaper, as well as for local radio and television. Eager to pursue an acting career, he spent some of his College summer months in Los Angeles trying to break into the world of Hollywood but with no great luck. His wrestling brought him greater acclaim, winning him awards and a scholarship for his efforts, and were it not for a shoulder injury that he picked-up late in his college career, he may have had a chance to make the USA team for the 1960 Rome Olympics.
A Woodrow Wilson scholarship took him to Stanford University, California in 1958 to be part of a graduate creative writing program that was tutored by well-known literary figures such as Malcolm Cowley, Wallace Stegner, Richard Scowcroft and Frank O’Connor. His classmates on the program included Robert Stone, Larry McMurty, Ken Babbs, and Wendell Berry, all of whom would go on to be writers of some note and lifelong friends of Kesey. Kesey and his wife, Faye, moved into a house on Perry Lane after they got a coupon, the bohemian sector of Palo Alto that was home to some of the area’s literary, intellectual and artistic set. It was here that Kesey first befriended some of the early Merry Pranksters, began writing a novel, Zoo, about the North Beach beat scene in nearby San Francisco, and began experimenting with mind-altering drugs. The parties at Perry Lane and the adventurous, inquisitive nature of the people Kesey encountered there would set the tone for much of his activities to follow.
On the suggestion of a friend and neighbor, Vik Lovell, Kesey had volunteered in the spring of 1960 to be a subject for the drug studies then being carried out at the Veterans Administration Hospital at Menlo Park. Kesey was paid to ingest various psychoactive drugs, including LSD-25, and report on their effects to the government-sponsored scientists conducting the experiments. He began surreptitiously taking some of these drugs back to Perry Lane where they became an important part of the scene there. By April of the following year, Kesey was also working as an aide on the mental wards of the VA hospital. Inspired by the patients that he encountered and the hallucinogenic drugs that he had taken (sometimes on the job), Kesey soon completed the book that he had been working on: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
The publication of Cuckoo’s Nest in 1962 brought Kesey instant public acclaim and eventually enough money to buy a spread in La Honda, up in the redwood hills of San Mateo County, about fifteen miles inland from Palo Alto. The log house and surrounding woodland was soon home to more than just Kesey and his family. By 1964, populated with old friends from Perry Lane and additional like-minded fellow travelers, the place had become a very odd rural community. If Perry Lane was fun, La Honda was genuinely weird. Hunter S. Thompson remembered it as “the world capital of madness. There were no rules, fear was unknown and sleep was out of the question.” Family life coexisted at La Honda with all manner of pharmaceutical experimentation, expressionistic living, and wild parties that were attended by the likes of Allen Ginsberg, the local Hells Angels, and a selection of San Francisco’s hip community.
Amongst the madness, Kesey was somehow able to put the finishing touches to his second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion. To celebrate the book’s publication in New York, Kesey and his friends decided to embark on a cross country trip in the summer of 1964. They purchased an old school bus for the purpose, but it soon became far more than just a mode of transport; it became a stage and a canvas for the craziness they were about to inflict on an unprepared America. Kesey and the Pranksters painted the bus in lurid swirls of bright colors and they named it “furthur,” their supposed destination. Its refrigerator stocked with a bottle of LSD-laced orange juice and with Neal Cassady – real life hero of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road – at the wheel, they set off, filming and recording along the way for the movie that they intended to make of their adventures. The journey took them through the Deep South, up to New York City where they went to the World’s Fair and held a party for Kerouac himself, on to meet Timothy Leary in up state New York, and then home via Canada and the Essalen Institute at Big Sur California.
The trip was a defining moment for Kesey and the Pranksters. It gave them the sense that by acting out their LSD-inspired visions they could shake up the world around them and have fun at the same time. Disappointed by some mixed reviews of Sometimes a Great Notion, but motivated by the possibilities that the experiences of the bus trip and LSD seemed to offer, Kesey renounced writing and set out to explore these possibilities further. Back in California, the private parties at La Honda evolved into large-scale public events that the Pranksters publicized as Acid Tests. Attendees who paid their one-dollar cover charge were treated to a cup of “electric” Kool-Aid at the door, a room full of interactive multi-media gear to play with, and the music of the acid test houseband, the Grateful Dead. What would soon be called psychedelic art hung on the walls, illuminated by light shows that projected whirls of undulating, “trippy” colors indiscriminately around the hall. The event would usually last all night, and those who had made it through the experience could congratulate themselves for having “passed the Acid Test.”
The Acid Tests were held through 1965 and 1966, mostly in California, but with the odd excursion further afield. They are usually credited with introducing LSD to large numbers of people and setting the hedonistic, experimental tone of much that was to follow in the Haight Ashbury and beyond. The Acid Tests keyed into a San Franciscan underground scene that was already growing and evolving into what the media would later refer to as the “hippie trip.” Tired of the police harassment and the glare of tourists looking for “beatniks,” many residents of North Beach were moving down into the Haight Ashbury region of the city where rents were cheap and an artistic, expressive atmosphere prevailed. The three day Trips Festival of January, 1966 – organized by Prankster Stewart Brand and starring Kesey, the Grateful Dead, and the rest of the Pranksters – announced to the thousands who attended that they were part of something larger and more important than they might have imagined beforehand.
Kesey himself only played a peripheral role in the emerging “hippie” scene. He had been arrested for possession of marijuana at La Honda in 1965. He was still appealing the six month sentence that had been handed down to him in 1966 when he was arrested a second time on January 19th, 1966, a week or so before the Trips Festival. Trying to avoid the jail time that now seemed inevitable, Kesey faked his own suicide and ran off to Mexico, where he hid out for much of 1966 with his family and Prankster friends. Dissatisfied with the life of a fugitive, he snuck back over the border in the fall of 1966, but was arrested by the FBI in October. In June of 1967, he dropped his appeal to the earlier conviction, reached a plea bargain over the second charge, and started serving his time in the San Mateo County Jail. Released in November, and prevented under the terms of his probation from returning to La Honda, Kesey headed back to Oregon. There, barring a few months working for the Beatles’ Apple Records in London in early 1969, he has pretty much stayed ever since; writing, farming, raising his family, and planning and enacting various projects with the other Pranksters.
In 1973 he compiled and contributed to Kesey’s Garage Sale, a collection of interviews, articles and short pieces that includes his screenplay entitled “Over the Border” that was loosely based on his exploits in Mexico. Through the 1970s he continued to publish short stories and essays in a variety of publications, most notably in a literary journal, Spit in the Ocean, that he and Babbs published themselves. Many of these writings were collected and republished in Demon Box (1986). He subsequently published two children’s books, Little Trickler the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear (1988) and The Sea Lion (1991); another autobiographical screenplay, The Further Inquiry (based on the cross country bus trip of 1964); a novel, his first since 1964, called Sailor Song (1992); and another, this one a collaborative effort with Ken Babbs, entitled Last Go Round (1994). More recently, he and Babbs launched a Prankster website, IntrepidTrips.com, and released a number of videotapes culled from the thousands of feet of film and audio footage that the Pranksters have collected over the years.
Ken Kesey died on November 10, 2001.