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[This Just In]

Ken Kesey, 1935-2001


Author and psychedelic adventurer Ken Kesey’s death last Saturday, November 10, came at a poignant time. During the ’60s, Kesey launched a crusade against cultural and political suppression from his California base, becoming the primary architect of hippie culture. The multifaceted, drug-laced performance events he staged called Acid Tests translated the aesthetics of the Beats for a younger generation in San Francisco, who in turn produced an outpouring of intellectually liberated visual art, dance, and music.

Rock groups such as the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Big Brother & the Holding Company spearheaded this new wave, carrying it across the country and eventually to Europe. Without Kesey’s influence, events like the Monterey Pop Festival, Woodstock, and perhaps even the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago might never have occurred. As 66-year-old Kesey slipped away due to complications from liver-cancer surgery, the cultural and creative freedoms that he helped to foster took yet another hit from our increasingly conservative government, when new legislation interfering with Americans’ liberties was passed under the guise of anti-terrorist measures.

Kesey became an acid guru, a peer of Timothy Leary, who advocated drug use to break loose from social conventions after taking part in a paid hospital study of psychomimetic chemicals in 1959. In 1962 he fired his most potent volley at the establishment in the form of his first published novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

In 1964 Kesey and his cronies (including Jack Cassidy, Jack Kerouac’s model for Dean Moriarity in On the Road), whom he called "the Merry Pranksters," boarded a Day-Glo-painted bus dubbed "Furthur" for a cross-country odyssey to New York with the avowed intention of stopping "the coming end of the world." They put on performances in random locations and blasted music from the bus’s roof in an effort to engage all strata of society in a dialogue to find common ground. This trip became the springboard for Tom Wolfe’s early new-journalism chronicle The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

Kesey published his second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, in 1964. Its story of an Oregon logging family is also a fable treating the conflicts between freedom and social structure. But the establishment was closing in on Kesey, as it does on everyone who dares to step outside its confines so publicly. He served six months on a prison farm for drug possession in 1967, and thereafter his protests grew quieter, even if his fundamental beliefs remained largely unchanged.

There was also another side to Kesey. He was raised in a farm community, was a star athlete in high school and college, and married his high-school sweetheart, Faye Hixby. He lived his last 30 years on a farm in Oregon with Faye, daughters Shannon and Sunshine, and sons Zane and Jed. (Jed died in a 1984 car accident.) His third novel, Sailor Song, was published in 1992, and his fourth, Last Go Round: A Dime Western, in 1994. But by his own admission, Cuckoo’s Nest remained his best. He published several books of nonfiction, most notably 1986’s Demon Box, a collection of essays and stories. Kesey’s writing also appeared occasionally in a number of publications, including Rolling Stone.

Issue Date: November 15 - 22, 2001

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