More Than Just a Man Of Words, Ken Kesey Was a Man Of Action
by Lee Abraham
I only crossed paths with Ken Kesey once. He spoke and I listened. Me and about two hundred others. Kesey was on tour promoting something. He was always promoting something. This time around I think it was his -Sailor Song- book, which was published in Ď92. Looking back, memories of that night are fuzzy. I recall getting to the lecture hall early, taking a seat in the back row and watching the room fill up with college kids, literary types, academicians and hippies of all ages. It was quite a crowd.
To be perfectly honest, I donít recall everything Kesey spoke about, but Iíll never forget his energy. Ken Kesey was captivating. He was a showman. And a shaman. His words were poetry and his movements a ballet of intrepid intellect. I know he spoke about his son Jed, a member of the University of Oregon wrestling team, who was killed in a traffic wreck involving the teamís van, which lead to a lengthy rant against the monopolistic authority presiding over major college sports, the NCAA. He also talked about being a college instructor, teaching students about writing novels. And yeah, he talked about the Acid Tests, the bus, the Merry Pranksters, his best seller One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and if Iím not mistaken, he mixed in a few Garcia anecdotes for good measure.
Kesey also read to us from his wonderful childrenís book, Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear. No, strike that. He didnít read -to- us. Kesey channeled the energy of his work -for- us, breathing life into words and putting a charge into the spirit of his listeners. He touched my soul through the passion and uninhibited enthusiasm with which he delivered his message. Let me put it to you this way: I was proud of Ken Kesey. More to the point, I was proud to be in some remote way connected to this boundless spirit, a man whoís creative vision pushed the psychedelic counter culture into motion.
For me, the connection to Kesey was the Grateful Dead. Like so many others, the Deadís music, and all the varying manifestations of the community surrounding that music, has been a big part of my life. And Kesey was more than just a point man for that scene. He was its elder. Its benefactor. Its pioneer. Daring to push the envelope of perception, his ability to articulate the experience stood up under the glare of main stream scrutiny. Kesey had the goods. He was a star.
As I said, a lot of the details from that night are now murky. But thereís one part that will be forever etched into my mind - the way Kesey ended the night. Asking everyone to rise, he announced that we were going to sing the national anthem. And then standing at the front of the room, Keseyís animated voice boomed out the opening lines to the Deadís ĎU.S. Blues.í My first reaction was a smile. Iíd say about half the people there knew what was going on. For a moment or two, I watched Kesey, a big, burly guy, as he sang loud and open. And then without thinking, I started singing too. Quietly at first. And then the energy loop clicked, fed by Keseyís exuberance I relaxed and sang louder, finding the key, then projecting it. My emotions soared. And then a few people around me started to sing, while others remained silent, content to just look around the room amused. It was perfect.
The bond formed by shedding inhibition with like minded folks is a magical connection. And I still get goose bumps thinking about how Kesey furthered that point by example, rather than explanation. Sure, Ken Kesey was a man of words, but on that very special night in a college lecture hall not quite a decade ago, his actions spoke even louder...
Ken Kesey died at age 66 on November 10th, 2001.