May not be an ideal time to try, but having finished Robert Stone’s Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties this afternoon, I’m going to take a stab at getting down some of my thoughts and memories of his friend Ken Kesey. Some reviews complained that Stone’s portrait of Kesey was a sketch from the middle distance, but Stone picked his details with a novelist’s care (he didn’t dwell much on his children because he wanted to respect their privacy and because it was a book about the era and the people he knew and the role they played in it – it was not “me and my friends and me and my family”). On top of that, Stone notes that there was something “ineffable” about the times and the characters and I think that goes double for Kesey. Granted, I only spent time on and off with him for about six weeks in the late spring and early summer more than 40 years ago.
Kesey was passing through Missoula to do a reading and visit with some of the far-flung members of the Merry Pranksters (including my teacher Ed McClanahan) who were hanging out in the area. Plus, the atmosphere of Missoula in 1974 was sure as hell closer to the primo passages of underground San Francisco than that place was at the time.
Stone notes that Kesey’s presence and effect is hard to convey (then and now). His public persona was like performance art before its time, but not exactly. He was not a prisoner of being “Ken Kesey Famous Wild Man” like some I encountered – he was too assured and unbound by his persona. And the best performance art is honed and practiced to be repeatable. Kesey’s charisma was not even so much persona as everyday self-expression. He had diverse effects on people. He freaked them out (all the straights in Missoula). He ran over them like a train, leaving them unhurt but in the dust (some of the straights). He swatted aside too-cool irony hounds and the like (the disengagement of Beats was not for him). Or he swept you up into a kind of ongoing social-interaction circus that tipped your mind and emotions into open territory you didn’t know existed. If you got it, in some ways it was like becoming part of a real-life cartoon. A cavalcade of gestures, word routines, open-ended raps and romps and cutting-up that was meant to rumple the fabric of the ordinary in every semi-benevolent way possible. If you instinctively understood what was going on, you were on the bus.
In a very minor way, I clicked with this and Kesey made it clear I was through the door. He invited me to guest with him on some panel discussing I don’t remember what at the stuffy new riverside motel in Missoula and when it was protested that this shouldn’t be happening at such a stuffy new riverside motel I lovened up the proceedings by tearing my shirt off in front of the crowd. Keysey invited me to attend the launch party for his indie literary publication “Spit in the Ocean” out at the dairy farm in Oregon the next month and of course I went.
Robert Stone also invokes Dante’s admonition that if you remember too much of the best fun you ever had during much worse times later it is a profound pain if not outright punishment. So better for me that it’s now sketchy but with a sun-glint glow. Besides, the Kesey routines that seemed so much fun, so engrossing and even mind-expanding were hard to convey later. Yes, much like LSD trips. But that doesn’t mean they did not have their effects. Only when you describe them in quotes or narratives, they don’t seem stupid or silly, just … nothing special.
Here’s one I can recall from a party at the “Spit in the Ocean” launch. Roaring music, in the midst of zonked dancers, we’re all sweeping to a peak, Kesey suddenly mimes loading up and rolling a joint the size of a tree trunk (very precisely, very vividly), lifts it up, lights it, and dramatically smokes it down to the size of the (whoa) regular joint he magically has ready to pass to the person next to him. You hadda be there.
The last couple times I talked with him, I sensed that Kesey and I were done with each other for the time, which turned out to be forever. I was a zippy 23-year-old wanna-be writer who would have to accomplish more to keep his interest and that was plenty generous enough attention for me. I share Stone’s conviction that if Kesey had been able to take all his questing energy, all his search for the words God wrote in fire and turn it into literature, he might have been the writer of the era for all time. But also the certainty that was not going to happen.
I’m gonna elevate this by giving the last words to Robert Stone, in the most lyrical hale and farewell to the prankster moment that I have ever read:
Life had given Americans so much by the mid-sixties that we were all a little drunk on possibility. Things were speeding out of control before we could define them. Those of us who cared most deeply about the changes, those who gave their lives to them, were, I think, the most deceived. While we were playing shadow tag in the San Francisco suburbs, other revolutions were counting their chips. Curved, finned, corporate Tomorrowland, as presented at the 1964 world’s fair, was over before it began and we were borne along with it into a future that no one would have recognized, a world that no one could have wanted. Sex, drugs, and death were demystified. The LSD we took as a tonic of psychic liberation turned out to have been developed by CIA researchers as a weapon of the cold war. We had gone to a party in La Honda in 1963 that followed us out the door and into the street and filled the world with funny colors. But the prank was on us.