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Kesey's Jail Journalby Ken Kesey
Cut ‘em Loose!
An introduction by Ed McClanahan
In early November 2001, while Ken Kesey lay dying in an Oregon hospital, I was talking to his brother Chuck about the possibility that he might pull through somehow. Taking the optimistic view, I told Chuck about a little incident that had happened several years earlier, when I was visiting Ken just after a stroke had left his right arm and hand temporarily paralyzed. Ken was attempting to pick up a small piece of paper off the desk in his office, and his hand was refusing to cooperate.
“C’mon, hand!” he commanded the offending extremity. “Work!”
“And sure enough,” I told Chuck, “his hand grabbed up that slip of paper so fast you could almost hear the hand squeak, ‘Okay, boss! Okay!’ So I think if anybody could will himself to get well again, it’d be Ken.”
“Well, I don’t think that’s what’s happening,” Chuck said. “I think he’s lookin’ down that long, dark tunnel, and he sees that bright little light down there, and now he’s headed for it.”
That would be like him, I had to admit. That would be very, very like him.
Ken Kesey. Author of a novel (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) which profoundly affected the consciousness of a generation, psychedelic mover and shaker, acid paladin, cosmic iconoclast, hero of yet another book (Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-AidAcid Test) which profoundly affected the consciousness of a generation...
Okay, let me remind you.
In 1962, Kesey - former University of Oregon championship heavyweight wrestler, former graduate student in Wallace Stegner’s and Malcolm Cowley’s seminars in Stegner’s famous Creative Writing Center at Stanford University, and former subject in one of the earliest paid-volunteer, CIA-sponsored research experiments with psychotropic drugs - published his landmark Cuckoo’s Nest, the novel that many believe launched the counter- cultural revolution of the Day-Gb Decade. He followed up in 1964 with the epic Sometimes a Great Notion (which, though it drew mixed reviews, is perhaps the greater of the two books), and seemed well on his way to a long career as a novelist.
Never trust a Prankster. In the summer of 1964, Ken incorporated himself (Intrepid Trips, Inc.), purchased a 1939 International schoolbus, an Aeroflex camera and other serious moviemaking gear, gathered about him at his La Honda, California, home a group of old and new friends (over the next several years their number would fluctuate from as high as thirty down to half a dozen hardy souls), set them to work preparing the bus for the caper he was planning (the preparations largely consisted of finger-painting its aged yellow fuse lage in an infinite variety of colors), hollered the equivalent of “All ashore that’s going ashore!” (about fifteen people weren’t), and struck out for the New York World’s Fair, with the intention of making, along the way, a film rather cumbrously entitled Intrepid Traveler and His Merry Band of Pranksters Look for a Kool Place.
It turned out to be arguably the longest, strangest trip that’s ever been, an odyssey which delivered to an unprepared America its first national contact high, and which, it might be said, resolutely proceeds apace to this very day. The bus - ”FURTHER,” read the manifest - piloted by Beat Generation icon Neal Cassady, meandered across the country outraging local sensibilities at every opportunity and raising consciousness at a prodigious rate, to such an extent that the whole escapade captured the national attention and Kesey’s fame as a novelist began to be subsumed by his notoriety as a cultural phenomenon.
Two months later, Kesey and the Pranksters were back in La Honda with thirty-six hours of 16-millimeter color film of their adventures, which they intended to edit down to a feature-length movie. They set up a cutting room in a shed in Kesey’s yard, and in April 1965, they were still editing away (the Keseys’ 1964 Christmas tree had been decorated with about half a mile of cut film) when the sheriff of San Mateo County and his merry band of deputies swept down and arrested Kesey and thirteen of the Pranksters for possession of marijuana. All were released on bail the following day, and the charges against twelve of the fourteen were soon dropped; but in December, Kesey and one other Prankster - Page Browning, a longtime friend - were convicted, sentenced to six months in jail and three years of probation, then released on appeal.
During the seven-month interim between the arrest and the conviction, Kesey and the Pranksters, along with the then-unknown rock band that became known as the Grateful Dead, had begun to produce a series of psychedelically enhanced Saturday night happenings they called “The Acid Test.” As word spread, ever-larger crowds turned out for these public events, which were held at various Bay Area venues.
On the weekend following Kesey’s conviction, the Acid Test was scheduled to be the main attraction of a three-day marathon psychedelic circus called the Trips Festival (the promoters were Kesey, Whole Earth Catalog publisher Stewart Brand, and rock impresario Bill Graham) which would be held in the vast, big-top-like Longshoremen’s Hall on Fish erman’s Wharf. Many unheralded Bay Area rock groups signed up to perform - among them the Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Charlatans, Big Brother and the Holding Company (with their bluesy, blowzy young singer Janis Joplin), and, of course, the Grateful Dead - and there would also be throbbing-blob light shows, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a Stewart Brand slide show called “America Needs Indians,” and, topping the bill, Ken Kesey’s Acid Test.
Five nights before the Trips Festival was to open, Kesey was arrested again, this time on a San Francisco rooftop in the company of a nineteen-year-old Prankster named Carolyn “Mountain Girl” Adams. . . and a small quantity of marijuana.
Kesey, once again free on bail, did participate in the Trips Festival, which was a huge success. An estimated 12,000 subterranean freaks, heads, Bohos, and retro-Beats crept out of their cribs and digs and pads into the light and found to their amazement that there were 11,999 other freaks, just like themselves, in town. Presto! In the blink of a weekend, a brand-new community discovers itself and instantly becomes a major force in the city’s political and cultural life. By defining and energizing it, the Trips Festival may be said to have begat the entire fledgling San Francisco psychedelic rock scene - the Fillmore Audito rium (Bill Graham’s principal venue), Winterland, Chet Helms’s Family Dog, the Avalon Ballroom, and half a dozen smaller Bay Area hotspots - which in turn spawned Life As We Know It. And Ken Kesey had won a permanent place in the embryonic history of rock ‘n’ roll, not in the usual way (though in fact the Pranksters once formed their own rock group and cut an unforgettably dubious LP) but as the inventor of a whole new way to listen.
Within a week after the festival, an elderly truck registered to Kesey and containing a pair of fluorescent sneakers (a Kesey trademark) and a suicide note (“Ocean, ocean, I’ll beat you in the end... “) was found parked atop a cliff above the sea along a lonely stretch of the northern California coast. And Ken Kesey, disguised as “mild-mannered reporter Steve Lamb,” was in sunny Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, knockin’ back the margaritas.
There he remained for almost two months, until he attempted to phone his wife, Faye, in California, and a well-intentioned friend inadvertently mentioned the call in the presence of a real newspaper reporter. “Kesey the Corpse Having a Ball!” screamed the next day’s headlines. Friends frantically wired him that the jig was up, and after hiding out in the Puerto Vallarta jungle for several days he made his way south to Manzanillo, a tropical beach resort rarely visited by gringo tourists. Meanwhile, the Texas novelist Larry McMurtry (Kesey’s close friend since their student days at Stanford) had arranged, through a Mexico City attorney, for Kesey to be granted a temporary and somewhat shaky amnesty by the local Colima government. Within weeks a small coterie of Pranksters had arrived, bus and all, followed shortly by Faye and the three Kesey children, ‘They set up shop in a house on the Manzanillo beach and began again to work on the film, which by this time was nearly fifty hours long and seemed to be growing faster than the editing process could manage to shrink it.
Kesey remained in Manzanillo for the next six months, an idyll frequently shattered by the sometimes real, sometimes imagined threat of Federales, “FBEyes,” or vacationing deputies from the San Mateo County sheriff’s office. In the fall of 1966, Kesey returned to the States, this time crossing the border on a borrowed horse, carrying a guitar and calling himself “Singin’ Jimmy Anglund.” He hid out for nearly two weeks in the homes of Bay Area friends, granted interviews to trusted newspaper and TV reporters, and “rubbed salt in J. Edgar Hoover’s wounds” until half a dozen FBI agents in a carpool chanced to spot him in stop-and-go traffic on the Bayshore Freeway, gave chase, and got their man at last.
Kesey was released within a few days, after several of his friends put up their homes to make his bail. He was then tried on the San Francisco charge, and convicted of a misde meanor (“knowingly being in a place where marijuana is possessed”). In the meantime, his San Mateo County appeal had failed, and on June 23, 1967, he and Page Browning entered the San Mateo County jail and were shortly thereafter transferred to the Sheriff’s Honor Camp (a facility located in the coastal redwood country almost literally a stone’s throw from Kesey’s own La Honda backyard) to serve out their old six-month sentences.
Every two or three Sundays during those months, my first wife, Kit, and I would pack up our three kids and a picnic basket and drive up to the Honor Camp to have a picnic lunch with the yardbirds. The first time we went, Kit took Ken a stash of art supplies she’d picked out, including a set of Day-Gb pens. And on our second visit, he showed up with the first few pages of this luminous illuminated manuscript (imagine here a monk in his cell…;a cell with bars!) called Cut the Motberfuckers Loose, an illustrated journal of the incarceration he was currently enjoying.
It came as no surprise to me that Ken could draw (years before, I’d seen a batch of his razor-sharp sketches of the characters in Cuckoo’s Nest) or that he had a great pop-aesthetic sense of color and design (the bus itself testified to that). What was astonishing, though, as we saw more and more of these pages on subsequent visits, was that he could sustain such a high level of intensity, page after page after page, each so crammed with words and colors and faces and forms that it seemed ready to explode in your face like a letter bomb. For a jail, the Sheriff’s Honor Camp was relatively humane, but as one might suppose, confine ment chafed and galled Ken even more than it would most people, and therefore capital-C Confinement is an almost palpable evil presence in the journal, just as all those words and images and colors seem to be in constant struggle against the edges of the page. The text, with its antic spellings and deliberate crudities and fragments of pin-up porn, is like runic scribblings on the jailhouse wall: cramped, volatile, funny, and as conspiratorial as a jail break.
After his release, Ken beat a strategic retreat to Oregon, and he and Faye set up house keeping in an old dairy barn on a small farm near Springfield, where Faye still lives today. In late 1967, a few pages of Kesey’s jail journals appeared in Ramparts magazine, reduced to the size of playing cards, in “color” but, compared to the originals, looking as muddy and murky as if they’d been dipped in bongwater.
Up in Oregon, Ken spent the next several months working on the jail journal, with an eye to publishing it in book form, until it became apparent that print technology as it existed at that time simply wasn’t capable of doing justice to this oversized, illustrated work. He reluctantly abandoned the project, and the finished pages eventually landed in the Special Collections room of the University of Oregon, which has extensive holdings of Ken’s papers. Meanwhile, the bus trip film was proving stubbornly resistant to all attempts to cut it down to size, and it too was eventually shelved.
In the mid-1990s, modern technology came to the rescue of the 1964 movie when the new, computerized Avid editing machine made it possible at last to transfer all that old film footage to videotape, edit it, and synchronize the sound. Kesey, his longtime friend and cohort Ken Babbs, and a couple of techno-savvy second-generation Pranksters completed two hour-long videos (a third is in the works) and made them available on the Prankster website (www.intrepidtrips.com).
During the thirty-odd years after his return to Oregon, Kesey had published many books - autobiographical essays, cultural commentary, children’s books, a wonderful grab-bag miscellany called Garage Sale, even another novel or two, as well as six issues of an extraordinary little magazine, Spit in the Ocean. But the fabled jail book languished in an archival box on a shelf in the library until, mirabile dictu, it happened again: new tech nology rode to the rescue and made possible the remarkable volume you now hold before you.
But way back in 1990 there had transpired the first of these miraculous resuscitations, this time of Further itself. Actually, the original Further - the Ur-Further, I like to call it - was long since beyond saving, so Ken had retired it to the swamp behind the barn. He bought himself a ringer, a compact ‘49 International bus in good running order, and turned it into the sweetest little article of psychedelic rolling stock that ever toddled down the pike.
Fittingly, when Ken died eleven years later, the renascent Further bore him in grand style to his grave.
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