- More Than Just a Man Of Words, Ken Kesey Was a Man Of Action
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 92.
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 dont recall everything Kesey spoke about, but Ill 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 teams 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, and if Im not mistaken, he mixed in a few Garcia anecdotes for good measure.
Kesey also read to us from his wonderful childrens book,
Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear. No, strike that. He didnt 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 whos creative vision pushed the psychedelic counter culture into motion. For me, the connection to Kesey was the Grateful Dead. Like so many others, the Deads 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 theres 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, Keseys animated voice boomed out the opening lines to the Deads U.S. Blues.
My first reaction was a smile. Id 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 Keseys 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.
Lee Abraham is a freelance music journalist currently on assignment in Ocean Beach, California. Check out his Adventures In Music Journalism website (www.mrlee.com) or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.