A Vicarious Sobriety With Mr. Kesey

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Above is a photo of me taken in 1987. I am living in the Campus Quads three houses up from Serenity Lane on 16th. Avenue in Eugene Oregon. Two blocks away, on 15th. Ken Kesey has rented a house. Inside,  thirteen University of Oregon students are co-authoring  a book called, Caverns. My childhood friend invited me to the reading of this JOINT EFFORT when the project was complete. Nancy was present at my graduation from Serenity Lane. She invited me to ride on Further with Ken in the Eugene Celebration. Nancy gave me a backstage pass to a the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, concert at Autzen Stadium. Ken met us at the ticket office, and he is checking me out. Nancy wants us to talk, but it is not happening. I know she has told Ken about me. She wants us to be friends. I was leary because I just got clean and sober. I was afraid he would offer me a joint and a beer. What peer pressure that would be.

Yesterday I found Ken’s own words where he admits he has a drinking problem. His biographer says Ken drank himself to death. I now suspect Nancy wanted me to help Ken get what I got. I told Nancy I got sober so I could stay alive and finish the two novels I started at the University Hotel. One of them was ‘The Gideon Computer’. In 1985, Nancy suggested I write a biography about the hippies because I could recall so much. I wrote about the last hippie standing – in the future – who has a drinking problem.

Ken had a writing problem that is traced to his drinking problem. He could not write. For years no biography of Oregon’s most famous author, existed. Families of alcoholics tend to form a wall of silence around the abuser of drugs and alcohol. Like myself, Ken feared he would lose his cool image if he got sober. Ken and I are Berkeley Bill Bolagard, a mechanical genius that has to deal with grandiosity and his blackouts.

Bill was born a week after I took the LSD the Native American offered me outside my favorite bar the night the gun would not fire. I got back to my room and tripped. In the morning I wake to find a four page suicide note by my bed. This letter explains in profoundly clear language why I have to take my life. I describe the pain I am suffering. I am deeply moved by my rigorous honesty. A writer is born.

I go buy a used Royal typewriter, and move my table to the window, which I open wide. I start pecking away;

“Click! click! click! click! click!”

I know he is out there, somewhere, my Moriarty, my Lazzaro, my Death. I want him to come see me typing away. I want him to look up and threaten and curse me. I see myself waving to him as I take the writer’s pipe out of my mouth.

“The top of the morning to you, lad! Are you heading down the moors to say hello to your Banchees?”

I am getting off Amtrak to wait for an opening in the New Hope Program at Serenity Lane. My brothers and sisters in recovery call me ‘Oakland Johnny’ because of my hat that I bought on Broadway in Downtown Oakland.  There is another photo taken from the balcony that looks down on Ken’s house. I will have to go dig it up.

My aftercare graduation package said this;

“Write! Write! Write!”

I am on Further waving to the crowd in the streets of downtown. I am wearing my Oakland Johnnie hat. A clown is wearing a red clown nose. Ken is wearing a Captain’s hat. We smile! We are fighting for our lives. Such is the life of creative writers.

Below is a video of Izzy Whetstine reading a poem at the Granary while Kenny Reed backs him up with his Jazz band. Izzy was in ‘Animal House’ and the sequel. I read my poem after Izzy was done. Consider Ken’s house of writers. It’s most hard to quit your clowning around. That is Ken’s son, Zane, in front of Further.

Jon Presco

Copyright 2014

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A nursing supervisor at Sacred Heart Medical Center in Eugene, Oregon, said Kesey “passed away peacefully in his sleep´´ with his family at his side. He suffered from liver cancer, a condition complicated by diabetes and a minor stroke he suffered four years ago.




April 26, 2001
Vol. 35, No. 17

By Tom Natell

Still Tripping

Counterculture legend Ken Kesey keeps his hallucinogenic halcyon days alive through videos, books and the internet

During the 1960s, Ken Kesey produced two great novels—One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes A Great Notion—and gathered together a band of colorful friends who became known as the Merry Pranksters. They added a bright paint job to an old bus, then went on one of the most bizarre tours of the American roadscape ever recorded.

Many years have passed since those vibrant psychedelic days of yore, and some wear on the author’s health has begun to show. “I had a stroke three or four years ago—I’m fine now,” he says, adding that he thinks alcohol abuse was a factor in the stroke. “It caught me where I needed to be caught. Since then, I don’t drink near as much—in fact, I don’t drink anything now.” He admits that his alcohol consumption led to his being “real blurry there for a while. . . . Since I’ve stopped drinking, I remember a whole lot more stuff.” He’s also been diagnosed with diabetes, which he has been able to keep under control through diet.

In Kesey’s case, not many could take what he could. Owsley Stanley, the infamous LSD maker, was quoted in Rolling Stone as saying that for most people 150-200 micrograms is a proper dose. “When you get to 400, you just totally lose it,” Stanley said. “I don’t care who you are. Kesey liked 400. He wanted to lose it.” Wolfe reported that Kesey sometimes took as much as 1,500 micrograms. “But what may have braked (Kesey’s) literary output and ascent was the cumulative sledgehammer effect of 400 to 1,500 mg. doses,” Christensen writes.The notion that Kesey fried his brain makes some sense but is incomplete. Throughout his life, he offered all sorts of explanations for why he quit writing novels for almost 30 years. A popular one was that his life became his art and that, as he said in 1965, “to continue writing would mean that I couldn’t continue my work.” Christensen is at his sharpest when he points out how much time and effort Kesey put into filming his life, an enterprise that anticipated reality TV by decades.


After Kesey settled into a quieter life in Pleasant Hill, he involved himself in the community and led a respectable life built around his family and friends. He also drank heavily, something that isn’t widely known. Jeff Forrester, who took Kesey’s creative writing class at the University of Oregon, told Christensen, “Ken drank himself to death. Even after he found out he had hepatitis C, he kept drinking. He had diabetes. But he kept drinking, and he just wasn’t gonna stop.”

Kesey was a loquacious man who gave hundreds of interviews. The question of why he stopped writing novels and started taking massive amounts of drugs when he was on his way to becoming the greatest novelist the Pacific Northwest has ever known will never be answered. He tried, and in a 1989 talk at the Yachats Community Presbyterian Church he sounded like he had second thoughts.”If I were to redo my life, I would try to develop a really steady writing everyday thing,” Kesey said. “I would.”


Paul Lazzaro

Another POW. A sickly, ill-tempered car thief from Cicero, Illinois, who takes Weary’s dying words as a revenge commission to kill Billy. He keeps a mental list of his enemies, claiming he can have anyone “killed for a thousand dollars plus traveling expenses”.

During the academic year of 1987-1988, Ken Kesey taught a graduate-level creative writing class of thirteen students at the University of Oregon. He charged the group with producing a full-length novel in one school year, which they did, publishing Caverns under the name O.U. Levon (Novel University of Oregon backwards) in 1990.

It is my intent to interview each living author about the project and what they learned from Kesey.

Jeff Forester was the first Caverns author to respond to my questions. His relationship with Ken Kesey extended beyond the year he spent in his writing class. Forester published a touching remembrance of Kesey in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2003. The piece describes their years of friendship, Kesey’s generosity, his struggles as an artist, and his sometimes burdensome counter-culture image.

Kesey saw writing as a form of magic, evoking magic, and the description is apt.

What stands out in your memories of Ken Kesey?

First, that he was brilliant on so many levels. He lived his life as an adventure and experiment. He was a true warrior. The other thing was his generosity and commitment. The twelve of us were in and out of his house in Eugene at all hours of the day and night, and no matter when one of us or a group of us was there, he came down and would sit with us, watch what we were doing, suggest, cajole, applaud.  He literally turned his life over to the class for the time he taught it, and led us through the process of writing a novel. We learned by doing it with him, a man who had been down the road a few times before us. It was an incredible experience.

How do you feel about the book as a finished product?

I love Caverns. It is fun and a great ride. Much of the language is wonderful and, as Kesey said, the characters are a group that would make Chaucer grin.

book with thirteen other people?

When I think back to Kesey’s class, what immediately comes to mind are all the wonderful moments sitting around Kesey’s table with my classmates in his house at 15th and Hilyard, writing our book together, reading aloud our weekly contributions to each other, laughing, eating, drinking, and smoking (yes). It was the transparency of the class—exposing the nuts and bolts of the writing process—and doing it all collaboratively. That was an absolute joy.

C. The importance of play, experimentation, and research in the process. Kesey disliked the notion of “write what you know.” He felt that it encouraged student writers to write a lot of self-absorbed drivel. He said instead, “write what you don’t know,” meaning go out and find out about the world beyond your sphere and write about it. In some ways he was being a smart aleck, but I get his point. We should stretch ourselves and discover that world beyond the college campus, or our family, or our neighborhood. One of the stipulations he established for our novel was that it would be set in a time—1934—before any of us was born (including him)—and that we would set our characters out upon an important quest. To that end he filled his house with reference books about the 1930’s and with texts of all kinds dealing with the world of our novel—that is, the world of carnies, magicians, charlatans, and pseudo-scientists. We were encouraged to explore these books and immerse ourselves in the details of the world we were working with. It was incredibly challenging at times, but quite liberating and, dare I say, fun.

D. The importance of revision. I thought I understood what revision was before Kesey’s class. Boy, was I off. Jeff Forester wrote an article in the Whole Earth Catalog just after the class ended called “Rubbing the Stone Smooth.” That was the phrase Kesey used in describing the revision process. It was amazing to sit at Kesey’s side and watch him cut, trim, tighten, cast, recast, and hone. It brought home the idea that the most important writing is done in revision. Every sentence, every word, was examined and re-examined to see how it could be made stronger.

How do you feel about the book as a finished product?

Frankly, I’m not a big fan of the book. I read it once or twice after it was published and found it clumsy and, at times, inane. Mostly just daft, and not really in a good way. But don’t get me wrong—the finished product was never, for me at least, what the project was about. The project was about learning the craft of novel writing. The 1001 teachable moments that came in producing that book far outweigh for me the notion that the book is mediocre. With our collaboration, Kesey wasn’t showing us a method of producing great fiction necessarily, he was using collaboration to show us all he knew about the process of novel writing. Sure, I wish Caverns had been a best-seller and a critical success, but I’m not surprised nor disappointed that it wasn’t.

What stands out in your memories of Ken Kesey?

Again, where to begin? I’ll just say this: Kesey was the most generous teacher I’ve ever had. He opened his house to us; he met with us for an entire school year when his residency was only for the first term; he connected us to other writers and artists, to editors and publishers, even to his family and friends (including all of the available Merry Pranksters); he truly became a friend and mentor. Now, of course, being the successful novelist and local celebrity that he was, he could afford to be different, to be experimental, and to open up his life to us. Not everyone can do what he did—and I’m certain that his class was not something even he could have repeated year in and year out. But I’ll always be grateful for how he brought us into his world and introduced us to the writing life.

About Royal Rosamond Press

I am an artist, a writer, and a theologian.
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1 Response to A Vicarious Sobriety With Mr. Kesey

  1. Reblogged this on rosamondpress and commented:

    Yesterday, I declared myself the President of OCCIPY. I did this, because for the last two months many members of OCCYPY went to Ken Kesey Square, put a OCCUPY scarf around the neck of Ken’s statue, and took a selfie. This is a religious observance – of a Dead Sky God! Somehow, if you are seen with the Dead Guy, then you movie close to the inner sanctum were wait the Core Group to take you – higher! Ken had nothing to do with OCCUPY that is all over our media, and they invole the Ken’s name. This told me they were in need of A LEADER! I am their Leader! https://www.facebook.com/groups/558157704343112/

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