Although Ken Kesey and I originally met in May 1965 at the first Vietnam Day Teach-In on the Berkeley campus of the University of California, we already knew each other’s work: I had read his novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, while he’d read my countercultural magazine, The Realist, as the Merry Pranksters traveled cross-country on their psychedelically painted bus, dubbed “Furthur.”Now, at this outdoor demonstration – the largest such protest in American history, with a peak audience of 30,000 – I was the emcee and Kesey was the penultimate speaker.
After my introduction, Kesey took the stage, delivered his speech, and played a few bars on his harmonica between the words, which consisted essentially of warning the crowd that we should love our neighbors, that the march following the teach-in wasn’t going to change anything, and that wars had been fought for 10,000 years. Ironically, this was the antithesis of the message from all the previous speakers, and the 15,000 marchers were chafing at Kesey’s bit.
The next evening, at an indoor event, I borrowed a harmonica and did a parody of his talk. Kesey was in the audience, and he stood up and shouted, “I object!” Then he walked to the front of the auditorium, jumped onstage and proceeded to defend his position.
Our paths didn’t cross again until a year later in San Francisco. Folks all over the Bay Area were ingesting LSD in preparation for the Acid Test at the Longshoremen’s Hall, which had been organized by Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. The ballroom was seething with celebration, with thousands of partiers stoned out of their minds, bodies undulating to the rock bands amid balloons and streamers and beads, with a thunder machine and strobe lights flashing, so that even the Pinkerton guards were contact-high.
Kesey asked me to take the microphone and contribute a running commentary on the scene. “All I know,” I began, “is that if I were a cop and I came in here, I wouldn’t know where to begin …. ”
Later that year, after two busts for marijuana, Kesey faked a suicide and disappeared into Mexico, leaving Ken Babbs in charge of the bus and the Acid Tests in Los Angeles –which came to a screeching halt the day before LSD became illegal. The Pranksters then snuck out of town and drove to Mexico to join up with Kesey, then returned to the US after Kesey decided to give himself up to the FBI. He was sentenced to six months in jail. Kesey and Prankster Page Browning took the fall so that the others could go free – especially Neal Cassady, who’d already been busted twice and done two years in prison for two joints (so that with one more conviction, he’d have been up for a life sentence).
In February 1971, I moved from New York to San Francisco. Stewart Brand had invited me to come to the West Coast and co-edit The Last Supplement to the Whole Earth Catalog with Kesey. Brand told me: “Kesey said he’d do it if you would.”
When we finished a couple of months later, we had a big party. Somebody brought along a tank of nitrous oxide to help celebrate the occasion. Kesey suggested that in cave-dwelling times, all of the air that our ancestors breathed had been like this. “There are stick figures hovering above,” he said, “and they’re laughing at us.”
One afternoon, Kesey and I were smoking hashish in a tunnel inside a cliff, which had been burrowed during World War II so that military spotters with binoculars could look toward the ocean’s horizon for incoming enemy ships. All we spotted, however, was a meek little mouse right there in the tunnel. We blew smoke at the mouse until it could no longer tolerate our behavior – it stood on its hind paws and roared at us: “Squeeeeeek!”
This display of mouse assertiveness startled us so much that we almost fell off the cliff. The headline would’ve read: “Dope-Crazed Pranksters in Suicide Pact.”
I once asked Kesey, “Do you see the legalization of grass as any sort of panacea?”
“The legalization of grass,” he replied, “would do absolutely nothing for our standard of living, or our military supremacy, or even our problem of high-school dropouts. It could do nothing for this country except mellow it, and that’s not a panacea – that’s downright subversive.”
Kesey had been disinvited from a Nightline panel on drugs because he was pro-marijuana. He made a distinction between pot, mushrooms, LSD, psilocybin – “the organic, kinder, gentler hippie drugs” – and cocaine, crack, ice: “drugs that make you greedy and produce criminals.” He also called drugs “my church” and confessed that he had taken psychoactives “with lots more reverence and respect than I ever walked into church with.”
One afternoon in 1978, Kesey called me. “Hey,” he said, “why don’t you come to Egypt with us? The Dead are gonna play the Pyramids.”
I did not play hard to get. The Grateful Dead were scheduled to play on three successive nights at an open-air theater in front of the Pyramids, with the Sphinx looking on. Drummer Bill Kreutzmann had fallen off a horse and broken his arm, but he would still be playing with the band using one drumstick. Or, as an Arabian fortune cookie might put it: “In the land of the limbless, the one-armed drummer is king.”
Basketball star and faithful Deadhead Bill Walton would also be there. His buttocks had been used as a pincushion by the Portland Trailblazers so that he could continue to perform on court even though the bones of his foot were being shattered, and despite the pain he now couldn’t feel. Having been injected with painkilling drugs to hide the greed rather than heal the injury, he now had to walk around with crutches and one foot in a cast under his extra-long galabeya. Maybe he and Kreutzmann could team up and enter the half-upside-down sack-race event.
An air of incredible excitement permeated the first night. Never had the Dead been so inspired. Backstage, Jerry Garcia was passing along final instructions to the band: “Remember, play in tune.”
The music began with Egyptian oudist Hamza el-Din, backed up by a group tapping out ancient rhythms on their 14-inch-diameter tars, and soon joined by Mickey Hart, a butterfly with drumsticks. Then Garcia ambled on with a gentle guitar riff, then the rest of the band, and as the Dead meshed with the percussion ensemble, basking in total respect of each other, Bob Weir suddenly segued into Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away.”
Every morning my roommate, George Walker, climbed to the top of the pyramid. He was in training: It would be his honor to plant a Grateful Dead skull-and-lightning-bolt flag on top of the Great Pyramid. This was our Iwo Jima.
In preparation for the final concert, I was sitting in the tub-like sarcophagus at the center of gravity in the Great Pyramid, after ingesting the LSD that Kesey had smuggled into Egypt in a plastic Visine bottle. I had heard that the sound of the universe was D-flat, so that’s what I chanted. It was only as I breathed in deeply before each extended Om that I was forced to ponder the mystery of those who urinate there.
I told Kesey that I had a strong feeling I was involved in some kind of lesson. It was as though the secret of the Dead would finally be revealed to me, if only I paid proper attention. There was a full eclipse of the moon that night, and Egyptian kids were running through the streets shaking tin cans filled with rocks in order to bring it back.
“It’s okay,” Kesey assured them. “The Grateful Dead will bring back the moon.”
And sure enough, a rousing rendition of “Ramble On Rose” would accomplish that feat. The moon returned just as the marijuana cookie that Bill Graham gave me started blending in with the other drugs. Graham used to wear two wristwatches, one for the Fillmore in San Francisco and the other for the Fillmore East in New York – now he wore one wristwatch with two faces.
There was a slight problem with an amplifier, but the sound engineer said that it was “getting there.”
“Getting there ain’t good enough,” Garcia replied. “It’s gotta fuckin’ be there.”
This was a totally outrageous event. The line between incongruity and appropriateness had disappeared along with the moon. The music was so powerful that the only way to go was ecstasy. That night, when the Dead played “Fire on the Mountain,” I danced my ass off with all the others on that outdoor stage as if I had no choice.
“You know,” Bill Graham confessed backstage, “this is the first time I ever danced in public.”
Kesey chimed in: “That was your lesson.”
Paul Krassner is an author and satirist. When Dan Castellaneta, the voice of Homer on The Simpsons, introduced Krassner at the taping of a comedy CD, Fox TV lawyers denied him permission to use it. But Krassner leaked it to himself, so visit paulkrassner.com and hear that censored introduction.