As part of the University of Virginia’s online exhibit, “The Psychedelic ’60s: Literary Traditions and Social Change”, April 26, 1998, Ken Kesey of Merry Pranksters fame and author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, spoke at the university for about half an hour.
This is Kesey about 3/12 years before he passed away in November 2001, and is one of the most delightful and intelligent little videos I’ve ever posted here.
Enjoy! There are warriors, and then there are warriors. Remember Ken, and keep fighting the good fight…
NOTE: It’s tricky embedding these things here and I hope it works for you – and if you aren’t using a Windows machine with Windows Media Player you may see a blank white area above – I hope not – but if so there is nothing I can do about it
Author, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”
In connection with U.Va.’s online exhibit, “The Psychedelic ’60s: Literary Traditions and Social Change”
April 26, 1998
Ken Kesey: I feel like there are warriors, and that we know, and have known, a number of warriors…wonderful, powerful warriors. And there is a way that you can see which is the warrior and which isn’t. And I have done this by making, arbitrarily, two categories – one of them is “shit floats” and the other one is “cream rises.” And we all kind of know what it is. “Shit floats” is Eddie Murphy. “Cream rises” is Richard Pryor. “Shit floats” is Madonna. “Cream rises” is Joan Baez. I’ve known Joan Baez for 30 years. A couple of years ago she was going over to Sarajevo to sing for people and she had to cancel a concert in Eugene to go over and do this. And she apologized to everybody and said that the people that wanted their money back could bring in their tickets. Nobody from Eugene brought in their tickets. They knew that Joan Baez would make good on her promise. Her voice itself, who she is, is a warrior. We know that this is a battle. She’s been at every really big time battling scene that you could imagine all across the nation and now around the world. She’s like Taj Majal — these are warriors. They don’t make that much money but you sing stuff and you say stuff that means something to young warriors.
“Shit floats” is Tom Wolfe. “Cream rises” is Hunter Thompson. We know these things instinctively. And how we are able to sort through them in our lives depends on how well we act. And we find various different ways of keeping our compass needle trued up, and acid is one of the ways, grief will do it, fasting will do it. My wife is the best Biblical scholar probably in Oregon, and she’s been studying the Bible for so long and so hard that she doesn’t even argue with the 7-day Adventist anymore. She’s got it down and it becomes a yoga for her. She’s never trying to get me to go to her church. I’m not trying to get her to come breathe nitrous oxide, but they both are the same yoga in a way. It gives you something you can draw meat on; and even if the meat is scattered, like the nitrous oxide where sometimes the meat gets scattered, still I respect her for her yoga and her belief and the fact that she has been teaching Sunday School for 30 years. It always amazes people — “Kesey’s wife teaches Sunday School!” If you’re in Oregon they say, “Are you sure you’re married to the Kesey that we’ve heard about?” And I met this girl in junior high in Oregon, same place that we live, where her parents lived. We’ve been married 40-some years. This gives me certain credentials to go out there and talk about stuff. This isn’t just somebody jumping up and rattling on, or somebody who’s been made famous by some article in The Oracle 30 years ago. This is about a husband and a farmer who has the right to speak about these things. And nobody else is saying them. I am amazed how much is saying it. We have five initiatives that are trying to get on the ballot today in Oregon and none of them are going to make it. For one thing, all five of these different groups are fighting with each other. There’s medicinal marijuana, there’s hemp, there’s the right to grow, there’s all these different things and you get them together and they fuss with each other.
I believe in the “evil force.” I don’t know exactly how to convince you that it exists, but I believe in it. And I believe the “evil force” is able to get in and move people around and have them do dumb shit. And we are full now of what I call FUDS — these are “fat, ugly, dumb people.” And it’s not that they were not born fat or ugly or dumb, but they have made a choice to be fat, ugly, and dumb. They have made a choice to play the lottery, Christ o’mighty. At an old liquor store where I’ve been going for 30 years (the same liquor store), all the tables that used to be filled with these bottles of Elvis singing that you dump in the Southern Comfort, that’s been pushed aside because all of these video games are there and all these scratch cards are there. I was through there buying my own Southern Comfort a month or so ago and this woman said, “Well which lottery ticket would you like?” I said, “I can’t buy lottery tickets. I’m not allowed to buy lottery tickets.” And the place is full of old people, of people my age, scratching on these things and trying to come up with a lottery ticket. And they all turned and looked and they were all outraged that I should be banned from playing the lottery. And she said, “Well what do you mean?” And I said, “My IQ just isn’t low enough to play the lottery.” What I did was I was in their church and I said, “Bullshit, bullshit is going on.” She said, “Well what do you mean, don’t you like gambling?” And I said, “Well I do like gambling. I told Karen’s husband Michael that I think poker is one of the great games of the world, but that’s skill; it’s not just chance. It’s not gambling.” I told her, “Yeah, I used to like to go duck hunting, but I don’t consider going out sitting in the fog just randomly shooting your gun in the air to be hunting. That’s superstition.”
People who are believing ‘if I wear this on my watch chain, and I have my Mother Christopher thing, and pet them just right and I buy a lottery ticket.’ I mean if you buy a lottery ticket, you don’t need angels and saints, you’re already up to your ears in bad forces. What’s happening across the nation with the Indians right now, with lottery and video poker and the casinos. It’s happening all over Oregon. First there’s a Warm Springs, now there’s a Cow Creek Indian Reservation – they started up everywhere. A lot of money is coming in. But you go in there and there are no Indians in there. It’s hired people from Las Vegas. The Indians have stood up under a hell of a barrage of crap for two hundred years, but this may be the one that does them in, when they start going into gambling. When they start locking horns with Las Vegas, Las Vegas is going to win. But I can’t go into an Indian casino and say “bullshit” to them because the word would get back to the Indians and the Indians would say, “Hey what is it? You don’t think the Indians have a right to have a casino?” And I always think, “Yeah, but let’s do some Indian games. Let’s not just do roulette and blackjack. There are a number of great Indian gambling games and they have been done forever. It would be fun. And it would be run by Indians, instead of the Indians being convinced by some slick lawyer from Reno to go into gambling because there is some opening, while they really import all the stuff through Las Vegas.”
Now I can see (if you’ve ever been to Las Vegas or Reno) it’s like a huge funnel cloud circling around and aiming its point right down there into the heart of Las Vegas, and it’s green and it’s sucking money right out of the American pocket. It’s sucking money out of my grandson’s college. It’s drawing money from whoever are the most vulnerable. My mom goes down there and goes to Reno and Las Vegas, and she’s kind of apologetic about it, but her husband likes to go because there is the action with the Elks and you get to see the girls and the dances and so forth. But my mom knows that that is not any way to run a government. You can’t run a government with gambling because you are taking money from the people that can least afford it and giving it to the people who least need it. All I could see out of Las Vegas was this funnel of green stuff going, going away and you don’t know where it’s going. But you don’t see it popping up in day care centers somewhere down in Charlottesville. None of it is coming here. But people are driving there to shove their families’ inheritance in this great sucking maw like that. You know what, you don’t run into anybody that smokes grass that goes to those casinos, because they realize that that’s laughable. You have to have walked out part of your mind to go in there and deal with these people from Las Vegas and give them the money and figure you are going to get a good deal out of it. So next time anybody says something to you about playing the lottery say, “I win the lottery every day. I don’t play. I’ll let you dumb suckers go ahead and contribute the money for taxes, but I’m not going to play. And all those dollars that I would spend playing the lottery but I have other things…nitrous oxide is expensive.” (You’ll have to excuse me as I continue to disrobe. I really did mean to be formal, but I’ll get down to it.)
I watched friends die over the last few years, good friends, long powerful good friends. Ginsburg – I didn’t really appreciate how much I loved him until he wasn’t there. He was a little, kind of effeminate, Jewish something. He was a tremendously powerful man and he was trying to hand on his power. And the story about Ginsburg is when he had died, what his last words were. He had called in all of his friends — Frelingetty, Gary Snyder, Corso, Peter Olafsky – around his bedside and he motioned Corso to lean close. And Ginsburg said, “Toodiloo (waving).” And there’s something proportional about that. There’s something right about Ginsburg doing that.
When Leary’s son called (his dad was about to check out) and we have seen Leary a great deal over the last 4 or 5 years and we had this bone of contention between us that was put there by Tom Wolfe. And I didn’t appreciate it and he didn’t either until we found out that all these people that read “Koolaid Acid Tests” talk about the time we went to Leary’s and yelled things at him…it didn’t happen. Tom Wolfe just put that in; it made for a better book. But I said, “Tim, I’m really so glad that we got this bone of contention put away and that we have hung out together and that I got to know you. I feel like it’s a tremendous privilege to get to know Tim Leary, so let’s not let it slide. Let’s keep it going. Let’s meet some place on Halloween night. You pick the place.” He says (whispering), “Houdini’s grave.” Now that’s nimble, that’s fun, that’s courageous, that’s somebody who’s facing the great hole in the world and is still able to wink at you and is still able to come up with the right, clever thing to say at the right time.
I lost my son in a wrestling accident. On the way to a wrestling meet, the van went off a cliff. I remember the feeling….I’ll get back to that… ok I’ll tell it….You know, if anybody knows the song “Broke Down Palace,” (fairly well, fairly well, I love you more than words can tell), after Jed had been dead a few months we went to see the Dead. They were playing at our opera house. They did their usual stuff and got their big ovations and then, they started playing “Broke Down Palace” and they all turned toward me and all our family was sitting up there. They all turned toward us and the guys in the audience began to turn toward us. And that song was sent from the Grateful Dead to our bruised hearts. And it was like having somebody reach out and putting their hand on your shoulder and saying, “Yeah we feel it.” And when it was over there was no applause. Everybody knew it. We were all crying. And how many bands do you know that could do that? Like when Eric Clapton begins to sing “Tears in Heaven,” this is real. This isn’t rock and roll. This is the heart speaking out to other people who’s hearts have been wounded. And there are a bunch of us.
We have more people in jail in this country than any other nation in the history of the world; more people per capita in jail. I am continually being asked to sign things that they can sell to try to get some 22 year old kid out of jail who has sold a little dab of acid somewhere and got busted and is serving 25 years. And the less vicious the drug is, the more years they are giving him. We are finally getting around to pulling the covers on tobacco and tobacco is a bad drug and we’ve known it. All you people my age, we’ve known that black tobacco was a bad drug. I don’t care whether you are from Virginia or not, tobacco is a mother-bad damn drug and when people say, “Yeah, but we’ve got to have some way to take care of the farmers that live out in the Ridges and don’t have any shoes”…yeah, but I would rather have the opportunity to give them the money than to have them grow the tobacco and sell to people.
These kids that shot the kids at the school…Everybody who saw that thought, “Who’s to blame for this?” I know who’s to blame. We are to blame. We’re all to blame. We’re blamed for watching the homicide stuff on TV. We’re blamed because we have the kids and we find out we want to do something else. You start counting the amount of times a gun goes off on television and they say that the gun isn’t connected to this. How long are we going to stand for this shit? It’s wrong, it’s wrong. Take the guns away from these people. Or if they raise hell and they won’t give you the guns, take the bullets away. There’s nothing in the constitution about bullets, is there? Just take the bullets away.
(Now we’re getting down to it. I’ll get into my beret consciousness. I haven’t done this in a while, so it’ll take me a while to get warmed up to it.)
Kind of in the same vein as the kids that shot the kids, I have watched people on both sides of the abortion argument, people who are naturally very close trying to defend something that needs defending, they are trying to defend something that’s helpless. They are right at each other’s heads, screaming at each other with this terrible vindictiveness even though you’ll see these women who’ll be right at each other and you can’t tell who’s for it and who’s against it. If they’ll step back and look at it again, what they’ll see is they’ve been tricked into being on this side or this side. It doesn’t matter which side you’re on. If you’ve been tricked into being on one or the other side, the evil force has got you by the ears. Anybody that wants to be free enough to be a real warrior cannot be tricked like that. When it comes down to it, it’s not either one of those women’s fault. It’s the fault of the guy that knocked them up. Women haven’t figured this out yet because they are still so busy arguing that they don’t want to calm down and deal with it, but the truth is nobody really wants an abortion. They want not to get pregnant. And they’ve had birth control in France for 30 years that men take and it works. Men take it. They don’t want to sell it over here for a number of reasons, but one of the reasons is that it turns the whites of your eyes bright blood red. But you know you can imagine that being a real hold card at a singles bar. You go in there with bright red eyes… But it’s evidence of how often we’re turned against each other from our warrior positions, from our warrior hearts, who we are is…I was talking with Faye a day or so before we left. She was doing something about the Ten Commandments. I said, “There’s the problem. It’s one commandment short. It should be the first commandment. Have mercy. Have mercy in the straight old New Testament way. Feel out with your heart. When you see somebody hurting, reach out and comfort them. When you look at the faces of people, these flood victims, you look at their faces. Are they bomb victims? Or any victim. There’s something in their face that hadn’t been there before — the sanity. You see people hugging each other, lifting bags of sand to fix the levies. There is more to them. They are not blaming anybody. They are saying, “Let’s work together and get this thing cleaned up.” That sanity still runs through our veins. You know when you see that Jefferson building. When I go over and see the writing of Faulkner, the hand-written stuff of “The Sound and the Fury,” what it does is it makes you proud to be an American. And that’s also one of the things that the establishment wishes I would quit saying. For one thing I should have gotten a divorce, my kid should have been locked up, all the bad stuff should have happened to me. But it didn’t and I’m still saying, “I’m proud to be an American because the dream that these guys put together is a work of genius. Nothing else like it in history.” These guys wrote this stuff to get in there and not only fix the thinking that needed fixing, but put in loopholes so you could go back and refix stuff that you don’t even know about.
The thing of ban the bullet, I tried selling this as a bumper sticker. Nobody would put it on because it made the NRA mad at them. Nobody wants to go after the people with the guns because they are like you don’t go up against a Doberman. And the Republicans, they believe that everybody should have a Doberman, or at least a Doberman in a cyclone fence to go around your place and keep people from getting in on you. And most of the real strong Democrats that I know are planning to become Republicans just as quick as they win the lottery anyway.
I’ll finish telling the story about Jed. This was ten years ago or so, the wrestling team was going up to Washington state to wrestle. And I had wrestled on that team, and so had my brother, so had my brother’s boy, my two sons. We were Oregon wrestlers. We were wrestling people. Any wrestling people out there? Wrestling parents, you know how you are dedicated to that sport. It’s a poor sport and you have to make do. And they were traveling in a van they had borrowed from a chicken farm, so they didn’t have anything in it but seats and chicken stuff and the van went off a cliff. We were called and we flew up to Washington state and we stood there around. It was a (?) and his little black teammate, a guy named Lorenzo West, a really great, great wrestler, a lot of humor in him, a fun guy. There was a lot of other kids still bad hurt, but Jed and Lorenzo. You could go in there and look at them, and you knew that ‘uh-oh,’ fixed and dilated. The doctors are telling you that there’s just no way that the brain has got too much bruising; it’s going to swell. So he convinced us (and I’m not sure I would be convinced anymore) to sign the thing that turns off the juice in time for them to salvage the organs. And that’s hard. That’s psychedelic, that’s when you’re right in there and you think, “Oh God, oh God, how can this be?” And I’ll tell you women something, it affects men much more because women, by being women, they already know the creation of life, and they know the other side of life. When death comes to a man, it catches him by surprise. But Faye and Sue and the West family, all the women, they were ready for it much more than we were. So we got in the plane and we flew from Spokane to Seattle, and we landed there and we had to get off and change planes. And we stood there at the window and watched these two big boxes come down off the airplane, come down the ramp. And we were all standing there watching, and there was nothing more to say. And finally, I didn’t want to be there; I just turned around and left because I could see that this was going to happen to everybody that I love, everybody. Like [some bands name] says, “Born to die, born to die.” And I wanted to cease to exist. I didn’t want to commit suicide, I just wanted to find a button and say that “I couldn’t take it” and I would turn it off, and so I left. I didn’t know where I was going, but I was leaving. And I was going up the concourse there and here came a big black guy, probably about 35 or so, hair long with dreadlocks, walking down this concourse, his face streaked with tears. And when he went by he did something that changed my mind; it changed my life. He made a gesture, and we all know the gesture. It’s this [shakes clenched first in front of his heart]. He did that. To me it meant … He didn’t stop and he didn’t look me in the eye. He kept walking and I kept walking. It meant than if we’d held each other and hugged each other. He said, “Be strong [making the gesture]. I know how you feel.” And sometimes that’s all you need is somebody to say “Be strong [making the gesture].” That’s what this [the gesture] means. It’s not this [clenched fist facing outwards]; it’s not this [clenched fist facing inward]; it’s not this [clenched fist raised above head]; it’s this thing by your heart [shaking clenched fist next to your heart, while fist faces straight ahead]…this “be strong”[making gesture again]. And this was when I got thinking about warriors. This guy is a warrior. The people that I know, and have known for a long time, they are warriors.
And I’ll do a little game on you guys here to show you how much you are warriors. I’ve done this little thing on people when we toured Poland and Czechoslavakia and all over America, and it’s this: I’ll give you one clue and you guys answer it. The one clue, and we’re talking about great warriors, one of the greatest warriors of our century, (here’s the clue): she was a first lady. Say it. [Audience answers Eleanor Roosevelt.] Now how do we know that? Ted Koppel never said it. How do we know that Eleanor Roosevelt was a warrior? How do we communicate this to these kids who don’t know why she was a warrior? We are here because this is who we are — we are warriors, because we know that Eleanor Roosevelt fought great battles for us. We know her and we respect her, but we’ve never voiced it. They were having a big convention about the great inventions in this last century, and there were people up there talking about psychotron, salt vaccine, radar, and somebody in the back shouts out, “It’s the thermos.” They kind of ignore him and they go on to talk and pretty soon he shouts out, “It’s the thermos.” And they say, “Well come on up here. What do you mean it’s the thermos? We are talking about a century where there has been more inventions than probably in any of the other centuries. How can you say it’s the thermos?” He says, “Well when you put hot water in a thermos, you know how it stays hot?” They say, “Yeah.” “And when you put cold water in a thermos, it stays cold?” They say, “Yeah.” “How do it know?”
How do we know we’re warriors? How do we know who we are? We do, we do. Go ahead and brighten up that little spark in your life. Brighten it up and when you see each other there, don’t turn away from each other. When some guy on the street needs money, give him some damn money. We can afford it. Lay a couple of bucks on him and then meet his eyes; deal with him. This is what most of them want is just to have that human touch. And we don’t have to have master’s degrees or big houses. We can do it with funny clothes on. We look at each other and say, “Have a nice day,” and mean it, fucking mean it right down from where you are say, “Have a nice day.” The person looks back and your face lights up and then already you are having a better day. This is where it’s gonna run from.
I’ve got a good black friend. I’ve known him for 30 years. He’s a jazz player, he talks a lot of jazz stuff. And often we will get into this argument and people will come out and say, “Yeah but look how many people are doing it. Look how many voted for it.” But that has to do with numbers. We are never going to win by numbers. There are not enough of us. We are strong, but there are not enough for us to win a huge popular election. We are losers. Face it from the beginning, you don’t have to deal with it later. We are dead ass losers, and yet it’s a wonderful game to be in there fighting for that place on the block. And so my friend says, “You can count the number of seeds in an apple, but you can’t count the number of apples in a seed.” We are the seeds.