Farewell to the Chief

One flew East, one flew West, and one flew over the cuckoo’s nest

The long, strange trip came to an end for Ken Elton Kesey at 3:45 AM Saturday, November 10th, 2001, after 66 years and a few hundred lifetimes on this planet.

Ken was a great friend to my father, Neal Cassady, and almost a second father to me after Neal died in 1968 when I was 16 years old. Kesey was one of the kindest and wisest men I’ve ever known, and he was one of my biggest heroes and mentors starting soon after he met Neal in the early ’60s, a feeling which continues in me to this day. The pearls of wisdom that he shared with me and others around him are too numerous to count, but thankfully he left a great legacy in his body of work that will last forever.

Neal always wanted to be a provider to his family, and little did he know that much of that provision would be accomplished posthumously through doors that were opened to me because of his famous friends like Kesey and the Grateful Dead (Jerry Garcia being another of my heroes from about 1965 on).

Much to the worry of my mother, Kesey and Neal would come collect my sister and me at high school, giving the authorities some song and dance about dentist appointments or whatever, and they’d whisk us away to see the Dead play at some local high school prom dance, just after the Dead changed their name from the Warlocks. Some fond, early memories there. I recall once being called to the school office, not knowing what I had done to deserve what was surely going to be trouble from the evil principle, only to open the door and see Neal and Ken dressed in American flag jumpsuits complete with day-glo red Beatle boots and silly hats. The principle looked confused and said to me “this man claims to be your father!” He looked like he thought the circus was in town.

My mother needn’t have worried. When I’d try to sniff the smoke from the reefers being passed around the car, Dad would admonish the passengers “no dope for the kid!” Kesey knew I was disappointed, but he always honored Neal’s request in those early days.

After Neal’s death Kesey would go out of his way to look us up when he was in the Bay Area, and he showed up unannounced at my wedding in November of 1975 on his way back from Egypt, while writing a piece for Rolling Stone. That was one heck of a party. I still have pictures of him holding my then-3-month-old son, Jamie, and beaming like a proud godfather.

Another warm memory was backstage at a Dead show in Eugene when Kesey’s fellow prankster Zonker ceremoniously presented me with one of 2 railroad spikes that the Dead’s roadie Ramrod, while on a sacred pilgrimage, had extracted from the tracks where Neal died in Mexico. And again when Kesey and Ken Babbs bequeathed Neal’s black and white stripped shirt to me that he had worn on the bus trip to New York in 1964, this time during a show we did at the Fillmore in 1997 before bringing the bus to Cleveland, where it was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Ken called and asked if I would drive “Further” into Ohio “because Neal can’t make it this trip.” Although veteran Prankster driver and mechanic George Walker did the actual driving, Kesey’s heart was in the right place. That road trip was surpassed only by the 4-week tour of the UK in 1999, sponsored by London’s Channel Four studios. Traveling with Ken in close quarters for that long really made for a lasting bond between us, and he was at his peak as a performer. It was fun for me to play guitar behind his harmonica and the Thunder Machine. I last saw him as we said our goodbyes at SFO after that incredible journey, and I was sad to have not been able to do so again before last Saturday.

Ken Kesey was a great teacher and a beautiful soul, and he will be missed by all that his magic touched.

(I found these pictures of me at the wheel of the bus, and me with Ken, from San Francisco, April 28, 1997, just before the trip to Cleveland. That night was the “Psychedelic Era Reunion Party” (P.E.R.P.) at the old Fillmore Auditorium, what a gas. All the usual suspects from the ’60s were there.)

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!