When Ken Kesey was kicked loose after spending the 1967 Summer of Love in jail for a marijuana bust, the guards asked the famous author, psychedelic explorer and prankster if he was going to write a book and include them in it.
“I think so,” Kesey replied.
Two years after the author’s death, “Kesey’s Jail Journal” is out. The book includes two dozen color plates of collages Kesey made from ink drawings entwined with his handwritten reflections laid down in notebooks smuggled out by a buddy who got busted with him.
Looking for something that went beyond the two novels he had already written, Kesey melded words and drawings in a psychedelic 1960s version of an illuminated manuscript that contains echoes of the battle between freedom and authority he described in his most famous book, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
“He was trying to make the whole page move, so it would convey something beyond what the words themselves could say,” says his widow, Faye, at the Willamette Valley farm where the family moved after Kesey got out of jail.
Perhaps the best stuff never left jail, she says: His last two notebooks were confiscated by guards just before his release.
“Ken had always hoped the other journals would show up,” she says. “It would have made it so much more complete if they had. I have a feeling they are still out there somewhere.”
In 1967, Kesey was a star of the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll freak show going on around San Francisco. It was five years after publication of “Cuckoo’s Nest,” and three years after his psychedelic bus ride across America, chronicled in “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”
Kesey’s six-month sentence to the San Mateo County Jail stemmed from a raid on his rural home at La Honda in the Coast Range above Palo Alto, Calif., where Kesey and the Merry Pranksters partied with Hells Angels, tried to make sense of the movies they had taken on the bus trip and orchestrated the acid tests that helped turn the world on to LSD.
Kesey was busted along with Page Browning, and together they did their time. Described by Kesey as “a big ex-Shore Patrol Navy man with arms like hawsers and a face like a barnacle (who) made a very valuable backup in the lockup,” Browning kept the journals hidden from guards and smuggled them out in adult magazines.
The duo started out in the lockup, but soon qualified for Sheriff’s Honor Camp, an experimental program where jailbirds who could be trusted spent their time clearing brush in the redwoods not far from Kesey’s home at La Honda and talking about their problems in group therapy sessions.
Ed McClanahan, a writing pal of Kesey’s from Stanford, visited him on Sundays, and McClanahan’s wife gave Kesey the art supplies that he used for the drawings.
Everything he touched turned to art“He was a terrific graphic artist,” says McClanahan, who wrote an introduction for the book. “I remember one time we were wandering around downtown Eugene (Ore.) somewhere. We were both pretty thoroughly loaded. He had some artist friend. We wandered into his studio. Ken picks up a scrap of paper. It was an odd shape. He wrote the word ‘space’ on that paper. Then he filled the whole paper up with those letters. Everything he touched turned to art.”
The journal describes learning the ins and outs of prison life, the complex cast of characters behind bars and an encounter with a famous sex criminal who wrote poetry. Bright colors, big letters and bold drawings convey volume and emotion.
At honor camp, Kesey could walk among the trees and worked in the tailor shop, but still felt the fear created by guards having complete power over his future.
“There’s this Wayne, old USMC sergeant that never lightens up an ounce on me, yet some way conveys that it is for my betterment and not just grinding his ax (as is the case with most of the deputies) so he spooks me continually but, well, you know,” Kesey wrote.
Kesey lost his job in the tailor shop and was assigned to a brush-clearing crew after Wayne decided the psychedelic mural Kesey painted was inappropriate.
“Maybe some people just do not like color, Mr. Kesey. Ever Think of That?” Kesey quoted Wayne.
After his release, Kesey moved his family to the Oregon farm where his wife still lives, their son, Jed, is buried, and the original psychedelic bus named Furthur lies in a swamp.
It was at the farm where Kesey cut and pasted the notebooks onto a series of boards that he envisioned as a big color book. Pieces appeared in the magazine Ramparts, but Kesey abandoned the book, deciding the print technology of the day could not do justice to the colors, McClanahan says.
The book languished in the archives of the University of Oregon until about 1995, when Kesey revived it with editor David Stanford, consolidating characters, smoothing out the narrative, and adding a poem before his death in 2001 from liver cancer.
“He’d just gotten a good start,” Faye Kesey says. “It got too complicated there when he was on chemotherapy and stuff.”
Pieces of a puzzleWhen Kesey gave the pieces to Stanford the spring before he died, there was enough to make it something with which Kesey would be happy, Stanford says.
“It was like pieces of a puzzle,” Stanford says. “Some of it was in order. Some of the pieces weren’t in place yet. But you could tell where they went. I filed off a few rough spots. A few pieces were left out. I couldn’t figure out where they went.
“You know, writing novels was part of the overall way he manifested his creativity, but that was never the original plan. Everything he ever did had graphic visual art. His clothing. His rake and ax have painted handles. He was an artist. The floor of his living room is a gigantic mandala. He did that all the time. And he was good,” Stanford says.
“Another thing the jail book does, it shows that. It’s a chance for all to see his best drawing and painting at its best, and totally mixed in with his words. And that’s him.”
McClanahan ranks the jail journal Kesey’s third-best work, close behind “Cuckoo’s Nest,” and “Sometimes a Great Notion.”
“It’s, of course, rough and raw,” McClanahan says. “But I think there is some wonderful writing in it. It reminded me how good he could be.”
Sanborn says the book gains an interesting dimension from describing Kesey’s own experience with the kind of absolute power he had described so chillingly in “Cuckoo’s Nest.”
“There he was in jail, having the same role he had outside — exploring relationships, mixing things up, making different parts touch each other and deal with each other. Having some fun. Just being Kesey in jail,” Stanford says.
“This book was ahead of its time. It took an incredible amount of time to come out just in time — two years since Ken died. For people who miss him, it’s a gift.”