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TV REVIEW : Recalling the Wild Antics of Ken Kesey

December 11, 1987|TERRY ATKINSON

He's the man whose crazy crew of psychedelic pioneers was detailed by Tom Wolfe in "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test." He's also the man who wrote "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and who bridged, as much as anyone west of Allen Ginsberg, the eras of the beatnik and the hippie.

Yet Ken Kesey hasn't been as well remembered and celebrated as Ginsberg--or Leary, or Hoffman. The reasons are largely self-induced: Following a couple of marijuana arrests in the late '60s, Kesey shied away from the public eye. And from writing.

But now the Merry Prankster's back. He has a new book, "Demon Box," and he occasionally leaves his Oregon farm and family to perform a one-man stage show, scenes from which frame Saturday's beautifully crafted documentary, "Further: Ken Kesey's American Dreams" (10 p.m. on Channel 28).

This KQED/San Francisco-produced show sharply and colorfully describes the landmarks of Kesey's public life--the LSD-fueled bus trips, the acid tests, the Trips Festival, the buddies (like wildman Neal Cassady) and the busts.

Here too are less-known facts--how Kesey gave the Grateful Dead their first big break, and that it was the U.S. government that turned Kesey on to psychedelics (while a student at Stanford, he volunteered for an experimental drug program at a VA hospital).

Producers Joan Saffa and Steve Talbot, who also gave us "World Without Walls: Beryl Markham's African Memoir," took great care in assembling "Further." They inlaid illustrative material--from crude home movies made on Kesey's magical mystery tours to the big-budget Hollywood productions of "Cuckoo's Nest" and Kesey's second novel, "Sometimes a Great Notion." They filmed Kesey on his farm and interviewed old associates such as Ginsberg, Wolfe, Stewart Brand, Jerry Garcia, Robert Stone and Bill Graham.

The documentary isn't quite as skeptical of its subject as it might be, and the narration is a bit mechanical, but beyond that the hour could hardly be better.

"Further" is followed by the half-hour "Furthermore." From the same producers, it's mildly interesting but anticlimactic; this brief salute to the '60s counterculture is derived from the same interviews. At a couple of points, it even repeats material.

Best to skip "Furthermore" or tape it, take a breather, and then at 11:30 p.m. enjoy the rerun of "Kerouac," about another friend of Cassady's, "On the Road" author Jack Kerouac.

Not to be confused with a similar work ("Whatever Happened to Kerouac"), this uneven but worthwhile 90-minute show is narrated by Peter Coyote and combines documentary material with recreated scenes starring Jack Coulter, who died in 1969, as the great Beat Generation figure.

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