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An Appreciation

Prankster's Memorable Gift

At a long-ago festival, Ken Kesey talked of power, then handed it over to the people.

November 15, 2001|ROBERTO LOIEDERMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In late 1965, I went to the Trips Festival at the Longshoreman's Hall in San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf: three nights of celebrating the music, art and energy of the burgeoning counterculture. The festival was run by Ken Kesey, who had hired his new friends, the Hells Angels, to handle security.

Inside the hall, professional dance groups threaded their way throughout the floor, interacting with the public. A kinetic sculptor, also mingling with the crowd, set up machines that destroyed themselves. Drama groups got the audience involved and performed improvised sketches. People painted or were painted, colored lights flashed, dripping colors appeared on a huge screen above the bands, and there was continuous music from the Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company.

If normal art is based on reproducible events or permanent artifacts, the Trips Festival was the opposite: a celebration of the non-reproducible and the impermanent. I was a 25-year-old English major who'd left Baltimore to follow the Beats, and to me the atmosphere seemed electric, creative. For many in the crowd, it was the first inkling that their dreams were shared by others.

In the next few years, there would be packaged, more commercial versions of this type of event in places like the Fillmore Auditorium and the Avalon Ballroom. But the Trips Festival, which started it all, felt pure and democratic.

And in the center of it was Ken Kesey. Dressed in silver spacesuit, including silver shoes and carrying a walkie-talkie, he was in constant communication with the Hells Angels and with others running the show. Kesey--bald, with a wrestler-dense body--moved gracefully and quickly from one corner of the hall to another, making sure that things ran smoothly.

I was amazed at Kesey's apparent nonchalance. Only a few days before the festival, he had been busted for marijuana possession. He and a young woman had been on a rooftop in Telegraph Hill, smoking, and they had thrown some pebbles down to the street. Someone called the police. The timing was terrible, because in a few days Kesey was scheduled to appear in court for yet another bust that had taken place months earlier at his home in La Honda.

Kesey faced the probability of serious prison time, and yet there he was, moving swiftly, keeping control of everything, periodically talking into the walkie-talkie. I watched as he came close to Neal Cassady, the living legend who had inspired Jack Kerouac. Cassady was giving his version of a political speech: He nominated Kesey for governor. "He's going to run on his record," said Cassady.

What started out as semi-rational oratory turned into a parody of self-important political speechifying. Cassady repeated certain words as if he were a crazed bureaucrat: "Nevertheless. However. Notwithstanding. Stands to reason. Howsomever. Albeit. Nevertheless." Over and over, endlessly--a legalese audio loop gone mad. A few faithful followers stuck with him, nodding to the rhythm.

At one point during the first night, the two screens above the bands caught my attention. One of these showed a movie. The other screen displayed messages written on an overheard projector in the balcony level.

Kesey was at the projection pad. Earlier in the evening, the messages had been practical communications to those who did not have walkie-talkies. Now, late at night, Kesey had a more urgent, personal use for the projector. In a few days he would have to deal with jail, humiliation, uncertainty.

But the words he wrote, projected to the crowd, seen by anyone who chose to look up at the screen, did not seem to be motivated by fear. He shaped each letter carefully, laboriously scratching out every stroke. After a group of words, he'd erase them to make room for the next phrase.

He wrote: "Being of reasonably sound mind and body ... [erase] I hereby bequeath [erase] all my earthly and unearthly belongings... [erase] to the Hells Angels [erase] the first ones to teach us [erase] GOOD IS EVIL [erase] RIGHT IS WRONG [erase] PLEASURE IS PAIN [erase] HEAVEN IS HELL [erase]."

Then he printed the single word: POWER. Instead of erasing it, he made it darker and darker, extending the lines, thickening the letters, as if he were etching it in stone. POWER. P-O-W-E-R.

I walked up to the balcony, but by the time I got there, Kesey had moved to a different part of the hall. I sat down and focused on the screen showing the movie. In it, people ran up to the camera and made faces, jumped into a swimming pool, horsed around. It showed people reading or sleeping or eating or talking.

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