Musing and Messages from John Allen Cassady

Farewell to the Chief - A Tribute to Ken Kesey

"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 they 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 refers being passed around the car, Dad would admonish the passengers "no dope for the kid!" Kesey knew I was disappointed, but 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 back stage 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.

John and Ken Kesey Jam TogetherThat 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.

Memories of Jerry

John wrote this for the San Jose Mercury News on August 10, 1995

Dear Mercury News,

My memories of Jerry Garcia are both as a fan and a friend. He was a close associate of my father, Neal, for a few tulmultuous years in the mid-'60s. I was a teen-age hippie/guitarist wanna-be, and I thought Jerry was God. Although I saw him as often as possible in concert, I met him in person less frequently, but he was always kind to me.

I last spoke to him only briefly after a Dead show in Eugene, Oregon, in 1992, which I happened to attend during a visit with friends in Portland. It turned out to be, for me, a fantastic Prankster reunion. Kesey, Ken Babbs, George Walker, Zonker (Steven Lambrecht) and others of Dad's cohorts were there in the new "Further", most of whom I hadn't seen in twenty years. There was a private showing of Babbs' "Multi-media Cassady Tribute" that night at a downtown hotel ballroom, which Jerry and the band also attended. I was flattered that Jerry remembered me and seemed genuinely interested in my welfare after so long. That night he was cheerful and funny. When the management asked us to leave because the Dead's roadies had loaded in their own beer for the function (we were supposed to buy it from the hotel bar), Jerry stood up and announced, "We've been thrown out of better places than this!," and we retreated to Bobby's suite in their own hotel a few miles up the freeway to continue the party. Jerry skipped it and went to bed, and I was always disappointed that I wasn't able to talk to him more that night. Now he's gone and I never will.

Years before I would timidly approach backstage doors to be intimidated by gruff security personnel until Jerry intervened and invited me in to talk backstage and watch the show. He'd be casual; I'd feel awestruck. He was just an extremely nice man. He was also my guitar hero, and directly influenced my own style with his staccato down-beat accents in his solos, the triplet hammer-offs, and the unique way he could play out of key and make it work.

I think his legacy is the remarkable way in which he could bring joy to so many people from different walks of life in so many ways that made one feel he was talking personally just to you. I know he affected me that way.