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"These things don't happen," Harding said to the girl solemnly. "These things are fantasies you lie awake at night dreaming up and then afraid to tell your analyst. You're not really here. That wine isn't real; none of this exists. Now, let's go on from there."
Ken Kesey from "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest"

I carried around a dog-eared copy of "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" my entire sophomore year of high school. It is hard to admit now, in print, but it's true. I'd already read the damn thing twice, but hoped, in some strange way, that the spirit of it would somehow work its way into me. I tried a similar move with "The Great Gatsby", but that didn't take. Not that "Cuckoo's Nest" took in any conventional or tangible way, it's just that it spoke to me in modes that I needed to be spoken to. It is hard to fully impart that experience now, some 25 years later, but needless to say, it was influential in all that word denotes. It was training of the first degree, a lesson in language and metaphor as bazooka, and for that I will forever be grateful.

You see, young writers love "Cuckoo's Nest", because there is a freedom there, a real sense of creative liberty. And with liberty there is the wonderful feeling of danger and confusion, and all the elements of great art, the kind of stuff that makes a young man feel alive and worthy of wasting his time in front of a typewriter or with a musical instrument or any form of creative expression. It's like when the Jazz guys talk about Coltrane or Monk or Miles Davis or the paint crowd creams over Jackson Pollock's colorful mess.

There is a load of that same stuff in Jack Kerouac's "On The Road" and Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas". These are books that scorch the eyes and twist the brain, but, for me, they came later. "Cuckoo's Nest", and soon after, Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughter House Five" were first for me. And firsts; first kiss, first sunrise, first time behind the wheel, first drink, first night on the beach, first ballgame, first published work, first true love; these are the memories that stick and jab and keep coming back to remind us that we feel, that we live.

Ken Kesey was one of those wonderful confused danger addicts who could create something of this kind because he felt life to the core. And "Cuckoo's Nest" was his manifesto.

Critically, his second novel, "Sometimes A Great Notion" received more noise, but "Cuckoo's Nest" was immortalized in film and theater, and has an edge to it that is eminently American in its reach. It is free and wild and has an open air of possibility that reflects what is truly great about the American literary spirit; check that, the American spirit, period.

But if Kesey had merely written "Cuckoo's Nest" - he compiled the notes for the book while volunteering for LSD experiments and then working as a psychiatric aide at Menlo Park Veterans Administration Hospital - there would have been sufficient enough evidence that he was comfortable teetering on high wires.

But Kesey lived his art in the same fashion, by being the honest troubadour of lunacy and mayhem, the quintessential Californian jester, the clown prince of whimsical release. His gift was harboring energy, not letting it go. He could let it engulf him, channel it, and make it into a book, make it into "Cuckoo's Nest". Kesey was one of those nine lives types, a genetic mutation of Baby Boomer angst and good old-fashioned Great Depression bravado. Sadly, many of those lives were spent jerking off around Mexico in a drug haze, or sitting as the Grand Poobah of a lost gaggle of hippies in the California Mountains. But even then, Kesey used the foul nature of the beast as performance art - the precursor to Andy Kaufman - in what he called the Merry Pranksters.

Ah, the Pranksters. Never has a more meaningless endeavor culled the imagination, while demonstrating how a warped cross-country bus ride could capture the pointless rebellion of youth with hallucinogenic stupidity. It was less fun, than militant madness, a stretch of mind-swelling, spiteful counter culture hyperbole. And it was fueled by Kesey's formulaic mania, sometimes satirical, sometimes emboldened farce. But a mere prank was never really Kesey's style. He was what a very good friend of mine calls the Balls To The Wall mentality. Kesey rode the sucker to the bitter end, or in this case, New York's World Fair. Filmed the whole thing. Naked, painted hippies, bikers and the human match stick, Neal Cassidy behind the wheel, it was the true movable feast, a happening, a ruckus. Tom Wolfe came along for the ride. He wrote a book and called it "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test". The high brows called it the new journalism; Wolfe became a famous novelist, Kesey became an infamous one.

Kesey once said that a writer couldn't be famous because it was "hard to observe when every one is observing you." Kesey said a great deal of smart and insightful things about spirituality and politics and art and literature, but that was buried beneath years of drug busts and insurrections of varied kinds. The jester routine wore thin. The maverick became the caricature, and then some kind of Buddha for the sixties generation of aging optimists. And Kesey welcomed all monikers. He didn't have a name for any of it. To Ken Kesey, it was just life worth living until the end. The end always comes too soon for the hearts of fire. I have another copy of "Cuckoo's Nest" somewhere. Maybe I'll give it to my godchild, Nicole when she's fifteen.

The world needs more wonderfully dangerous, confused lunatics.
© James Campion 2001

For the past three years James Campion has been manning the infamous Reality Check News & Information Desk for The Aquarian Weekly. The rigors of dismantling the cloudy worlds of pop culture, politics and the increasingly bizarre rituals of human degradation have resulted in a preponderance of rabid fandom and rankled enemies. Those who've tried to label him have come to realize that although rolling stones gather no moss, fence sitting name-callers with press passes and 900 words a week are tougher to pin down. The Reality Check column has not only brought Mr. Campion to the edge of journalistic Hades, but also allowed him to gather most of the blather into his second book called
Fear No Art - Observations on the Death of the American Century.

His first tome, Deep Tank Jersey - One Man's Journey into the Soul of a New Jersey Club Band nearly killed him, but exploded on the scene in 1996 to frighten even the most hardened rock and roll veteran. Filled with sordid tales of debauchery and mayhem it solidified the New Jersey Club Circuit as truly the legendary hatching place of Bruce Springsteen, South Side Johnny, Bon Jovi and the home for a sub-culture of inspirational madness. After digesting Mr. Campion's rambles weekly in The Aquarian, feel free to sample more of his dysfunctional garbage at Both Fear No Art & Deep Tank Jersey can be purchased on his web site,,, and any Barnes & Noble location nationwide.

James Campion Reality Check News & Information Desk

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