Thursday, February 09, 2006

Get on the bus (again)



From Kansas City Star:

Get on the bus (again)

Family finally decides to restore Ken Kesey’s original ride
By JEFF BARNARD
The Associated Press

Z ane Kesey picks at clumps of moss and swirls of brightly colored paint and patches of rust covering the school bus that his father, the late author Ken Kesey, rode cross-country with a refrigerator stocked with LSD-laced drinks in pursuit of a new art form.

“This comes off pretty easy,” Kesey says, a smile playing over his face. “It’s amazing, some of the things that are coming out — things I remember.”

For some 15 years, the 1939 International Harvester bus dubbed “Furthur” has rusted away in a swamp on the Kesey family’s Willamette Valley farm in Oregon, out of sight if not out of mind, more memory than monument.

That is where Ken Kesey — author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and hero of a generation that vowed to drop out and tune in with the help of LSD — intended it to stay after firing up a new bus in 1990.

But four years after his death, a Hollywood restaurateur has persuaded the family to resurrect the old bus so it can help tell the story of Kesey, the Merry Pranksters and the psychedelic 1960s.

“I read his books back in high school and through college,” says David Houston, owner of the historic roadhouse Barney’s Beanery in Los Angeles. “I just always thought he was a fascinating and brilliant man. The story of the bus was always very compelling. To find out it had been just left to go — I really wanted to restore the bus and tell its story to the world.”

Houston hopes to raise the $100,000 he figures it will cost to get the bus running and looking good. The Kesey family will maintain control of the bus, though, taking it to special events.
“People think of a bus as transportation,” Zane Kesey says. “No. It’s a platform, a way to get your messages across.”

Last fall, a group of old Pranksters hauled the bus out of the swamp and parked it next to a barn to await restoration.

“One of the things that is really optimistic for me is it’s got full air in the tires from Cassady,” says Kesey, referring to Neal Cassady, who was the wheelman in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and drove Further on that first trip. “Honestly, if the tires had been flat, I would have said, ‘Just leave it there.’ ”

The restoration will be a tough job. The body is badly rusted. The paint is peeled. The roof leaks. The engine, not original, and transmission have both been underwater. The original bunk beds and refrigerator are gone, but the driver’s seat remains.

“The most important thing is the paint,” bus mechanic Mike Cobiskey told Kesey. “I’m sure you have a thousand pictures of it.”

“And no two are alike,” Kesey replies.

Ken Kesey bought the bus in 1964 from a family in San Francisco that had fitted it out with bunks as a motor home. The plan was to drive it to New York City for the World’s Fair and a coming-out party for his new book, Sometimes a Great Notion.

“At first, a bunch of us were going to go in a station wagon,” says Ken Babbs, one of the original Pranksters. “Then it was getting too big for that. Kesey went up and bought it. I think it was around $1,500.”

At La Honda, Kesey’s home in the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco, they installed a sound system and a generator on the back and went wild with the paint. Artist Roy Sebern painted the word “Furthur” on the destination placard as a kind of one-word poem and inspiration to keep going whenever the bus broke down. It wasn’t until much later that he found out he had misspelled it. Just as the bus was constantly being repainted, somewhere along the line the Further sign was corrected.

The day they were ready to go, Ken Kesey recruited Cassady from a bookstore where he was working, Babbs recalls. The bus pulled out of the driveway with Ray Charles singing “Hit the Road, Jack,” and ran out of gas. That was quickly remedied, and down the road they went, Cassady spewing the speed-talking rap-babble that inspired Kerouac’s writing style.

“For me and Kesey, too, we were trying to move into a new creative expression which was movie making, and being part of the movie,” Babbs says. “This was all a tremendous experiment in the arts. We always figured we would be totally successful and make a lot of money out of it.”
The wildly painted bus got stopped by the police, but with their short haircuts and preppy clothes, the Pranksters were never arrested. They carried orange juice laced with LSD, which was legal at the time. Kesey had been a guinea pig in government-sponsored LSD tests and was trying to turn the entire country on to it through events known as the Acid Tests.

The bus got stuck in an Arizona river. It stopped in Houston for a visit with author Larry McMurtry, who was with Kesey at the Wallace Stegner writing seminar at Stanford University when he wrote Cuckoo’s Nest in the early 1960s. The Pranksters jammed with a piano player in New Orleans and were ejected from a blacks-only beach on Lake Ponchartrain.

“When people ask what my best work is, it’s the bus,” Ken Kesey said in 2000. “Those books made it possible for the bus to become.

“I thought you ought to be living your art, rather than stepping back and describing it,” he said. The bus is “a metaphor that’s instantly comprehensible. Every kid understands it.”

After one last trip, to Woodstock, N.Y., in 1969, Kesey put the bus out to pasture, where it served as a dugout for softball games. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., expressed some interest in restoring the bus, but Kesey would never let it go.

“People were always saying, ‘Is this the real bus?’ ” Babbs says. “And he would say, ‘Yes, there’s only one bus, just like there’s only one ‘Starship Enterprise.’ ”

Kesey’s widow, Faye, had reservations about restoring the old bus but did not try to stop it.

“I kind of liked it in the swamp covered with moss and becoming part of the swamp,” she said.

“But I talked to everybody who had been on it. To a man they all wanted to see it restored.

“If not, it can always go back to the swamp. Nature does a pretty good paint job, too.”

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