(This essay is adapted from my book, The Gigging Life. It represents original reporting about a Ken Kesey story that almost no has had ever heard of, but is my favorite.)
The greatest Oregon literary gig of all time is The Bend in the River Media Referendum. It culminated July 4th weekend 1974 in Bend, Oregon and traveled well beyond words and stories and embraced grassroots politics and the promise of democracy during the darkness of the Vietnam War and Watergate years.
It was a frantic, four-month, statewide gig for a better Oregon future, funded by taxpayers, and orchestrated by the greatest Oregon writer and impresario of all time.
Ken Kesey pulled it off, with a lot of help from his friends and some Merry Pranksters, too. In essence, The Bend in the River Media Referendum is the Wild West story of a lost Merry Pranksters gig.
It has virtually disappeared from Oregon history.
Let Ken Kesey begin the tale. His essay, “How it All Came Together,” opened the 126-page Bend in the River Reality newsprint magazine published a month after the Bend in The River Media Referendum concluded. It’s one of the more psychedelic and prescient publications ever produced in Oregon and virtually unread in over four decades. Very few copies remain.
“The madder you get the madder you get….”
So there we are after Sunday supper sitting around the dirty dishes and fresh coffee, talking, me and Gary Mikklesen (Mikklesen is ten years my junior plus his dad worked for my dad making prize winning Darigold ice cream for the Eugene Farmers’ Co-operative Creamery but then see I worked as second-string ice cream maker under Gary’s Dad, Mick Mikklesen, during my adolescent son-of-the-boss years… all of which makes Gary and me somehow eye-level on the Lane County turf) …talking about the bleak, sad feeling of seeing things long-loved go under the Roller of Heartless Progress, sipping coffee and griping, getting mad and madder, wondering what could be done about the problem by a notorious novelist gone bad and a slick-talking feed store proprietor, done to somehow stall or at least call for a re-appraisal of the Awful Roller, when I suddenly remember the pig farmer in Montana…
THE PIG FARMER’S NOTION
As a panel-scarred veteran of numerous Humanities Conferences (the JFK Symposium in Kansas City and the Montana Land Use Conference in Billings, to name a couple) I have been impressed both by the commendable wealth of information attracted to these events and by the lamentable dearth of this wealth. The people just aren’t getting the information. This was never made more clear than on the final day of the conference in Billings when a raw-jawed pig farmer in the hotel elevator asked me, “You one of them eck-ollygists flew in here to talk to yerselfs?”
I had to admit I was. I asked what he would do, if he were king, to change the situation.
“Put it on TV,” he answered. “just like they do the political conventions. Then let the folks at home vote t’see who won. Simple….”
This project has been our attempt to adapt that Montana pig farmer’s notion to the Oregon situation. It wasn’t quite as simple as any of us first figured.
As Gary and I were discussing our fantasy, the phone rang. It was Joyce Theios, Vista Burnout, calling from San Bernardino, asking to speak to Faye about onion sets. Faye wasn’t there but the call seemed fortuitous. An ex-Vista Volunteer seemed exactly what was needed. I explained the project to her and asked if she would like to be the secretary. Joyce assured me she would help but it was to be definitely understood that she was “not the secretary.” (In the months that followed there were quite a number of fine folks, both yin and yang, who acted as “Not the Secretary.”)
Joyce helped Gary and me apply for the grant. I remember the first line of our first application as a prime example of how not to mince words:“Dear Humanities People: we need a hundred thousand bucks. . .” We then submitted a revised budget for 87 thousand. Then 75. And finally—with the help Bill Korns, Phil George, Bob Wynia, Jim Williams, Kathi Wagner, Barbara Platz and Chuck Ackley—we were allotted $12,000, as planning or “seed money,” by the Oregon Committee for the Arts and Humanities.
Joyce was the one who first heard from Chuck Ackley that our fantasy had actually been funded. She told me over the phone that the Humanities people considered us a definite gamble but nevertheless a gamble definitely worth taking. After she hung up I called Gary at his feed store in Crow: “Mikklesen, we got trouble. . . “
I found out one of the stipulations of the grant was involvement with a recognized Humanist and an “adult, out-of-school public.” Gary had covered this in the application by saying we would hold a bunch of what he called “town meetings” with me acting as the honcho Humanist.
“Honcho what?” I demanded in dawning aghastment? “You mean we have to hold meetings all over this mother state! Who’ll come?”
“Wall-l-l-” Mikklesen mused over the phone, “—if you don’t think we got the juice to draw a crowd—.”
“But even so, what’ll we do with them? We ain’t the King Family. . .”
“Why, chief, didn’t you say you used to do a little magic show, silks and ropes and so forth…?”
THE GLARE OF DEMOCRACY
Eventually I did remember the trick we had used in 1972 when we were trying to get the Peoples’ Party going—to hold nominations and elections as a way of involving the audience. It had been far more effective than the usual one-way political bombast. So what we did at each Oregon meeting was have me get up front at first and run thirty or forty minutes of rap off the top of my shiny head, then open the floor to nominations. When the blackboard got full someone always closed the nominations and we heard from each candidate in turn.
Looking back, I judge this part of the project my favorite—listening to these nominees speak, feeling for them, seeing them thrust without preparation into the glare of democracy at its starkest, and watching them at first blink and bumble and blush then, finally, grandly, bloom in its light.
After the speeches we would elect however many the gathering thought right, those elected to be delegates at a Council. All we could tell them was that this council was to convene in Bend on the 4th of July where they would address themselves to the issues concerning the next 25 years of our state’s future, then present these issues to the public via some kind of exciting new ballot. The meetings broke up with everyone confused but enthused.
Someone could write a book about the unlikely and inspiring story of the Bend in the River Media Referendum. It most assuredly deserves a book-length treatment because nothing comparable exists in the annals of American history: a celebrated novelist gigging across his state on the taxpayers’ dime, at the tail end of the criminal Nixon Era, to rap with citizens and envision a new path for a better Oregon in 2000.
Unfortunately, this short essay will have to suffice for now. But it’s a story ready-made for an author or filmmaker.
The chief source for the following account of the Bend in the River Media Referendum is the Bend in the River Reality, a truly remarkable piece of counterculture journalism, some newspaper clippings, and interviews with David Dumas and Walt Curtis, both participants in the community meetings and the culminating event in Bend. It was Walt Curtis who said, that on the drive over to Bend with Kesey, Kesey said in the back seat, “Oregon is the citadel of the spirit.” That’s what he was feeling after spending four months talking with so many Oregonians and listening to their concerns and desires for their state’s future.
The central idea behind the Bend in the River Referendum was to give the people the, “magic scepter of democracy,” as Kesey described the grassroots process that called upon Oregonians to gather across the state in their communities and talk, and better yet, listen to one another.
The process entailed holding meetings in Portland, in Eugene, Corvallis, Albany, Salem, Springfield, Ashland, The Dalles, Coos Bay, Newport, Astoria and Fossil (!), where attendees identified and discussed the issues and then cast ballots to prioritize them for further discussion. Kesey hosted these conclaves.
At the meetings, delegates were also selected to represent their cities at the Bend in the River Media Referendum over the July 4th weekend. The plan was to tally all the ballots from the meetings and devise a working agenda for the final gathering. In Bend, delegates would meet in groups on specific issues and make policy recommendations. (It should also be noted that after these meetings, held in venues such as churches, fairgrounds, schools, libraries and colleges, Kesey and crew would repair to a local watering hole and invite anyone who wanted to join them. Can any Oregon writer do that sort of thing today?)
Who came to the meetings? Ken Babbs, writing in The Bend in the River Reality, described them this way: “They were young, but not all; there were long hairs but short-cuts too. They wore overalls and business suits, granny gowns and chic pantsuits. Some carried babes in arms. They came on foot and bike, in pickups and Torinos.”
Accounts of the initial community meetings in Eugene and Portland portray confusion, a penchant for digression, and a distinct counterculture flavor. It is clear from reading Bend in the River Reality that Kesey and crew knew that their ad-hoc, freewheeling approach wasn’t going to fly in the hinterlands, or even in Portland. This wasn’t the Oregon Country Fair. They tweaked the space ship, reeled in the sky pilot, and tightened the focus for future meetings. Apparently, the modifications worked.
Concurrent to the community meetings effort, the Bend in the River organizers also published a ballot in many newspapers across the state and urged people to participate in the process even if they didn’t attend the meetings. All they had to do was fill out the ballot, tear it from the paper, and mail it to the Bend in the River headquarters in Eugene. Eventually, participants returned some 5000 ballots.
One hundred and seven delegates convened at Central Oregon Community College in Bend to stage the Referendum. There were early disagreements on procedures, agendas and wording on abortion rights that threatened to disrupt the proceedings, but they dissipated and the gig went on. Dr. Andrew Weil showed up to talk about the medicinal benefits of plants used by Native Americans. David Brower railed against nuclear power. Former US Senator Wayne Morse, the Tiger of the Senate, trying to regain his seat, gave a fiery speech on the perils of secret government. Delegates formed groups on the following issues: Land Use, Health, Education, Energy, Nuclear Power (moratorium), Amnesty (for Vietnam War draft resistors), Computers (data collection!), Economy, Communications (the role of the public trust in media). Fifty-nine credentialed members of media came from all over the West, including a writer from Rolling Stone and photographer Annie Lebowitz. Interestingly enough, neither the Oregonian nor Oregon Journal sent any reporters to the event. They probably considered the whole thing too hippie and out of touch with reality.
Which it was and was not. That was the whole point.
The Referendum culminated with a 90-minute show Sunday morning promulgating the policy positions on the issues. It was aired live on Oregon Public Broadcasting. The Merry Pranksters live into the living rooms of Oregonians!
Prior to the broadcast, Kesey gave a quick lecture on manners and timing and warned that the Bend in the River concept was on trial and Middle America was watching. Imagine that! Ken Kesey warning his tribe to behave!
The show began. Kesey appeared and explained the spectacle about to unfold. People at home were asked to improvise ballots and mail them in later. Then the discussion about Oregon’s future began. Ninety minutes later, after a closing Om chant for all Christian Middle Oregon to ponder, the show ended. It largely went off without a hitch.
There is probably nothing comparable to that live program in the history of American television, at least how it was detailed in the Bend in the River Reality. Someone captured it on tape. The tape has gone missing. I know it’s out there, in a Eugene basement or Springfield attic. Someone find it and throw this artifact up on YouTube.
David Dumas recalls how The Bend in the River Media Referendum ended:
On the last day, after the media event ended and the news people were gone, the Pranksters set up the gymnasium for a party/dance that I would describe as a cross between a square dance and an acid test. Kesey, playing the high priest, was breaking open chemical light sticks and anointing everyone. I was wearing an old maroon sweater with jeans, and Kesey came over and covered me with eerily green florescent galaxies. Glowing, we formed a rumba line and snaked our way around the auditorium.
A month later, Kesey and crew published Bend in the River Reality: The BITR END and distributed it via the mail and other unknown methods. Kesey concluded the publication with a poem. Its second part read:
The people have a wisdom no government can equal. The people are the computer, and technology needed to tap this human resource bank is minimal.
The people are not dumb.
The people can run the ship through the rapids ahead better than any group of elected officials.
The officials need only gather the information and mount the argument and present them to the people; the people will do the deciding. . .
It can be done soon. It must be prepared for now.
Because if the people aren’t driving there is always the possibility that some maniac might grab the wheel.
Official channels, like the Media Referendum, must be made available to the people as a means of impeaching any part of the system that has gone awry—any time.
It can be done. It must be prepared for.
The gig was over. But it was also not over. It’s never over.
Whether The Bend in the River gig made any difference how Oregon ended up 45 years later is a matter for further inquiry, conjecture and debate. It is no coincidence that in the aftermath of that extraordinary gig, the thousands of Oregonians it directly, organically engaged with peace, love and a willingness to listen and learn from all walks of Oregon life, coupled with the progressive measures enacted during Governor Tom McCall’s second term, a zeitgeist for improved livability was seeded. Over time, those seeds germinated, and later grew Oregon into one of the most desirable places to live in the country. It’s the story of modern Oregon.