Tom Wolfe, in his seminal book on Kesey’s psychedelic adventures, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, describes the author and his wife Faye returning home one evening to find ‘a funny figure in the front yard, smiling and rolling his shoulders this way and that and jerking his hands out to this side and the other side as if there’s a different drummer somewhere… corked out of his gourd, in fact’.
Neal Cassady, the real-life inspiration for Jack Kerouac’s road muse Moriarty, had come to pay his respects to the new star of the written word. Kesey had recently been made famous by the publication of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, an experimental work that used the hierarchies of a mental hospital as a metaphor for modern American society.
A former high-school wrestling and football champion – a clean-cut family man, built like a classical hero, married to his childhood sweetheart – Kesey had undergone a seismic creative shift in his early adult life, passing on the opportunity to work the family farm in Oregon and instead enrolling on the creative writing program at Stanford.
It was there that he began jobbing night shifts as a janitor on the psychiatric ward of a local hospital, an experience that inspired Cuckoo’s Nest, and one that Kesey immersed himself in to the point of covertly having colleagues administer him with electric shock therapy so that he could describe the treatment more accurately.
Yet despite the success of Kesey’s literary debut – soon to be made into a Broadway play featuring Kirk Douglas and re-imagined by Hollywood as the 1975 film starring Jack Nicholson (which Kesey hated) – his greatest adventure was only just beginning in uncharted regions of the mind.
In 1959, while working at the hospital, Kesey volunteered as a test subject for experimental drugs to make extra money, and in doing so found himself a guinea pig in the US government’s early research on LSD. This was barely fifteen years after the compound’s hallucinogenic properties were discovered following its accidental ingestion by Swiss scientist Albert Hofman, and long before its adoption by the hippies.
At this point, LSD meant nothing to an American public more concerned with Cold War politics, electrical appliances and the corruptive power of Elvis Presley’s hips. But for Kesey, the experience was beyond anything he’d imagined: a waking dream of visual and auditory hallucinations, a tidal wave of words and ideas and – in Tom Wolfe’s words – ‘the barrier between the subjective and the objective, the personal and the impersonal, theI and the not-I disappearing’.
Before long Kesey had stolen a quantity of LSD from the hospital and begun a series of experiments of his own at Perry Lane, Palo Alto – a bohemian community of Stanford academics that Kesey managed to divide with his antics, alienating the old guard as his quaint cabin became overrun with wild-eyed crazies, DayGlo warriors prancing through the streets in impossible combinations of ill-fitting clothes, rapping gibberish poetry, dancing to tuneless music, laughing hysterically at nothing at all.
To outsiders, they were lunatics straight from the ward of Cuckoo’s Nest; to the initiated, they were artists and explorers, scientists and spiritualists, collectively seeking a way to represent the LSD experience – something that was too vast for conventional forms of creativity or communication.
“There was an incredible newness to the psychedelic revolution,” says Ken Babbs, second in command to Kesey’s captain as well as a close friend.
“Taking acid led to an expansion of consciousness and a way of seeing things through new eyes, delighting in the world the way a child does. It was an experience that was bigger than music, bigger than poetry or plays or novels. So we were forced to break down the boundaries between those forms. And that’s what psychedelia is all about – breaking down boundaries and melting things together. It’s about everything happening outside of time, in the past, present and future all at once.”
Before long Kesey’s acid acolytes had a name – the Merry Pranksters – and had moved to an isolated cabin in rural La Honda, California, establishing a base that was part spiritual community, part experiential art project, and one into which Kesey began ploughing the profits from his fledgling literary career.
He had already completed his second novel – Sometimes A Great Notion, an allegory of American society so sprawling and dense that it madeCuckoo’s Nest seem like a work of pulp fiction – but had subsequently lost interest in writing.
Instead, he began filling the cabin and surrounding woodland with microphones and speakers, echo boxes and reverb units, tape recorders and reel-to-reel projectors and – most importantly – film cameras.
“We started out rapping novels and stories into tape recorders,” says Ken Babbs, “but there was a point where we stepped beyond telling stories and moved into playing characters, into spontaneity and improvisation, and eventually we found ourselves acting these parts out in front of the camera.
We realised that wherever you go there are people acting out dramatic scenes on the streets of towns and cities, and we decided that the best way to represent what we were doing was to make a film in which we were interacting with those people while playing our own respective roles, bringing everybody’s stories together. And of course we’d all be high on acid while we were doing it. Nothing like it had ever been done before – it would be a movie like no other.”
The idea for the film – eventually titled The Merry Pranksters Search for a Kool Place and screened at ‘Acid Tests’ across the country – was simple: the Pranksters would leave California and cross America, taking acid and filming their crazed adventures on the road, arriving in New York in time for the 1964 World’s Fair.
Kesey purchased a 1939 International Harvester school bus and the gang began preparing it – fitting the inside with bunks and the roof with an observational turret, and painting the body in a garish swirl of psychedelic colours and arcane symbols. On the front was a misspelled mission statement: ‘Furthur’. On the back was a warning: ‘Weird Load’.
With an amphetamine-fuelled Neal Cassady at the wheel, the Pranksters set off for New York, leaving a trail of colourful chaos in their wake. There was the race riot they narrowly avoided sparking after accidentally descending on a segregated beach in New Orleans, too high to connect the strange looks they were getting with the fact that they were the only white people in the water.
There were the fallouts and the freakouts – Cathy Casamo, for example, who gained the nickname ‘Stark Naked’ after gulping a superhuman dose of LSD and spending the drive through Texas standing on the rear platform of the bus and exposing herself to truck drivers (she was sectioned in Houston).
As they rolled into towns and cities, the Pranksters would take to the roof, dance and declaim and play nonsensical music to a mixture of amusement and unease from baffled American heartland types, but they seldom invoked hatred or horror; the rise of the dreaded hippie generation was still a year away, and there wouldn’t be a law against taking LSD for another three years.
Needless to say the bus was pulled over regularly, but the police would take one look inside and hurry the Pranksters on, as much for their own sanity as anything else. Besides, several of the gang were dressed in red, white and blue; whatever claims you could level at them, sedition wasn’t one.
“We weren’t anti-American,” says Babbs, who had returned from a tour of duty in Vietnam just weeks before getting on the bus. “We’ve always tried to embody the great American ideal, which is freedom: the freedom to do what you want with your own body, and to do what you want with your own lives. We were pranksters, but there was no cruelty or malice to our work, and we never made anyone the butt of our pranks. We were having fun, and the people who recognised that would chase the bus down the street when it drove into town, smiling and cheering and singing along with us.”
In some ways, the reception the Pranksters received upon finally arriving in New York was less hospitable. First up was a grand apartment party at which Kesey was due to meet Kerouac, an event billed as the passing of a literary baton from the mouthpiece of the Beat Generation to the king of the Pranksters.
But the ageing Kerouac was unimpressed; a bloated and cynical alcoholic, he sat in a corner nursing cans of Budweiser and regarding these pretenders to the throne with barely veiled contempt. Similarly unspectacular was the much-vaunted visit to the World’s Fair, a showcase for the cars, homes and lives of tomorrow that was, in the eyes of Alex Gibney, director of the 2012 Prankster documentary Magic Trip, a bit of a bust.
“They thought they were going to hang out in a vision of the future, but it turned out the World’s Fair was actually a vision of the past,” explains Gibney. “The future was them, the future was now, the future was right there on the bus. The Pranksters were the seed of what would become known as ‘the sixties’, which in 1964 still hadn’t happened yet. But the Pranksters were carrying that seed around with them, knowing full well that it was about to take root.”
The end of the Pranksters’ journey across America was the beginning of something much larger. In the months that followed came all manner of crazed capers – from their unlikely union with the notorious Hell’s Angels in La Honda to the arrival of chemistry wizard Owsley Stanley and his mass production of enough high-grade LSD to turn on not only the West Coast of America but the whole free-thinking world.
There were the notorious Acid Test parties at which the Pranksters distributed the drug to crowds of hipsters rolling and writhing to psychedelic light shows and the sounds of house band the Grateful Dead; there was Kesey’s arrest for marijuana possession, his faked suicide, his flight to Mexico and eventual incarceration.
More than fifty years after Kesey first submitted to the psychedelic experience on a hospital ward, many would argue that the divine visions of the Pranksters have proved to be mere drug-induced hallucinations, and Kesey’s hopes of reawakening humanity’s sense of childish wonder at the universe – a mission he described as ‘nothing less than saving the world’ – no more than stoned platitudes.
In many ways it seems that the same war-mongering machinery is still in place, that paranoia remains a universal language and that people are trapped by the same social and economic prisons that hemmed in the sixties.
Yet for others, the Prankster vision is alive and well, especially within the California counterculture that the Pranksters were part of, and which is larger and more organised today than ever before. LSD use remains rife – albeit in a more recreational than experimental capacity – and the sense of togetherness and shared responsibility set down by the hippies has created a wave of sustainable communities for whom organic food, renewable energy and social responsibility are the norm.
It’s a trend towards ‘conscious living’ embodied by a series of annual festivals that mix psychedelic music with performance art, film screenings and workshops on everything from mushroom cultivation and Ayurvedic healing to ancestral arts, Native American wisdom and the role of the electric car. For Bosque Hrbek, founder of conscious-living festival Symbiosis, it’s a culture with a direct line to Kesey and the Merry Pranksters.
“It’s about getting a lot of like-minded people together and putting them in a place where they can get in sync with each other, break down boundaries and begin working towards a better way of life,” he explains.
“Drugs still have a value, certainly – we live in a culture that’s sick with so many psychosomatic illnesses, and experiences like those offered by LSD are good starting points for reprogramming troubled minds and beginning the healing process. We’ve learned a lot about those drugs in the fifty years since Kesey did his thing on the road, and we’re not blindly diving into those experiences the way they did back then.
“But it’s still a communal rite and a sacred ritual based around loud music and ecstatic dance, and it’s still in the same sense of celebration and creative expression. I like to think that Symbiosis is the sort of place the Pranksters might feel at home if they were to turn up one day.”