The Kool Kids

Originally published in Huck

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Ken Kesey was already something of a literary sensation when, in the summer of 1962, Dean Moriarty stepped off the pages of On The Road and into the increasingly strange story of his life. 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 night 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, who had served as Kerouac’s maverick muse, had come to find the new star of the written word. Kesey had recently been made famous by the publication of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, a dense, experimental work that used the hierarchies of a mental hospital as a metaphor for modern American society. A former high school wrestling and football star – 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 join the family dairy farm in Oregon to enrol on the creative writing program at Stamford. It was there that he began working night shifts as a janitor on the psychiatric ward of a local VA hospital, an experience that inspired Cuckoo’s Nest, and one that Kesey immersed himself in to the point of covertly having friends on the ward administer electric shock therapy to him so he might be able to describe it more accurately.

Yet despite the success of his literary debut – soon to be made into a Broadway play featuring Kirk Douglas (which Kesey loved) and a Hollywood film starring Jack Nicholson (which he hated) – Kesey’s true calling was beginning in uncharted regions of the mind, and it was an experience that even he wasn’t capable of putting into words.

In 1959, while working at the hospital, Kesey had volunteered as a test subject for experimental drugs to make some extra money, and in doing so had found himself a guinea pig in the US government’s early research on LSD. This was less than 20 years after the compound’s accidental discovery by Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann, and long before its adoption by the hippies and subsequent demonisation by society at large; at this point, LSD and the hallucinogenic experience meant nothing to an American public more interested in 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 sensory assault of visions and auditory hallucinations, a rushing together of colours and ideas and – in Tom Wolfe’s words – ‘the barrier between the subjective and the objective, the personal and the impersonal, the I and the not-I disappearing.’

Before long Kesey had stolen a large quantity of LSD from the hospital and begun a series of experiments of his own on Perry Lane, a Bohemian enclave of Stamford academics that Kesey managed to divide down the middle with his antics, alienating the old guard as his quaint cabin became overrun with wild eyed crazies, day glo warriors dancing through the streets in impossible combinations of ill-fitting clothes, rapping gibberish poetry, dancing to tuneless music, laughing hysterically at nothing at all. To outside eyes they were lunatics straight from the ward of Cuckoo’s Nest; to the initiated, they were a mix of artists and explorers, scientists and spiritualists, desperately trying to find a new medium for representing the LSD experience, something that was too vast, too ancient and futuristic for conventional forms of creativity or communication.

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Kesey first discovered LSD while working in a psychiatric ward and researching Cuckoo’s Nest

“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 a large, isolated cabin in rural La Honda, California, a place that was part spiritual community, part experiential art project, and one into which Kesey began ploughing the profits from his literary career. He had already completed his second novel – Sometimes A Great Notion, an allegory of American society so sprawling and multi-layered that it made Cuckoo’s Nest seem like a work of pulp fiction by comparison – but he had lost interest in writing. Instead, he began filling the cabin at La Honda and the 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 improv, 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 was simple: the Pranksters would leave California and cross America, taking acid and filming their crazed adventures on the road, and arriving in New York in time for the launch party of Sometimes A Great Notion and 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 wash of swirling 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 segregated black beach in New Orleans at which they turned up and excitedly sprinted into the water, too high to connect the strange looks they were getting with the fact that they were the only white people out swimming, and narrowly avoiding a race riot as a result. There were the fallouts and the freakouts – Cathy Casamo, for example, who gained the name Stark Naked after secretly 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 cities and towns, 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 hippy 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 move the Pranksters on, as much for their own sanity as anything else. Besides, the gang were dressed in red, white and blue; whatever claims you could level at them, sedition wasn’t one of them.

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The irrepressible Neal Cassady on the road

“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.”

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 the Kesey was due to meet Kerouac, an event billed as a 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 sad and cynical alcoholic, he sat in a corner nursing cans of Budweiser and regarding these pretenders to throne with barely veiled contempt.

Similarly unspectacular was a much-vaunted visit to Millbrook, the New York mansion of Timothy Leary, a psychiatrist and Harvard Professor whose experiments with hallucinogenic drugs had led to his being fired from the university and forced to continue his research in a secluded commune of his own. The Pranksters had viewed the visit as a meeting of minds – the West Coast acid heads meet the East Coast acid heads – but in the event Leary had taken one look at the bus rolling up the drive, the madcap characters playing music on the roof and tossing green smoke bombs out the windows, and retreated to his room, refusing to see them.

And finally there was 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. 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 in many ways 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 whiz 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 LSD to hundreds of heads rolling and writhing to psychedelic light shows and the sounds of house band The Grateful Dead, and there was Kesey’s arrest for marijana possession, his faked suicide, his flight to Mexico and eventual incarceration.

More than fifty years after that first, strange trip in the VA hospital, many would argue that the divine visions of the Pranksters have been proved to be mere drug-induced hallucinations; that their pilgrimage was nothing but a self-indulgent flight of fancy, and that 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’ – were no more than stoned platitudes. In many ways it seems that the same machinery is in place, that people are trapped by the same paranoia and economic prisons as ruled the world in Kesey’s day.

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The main stage at Symbiosis 2012, a festival where the Merry Pranksters would feel right at home

Yet for others, the Prankster vision is alive and well, especially within the California counter culture 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, largely secular 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 summer festivals that mix psychedelic music (now mostly electronic) with installation and performance art, film screenings and a comprehensive series of workshops on everything from growing mushrooms and unified field theory to ancestral arts, ayuverdic healing 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 synch with each other, break down boundaries and begin working towards a better way of life. 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 50 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 its still in the same sense of celebration and creative expression. I like to think Symbiosis is the sort of place the Pranksters might feel at home if they were to turn up.”