Updated: Dec 24, 2020
Editor’s Note: The following article contains references to illicit narcotics and activities. Curbside Press’ sole aim in describing or referencing these subjects is to be informative and thorough regarding the story being researched.
Gone But Not Forgotten (Part 3): Ken Kesey & The Merry Pranksters
By Troy Shinn
At a time when the Beatniks were giving way to the hippies, as politics and music and literature were changing, American society was experiencing growing pains. A counterculture was brewing, a ‘foul’-crying sect of young people who saw the country’s reflection in the mirror, at nearly 200 years old, and didn’t like what they saw.
Globally, The Cold War had only just started to churn the machinery of war around every continent but Antarctica. Regimes were toppled. Dictators were installed. Korea was split and Vietnam was simmering. Blues became Rock ‘n’ Roll and the British were about to invade the airwaves. Race and gender and drugs and sex -- and existence itself -- were all blasting into the national psyche.
Everyone had answers. And no one did.
Everyone was trying to figure out how to capture it -- with brush and pen and pick, in verse and in prose, in reports and novels. One man, hailing from Springfield, Oregon, of all places, stood at the center of this storm with a cup of spiked punch and a playful grin.
His friends called him “Swashbuckler,” “Captain Flag” or simply “The Chief.” He gathered a group of like-minded artists and rebels, who stared into the face of American society and barked about evils of The Machine.
The man’s name was Kenneth Elton Kesey, a figure so indelibly part of Oregon’s culture that to not know who he is would be to fail the proverbial state entrance exam. But Oregon welcomes all comers, and Kesey himself would have invited just about anyone in for a story. Here’s where you can bone up on your history:
Early Life & Influences
Born in La Junta, Colorado, in 1935, Kesey’s family moved to Springfield, Oregon, when he was still a child. That’s where he attended high school and became an all-state wrestler. It’s where he met his high school sweetheart and future wife, Faye Haxby, and was named “Most Likely To Succeed” in his senior yearbook.
And succeed he did, though not solely in the ways that many might have assumed.
Attending the University of Oregon on an athletic scholarship (initially for football but he switched early to wrestling), Kesey’s win percentage still to this day makes him one of the most successful Oregon wrestlers ever. He nearly made the U.S. Olympic Team but a shoulder injury sidelined that promising career. He already had other creative passions, so he threw himself into those instead.
As an undergrad, Kesey was mostly a thespian and a playwright -- he initially considered a career in acting, and took some sojourns down to Los Angeles to audition for roles in college, according to his obituary in the New York Times. He majored in communications, initially on a track for radio and television news. He didn’t fully pursue creative literature until later but he quickly found a voice and passion in short stories and novels.
Upon graduating in 1957, Kesey was awarded a graduate scholarship from the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, which he applied to the creative writing program at Stanford University. There, he would meet life-long friends and fellow writers in the likes of Larry McMurtry and Wendell Berry. Their professors included literary giants like Frank O’ Connor and Malcolm Cowley.
The program at Stanford would push his writing to new heights, but Kesey described the experience as humbling in a 1992 interview with Charlie Rose: “I went in there thinking I could write. I went out of there thinking, ‘Maybe I don’t write as good as I thought I did.’”
Kesey described in numerous interviews how he identified with both the Beatnik writers of the Fifties, figures like Kerouac and Ginsberg, and the New Journalism of the Sixties, writers like Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, who were friends of Kesey.
While attending Stanford, Kesey worked as an orderly at the nearby Menlo Park Veterans Memorial Hospital. His experiences there shaped the idea for his most famous work, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, which is set in a mental institution.
It was also while working at the mental ward that Kesey volunteered for an experimental government research study into the effects of psychoactive drugs like peyote, mescaline and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), commonly called “acid.” Years later, this experiment was revealed to be part of the CIA’s controversial mind control program dubbed, “MKUltra.”
Kesey used the opportunity to augment his pay, getting $75 for each session. But the experience converted him into a disciple of psychedelia, a religion he practiced and explored throughout most of his adult life.
He hosted “dance-trance jam sessions” at his residence in La Honda, California, using his friends in rock band The Grateful Dead as the house musicians for performances that were somewhat artistic and somewhat religious. Attendees were encouraged to imbibe drinks laced with LSD and to let go of preconceptions about life, society and human behavior.
"People don't want other people to get high, because if you get high you might see the falsity of the fabric of society we live in." - Ken Kesey
Later in life, Kesey described the parties, which later went on tour and became known as “Acid Tests,” by saying, “It was [about] discovering what was out there if you just continued to move away from the norm… It was a test. There were people who passed and people who didn’t pass.”
These experiences would become immortalized in first-hand recountings, documentaries, news reels and published works, perhaps none more famous than in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests (1968).
In it, Wolfe paints Kesey as the figurehead of a countercultural movement that was about more than teenagers and twenty-somethings getting high and listening to rock music. As the movement gained steam, these gatherings were attended by celebrities, literary paragons and even members of the motorcycle gang The Hell’s Angels.
After honing his craft at Stanford, and experiencing the -- let’s say “extracurricular” -- activities that informed his art, Kesey’s most famous work took shape. Soon, he became a household name.
Cuckoo's Nest & Growing Influence
One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, published in 1962 and later adapted into an Oscar-winning film in 1975, launched Kesey’s profile. It depicts a little-guy-versus-big-guy struggle between patients in a mental hospital and an oppressive staff that’s a stand-in for the ways that society at-large stifles personality.
The protagonist, McMurphy, a convicted trickster who chooses a stay in the ward over hard time, is constantly encouraging uproar against the institution. His frequent hijinx earn him shock therapy “treatment” that damages his brain and effectively lobotomizes him (spoiler alert for a half-century-old book, I guess).
The story is narrated by a Native American man and fellow patient of the hospital, a figure who symbolically represents the product of a system that gets overrun by the goals of fundamentalists and “mainstream society.”
Baked into all of Kesey’s work is a sense of counterculture, of subversion -- an underlying principle that the norms of everyday life are actually barriers. It’s not hard to see why his early work and personality were so magnetic for the burgeoning hippie movement, which saw modern America as the product of war and poverty rather than peace and prosperity.
The Acid Tests themselves, and the tours around the country that Kesey took with his friends and fellow artists -- whom he dubbed “The Merry Pranksters” -- were a direct result of his success from Cuckoo’s Nest.
Kesey said in the 1992 interview that the long tour the Pranksters took in the summer of 1964 -- in a technicolored school bus intentionally mispelled and named after their destination, “Furthur” -- was “a way of celebrating the success of that novel,” and of his next literary work, Sometimes A Great Notion.
Just like the protagonist in Cuckoo’s Nest, Kesey became the charismatic prankster who encouraged people to break the rules -- not for harm’s sake but for the sake of seeing whether it all came crashing down and, if not, then what’s the harm in having a little fun, anyways?
"Fundamentalists have taken all of the fun out of the mental." - Ken Kesey
The Milos Forman film adaptation, starring Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher, was largely shot in Kesey’s home state of Oregon. The Salem mental hospital used in the film still stands and houses the Oregon State Hospital’s Museum of Mental Health. Kesey’s work, and the Hollywood film, are both represented in exhibits there. Some scenes from the movie were also shot in Depoe Bay, where a commemorative marker along the Oregon Film Trail now sits.
Kesey followed up his smash success with 1964’s Sometimes A Great Notion, about a fictitious logging town run by the wealthy Stamper family. The novel similarly explores how influential a challenge to the status quo can be, when the loggers who work for the Stampers go on strike and demand better pay.
While this second novel was released (and also later adapted into an Oregon-shot film) with less public acclaim than Cuckoo’s Nest, Kesey considered it his best work, calling it, “As good of a novel as I’m likely to write.”
Notion is certainly Kesey’s most Oregonian work. Set in a fictional town on the Oregon Coast, he used the real backdrop of Oregon loggers and mill-workers to craft his narrative. The debates over natural resources and fair pay in the book mirror the same history that’s played out in the timberlands and mining towns of real-life Oregon.
In his later years, Kesey continued to publish novels and moved into children’s books, all with a similar theme that he was fond of describing as, “With a little luck and a little love, the little guy can beat the big guy.”
The Merry Pranksters
Kesey’s literary success and reputation as one of the nation’s most powerful young voices would leave a lasting imprint on American society. But there were, as with all people, many sides to Ken Kesey.
One of them was the wry wordsmith, who’s work playfully yet poignantly pointed to the flaws in American capitalism and fundamentalism. Another side was the young hellraiser, who toured around the country giving speeches, doing coin tricks and trying to get people to see something greater in their own shadows, albeit with the help of a little cup of Kool-Aid. Another was the teacher and father he became in his later years, living out a quiet life on a Lane County farm.
But his association with artists of the period, especially his friends in The Grateful Dead, would also make Kesey a figurehead of the counterculture. Years before the Summer of Love or Woodstock, Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters were spreading the gospel of “Peace, Love and Understanding” at house shows and cozy venues.
The original Further Bus Tour in 1964 became something of a folk legend. Kesey purchased an old late-1930’s school bus and outfitted it with some beds and a new psychedelic paint job. The rig became a shuttle for The Merry Pranksters, who’s destination was the World’s Fair held in New York.
A full-member list of The Merry Pranksters isn’t well documented, and claiming to have been part of one of the mythic first rides on "Furthur" is a matter of hippie cred that’s slung around all over the internet, difficult to prove or disprove more than 50 years later.
But the original group included at least Kesey, his best friend Ken Babbs, author Lee Quarnstrom, and even legendary Beat Writer Neal Cassady, who volunteered to drive the bus as far as the East Coast. It’s this trip, from San Francisco to New York, that’s documented in Wolfe’s non-fiction Acid Test recounting.
Because members of The Grateful Dead were often riding along with The Pranksters, the bus became known, essentially, as the tour bus for The Dead. It was the altar at which Dead Heads prayed and migrated toward, wherever it may be, for cheap concerts and priceless breakthroughs.
“They weren’t just playing what was on the music sheets,” Kesey later said of The Grateful Dead during these Acid Test shows. “They were playing what was in the air.”
Even as it toured the country, dispensing music and LSD everywhere they stopped, the bus and the Merry Pranksters became national figures. When the bus finally arrived in New York state, Kesey and other members of the troupe were interviewed by local and national news outlets.
Mainstream America was trying to wrap its brain around just what the hell was the point of all this. At the time, Kesey summarized the journey’s message, “It is possible to be different without being a threat.”
Decades later, when asked, in an uncredited interview posted online by Open Culture, what the purpose of the Acid Tests were, Kesey explained, “It was about just discovering what was out there if you just continued to move away from the norm.”
The 2011 documentary Magic Trip includes original footage from this first trip, something that Kesey and Babbs tried unsuccessfully for decades to edit and release to the public.
Returning to California following this iconic trip, Kesey was arrested for marijuana possession (acid, conversely, was legal at the time). He faked his own suicide and fled from authorities to Mexico for a couple of months before returning to serve a five-month sentence. Following this, Kesey moved to Pleasant Hill, OR, where he lived with his family for the rest of his life.
He taught writing seminars at his alma maters in Eugene and Stanford, wrote children’s books and short stories, and helped produce the dramatic and literary works of graduate students all over the country. A statue of him reading to his grandchildren is the centerpiece of Ken Kesey Square, which still occupies an open space in downtown Eugene.
The original Furthur bus was reportedly used for random farmwork on Kesey’s property for a few decades before finding its permanent parking spot out in the fields of the Willamette Valley. A "Further Bus 2," the one pictured above, was reportedly used by Kesey and other members of the Merry Pranksters to continue the spirit of the Acid Tests, featured at numerous events, like a Phish concert in New York state in 1997.
While Kesey died in 2001 at 66 due to complications from liver cancer, his surviving friends and Pranksters recreated the bus and Kesey’s cross-country roadtrip in 2014, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the trek.
Kesey’s work is still considered among the most influential of the Twentieth Century, included in many collections of greatest contemporary works and taught in schools around the globe. His political and social activism is still considered foundational to the counterculture that changed American society.
It’s nearly impossible to summarize how bizarre of a story Kesey left behind. “Former wrestler turned government test subject becomes best-selling author” is a resounding enough headline -- and it barely scratches the surface of who he was. Ken Kesey occupied a space in time and in art that few people ever occupy. He wielded more than just writing talent or cultural influence, he wielded the future. The concept of “Furthur” itself.
Perhaps Tom Wolfe summarized Kesey’s philosophy best in his book, “Everything was becoming allegorical, understood by the group mind, and especially this: You were either on the bus … or off the bus.”
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