1. The Further Trip
The first notable manifestation of the Merry Pranksters was their 1964 coast-to-coast bus tour. Prior to this, a circle of like-minded characters in the San Francisco Bay Area had gathered around Kesey, who was a promising young author of the acclaimed 1962 novel, "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest". After finishing his second novel "Sometimes A Great Notion" Kesey was looking to expand his artistic endeavours outside the world of literature. Based on his guinea pig experiences with psychedelic drugs at the CIA-sponsored Veteran's Hospital in Menlo Park, a new philosophy and lifestyle emerged among Kesey's friends and colleagues who took part in similar LSD experiences. This new attitude cannot be summarized in a few neat "-isms" and encyclopedia references, for as the Pranksters warned: "if you label it THIS, then it can't be THAT". Instead a few enigmatic phrases defined their lifestyle - "You're either on the bus or off the bus"; "Nothing lasts"; "Never trust a Prankster". Unconstrained by any agenda, they put vast amounts of energy into whatever project they were working on, and with Kesey as chief ideologist constantly tried to push into new realms of experience.
Consequently the acid-fuelled June 1964 cross-country trip with an old school bus, painted in dayglo colors and christened "Further", had no explicit artistic purpose - ostensibly they were shooting a documentary while on the way to New York City's World Fair in time for the publication of Kesey's second novel - yet it was centered around certain unique principles. The LSD sessions during the journey did not happen randomly, or constantly, but as designated events during which certain Pranksters took LSD, while others created the trip environment and documented the results through the array of advanced equipment they had brought along on the bus, such as tape recorders, 16mm movie cameras, internal and external speakers, intricately rewired headphones and microphones. Recordings, broadcasts, feedbacks, tape loops and tape delays were a constant part of their daily life. Apart from the purpose of documentation, the hi-tech gear was used to create an environment of aural/visual stimuli that would enhance the sense of spontaneity, or Now, and help breaking through the barriers of limited perception that the reasoning mind - and possibly society - had created for itself.
At the core of all this was a theory Kesey had picked up on, regarding the way the human mind processes sense data. There is a lag of 1/30 second before the central nervous system can respond to any type of data it receives. In other words, everything we experience has already happened, and we are constantly watching the movie of our lives, unable to affect it in any meaningful way. This neuro-physiological fact took on a wider meaning for the Pranksters, applied not only in terms of classic epistemology, but for personal development, and for society at large. One of man's main goals should be to move the 1/30 barrier closer to Now, and the closer we get, the more real or meaningful our actions become. Psychedelic drugs was one step in narrowing the time lag, along with spontaneous performances and dialogues, and essentially any type of seemingly irrational behavior and experience. Furthermore, since everything was a "movie", the ambition was to keep it a Prankster Movie, bringing people into the movie rather than being drawn into theirs. This was especially true when dealing with police officers and other squares that the young Bay Area acid freaks encountered on their journey through an America that was still trapped in the 1950s.
Along for the 1964 bus trip, indeed the driver for much of the road, was beat-era legend Neal Cassady, who recently had come out from a 2-year sentence at San Quentin and looked up Kesey & the Pranksters after hearing about them. Cassady, the role model for Jack Kerouac's "Dean Moriarty" character in "On the road", seemed in many ways the perfect incarnation of the Prankster's ideas. Constantly in a "kinetic trance", Cassady always talked and was always in motion, rapping in an endless stream of conciousness on many different things at once, bringing them together in brilliant puns that listeners would decipher only afterwards, and like all the Pranksters he seemed constantly upbeat and pushing further. His presence helped elevate the bus trip into an archetypal pioneer journey of the kind that occurs throughout American literature. The American theme was important to the Pranksters, who always incorporated the Stars and Stripes into their projects, and even dressed in clothes made from flags, or in red-white-and-blue colors.
The extraordinary events that occurred on and off the "Further" bus are the subject of two books produced by the recently resurrected Merry Pranksters. "On the bus" (1990), co-authored by leading Prankster Ken Babbs (a k a "The Intrepid Traveller") and Paul Perry, is an entertaining collection of reminiscences and photographs from the 1964 bus trip and the subsequent Acid Tests. Essentially the same events as in Tom Wolfe's famous semi-biography of Kesey's group, "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" (1968), are covered but the visual documentation and first person recollections from those involved add interesting aspects and clarify two emblematic incidents on the journey; the encounter with Jack Kerouac in New York, and the visit to Timothy Leary & Richard Alpert at Millbrook, both of which had been given simplified accounts by Wolfe. Some of the Pranksters who are only mentioned briefly in the earlier work are also presented more in detail.
"The Further Inquiry" by Ken Kesey himself (1990) is a richly illustrated and highly original retelling of the first week or so on the bus, presented as a mock trial for Neal Cassady's spirit. Kesey had written about the Prankster era in his "Garage Sale" anthology earlier (1973) but not dealt with the "Further" trip so explicitly. The case before the trial is the "Stark Naked" mishap, concerning a young woman along for the bus ride who suffered a psychotic episode in Houston and had to be briefly hospitalized. This appears to have troubled Kesey long after, and the trial for Cassady's spirit is also a trial for Kesey himself, and the group's laissez-faire attitude, in view of the consequences it had for "Stark Naked". The trial does however end in true Prankster fashion, making the guilt question seem futile, and also signalling the 1990s resurrection of the group, which lead to a first-ever tour of Britain featuring many of the original key members - Ken Babbs, Mountain Girl (Carolyn Adams), Mike Hagen, Kesey himself - present, plus a younger cadre of "second generation" Pranksters.
The "Stark Naked" episode, along with almost everything else that occured on the 1964 "Further" journey, was documented with the Pranksters' tape recorders and still and movie cameras. In line with their "movie" paradigm, more than 40 hours of film were shot during the bus trip for a vaguely defined documentary to be titled "The Merry Pranksters Search For The Cool Place". Long deemed uneditable, Kesey and Ken Babbs in particular worked on putting the raw material together into a comprehensible whole, and in 1999 the first part of the movie was made available to the public on video. Some 50 minutes long, in color with sound mostly in synch and occasional commentary from Kesey and Babbs, this unique document covers the early part of the journey during which many of the most infamous events occurred; the first LSD trip by an algae-covered lake in Wikieup, Arizona; the Stark Naked episode before and within Houston, the second LSD trip at a segregated beach in Louisiana during which the tripping Pranksters mistakenly visited the colored section and narrowly escaped a beating, encounters with unusual people and several policemen along the way, etc. The second part, which covers a visit in Manhattan and some beautiful footage from the Leary-Alpert scene at the Millbrook estate in rural New York, is equally entertaining and was released on video only a few months before Kesey's death in 2002.
2. The Acid Tests
The Acid Tests are probably a lot easier to understand today than in the mid-1960s. They could be described as mixed-media events with no formal distinction between performers and audience, giving plenty of room for improvisation and indeed encouraging the spontaneity of the moment above everything else. Visitors to some of the more advanced manifestations of the 1990s "rave" scene would find a lot to recognize, such as the close link between the drug experience and the visual-aural stimuli present at the Tests, and the extension of the events long into the morning hours. Although the early Grateful Dead performed at many of the Tests these had nothing in common with today's mechanized rock concerts, and music was not among the top priorities in the Acid Test arrangements.
Staged at various west coast locations during a 12-month period beginning in late 1965, the Acid Tests mark a new chapter in the Prankster chronicles. Certain key elements remain from the "Further" project, refined and expanded. Advanced recording and broadcasting equipment were employed in various ways, and unusual concepts were brought in to outline a structure. Most of the participants from the bus trip remained with the Pranksters, but several more joined around this time. One recruit was Berkeley UC student Denise Kaufman, a k a "Mary Microgram", later of legendary all-female rock band Ace Of Cups. New ingredients include the use of costumes and make-up, applied in an imaginative and unpredictable way, as well as the presence of live rock music from a band of Bay Area musicians named the Warlocks (soon to be renamed the Grateful Dead). Kesey drew more and more of his ideas from pop culture, and Marvel superhero comics were read with as much attention as James Joyce and Herman Melville. The Pranksters also showed creativity in the use of materials and objects for decoration, stringing huge billowing parachutes from the ceiling, covering walls with silver foil, bringing in trampolines and ladders, using dayglo, stroboscopes and blacklights everywhere. The concept of light shows, later highly popular for rock concerts, grew out of inventions for Acid Tests, though the Pranksters were freer in their visual imagination - such as putting a live bug and a live spider on an overhead projector and having them fight in huge scale on the wall.
The idea of the Tests grew out of gatherings and parties that Kesey held at a remote hunter's cabin in La Honda after returning to the Bay Area from the 1964 bus trip. The most remarkable happening was a 3-day party in August 1965 with the Hell's Angels, who the Pranksters managed to turn into a peaceful group preoccupied with the LSD experience and the various aural/visual mind games the woods had been decorated with. Allen Ginsberg who was present wrote a poem about the experience, and the events are detailed in both Tom Wolfe's aforementioned book and Hunter Thompson's "Hell's Angels" (1966). This achievement of the Pranksters has been described as a breakthrough of the "real-life hangup" at which most artistic projects fail, due to the gap between the artist and society at large. Kesey & his associates had managed to bring the Hell's Angels, one of the most "real-life" phenomena there is, into their movie.
After some early try-outs around the South Bay area the first major Acid Test was held at Muir Beach north of San Francisco on December 11, 1965. Several hundred people turned out for this event, which by accident had the law enforcement looking in the wrong place and thus could proceed undisturbed throughout the night. A psychedelic poster had been created for promotion, giving push to the embryonic Bay Area poster art scene. Another important success factor was the appearance of Owsley Stanley III, the underground LSD manufacturer who joined forces with the Pranksters and helped distribute top-quality lysergics for free at Muir Beach and subsequent events. At this time Kesey's group was also joined by Wavy Gravy, a legendary performance artist who fit in with the Pranksters in much the same way that Neal Cassady did. Word on the Tests started getting around all over the Bay Area.
The crowning achievement of the Acid Test project and the apex of the entire San Francisco scene would follow soon, in mid-January 1966, when Stewart Brand's 3-day "Trips Festival" was held at the Longshoremen's Hall. This hugely successful mixed media and performance art event brought together all the disparate creative forces that had been brewing around the Bay Area in an extraordinary party. Everything that followed - the Fillmore and Avalon ballroom rock concert series, the famous poster art scene, the psychedelic drug culture that swept across the western world in 1967- can be traced back to the Trips Festival, for which the Pranksters' Tests provided much of the inspiration. The second of the 3 days was designated an "Acid Test" though on a grander scale than anything they'd staged before, with a turnout of several thousand. The Pranksters, following Ken Babbs' suggestion to "learn how to function on acid" delivered their unpredictable mix of fun and madness like a well-oiled machinery. As a sign of the commercialization to come, Bill Graham and other sponsors grossed several thousand dollars on the festival, even though Kesey tried getting as many people as possible in for free through the back doors.
No visual or aural documentation of these particular Tests has been made available yet, but recordings of both earlier and later Prankster events exist, and give an indication of the mindset and atmosphere of the 1965-66 period. The earliest material is centered around the memorable Vietnam Day prank in Berkeley at which the Pranksters, invited by unsuspecting war protesters, turned up in a "Further" bus painted blood red and covered with military regalia, and proceeded to explain the futility of anti-war demonstrations ("that's what THEY do, they hold rallies and they march"). Kesey pointed out the resemblance between activist Paul Jacobs' podium mannerisms and Mussolini's, and ended his speech with a sentimental harmonica solo and the suggestion that everyone instead turn their back on the war and simply say "fuck it". A complete LP of Prankster monologues, sound collages and music inspired by this event and the Hell's Angels party was recorded in November 1965 but not released until 1998 ("Acid Tests vol 1", CD on the British King Mob label). It is a remarkable listening experience, highly elaborate and constantly entertaining. Around this time, Kesey & Babbs also made a recording of Neal Cassady monologues backed by a local rock group called Robin & the Hoods, but the planned record unfortunately never materialized.
Along with the Vietnam Day material the British 1998 CD contains a reissue of the Merry Pranksters' only official release from the 1960s, a very rare LP from March 1966 simply titled "Acid Test". Recorded in a San Francisco studio around the time of the Trips Festival, this is a more stripped-down, ad-libbed affair full of unpredictable mind games and monologues, as well as an enigmatic interview with Kesey. The skillful use of tapes with pre-recorded music and sound effects for the Tests is evident on another recent CD, "Acid Test vol 2" (released by Babbs & Kesey themselves in 2000). This consists of live recordings from the San Francisco State Acid Test in October 1966, at which Kesey hid away with a microphone in a concealed room due to his fugitive status, but still managed to engage in echo-laden dialogues with Wavy Gravy and Babbs. The mood is somewhat subdued, and Kesey's altered outlook is obvious from his monologue on how "The Head has become Fat". This was one of the last Acid Tests, after a 9-month period that proved to be less exhilarating than the 1964-65 period for both Kesey himself and for the Merry Pranksters.
Soon after the Trips Festival, things had taken a bad turn for the group. Kesey, having recently been arrested again for marijuana possession, staged a fake suicide and left for Mexico and plans were made for the others to join him there. Before doing this, the rest of the group arranged a few Tests in the Los Angeles era, now with Ken Babbs and Wavy Gravy at the wheel. These Tests were among the most successful and outrageous and may have had a significant impact in jump-starting the psychedelic era in L A, but lacking Kesey's calm and unquestionable leadership tensions started to mount. Finally, Babbs and a number of inner circle Pranksters took the Further bus and went down to Mexico, leaving several others behind. They met up with Kesey who was getting increasingly paranoid, and remained south of the border for a harrowing period of several months during which no significant Prankster activities occurred. In the Fall 1966 the Pranksters made their way back to the Bay Area in smaller groups and reunited for the S F State Acid Test, and preparing for a new grand vision of Kesey's, the Acid Test Graduation.
The Acid Test Graduation was intended to be a major San Francisco event, like the Trips Festival. Winterland which was the largest venue in the area had been booked, and Bill Graham, the Grateful Dead and the Hell's Angels had been contacted. However, the S F scene had changed and evolved significantly during the year, and though Kesey & the Pranksters were still held in high regard as pioneers, many of the other forces on the music and art scenes carried greater weight now, including the almighty dollar. Kesey's vision of a Test to "go beyond acid" didn't appeal to some of these powers, and the original plans had to be reduced to a smaller event in the Pranksters' own workshop/studio. After the Graduation was held on Halloween 1966, the Pranksters made a few performances in the South Bay area, and, according to the commonly told story, drifted apart with no more Acid Tests. This was not the case, however.
3. The Houston Acid Test
Texas was no stranger to LSD at the time of the Houston Acid Test in March 1967. In fact, it could be argued that along with California, Texas was the pioneering US state for a non-academic psychedelic culture. Experiments with peyote and morning glory seeds began among college students in the early 1960s, and in 1965 use of marijuana and early batches of non-pharmaceutical LSD was common in hip circles. Even obscure drugs like DMT could be obtained. All the elements of an underground culture were in place, the main difference to the west coast was that the early psychedelic phase in Texas was concentrated to one specific spot - the University Of Texas (UT) in Austin. As an example, UT campus magazine the Texas Ranger ran a long piece on the effects and availability of peyote in October 1964. Out of this bohemian college scene came artists and performers like Janis Joplin and Gilbert Shelton, and a foundation was laid for famous music venues like the Vulcan Gas Co and the Armadillo World Headquarters in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The UT and Austin also gave birth to what is generally considered the first psychedelic rock group, the 13th Floor Elevators who formed in December 1965 and had an LSD-oriented agenda from day one. With the help of the Elevators and reasonably open-minded scenemakers like writer Jim Langdon and radio station owner Bill Josey in Austin, writer/promoter Scott Holtzman and TV show host Larry Kane in Houston, the Texans were ahead even of the S F Bay Area with regards to "psychedelic" music. Holtzman wrote a newspaper column in July 1966 on how psychedelia was all the rage among teenagers in Houston, while it would be several months before the rest of the US caught on in larger numbers. Somewhat surprisingly, LSD and related substances also remained legal in Texas long after California had passed their anti-LSD bill, and legislation was still only under discussion in the state capitol as late as April 1967.
When the Merry Pranksters arrived at Houston's Rice University in early 1967 they came to a fully developed psychedelic culture, albeit one with a stronger focus on music than San Francisco (or Austin). Bands like the Elevators and the Red Krayola were as avantgarde as anything found in California, and teen clubs like the Living Eye were immersed in the new language and imagery. However, it appears that with the exception of Red Krayola and their loyal following of college art students, the art/pop music/politics crossovers typical of the Bay Area were rare in Houston, which in that sense more resembled Los Angeles. Staging the Test at prestigious Rice was a wise decision, as it was probably the venue in Houston most receptive to the Pranksters' unusual ideas.
Merry Pranksters & Furthur
The choice of Rice University's Brown College as the setting for the Acid Test was no coincidence. The Test was initiated by Houston author and Rice literature lecturer Larry McMurtry, a friend of Kesey and Babbs from the creative writing classes at Stanford University in the late 1950s. McMurtry was part of the early LSD set in Palo Alto, but had left the Bay Area before the 1964 "Further" tour. Instead, the Pranksters had come by and visited him during the bus trip, and the aforementioned "Stark Naked" psychosis episode actually culminated in the street outside McMurtry's suburban Houston home. McMurtry, who had achieved success when one of his novels was turned into the Paul Newman movie "Hud", stayed in contact with Kesey's group, and the 1967 Houston Test was a reunion of sorts. The Pranksters staid at his home again, and hung around in Houston for a few days before the actual Test. According to a Rice graduate student who visited McMurtry's house, the Pranksters were "…kind of spooky, and next to impossible to talk to... they just play games and compile scrapbooks, and continually repaint the bus." Larry McMurtry would remain a central figure in the psychedelic culture in Houston, and was interviewed by the Houston Post in May 1967 on the pros and cons of LSD. A few years later his Texas small-town novel "The Last Picture Show" was turned into a highly acclaimed Hollywood movie.
The Brown College Acid Test, held on 16 March 1967, is described in some detail in a Houston Chronicle piece from the following week. The Pranksters visit is referred to as a "historic moment, kind of", and Kesey's group "amiable eccentrics". While Kesey's novelist career is briefly mentioned, Prankster projects like the "Further" journey and the west coast Tests are not, and this is not surprising as widespread knowledge of these did not occur until Tom Wolfe's book in 1968.
According to the Chronicle article, the Test began outside the College where the bus was presented for the few hundred visitors, after which toy dart guns were distributed among the crowd. A dart gun "war" between the audience and the bus inhabitants followed, a less confrontational comment on Vietnam attitudes than the Berkeley Prank in 1965. The bus went for a brief tour round the campus area with "an electronic roar from the loudspeakers" and dozens of Rice students on top and inside, Kesey managing to getting lost in the campus area before all participants reassembled for the actual Acid Test.
Inside the college dining room all chairs and tables had been pushed aside to make room for the Test crowd. Someone threw a pill in Kesey's direction, which he picked up and swallowed without closer examination. "I dig pills", he said. Wavy Gravy (referred to as "a Prankster named Hugh") initiated a reading of the I-Ching, the one ancient text that Kesey's group cared for, and was showered with darts in response. Real-life Vietnam veteran Ken Babbs jumped up to protect Wavy Gravy and stood chanting enigmatic slogans ("Grover Cleveland died for YOU") while the audience fired away. After this, all lights were turned off and the Pranksters set their experiment in motion, like the Acid Graduation focusing more on meditative states and group experiences than the electronic blitzkrieg of the early Acid Tests.
In the pitch-black hall the audience was invited to "hear, see, touch, taste or smell whatever they liked", and also try breathing in unison. This they did, mixed with "shrieks, catcalls and laughter". According to the Chronicle the experiments were met with excitement from the Rice students, as was the suggestion from a "ravishing platinum-blonde" Prankster to all get in a pile on the floor after the lights flashed back on. "The Hermit", an eccentric Prankster from the La Honda days, shot darts and threw paper airplanes into the huge pile of humans, aiming constantly at Kesey.
Ken Babbs recently described the subsequent events in an e-mail to me: "… Then we decided to leave and went out on the bus and hundreds of people followed and got on the bus, inside, on the top, hanging from the rear, sitting on the hood, and Kesey kept saying, 'we are leaving, we are not coming back, it would behoove you all to get off' and everyone thought it was a total hoot and no one got off, and so we took off and were heading out of town, out on the freeway, when a car pulled alongside with people inside waving and hollering, car honking. It was Larry McMurtry yelling, 'go back go back, this is not good, you cannot take these people away, be kind, turn back, turn back'. Well, if it had been anyone but Larry we'd have ignored them, but since it was he we turned back and took them all back there. We kicked the Hermit off the bus and we haven't seen him since, maybe he's still there shooting his plastic darts at jack rabbits in the Texas plains…".
Almost nothing has been known about this Acid Test, which isn't mentioned in either Prankster chronicles nor Houston 1960s retrospectives. Several of the Red Krayola's entourage are likely to have participated, perhaps even the Krayola themselves, and indeed some of the Houston band's eccentric shenanigans have a distinct Prankster feel. The 13th Floor Elevators would certainly have been interested in what Kesey's group were doing but were on tour around Texas at the time. Their first producer Gordon Bynum was present at the Test, however. Among the Pranksters most key members were there, although Neal Cassady had left after the Acid Test Graduation.
The Merry Pranksters soon returned to the Bay Area and as far as is known, the Houston Acid Test was their very last activity together. In May 1967 Kesey received a six-month work farm sentence in San Mateo, and through some legal manouevering was allowed to serve time for his other arrests concurrently. In the Fall, several of the Pranksters joined him in retreating to farms and ranches around the Oregon countryside.