Merry Pranksters

Merry Pranksters

The Merry Pranksters are a group of people who originally formed around American author Ken Kesey in 1964 and sometimes lived communally at his homes in California and Oregon. The group were proponents of the use of psychedelic drugs. Ken Kesey and The Merry Pranksters are noted chiefly for the sociological significance of a lengthy road trip they took in the summer of 1964, traveling across the United States in a psychedelic painted school bus enigmatically labeled "Furthur." Their early escapades were chronicled by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

Notable members include Kesey's best friend Ken Babbs and Neal Cassady, Carolyn Adams (also known as Mountain Girl, and for being Jerry Garcia's wife), Wavy Gravy, Paul Krassner, Stewart Brand, Del Close, Paul Foster, George Walker, Sandy Lehmann-Haupt, John Page Browning (also known as Rampage or the Cadaverous Cowboy), Barbara Pinson (known as "Terra") and others.

The Merry Pranksters as a social, intellectual, and artistic movement

The Merry Pranksters movement consists of three stages. The first was the Magic Bus Trip, from California to New York and back, in the summer of 1964. The second was the "ongoing communal life centered on aesthetic experience and experimentation" which happened at the Kesey homestead from 1964 to 1966. The third act consisted of the acid tests held around California from 1965 to 1966. These three stages are all part of the same reaction to the confines of the "neural lag" which hinders one from achieving self-actualization. Psychotropic drugs were viewed as a medium in which one could transcend the neural lag and reach a level of "NOW." These goals correspond to those of other counter-culture movements; however, unlike the advocates of organic farming, or transcendence through meditation, the Merry Pranksters were "technological optimists". Both of the primary media of transcendence — the lab-engineered, C.I.A. tested, and chemically bottled LSD and the electronically amplified rock music — were technological products through and through. This "technological texture" can't help but stand in opposition to much of the rest of the counter-culture.

The Bus Trip

On June 14, 1964, Kesey and 13 Merry Pranksters boarded "Furthur" at Kesey's ranch in La Honda, California, and set off eastward. Kesey wanted to see what would happen when hallucinogenic-inspired spontaneity confronted what he saw as the banality and conformity of American society. The bus trip reversed the historic American westward movement of the past centuries.

The trip's original purpose was to celebrate the publication of Kesey's novel Sometimes a Great Notion and to visit the 1964 World's Fair in New York City. The Pranksters were enthusiastic users of marijuana, amphetamines, and LSD, and in the process of their journey they are said to have "turned on" many people by introducing them to these drugs. The psychedelically painted bus had its stated destination as being, "further," only to be later renamed Furthur. This was the goal of the Merry Pranksters, a destination that could only be obtained through the expansion of one's own perceptions of reality. They traveled cross-country giving LSD to anyone who was willing to try it; LSD was legal in the United States until October 61966.

Novelist Robert Stone, who met the bus on its arrival in New York, has written that those accompanying Kesey on the trip were Neal Cassady (described by Stone as "the world's greatest driver, who could roll a joint while backing a 1937 Packard onto the lip of the Grand Canyon"), Ken Babbs ("fresh from the Nam, full of radio nomenclature, and with a command voice that put cops to flight"), Jane Burton ("a pregnant young philosophy professor who declined no challenges"), Page Browning ("a Hell's Angel candidate"), George Walker, Sandy Lehman-Haupt ("dis-MOUNT"), Mike Hagen ("Mal Function"), Ron Bevirt ("Hassler"), Chuck Kesey, Dale Kesey, John Babbs, Steve Lambrecht and Paula Sundstren ("aka Gretchin Fetchin, Slime Queen").

Summit meeting with Leary

While Tom Wolfe says the attempted meeting with Leary was un-successful, photographic evidence points to the fact that Leary actually met up with the pranksters at least once. During this voyage they unsuccessfully attempted to meet Dr. Timothy Leary at his Millbrook estate in New York, where they had hoped to hold a summit meeting between the two major leaders of the psychedelic movement.

There was disagreement between Kesey and the Pranksters and Leary and his followers over the direction of the psychedelic movement. Dr. Leary initially argued that psychedelic drugs should be approached in a serious, scientific manner for psychological and spiritual enlightenment. The Leary camp originally opposed giving people psychedelics outside of a controlled setting and especially denounced giving the drugs to people without their knowledge. Kesey, however, believed that psychedelics were best used as a tool for transforming society as a whole, and that if a sufficient percentage of the population had the psychedelic experience, revolutionary social and political changes would follow. Therefore they made LSD available to anyone interested in partaking — most famously through the "electric kool-aid" made available at the Acid Test events they would sponsor in the years following the bus trip. As the use of LSD spread widely through the Western world, Leary ultimately joined the bandwagon of "acid populism" as well.

It was hoped that the attempted 1964 meeting between Kesey and Leary would resolve this disagreement in a way that would draw on the strengths of both approaches. However, when Kesey and the Pranksters arrived at Millbrook they discovered that Leary had just crashed from a three-day acid binge and could not be revived sufficiently to greet his guests. Plans for a subsequent summit became impossible when both Kesey and Leary were imprisoned on drug charges. Ken Babbs and Wavy Gravy assumed the leadership of the Pranksters while Kesey was incarcerated. Wavy Gravy would eventually leave the Pranksters to establish his own group, The Hog Farm.

Acid Tests

Following the bus trip, the Pranksters held a series of "Acid Tests", where participants were given "acid", the street name for LSD. The tests were held at various venues in California, as well as one in Mexico during an eight month period when Kesey hid in Mexico to avoid incarceration due to marijuana possession, and were sometimes advertised with colorful crayoned signs asking "Can you pass the acid test?". The first Acid Test was held in Palo Alto, California, in November 1965. The young psychedelic rock band the Grateful Dead (known earlier as The Warlocks) supplied the music during these events; in essence, they were the house band for the mobile party. Jerry Garcia, of the Grateful Dead, stated that the acid tests allowed him to "play with a certain kind of freedom, that you rarely get as a musician. We didn't have to fulfill the expectations about us, or expectations about music. It allowed us to experiment with music freely." Jerry Garcia said that the Pranksters at the Acid Tests were the best audience the Grateful Dead ever had. The acid test is credited with the expansion of the consciousness of the sixties. Kesey believes that the sixties, particularly the experimentation with psychedelic drugs was the beginning of a paradigmatic shift that is still relevant today. In Kesey's own words, "It was the beginning of a real true revolution that is still going on.

Hells Angels

Kesey and the Pranksters also had an important relationship with the famous outlaw motorcycle gang the Hells Angels, who were introduced to LSD by Kesey. The details of their relationship are documented both in Wolfe's book and in famous counterculture figure Hunter S. Thompson's book, Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. Poet Allen Ginsberg also wrote a poem about the Kesey/Angels relationship.

Later events

In 1969, Furthur and the Pranksters (minus Kesey) made it to the Woodstock rock festival.

A collection by Kesey of short pieces, several about the Merry Pranksters, called Demon Box and released in 1986, was a critical success, although a subsequent novel, Sailor Song, was not, with critics complaining it was too spacey for comprehension. In 1997, Kesey appeared with the Merry Pranksters at a Phish concert during a performance of the song "Colonel Forbin's Ascent" from the album The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday. In 1999 Kesey toured with the Pranksters, performing a play he wrote about the millennium called Twister.

The Merry Pranksters filmed and audiotaped much of what they did during their bus trips. Some of this material has surfaced in documentaries, including the BBC's Dancing In the Street (1996). Some of the Pranksters have released some of the footage on their own, and a version of the film edited by Kesey himself is available through his son Zane's website.

The original Prankster bus now rests at Kesey's farm in Oregon. The Smithsonian Institution sought to acquire the bus, which is no longer operable, but Kesey refused. True to form, Kesey attempted, unsuccessfully, to prank the venerable Smithsonian by passing off a phony bus.

Kesey died of complications due to liver cancer in November 2001. Ken Babbs attempts to keep the Prankster spirit alive through his Skypilot Club website, which is a spoof of 1950's comic book clubs and which encourages psychedelic ideals and mind-expanding experiences, particularly through immersion in the emotion of love.

In 2005, Kesey's son Zane Kesey asked a friend, Matthew Rick, to put on a 40th anniversary of his father's Acid Tests. Matthew got together a small group of promoters, including Rob Robinson from New York, to help him produce what Zane had asked of them. The event was held on October 31, 2005, in Las Vegas. It was known as AT40. Zane Kesey, Simon Babbs (Ken Babbs's son), Jon Sebree, Matthew, Dead On Randy, TK Bi-Polar Bear, Torrey, Mushroom, Lance and Nathan rode to Vegas on FURTHUR 2. Original Prankster, George Walker, was also on hand.

Membership in the Pranksters

People who consider themselves Pranksters in spirit are said to be "on the bus" whether or not they ever actually took a bus trip with Kesey. In other words, the bus has become a metaphor for the lifestyle of anyone who is in solidarity with the psychedelic movement and who encourages others to have mind-expanding experiences, with or without drugs.

Kesey was strict about what should constitute a proper prank. He said a successful prank must not physically hurt anyone, and the person being pranked must in some way be enlightened by the experience.

Notes and references

External links

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