Ken Kesey

It's hard to imagine what the 20th century would have been like without Ken Kesey, without any Cuckoo's Nest book, without any Pranksters and without any acid tests, or without any inside name for the counterculture, other than Frank Zappa's term, Freaks.

Kesey preferred the term, heads. When asked what his Acid Test Graduation was going to be about, Kesey told the reporters, "It's going to be a graduation ceremony and a commencement exercise, essentially for the heads, and for other people who would like to know what the heads are doing."

I think it was at this Acid Test Graduation where Kesey was clearly in the limelight as far as the media was concerned. I don't think he liked it because after he served his time for the two marijuana busts, he didn't make a whole lot of public appearances after that, even after his three years of probation were up. But that's getting ahead of the story, and I guess I should go back to the summer of 1959, when the government was hosting the Acid Tests, rather than Ken Kesey.

In the summer of 1959, very few people knew of psychedelic drugs, and even fewer had first-hand experience with them. Aldus Huxley had written about them, and there was the Life story about the rediscovery of the so-called magic mushrooms of Mexico, but that was about it. This was even before Timothy Leary had tried the mushrooms (his first experience with psychedelics), which happened the next summer.

The two places where these government acid tests were happening that summer were at Stanford (where Allen Ginsberg got dosed) and at Menlo Park, about a mile away to the north. Kesey got the word from a friend that these tests were going on at Menlo Park and signed up to be one of the guinea pigs. He was in the Stanford creative writing program at the time and if anything else, the experience would be something to write about. 

Something to write about had to be the understatement of the year, because he got a whole freaking novel out of it, One
Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest
, but not before going to work at one. Kesey also got word that they needed night attendants at the Menlo Park loony bin and while at it, he could do some writing and maybe he could liberate a few ampoules of LSD from their acid stash that they had dosed him with earlier. That's where he got most of the material for the Cuckoo's Nest novel, which was published in 1962.

Kesey is said to be the bridge from Beatnik to Hippie (both outsider terms for the counterculture). He had been living on Perry Lane, where the Stanford bohemians all lived. I don't think Kesey took to the Beat Generation obsession of doom and gloom of Kerouac and many of the others, especially after being dosed with LSD. So, as Tom Wolfe put it in his book about the era, Perry Lane took on a double personality, that of the Beats and that of Kesey. I would have to say it was more like a triple personality myself, because many of the younger bohemians, like Jerry Garcia and Pigpen were also known to make the scene there as well. I think that Kesey was somewhere in between the worlds of Beat and these younger bohemians who did not have a name as yet. 

The end of the Perry Lane era came in the summer of 1963, when they tore it down to put in a yuppie shopping mall, or something equally offensive to bohemians. That's when Kesey moved the scene (at least his part of it) to his new place in LaHonda, south of Palo Alto.

At first, the LaHonda scene was not that big and during this time, Kesey finished his second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion. After that book went to the publisher, some of Kesey's friends did start hanging out at LaHonda, including Sandy Lehmann-Haupt, who died October 29, a couple of weeks before Kesey's death. He was the Prankster who wired the bus for sound, which I guess is the next thing I need to talk about.

The bus was a 1939 International Harvester school bus, but it was a weird one, even before Kesey got it. When Kesey bought it, it was still school bus yellow, but the previous owner had taken all the seats out and had rigged it for camping, with refrigerator, stove and bunks for sleeping. It must have also had a generator to power all the sound equipment Sandy added, because this was before the car stereo craze of the late 60's and most audio equipment was still vacuum tube rather than transistorized in 1964. Although they had transistorized inverters at the time to step up 12 VDC to 120 VAC, I don't think that was what they used because the bus dated back before 12 volt electrical systems.

Getting the bus had really been a freak thing, to use a bad pun. Kesey had been planning to take a trip with a few friends to New York to dig the World's Fair and for the release of his second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion. One of the Pranksters saw the ad for the bus in a newspaper, which meant that Kesey could take a lot of friends rather than just a few in a station wagon, as originally planned.

Kesey came up with the idea of painting the bus. Some of the Pranksters were against it, but I don't know on what grounds. The obvious danger was the cops, and it got them stopped more than a few times. I have no earthly idea how they made it all the way to New York and back without getting busted for marijuana, but somehow they did. This was remarkable, especially when you consider there was a girl on the bus who flipped out on LSD on the way to New York, and who wound up in a  mental institution, probably the first LSD freakout in history. There was no danger of getting busted for LSD, however, since this was two years before LSD became illegal.

I guess at this point I need to mention that even before Kesey's second book had been published, something in the process of writing it (probably the editing process) had soured him on writing, and he was looking for other forms of artistic expression. Painting the bus may have been a small extension of this, but the biggie was the Prankster movie made on the bus. It wasn't the kind of movie you could edit and have a Hollywood blockbuster, at least not outside of the world of heads in northern California, which is where it wound up. It was a major feature of the later Prankster happenings, known as the Acid Tests.

After the bus trip to New York, the Pranksters thought they could get away with anything. Although Kesey's pad in LaHonda was fairly isolated, it was not isolated enough to avoid spooking the citizens. They had the woods wired for sound and painted in fluorescent paint so it glowed in the dark. It was probably Ken Babbs who introduced the Pranksters to ultraviolet light, later called blacklight because the lamps appear black when switched off. All of this led to Kesey's first marijuana bust, in April, 1965.

You would have thought Kesey would have cooled it after that, but instead, he invited the Hells Angels over, first invite they probably ever got. Not only that, he also turned them onto LSD for the first time. Oddly enough, no fights broke out and nobody got stomped. Although the cops came, they probably realized it was more than they could handle.

I think that Kesey's acid tests was his reaction to the government's test of acid on him. Somehow, Kesey took to calling LSD acid, which upset the scientists working on legitimate uses for the drug. Instead of doing his acid tests in nice controlled clinical settings, he did the exact opposite. The Hells Angel party had been the classic example of this. Even Timothy Leary was upset about Kesey's acid tests, because these acid parties broke all their rules about "set" and "setting" and invited freakout situations to happen. Ironically, few freakouts did happen (and the ones that did happen got quickly resolved). At any rate, no harm was done at the acid tests until after the law came crashing down on Kesey.

Kesey's next bust didn't happen until the next year, and probably had nothing to do with any of the wild times at LaHonda. Instead, after a meeting about the Trips Festival at Stewart Brand's apartment, Kesey and Mountain Girl got the idea of going out on the roof. Lord knows why they couldn't figure out that they'd be sitting ducks out there. I've had hassles from cops out on roofs I was working on during daylight hours, let alone at night. Anyone seeing them out there was likely to call the cops. Well, the cops came and they got busted for grass, or at least Kesey did. He fled to Mexico shortly after that, and that was pretty much the end of Kesey's involvement in the world of the heads (besides his Acid Test Graduation, that is, although he did have some of the Angles over after that).

For the two marijuana busts, Kesey got six months on a work farm, same as Randall McMurphy in his Cuckoo's Nest book. He also got three years probation, which explains why he was one of the few Pranksters not to attend Woodstock. 

The best account I know of ever written about Kesey's life from 1959 to 1966 is The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, by Tom Wolfe. The reason I consider it the most accurate is it was written in 1968, right after the fact. All the people mentioned in the book, except Neal Cassady, were still alive at the time it was published and could have sued if he had twisted the facts. I'm not sure what Kesey thought of that book or if there were any parts of it he disagreed with. I don't think he dug the publicity it generated. Until that book came out, Kesey was not that well known outside of California.

I know that Kesey did object to the movie they made out of his Cuckoo's Nest novel in the mid-70s, mainly on the grounds that it was not done from the point of view of Chief Broom, the narrator of the story. I had a million other gripes about the movie, which I saw for the first time shortly after reading the book. For one thing, Jack Nickelson was not the right actor for the part. He didn't have the right color of hair or the tattoos called for in the novel for one thing. Another problem was he didn't wear the clothes called for in the book. 

The worst part of the movie they screwed up had to be the bit about the lobotomy. They roll the gurney into the ward and unlike in the novel, it doesn't have a chart that says Lobotomy on it, so unless you've read the book, you have no earthly idea what they did to him, other than the fact that they somehow turned him into a vegetable, and you can't really be sure of that. Well, that blows the whole story. 

So much for my short essay on Kesey and his relationship to the counterculture. As I say, you can find the 370+ page version in Tom Wolfe's book. It's one of the first books I tell people to read when they're trying to learn about the counterculture. As I said earlier, unlike the other icons of the counterculture, Kesey was not in the spotlight that much. By the time Tom Wolfe's book about him came out, he was pretty much in isolation, on his farm in Oregon, where he stayed most of the time until his death, making only rare public appearances to promote a book or play or something. 

So what exactly happened at Kesey's place in LaHonda that turned Beat into Hippie? First of all, there was the age difference between the two groups. Most of the Beats were born in the early 1920s, lived through the Depression and life was a constant struggle for them, which is why they called themselves Beat. Many of them, like Kerouac, did not have their own means of transportation and had to hitchhike to get from place to place. 

Most of the Hippies were born 20 years later, in the early 40's. Kesey was about five years older than the rest, born in 1935. Unlike the Beats, life was easy street for them, except for the Vietnam War, that is. Other than that, they had everything they could possibly want, but like the earlier Beats, they didn't dig the rat race, or a philosophy of life based on the dollar. 

Cut to: Kesey's LaHonda pad below Palo Alto in 1964. Kesey is pissed off with the writing/editing process and is looking for other forms of artistic expression. They have new tools, tape recorders, 16mm cameras, blacklights, strobes, overhead projectors and liquid projections, a new type of music known as rock and roll and most important of all, a new mind altering drug, LSD-25. They also had a bus to take the LaHonda scene from place to place - a series of happenings that became known as the Acid Tests. 

Cut to: Summer, 1967, San Francisco. Word is out that there's a wild bohemian happening going on in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, so every bohemian wannabe shows up in droves from all over the country, hoping to become part of the action. Never mind that Kesey is serving time over it, that doesn't discourage them at all.

Cut to: Summer 1969, Bethel, New York. Word is out that there's going to be a another wild bohemian happening, so every bohemian wannabe comes in droves for three days of peace and music. That was about the time that they had to replace the term, subculture with counterculture once they realized the vast size it had become. Never mind that Kesey doesn't go because he's still on probation over it. That doesn't discourage them at all.

Cut to: November, 2001. I'm looking back on it all, wondering where it will go next, where I'd be now if it hadn't been for Kesey. Lord knows, I might not have even been given the opportunity to pass the Acid Test.

Videos featuring Ken Kesey

Copyright 2002, Colin Pringle (
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