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The Merry Pranksters were a group of people who formed around American author Ken Kesey in 1964 and sometimes lived communally at his homes in California and Oregon. The group promoted the use of psychedelic drugs. Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters are noted 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 "Further". Their early escapades were chronicled by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
Notable members of the group include Kesey's best friend Ken Babbs and Neal Cassady, Carolyn Adams, also known as Mountain Girl, Wavy Gravy, Paul Krassner, Stewart Brand, Del Close, Paul Foster, Kentucky Fab Five authors Ed McClanahan, also known as "Captain Kentucky", Gurney Norman, George Walker, Sandy Lehmann-Haupt, and John Page Browning, also known as "Rampage" or the "Cadaverous Cowboy".
The history of the Merry Pranksters breaks down into 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. Tom Wolfe characterised the Pranksters as a 'primary religious group', a term taken from the sociology of religion. Psychotropic drugs were viewed as a medium in which one could transcend and reach a level of "NOW." These goals correspond to those of other counter-culture groups; however, unlike the advocates of organic farming, or transcendence through meditation, the Merry Pranksters were "technological optimists". Both of the primary media of transcendence â€” the lab-engineered, C.I.A. tested, and chemically bottled LSD and the electronically amplified rock music â€” 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.
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. One author has suggested that 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." 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 1966).
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").
During the bus trip, the group travelled to the Millbrook, New York estate of psychologist-turned-acid-guru Timothy Leary, hoping to hold a summit meeting between the two major leaders of the psychedelic movement, but this meeting was not a successful one according to Wolfe's account, due to disagreements over the direction of the psychedelic movement. 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. They therefore made LSD available to anyone interested in partaking â€“ 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.
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 Soquel, near Santa Cruz, California at Ken Babb's chicken ranch known as "The Spread" on November 27, 1965 with Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady and Owsley Stanley, who had been introduced to Ken Kesey in September 1965, in attendance. The band for the first test was "The Warlocks", their last performance before changing their name to The Grateful Dead, and becoming, essentially, the house band for the Acid Tests. Jerry Garcia 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." Garcia said that the Pranksters at the Acid Tests were the best audience the Dead ever had.
Another Acid Test was staged by the Merry Pranksters at Ken Babbs' book store [?? the Hip Pocket Bookstore in Santa Cruz was financed by Ron Bevirt and run by Peter Demma. Ken Babbs lived for a while in the early-mid 60's in Santa Cruz county (with Gretchen Fetchen) but no mention was ever made of his bookstore. There was only one hip book store in the entire county during that period unless you count a book section in a coffee shop (the Sticky Wicket) in the mid-county] [Authority: Edward G. Brooks on personal knowledge] in Santa Cruz where the original handbill was posted. Today only one known handbill exists and is owned by an archivist in San Francisco, California. It featured a light show and projections of some of the forty hours of film shot on the 1964 bus excursion, which was referred to simply as "The Movie".
The last known Acid Test was held in Houston, Texas in early 1967.
The Acid Tests are 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."
Recently, a whole collection of previous unseen and extremely rare Acid Test posters and handbills has been discovered, including a couple pieces of original artwork by Jerry Garcia. Included in this collection was an original hand-colored handbill for the Palo Alto Big Beat Acid Test, as well as a Poster for Mother McCree's at the Tangent in 1964, a Poster for the Warlocks first paid gig at Magoo's on May 5, 1965, a poster for the Warlocks fourth performance at Frenchy's on June 18, 1965, Phil Lesh's first gig. A set of tickets for the In Room in Belmont on September 1, 1965 and a poster for the first Acid Test at the Spread in Santa Cruz on November 27, 1965 as well as a Fillmore Acid Test handbill and a handbill for Carthay studios in Los Angeles on March 19, 1966. It also appears that Jerry Garcia designed several of these items himself.
Kesey and the Pranksters also had a relationship with the infamous 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 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.
In 1969, Further 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, also known as Shady Backflash, 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 the event, which was held on October 31, 2005, in Las Vegas. It was known as AT40. Rick and Kesey along with Ken Babbs's son Simon, Jon Sebree, Dead On Randy, TK Bi-Polar Bear, Torrey, Mushroom, Lance and Nathan rode to Las Vegas on Further. Original Prankster George Walker, was also on hand.
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