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too young to be a beatnik, and too old to be a hippie

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Ken Kesey is the author of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest which became one of the iconic novels of the 60s for it's depiction of a mental institution and its misunderstood denizens. The novel became even more famous when Milos Forman released his film version in 1975 which subsequently swept the Oscars for that year. An interesting aside, Kirk Douglas had purchased the rights to adapt a Broadway play version in 1963 with himself as the lead character McMurphy (Gene Wilder as Billy Bibbit) which turned out to be a dismal flop. Kirk's son, Michael Douglas was the co-producer of the 1975 triumph. The movie is particularly anachronistic; a 70s hangover of 60s counterculture where the bourgeois lock up the free-thinkers (the insane are the sane ones in a crazy world).

The book is less preachy but it is still a 1950s rendering (the book was written in 1959 but wasn't published until 1962) of late 40s, early 50s psychiatric practices which were already changing by the time the book was published, with the beginning of the  implementation of deinstitutionalization, which over the years has resulted in armies of homeless, mentally ill trying to survive on our city streets. Regardless, both the film and the book are marvellous celebrations of the human spirit and indictments of the crushing behaviourism and dehumanizing conformity of institutions of all stripes. The main character, McMurphy has gotten himself “transferred” from prison to the mental institution only to discover an ironic truth, prison is more honest and preferable to the duplicitous, oppressive asylum.

Kesey has described himself as the missing link between the 50s Beat Generation and 60s hippies.

In the late 50s, Kesey worked at a mental hospital in California and voluntarily took part in the CIA sponsored, Project MKUltra which were real-life Manchurian Candidate styled mind control experiments which employed the surreptitious administration of LSD and other psychoactive drugs (mescaline, cocaine psilocybin, DMT) combined with candid hypnosis, sensory deprivation, isolation, verbal and sexual abuse, and various other forms of torture. To infer this is a low point in an organization which would dig a hole to cradle its balls while it fucked a snake, is understatement. No one knows how many died or were physically or mentally impaired for life.CIA Director Richard Helms ordered all MKUltra files destroyed in 1973. However, between the two experiences, Kesey created Cuckoo's Nest which along withSometimes A Great Notion, his other major novel, sustained him for the rest of his life. All things considered, it's a pretty good legacy.

This is where the missing link kicks in; when Kesey left the Stanford creative writing program where he'd become close and lifelong friends with novelists Robert Stone and Larry McMurtry, he stole all the acid he could get his hands on. Success of Cuckoo's Nest afforded him a substantial and secluded home in La Honda, California where he began “the acid tests” circa 1963. These were essentially parties where he invited close friends to experiment with LSD. The precursor band to The Grateful Dead, The Warlocks were the house band and they would lay down grooves to a back-splash of black lights, fluorescent paint, strobe-lights. Very Trippy.  (Coincidentally, Robert Hunter the lyricist for The Grateful Dead had been part of the Stanford Project MKUltra experiments. The university students were paid to ingest hallucinogenics and submit written reports but they were never subjected to the other extreme measures). Kesey himself was a unique, charismatic character and likely an exquisite manipulator who dabbled in magic, ventriloquism, and hypnotism.

The close-knit group of friends Kesey gathered around him as their psychedelic mentor and guru became the core of The Merry Pranksters. When Kesey wrote Sometimes A Great Notion in 1964 his publishers requested he come to New York City to sew up legal requirements and do some publicity and visit the 1964 World's Fair. Kesey decided to take his entire entourage on “a bus trip across America” in an old converted school bus which was painted in psychedelic colours and christened “Further.”  The novelist Robert Stone, described the Merry Pranksters in his memoirs thus: Neal Cassady ("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 Lehmann-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")  Carolyn "Mountain Girl" Adams (later Garcia, she had two daughters with Jerry Garcia before being married to The Grateful Dead guitarist from 1981 – 1994. Adams also had a daughter with Kesey, named Sunshine.) was also on the bus or at least interviewed for the movie, Magic Trip. The trip was also commemorated by Tom Wolfe in his ground breaking new journalism book, The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test.

One of the things Kesey had been intent on from the start was to immortalize the trip on film by  utilizing numerous 16mm cameras and having everyone film. They were going to create art out of their daily lives but what they ended with was approximately 30 hours banal, hazy hallucinogenic gibberish. The film was spliced together and shown at subsequent Acid Tests with loops of Grateful Dead for the soundtrack, however the only person who is believed to have watched them in their entirety in Neil Cassady during one of his speed binges. In 2011, Alison Ellwood and Alex Gibney released the documentary, Magic Trip which was cobbled together from the orginal footage supplemented with interviews from the participants who were still living. They capture not only Kesey and his band of acid pioneers, but the free-love laissez-faire philosophers who kick off in this one bizarre crux in time the brief inception and evaporation of the hippy movement, which disappears before anyone calling themselves hippies can even descend on Haight-Ashbury.  

This is one trip you should cheek out; it's a good one.

On October 25, 2001 Kesey had liver surgery to remove a tumour. He did not recover and died of complications on November 10, 2001. He was 66.

Neil Cassady died on February 4, 1968. He was found dead by a set of railway tracks in Mexico where he had been attending a wedding. It is believed he passed out there, but actual cause of death is unknown, whether it was exposure or a drug overdose. He was four days shy of his forty-second birthday.

If you want to read about Ken Kesey and The Merry Pranksters, The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test is the place to start. Hunter S. Thompson's book Hell's Angels has an extended segment on the LSD gathering of Pranksters and Angels which surprisingly didn't turn into the blood feast everyone anticipated. This “acid test” is also documented in the 1967 book, Freewheelin' Frank by poet Michael McClure which is a biography of Frank Reynolds who was secretary of the San Francisco chapter of the Hell's Angels in the 60's. The book, without meaning to be, is a close-up view of a drug-addled sociopath.

For a great history of LSD evolving into serious business, check out Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love and Its Quest to Spread Peace, Love, and Acid to the World  by Nicholas Schou. Astounding stuff.


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