Tom Wolfe,
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

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The bus is a superprank. A 1939 International Harvester school bus. The guy that sold it used it for his eleven children. It has bunks, benches, a sink, a refrigerator, shelves, etc. When Ken Kesey buys it for a trip to New York, for the publication of his novel Sometimes a Great Notion, he signs the contract "Intreprid Trips, Inc."

The bus becomes the most outrageous vehicle America has ever seen: shocking painting-job, a hole in the roof to climb up there and sit on the top of the bus, a broadcasting system inside, tapes, microphones, a set of drums, electric guitar, electric bass, huge speakers on top, microphones outside which pick up sounds from the road and broadcast them inside, etc. Weird bus and weird load! The destination sign in the front says, "Furthur"

The bus is driven by Ken Kesey himself or by Neil Cassady, whom Kesey met in San Francisco a few years before. There he is: Neil Cassady! Emerging from On the Road like a myth that has become reality. On acid most of the time. Driving like a maniac. Flipping a sledge hammer during breaks. And the load: "The Merry Pranksters," "Intreprid Travelers," Day-glo crazies (the colour on their bodies), flag people (wrapped in stars and stripes), acid-heads (the drug), hippies (a word not used at that time), Hell’s Angels (at least one of them), drop-outs—people highly elusive of any description!!! And their names and nicknames: Mountain Girl, Black Maria, Doris Delay, Brother John, Kesey’s brother Chuck, Babbs, Hassler, ... and the chief —as Ken Kesey is called.

The bus route: La Honda near San Francisco (Kesey’s place), San Jose (the bus breaks down for the first time), Los Angeles, Wikieup, Arizona, on Route 60 (the first time Acid is distributed among the Pranksters—Authorized Acid only!), Phoenix, Houston (one girl goes mad and gets off the bus), furthur [sic!] down the American Superhighway into the lava (the South in July!), New Orleans (they are almost beaten up by Blacks at Lake Ponchartrain), Alabama, Georgia, the Blue Ridge Mountains (Cassady drives down the mountain highway without using the breaks), and finally, New York: party with Ginsberg,Terry Southern and Kerouac (Kesey, Kerouac, Cassady—and they don’t know what to say to each other!), Sometimes A Great Notion comes out in July 1964, trip to Millbrook, New York, to visit Timothey Leary and the "League for Spititual Discovery," back on the northern route via Calgary to Big Sur (Esalen Institute run by a psychologist named Fritz Perls, the father of the "Now Trip": don’t live in the future or in the past!)

Being on the bus is the main idea. Being on the bus means doing one’s own thing. Apart from that, the meaning of the bus is rather elusive too. Of course, all the action is taped and turned into a movie, but guess what happens to all the material?! No money, no movie! Where are we going? A question that is never asked. Still, there is a common agreement. A current fantasy. "The Unspoken Thing"—quote: "... Cassady pulls the bus off the main road and starts driving up a little mountain road—see where she goes ... they keep climbing and twisting up into nowhere ... It turns out they’re out of gas, which is a nice situation because its nightfall and they’re stranded totally hell west of nowhere with not a gas station within thirty, maybe fifty miles. Nothing to do but stroke themselves out on the bus and go to sleep ... DAWN All wake up to a considerable fetching and hauling and grinding up the grade below them and over the crest comes a CHEVRON gasoline tanker, a huge monster of a tanker. Which just stops like they all met somewhere before and gives them a tankful of gas and without a word heads on into the Sierras toward absolutely NOTHING ... And Kesey—Where does it go? I don’t think man has ever been there. We’re under cosmic control and have been for a long longh time, and each time it builds, it’s bigger, and it’s stronger. And then you find out ... about Cosmo, and you discover that he’s running the show ... (Wolfe, Electric, 111, 112)

Literature on the bus. Yes, they do read a lot. C. G. Jung and his idea that their unconscious receives archertypical signals which make them become microcosmic parts of the whole pattern of the universe. Go and try to see the large pattern! (the tanker!) Go with the flow! Synchronicity! And Hermann Hesse’s The Journey to the East. Hesse describing in 1932 what the Pranksters will do in 1964—quote: "It was like the man had been on acid himself and was on the bus." (Wolfe, Electric, 128). But there are no lectures or seminars. There is no indulging into theories and philosophies. No teacher, no students—all of them are learning. Tuning in to the great flow. Opening their minds. Getting attuned to the principle.

Politics on the bus. The fall of 1965. The Vietnam Day Committee invite Kesey to speak at an anti-war rally at Berkeley. They want the name, they want the author. What they get is a raggamuffin American Army on a bus turned into a tank (the guns and cannons are made of wood), a big American Eagle painted on the bus, and a Ken Kesey dressed in orange wearing a Day-Glo World War I helmet. And the speech he holds is not a speech at all. It’s rather a statement. Kesey playing the harmonica and the Pranksters playing random notes on their instruments. They are doing their thing. Current phantasy. And the audience don’t understand them.

The Dead on the bus. Kesey and Garcia. Jerry Garcia used to hang out with other "lumpenbeatniks" in Palo Alto in the late 50ies. Down and out, dead-end kids. At that time Kesey lived among the intellectuals at Perry Lane, San Francisco. Perry Lane was the Stanford-Bohemian-Intellectual-Scene. Perry Lane was more like a club. Hard to get in. And, well, Jerry Garcia couldn’t get in. The middle-class wine drinkers had to throw him out when he and his friends wanted to crack one of their parties. Now, some years later, Jerry Garcia is a great guitar player and the leader of The Grateful Dead. Legend has it that one night in 1965 psychedelic, electrified rock music is born when the electrified basses and guitars of the Dead meet the flutes, horns, light machines, stroboscope (no, the strobe was not an invention of the disco-people!), and film projectors of the Pranksters in an ancient house rent by Kesey to perform his second big "Acid Test" (how many LSD can you stand without freaking out?). Jazz (named "Warlocks," the Dead played in cheap jazz joints) meets LSD. And the equipment! Quote: "all manner of tuners, amplifiers, receivers, loudspeakers, microphones, cartridges, tapes, theater horns, booms, lights, turntables, instruments, mixers, muters, servile mesochroics, whatever was on the market. The sound went down so many microphones and hooked through so many mixers and variable lags and blew up in so many amplifiers and roiled around in so many speakers and fed back down so many microphones, it came on like a chemical refinery." (Wolfe, Electric, 223)

The bus-bust (trying to outshine Tom Wolfe in terms of alliterations ...). Actually, it is a series of busts. First, Kesey makes it to the front-pages of California. Possession of Marijuana. Kesey, the leader, Kesey, the visionary, Kesey, the saviour. There is some evidence that he gave some pot to minors: 6 months on a work-farm. Second, Kesey is caught smoking Marijuana on a roof. The second offense leads to an automatic 5-year sentence. What a mess! Kesey runs off to Mexico: the fugitive in Puerto Vallarta. A few months later he reenters the U.S. at Brownsville, Texas. Lives as the fugitive for some time in San Francisco. Third, car-chase on a freeway—the cops get him. All in all he gets 90 days in jail and 6 months on the work-farm.

Off the bus. In November 67 Ken Kesey goes back to Springfield, Oregon. Neil Cassady is found dead in Mexico. Drugs and a heart-attack. The Pranksters split up. Various communes. When people come up to Springfield, paying the former chief a visit, they see the bus—it’s still there, parked beside the house.


go to top Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters

The Grateful Dead

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