All aboard! … The Merry Pranksters’ bus in the 1960s
Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is a literary “gateway drug” – a hallucination of a book that introduced me to a whole new way of looking at the world, writing about the world, and gave me my first taste of the work of the American novelist Ken Kesey.
The nearest I ever got to Kesey was on Tuesday 11 August 1998. He and some of the other “Merry Pranksters” were involved in a signing session at the Tower Records store at Piccadilly Circus in London. For some reason they had been stationed under a staircase in the basement of the shop, and they looked a bit cramped and embarrassed down there. It didn’t seem very respectful, for sure. There was some kind of printed banner above them – I can’t remember what it said but, whatever it was, it proclaimed it in one of those super-lame, bulbous “swinging-sixties” fonts you tend to see used on the covers of bad compilation albums or above the fancy-dress aisle of a vintage clothes shop. Yuck. The whole thing was wrong: here were some of the people without whom the whole countercultural movement might not have happened and they were being presented as some kind of kooky, swinging-60s throwback curio, shoe-horned in among the racks of CDs and video games. With strip lighting. It was not a consciousness-expanding experience.
Wolfe found Kesey in jail in late 1966 and persuaded him to tell the whole story of how he had ended up there
I was there because of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Maybe I had even brought my own copy of the book with me, hoping to get it signed (that didn’t happen because I didn’t stick around long enough). It really is one hell of a special book, you know – a lifechanger, a rabble-rouser, a mind-blower, a gathering of the tribes, a call to arms, a manifesto for a new society, a car repair manual, a fly on the paisley-patterned wall account of a cultural revolution – a masterpiece! Have I left anything out? Now, let me try to justify that hyperbole if I can. Ken Kesey was arguably the most important American novelist to emerge in the early 1960s. His first novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, came out in 1962 to rave notices. The stage was set for him to become the “Alpha-Male” of US writers – but Kesey had other things on his mind. Or rather, in his mind: in 1959 he had been one of the first people in the country to take LSD, as part of a series of experiments conducted by the US government. Passages in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest were informed by these experiences. He found ways to smuggle the drug back home to share with his friends in the literary-bohemian enclave of Perry Lane, Palo Alto. Word got out, people started visiting. A movement began to emerge. Another book, Sometimes a Great Notion, came out in 1964. More ecstatic reviews – now he could ascend to the throne and rule the whole leather‑bound, Book Club-endorsed roost. Instead Kesey spent all the money he had on a bus.
Fellow traveller … Tom Wolfe in 1965
Enter: Tom Wolfe. Wolfe had pioneered a fresh approach to writing for magazines. People were calling it the “New Journalism”. Some of his best articles had already been published in book form in a collection entitled TheKandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. The title tells you that these pieces were not exactly conforming to prevailing journalistic norms. Stories about custom car fanatics, surfers, gamblers, disco dancers – the emerging sub-cultures of America. And not written at arm’s length either: no, there were lists, italics, CAPITALS, exclamation marks!!!!!! – any device was up for grabs if it helped make the reader feel that they were seeing the story from the point of view of the protagonists involved rather than from the detached, objective vantage point of some … journalist. Wolfe found Kesey in jail in late 1966 and persuaded him to tell the whole story of how he had ended up there. How the golden boy of American Literature had become a convicted felon. And how the social revolution he had accidentally incited was now rapidly blazing its way across the USA.
That’s what makes Acid Test such an important book – it’s a perfect meeting of minds. An absolutely modern story of an attempt to find new forms of expression, new forms of living, instigated by the most important prose-writer of his times and written up by the most ground-breaking, experimental journalist working in the country at that moment. Kesey and Wolfe: The Dream Team!
That’s why Kesey bought the bus. He had to get the show on the road. Literature wasn’t enough any more. Jack Kerouac had proved that after writing On the Road – his own attempt to reflect the reality of contemporary America back at its populace. It just got absorbed. So of course Neal Cassady (“Dean Moriarty” in Kerouac’s book) simply had to end up driving Kesey’s bus. He just turned up out of the blue one day and volunteered for the job, by all accounts. The perfect man for the job, at the perfect time – because this time they were going to go … Further. “Further” being the destination displayed in that little window above the driver’s seat that you still get on buses nowadays, the name of the place at the end of the route. The end of The Road.
How far is Further? Can you ever get there? How would you know when you’d arrived? And anyway, isn’t it all supposed to be about the journey rather than the destination? Yes, make no mistake – this was a spiritual journey as much as a physical one. The LSD experience had convinced Kesey that he had to go further than writing as a means of expression. It had unlocked new potential within him and his friends, and somehow he had to find a way to realise that.
Perhaps one of the things we are witnessing in these pages is the point at which literature began to lose its pole position in the cultural landscape – for if one of its most lauded practitioners was finding it wasn’t doing it for him any more, where did that leave other modern novelists? Waiting in vain at a bus stop in the rain. In order to make his attempt at the Great American Artwork, Kesey had to get out into America itself. To feed off the energy being unleashed there by new technologies, new music, new drugs. The bus was famously painted with psychedelic designs and fitted out with recording equipment, sound systems and cine cameras, the better to capture this new America that was forming before their very eyes. What they were searching for was mysterious, it was nebulous, but it was undeniably powerful. And LSD seemed to make it more visible.
They hit the road on 17 June 1964. Very early for a psychedelic expedition. Think about it: in June 1964 the Beatles were still singing “Can’t Buy Me Love” – their own Magic Bus Experience wouldn’t take place until three years later when they made The Magical Mystery Tour for the BBC. Were they following Kesey’s example? Probably. Were the light shows at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco in 1967 a more refined take on the effect produced by the makeshift light displays that accompanied the early Merry Pranksters’ Acid Tests? Probably. What about the Hippy Convoy in the 80s? Easy Rider and all those other existential road movies of the late 6os? Where did those ideas come from? Read the book and decide for yourself. The effect and influence of the chaotic road trip documented in these pages are absolutely huge. It’s nothing less than a countercultural origin story.
The Acid Test is not just an engaging historical curio: the revolution it depicts the birth of is still happening.
That’s why this book is not just an interesting period piece, an engaging historical curio: the revolution it depicts the birth of is still happening. We are not at the terminus yet. It’s a pity Kesey, who died in 2001, and Wolfe, who died this week, aren’t around to witness the renewed interest in the kind of creativity Kesey spearheaded and Wolfe preserved for future generations. Back in 1998 the world still hadn’t caught up yet, as shown by the shabby Tower Records event I went to. There was a leftover attitude of “Why should we give a toss about the ramblings of some drug-addled old hippies?” A belief that Kesey had fried his brains and squandered his talent. Hence sticking them under the stairs. (Although yes, attempting to listen to some of the interminable musical “jams” recorded on the bus, or watch hour after hour of the badly shot, completely out of sync film footage from the journey, did perhaps reinforce that impression of “too stoned to function”.) But the drug angle is a bit of a red herring. Early in the book, Wolfe describes the “Graduation Ceremony” – an event where Kesey urged those present to go “beyond acid”. His argument being that if LSD was the key to the door, then once that door was open the drug could be left behind. The important things were the new perspectives, attitudes and creative realms that the door opened on to. Whole new continents to explore.
The journey continues … Ken Kesey in 1990 with Further II, a successor to the school bus used by the Merry Pranksters in the 60s. Photograph: Chris Pietsch/Associated Press
Now, 20 years on from what shall henceforth be known as “The Tower Records Debacle”, and more than half a century since the bus trip itself, it feels like the world is finally getting in sync with what Kesey had in mind. For instance, back then they were using unwieldy cine cameras with separate sound recorders that were notoriously temperamental (OK, levels of intoxication might have had something to do with those problems.) Cranky, heavy, malfunctioning equipment was a constant hassle. Breaking the flow. Now you can just film it all on your phone. Kesey’s dream of becoming “part of the movie” is eminently realisable now. The fantasy of creating your own narrative, your own plot line is no longer so … fantastical. We don’t have to be consumers of prefabricated desires and dreams any more – we can now be active participants, with the means at hand to create our own dream environments. (Or take selfies.)
Life has stepped off the screen and the page and back into the real world, just as Kesey felt it would do. With that change has come a renewed interest in the spiritual, the tribal, the mythic and the symbolic elements of the human condition – all those ancient aspects of consciousness first brought back into focus through the prism of LSD all those years ago, when Kesey and the Merry Pranksters caught that first glimpse of the future. Kesey’s adventure doesn’t feel “old hat” today – now we have indeed moved “beyond the acid”, the ideas explored in Wolfe’s book seem more current than ever.
Covering the counterculture: the 60s underground press – in pictures
Wolfe’s prose has survived its journey into the new millennium just as well (though some of his depictions of women and matters of race are a little “of their time”). The fit between the subject matter and the way it is told is perfection. Someone seeking new ways to tell stories described by someone else seeking to find a new form of journalism. Fellow travellers. Style and content in total harmony. With the end result that we, the readers feel involved. If I wanted to get really “zeitgeist-y”, I could say it is IMMERSIVE. Yes, for once that buzzword is appropriate – the very modern hunger to be part of the action is both stoked and satiated. You are there.
When British journalist Nick Hasted tracked down Kesey ahead of that 1998 visit to the UK and interviewed him, he found “Further” rusting away in a neglected area of the Oregon farm that Kesey and many of the other Merry Pranksters were living on. It was being used as a chicken coop. The Smithsonian Institute had expressed an interest in buying the bus and restoring it, but Kesey wasn’t interested in it being turned into a holy relic. “You restore it, that’s like saying, we’re going to stop it here,” he said. For him, the journey was still in progress – the bus hadn’t yet reached its final destination.
It still hasn’t – but it’s definitely back on the road and getting up to speed again. And the decision facing the reader is the same one that Wolfe spelt out all those years ago: “You’re either on the bus, or off the bus.” Which is it going to be?
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe will be reissued on 31 May by Vintage Classics