Ken Kesey, Counterculture hero and guru of psychedelic drugs. Kesey has been called the Pied Piper who changed the beat generation into the hippie movement. He was an unlikely candidate to become one of the most controversial figures of his age. The youngest of two sons, he was born on September 17, 1935 in La Junta, Colorado. An unusually confident and charismatic young man, he enrolled in a prestigious creative writing program at Stanford University and began tearing the place up almost upon arrival. He volunteered at Menlo Park VA Hospital in a government-sponsored program, participating in experiments conducted to study the effects of hallucinogenics. These chemicals included psilocybin, mescaline and LSD. It was this experience that fundamentally altered Kesey, personally and professionally. While working as an orderly at the psychiatric ward of the local VA, he began to have hallucinations of a native American Indian sweeping the floors. This formed the basis for ‘Chief Broom’ in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’. He published it in 1962. The novel was an immediate critical and popular success. Dale Wasserman adapted it into a successful stage play; Milos Forman directed a screen adaptation in 1975. The movie starred Jack Nicholson and won 8 Academy Awards.
While at Stanford, Kesey lived at Perry Lane, a bohemian community in Palo Alto, where he became notorious for throwing parties in which certain chemicals mysteriously found their way into the punch. These parties were noted in some of Allen Ginsberg’s poems. Kesey and his Merry Pranksters became notorious for their ‘Acid Tests’, it formed the basis for the best-selling book by Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities. He recruited Neal Cassady from Jack Kerouac’s book On the Road to drive the Bus, he became the most celebrated member of Kesey’s fledgling group, the Merry Pranksters.
The Bus a 1939 International Harvester school bus-called ‘Furthur’ was especially prepared, the seats were replaced by couches, many-colored iridescent day-glo sprays were applied liberally to enhance the coating, intricate sound and film equipment was installed. They filmed a significant portion of the journey, and would later show clips from the trip to chemically-induced audiences at their parties. Much of the hippie aesthetic that would dawn on the San Francisco scene in the late sixties can be traced back to the Merry Pranksters who openly used psychoactive drugs, wore outrageous attire, performed bizarre acts of street theater, and engaged in peaceful confrontation with not only the laws of conformity, but with the mores of conventionality. His goal was to break through conformist thought and ultimately forge a reconfiguration of American society. He became the proponent of a local band known as the ‘Warlocks’, which later became the Grateful Dead.
By 1966, When the government had made LSD illegal, Ken and the Pranksters had to flee to avoid imprisonment for possession of marijuana, they hid 6 months in Mexico, with the bus, he then gave himself up to the authorities, and was jailed for 5 months. But nothing could stop the psychedelic era that was about to explode in San Francisco. Even decades after his counterculture experience, he did not ‘settle down’ every now and then, he warned that he got the itch to do ‘something weird’. Ken Kesey died on November 10, 2001.
Suddenly people were stripped before one another and behold! As we looked on, we all made a great discovery: we were beautiful. Naked and helpless and sensitive as a snake after skinning, but far more human than that shining nightmare that had stood creaking in previous parade rest. We were alive and life was us. We joined hands and danced barefoot amongst the rubble. We had been cleansed, liberated! We would never don the old armors again.
Ken Kesey, Garage Sale