By Mike Marino
The Spare Change Sixties came on like a Day-Glo banshee, screaming and screeching.
The counterculture was on the move to the beat of a communication breakdown with the torch-passing greatest generation that won the war to end all wars.
Now it was the emperor without any clothes as the military-industrial nation stood naked in a pool of hypocrisy, and the new generation moved like so many ants across the asphalt expanse of America.
The East Village to Haight-Ashbury, East Coast to the West, the neighborhoods were psychedelic bicoastal sexual bookends anchored in fog and smoke-enshrouded harbors.
The ragtag army traveled by thumb, by car, and V-Dub vans. Male hormones were reaching critical mass, while teenaged girls were having menstruation meltdowns.
The Sexual Revolution was on. It was a time of Yellow Submarines and magic carpet rides, the straights and the Haights. The difference itself was as divided as night and Day-Glo. The acid poured like rain from a monsoon in New Mexico, painting a kaleidoscopic portrait on a blank canvas in double domes of purple to alter the states of the alter egos.
The hipsters of the ’50s and the hippies of the ’60s shared common heroes, from Kerouac to Ghandi, and shared their heroes’ personal quests of civil disobedience and public drunkenness.
It was a tightrope walk of cul-tures that met and morphed into a wonderful bastard child of pop counterculture that included the likes of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters and the famousTrips Festival. It was determined at one point that it was time to load up the sociological bus, inhale deeply, and take a whole generation on a magical journey aboard a 1939 International Harvester school bus named Further. Flash forward to that period in time on the cosmic stop-watch later.
Flash back now to a time in a space inhab-ited by the duo that would one day converge in a merry-go-round of Albert Hoffman and Ken Kesey, proving that more than one flew over the psychedelicatessan of a cuckoo’s nest. Dr. Albert Hoffman was the first man in space, and is best known as the Father of LSD. Born in Baden, Switzerland, in 1906, he studied chemistry in Zurich.
His main focus of study was the chemistry of plants and animals. He landed a gig at the famed Sandoz Labs in Basel, studying medicinal plants and ergot as part of a program to purify and synthesize active con-stituents for use as pharmaceuticals. In his studies, he first managed to synthesize LSD in November of 1938 while researching lysergic acid derivatives.
Its main purpose was to be a circulatory stimulant. It was put on the back burner for five years until 1943, when he decided to re-examine it. He accidentally absorbed a small quan-tity through his fingertips and became the first outer-spaced traveler fueled by LSD . He hopped on his bicycle, and the rest is hipster history.
He later wrote about that ride…”I was affected by a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness. At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After some two hours this condition faded away.” That day is remembered by the faithful as Bicycle Day.
A few days later, he purposely took 250 mgs of LSD and experienced a more intense trip. Self-experiments continued by Hoffman and a gang of happy colleagues.
Later Hoffman went on a hallucinogenic treasure hunt, studying the sub-stances found in Mexican mushrooms and other plants used by aboriginal peoples. This study eventually led to the synthesis of psilocybin, the active ingredient in many magic mushrooms. He also studied Mexican morning glories and found the active ingredient in one variety was chemically similar to LSD. He died in April 2008.
Author Aldous Huxley opened the literary doors of per-ception, while Jim Morrison, a young film student and poet in Southern California, broke on through to the other side of that door with a blazing poetic fire that lit the imagination of a generation.
Huxley had always been fascinated by spiritualism, philosophy, and psychedelics. In New Mexico, where I used to live, the saying was, “Don’t search for the peyote, the peyote will find you!” Leave it to an inquisitive German pharmacologist, who studied and then published the first study of the chemical properties of the cactus in 1886.
The Wild West was winding down, and the study of psychedelic properties was on the rise and raising the levels of self-awareness. Peyote to the primitive religions and the Indians of Mexico and the American Southwest was a friend of long standing. In some cases, it was more than that; for example, in the words of one of the early Spanish visitors to the New World, “They eat a root which they call peyote, and which they venerate as though it were a deity.”
Huxley was tripping out in the sterility of the 1950s, and from those experiences wrote the book, The Doors of Perception, a phrase used by William Blake that sufficiently influenced Huxley to use it as the title to his book regarding his mescaline experiences.
If Hoffman gave birth to LSD, and Huxley put the psychedelic experience into literary perspective, then Jim Morrison gave the chemical offsprings its lyrical and poetic voice through music.
Jim was attending film school in Los Angeles, a budding director to follow in the celluloid footsteps of the great ones: the actors, the directors, the writers, the artists, all creative types who follow the muse wherever she may lead. Another young film student, Ray Manzarek, was working on projects with Morrison, and he realized at one point they shared an interest in music. Morrison’s poetry was put to a blues piano by Manzarek. They teamed up eventually with Robbie Kreiger and John Densmore.
The band chose its name from the very same poet-visionary William Blake, who had written, “When the doors of perception are cleansed, things will appear to man as they truly are…infinite.” Another inspiration was Huxley’s The Doors of Perception. Morrison was so connected to both works that he proposed the name, The Doors. Everyone agreed that the name, as well as the inspiration from which it sprang, was perfect to convey who they were and clearly representative what they stood for.
LSD was sanctified to a higher level by the high priest of the Garden of Chemical Eden, Timothy Leary, and one man, and many pranksters, took it even further, to a chemical roadshow that ate asphalt from the psychedelic colors of the West Coast to the gray East of New York City and its teeming tenements and lofts in the East Village.
Timothy Leary was the high priest of LSD, turning on, tuning in, and dropping out while dropping acid by the bucketful.
Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters flew over the cuck-oo’s nest of the tie-dyed decade by buying an old school bus and loading it up with cargo, contraband, and con-traptions, including musical instruments, speakers, elec-tronics, bong pipes, and other necessities of such a jour-ney from one coast to the other. Kesey’s first novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, was a success, and in 1964, Kesey and Company were ready to celebrate the publication of Sometimes a Great Notion with a cross-country chemical mission of conquest.
The old school bus was painted in brilliant fluorescence with a variety of symbols, some mystic, some fun, but when viewed collectively, pure haiku. The bus was named Further in honor of its ultimate destination, and at the helm was Captain Kesey, but in the driver’s seat was none other than Ken Kesey’s real-life R.P. McMurphy and Jack Kerouac’s real live Dean Moriarity, Neal Cassady, gear jamming across the black jazz asphalt night of the continent, and all the while loudspeakers were blar-ing and the Pranksters pranking their way across America in a journey that would become the subject matter of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Although Kesey is generally associated with Northern California and the robust Northwest state of loggers, Oregon, his roots were deep in the soil of the ag-rich community where he was born, in La Junta, Colorado.
Located in southeastern Colorado, La Junta is located on the Arkansas River and lies on the old Santa Fe Trail. Kesey was surrounded at an early age by dairy cows and devoted his young days to farm work, where his work ethic was ingrained. By the late 1940s, the Kesey clan packed up and made its way to Springfield, Oregon, where Kesey found a passion for wrestling in high school and college. He enjoyed reading, and on the quirky side of the street, ventriloquism and hypnotism.
Before R.P. Murphy, before Tom Wolfe, before the Trips Festival, Kesey was writing and testing his literary mus-cle, and like most writers whose first endeavors on the field of honor end in disappointment, Zoo, a novel he wrote about the Beats living in San Francisco, was not published. Writers have a tendency to leave unpublished works in their wake, a trail of breadcrumbs to follow should they get lost in the forest and too far from their voice.
Finally the pen became mightier than the sedative when Cuckoo’s Nest was published in 1962. It was first adapt-ed as a stage play, and eventually as the cinematic icon it eventually became in 1975, although Kesey loathed the film version. Whether it was a financial rift in the fault line or the fact that the main character was the McMurphy one and not the Chief, as in the book, Kesey left the production within two weeks. Also, Kesey want-ed Gene Hackman in the McMurphy role, not Nicholson. Stephen King had the same problem with The Shining, and wanted another actor in Nicholsons place! Gimme a break! Nicholson gave life to both characters that the celluloid gods demanded. It’s one thing to write a book, another to produce a film. Let artists in both media stay in their own realm and let the other do his work.
The inspiration for Nest was a stint at a veterans’ hospital where Kesey had worked. The patients were under the influence of hallucinogenics as well as sedation, which made Kesey wonder whether they were kept in that state
because they didn’t fit the societal mold or some other reason to shunt them aside in a landfill of insanity. In 1959, the military-industrial complex was involved in experimental testing of psychoactive drugs and their reactions from those who ingested them. Some of the offerings today read like a Charlie Hoffman before, wrote extensively Sheen buffet menu of all-you-can-eat chemistry. LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, cocaine, and on and on. Kesey, like about the effects of these drugs.
Soon, Kesey moved from Menlo Park, where he was working a the time, thanks to the success of the book, and moved to La Honda, California, a beautiful two-lane wooded region south of San Francisco so rustic that the redwoods wore plaid shirts in lieu of bark. His fame grew and his circle of friends grew. It was not unusual to befriend and entertain on regular occasions the Grateful Dead, Kesey’s favorite band, and Allen Ginsberg. The partiers were accelerated with black lights, strobes, Day-Glo paints, and loads and loads of LSD, the holy communion of the unholy commune. Tom Wolfe wrote magnificently about the parties and the trips in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a weathered copy of which I still have to this day…
The Trips Festival and the Bus that could go further…or Furthur. It was a schizoid hipster suppository and repos-itory of iconic proportions, and like the times, not easy to digest the meaning at one seating at the table at the feast without getting history heartburn trying to make sense of it all. It was time for publication for public con-sumption of Kesey’s next literary foray, Sometimes a Great Notion. It was time to party and take the road trip of a lifetime aboard a bus called Further or Furthur, with a noble cast of counterculture characters as the trip to celebrate Notion was about to accost the nation, West Coast to East, North Beach and the Haight meet the East Village head-on in a psychedelic collision, replete with colorful clothing, blaring speakers atop the magic bus, and a load of Merry Pranksters to Kesey’s Robin Hood aboard the 1929 Dustbowl-era International Harvester… bound for glory… or at least Times Square.
In literary lore, Neal Cassady holds a place on a pedestal of hipster honor in the realm of all things Kerouac. He was the true Beat. While Jack Kerouac wrote about the Beats, his inspiration was the sum total of one man, Cassady, or as he is known, the fastest man on earth and the official Further captain of the gear-jammin’ journey across an America that had not witnessed such a cornucopia of
flotsam and jetsam of debauchery, drugs, and the off-beat fading Beats, now becoming hip as the times they were a changin’ group of hep cats heading east, not west, as is often the Kerouac case; the counterculture compass was pointing to the Atlantic this time, not Pacific. Further was painted on the bus as a one-word poem-des-tination placard to placate the psychedelic trailblazers on their Jeremiah Johnson quest as modern-day asphalt mountain men and mountain women and Mountain Girl….
Tripping out at the Trips Festival, which was a trip in and of itself, held in the dawning month of January in 1966. In part, it was the idea of Steward Brand, Prankster and in a later life the publisher of The Whole Earth Catalog. It was organized by Pranksters and kept in rein by none other than Filmore Bill Graham.
It was a night of techno-frenzy, with decibel decadence provided by the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and other neighborhood bands. Entertainment was provided by the spectators themselves and the bands, and LSD was plentiful, thanks to the Mother Theresa of acid, Owsley — Stanley himself, who passed it around freely, a cherubic smile beaming from his face.
The times moved on; the Summer of Love had a broken heart and fell apart as Flower Power wilted in the garden. Kesey kept active at his farm in Pleasant Hill, Oregon, with his family, including son Zane, who keeps the Kesey flame alive today, along with a host of aging Pranksters hanging on from the old days, and some new ones to help light the way for the new days. Further was put out to the psychedelic pasture in an empty field in 1989, when Ken acquired a new bus … it wasn’t the same at all
- as the original Furthur could go no further. The second bus, also called Further, is a 1947 International Harvester.
Ken passed away in Oregon following an operation for liver cancer and died at the age of 66 in November 2001
- and no, he was no space oddity, he was just one who was lucky enough to fly over the cuckoo’s nest in time and make the best of those times.
At the Kesey Web site in the Intrepid Trips store you can purchase miniature toy school buses hand-painted by the Pranksters, perhaps by Zane himself.
I had one sent to me years ago when I had known Ken, and was fortunate that my bus was painted by Ken himself …. It sits by my keyboard, so when I get a bout of writer’s block, it reminds me to keep going … just a little further….