Merry Pranksters

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The Merry Pranksters were a group of people who formed around American author Ken Kesey in 1964. The group promoted the use of psychedelic drugs.

Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters lived communally at Kesey's homes in California and Oregon, and are noted for the sociological significance of a lengthy road trip they took in the summer of 1964, traveling across the United States in a psychedelic painted school bus called "Further" or "Furthur".[citation needed] During this time they met many of the guiding lights of the mid 60's cultural movement and presaged what is commonly thought of as "hippies" with odd behavior, long hair on men, bizarre clothing, and a renunciation of the normal society, which they dubbed, "The Establishment". Tom Wolfe chronicled their early escapades in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test; Wolfe also documents a notorious 1966 trip on Further from Mexico through Houston, stopping to visit Kesey's friend, novelist Larry McMurtry. Kesey was in flight from a drug charge at the time. [1] Notable members of the group include Kesey's best friend Ken Babbs, Carolyn "Mountain Girl" Garcia, and Neal Cassady. Stewart Brand, Paul Foster, the Warlocks (now known as the Grateful Dead), Del Close (then a lighting designer for the Grateful Dead), Wavy Gravy, Paul Krassner, and "Kentucky Fab Five" writers Ed McClanahan and Gurney Norman (who overlapped with Kesey and Babbs as creative writing graduate students at Stanford University) were associated with the group to varying degrees.[citation needed]

Origin of Name[edit]

In an interview on BBC World Service in August 2014,[2] Ken Babbs suggested that the name "The Merry Pranksters" was his idea:

Kesey and George Walker and I were out wandering around and the rest of the gang were sitting around a fire in Kesey’s house in La Honda, and when we came back it was dark and Mike Hagen called out “Halt! Who goes there?” And just out of the blue I said, “’Tis I, the intrepid traveller, come to lead his merry band of pranksters across the nation, in the reverse order of the pioneers! And our motto will be “the obliteration of the entire nation”…not taken literally of course, we won’t blow up their buildings, we’ll blow their minds!”

Eastward bus journey[edit]

"Furthur", Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters' famous bus.

On June 17, 1964, Kesey and 13 Merry Pranksters boarded "Furthur" at Kesey's ranch in La Honda, California, and set off eastward. Kesey wanted to see what would happen when hallucinogenic-inspired spontaneity confronted what he saw as the banality and conformity of American society. One author ([who?]) has suggested that the bus trip reversed the historic American westward movement of the centuries.[3]

The trip's original purpose was to celebrate the publication of Kesey's novel Sometimes a Great Notion (1964) and to visit the 1964 World's Fair in New York City. The Pranksters were enthusiastic users of marijuana, amphetamines, and LSD, and in the process of their journey they are said to have "turned on" many people by introducing them to these drugs.[4]

The stated destination of the psychedelically painted bus - destination "further" - was the Merry Pranksters' goal: a destination that could only be obtained through the expansion of one's own perceptions of reality. They traveled cross-country giving LSD to anyone who was willing to try it (LSD was legal in the United States until October 1966).[4]

Novelist Robert Stone, who met the bus on its arrival in New York, has written [in his memoir Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties (2007)] that those accompanying Kesey on the trip were Neal Cassady (described by Stone as "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").[5]

Hells Angels[edit]

Kesey and the Pranksters also had a relationship with the infamous outlaw motorcycle gang the Hells Angels, whom Kesey introduced to LSD. The details of their relationship are documented in Wolfe's above-mentioned book, in Hunter S. Thompson's book, Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs (1966), and in Allen Ginsberg's poem about the Kesey/Angels relationship, titled "First Party at Ken Kesey's with Hell's Angels" (December 1965).[6]

Later events[edit]

In 1969, Further and the Pranksters (minus Kesey) made it to the Woodstock rock festival. The same year, they were also present at the Texas Pop Festival at Lewisville, Texas.[7]

A collection by Kesey of short pieces, several about the Merry Pranksters, called Demon Box (1986), was a critical success,[8] although a subsequent novel, Sailor Song (1992),[9] was not, with critics complaining it was too spacey for comprehension.[citation needed] In 1994, Kesey toured with the Pranksters, performing a play he'd written in 1989 about the millennium, influenced by L. Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz works, called Twister: A Ritual Reality in Three Quarters Plus Overtime if Necessary.

The Merry Pranksters filmed and audiotaped much of what they did during their bus trips. Some of this material has surfaced in documentaries, including the BBC's Dancing In the Street.[10] Some of the Pranksters have released some of the footage on their own, and a version of the film edited by Kesey himself is available through his son Zane's website.[11] On August 14, 1997, Kesey appeared with the Merry Pranksters at a Phish concert during a performance of the song "Colonel Forbin's Ascent" from the album The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday (1987). Kesey and the Pranksters also helped stage The Enit Festival held on November 22, 1997, with Jane's Addiction, Funky Tekno Tribe, Goldie, and Res Fest to round out the bill held at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium.

The original Prankster bus now rests at Kesey's farm in Oregon. In November 2005, it was pulled out of the swamp by Zane Kesey and family and a group of the original Merry Pranksters with the intent of restoring it.[12][13] The Smithsonian Institution sought to acquire the bus, which is no longer operable, but Kesey refused. Kesey attempted, unsuccessfully, to prank the venerable Smithsonian by passing off a phony bus.[citation needed]

Kesey died of complications due to liver cancer in November 2001. Ken Babbs attempts to keep the Prankster spirit alive through his Skypilot Club website, which is a spoof of 1950s comic book clubs and which encourages psychedelic ideals and "mind-expanding" experiences, particularly through immersion in the emotion of love.[citation needed]

On December 10, 2003, Ken Babbs hosted a memorial to Kesey with String Cheese Incident and various other old and new Pranksters. It was held at the McDonald Theatre in Eugene Oregon. The proceeds helped to raise money for the Ken Kesey Memorial sculpture designed by Peter Helzer. The bronze sculpture depicted a life-size Kesey reading to three children while seated on a curved granite bench covered with quotes from Kesey's novels One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) and Sometimes a Great Notion (1964). (Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Brian Lanker supplied the image.) Other benefactors for the project include Bob Weir, Paul Newman (who starred in the 1971 film adaptation of Sometimes a Great Notion) and Michael Douglas (who produced the 1975 film version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest).

In 2005, Kesey's son Zane asked a friend, Matthew Rick, also known as Shady Backflash, to put on a 40th anniversary of his father's Acid Tests. Matthew got together a small group of promoters, including Rob Robinson from New York, to help him produce the event, which was held in Las Vegas on October 31, 2005. It was known as AT40. Zane has hosted several Acid Test parties since then. In April 2014, Zane, along with friend Derek Stevens, announced a Kickstarter to fund a 50th anniversary Furthur Bus Trip, offering donors a chance to ride the famous bus. The fundraiser was successful, and the trip occurred from June through September of 2014.[14]

2011 documentary[edit]

Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood directed a documentary film Magic Trip (2011) about the Merry Pranksters, released August 5, 2011.


  1. ^ Anderson, Kurt (Host) (August 12, 2011). "Episode #1232: Ken Kesey’s Magic Trip and Extreme Tango". Studio 360. 
  2. ^ BBC Radio 4 Witness Programme, first aired 31 August 2014.
  3. ^ Cavallo, Dominick (1999). A Fiction of the Past: The Sixties in American History. New York: St. Martin's Press. pp. 110–11. ISBN 0-312-21930-X. 
  4. ^ a b Studio 360: Episode #1232
  5. ^ Stone, Robert (2007). Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties. HarperCollins. p. 120. 
  6. ^ Ginsberg, Allen (1988). Collected Poems 1947-1980. Harper Perennial Library Edition. p. 374. 
  7. ^ "Texas Pop Festival". 
  8. ^ Kesey, Ken (1987 (first published in 1986)). Demon Box. Penguin Books. ISBN 9780140085303.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  9. ^ Kesey, Ken (1993 (first published in 1992)). Sailor Song. Penguin Books. ISBN 9780140139976.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  10. ^ [Twister: A Ritual Reality in Three Quarters Plus Overtime if Necessary "Dancing In the Street"]. IMDb. 1995. 
  11. ^ Kesey, Zane (Producer) (2011). Magic Trip: Ken Kesey's Search for a Kool Place. 
  12. ^ "Ken Kesey’s original magic bus being restored". MSNBC. January 20, 2006. Retrieved July 15, 2012. 
  13. ^ Barnard, Jeff (9 January 2006). "Kesey's bus on magic road to resurrection (Associated Press)". The Seattle Times. Retrieved 18 July 2011. 
  14. ^ "Furthur Bus 50th Anniversary "Trip"". Kickstarter. April 28, 2014. 

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