The Sydney Morning Herald from Sydney, New South Wales, Australia on October 16, 1999 · Page 345
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The Sydney Morning Herald from Sydney, New South Wales, Australia · Page 345

Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Issue Date:
Saturday, October 16, 1999
Page 345
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o drugs, among them a substance known as LSD. Before long, LSD was beginning to find its way back to Kesey's Perry Lane hipster friends. At the same time, Kesey supplemented his income by working as a night orderly in the psychiatric wing of the hospital. It provided him with the material for his first novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which was subsequently made into an Oscar-winning film starring Jack Nicholson, and told the story of anarchic roustabout Randle Patrick McMurphy who feigns mental illness to avoid a spell on a prison farm. Duly institutionalised, he proceeds to stir rebellion among his fellow patients. He is finally silenced by a lobotomy, but not before inspiring a mute Indian named Chief Bromden to make his escape to freedom. The book, written partly under the influence of hallucinogens and published in 1962, was a powerful metaphor for the crushing forces of conformity and the indomitability of the free spirit. By now, Kesey and his friends were taking LSD on a regular basis. In 1964, he bought an ancient International Harvester school bus and, with 13 friends, styling themselves the Merry Pranksters, set out for New York. The notional purpose of the journey was to attend the launch of his second novel, Sometimes a Great'Notion, and to visit the World's Fair. Its true spirit was encapsulated in the single word painted on the destination board of the bus: "Further" - to go where the bus took them, and the further out, the closer to the edge, the better. . At the wheel was Neal Cassady, the inspirational hero of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, and the living connection between the beat generation of the '50s and the nascent hippie movement. On board were cameras, sound equipment, costumes and a cache of LSD. The plan was to record the journey in a film, The Merry Pranksters Search for the Cool Place, that would encapsulate the spirit of the LSD experience and the idealistic possibilities it seemed to portend. It is hard now, 35 years on, to comprehend the starry-eyed innocence the air of philosophical inquiry among the few and complete ignorance among the many - that surrounded LSD in the early '60s. When Kesey took the bus across America, the drug was not even illegal: while being constantly stopped by the police on their 5,600-kilometre journey, the Pranksters did not get so much as a speeding ticket. Qovernment-funded projects aside, LSD experimentation was largely restricted to a small coterie of psychologists, artists and intellectuals, including Christopher Isherwood and Aldous Huxley. Its most public exponent was a Harvard psychologist named Timothy Leary, who believed that LSD took the user to the portals of heaven. Leary advocated elevated surroundings for the LSD experience: candlelit rooms, Indian hangings, Gregorian chants - the East Coast approach. Kesey, by contrast, ran the bus as a psychedelic circus. At the culmination of their journey, the Pranksters pulled into the upstate New York country estate where Leary held court. Leary's circle had spent the previous night on a carefully orchestrated LSD trip. They awoke to find the Pranksters' bus coming up the drive exploding smoke bombs, an electronic cacophony blaring from the loudspeakers. On Kesey's return to his Californian ranch at La Honda (a sign at the entrance announced "No Left Turn Unstoned"), he hosted a series of "acid tests", at which the Grateful Dead were the house band, the Hell's Angels were honoured guests and Allen Ginsberg played finger-cymbals. Thus was born the psychedelic age. In 1966, after twice being arrested for possession of marijuana, Kesey skipped bail, faked his own suicide and escaped into hiding in Mexico, returning after eight months to face the music. Described by the judge as a "tarnished Galahad", he was sentenced to six months on a prison farm. While he served his term, the multitudes converged on Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, rapidly transforming psychedelic idealism to squalor. LSD had by now become illegal. produces a Tupperware container full of chocolate brownies, cautioning, after I've eaten one, that if I should require "spiritual guidance", he will be in the vicinity. The afternoon begins to look even better. Izzie, it transpires, is a railway yard master and recently ran for the office of mayor. Whatever the dire warnings or distressing accounts over the years about the effects of LSD, they seem not to have been borne out by the surviving Pranksters. George "Barely Visible" diRg On his release, Kesey retreated to his family farm in Oregon, where he sat out the rest of the '60s. When, in 1969, the rest of the Pranksters took the bus to Woodstock, Kesey stayed at home. Returning to Oregon, they were greeted by a sign which he had set up in his driveway saying, simply, "No". The group dispersed, with only a few of Kesey's closest friends settling near his farm. And it is there, for the past 30-odd years, that they have remained. The Merry Pranksters' Fourth of July party is an annual ritual, held at Ken Babbs's farm in 'the romantically named Lost Creek Valley, a few kilometres from the town of Eugene. Babbs - "The Intrepid Traveller" of Prankster mythology was a classmate of Kesey's at Stanford who went on to serve in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot before returning to join Kesey on the bus across America. A gangling man dressed as a harlequin Uncle Sam, he has a hearty, guffawing laugh and a line in patter that makes you wonder constantly whether he is putting you on. The barbecue is presided over by a grey-bearded man who for 20 years worked as the Grateful Dead's cook. There are steaks the size of Bibles, beer in tubs of ice. There are family and friends, scores of children, grandchildren and dogs. The strongest intoxicants in evidence are beer and grass. Izzie, a jolly man in his sixties wearing a straw boater, collars me with a conspiratorial smile ("You look like a man who likes chocolate") and QESgte (22) Walker, who along with Neal Cassady drove the bus, spent the '70s sailing a schooner - bought with a family inheritance around the world, and now builds Indy 500 racing cars. Jane Burton is a civil rights lawyer. Mike "Mai Function" Hagen owns properties in Oregon - "a slum lord", in Babbs's phrase. Carolyn Adams -"Mountain Girl" - went on to marry Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, and is now involved with street theatre and local politics in Eugene. Kesey's brother, Chuck - "Brother Charlie" - runs an organic yogurt business that feeds 250,000 people a day. The most evident harm that LSD seems to have done to these people is perpetuating the illusion that anybody can be a musician. When the Pranksters and friends take to the stage with an assortment of instruments, the result is a noise that even Izzie's brownies make barely tolerable. And then there is Kesey. He is dressed in white dungarees, a Stars and Stripes waistcoat and a jaunty white cap. Pictures of Kesey from the '60s suggest a charismatic figure, with his muscular wrestler's build, his strong frontiersman face framed by an aureole of golden curls. He is now, at 64, a great teddy bear of a man, snowy-haired, broad-chested and big-armed, with fierce blue eyes staring out from under shaggy white eyebrows. He carries an air of quiet authority about him; the kind of man who, when he talks, people gather around to hear. If there is something distinctly tribal about this gathering of Pranksters, family and friends, Kesey remains the unquestioned elder. "He's our leader," says George Walker. "Ken Kesey was the godfather of the psychedelic movement. He is an icon." Busmen's holiday: (above) Kesey, wearing the white cap, with fellow Merry Pranksters at their annual Fourth of July party, showing no long-term side effects except a delusion that anybody can be a musician; (left) In 1969, at the Acid Graduation Test in San Francisco, Kesey and Neal Cassady, at right. OCTOBER 16, 1999 COOD WEEKEND 49

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