Stanford creative writing student Ken Kesey had taken part in an experiment that, unbeknownst to him, was funded by the CIA’S MKUltra program. A psychology grad student told him that the Menlo Park Veterans Hospital was paying volunteers $75 a day to take drugs that mimicked psychosis in order to study the effects. Kesey took part and liked the drugs so much he started sneaking them out and sharing them with his friends. He got a job as a night aide at the psychiatric ward and wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest based on his experiences.
He used his profits to buy a school bus, which he and his gang — called the Merry Pranksters — painted like a Day-Glo Jackson Pollock explosion. They cut out a hole so they could sit on the roof, wired the bus for sound, painted the word “FURTHUR” (sic) above the windshield and took off on a cross-country trip. The bus driver was Kesey’s friend Neal Cassady, the real-life hero of Kerouac’s On the Road, thus turning the Prankster’s trip into a Technicolor sequel to the Beat classic. After Tom Wolfe immortalized the Pranksters in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, they would be viewed as the missing link between the beatniks and the hippies. Their bus ride inspired the Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour,” The Doors’ “The End,” and The Who’s “Magic Bus.”
Kesey bought property in the redwood forest of La Honda, California, 45 miles south of San Francisco and it was there the Pranksters spent much of ’65 trying to assemble a movie out of the 16 mm footage they had shot during their trip, but it would remain unfinished until documentarians used it in 2011 for the feature Magic Trip. Mainly, they hosted a series of Saturday night acid parties, frequented by counterculture luminaries like Cassady’s close friend Allen Ginsberg.
The woods around Kesey’s place were filled with trees painted fluorescent colors, black lights, spotlights in redwoods 200 feet up, and artwork like random glued-together doll parts and a hanged man sculpture swaying from a branch. Speakers blasted music and weird sound effects. A metal sculpture of nude figures called Boise’s Thunder Machine was miked to create a deafening echo if you hit it. It was the Burning Man Festival twenty-one years ahead of time.
Kesey loved comics and believed he was the real-life equivalent of Captain America, a man transformed into a superhero when government scientists gave him a super serum. Kesey felt he was his own Cuckoo’s Nest hero Randal McMurphy, inspiring beaten-down people to escape their mental prisons. “The purpose of psychedelia is to learn the conditioned responses of people and then to prank them. That’s the only way to get people to ask questions, and until they ask questions they’re going to remained conditioned robots.” Kesey and Ginsberg saw acid as a tool that could help people the masses sweep away dysfunctional programming so that people could determine what they really wanted and recreate a healthier society.
The Pranksters advertised their first official Acid Test in the Hip Pocket Bookstore of Santa Cruz. They held it at one of the Pranksters’ homes on November 27 and charged $1 admission. It was an unstructured performance art happening, with Owsley LSD, a slide show by Stewart Brand on the Native Americans’ way of life, Ginsberg chanting mantras, Cassady rapping while juggling a sledgehammer, and Kesey played his eerie flute. Also there were the Warlocks, a week before they changed their name to the Grateful Dead.