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Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters lived communally at his 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." 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.' Their early escapades were chronicled by Tom Wolfe 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.
Notable members of the group include Kesey's best friend Ken Babbs, Carolyn "Mountain Girl" Garcia, and Neal Cassady. Stewart Brand, Paul Foster, 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.
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 has suggested that the bus trip reversed the historic American westward movement of the centuries.
The trip's original purpose was to celebrate the publication of Kesey's novel Sometimes a Great Notion 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.
The psychedelically painted bus had its stated destination as being "further." This was the goal of the Merry Pranksters, 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).
Novelist Robert Stone, who met the bus on its arrival in New York, has written (in his memoir Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties) 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").
Kesey and the Pranksters also had a relationship with the infamous outlaw motorcycle gang the Hells Angels, who were introduced to LSD by Kesey. The details of their relationship are documented both in Wolfe's book and in Hunter S. Thompson's book, Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. In December 1965, poet Allen Ginsberg also wrote a poem about the Kesey/Angels relationship entitled 'First Party at Ken Kesey's with Hell's Angels'.
A collection by Kesey of short pieces, several about the Merry Pranksters, called Demon Box and released in 1986, was a critical success, although a subsequent novel, Sailor Song, was not, with critics complaining it was too spacey for comprehension. In 1994 Kesey toured with the Pranksters, performing a play he wrote about the millennium called Twister.
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 (1996). 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. 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. 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. The Smithsonian Institution sought to acquire the bus, which is no longer operable, but Kesey refused. True to form, Kesey attempted, unsuccessfully, to prank the venerable Smithsonian by passing off a phony bus.
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.
On December 10, 2003 there was a memorial to Kesey with String Cheese Incident and with host Ken Babbs 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 Sometimes a Great Notion and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. (Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Brian Lanker supplied the image.) Other benefactors for the project include Bob Weir, Paul Newman (who starred in the film adaptation of Sometimes a Great Notion) and Michael Douglas (who produced the 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. At40vegas.com</ref> Zane has hosted 4-5 other Acid Test parties since then. He will be hosting a few on his 50th anniversary Furthur Bus Trip in 2014. 2015 will be the 50th anniversary, expect big parties then.