Showing posts with label Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. Show all posts

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

World's First Acid Road Trip

A couple of blog entries ago, I wrote on the waning of the Populuxe era and the early days of the psychedelic era, discovering the transitional linkage between the two eras in the image of the New York World's Fair that opened in April 1964. The New York World's Fair, the mediocre reception of which marked the end of the Populuxe era (1954-1964), was also the final destination of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, who started out on the world's first acid road trip headed for New York on 14 June 1964. The linkage between these two events was unexpected but revealing, providing us a convenient means to date the beginning of "a new era."

As Katie Mills has observed in her fine book, The Road Story and the Rebel (2006), it was a consequence of the Merry Pranksters' cross-country excursion that the word trip "took on a double meaning that was part of the era's playfulness with language--to travel as well as to take LSD or blow one's mind. In the Prankster's league, the two became one" (86). For novelist Ken Kesey--by 1964 famous as a result of the publication of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) and the about-to-be published Sometimes a Great Notion (1964)--part of the explicit purpose of the bus (to be entirely accurate, a 1939 school bus) trip was to make the record of a transformative journey, which is why the Pranksters took along with them film cameras and tape recorders. As Mills observes, "One goal of the Pranksters' road trip was to expand their expressive possibilities by making a film while on the road, to push further than the novel in order to break through to new expressive and artistic forms" (85). Of course, this film, which Tom Wolfe refers to as The Merry Pranksters Search for the Kool Place, was never completed, despite Ken Kesey spending years (and many thousands of dollars) trying to finish it. Hence, the only record we have of the Pranksters' journey is in the form of Tom Wolfe's New Journalistic account, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968). But... fortunately for both scholars and for posterity, footage of the Pranksters' trip has been released on video through Zane Kesey's (Ken Kesey's son's) website, What this footage reveals is the remarkably accurate account of the journey Tom Wolfe made in his book.

In my previous blog on the subject, I made mention of the possible influence the Merry Pranksters' bus trip had on the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour, first aired (in black & white, for some strange reason) on British television in December 1967. As Tom Wolfe observed in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, the Pranksters had serious artistic ambitions in mind with their film. The Merry Pranksters, according to Wolfe, wished to make

the world's first acid film, taken under conditions of total spontaneity barreling through the heartlands of America, recording all now, in the moment. The current fantasy was . . . a total breakthrough in terms of expression . . . but also something that would amaze and delight many multitudes, a movie that could be shown commercially as well as in the esoteric world of the heads. (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Bantam, 1981, p. 122)

But Wolfe also notes, sixty-seven pages later in the same book:

Early in 1967, the Beatles got a fabulous idea. They got hold of a huge school bus and piled into it with thirty-nine friends and drove and wove across the British countryside, zonked out of their gourds. They were going to . . . make a movie. Not an ordinary movie, but a totally spontaneous movie, using hand-held cameras, shooting the experience as it happened--off the top of the head!--cavorting, rapping on, soaring in the moment, visionary chaos--a daydream! A black art! A chaos! They finished up with miles and miles of film . . . which they saw as a total breakthrough in terms of expression but also as a commercial display. . . . (Wolfe, Acid Test, p. 189)

As Katie Mills observes, by means of the deliberate redundancy in the diction between these two passages, Wolfe explicitly links The Merry Pranksters Search for the Kool Place with the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour. Although no indubitable connection between the two films has been definitively established, Bob Neaverson, in The Beatles Movies (first published 1997), suggests that Paul McCartney, flying home from America in April 1967, very easily could have read Tom Wolfe's first articles on the Merry Pranksters' bus trip, published in the World Journal Tribune in January and February 1967 (not to be confused with the book publication of Wolfe's account, which was August 1968). Magical Mystery Tour was filmed in September 1967. There are no hard feelings, apparently: according to Mills, the Pranksters "like to claim credit for this inspiration--they seem genuinely happy for the Beatles' success with what may well have been their idea" (103).

The idea? The world's first acid road trip. That Magical Mystery Tour was widely panned by the critics when it first aired on December 26, 1967, reaffirms an insight I made a few blogs ago on why early psychedelic albums failed--the audience didn't yet exist. The psychedelic aesthetic, largely non-narrative, more lyrical and abstract, and prone to making startling, sometimes surreal juxtapositions, had to be learned. Taste is not innate; it has to be developed.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Trip

In my last blog entry I noted the fact that 1966 saw four LPs released bearing the word "psychedelic": Timothy Leary et al.'s LP recording The Psychedelic Experience (a spoken-word condensation of passages from his co-authored 1964 book of the same title), the Deep's Psychedelic Moods (perhaps the first rock album released with the word "psychedelic" in the title), The Blues Magoos' Psychedelic Lollipop, and the 13th Floor Elevators' The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators. Serendipitously, later that day, after posting my blog on the subject, I took a little time to watch Warner's latest DVD issue of Elvis Presley's 22nd film, Spinout (MGM, 1966; 92m 43s), the soundtrack to which I realized was released in October of that year, that is, about the same time as the aforementioned "psychedelic" rock albums. I was struck by the odd juxtaposition it might have made, the soundtrack to Spinout sitting side-by-side in the record bins with albums bearing titles such as Psychedelic Lollipop and Psychedelic Moods. And yet, the more I've thought about it, the less odd it has become. I've concluded that the juxtaposition is not so much odd or strange as it is an illustration of one of those proverbial moments in history when one world was not yet dead and the other not yet born.

I happen to be reading Thomas Hine's very interesting book Populuxe (Alfred A. Knopf, 1987), a study of the unprecedented decade of mass consumption in America--for mass-produced houses, furniture, and machines--that occurred during the decade 1954-1964. Elvis, of course, first recorded for Sun Records in 1954, and 1964 was the year the Beatles "invaded" America, Elvis and the Beatles serving as bookends for that watershed decade. For Thomas Hine, one of the key moments that defined the end of the Populuxe era was the assassination of President Kennedy on 22 November 1963; the Beatles arrived in New York on 7 February 1964, seventy-seven days later--the one event signaled the end of American optimism, the other the end of American cultural dominance in the world. By the time the New York World's Fair opened in April 1964--which "should have been a Populuxe extravaganza" according to Hine--"the feeling of bland self-satisfaction with material comfort that had been so characteristic of the Populuxe era was gone" (167). He writes:

In 1959 Nixon could use a washing machine to symbolize America and it was a masterstroke, but in 1964 it would have been ridiculous.... In its story on the opening of the 1964 World's Fair, Life, that perennial cheerleader for the future and celebrator of the promise of America, called the fair "all candy-bright and gay in a world that is in fact harsh." This was a drastic piece of revisionism, asserted with such casualness that whole hierarchies of editors must have assumed its truth. Although the World's Fair planners could never have anticipated it, the fair came during a period of national atonement. (169)

Elvis can be considered the supreme symbol of America's Populuxe era, moribund by 1966. A highly visible public figure, Elvis in some sense was the very epitome of the American consumer of that era, avidly accumulating material things, including those two things so essential to American life, cars and homes. A movie such as Spinout, so obsessed as it is with the symbol of the fast car, money, and the trappings of privilege, seems more ideally suited to the Populuxe era, not the mid-60s era characterized by foreign "invasions," represented (for instance) by the Beatles and the Volkswagen. Elvis was sexually provocative, erotic, vigorous and energetic, but most importantly, American. In contrast, the Beatles were cute, nice (but not serious), ironic--and foreign. I tend to agree with Hine that 1964 marks the end of one era and the beginning of another; I wouldn't necessarily call the post-Populuxe era the psychedelic era, although it is a remarkable historical coincidence that on 14 June 1964, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters--among them Timothy Leary and Beat figure Neal Cassady--embarked in the bus named "Furthur" (a portmanteau containing the words "further" and "future") on a cross-country journey headed for the New York World's Fair.

As the supreme symbol of the Populuxe era, it is therefore perhaps not coincidental that Elvis starred in It Happened at the World's Fair (released in April 1963, near the end of that era), that used as a setting the Seattle World’s Fair, otherwise known as the Seattle Century 21 Exposition, held 21 April-21 October 1962, the unofficial symbol of which became the Space Needle. Nor is it entirely coincidental that the Merry Pranksters, in the early days of the psychedelic era, took off on a trip in June 1964 in a bus painted in Day-Glo colors headed toward the New York World's Fair, an event that, while not a total bust, did not have "the kind of overwhelming enthusiasm for such a grand excursion into the future that might have been found only a few years before" (Hine, 168). Writes Hine: "Americans seemed to be getting a bit jaded about the future; it had been around for too long a time" (168). Hence it is a mistake to see a film such as Spinout as a sort of quaint, "innocent" museum piece from the 1960s: it was an anachronism even when it was made.

As for the film that Ken Kesey started making at the time (that remains unfinished), to have been titled The Merry Pranksters Search for the Kool Place, Katie Mills thinks it quite possibly influenced the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour in 1967 and perhaps even, later, Easy Rider (1969). I'll explore that in a future blog.