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Ken Kesey's bus trip is generally considered the gala grand opening of the hippie era. In the summer of 1964, Kesey and a bunch of friends who called themselves the Merry Pranksters loaded up a funky old school bus (painted in a fashion that inevitably become known as "psychedelic") and...
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Ken Kesey's bus trip is generally considered the gala grand opening of the hippie era. In the summer of 1964, Kesey and a bunch of friends who called themselves the Merry Pranksters loaded up a funky old school bus (painted in a fashion that inevitably become known as "psychedelic") and drove it across the country twice, California to New York and back. En route they shot thousands of feet of almost-unwatchable film, listened to lots of groovy music, made fun of "straights" at every stop and gobbled mounds of LSD.

Kesey had already written One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nes~t and Sometimes a Great Notion--a couple of the higher chart ent~ries on the Great American Novel Hot 100--before his vehicular period began. He'll be remembered for books, not busing, but Kesey's postliterary experience, financed with royalties from his writing, cut a big irregular hole in our society's fabric. The Merry Pranksters' experiments with LSD and public misbehavior thereon were widely emulated. Just a couple of years after the Pranksters did their bus thing, the Beatles took a woolly bus ride of their own, filming all the way. They called it The Magical Mystery Tour. To this day, nobody can watch that footage either, although the album still sounds okay. The Prankster fable became a part of literary history as well as counterculture tradition when Tom Wolfe's whizz-bang book, titled The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, was published in 1968. It set the Kesey saga down in black and white and exclamation points and gave freaks all the world 'round their first how-to-trip handbook. Acid Test, a brilliant, thrilling book (at least to a generation that didn't read very much), was the first entry in what has become a trilogy of works about Kesey and the Pranksters. The second entry, a book by Scottsdale author Paul Perry, has just been published. On the Bus is a words-and-pictures retrotext and update of the complete Prankster blot. Acid-nostalgists of all eras, especially all who remember Wolfe's vivid depiction of Prankster life, will find its oral histories fascinating. On the Bus is a 25-year reunion for the characters we all met in The Electric Acid Kool-Aid Test. It's an important mark on a time line that starts in 1960 and runs until the last Deadhead dies. And it's a midterm examination of the feed-your-head branch of pop MD120 Col 1, Depth P54.02 I9.03 philosophy. The pictures, primarily from the collection of Prankster photographer Ron Bevirt, also are really cool. The wobbly leg on the Prankster-book tripod belongs to Kesey himself, who's joined the acid-obelia trifecta with a new work of his own called The Further Inquiry--named for the bus also sometimes called "Furthur." In its own not-quite-fathomable way, The Further Inquiry is an equally telling benchmark. Kesey's work here--actually a 1978 screenplay, converted into a hardbound comic book for Day-Glo cultists--will push contemporary readers to conclusions of their own about the long-term effects on brain waves of coming of age in the Sixties. It will also show that Ken Kesey is still on the bus.

As the Pranksters made their way across the country in 1964, they developed their own language, their own morality, their own rituals--a religion that was all their own. Being "on the bus" came to stand for a subset of mellow attributes. If you were part of the group, if you were one of them, if you took psychedelic drugs to help you see the straight world for the bummer it really was, you were "on the bus." "You're either on the bus, or you're off the bus." That was a Prankster catechism. Another was: "Never trust a Prankster." A few more than a dozen tripsters actually rode on the bus that year, but lots of people were "on the bus" or got on shortly thereafter. Some people--Kesey was one of them--never got off. TMDRVhe Pranksters were one of the baby boom's most exclusive clubs. They still are. Kesey's book might make complete sense only to the inner circle of original Pranksters--the ones who actually bounced around on that old International Harvester school bus during what was a turning point in Kesey's life.

After securing himself a reputation of high standing among those who follow modern American literature, Kesey wandered away from it all. According to Larry McMurtry, author of Lonesome Dove and several more megapopular novels, all that bus riding "was a lot of foolishness" that "ruined" Ken Kesey. Kesey's book documents those days. Paul Perry tries to explain their continuing attraction. He tries for the wide angle in his book, and succeeds for all who were merely fellow-travelers "on the bus" or who first got turned on to the new transportation possibilities Col 3, Depth P43.08 I7.28 When confronted with questions about the authenticity of this new bus--and considering that the big museum in Washington wants to hang it next to the Spirit of St. Louis, authenticity was probably a worthwhile line of questioning--Kesey reportedly shrugged. "There was more than one Lassie," he said. "TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO I was a freshman at Maryvale High School," says Paul Perry, pouring coffee in his Scottsdale study, which is attached to his Scottsdale home, which is located not very far from the green fairways of the Scottsdale Country Club. "I thought acid was something you took rust off of pipes with, and I didn't know Cuckoo's Nest from Adam."

Despite many years of work as a newspaper reporter, free-lance writer and big-time book author, Perry still hasn't taken any acid. Escaping Maryvale, Perry attended Arizona State University, majoring in journalism. He subsequently worked for the Arizona Republic and Scottsdale Progress. He also found employment as an entertainment writer in Hollywood and magazine editor in Prescott. By the end of the Seventies, Perry had made his way to Eugene, Oregon, where Running magazine was based. As editor of Running, Perry was charged by the magazine's owners (the free-spending sneaker giant Nike) with creating a literary rag for runners. "The purpose of our magazine was to give people a different dimension of running--kind of a third dimension," Perry says. "We had how-to articles. We had our share of shin-splint articles and the like. But the rest of the magazine involved people like Kesey, Hunter Thompson, Edward Abbey, Ralph Steadman, and William F. Buckley."

Perry involved gonzo icon Thompson for the purpose of covering the Honolulu Marathon. Though Thompson hadn't written anything of significance for several years, Perry somehow hooked him for Running. (The article was later expanded--many readers would say stretched beyond comprehension--into a book, The Curse of Lono.) Kesey, whose first Running assignment was covering the 1980 Olympic trials in Eugene, was another great coup for the magazine. "When we moved to Eugene, he was literally the first person I looked up," Perry says. "I thought he could really provide a lot of things that the magazine needed. Col 2, Depth P54.10 I9.14 that era sounded like, here's a brief sample from Babbs, reached at his Oregon home in the later months of 1990:

"People are sick of this repressive authority that's trying to tell everybody what to do and how to live and forcing laws on us that we don't need. People are smarter than they give 'em credit for. . . . The masses must be controlled if they're gonna keep feeding the demons of war machinery and huge business complexes.

"[The bus trip, the Pranksters, acid]--these things represent American freedom that has been slowly eroded.

"This thing we do is not an isolated thing in history. It runs in a line that starts with the Pilgrims coming over here and comes through literature and art and music. Literature has been the field our group is mostly associated with, in a line coming all the way through Melville, Mark Twain and then into the Beats--the Beats are the ones that kept the flame alive after World War II's death cry--and it was passed on to the psychedelic generation. Now it continues to flicker. People want to be part of it."

Babbs and Kesey first met at Stanford University, in writing class. While Kesey wrote two very important novels in two years, Babbs did a stint in South Vietnam, flying helicopters for the Marine Corps. They joined up again in the summer of 1964, just as the Prankster bus was pulling out of La Honda, California, bound for New York. The bus wasn't the most comfortable conveyance for a cross-country trek, but it had an excellent sound system, the Pranksters were young and strong and LSD was still legal. Kesey's plan--if it sounds crazy in retrospect, just remember that these were creative-writing graduate students doing the planning--was to establish a new kind of creative medium. Kesey was ready to go beyond writing, he said. His instrument became a mob of young Californians who crossed the country, on acid, with cameras rolling. The end result--the film and the audio tape and whatever else was saved--would become a brand new art form. Then again, there's a whole school of thought among latter-day bus-watchers that says maybe the trip was just a colorful way to visit the New York World's Fair. Quite a few of the original Pranksters believe that to this day. Even with a quarter-century of perspective and the aid of the two new books, it's hard to tell exactly where Kesey Not immediately so. Apparently the Sixties' "hot" status still had not yet occurred to the major book companies. "Basically, the book was rejected by easily ten publishing houses," says Paul Perry, who meanwhile was developing a book-writing career independent of the Kesey project. "With publishers, if it's not hitting them in the face in People magazine, oftentimes they won't take a risk." About two years ago, Neil Ortenberg, chief of Thunder's Mouth Press in New York, got a look at the proposal. Though Thunder's Mouth worked primarily with reissues of fiction and poetry, Ortenberg was immediately interested. Perry and Babbs flew to New York to talk book deal. Perry and Ortenberg wanted to open up the Prankster story to readers who had either forgotten Wolfe's book or who had never heard the original loony story in the first place. Another sizable target market were readers who just now might be applying for their first library cards--"classic" rock-loving high school and college students. Babbs brought along some clips of the bus movie, a box full of snapshots and an idea to write a deeply personal narrative about the coast-to-coast bus experience.

Almost immediately, the practical, big-picture guys bumped heads with the Prankster insider.

Says Neil Ortenberg, via phone from his Manhattan office: "We went through a lot of conflict with Babbs. He wanted the book to be his own fantasy reconstruction of the trip."

Says Paul Perry, from behind his Scottsdale coffee table: "He couldn't understand that the book wasn't being written for him, that it was, in many ways, being written about him."

Says Babbs, in retrospect: "The book shifted from just being about the bus trip to being more than that."

The practical guys won, but not after some severe damage was done to the partnership. Ortenberg, whose comparatively small publishing house was betting a bundle on the bus book, was not at all comfortable with the fervor of Babbs' arguments. Perry says now that he wanted to quit the project several times.

The fantasized material that Babbs brought to the project eventually did make it into On the Bus as italicized "flashback" sequences, plunked down among capsule quotes and narrative. They are very strange. For a byline on his flashbacks, Babbs was allowed to used his Prankster nickname: "The Intrepid Traveler."

Working around that initial compromise, it was Perry's job to interpret the Prankster fraternity's semisecret rituals and update their chapter-house composite picture. Over a period of three months, he conducted interviews with many of the original Pranksters, as well as many of the other Sixties notables who were waiting at various bus stops around the country. And the original bus did stop all over. Poet Allen Ginsberg was interviewed for the book and sent along photos from his personal collection. Hunter S. Thompson sat through a long, 2 a.m.-to-dawn telephone interview and contributed an introduction to the book. Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead wrote an intro of his own. Tom Wolfe refused to talk about his Prankster studies. ("We couldn't crack the code," Perry says. Wolfe wouldn't talk to New Times, either.) Timothy Leary was interviewed, as was author Larry McMurtry, if only briefly. McMurtry was another member of Kesey's writing class at Stanford, but split the scene early to get serious about work. When the bus stopped at McMurtry's Houston home in 1964, one of the Prankster women tumbled off the bus, naked and tripping, to greet McMurtry's young son. Perry says McMurtry wasn't too wild about the idea of further immortalizing the Prankster high jinks.

"When I was finally able to track him down, he had two things to say about it all," Perry says. "One, he said, `I don't think Neal Cassady is a special person to begin with. He was typical of what you see in the West--kind of a drifter cowboy, someone who's ready to leave his wife and kids at the drop of a hat and go off and have a good time.'

"And he said as far as the bus trip went and the subsequent acid tests and everything else: `It was a lot of foolishness that ruined Kesey.'"

McMurtry was reluctant to play along, and Wolfe seemed outright hostile, but On the Bus still rumbled along. Then Kesey took a walk. Early in the pre-book wrangling between Babbs, Perry and the publisher, Babbs tossed onto the table a rambling Prankster manuscript written by Ken Kesey. Babbs, flustered with the mainstream direction the book was heading, suggested that it be published instead of the PBS-documentary-on-paper that he and Perry were to work on together. As it turns out, this was the daffy screenplay that Viking books would ultimately publish as The Further Inquiry. But neither Perry nor Ortenberg thought it was very good, and both told Babbs so.

"I find it very bewildering and not very clear," Perry says of Kesey's book today. "It's almost like a fraternity brother had written something for another fraternity brother. If you were on the bus and you read this, you'll know exactly what was going on. But if you were off the bus, which everyone but about fourteen people are, it'll be hard to follow.

"They do have a language of their own. You know how it is when you get into a group and someone else comes in to the group and they don't know what you're talking about? That's exactly what the whole bus trip was, a bunch of frat brothers. Sigma Delta Prankster."

When word made its way back to Kesey (via Babbs) that Perry and Ortenberg didn't think much of his screenplay, Kesey, who had promised to write an introduction for the book and cooperate with the gathering of Prankster oral histories, abruptly stepped off the bus. At about this same time, Viking books got interested in The Further Inquiry, which the publisher had reportedly rejected several times in the past. Kesey suddenly had a book of his own to promote. "What Kesey does when he doesn't want to do something is, he just stops, and he becomes unavailable," Perry says. "And, unfortunately, that's what happened here. I think Kesey felt a little put down, and he just decided to bail out. I was really concerned about two things. One was the lack of oral history from Kesey--Kesey talking now about things that happened 25 years ago. The other thing I was concerned about was that Kesey would call all the people and say, `Don't cooperate.' He didn't do that, and I don't think the book suffers from not having current quotes from Kesey."

All of Kesey's quotes in On the Bus are taken from the public record--press interviews and lectures, all done around the time of the first bus trip and Acids Tests.

"I think the book is much better as a result of him not having 25 years to think about it," says Perry. "There's a nerve there, a kind of rawness to what he says [in the old quotes]. For example, at one point Kesey talks about writing being an archaic form. `I'm gonna get out there and discover some kind of new medium.' What a naive thing to say! But a charming thing, and a very Sixties thing. He wouldn't say that now."

Kesey wasn't available for an interview with New Times. Publicists at Viking in New York knew only of his general whereabouts (during the San Francisco promo tour) and suggested calling his home in Oregon. Although Ken Kesey is listed with Eugene directory assistance, there was no answer at his number there. Ken Babbs, who's now quite pleased with On the Bus, reports that Kesey likes it, too: "He says now that the two books are cruising along side-by-side that it's a good thing."

PAUL PERRY CALLS his foray into acid archaeology "a publishing miracle." On the Bus and The Further Inquiry have been reviewed side-by-side in some cities, and the reviews are typically positive. Both books seem to be selling well, and interest is bubbling. Perry has published three books in the past year, with another due in January, and he is currently riding high on the New York Times best-seller list with Closer to the Light, a book about children who have had near-death experiences. He has survived his near-Prankster experience without any great loss of respect for Kesey.

"He's larger than life in every sense," says Perry. "He's truly happy being Ken Kesey. `If you want to join me, fine. If you like what I stand for, great. But if you don't care, I don't care either.' He's just your basic fastball, straight down the pike."

The last chapter of Perry's book is a Prankster-by-Prankster update of the bus's original passenger manifest. One is into Oregon real estate. Others are farmers and writers. One of them runs a hazardous-waste disposal business in San Jose, California. All of the Pranksters (except speedball Neal Cassady), and most of the people they met on their journey, managed to survive to tell their stories to the children of the Nineties. For proponents of recreational drug use, however, the leading indicators are clearly on a downward trend. It's been a while since the beneficial effect of LSD-eating was an everyday topic. In an era of pervasive antidope sloganeering, crispy philosophies from the Prankster epoch can seem kind of dumb. But Babbs and Kesey are still on the bus. They were on the bus in San Francisco last month, selling books, goofing on reporters and stumping for Wavy Gravy, a fellow hippie holdout who was running unsuccessfully for a seat on the Berkeley City Council. Unlike the many Sixties players who did trade hippie regalia for more contemporary accouterments, their relationship with society never returned to the pre-Prankster norm.

"I think both Babbs and Kesey are incredibly self-reliant people," Perry says. "They take great pride in being self-reliant, and there's something about being very good at being self-reliant that makes you not very good at dealing with group scenes. "They don't buy into it, and they let you know that they don't buy into it. They want to do things their way."

Ken Kesey was one of the first guys to feed the psychedelic serpent. He tried LSD as a grad student, volunteering for drug experiments at a veterans hospital long before he and the Pranksters began to proselytize acid's virtues. Perry says that, even in the light of this clean-and-sober day, Kesey has a clear conscience.

"Kesey's not the type of guy who's gonna take responsibility for a lot of things," Perry says, "but he certainly isn't gonna say, `I'm sorry I introduced the country to LSD.' "I don't think he's an acid burnout, and I don't think that anybody I've talked to for this book really was. LSD definitely gave them a different perspective on life, but I don't think it's fair to say they they're acid burnouts at all. "I just think Kesey's gotten a little lazy and has started to believe his own gonzo too much." BACK TO THE BUS. While Kesey and Babbs were hanging out in the Bay Area, the new bus pulled up to Cody's Bookstore in Berkeley for a book signing. According to eyewitnesses, more than 1,000 people showed up to press the Prankster flesh.

Not long after the Berkeley appearance, Kesey loaded up the bus with Pranksters young and old. Their destination was Stockton, California, where Kesey was scheduled for a reading at the University of the Pacific. While Kesey was inside the school's auditorium, several children of the original Pranksters hijacked the bus. According to Babbs, who rode along with the kids for a while, they didn't want the new Furthur hanging in some museum. Their destination, he says, was Mexico. And that's the last anyone's seen of Son of Furthur. Kesey and a large contingent of bus passengers (including a few original Pranksters and Kesey's New York book agent) were stranded in Stockton. Babbs himself had to catch a bus back to the Oregon trees. "These boys had been planning this for a while," says Babbs of the bus-jacking. "We all have children 28, 29, 30 years old, who are becoming quite independent."

Kesey's postliterary experience, financed with royalties from his writing, cut a big irregular hole in our society's fabric.

If you took psychedelic drugs to help you see the straight world for the bummer it really was, you were "on the bus." After securing himself a reputation of high standing among those who follow modern American literature, Kesey wandered away from it all.

It's not the original bus. The original bus still rots on Kesey's Oregon spread.

"There's something about running an article by Kesey in a magazine that lets everyone know where you stand." The bus had an excellent sound system, the Pranksters were young and strong and LSD was still legal. One of the Prankster women tumbled off the bus, naked and tripping, to greet Larry McMurtry's young son.

In an era of pervasive antidope sloganeering, cosmic philosophies from the Prankster epoch can seem kind of dumb. "I just think Kesey's gotten a little lazy and has started to believe his own gonzo too much.

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