BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. April 19th, which was this past Thursday, marks an odd holiday known as Bicycle Day, the day, now 75 years ago, when Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann rode his bike home from work after dosing himself with his lab concoction, lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD. Hofmann is what launches us today into an exploration of the moment when an evangelist of acid would emerge from a Menlo Park hospital lab and plow through the nation's gray flannel culture in a candy-colored bus.
I speak, of course, of Ken Kesey, the enigmatic author behind One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and the driving force in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe’s seminal work in New Journalism, which turns 50 this year. We ponder how acid shaped Kesey and de-normalized American conformity with River Donaghey, a filmmaker and writer based in Brooklyn.
RIVER DONAGHEY: Kesey’s story really starts in the late ‘50s when he was a graduate student at Stanford's Creative Writing Program. Up until that point, Kesey was this sort of all-American farm boy. He was a college jock who married his high school sweetheart. He had a very wholesome childhood. But when he got to Stanford, he needed money to support his new family so he got this job basically being a guinea pig for clinical drug trials in a nearby hospital.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The drug trials at Menlo Park Veterans Hospital were marketed as research for treating mental illness, but we know today that they were part of Project MK Ultra, the CIA's mind control study. Kesey was given a few different drugs, an early antidepressant called IT-290, a vomit-inducing antibiotic called Ditrim.
RIVER DONAGHEY: And one of the pills was LSD.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so, how did he feel on LSD?
RIVER DONAGHEY: Well, I mean, you got to put yourself in Kesey’s shoes, at that point, right? It’s the, the end of the ‘50s. It’s like Madmen era. It’s this, like, suburbs and housewives and, like, Dad with the briefcase and the suit going off to work. It was a very, like, repressed time. There’s a very narrow window of what was socially appropriate. And LSD cracked Kesey’s brain open to all these new possibilities and new perspectives and new ways of viewing the world.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We actually have some audio from one of Kesey’s first experiences with LSD in the Menlo Park Hospital. This was in 1959 or ’60.
KEN KESEY: Yeah.
NURSE: How are you feeling right now? Would you say you feel there’s still some effect from the drug?
KEN KESEY: Oh yeah.
KEN KESEY: IT’s strong.
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RIVER DONAGHEY: Yeah, he’s in this little white box, this tiny little room in the hospital’s mental ward, and he’s sitting there taking this LSD, and periodically orderlies and nurses are coming in and out, taking blood samples and urine samples. It was not really the ideal place to have an acid trip.
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KEN KESEY: It’s a quarter to one and I’m high out of my mind. It’s such a good drug in that I am suddenly filled with this great loving and understanding of people. Nobody’s going to get high on this and go out and rape somebody. They might try and take a little feel with their hand and give her a bottle of flowers but that would be all. So I say public support has to get behind it. We need a huge missionary. We need a messiah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We need a huge missionary. We need a messiah.
RIVER DONAGHEY: Yeah. I think Kesey really had this spiritual awakening. I think he saw that there was a path to go down, that all these, you know, structures that he had sort of accepted as reality weren’t really reality and there were all these different options out there that he had the ability to go explore and sort of figure out where he fit within those.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He found himself catalyzed creatively by those sessions in Menlo Park.
RIVER DONAGHEY: In doing these drug tests and in experiencing LSD, Kesey had an idea, oh, naturally, I’ll go get a job at the mental hospital as a night watchman and, you know, sneak some of that acid out for my friends back at home --
[BROOKE LAUGHS] -- and also, as a night watchman, have a lot of time to sit and write. And that’s where, late one night, high on psychedelics, he has this vision of one institution patient called “Chief Broom,” this, like, hulking Native American man, and he just starts writing and he writes five pages, six pages of this book that ends up becoming One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A humanizing portrait of mental illness and civil disobedience, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, released in 1962, made Kesey a literary sensation at the age of 27. It also boosted his profile as a burgeoning acid messiah. A devoted entourage that he would later dub the Merry Pranksters, began to coalesce around him.
RIVER DONAGHEY: Kesey took some of the money from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and bought this house in La Honda, California out in the woods, and that house in La Honda became sort of a proto-commune with people flowing in and out. And he also had the LSD and he was throwing really good parties out there in the woods.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Mm-hmm.
RIVER DONAGHEY: So people naturally gravitated towards him.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Among the Merry Pranksters, Neal Cassady, a speed freak and the muse of the Beat Generation, inspiring the main character in On the Road by Jack Kerouac and the heartthrob vagabond in Allen Ginsberg's poem “Howl.”
ALLEN GINSBERG, READING: Neal Cassady, secret hero of these poems, joy to the memory of his innumerable lays of girls in empty lots & diner backyards.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It was Cassady who would ultimately drive that legendary bus.
RIVER DONAGHEY: To get into the bus trip, we have to start in 1963. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest became a Broadway play starring Kirk Douglas, and so Kesey and a couple of his friends drove out to New York to go check the play out and on their way back --
MALE CORRESPONDENT: President Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connally were shot from ambush today in a motorcade. Both are still alive but in very serious condition in the emergency room at the Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas.
RIVER DONAGHEY: They’re sharing this very intimate moment in this collective space in the car, passing through America and the small towns. It gave Kesey this understanding of the road trip as a quintessentially American experience. And so, once they got back to La Honda, he said, let's go back next year. The 1964 World's Fair is gonna be happening in New York about the same time as the publication of his follow-up to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, this book, Sometimes a Great Notion.
Unfortunately, there are so many people hanging out around Kesey's house, you know, they can’t all fit in the station wagon, so they need something a little bigger, and that’s where the bus comes in. It’s this 1938 International Harvester school bus. They bought it for, like, 1500 bucks from a guy who had 11 kids and he had sort of outfitted it so his kids could sleep in it. Kesey and his friends cut a turret in the ceiling and put this big deck on the roof and wired it for sound.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There’s the famous paint job.
RIVER DONAGHEY: They had a bunch of Day-Glo paint floating around and somebody decided to throw a big smear of orange on there and somebody else decided, oh, I’ll add a little red and add a little blue and a little green. You know, the thing with LSD is that it doesn't really inspire great fine motor skills.
So by the time they were done, it was like somebody ate a bunch of markers and threw ‘em up or something.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] You have two documents that depict this trip. One is The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe’s.
RIVER DONAGHEY: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE] At the time that Electric Kook-Aid Acid Test finally came out, the hippie movement was in full swing. I guess the book functioned as this behind-the-scenes look at how everything started, how the hippie movement became what it was. Kesey taught the hippies how to be hippies. Before the phrase “hippie” existed, before anyone knew what LSD was, I mean, they were in the bus and people didn’t even know what to make of them. People thought maybe they were in the circus or, like, escaped from the loony bin or something.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What did Tom Wolfe make of them?
RIVER DONAGHEY: Tom Wolfe saw that Kesey was this quintessential American figure, a little PT Barnum, a little spiritual guru.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We actually spoke to Tom Wolfe.
TOM WOLFE: His favorite saying was, “You’re either on the bus or off the bus.” And if you were off the bus, it meant you were out of the greatest experience human beings could have. Kesey was striving to become the leader of the entire psychedelic movement. What appealed to me the most was just is it newsworthy.
That was the goal for me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I mentioned that there were two documents.
RIVER DONAGHEY: Mm-hmm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The other one, Kesey and the Merry Pranksters documented their travels for a movie that they never released. [LAUGHS]
RIVER DONAGHEY: You had this concept of everybody's movies, that everybody is living out a script.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kesey believed that acid could serve as a way of recognizing your script and a way to break character, to live freely in the moment.
KEN KESEY: I feel like you only come to this movie once and if you don’t get something rewarding out of every minute you’re sitting there then you’re blowing your ticket.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: We got hold of the Kesey tapes, most of which had never been heard by the public. And, let me tell you, a band of proto hippies cruising through the South drinking acid-laced Kool-Aid in a psychedelics school bus with a manic Neal Cassady at the wheel, it all sounds just about as you’d imagine.
KEN KESEY: And we’re just barrel-assing across the desert and Cassady’s got his shirt off and he’s just sweatin’ and sweatin’ and sweatin’ and he’s just talkin’ --
NEAL CASSADY: My Merry Band of Pranksters will be lollying around in the dirt. Come on, come on. No, no, none of this misery stuff. Come on, this is the Merry gang.
[SINGING SOUNDS/LAUGHTER][INDISTINCT REMARKS]
My God, look at it. Look at that, they get that. Hey, you have to take a picture of that.
[SOUND OF SIREN]
NEAL CASSADY: Out of the bus, out of the bus.
MAN: Somebody in the bus?
MAN SINGING: Yes, my chillens, yes, my Pranksters.
[INDISTINCT REMARKS][END CLIP]
RIVER DONAGHEY: Reaching New York was the final destination. They were really expecting this hero's welcome. And first, Cassady sets up this party with Kerouac, and Kesey, of course, idolizes Kerouac. But once they got to this party, it just, it just didn't work. Kerouac was, you know, pretty late in his life and, and an alcoholic.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I've seen film of that.
RIVER DONAGHEY: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He looks very glum, almost sour.
RIVER DONAGHEY: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And then after that, they drive up to visit Timothy Leary. A former Harvard academic, he's kind of an acid philosopher.
TIMOTHY LEARY: Turn off your mind. Relax. Float downstream.
[CHIME SOUND][END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It was supposed to be, at least in Kesey’s mind, a meeting of the foremost psychedelic experimenter of the East and the West.
RIVER DONAGHEY: But it didn't work out like that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: No.
RIVER DONAGHEY: Timothy Leary was in this big mansion in Millbrook with rolling hills and stone bridges.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sounds perfect.
RIVER DONAGHEY: It was lovely but Kesey and his friends roll up throwing smoke bombs off the top of the roof and all the members of Leary's group just sort of ran inside, scared. Leary himself was just coming down off of a psychedelic trip and was in a very peaceful place and didn't really want to be involved with all that raucous energy that Kesey and his friends brought along.
And they go back to La Honda and start trying to cut together the movie that they shot. What they would do is every week they would cut the footage together and then on Saturday they would have a screening of the week’s cut. These big parties became very unwieldy, until finally Kesey decided, okay, you know, my family’s living here, I have a couple of young kids, maybe we should find another place to screen the movie. And out of that came these things called the “Acid Tests.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What was an Acid Test? I’ve never been clear on that.
RIVER DONAGHEY: Well, again, the Pranksters defy definition a little bit. Everything that Kesey was prototyping at La Honda, this sort of communal experience and this proto-hippie lifestyle, like the Acid Tests were the opportunity for him to bring that into public.
TOM WOLFE: It was like a church group, like the early Christians. They were trying to spread their message. Kesey felt that way. You spread the message, you had a gigantic party.
RIVER DONAGHEY: Wild multimedia experiences around the San Francisco Bay area. This band, the Warlocks, would play before they changed their name to the Grateful Dead.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
RIVER DONAGHEY: And, like, early psychedelic visuals, like the oil and water projections and strobe lights.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Of course, Kesey was attracting the attention of the police.
RIVER DONAGHEY: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: LSD was still legal in the mid-‘60s, so the cops eventually pinned him with a marijuana charge.
RIVER DONAGHEY: And since that was his second marijuana charge, he was facing, you know, five years in prison with no chance of parole. And in typical Prankster fashion, Kesey hatched a plan to fake his own death and go on the run to Mexico.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] And did it work?
RIVER DONAGHEY: Well, [LAUGHS] the run to Mexico was successful. Even in the suicide note that Kesey wrote, he said, in parentheses, like (I don’t think anyone’s gonna actually believe this but I’m gonna give it a try.)
He had one of his family members that looked like him drive around the Bay area and then go up to a cliff and, you know, throw his Kesey signature boots in the water and leave the suicide note. I don’t know if it really threw the cops off the scent very long but it, it gave Kesey enough time to make it across the Mexico border.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kesey fled to Mexico in January 1966 and spent the next eight months as a fugitive, well aware that he was being tracked by the FBI. Meanwhile, word had spread about the movement he had helped start, as kids from all across the country flocked to Haight-Ashbury where he’d staged many acid-laced happenings. They were in search of what he created, whether they knew it or not.
RIVER DONAGHEY: While he was gone, it took shape without him. And while he was in Mexico, Kesey sort of came to this realization that he had gotten everything that he could from LSD, that that awakening consciousness that he got, like, it was awake and to have it be sustainable he had to find sort of a chemical-free psychedelic experience.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In October 1966, Kesey was picked up by the FBI outside of San Francisco. He struck a deal with local law enforcement, promising to hold an acid graduation, a public renunciation of LSD. Almost a year before the Summer of Love, this graduation was a radical notion, perhaps too radical.
RIVER DONAGHEY: He may have gotten out of jail but the followers that he had inspired had sort of grown up without him and weren’t really keen on the idea of stopping taking drugs, ‘cause they liked the drugs.
I think that the moment that the hippie movement refused to give up acid and follow Kesey further, it's the moment that the, the movement stalled. And I think whatever last vestiges of the hippie movement still exist today are still stuck there, in that same place, you know, sort of leaning on the crutch of drugs.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why do you care so much about Ken Kesey?
RIVER DONAGHEY: So I grew up in Eugene, Oregon, which is where Kesey sort of retired to with the Pranksters in the ‘70s, and Eugene is a place fundamentally changed by Kesey. It's sort of the last enclave of the hippie ideals. I mean, my name is River.
I, I sort of come from it. And I come from a, a different piece of it. My parents were more in like this like New Age personal growth movement in the ‘80s.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: They’re a full generation after Kesey.
RIVER DONAGHEY: That’s right but some of that comes from Kesey. I think that creating this heavy, deep and real emotional group work without drugs is sort of what this personal growth movement in the ‘80s was also attempting to do. My father gave me a copy of Electric Kook-Aid Acid Test when I was in sixth grade and he said, here’s the history of your home.
My mother wasn't so happy with that.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kesey said the Acid Tests, the noisy parties fueled by LSD, were a way to measure a person’s willingness to discover what was out there, if he moved beyond the norm.
KEN KESEY: It was a test, and there were people that passed, there were people that didn’t pass. To give you an example of somebody who passed, some businessman just walking around the street came in. For a buck, he got to see us make all our noise and the Dead make all their noise and, and anything else that happened. This guy was in a suit, had an umbrella, and he got the customary cup of -- stuff. About midnight, you could see him really get ripped, probably never been anything but drunk on beer. But he looked around, saw all these strange people, and he looked down and the spotlight was showing down and he saw a shadow, then stand up straight, put that umbrella over his shoulder and says, the King walks, the King turns around. [LAUGHS] Now the King will dance.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Fifty years after The Electric Kook-Aid Acid Test, we’re still being tested. Connecting to something bigger, something beyond what seems to be a profoundly abnormal kind of norm is back. Or maybe it’s being fueled by the realization that the norm was never normal or shouldn’t have been. Anyway, it’s creeping back. And so is LSD, if only to make moving beyond the norm a little -- easier.
Much thanks to filmmaker and writer River Donaghey, who brought us this story and then talked to us about it.
BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week’s show. On the Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Jesse Brenneman, Micah Loewinger and Leah Feder. We had more help from Jon Hanrahan, Isaac Napell and Philip Yiannopoulos.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.
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