The Acid Test Graduation, Monday, 31st October, 1966. Halloween.
The Graduation was originally supposed to take place at the Winterland with the Grateful Dead on stage, Bill Graham on the door, and the new psychedelic masses in attendance, but it didn’t turn out like that. Even by this time, well before the media discovered (invented?) the Summer of Love in 1967, the whiff of commercialism and conservatism had begun to creep into the scene, leaving the pioneer Pranksters out on the fringe (where they had always been, really). Kesey’s talk of “going beyond acid” was also not well received by those who were just getting into it.
In the event, the Graduation was a smaller, more intimate affair, held in a warehouse decorated with wall hangings and reverberating with the usual Prankster sensory craziness. It was also an odd, strange affair, not much like the party most of the invited guests had been expecting and certainly nothing like the freaky orgy that the TV cameras or the cops in attendance had hoped to find.
Wolfe doesn’t mention that Kesey was having a bad trip for most of the night, but this was one of the main reasons why events took such a strange turn. Kesey’s rambling attempts to make sense of the evening and the moment were incomprensible to almost everyone except the Pranksters themselves and the crowd eventually thinned out until only the Pranksters and a few other faithfuls remained…… Meanwhile, across town at the Winterland, the new scene continued to grow.
Hey this just in… a band called the Anonymous Artists of America played at the Acid Test Graduation and I always wondered what became of them…..Well, an anonymous member wrote and told me. To find out what he/she said, follow the link to the left …..
Wolfe attended the Graduation and his description of the events is typically lively, evocative and colorful, but is it how you remember things? Were you there? Did you graduate and get an Acid Test Diploma to hang on your wall? Did you go beyond Acid? Graduates should click here to relive their experiences, or on a link to the left to view the ramblings of others.
Gene Anthony has kindly given permission to display some of his fabulous photos of Kesey and the Pranksters, including two from the Acid Test Graduation. Many thanks Gene.
The Acid Tests were ….. well, what the hell were the Acid Tests? Wild Parties?? Drug fueled orgies??? Prototype rock gigs???? Performance Art????? Happenings?????? Jerry Garcia described them as “a chance to be completely free-form on every level” but what did they mean to everybody else?
In most of the sixties history books, the Acid Tests are described as important, exciting and innovative events which set the stage for much of what was to follow in San Francisco and beyond.
This is all mostly true of course, but this site wants to record what was it actually like to be there for the countless people who participated in these (now) mystical and mythical events? Wolfe’s description of them is based mostly on a 3000 word essay from a woman who had been to the Watts Acid Test, but how do you remember them? Did Wolfe get it right or is your recollection very different?
Submit your personal recollection here — did you pass?? — to let others share in your memories or click on a link to the left to read what other people have so far had to say.
Hey, Hammond Guthrie has written a great story about his experiences at an L.A. Acid test. Check it out here. I went up to visit Hammond on my recent trip out West and want to thank him again for his hospitality and bountiful assistance. He still has his Acid Test card and has promised to send us a scan when he gets the time. Cheers Hammond.
Hey, a band called the Anonymous Artists of America played at the Acid Test Graduation and I always wondered what became of them…..Well, an anonymous member wrote and told me. To find out what he/she said, follow the link to the left …..
Gene Anthony has kindly given permission to display some of his fabulous photos of Kesey and the Pranksters, including one of Wavy Gravy at the San Francisco State Acid Test, and another of a few pranksters in their signature overalls. Click on the links to the left to view these photos or visit Gene Anthony’s website to view more of his work. Many thanks Gene.
You might have heard about the Smithsonian’s attempts to get the original Further in the early 1990s. They failed on that front, but Kesey did give them this colorful panel that they used to display at all the early acid tests.
For your information, in recent years, Kesey and the Pranksters have released a video that contains film footage of some Acid Tests, and they have also put out a CD of the San Francisco State Acid Test from 1965. You can still get hold of these items, I think, from, k-zey.com
The Trips Festival was held at the Longshoreman’s Hall in San Francisco over three days in January of 1966. The festival was the brainchild of Stewart Brand, a Prankster and later publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog. Brand and Ramon Sender did most of the early organizing. The festival roughly followed the format of the earlier Acid Tests and, by all accounts, it was equally chaotic and off the wall (despite the best efforts of Bill Graham and his clipboard).
The Pranksters were involved early on, and on Saturday night they provided their usual homemade inter-active technology and wacked-out craziness. The Dead played — well, sort of — as did Big Brother and the Holding Company, along with lots of other musicians and artists. Kesey offered the crowds a running commentary of the craziness on an overhead projector. The audience were encouraged to be more than just spectators and many wore “Ecstatic Dress” and danced the night away as the fliers had requested. A bag of LSD circulated around the hall courtesy of Owsley himself.
The history books record the Trips Festival as an important event in the emerging freak/hippie counterculture in San Francisco, but, perhaps more importantly, it sounds like it was one hell of a party!!
There were thousands of people at the Trips Festival — including everybody who was anybody in the blossoming psychedelic scene. If you were one of the thousands, how do you remember this event? (Can you remember it???). Did you record your impressions in a diary or a letter that you’d allow us to see. Click here to participate once more in the inter-active spirit of the Trips Festival. Click on a link to the left to see the flashbacks of others or maybe to find a long lost friend….
Hey all, Stewart Brand has been in touch to give us the scoop on the actual origins of the trips festival. Click here to read what he had to say and to view a couple of photos; one recent and another of him dancing like a madman in a top hat at the festival itself….
Ken Kesey made his mark on 20th century American history in two significant ways: Firstly as the best selling author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) and Sometimes a Great Notion (1964), he garnered a deserved reputation as an important figure in American literature. Secondly, his drug-fueled activities and promotion of large public Acid Test parties in and around San Francisco in the early 1960s played a foundational role in the countercultural scene that would emerge there later in the decade.
Ken Elton Kesey was born in 1935 in La Junta, Colorado. As a young boy his family moved to Oregon, eventually settling in Springfield where his father worked in the dairy business. Kesey’s early family life gave him a connection to nature and the Pacific Northwest that informed much of his life’s work. At high school he was both a skilled athlete and an accomplished entertainer; winning applause for his victories on the wrestling mat and for his magic and ventriloquist shows. In 1953, he enrolled as a speech and communications major at the University of Oregon, Eugene where he continued to pursue his high school interests to considerable success. He acted in a number of stage productions, and wrote for the college newspaper, as well as for local radio and television. Eager to pursue an acting career, he spent some of his College summer months in Los Angeles trying to break into the world of Hollywood but with no great luck. His wrestling brought him greater acclaim, winning him awards and a scholarship for his efforts, and were it not for a shoulder injury that he picked-up late in his college career, he may have had a chance to make the USA team for the 1960 Rome Olympics.
A Woodrow Wilson scholarship took him to Stanford University, California in 1958 to be part of a graduate creative writing program that was tutored by well-known literary figures such as Malcolm Cowley, Wallace Stegner, Richard Scowcroft and Frank O’Connor. His classmates on the program included Robert Stone, Larry McMurty, Ken Babbs, and Wendell Berry, all of whom would go on to be writers of some note and lifelong friends of Kesey. Kesey and his wife, Faye, moved into a house on Perry Lane, the bohemian sector of Palo Alto that was home to some of the area’s literary, intellectual and artistic set. It was here that Kesey first befriended some of the early Merry Pranksters, began writing a novel, Zoo, about the North Beach beat scene in nearby San Francisco, and began experimenting with mind-altering drugs. The parties at Perry Lane and the adventurous, inquisitive nature of the people Kesey encountered there would set the tone for much of his activities to follow.
On the suggestion of a friend and neighbor, Vik Lovell, Kesey had volunteered in the spring of 1960 to be a subject for the drug studies then being carried out at the Veterans Administration Hospital at Menlo Park. Kesey was paid to ingest various psychoactive drugs, including LSD-25, and report on their effects to the government-sponsored scientists conducting the experiments. He began surreptitiously taking some of these drugs back to Perry Lane where they became an important part of the scene there. By April of the following year, Kesey was also working as an aide on the mental wards of the VA hospital. Inspired by the patients that he encountered and the hallucinogenic drugs that he had taken (sometimes on the job), Kesey soon completed the book that he had been working on: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
The publication of Cuckoo’s Nest in 1962 brought Kesey instant public acclaim and eventually enough money to buy a spread in La Honda, up in the redwood hills of San Mateo County, about fifteen miles inland from Palo Alto. The log house and surrounding woodland was soon home to more than just Kesey and his family. By 1964, populated with old friends from Perry Lane and additional like-minded fellow travelers, the place had become a very odd rural community. If Perry Lane was fun, La Honda was genuinely weird. Hunter S. Thompson remembered it as “the world capital of madness. There were no rules, fear was unknown and sleep was out of the question.” Family life coexisted at La Honda with all manner of pharmaceutical experimentation, expressionistic living, and wild parties that were attended by the likes of Allen Ginsberg, the local Hells Angels, and a selection of San Francisco’s hip community.
Amongst the madness, Kesey was somehow able to put the finishing touches to his second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion. To celebrate the book’s publication in New York, Kesey and his friends decided to embark on a cross country trip in the summer of 1964. They purchased an old school bus for the purpose, but it soon became far more than just a mode of transport; it became a stage and a canvas for the craziness they were about to inflict on an unprepared America. Kesey and the Pranksters painted the bus in lurid swirls of bright colors and they named it “furthur,” their supposed destination. Its refrigerator stocked with a bottle of LSD-laced orange juice and with Neal Cassady – real life hero of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road – at the wheel, they set off, filming and recording along the way for the movie that they intended to make of their adventures. The journey took them through the Deep South, up to New York City where they went to the World’s Fair and held a party for Kerouac himself, on to meet Timothy Leary in up state New York, and then home via Canada and the Essalen Institute at Big Sur California.
The trip was a defining moment for Kesey and the Pranksters. It gave them the sense that by acting out their LSD-inspired visions they could shake up the world around them and have fun at the same time. Disappointed by some mixed reviews of Sometimes a Great Notion, but motivated by the possibilities that the experiences of the bus trip and LSD seemed to offer, Kesey renounced writing and set out to explore these possibilities further. Back in California, the private parties at La Honda evolved into large-scale public events that the Pranksters publicized as Acid Tests. Attendees who paid their one-dollar cover charge were treated to a cup of “electric” Kool-Aid at the door, a room full of interactive multi-media gear to play with, and the music of the acid test houseband, the Grateful Dead. What would soon be called psychedelic art hung on the walls, illuminated by light shows that projected whirls of undulating, “trippy” colors indiscriminately around the hall. The event would usually last all night, and those who had made it through the experience could congratulate themselves for having “passed the Acid Test.”
The Acid Tests were held through 1965 and 1966, mostly in California, but with the odd excursion further afield. They are usually credited with introducing LSD to large numbers of people and setting the hedonistic, experimental tone of much that was to follow in the Haight Ashbury and beyond. The Acid Tests keyed into a San Franciscan underground scene that was already growing and evolving into what the media would later refer to as the “hippie trip.” Tired of the police harassment and the glare of tourists looking for “beatniks,” many residents of North Beach were moving down into the Haight Ashbury region of the city where rents were cheap and an artistic, expressive atmosphere prevailed. The three day Trips Festival of January, 1966 – organized by Prankster Stewart Brand and starring Kesey, the Grateful Dead, and the rest of the Pranksters – announced to the thousands who attended that they were part of something larger and more important than they might have imagined beforehand.
Kesey himself only played a peripheral role in the emerging “hippie” scene. He had been arrested for possession of marijuana at La Honda in 1965. He was still appealing the six month sentence that had been handed down to him in 1966 when he was arrested a second time on January 19th, 1966, a week or so before the Trips Festival. Trying to avoid the jail time that now seemed inevitable, Kesey faked his own suicide and ran off to Mexico, where he hid out for much of 1966 with his family and Prankster friends. Dissatisfied with the life of a fugitive, he snuck back over the border in the fall of 1966, but was arrested by the FBI in October. In June of 1967, he dropped his appeal to the earlier conviction, reached a plea bargain over the second charge, and started serving his time in the San Mateo County Jail. Released in November, and prevented under the terms of his probation from returning to La Honda, Kesey headed back to Oregon. There, barring a few months working for the Beatles’ Apple Records in London in early 1969, he has pretty much stayed ever since; writing, farming, raising his family, and planning and enacting various projects with the other Pranksters.
In 1973 he compiled and contributed to Kesey’s Garage Sale, a collection of interviews, articles and short pieces that includes his screenplay entitled “Over the Border” that was loosely based on his exploits in Mexico. Through the 1970s he continued to publish short stories and essays in a variety of publications, most notably in a literary journal, Spit in the Ocean, that he and Babbs published themselves. Many of these writings were collected and republished in Demon Box (1986). He subsequently published two children’s books, Little Trickler the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear (1988) and The Sea Lion (1991); another autobiographical screenplay, The Further Inquiry (based on the cross country bus trip of 1964); a novel, his first since 1964, called Sailor Song (1992); and another, this one a collaborative effort with Ken Babbs, entitled Last Go Round (1994). More recently, he and Babbs launched a Prankster website, IntrepidTrips.com, and released a number of videotapes culled from the thousands of feet of film and audio footage that the Pranksters have collected over the years.
Ken Kesey died on November 10, 2001.
The first time I met Kesey I asked him how someone became a Prankster and he looked at me as if I was the most stupid bastard he’d ever met!
It probably wasn’t the smartest question, but I was trying to get at how and why there seemed to be The Pranksters (with a capital ‘P’, a set of white overalls, and an official I.D. card) and then pranksters (with a small ‘p’) who were only partially on the bus or just running alongside. Was Pranksterdom bestowed, assigned, assumed, recognized or earned?
Wolfe gives us a Merry cast of Pranksters in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, most of whom — the big ‘P’ Pranksters at least — seem to be on board for the long haul. Many of these people are still active members of the Prankster family and they still participate in projects together, the most recent of which involved them touring the U.K. in Further II to Search for Merlin.
This page hopes to record the stories of lots of small ‘p’ pranksters and gather information and pictures about the big ‘P’s’. Click here to shed your load, or on a link to the left to share the burden of others.
Added a couple more photos: One is courtesy of Kesey from his personal collection and it shows Prankster Roy Sebern and friends at La Honda in 1965/6. Roy was responsible for much of the original artwork on Further, and it was he that gave the bus its name. This photo is displayed with the kind permission of Kesey himself. I also added a Gene Anthony portrait of Kesey from, I think 1966/67. Click here to see this photo or visit Gene Anthony’s website to view more of his work. Many thanks Gene.
Sad news from Pranksterland. Sandy Lehman-Haupt, died of a heart attack on October 28, 2001. I never got chance to meet Sandy, but was looking forward to doing so one day. Maybe another time… Here’s a photo of Sandy leaping into the Great Beyond:
On June 14, 1964, with Neal Cassady at the wheel, Further lumbered out of La Honda on a journey that took the on-board Pranksters through the Deep South, up to New York City, on to to visit Timothy Leary, and then home via Canada and the Essalen Institute at Big Sur California. In the process, Kesey and the Pranksters spent about $70,000 on gas, food, and film and audio tape, and had a busload of fun and a lifetime of experiences. They called the film they planned to make of the trip The Merry Pranksters Search for a Kool Place.
This trip meant and means different things to different people, but perhaps its most lasting significance is that it forged a bond between the Pranksters that is still obvious today.
Wouldn’t it be great to hear what people thought as they saw Further pass through Nowheresville, Smalltown, America, in pre-sixties 1964? Did you sell the Pranksters watermelon and road-burgers in Phoenix, Arizona, bathe with them in the segregated waters of Lake Pontchartrain, Louisiana, or stare and wonder as the bus drove through the crowded streets of Manhattan and across Central Park?
Are you out there? Click here to let us know that you’re OK and to tell us your tale.
Kesey and the Pranksters have recently released the first in a planned series of videos that show footage of this legendary bus trip. You can get hold of it from IntrepidTrips.com or k-zey.com.
This essay about the Beatles and the influence of Further on the Magical Mystery Tour was sent in by Steve Ellerhoff. Thanks Steve.
“Dying to Take You Away”
Once upon a time, way back, you know, in the ’60s, Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, led a group of “freaks” in an old converted 1939 International Harvester bus, psychedelically-painted and named “Furthur,” across America. They enrolled many notable heroes of the counterculture, old and new, like Neal Cassady and Jerry Garcia, and filmed the whole shabang’Kesey saying, “Get them into your movie before they get you into theirs” (Lee 121)’all while taking internal trips through the use of LSD. Tom Wolfe immortalized it all in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and little did they know that their Technicolor dream-trek would spawn off countless trips for people in the decades to come; or maybe they did know. In the seventies, Kermit the Frog and Fozzie Bear traversed America in a psychedelically-painted Studebaker in The Muppet Movie and elsewhere in Muppethology you can see the Electric Mayhem Band driving around in a psychedelic bus. I also remember when I was a kid, there were commercials on TV for something called Sweet Pickles where you sent in money and got books about anthropomorphic animals. I wanted them because in the commercials a gang of animals would drive to your house in a giant green bus and deliver the books; I didn’t believe my mom when she insisted they wouldn’t visit me if we ordered their books. Even more recent than that has been a series of children’s books all about taking trips on a magic bus. But before all of those, the Merry Pranksters inspired the Beatles.
In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test when the Pranksters head out to see the Beatles in concert on September 2, 1965, they display a special sign to welcome the Fab Four: THE MERRY PRANKSTERS WELCOME THE BEATLES. They had successfully welcomed the Hell’s Angels so why not try the Beatles, too? Well, the concert, as Wolfe records it, is a disaster for the Pranksters. The mass hysteria of Beatlemania is too much for them to handle and, as they’re all tripping, they see the concert to be the cancerous offspring of immense power ignorantly controlled by the Beatles. It’s appropriate that the Pranksters has been listening to “Help!” on the way to the concert because they need it, and God knows the Beatles need it, too. On top of the fear and confusion, as if that wasn’t enough, four or five hundred people were waiting for the Beatles at Kesey’s house once the Pranksters returned’and John, Paul, George, and Ringo didn’t show up (Of course, in 1968, Ken Kesey and twelve others, including some Hell’s Angels, were welcomed to Apple in London by the Beatles. Kesey admits to going so he could avoid some of the attention he’d received since The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was published. Derek Taylor, an Apple employee, says, “Ken Kesey was in, borrowing a typewriter and tape recorder and doing poetry readings in my office in the morning. I would arrive and find the Hell’s Angels sitting around’scratching and farting’and saying, ‘Hey Ken, read some more, man'” (Beatles 312). The whole story, how an unnamed Apple employee got punched by a Hell’s Angel, and how he first met John Lennon dressed up as Santa Claus is told wonderfully by Kesey in his short story “Now We Know How Many Holes it Takes to Fill the Albert Hall” in his book Demon Box). However, the legendary LSD manufacturer, Owsley, is there and gets everyone high but he turns out to be an asshole’ Wolfe goes on to explain that Owsley was the guy who’d made the acid that the Beatles eventually came to trip on:
‘after Owsley hooked up with Kesey and the Pranksters, he began a musical group called the Grateful Dead. Through the Dead’s experience with the Pranksters was born the sound known as “acid rock.” And it was that sound that the Beatles picked up on, after they started taking acid, to do a famous series of acid-rock record albums, Revolver, Rubber Soul, and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts’ Club Band (Wolfe 189).
What Wolfe didn’t know when he wrote The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is that in August of 1965, when the Beatles were at a party in Los Angeles, they took their first deliberate acid trips’all except Paul. Incidentally, it was at that party where Lennon ran into Peter Fonda, who was actively telling a story about a near-death operation he’d undergone at the age of ten. As Fonda later put it, “John was passing at the time and heard me saying, ‘I know what it’s like to be dead.’ He looked at me and said, ‘You’re making me feel I’ve never been born. Who put all that shit in your head?'” (Turner 111). Unknowingly, Fonda had inspired a Lennon song that would turn up the next year on the Beatles’ album Revolver: “She Said She Said.” The point here is that on September 2, 1965, unbeknownst to the Merry Pranksters at that Beatles concert, John, George, and Ringo had already taken LSD and were just starting down the path of psychedelia.
Once on that path, an interesting evolution took place in the Beatles’ music and before getting into what happens in their Magical Mystery Tour, I think it’s important to look at their psychedelic progression. The obvious change is that their songs became more introverted and insightful and they demanded closer inspection; within their rhetoric, among other observations, was a repeated study on loneliness. Scholars have picked up on their views of loneliness and written extensively on the subject. In 1972, David R. Pichaske explored the Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band LP entirely in terms on loneliness, for his book Beowulf to Beatles & Beyond, and makes a strong point. “Two things are important: the band is lonely, and it is performing [the Beatles are pretending not to be the Beatles]. Perhaps the two are interrelated: performers are generally lonely people, lonely people perform when they pretend not to be lonely and in an attempt to escape their loneliness” (Pichaske 522). He says that through the repeated line in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (reprise) that goes, “Sgt. Pepper’s lonely,” the crucial word is “Pepper’s”‘”Pepper is”‘all together, “Sgt. Pepper is lonely.” Once you break that code, practically every line in the album can be examined in terms of loneliness.
More recently though, a much stronger case has been made by historian Nick Bromell in his compelling study on psychedelia, Tomorrow Never Knows: Rock and Psychedelics in the 1960s.
We hunger for songs about loneliness not just because they express what we dread but because they offer what we need: a space, a place to go’When in 1966 the Beatles asked where all the lonely came from, I already knew the answer: they came from the way life is, from the way things have been set up. We are Eleanor Rigby’We needed a form that could represent this vision to ourselves, that could express our second sight and our fear of, and need for, loneliness. Rock was the form we found, and for good reason (Bromell 44-45, 48).
Bromell’s interpretation goes right along with Lennon’s vision of his own music. When describing “Strawberry Fields Forever,” one of the earlier psychedelic songs that was released, Lennon said, “Strawberry Fields is anywhere you want to go’It’s just about me really, or anybody else, who’s thinking like that. It’s pretty straightforward’I saw loneliness” (Badman 264). No wonder Elizabeth Wurtzel in Prozac Nation finds some suicidal comfort in “Strawberry Fields Forever.” “Those are the words I want to leave the world with. Let me take you down. Down as low as I am. Yes, that’s it, that’s the plan, to die with John Lennon’s voice seems just right” (Wurtzel 318).
Thus the desire to take a trip. I know when I’m lonely I want to get away from where I am at the time. And though it may be a mistake on my part, I’m assuming that many other people feel the same way and that, to quote “Imagine,” “I’m not the only one.” Therefore, after the Beatles’ exploration of loneliness through Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, it’s only natural that they would want to take a trip. The trip that ensued was a thoroughly British road trip that followed a strange mix of people across the English countryside. What’s great for us is that they filmed everything and edited it into 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, a monster, a veritable morass of it, all shaky and out of focus’blissful Zonk!’which they saw as a total breakthrough in terms of expression but also as a commercial display’shown on British TV it was’that might be appreciated even outside the esoteric world of the heads’THE MOVIE’called Magical Mystery Tour (Wolfe 189).
As Wolfe shows, the Merry Pranksters were the initial influence for the Beatles’ own road trip, but they also applied the idea to their own culture. A tradition in Britain is the Mystery Tour, where a bunch of people hop on a bus without knowing where they’re headed, and they just go. I’m familiar with the idea here in America because my grandmother goes on trips similar to these that are sponsored by her bank. The use of a Mystery Tour is perfect because it includes all the lonely people, not just counterculture “freaks”‘the Beatles are taking all types of people on their trip, from children to midgets to the elderly.
Songs are interspersed all through the film, six in total, alluding extensively to movement and travel, or sadness and melancholy. The ordering of the songs is intersting in itself, too. “Magical Mystery Tour” is the commercial-like intro to the trip, begging people to “roll up” and come along for the ride. “The Fool on the Hill” is all about a sophomoric (a wise yet foolish) guy who is completely ignored by the people around him.
“Flying” is a melancholic instrumental that plays during a fluorescent-neon plane ride over various landscapes (which was footage borrowed from Stanley Kubrick that was left out of his own road trip through space: 2001: A Space Odyssey [Turner 144]).
“I am the Walrus,” one of the most famous psychedelic compositions, deals with both movement and sadness through its Jabberwockian gobbledygook. It’s full of running, flying, climbing, and kicking; but the song also has a melancholy sort of two-note structure, which Lennon based on the sound of British police sirens, and besides doing a lot of waiting, the voice in the song keeps returning to, “Crying.” The song is very complex, and was deliberately written to be impossible to analyze and confusing, but nevertheless these themes of movement and loneliness shine through the nonsense.
“Blue Jay Way,” the only song written completely by George Harrison in the film, is actually named after a road that can be found high in the Hollywood Hills. Harrison wrote the song when he was staying at a rented house, belonging to Peggy Lee, that was on Blue Jay Way. Apparently it is very tricky to get onto that road because of the way the narrow canyons affect the roadways, and some of George’s friends got lost on their way to the house. While he was waiting, he sat in the corner and wrote this song about it, and the song ended up in the film, complete with a sequence of George playing an organ drawn with chalk on the pavement in front of some cars. “One critic thought the line in which George urged his guest not to ‘be long’ was advice to young people telling them not to ‘belong’ (to society, that is). Another acclaimed musicologist believed that, when George said that his friends had ‘lost their way,’ he meant that a whole generation had lost direction” (Turner 145). In any case, the song, which establishes itself in L.A., is a mellow exercise in what it is to wait and wonder about people who may have become lost along the way and is full of overt references to streets.
The last song, and the one to pretty much wrap up the film, is “Your Mother Should Know.” There’s something delightful about the song and yet at the same time, there are those spooky wavering “Oooh” sounds that fill up the backing vocals on the track. To push it further, or as the Pranksters would spell it, “furthur,” Paul sings the majority of one verse by scatting at first with the sound “Die,” which eventually changes to “Dah.” Why are these spooky “Ooohs” and Paul singing “Die” there? The result is a song that’s kind of fun and optimistic, but rooted in a strange sort of melancholy.
The songs aren’t the only psychedelic aspects of the film. The live action in the film, made up of bizarre segments, makes up a plotless whole. How can you have a film without a plot? Well, you can’t if you’re an old schooler. But if you’re a psychedelic artist you can produce a narrative where nothing really happens. For example, Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (which incidentally, Lennon loved. According to biographer Robert Rosen, “He was so taken by it, he imagined himself playing Thompson in the movie” [Rosen 53]. Apparently Lennon found it humorous or didn’t take much issue with Thompson writing, ” ‘That poor fool [Lennon] should have stayed where he was,’ said my attorney. ‘Punks like that just get in the way when they try to be serious'” [Thompson 21].). The book is an excellent example of yet another psychedelic road trip that follows no real plot and conflict. Of course, it was published four years after Magical Mystery Tour was screened, but it still fits, doesn’t it?
So what goes on in those confusing segments in Magical Mystery Tour might be worth looking at individually. Upon inspection, it is clear that the Beatles are being completely subversive, and that they’re doing it in the genre of madcap British humor. Sure, this was several years before Monty Python, but utter madness has been a part of British culture for a long time. The Beatles themselves, especially Lennon, had been greatly influenced by a group of wacky radio characters who called themselves the Goons, of which Peter Sellers was a member. The Goons would do skits where they would play all sorts of silly characters who spoke funny and satirized society around them. This subversive style of British humor is the tradition that the Beatles are working through, albeit in a psychedelic way, in Magical Mystery Tour.
In one segment, the Beatles attend a strip show. The Beatles? At a strip show? Shots of Lennon and Harrison clapping with anticipation before the stripper comes out, and then a shot of Lennon sprawled across the table and watching the show with unflinching eyes wasn’t what people would expect from their lovable Beatles. John, Paul, George, and Ringo have grown; they’re perverts’or are at least showing the world where lonely people go when their hormones are raging. Still’the Beatles are that desperate???
Another rule they break, and with this one I say more power to ’em, is that they show a couple in love that is neither young nor physically fit. An instrumental version of their earlier hit “All My Loving” plays while Buster Bloodvessel, a senile old man who thinks he runs the tour, and Ringo’s aunt Jessica, an obese woman, frolic around at the beach. They hug. They kiss. Mr. Bloodvessel even draws a heart around Jessica in the sand at her feet and kneels before her. What the hell are the Beatles doing? Why aren’t they showing all the hot groupies we all know they had and, you know, like, putting them in skimpy swimsuits so we can have a good vicarious romp at the beach? The Beatles choice to show the “unbeautiful” people in love is in itself a very beautiful segment, and it lends a refreshing and unexpected view of love itself. Because after all, aren’t people who look like this, the old and the fat, supposed to be lonely?
Possibly the most subversive of all acts in the film is the way the Beatles mock the military. It’s important to remember that the year is 1967 and that the war in Viet Nam is raging away. In one segment, Paul plays a General seated behind a desk while an Army Sergeant (played by Victor Spinetti, who co-starred with the Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night and Help!) leads people on the tour through military headquarters. As Paul sits quietly, the Army Sergeant (Pepper?) barks his lines at length incoherently at all the tour members. Finally, Ringo simply asks, “Why?” The Sergeant is confused so Ringo asks again. The Sergeant’s response is to bark with more conviction, the only intelligible words out of his mouth being, “Get your bloody hair cut!” Suddenly, the tour is teleported to the countryside and the Army Sergeant begins giving a presentation concerning a stuffed cow that is set beside him. After the Sergeant has yelled a bit and danced by the stuffed cow a bit, the tour members are bored and they file away before he finishes his presentation. If that isn’t mockery of the military, I don’t know what is. Also, it’s interesting to see how the Sarge is left behind so he is all alone. Once everyone is gone, he pets the dead cow on the head and begins a conversation with it’definitely an act of a lonely man. This especially makes sense if this Sergeant really is Sgt. Pepper, who we’ve already found to be a lonely man, according to the Beatles.
The other act of parody of the military within the film comes during the song sequence for “Your Mother Should Know.” After the Beatles, clad in white tuxedoes with roses in their lapels, descend a staircase, they salute a stream of girl cadets who pass by, all dressed in uniforms. What’s most important here is the fact that the Beatles are saluting them. Why would the Beatles salute the girl cadets, who are really just Britain’s version of the girl scouts, which was set up by the Royal Navy? Is this a comment on the Viet Nam War, the one that sucked in thousands of young men (including my uncle I’m named for)? If so, the Beatles are saying that the only uniforms young women have to worry about wearing are those of the girl cadets, a non-militaristic organization maintained by the militaristic Royal Navy, because women couldn’t be drafted or even properly enlist like men could. The Beatles are pointing out the fishiness of having youth organizations led by the military, especially when the reality of the military was that thousands of young men were being killed in Viet Nam.
Well, when Magical Mystery Tour was first aired on December 8, 1967, on the BBC, a lot of viewers were utterly confused by the whole thing. Not helping matters, the film was shown in black and white’a big mistake considering the fact that this was a technicolorful psychedelic adventure. The reviews weren’t good. James Thomas of the Daily Express said, “The bigger they are, the harder they fall. And what a fall it was” (Badman 332). The Sun reported, “The BBC switchboard was overwhelmed last night by people complaining about The Beatles’ film Magical Mystery Tour. Some People protested that the BBC1 programme was incomprehensible” (Badman 333). The Daily Mirror: “Rubbish’Piffle’Nonsense!” (Badman 333).
Lennon defended the film saying, “I loved it, because it was a trip, you know. Everyone was down on it, but it was all right. But there was too much ‘nothing happening'” (Badman 333). Paul said, “We thought we would not underestimate people and would do something new. It is better being controversial than being boring” [my italics] (Badman 333). Aha! So they were definitely aiming at creating a controversial trip.
I believe the whole key to the film is actually a small shot within it where Lennon is walking through a field with the rest of the tour members. Talking to no one in particular, and in a deep and silly Liverpudlian voice, he says, “There’s no business like show business. There’s no business I know. Everything about it’s so appealing.” Well, if Magical Mystery Tour is show business, then it’s an awfully confusing business to be in. The Beatles themselves have cracked their own fame wide open. At a time when they were riding high on the wave of success, the deliberately produced a film that would confuse people.
The music was great, and indeed sold well (and continues to). Released on two EPs in the UK, it went to #1 on the charts; and released as an LP in the US, with extra tracks that had originally been released as singles, it also went to #1. Still, the film remains problematic, even for fans. In Chris Bruton’s short story “Beatles 4ever,” some friends looking back on the Beatles’ career frown upon Magical Mystery Tour. One character says, “Just look at it: the fat lady wolfing down a mountain of spaghetti, the Beatles in white tuxes dancing a two-step, and all of these cosmic ‘special effects”where’s the great meaning? It’s just stupid, man. It was stupid then, it’s stupid now” (Cording 280). I have to admit, when I first rented the film at the video store, and sat down to watch it one summer afternoon during my adolescence, I fell asleep. I thought it was horrible, boring, self-indulgent. I was even embarrassed that my beloved Beatles had done such a crappy movie; I believed I could have done something better with my friend in my backyard. After some years though, and some thought, I’m convinced that Magical Mystery Tour, though not even an hour long, is actually a very controversial and subversive film.
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Further, Furthur, Further, Furthur — never has so much been read into a spelling mistake…
Further was the name given to a big old schoolbus bought by Kesey and his buddies to travel to New York in the summer of 1964. It was soon far more than just a mode of transport: It was a canvas and a stage for Prankster pop art and cartoon superheroes, a symbol of difference and awareness (“are you on or off the bus?), and a prototype for hundreds of other Magical Mystery tours.
The original Further now rests at peace in a field near Kesey’s house, denied to the Smithsonian on principle and slowly returning to the earth. A new, flashier Further can still be seen at Prankster events thrilling the kids and making the old folks smile.
Did you ever get on the bus, off the bus, omnibus? Did you wave or frown as it passed you by on its Search for a Kool Place in 1964. Were you mad or glad when it turned up at an anti-Vietnmam war rally in 1966 painted blood red and sporting military symbols? Did you take part in the Great Bus race in Aspen Meadows in 1969? Did you tour for Grandfurther in 1987 or Search for Merlin in 1999?
La Honda. Prankster HQ. Party Central. Edge City.
After the success of Cuckoo’s Nest and the demolition of their old Perry Lane haunt, Kesey, Faye, and the kids, moved into a log house set in its own spread amongst the redwoods ofSan Mateo county, California, about 15 miles from Palo Alto. Perry Lane friends and like-minded psychedelic fellow travellers were regular vistors and eventually residents at La Honda and the place began to take on a whole new atmosphere.
If Perry Lane was fun, La Honda was genuinely weird. Hunter S. Thompson remembered it as “the world capital of madness. There were no rules, fear was unknown, and sleep was out of the question.” By 1964, La Honda had become a very odd rural community where domestic bliss coexisted with pharmaceutical experimentation and expressionistic living.
Did you live in a tree and party at La Honda, daub the first lick of non-schoolbus paint on Further, or hear the rumble of reefer madness through the speakers on the hillside? If you can remember any of this — flashbacks anyone? — and want to record it for Prankster posterity then click your little rodent here and share it with the rest of us.
Just added lots more photos to this section of the site. There’s a recent picture of La Honda that I took when I visited there in December, 2001. There are also a number of photos from Kesey’s personal collection: three of the Hells Angels at La Honda; one of Kesey decorating the trees behind the house; and another of him walking toward the house which gives you a good idea of the layout of the place. Finally there’s a picture of Roy Sebern and friends outside the house. Roy was responsible for much of the original artwork on Further, and it was he that gave the bus its name. All these photos are displayed with the kind permission of Kesey himself. Click on the links to the left to view these images.
Hey, Bob Linke has been searching for the location of Kesey’s cabin in La Honda. He sent us a 1998 picture which was taken after some flooding in the area. You should also check out Bob’s message about Perry Lane.Thanks Bob.