For me, there have always been at least three Ken Keseys. First, there was the antiauthoritarian author of the madcap 1962 classic One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Inspired by Kesey’s own work as an orderly at a Menlo Park mental hospital, the author’s voice disappears into that of the narrator, Chief Bromden, and the dialogue of the most memorable ensemble of troubled personalities in twentieth century literature. Then there’s the Kesey of the 1964 Sometimes a Great Notion, a Pacific Northwest epic and the work of a serious novelist pulling American archetypes from rough-hewn Oregon logging country. Finally, there’s Kesey the Merry Prankster, the mad scientist who almost single-handedly invented sixties drug culture with his ‘64 psychedelic bus tour and acid test parties. It’s a little hard to put them all together sometimes. Ken Kesey contained multitudes.
The acid test parties began after Kesey’s experience with mind-altering drugs as a volunteer test subject for Army experiments in 1960 (later revealed to be part of the CIA’s mind control experiment, Project MKUltra). Kesey stole LSD and invited friends to try it with him. In 1965, after Hunter S. Thompson introduced Kesey to the Hell’s Angels, he expanded his test parties to real happenings at larger venues, beginning at his home in La Honda, California. Always present was the music of The Grateful Dead, who debuted under that name at one of Kesey’s parties after losing their original name, The Warlocks. The cast of characters also included Jack Kerouac’s traveling buddy Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, and Dr. Timothy Leary. Out of what Hunter Thompson called “the world capital of madness,” the psychedelic counter-culture of Haight-Ashbury was born.
In the interview above, Kesey talks about the acid tests as much more than an excuse to trip for hours and hear The Dead play for a buck. No, he says, “there were people who passed and people who didn’t pass” the test. What it all meant perhaps only Kesey knew for sure. (He is quoted as saying that he and his band of compatriots, the Merry Pranksters, were trying to “stop the coming end of the world”). In any case, it’s a strange story—stranger than any of Ken Kesey’s works of fiction: covert government mind control program turns on one of the generation’s most subversive novelists, who then masterminds the hippy movement. The video below, from the Kesey documentary Magic Trip, takes us back to where it started with animation of a tape recording of Kesey narrating his first government-sponsored acid trip.
Josh Jones is a writer and musician. He recently completed a dissertation on landscape, literature, and labor.