Arts, Culture & Media

Ken Kesey's Magic Bus and the tour of The Merry Pranksters

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Renovated model of the painted bus "Further" that took Kesey & the Merry Pranksters cross-country (Photo courtesy of flickr user Joe Mabel).

Story by PRI's Studio 360. For more, listen to the audio above.

Imagine Manhattan's "Mad Men"-style golden age full of businessmen, classy secretaries and martinis. It's a cool, collected and very professional scene that exhibits American ideals of success and wealth.

In 1964 Ken Kesey, author of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," and his band of Merry Pranksters drove their psychedlic hippie bus straight through that corporate causeway during a cross-country trip, which arguably marked the beginning of modern counterculture movements in the U.S. The colorful trip inspired Tom Wolfe's popular novel "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," but the trip itself was inspired by Jack Kerouac's beatnik bible "On the Road." Not only did this groovy voyage sport Kesey as its leader, but author of "The First Third" and central character in "On the Road" Neal Cassady as the bus driver--who guided the Pranksters across the nation without a valid driver's license.

Documentarian Alex Gibney has pieced together the events of Kesey's road trip in his new documentary Magic Trip: Ken Kesey's Search for a Kool Place. Gibney discovered footage that the travellers themselves made during the journey in a disused barn on the Kesey family estate. He sent the film to the UCLA film archive for restoration, but even after the film was restored there were many problems with the recordings.

"They knew how to work the tape recorders and they knew how to work the cameras... sort of," Gibney said. But, amateur cinematographers as they were, the Merry Pranksters didn't know how to synchronize the audio with the video (hence why Hollywood uses the iconic clapper). Recording problems arose further because they powered the equipment by using the bus's engine as a generator.

"Whenever Neal Cassady would hit the gas, the audio would speed up," Gibney said.

Experimental and hallucinogenic drugs were central to the Magic Ride and many of the Pranksters documented their delirious drug-induced trips. Gibney says that Kesey once believed that drugs could change the world for the better.

But despite the driver's lack of documentation, the rampant drug use, and generally frowned-upon free-living, the Merry Pranksters never got in trouble with the law.

"All the other Pranksters would run out with movie cameras and say "Oh, we're makin a movie!" and that seemed to be enough every time they were stopped by the cops--and they must've been stopped at least eight times--it's amazing, and the never got busted," Gibney said.


PRI's Peabody Award-winning "Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen" from WNYC is public radio's smart and surprising guide to what's happening in pop culture and the arts. Each week, Kurt Andersen introduces you to the people who are creating and shaping our culture. Life is busy -- so let "Studio 360" steer you to the must-see movie this weekend, the next book for your nightstand, or the song that will change your life.

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