Arts: Ken Kesey gets back on the bus

The Merry Pranksters finally reach the UK, 35 years after the first acid road trip. By Michael Collins
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The Independent Culture
IN 1964 the writer Ken Kesey set off with some friends and a great deal of LSD on a bus called Further, to spread the word to Uncle Sam: "What's so wrong about peace, love and understanding?" While these seeds of the psychedelic Summer of Love were being sown by Kesey's hippy missionaries, Cliff Richard and Una Stubbs were mounting a double-decker London bus for a summer holiday. That was as wild as trips got on these shores until The Beatles stole the Prankster idea for "Magical Mystery Tour".

This week, in time for the eclipse and as part of Channel 4's Summer of Love season, the founding father of the counter-culture has arrived here. His bus will take to the road with a series of events, happenings, and a search for Merlin. Kesey and the remaining Pranksters are now silver- haired and pot-bellied, with thirty-something children with names like "Sunshine".

Their arrival also coincides with the news that more than 100 people who were prescribed LSD in the early Sixties are planning a court action against the National Health Service. They maintain they were given the drug without proper consent, as a shortcut to cure phobias and depression, and have since suffered extreme side-effects.

Similar experiments were carried out in the US at the same time, as the CIA tested the drug on unwitting soldiers and mental patients. When student volunteers were given the opportunity to become guinea pigs, and paid $75 a day, Ken Kesey took part. "I believe with LSD," he says, "I found a new way to think."

In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, the book that relayed the story of the Merry Pranksters to the rest of America, Tom Wolfe equates Kesey's experience with the type of revelation from which religions are born. He points out that - although there was no goal of an improved moral order, nothing about salvation and certainly nothing about the life hereafter - there was around Kesey and his disciples "something so ... religious in the air, in the very atmosphere of the Prankster life".

The Channel 4 documentary Tripping attempts to convey that atmosphere, as it tells Kesey's story. The success of his first novel One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest in 1962, inspired by his experience of the mental patients encountered during those early LSD experiments, provided him with the funds to buy a batch of LSD and a school bus. The beat figure Neal Cassady - the model for Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac's On The Road - was enlisted as driver.

The school bus was chosen as a purely American metaphor: it picks the kids up, takes them away to learn and then brings them back. The LSD experience was for him part of an American tradition. Like his ancestors, he was in the business of exploration and adventure. This journey of inner and outer space, he says, is as American as it gets.

The shrewdest move on Kesey's part was to film the bus trips and the subsequent Acid Tests at his La Honda home. The latter have been cited as the first mixed-media events in which light shows, slide shows and hallucinogenics came together for a long night's journey into day to the music of The Grateful Dead.

The plan was to create the first acid movie, but only now have all the hours of footage been assembled. Channel 4's documentary Tripping will be extended to a 90-minute feature film for cinematic release. The producer of the project, Vikram Jayanti, was approached by Channel4 to make the film because of his success with the Muhammad Ali documentary When We Were Kings. "That footage was from 1974, but somehow people still connected with that film," he says. "I wanted to do the same for the Kesey footage."

The footage itself - cut to a soundtrack of Nineties recordings by the likes of Beck and Tom Waits of Sixties songs by the recently deceased Skip Spence - has the home-movie feel of Derek Jarman's Glitterbug. We see Kesey and his gang dancing like dervishes around stones, laying down feathers and painting their world in dayglo colours.

This imagery now seems so quaint that it is hard to imagine of what America was so afraid of. It takes Marianne Faithfull to point out that the flipside of this was the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont, at which a gang of Hell's Angels beat someone to death with a pool cue.

"It tainted and changed the whole Sixties experience," she says. The Hell's Angels had first been welcomed into the fold at one of the early Acid Tests, and later, into the Stones camp by Keith Richards in that spirit of peace, love and understanding. As Faithfull points out in the film it was the kind of "terrible mistake that you would only make when you were high on drugs".

`Tripping' will be broadcast on Channel 4 this Saturday at 11pm