Tag Archives: Neal Cassady

One Legendary Party: The Hell’s Angels and the Merry Pranksters Meet at Kesey’s

7 Jul
Hell's Angels Group with Jackets

Guess who’s coming to dinner.
Image via nostalgiaonwheels.blogspot.com


WARNING: This post contains descriptions of alleged sexual violence. 

For the last six years or so, one party has been haunting me. It wasn’t any soiree I’d attended—this party took place on Saturday August 7, 1965 at Ken Kesey’s LSD-laced ranch in La Honda, California. It was a fete that epitomized the West Coast psychedelic movement’s embrace of drugs, music, and above all, the outlaw lifestyle. What made this party special wasn’t its mix of intellectuals—poet Allen Ginsberg and Harvard psychology professor Richard Alpert (aka Baba Ram Dass) among them—and countercultural icons such as Hunter S. Thompson and Neal Cassady; it was the 15-foot-long, red white and blue sign strung up outside the ranch: THE MERRY PRANKSTERS WELCOME THE HELL’S ANGELS. Continue reading

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Right on Paradise: The American Dream at the End of the Road

6 Apr

This post contains part X of my senior capstone paper, Speed Limits: The Formation, Dissemination, and Dissolution of the Counterculture in American Literature 1951-1972. Click here to view a full list of works cited. Click here to view all sections of the paper.

Thompson finally locates the American Dream.Image from cosmicsmudge.com

Thompson finally locates the American Dream.
Image from cosmicsmudge.com


In many respects, Gonzo journalism embodies and embraces the final step in the mainstream absorption (and subsequent commodification) of countercultural beliefs. Gonzo journalism depicts a grotesque web of countercultural immorality; nonetheless, we as readers enjoy vicarious participation in Thompson’s crime sprees, sprees which are actually financed by major media outlets, including Sports Illustrated and Rolling Stone magazine.[18] While sitting poolside at a Beverly Hills hotel, Thompson receives a call from “some total stranger in New York, telling me to go to Las Vegas[,] expenses be damned” and then “another total stranger” hands him “$300 raw cash for no reason at all” (11). Thompson chalks this up to “Free Enterprise. The American Dream. […] Do it now: pure Gonzo journalism” (12).

Kerouac himself attempted to “test the American dream by trying to pin down its promise of unlimited freedom by following the example of Dean Moriarty” (Charters xxi). Kesey strove to “claim whatever he can rightly get by being man enough to take it” because there “is no limit to the American trip” (Wolfe 37, 112). But driving on the outskirts of Las Vegas in 1972, Thompson seems to have finally nailed down the exact location of the American Dream, what the counterculturalists had been looking for all along—“Big black building, right on Paradise: twenty-four-hour-a-day violence, drugs”—yes, unlimited freedom and consumption (Thompson 167). In a seven-page chapter towards the end of Fear and Loathing, Thompson’s narrative reporting breaks down and we are left with an editor’s note introducing us to a “verbatim” tape recording of Thompson and his attorney as they question some locals on the whereabouts of “the American Dream” (161, 165). Through this, they are led to a seedy joint called the “Old Psychiatrist’s Club” that had “burned down about three years ago” (168). This section encapsulates what Thompson believes to be the empty promise of the American Dream, one that is plagued by corruption and sinister greed. Continue reading

No Mercy: Gonzo Journalism on a Failed Revolution

4 Apr

This post contains part IX of my senior capstone paper, Speed Limits: The Formation, Dissemination, and Dissolution of the Counterculture in American Literature 1951-1972. Click here to view a full list of works cited. Click here to view all sections of the paper.

Ralph Steadman's take on Hunter ThompsonImage from Examiner.com

Ralph Steadman’s take on Thompson
Image from Examiner.com


Thompson’s writing exposes the inherent hypocrisies of the counterculture movement and helps explain why, only four years after the hope and rage of 1968, the movement had become a washed-up mockery of itself—and inadvertently paved the way for a conservative revolution. Suri points out that “the counterculture’s mainstream roots raised expectations for extensive political reform, but those expectations were ultimately a victim of the coercive leverage exerted by the figures who dominated the mainstream […] Rapid political change required something much more akin to social revolution than what the international counterculture could offer” (Suri 53). The leaders of the counterculture ended up as corrupt and manipulative as the mainstream political figures they railed against—instead of coercing followers into racist status-quos and unnecessary war, they instead lead them into extreme indulgence and a near-deadly narcissism.

Thompson expresses disappointment with the so-called leaders of the counterculture movement, especially the great Chief himself, Ken Kesey: “Tune in, freak out, get beaten. It’s all in Kesey’s Bible. . . . The Far Side of Reality” (Thompson 89). Throughout Fear and Loathing Thompson provides an echo to the Pranksters’ final refrain—“WE BLEW IT!”—and adds to the mix his own interpretation of the consequences. After the worldwide civil unrest of 1968, government leaders “rebuilt their authority around commitments to restore rationality, reasonableness, and domestic peace” (Suri 63). Needless to say, calls for “law and order” were immensely appealing to the “silent majority” of Nixon voters who lived in dread of the violent chaos that the countercultural movement had come to represent. Thompson writes from a place of disillusionment as he grapples with the fact that the movement he once believed in has been left flailing and leaderless while a conservative climate of fear and loathing had taken hold of America. Continue reading

The Undisguised Menace: Participation as Protest

2 Apr

This post contains part VIII of my senior capstone paper, Speed Limits: The Formation, Dissemination, and Dissolution of the Counterculture in American Literature 1951-1972. Click here to view a full list of works cited. Click here to view all sections of the paper.

The counterculture in its death throesImage from Fark.com

The counterculture in its death throes
Image from Fark.com


One individual who was profoundly influenced by the traumatic downfall of the hippie movement—crystallized by such tragic events as the 1968 Democratic National Convention and Kent State—was Hunter S. Thompson. He describes the general cultural malaise of the early 1970s in this way:

But what is sane? Especially here in “our own country”—in this doomstruck era of Nixon. We are all wired into a survival trip now. No more of the speed that fueled the Sixties. Uppers are going out of style. This was the fatal flaw in Tim Leary’s trip. He crashed around America selling “consciousness expansion” without ever giving a thought to the grim meat-hook realities that were lying in wait for all the people who took him too seriously. (Thompson 178).

Thompson’s writing gives voice to a segment of the counterculture that was left completely disillusioned and disaffected at the end of the sixties. He also represents a unique manifestation of the outlaw figure in popular culture; Hunter Thompson not only embraces the outlaw lifestyle of restlessness, lawlessness, and drugs, but he seems to have built his entire career on those very premises.

However, Thompson’s illegal exploits do not relegate him to the outskirts of society like Dean Moriarty or to exile like Ken Kesey. Thompson’s popular success as a countercultural, outlaw journalist comes to signify the final step in American society’s absorption of countercultural ideals. The countercultural drive for authenticity had irreversibly changed American culture, but the results were far stranger than anyone could have imagined. At the time of its serial publication in Rolling Stone magazine in 1971, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas simultaneously railed against mainstream culture and counterculture as it exposed the wretched consequences of both cultures’ excesses and hypocrisies. Continue reading

We Blew It: Outlaws in Edge City

30 Mar

This post contains part VII of my senior capstone paper, Speed Limits: The Formation, Dissemination, and Dissolution of the Counterculture in American Literature 1951-1972. Click here to view a full list of works cited. Click here to view all sections of the paper.

Ken Kesey and Neal Cassidy at the Acid Test GraduationImage from Huckmagazine.com

Ken Kesey and Neal Cassady at the Acid Test Graduation
Image from Huckmagazine.com


In 1965, Ken Kesey was arrested with 3.54 grams of marijuana. Facing a mandatory five years of jail time for this offense, Kesey decided his only recourse was to fake his death and go on the lam in Mexico (Wolfe 258). “If society wants me to be an outlaw,” he said, “then I’ll be [sic] a damned good one.” Kesey goes on to convince himself that outlaws are “something people need. People at all times need outlaws” (264). In a way, Kesey was right; English professor Gary Konas notes that America “secretly admires the colorful outlaw, especially if he is charming,” and that Kesey’s particularly roguish charm made him an ideal antihero for the counterculture (Konas 184). In the same way the counterculture admired Dean Moriarty, it also looked up to Kesey and hoped for the success of his outlaw “prank.” Wolfe’s depiction of Kesey’s flight to Mexico illustrates a progression from the idealized outlaw behavior of Dean Moriarty and exposes the problematic relationship between Kesey’s criminality and the growing population of youths who easily became “criminals” within the counterculture.

Criminalization of both pot and acid had led to the formation of what Wolfe termed “the Prohibition Generation,” referring to the thousands of young people who entered the legal system during this time because of drug use (Wolfe 360). As one sixties veteran remembers it, “When a young person took his first pull of psychoactive smoke, he…inhaled a certain way of dressing, talking, acting, certain attitudes. One became a youth criminal against the state” (Lytle 201). Needless to say, the antiauthoritarian appeal of this mass criminal movement made drugs nearly irresistible to aspiring counterculturalists; not only was it rebellious—it was also fun. Kesey himself actually “liked this Fugitive game” (Wolfe 299). He would hide out in the jungle “for two or three days and smoke a lot of grass,” devising secret codes and signals (299).

The sense of self-inflation that Kesey and others in the Prohibition Generation experienced was an extension of the Beat antiauthoritarian ideal. From a countercultural perspective, the outlaw was the only person who could live truly authentically, and this lifestyle gave one tremendous credentials as a cultural leader. It came to the point where Kesey felt that “the outlaw, even more than the artist, is he who tests the limits of life” (304). One no longer had to make art to speak to the counterculture movement; one simply had to live it. Participation in the counterculture became as easy as sparking a joint. Continue reading

The Acid Test: Failing to Control for Social Hierarchies

27 Mar

This post contains part VI of my senior capstone paper, Speed Limits: The Formation, Dissemination, and Dissolution of the Counterculture in American Literature 1951-1972. Click here to view a full list of works cited. Click here to view all sections of the paper.

A Merry Pranksters album cover, 1966Image from lysergia.com

A Merry Pranksters album cover, 1966
Image from lysergia.com


In Electric Kool-Aid, Wolfe emphasizes the Pranksters’ fixation on “transcending the bullshit” and living “out front,” which means as Kesey puts it, “Everybody is going to be what they are, and whatever they are, there’s not going to be anything to apologize about” (Wolfe 20). LSD was a critical component to the Pranksters’ “out front” lifestyle because they believed it allowed them to live truly spontaneously, truly authentically, and truly outside of social norms. Their communal drug trips served to build a unifying group identity, though one that may have been more bullshit-heavy than Kesey originally envisioned.

The communality of these drug episodes was epitomized in the Prankster’s theory of “intersubjectivity” and the “side of the LSD experience—that feeling!—[that] tied in with Jung’s theory of synchronicity” (Wolfe 61, 140). One Prankster astutely noted, “We are all one brain out here and we are all on the bus, after all” (97). The idea of being “on the bus” took off in the growing psychedelic culture, many members of which claim to have been inspired by Kerouac’s On the Road to go out and search for “IT,” whether that meant hitch-hiking out to California for 1967’s “Summer of Love” or participating in a group LSD experience. Continue reading

Life as a Novel: New Journalism and an Emerging Mass Counterculture

25 Mar

This post contains part V of my senior capstone paper, Speed Limits: The Formation, Dissemination, and Dissolution of the Counterculture in American Literature 1951-1972. Click here to view a full list of works cited. Click here to view all sections of the paper.

Ken Kesey, the Pranksters, and FurtherImage from Huckmagazine.com

Ken Kesey, the Pranksters, and Furthur, 1969
Image from Huckmagazine.com


The free-wheeling, antiauthoritarian ideals of On the Road were taken to a literal extreme in 1964 when the Merry Pranksters took their infamous psychedelic road trip across America. Lending dubious cultural merit to their journey were “major literary celebrities” Neal Cassidy (Dean Moriarty himself, now known as Speed Limit, the driver) and Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion (dubbed The Chief) (P. Perry xxi). Cassady, who had once been “the mercury for Kerouac and the whole Beat Generation” was now “the mercury for Kesey and the whole—what?—something wilder and weirder out on the road” (Wolfe 102). Things had definitely changed since the days of bongos and coffee shops, and there was no love lost between the fractured remnants of the Beat movement and the emerging, electrified psychedelic movement.

Kesey had publicly given up writing after publishing his second novel, and he’d began to pursue ways of “living life as a novel” (P. Perry 15). He used his royalties to buy a 1939 International Harvester school bus and deck it out with thousands of dollars worth of sound and video equipment. After packing the bus with several weeks’ worth of food and acid, he and his Prankster crew hit the road. Tom Wolfe, on an assignment to write about the “Young Novelist Real-Life Fugitive,” put words to Kesey’s novelistic lifestyle in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (Wolfe 5). In doing so, he managed to expose an entirely new generation to America’s latest iteration of the counterculture. Continue reading