Tag Archives: spontaneity

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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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

The Politics of Authenticity: Outlaws Looking In

24 Mar

This post contains part IV 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.

Kerouac and GinsbergImage from flapjackstate.com

Kerouac and Ginsberg
Image from flapjackstate.com


The idea of authenticity, particularly in relation to the production and appreciation of art, reflects the fundamental desire of bohemian subcultures to establish themselves in opposition to what they perceive to be an “inauthentic” society, which often meant an embrace of rebellious—even criminal—behavior. “This is the story of America,” Kerouac (as Sal) laments, “Everybody’s doing what they think they’re supposed to be doing” (68). This is Sal’s response to the seeming inanity of security guards enforcing a quiet ordinance, but the statement encapsulates the contemptuous attitude the Beats had for those who simply acted out society’s norms without questioning them. “Law and order’s got to be kept,” the guard says, but all Sal wants to do is “sneak out into the night and disappear somewhere” (67).

To rebel against the perceived conformity epidemic of the 1950s, Beats like Kerouac embraced and celebrated the lifestyle of society’s ultimate nonconformist: the outlaw. The outlaw, who works against established norms, is a consistent fixture in American folklore, often depicted as a hero (Konas 184). [5] Kerouac holds Dean up as a new embodiment of the outlaw/hero archetype, even describing him as a “new kind of American saint” (Kerouac 38). Consequently, Dean’s outlaw behavior is both romanticized and justified, as is his chosen lifestyle of being “on the run.” “Con-man Dean” flitters about the country “gigg[ling] maniacally” and “antagonizing people away from him by degrees” (155). Sal follows Dean devotedly because his divisive acts of rebellion unequivocally distinguish him and those around him from the monotony of 1950s America.[6] Yet the social fallout of Dean’s self-alienating behavior is evident throughout the novel, foreshadowing the conflicts that later arise within the Beat movement—a direct consequence of idealizing the outlaw brand of authenticity. Continue reading

First Thought, Best Thought: Beat Literature and the Authentic Ideal

21 Mar

This post contains part III 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.

Kerouac and his scrollPhoto via bookforum.com

Kerouac and his scroll
Photo from bookforum.com


When Jack Kerouac wrote in On the Road about walking through “the Denver colored section, wishing [he was] a Negro,” he was rather naively expressing the Beat identification with the “happy, true-hearted, ecstatic Negros of America” (Kerouac 180). Many aspects of Beat culture were appropriated from black culture, probably because they interpreted African Americans’ outsider status in an “inauthentic” American society as a kind of inborn authenticity.4 As Kerouac painted a vivid portrait of the Beat lifestyle in On the Road, he emphasized the Beat identification with black jazz culture, and in doing so, he brought a highly descriptive, free-flowing, sense-oriented writing style into the mainstream.  A characteristic example of this style occurs as Kerouac describes one of several jazz club scenes within the novel:

In back of the joint in a dark corridor […] scores of men and women stood against the wall drinking wine-spodiodi and spitting at the stars—wine and whiskey. The behatted tenorman was blowing at the peak of a wonderfully satisfactory free idea, a rising and falling riff that went from “EE-yah!” to a crazier “EE-de-lee-yah!” and blasted along to the rolling crash of butt-scarred drums hammered by a big brutal Negro with a bullneck who didn’t give a damn about anything but punishing his busted tubs, crash, rattle-ti-boom, crash. (197)

This passage evokes not only the sights, but the sounds woven into the sensory tapestry that was a typical night at a 1950s San Francisco jazz club. Throughout the novel, Kerouac goes out of his way to convey the total synesthetic experience of Beat culture and lifestyle.

For Dean, the ultimate synesthetic experience—known enigmatically as “IT”—comes from listening to jazz played by black musicians who can “put down what’s on everybody’s mind” (207). Kerouac describes Dean as “listening to the American sounds and mastering them for his own […] use” (242). Kerouac, too, did exactly that; he listened to the wild bop phrases of black jazz musicians and attempted to imitate them using a free-association writing technique that he referred to as “spontaneous prose.” As evidenced above, this style relies heavily on extensive descriptions, slang terminology, onomatopoeia, and other poetic devices to give the text a fast-paced, distinctly jazz-like feel (Charters xxv). Because of the freshness of Kerouac’s spontaneous prose and his skill at ascribing written words to the frenzied excitement of the Beat lifestyle, On the Road effectively brought the ultimate Beat ideal to a mainstream audience: the jazz-inspired goal of spontaneous authenticity.

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Life on the Edge: An Introduction to the Counterculture

20 Mar

This post contains part I 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.

Protesters at the 1968 Democratic National ConventionPhoto Via Barton Silverman/The New York Times

Protesters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention
Photo from Barton Silverman/The New York Times


Was the phenomenon in fact so extraordinary as contemporaries supposed? Was it as unprecedented, as profoundly subversive and world-changing as they thought? What was its true significance, its real nature, and what were the permanent effects of this strange and terrifying revolution? What exactly did it destroy, and what did it create?
–Alexis de Tocqueville, L’Ancien Regime, as quoted by Roger Kimball in “Virtue Gone Mad”

History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.
-Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas


In 1968, in the midst of one of the most tumultuous years in recent memory—one colored by the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, massive public demonstrations on the streets of Paris, and violent riots in America and Western Europe—the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency submitted a classified report to President Johnson. Entitled “Restless Youth,” the report catalogued the activities of various counterculture movements across the globe. It warned:

A real cultural revolution working through a new dynamic educational system led by “critical universities” in ferment, a freed television, new experiments in other communications media, including literature and the theater, could lead to a rapid evolution in mass consciousness of the social situation, to the point where the gap between the “real” country and the “governmental” country becomes too wide, the lack of representivity of present structures and leaders too patent, new solutions and new leaders appear on the left, and the explosion, either peaceful or violent, follows. (United States 2)

This “real cultural revolution,” enacted through anti-authoritarian mass counterculture movements,[1] wasn’t confined to the United States. This was in fact a “world wide phenomenon” that was distressing established governments on both sides of the Iron Curtain (Suri 47). While 1968 marked a critical point in this cultural shift, factors leading up to such widespread civil unrest had been fomenting in the U.S. for years.

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