Before the bus and after, tales of Ken Kesey, LSD, the Hells Angels, Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg and more.
Further. The Merry Prankster Bus. From Magic Trip, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo © Ted Streshinsky, CORBIS
Merry Pranksters Ken Babbs and George Walker have been friends for over 60 years. They were both in the same place at the same time, doing much the same things, but that doesn’t mean they remember what happened exactly the same way. Babbs started 2022 by publishing a memoir, Cronies, A Burlesque: Adventures with Ken Kesey, Neal Cassady, the Merry Pranksters and the Grateful Dead. He opens Cronies by defining a burlesque as, “a historical accounting told with a few additions, exaggerations, embellishments and inventions” and provides three quotes: “It’s the truth, even if it didn’t happen,” attributed to Chief Bromden Stamper from the non-existent novel, Sometimes a Great Cuckoo; “If you can remember it, then you weren’t there”, identified as being said by Timothy Leary, and “We don’t need facts, we need stories”, which is pure Ken Kesey. Babbs and Kesey met while participating in the Stanford University Creative Writing program in the late 1950s and their kinship perseveres, even though Kesey died in 2001. Kesey plays a major role in Cronies, as does Walker, who first met Kesey on the University of Oregon campus in the mid-1950s. Walker came to Stanford in the early 1960s to study law but soon found a far different course, jumping into the Bay Area’s post-Beat/pre-Hippie art scene and applying his knack for mechanical engineering to Further, the Pranksters psychedelic hand-painted bus which became a counterculture icon thanks to Tom Wolfe’s 1968 The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
Poster for the first Acid Test, at Ken Babb’s house in Santa Cruz, November 27, 1965
In 2022, Walker is still working on re-engineering a bus. The one he has his hands in now is a “new” version of the original Further, a highly customized 1939 International Harvester school bus. The new bus, also a 1939 International Harvester, has been dubbed “Farthur”, and Walker has recently re-painted Farthur’s frame, fit the lines for the front brakes and otherwise “finalized the front end”. Walker aspires to have the bus ready to roll this summer. Even if that plan gets delayed, Walker will likely be on the road again, in one way or another, carrying on his role as Prankster storyteller and sage. In recent years, he’s been at a presence at Beat Museum events in San Francisco and at various poetry and music gatherings across the country. Last summer, he was on tour with the Normal Bean Band. The last few months, he’s been helping out the founders of The Hippie Museum, an archive, music venue and recording studio in Springfield, Oregon.
Ken Babbs & Neal Cassady 1964 on the bus. Photo courtesy of Google Archives.
Oregon is also “home” to Babbs, who retreated there in the late 1960s along with Kesey and Walker, after the Beat-to-Hippie San Francisco scene went from being a place for underground revelry to being a destination for seekers of all sorts. Kesey’s Bay Area arrests for marijuana possession and the national media identifying him as an LSD-guru made going to Oregon an easy decision for Kesey’s family and friends. In Cronies, Babbs describes moving to quieter surroundings and reveals Kesey’s Tom Sawyer-like, out-of-the-spotlight misadventures with poet Wendell Berry, artist Paul Foster, actor Paul Newman, a jailed Timothy Leary and writers Paul Krassner, Larry McMurtry and Hunter S. Thompson. Cronies is mostly chronological and best early on, Babbs clearly recounting muddled Prankster tales including how it came to be that Neal Cassady drove Further backwards through Phoenix with “A Vote for Barry is a Vote for Fun” written on the side of the bus, and why no one got arrested.
George Walker. Filming in 1964. Courtesy of George Walker.
Babbs and Walker have told the stories of their 1964 cross-country bus trip more times than they care to admit. They have fun retelling them, and they enjoy pointing out how the Pranksters came to add irreverent color to what had been a stoic black-and-white world. While not all of their facts match up exactly, Babbs and Walker agree the Prankster scene had its start on the outskirts of the Stanford University campus, in a place called Perry Lane. That’s where Kesey first met Cassady and where a set of kooks decided to break out musical instruments no one knew how to play.
Ken Kesey (center) and Neal Cassady (right) at the Acid Test Graduation, October 31, 1966.
Legsville: How did you come across Perry Lane?
Ken Babbs: When Kesey and I met at Stanford in 1958, he was living on Perry Lane in Menlo Park, across the street from the Stanford golf course. Perry Lane was actually the dividing line between Palo Alto and Menlo Park. It was a little lane with a big oak tree almost in the middle of the road. Behind that tree was a wooded area with a series of cabins, all connected by little paths. A lot of graduate students lived there. Kesey managed to grab the one close to the road and he lived there all the time he was at Stanford. That’s where I got to know him and hang out with him.
Legsville: Who else did you meet on Perry Lane?
Ken Babbs: Living there were Chloe Scott, a dancer, she lived just off the trail. And Jane Burton. She was a grad student in philosophy. And Lee Anderson. He was studying physics and taught Bill Kreutzmann [later of the Grateful Dead] how to play the drums. And Vic Lovell. He was a grad student in psychology, and he was the one that got Kesey to get in on the program the VA was running, giving samples of drugs to people.
Legsville: What was the draw to Perry Lane? What was going on there?
Ken Babbs: Kesey. He was a natural magnet for people. He always had something going on so we just started gravitating towards his house. Saturday nights were like the big get-togethers. People would read stuff, sing stuff. We played bongos and guitars and do folk songs. Everybody got to know each other. It was the thing that was happening in those days, early on, in 1958 and 1959.
Legsville: Why did people gravitate towards Kesey?
George Walker on clarinet. Ken Kesey on flute. Courtesy of George Walker
Ken Babbs: His personality. He was outgoing, smart and took a lot of joy in enjoying life. That would draw people in. He was a magician. He would do magic tricks. Kesey had a kind of charisma. It was always fun to do stuff with him. He’d come up with ideas, things to do. He’d always been like that and always was, until he died.
Legsville: Where were you living at the time?
Ken Babbs: I had my own place out by what was known as the “whiskey golf shop by the freeway”. Palo Alto was a dry town and my place was just outside the city limits, where there was a whole strip of liquor stores. I lived on one of the back streets there. I had a car because I’d driven out to Stanford from Ohio. That let me drive around and go do stuff with Kesey.
Legsville: Were you and Kesey experimenting with psychedelics back in ’58 and ‘59 on Perry Lane?
Ken Babbs: I think it was more like ’60. I was in the Marine Corps then, and I’d fly up from my base in Southern California and spend the weekend at Kesey’s. It was on one of those weekends that I first got high with him. He had gotten LSD from the VA hospital by then. The way that came about was Vic Lovell had gotten into this program the government was running [MK-Ultra], testing various chemicals and seeing the kind of effects they had on people. The CIA was trying to see how certain drugs would work, see if it’d make for better soldiers, maybe help in interrogating prisoners. The doctors didn’t know what’d the drugs would do. Vic got Kesey in on it. For $25 a session, they’d go in there and they’d get a pill. Sometimes it would be a placebo; sometimes, it would be this, or it would be that. There was one pill Vic and Kesey really liked a lot, that really got them high. They decided they’d make like nothing was going on when they got that one, fake it, so they’d get turned loose and go out on the streets––high. Kesey then got a job at the same VA hospital. He was watching the patients in the day room when he realized the office next door was the office of the doctor who was doing the drug experiments. He tried a key on his keyring and it opened the door. He went inside the office, looked around and opened the middle drawer of the desk. Inside, he found a bottle of 500 pure Sandoz Laboratory LSD tablets. Kesey pocketed them, took them home, and that’s how LSD came into the scene.
Spit in the Ocean #6, The Cassady Issue, 1981. Edited by Ken Babbs.
Legsville: After Ken stopped working at the hospital, how did you guys continue to get psychedelics?
Ken Babbs: I don’t know. [Laughs] I’d only be there once in a while. I don’t know where it came from.
Legsville: What was the difference between life on Perry Street and life in La Honda?
Ken Babbs: The difference was not being around the university. La Honda was up in the redwoods between Perry Lane and the ocean. When I got out of the Marine Corps, all my close friends were going up there. The same sort of stuff would happen. When Kesey was on Perry Lane, he had published One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, then he wrote Sometimes a Great Notion. In ‘64, when that book was coming out, there was a publication party that summer in New York and Kesey wanted to go to. I said, “Let’s take my station wagon and go.” Suddenly everybody wanted to go and we realized my station wagon wasn’t big enough so Kesey bought this old school bus that had been converted into a camper and brought it to La Honda. We painted it and gussied it all up. By then we had gotten tired of writing because of all the typing involved, and all the retyping when you needed to make corrections. We had evolved into making reel-to-reel tape recordings, sitting up on the floor all night, smoking weed and making up stories. One day, George Walker showed up with a 16-millimeter Bolex camera. We got up off the floor and started acting out parts. We decided, “Oh, we’re going to be movie makers now. We’re not going to be writers anymore.” Kesey bought a professional camera and a big Sony reel-to-reel tape recorder. We were going to film and tape the whole bus trip, then come back and edit it. After that, there would be a movie that would be shown on a big screen.
Merry Pranksters at The Nut Shop, 1964. Left to Right: Dale Kesey, Ken Babbs, Steve “Zonker" Lambrecht, John Babbs back to the camera, Ken Kesey, Neal Cassady, Paula Sundsten. Image courtesy of CathodeRayTube.
Legsville: When did you start having “Acid Test” parties on the weekends in La Honda?
Ken Babbs: Let me tell you what happened: Everybody who was going to go to New York on the bus met at Kesey’s. Everything was all ready to go. We had 12 Pranksters set to make the trip. The big coup Kesey pulled off then, last minute, was getting Neal Cassady to drive the bus to New York. Cassady became the star of the movie, and still is. When we got back, we started editing the movie, Kesey and I. We worked on it during the week and we’d show everyone what we did on Saturday nights. Word got around the Bay Area that this was happening and more people started showing up. There got to be too many people, too big a mess, so we started renting halls to show the movies there. The first one we did these band guys came, guys who Kesey had met when he was still on Perry Lane. They lived at this place called The Chateau down the road from Perry Lane. They shot the shit with Kesey for a while and then left. Someone said, “Who were those guys anyway?” Kesey says, “I don’t know. Some hairy musicians.” Later on, we’d see them play in the coffee houses in Palo Alto and got to know them as The Warlocks. Anyway, they heard about our having these halls that we were renting, to show the movies, so they showed up and played. That became the Acid Test.
Farthur. 2022. Front End. Underside. Courtesy of George Walker.
Legsville: Where did the phrase “acid test” come from?
Ken Babbs: We just made that up. The real acid test is the way you test gold to see if it’s pure or not. You put acid on the rock. If it eats the rock away, that’s not gold. Gold is impervious to it. We thought that’s good. We’ll make that like our scene. It’ll be like that. We’ll call it the “Acid Test”. We never did know who did the acid at the Acid Tests, with the garbage cans. One was pure Kool-Aid. The other one was adult-only, electric Kool-Aid. We never knew and never cared. [Laughs]
Legsville: How did you guys organize the Acid Tests in terms of activities?
Ken Babbs: One of our bits was to play the film on the wall. Real early on, before we had anything we called the Acid Test, Roy Sebern was the first to do a light show. We were in his house and he was projecting stuff on the wall from the back of the room, colors, lights and all that. When he took a break, a white light would be shining on the wall. One time, a beetle got up on the thing and crawled down the wall. Then, here came another beetle, a bigger beetle, who came up and grabbed the first one. They got into a big fight, biting on each other. Finally, the big beetle prevailed, ate the little one up.
Eileen Babbs: [From another room] Those were John and Paul.
Farthur. 2022. Rear end. Yellow base coat and painted rims. Courtesy of George Walker.
Ken Babbs: That’s my wife. She loves it when I do these interviews. [Laughs] Another thing about it all was that the Merry Pranksters were actually a band. We had our instruments on the bus––trombone, saxophone, clarinet, guitar and drums. We’d play music all the time. At the Acid Tests, we’d always set up our stuff at one end of the room, and the other band, The Warlocks, would set up on their stuff on the other end. Sometimes they’d play and sometimes we’d play. And sometimes we’d all play together. Like people who were there say, it was totally “un-formed”. Whatever happened, happened. There was a great sense of freedom. By the time the band became the Grateful Dead, there was a sense of letting things go, with no order, of finding a groove and taking it where it wanted to go.
Legsville: Do you have recordings of the Pranksters’ music from then?
Ken Babbs: Not much, although we did record a lot of it because we recorded everything. You know, I’m looking for those tapes. Those tapes exist somewhere, those reel-to-reel tapes. I’m searching, trying to find them. I thought Mountain Girl’s daughter, Sunshine, had a box of some, but none of them were there. Zane has some boxes I haven’t looked into, so I’m going to look over there. A lot of stuff may have gone down to storage in LA with all the film and tapes that were made on the bus trip. I’m keeping an eye out for them. [Zane and Sunshine are two of Kesey’s children. The Merry Prankster film and audio recordings are housed in the UCLA Film and Television archive].
Poster for the Acid Test Graduation, October 31,1966. Designed by Gut Terk, former Hells Angel and Berdoo chapter president.
Legsville: Was there an ah-ha, a pay-off, the Pranksters were trying to pull off at the Acid Test?
Ken Babbs: When you came at the door, you had to pay a dollar to get in and we took a Polaroid picture of you. Then we pasted it to your Acid Test card, which you filled out. That was the really only formal thing about it.
Legsville: Then from there, it was pretty free form after that?
Ken Babbs: [Laughs] To say the least.
Legsville: How did people like Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady come into the scene?
Ken Babbs: Cassady came into La Honda because he lived right there. He was living close to Los Altos and working at a tire repair place near there. While we were working on the bus, one of our guys, Hassler [the Prankster nickname of Ron Brevirt] said he had seen Cassady down at Kepler’s Bookstore in Menlo Park. Kesey said, “Go get him. Tell him to come up here. I have a job offer for him.” Cassady came up and he agreed to drive the bus. From then on, he was part of our gang. While we were in New York, after the bus trip there, Kesey went out and hooked up with Ginsberg. They’d met years before. Kesey and Ginsberg went and got Jack Kerouac, and they all came over to the apartment where we were staying that evening. Ginsberg was still there the next day and he hung around with us for a while. He went to Timothy Leary’s place with us and he came back to New York with us. After that, we saw Ginsberg all the time, all around, forever.
KenBabbs and GeorgeWalker. Courtesy of George Walker.
Legsville: Ginsberg wrote a short poem about the Hells Angels coming to parties at La Honda. How did the Hells Angels come on the scene?
Ken Babbs: Kesey was up in San Francisco one time, in North Beach, at this place called The Place which had an open mic on Tuesdays. He heard this Hells Angel––Freewheelin’ Frank––reading a poem. Kesey got to talking with him and invited him to come over down in La Honda, and Freewheelin’ Frank came down with some other Angels. They got to talking with Kesey and set up this party where the Hells Angels would come down and spend the night, maybe a whole weekend there. That’s how the whole Hells Angels thing came about. We got to know Freewheelin’ Frank better after the Berkeley Vietnam War protest. There are two chapters in Cronies about that.
Legsville: In Hell’s Angel, Sonny Barger describes Ginsberg coming to his house with Kesey and Cassady after the Berkley anti-war demonstration, the one where the Hells Angels beat up some protestors. Barger says he couldn’t believe he was seeing a robed and bearded Jewish man chanting and meditating in his living room.
Ken Babbs: I’ll have to read that.
Legsville: It’s a little passage. Barger also talks about how much he admired Cassady and Kesey. You’ll find Barger uses words you can’t use any more. There was no political correctness then.
Ken Babbs: I beg to differ. We were politically correct. The Pranksters were recording everything and taking pictures of everything. We were used to it. We did not use certain words to describe people, or racist words, or knock any kind of religion or anything like that. You learn, at a certain point, how to treat everybody as an individual, no matter what they are or who they are, what color they are, what they believe in.
Cover of Ken Babbs’ Cronies
Legsville: In Spit in The Ocean #6, you edited together a series of stories about Cassady.
Ken Babbs: That’s the best one, I’ll tell you, “The Cassady Issue”. I saw a while back that people were paying $100, $150 for used copies. I said, “Screw that!” I’ve reprinted an exact duplicate of the 1981 copy from a pdf and Tsunami Book sells them. I think we’ve only got like 20 left. They’re selling for $18.
Legsville: That issue is not only about how extraordinary Cassady was. You get to see a lot of different sides of him in it, and you have Carolyn Cassady saying the Pranksters encouraged Neal’s excesses.
Ken Babbs: That was the point, and Carolyn was great. We got along really well. We were good friends, she and I.
Legsville: There’s a lot of operational, military-like, cadences in the Prankster footage I’ve seen. Was there anybody else who had done service time in the Pranksters?
Ken Babbs Reading from “Cronies”, January 2022, at the Eugene Public Library in Eugene, Oregon. Photo courtesy of Tsunami Press.
Ken Babbs: Yes, Hassler had been in the army for a couple of years. Everybody else had some way of avoiding it. I don’t know how. I know Kesey messed up his shoulder wrestling, so he was 4-F.
Legsville: You guys were all really clean cut as I look at pictures.
Ken Babbs: Yes. We came from middle-class families, all college people and all that. We were regular people. Still are.
Legsville: I’m going to talk to George later this week.
Ken Babbs: Oh, George will be good. He has a good memory. He can remember everything.
Legsville: The drugs have kept George younger than he is supposed to be and sharper than he is supposed to be.
Ken Babbs: [Laughs] Could be. He’s up doing stuff all the time, man.
Legsville: George, how did the scene at Perry Lane start for you guys?
George Walker: Perry Lane was always kind of a Bohemian enclave, going way back. It was built as military housing or something, over in East Palo Alto, these funky little wooden cottages, like what they call “tiny homes” today, little one-bedroom bungalows. A bunch of those were moved to Perry Lane right after World War I, and there are plenty of famous people, who predate any of us, who lived on Perry Lane. In the late teens, early ‘20s, Thorstein Veblen, who was a leftist, renegade economist, lived there. [As did physicist and Nobel laureate Felix Bloch, screenwriter and Hunter S. Thompson pal Dennis Murphy and diver Jon Lindbergh, son of aviator Charles Lindbergh.] I don’t really know quite how Kesey ended up living on Perry Lane, but I know a bunch of people who lived there became his friends: Vic Lovell, Jane Burton, Chloe Scott, Jim Wolpman. There were lot of people from Stanford, who kept coming back around because that was the scene, like Ed McClanahan and Ron Bondoc. There were other people who just went to Perry Lane to hang around, but who didn’t live there. There was quite a collection of those people. Phil Lesh used to wander around the lane blowing a jazz trumpet, and right down the street from there, Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia lived in a place called The Chateau, which is a big flophouse place that hippies lived in 1960 or so.
Ken Babbs and his Prankster Jacket, January 2022, at the Eugene Public Library in Eugene, Oregon. Photo courtesy of Tsunami Press.
Legsville: When did Ginsberg and Cassady start coming around?
George Walker: I don’t know how we got connected to Ginsberg. He moved back to the Bay Area in the early ‘60s. He was around quite a bit after that. Cassady came to Perry Lane in ‘62, looking for Ron Bondoc, who was living with his wife Gigi in Kesey’s house at 9 Perry Lane, while Kesey was up in Oregon writing Sometimes a Great Notion. The thing about Bondoc is he always had some weed. Cassady had gotten to know him and kept coming around looking to get some weed. One time, Cassady came around, Bondoc had moved out and Kesey had moved back in. That’s when Kesey and Cassady first met.
Legsville: What spelled the end of the whole of Perry Lane?
George Walker: Bulldozers. The land was sold to developers so they could put tract homes on it. Everybody moved out. That’s when Kesey moved out to La Honda. We had a big party at the end of it before they bulldozed it. I remember there was a piano in one of the houses that was kind of a junk piano. We rolled it right out in the middle of the street and beat it to pieces with sledgehammers and whatever we could find.
Legsville: Who was on the scene at La Honda?
George Walker: Kesey’s family, of course, because they lived there [Faye, his wife, and children, Shannon, Zane and Jed] Quite a number of people ended up hanging out there, myself included. The whole crew who became the Merry Pranksters hung out there––Babbs, after he got out of the military, and Mike Hagen, Page Browning, Peter Demma. Mountain Girl showed up; Stewart Brand was there a lot, too, and Dick Alpert [later to become known as Ram Dass], all the Hells Angels. That’s where I met Gut Terk, at one of those Hells Angel parties.
Legsville: What was the draw at La Honda?
George Walker: Kesey was such an interesting guy and he had all the drugs. We’d all go there, take psychedelics and trip out in the woods. Kesey had 40 acres of redwood forest and he was like a great director. He was the most fun guy to take drugs with because most people get high and just sit around and hallucinate. Kesey said, “Okay, everybody, let’s go take a big walk in the woods.” He’d have us looking at stuff, painting stuff, doing things. He was like a scoutmaster. More and more people started hanging out there because he was the most fun guy to do all that stuff with.
Legsville: How did the Acid Test start?
George Walker: From doing all that stuff at La Honda. Then we got busted. Then Kesey got busted again. By then, he realized that he couldn’t keep doing this stuff at his house, that we were going to get in too much trouble. He said, “We got to get this stuff out of the house. Let’s start doing these things elsewhere.” The Acid Tests were the same thing. The real model for it, I think, came from a guy named Gerd Stern, who was really a generation before us. He’s still around and lives in New York [at age 93]. Gerd was doing multimedia performance art stuff that was kind of a model for the Acid Test. He taught Kesey how to do all this. Gerd is way underappreciated. A lot of people called him “Gurd” and I remember him saying, “It’s Gerd as in ‘scared’, not Gurd as in turd.” That’s how he told us how to pronounce his name, and I never forgot that. I never called him “Gurd” again. Gerd and I had a public reunion, onstage, at the Bitter End in New York a few years ago, when Brian Hassett and I did our Kerouac Cassady Show there. Gerd showed up, and I hadn’t seen him in probably 30 years. He came on first and did an introductory talk, about how he had been falsely blamed for losing the Joan Anderson letter, which, of course, wasn’t lost at all, just hidden away for decades. That’s the letter Cassady sent to Kerouac that was the inspiration for writing On the Road, and everything afterwards. Up until he read that letter, Jack was still trying to figure out, “How do I want to write stuff?” He’d written a novel which was just a novel, like novels are, and then he got that letter from Cassady and he thought, “Oh, my God, this is the way I want to write,” and so he sat down and wrote On the Road. When the letter showed up again, Gerd was exonerated.
George Walker 2021. Courtesy of George Walker
Legsville: Did you ever meet Jack Kerouac, other than during the ’64 bus trip?
George Walker: I met him that one time, in New York, at our party. That’s the only time I ever saw him.
Legsville: In Robert Stone’s account of that, the whole scene comes across as sad.
George Walker: It was sad, yes. Robert Stone was another one of the people that hung around Perry Lane. He was at Stanford the same time that Kesey was, the same time Larry McMurtry was. There were quite a number of students in that class who became very accomplished writers and they were all hanging out together in ’58 and ’59. I didn’t get there until ‘62 and so a lot had already transpired by the time I got there. And when I got there, Kesey was already back in Oregon, writing Sometimes a Great Notion. They used to have these “meetings”, like Thursday night get-togethers, these kind of “reading parties”, where various people in the class would read from the current work they were doing. I wish I’d been there for that: Stone, McMurtry, Kesey, Babbs, and Ed McClanahan, Gurney Norman and Wendell Berry. Ed, Gurney and Wendell. We called them, “The Kentucky Trio”. They all came from Kentucky and they all went back to Kentucky. Gurney and Wendell are still there. Ed was, until he died last week. Ed was one of the people I kind of tried to model my writing on, after the way he constructed sentences, he and Robert Stone.
Legsville: Babbs said you’re the one who showed up with a 16-millimeter Bolex camera. He said, “We got up off the floor and started acting out parts. We decided, ‘Oh, we’re going to be movie makers now. We’re not going to be writers anymore’.” Do you remember that?
George Walker: Oh, yes. And right after I got one, Hagen got one. We both had Bolexs. Then we realized, “If we’re going to do this, we need a professional camera.” We rented an Arriflex and then Kesey bought one later.
Legsville: Is that what you used on the cross-country bus trip?
George Walker: We had three 16-millimeter cameras for most of that time. We had the two Bolexs and the Arriflex. The Arriflex is a real professional quality camera. You could shoot 16-millimeter film with it and it was such good quality that you could blow it up into 35-millimeter and use it in theater as theater film. Our techniques were so lacking in skills that nothing we ever did was of any quality.
Legsville: You mentioned Gerd Stern. What kind of stuff was Gerd doing?
George Walker: Much like we did with the Acid Test, he rented a hall, had musicians, artists, light shows, multimedia extravaganza––a simulated Acid Test, essentially.
Legsville: Babbs said there wasn’t anything scripted.
George Walker: We shunned organization like the plague. [Laughs] We didn’t organize anything. We’d just show up and do whatever we did, give everybody a hit of acid, do whatever happened. That was it. We had people playing music, and people would dance.
Footage from Acid Test Graduation, with Cassady handing out diplomas:
Legsville: Where did the acid come from?
George Walker: It came from me. I brought it. I bought it from Dick Albert. I can say that now because he’s dead and I can’t incriminate him. He was still connected to a European source, which we always thought was Sandoz. I found out a little later that it was actually a factory in Czechoslovakia that was set up and taught how to operate by Sandoz. Apparently, the Soviets were doing vastly more psychedelic research than America was. Many, many times more. The Soviets went to Sandoz, saying essentially, “We’d like to buy a ton of LSD”, or something like that. Sandoz said, “That’s not just the only thing we do. We’re not really geared up to do that on that scale, and we’re not even interested in gearing up to doing it in that scale. That’s a minor part of our business, but here’s what we’ll do. We’ll teach you how. We’ll show you how to build a factory, and we’ll teach you how to run it.” Somebody at Sandoz was hired by somebody in the Soviet Union and, at that point, they built a factory in Western Czechoslovakia. It was, and probably still, is the biggest LSD manufacturing facility the world has ever seen. The quality was absolutely tops. Absolutely. The equal to the Sandoz stuff which was the best, in the opinion of everybody who ever took it. That was superior to all the stuff that came later, all the street stuff, the Owsley stuff, the Tim Scully stuff, and the Brotherhood of Eternal Love stuff. None of that compared to the Czechoslovakian LSD. I never saw a bum trip on the stuff that we got that was pharmaceutical. I started seeing bum trips all the time when we started taking the street acid. I saw really terrible things go down. People just got tortured by it, and went on total bummers. I saw people almost die as a result of the bad things that they did from that acid, that street stuff that came later.
Legsville: Whatever happened to the Soviet LSD users?
George Walker: They don’t tell us, so we don’t know.
Legsville: Could there be a tribe somewhere in Russia that they don’t know what to do with?
George Walker: I wouldn’t be surprised. With this new bus, I want to tour not just America, I also want to tour Europe and more of the world with it. One of the places I want to go is a pilgrimage to that factory, if it’s still there, in what’s now the Czech Republic. That would be an interesting thing to do.
BBC film, “Tripping”, featuring Ken Kesey:
Legsville: How did Kesey’s connection to the Hells Angels come about?
George Walker: That came through Hunter Thompson. We knew Hunter before he even published anything. He lived not far from Perry Lane, in a place called Homer Lane. I don’t know exactly how it came about, but after Hunter had written his Hells Angels book, Kesey was curious, “Who are these guys?”, so Hunter took him over to meet some of the Angels in San Francisco. He met Pete, who was the president of the Frisco Chapter, and they got to talking. I guess they hit it off. Kesey said to him, “Hey, how’d you guys like to come out to our place and have a little party.” They took him up on it.
Legsville: Babbs mentioned a Hells Angels poet named Frank.
George Walker: Freewheelin’ Frank. He didn’t look quite like a Hells Angel. He was a skinny little guy, and a speed freak. He was fast-talking and fast-moving, and when he was talking, he didn’t take any breaks. That’s probably why they called him “Freewheelin’”. He was one of the guys I noticed when the Angels showed up. At some point, because we had more than one party with the Hells Angels, guys from other chapters showed up, including some of the guys from Oakland. I think Kesey was largely responsible for ending the inter-chapter war among the Angels, especially the war between Frisco and Oakland. They were very much on bad terms with each other, but in taking acid together and just partying, they realized that, “Hey, we don’t have to be this uptight about stuff.”
Legsville: Were you at the pow-wow after the Berkeley Vietnam War protest, the meeting at Sonny’s house in Oakland?
George Walker: I wasn’t in Sonny’s house. Sonny had a fairly small house and there wasn’t room for all of us. I think it was Kesey, Cassady and Ginsburg who went in, and a few Angels. That was the pow-wow. Since I wasn’t in there, I can only report by hearsay and the story I heard was that they were all giving their view on things, while Ginsburg sat on the floor playing his little Tibetan finger cymbals, and chanting “Om”, while they all had this discussion. They accepted Ginsberg because he was Cassady’s guy and I don’t think they would’ve accepted Ginsberg had it not been for Cassady being there. I remember years later, when Sonny wrote his book, he thought we made a mistake making Babbs our leader when Kesey went to Mexico. He thought that Cassady should have been our leader. Sonny really respected Cassady.
We’d heard about the physical confrontation in Berkeley between the war protestors and the Hells Angels, and we knew there was going to be another demonstration in Oakland a few days later. We prepared for it. We repainted the whole bus, painted it blood red and painted what looked Viking ship shield symbols along the side of it. Then, we went to the military surplus store and bought camo clothes, and we went to toy stores and bought a bunch of toy guns. We came rolling into Oakland, into this scene that it was already happening, chanting, “Bomb Vietnam. Bomb Vietnam. Bomb Vietnam.” Nobody could fucking believe it. We were supposed to be the peace guys. Nobody could understand what we were doing and what it was about. Kesey was one of the featured speakers. There was a huge crowd and when Kesey got his turn on stage, he looked around and didn’t say anything at first. Then, he pulled a harmonica out of his pocket and played Home on the Range. It was unexpected and it defused the tension. When he started speaking, Kesey said, “Look around you people. See all these guys in suits, if you look closely, you’ll see they have these colored pins in their lapel. You can tell from the color of the pin…” I don’t remember how he laid it down, but he said something like, “The blue ones are CIA and the reds ones are FBI, and the green ones are Department of Defense. Look around, those guys are taking their pins out of their lapels.” From there, Kesey started talking about how our being up against each other was wrong, and that we had to diffuse this thing. We ended up going over to East Oakland on the bus, to this tavern where the Angels hung out. We went there, shot pool with them all afternoon and partied with them on their turf. When things started to get serious, we said, “Let’s go really discuss this stuff.” That’s when we drove the bus over to Sonny’s house. A lot of us just stayed out in the bus, smoking dope and playing music. Whatever went on inside didn’t go all night, just into the evening, and then, as I remember, Kesey, Cassady and Ginsberg got back on the bus and we went back to La Honda.
Legsville: Babbs said Ginsberg played those cymbals all night long and wore out the Angels.
George Walker: Babbs is a great storyteller, but he is not always a great source of accurate information. He’s called his new book “a burlesque”. The couple little bits I read are just wonderful. It’s going to be a great book, but it’s not always going to be factually accurate. Babbs asks me a lot of stuff when he wants the actual facts because I do remember what happened, in great detail.
Legsville: Babbs said that, that you remember all the facts, all the names.
George Walker: Kesey said, “We don’t need facts. We need stories.”, but if I ever get around in telling all my stories, I’m going to tell them as factually as I can.
Legsville: What was the end of La Honda? The point when things became all too crazy and you all went back to Oregon?
George Walker: Circumstances just changed. Kesey getting busted, then getting busted again and then getting exiled…they told him that part of the terms of his plea bargain was to self-exile. He had to move out of his house. He had to leave the county. He had to move away. They wouldn’t make the deal with him unless he moved away. That was why we went to Oregon. We had been doing the Acid Tests and went to Mexico when Kesey got busted. He went into hiding in Mexico rather openly. We followed him down there and hung out for six months. During that time, I came back to California to get Cassady because we didn’t take him with us when we left. On that trip back, I bought a truck and brought down a whole load of musical instruments, amplifiers, good quality stuff. We had our own band at the Acid Tests––The Merry Pranksters Band––and we were terrible. I claim we were the worst band in the history of the world. We were playing rinky-dink instruments, really cheap quality, bad stuff. We practiced with the good stuff in Mexico and when we came back, we even did a few gigs but we still weren’t very good. We were not musicians. We were never going to spend our time learning to be musicians. Meanwhile, the whole scene was changing. We realized that other people had picked up on what we were doing, and by the time we got back from Mexico, live music with light shows and dancing and stuff, that was everywhere. And the people putting those events on were all better at it than we were. We stopped doing it and just moved on to other stuff. We slid out the back door before we got left behind. I went and bought a scooter and did something else.
CIA LSD Experiments Rare MK-ULTRA Footage LSD 25 1955:
First Party at Ken Kesey’s With Hells Angels
Cool black night thru redwoods
cars parked outside in shade
behind the gate, stars dim above
the ravine, a fire burning by the side
porch and a few tired souls hunched over
in black leather jackets. In the huge
wooden house, a yellow chandelier
at 3 A.M. the blast of loudspeakers
hi-fi Rolling Stones Ray Charles Beatles
Jumping Joe Jackson and twenty youths
dancing to the vibration thru the floor,
a little weed in the bathroom, girls in scarlet
tights, one muscular smooth skinned man
sweating dancing for hours, beer cans
bent littering the yard, a hanged man
sculpture dangling from a high creek branch,
children sleeping softly in their bedroom bunks.
And 4 police cars parked outside the painted
gate, red lights revolving in the leaves.