Stephen Bornstein on  Neal Cassady and Ken Kesey – 1

Ken Kesey and Neal Cassady on the Merry Pranksters’ bus, Further, October 1965

We recently featured an episode of Stephen Bornstein’s memoirs, a memorable encounter in New York City with Herbert Huncke

We feature a further episode today, 1965 West Coast magic with Neal Cassady and Ken Kesey

Stephen begins:

“September 1965 – I had only recently arrived in San Francisco on the second day of two attempts to hitchhike across the country. I was still seventeen, so I convince an older friend, Howard Allouf to accompany me. It took seven days. A very long time!  We separated shortly upon arrival.

Shortly I managed to find Allen. He was very happy to see me. Almost immediately he introduced me to Neal Cassady. I was already pretty familiar with his character from On The Road. At first it was strange meeting such an iconic literary character in person, but I was seventeen years old and everything seemed possible then. Neal and I became immediate friends because of our appreciation of classic World War II, GI-issued, benzedrine. Neal was absolutely kinetic to begin with and with amphetamine he became downright frenetic. I myself was always a bit that way. We got on great.

Astonishingly Neal seemed to have an endless supply of highly potent LSD. He did mention it came from the source. He always had a few totally empty clear magenta capsules in his front pocket, which he would freely offer. I remember thinking how strange it was, carrying around, so cavalier, so much loose LSD.  He could, I saw this many times, hold full conversations with three people at the same time. Neal had an old shift car (which he could actually drive without using the clutch) with a front bench seat. With his girlfriend, Anne Murphy connected at his hip, there was always a place available in the passenger seat. Not many people wanted to drive with him. I remember one moonlit night on Pacific Coast Highway in Big Sur, driving down the center of the highway with our lights off. The white line shining in the moonlight disappearing beneath the center of the car. Neal could see oncoming cars three blind curves ahead by their glow. That gave him more than enough time to turn on his lights and move back to his lane. He really loved doing it

Neal Cassady in car with Anne Murphy, October 1963 – photo by Charles Plymell

Neal Cassady and Anne Murphy, October 1963 – photo by Charles Plymell

Neal Cassady “having a conversation with three people at the same time”,  circa 1964-5

Being introduced by him to the Merry Pranksters and Ken Kesey at his La Honda compound almost seemed like a fairytale encounter. There was nothing like that in New York City Beat subculture. Back there we were living in century-old abandoned tenements. Here, Kesey, who had become a highly-read author of two bestsellers (not yet Hollywood movies) had acquired the whole side of a mountain. there was a rickety wooden bridge over the creek connecting it to the winding canyon road. His house was literally nestled between the giant redwoods. Kesey lived in a large real log cabin with his two wives and three kids.

A rickety wooden bridge is the first thing you see when arriving at Kesey’s La Honda compound. The bridge, immortalized in one of Allen’s poems (“First Party At Ken Kesey’s With Hell’s Angels)  had a very ominous “hanging man” sculpture just above it – “a hanged man/sculpture dangling from a high-creek branch”,  one of sculptor Ron Boise‘s extraordinary pieces

Ken Kesey’s “real log cabin, a little larger than a cabin, the La Honda compound

Meanwhile at least thirty-five to forty other people lived outside and up the mountain side all the way to the very top. A guy called “The Hermit”, a really troublesome lunatic, lived at the very top. He carried a loaded pistol and even threatened me with it before they took it away.
I don’t think anybody there really showered.

“The Hermit” “a troublesome lunatic”

The Grateful Dead  also called The Warlocks imhabited a small flat space halfway up the hill. They lived in a bunch of lean-tos and makeshift tents. They looked nice enough guys, but I don’t think you really would want to ride in a car too long with them.

The Warlocks, soon to be The Grateful Dead, lived half way up the mountain at Ken Kesey’s La Honda Compound, October 1965

I lived with Allen in San Francisco but I stayed often overnight at Kesey’s in a tree house at least thirty feet up a giant redwood right in the front yard, near the main house. Its full-time resident was an artist named Paul Foster. He had recently come back from India and was also a master of Tibetan painting styles. There was abundant psychedelics, DMT, I had to take special care not to fall out of the tree house.

Everyone would usually gather at the main house at least once a day. The whole thing seemed informal, however there was a very structured hierarchy with Kesey at the top and a young fellow named Babbs as his Lieutenant.

Ken Babbs – Ken Kesey’s Trusted Lieutenant at his place, October 1965

Babbs actually had a place a few miles away, where the first Acid Test, a closed, private get-together took place.

Ken Kesey and Neal Cassady at the First Acid Test, October 1965

When I first came upon the scene, they were all working on editing footage they had shot on their Mischievous Bus Trip across the country during the 1964 Goldwater-Johnson Presidential Campaign. The bus was painted in red, white and blue, and they all wore what looked like identical collegiate cheerleader outfits and had a sign festooned on the bus – “A vote for Barry is a vote for fun” (Barry, being Barry Goldwater). Anybody who had seen that famous campaign commercial that begins with a young girl plucking a daisy and ends in a nuclear mushroom cloud, knows the nature of that campaign. There was certainly nothing funny about it

Kesey had a strange technique for energizing everybody, and getting them on the same page. It sounded a little bit like a Coney Island barker to me, so I guess I was a bit immature.    What he would do is, using rhetorical questions, get everybody to arrive at the same conclusion. Like, “How can we really piss off The Man?”, or “How can we hasten this culture shift?” – As if things we could do as a group could change society as a whole.

In New York, all we did was talk about it. However, little could any of us imagine what lay ahead and the affect that a few LSD-infused rock concerts could ultimately have on society. These modestly attended events went on to become the half-million-kid Woodstock festival, The individual drugs and music would change over the years, however, the combination became a common global phenomenon well into the twenty-first century.


In 1965, the whole Acid Test idea developed organically. Kesey started asking questions. “How can we take advantage of this six-week government screw-up in the laws concerning possession of LSD?” or “How can we take advantage of this almost endless supply of exceptionally pure LSD?”, or “How can we, using our available resources, create a whole new psychedelic experience?”

The Acid Test rock concert idea came naturally. The idea of dosing thousands of untested  people with LSD seemed a little more  problematic. What could possibly go wrong? Let’s just say, that, during the bus trip across the country they left a few flipped-out Pranksters along the way….

to be continued

One comment

  1. One of the guys in the Grateful Drad pic looks like Mylon Melvin who DJ,d on KSAN and later married Mimi Baez, Joan’s sister.

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