The Prankster Woodstock
“I’ve got to get back to the land and set my soul free … “
Two of the coolest events of the ’60s just came together in the 21st century — and I lived it from start to finish.
The Merry Pranksters’ Bus, which pulled out of Ken Kesey’s house in La Honda on my June 14th birthday in 1964, came to Max Yasgur’s farm where Woodstock was born in 1969. Since then each of these events — painted buses traveling around full of fun-loving friends, and gatherings in fields for weekend concert communes — have become part of world-wide culture.
But this is where it all began — with a Bang!
And this time it all began with an unplanned dash — when the Kesey krewe got cancelled last minute out of some other festival and suddenly was heading for … Woodstock! … of course! … where it was supposed to be goin’ in the first damn place!
Mmmm … home again … Gotta be there — on Max’s farm, where Woodstock as we know it began … and where the Oregon creamery boys first joined up with the New York dairy farmer.
If you don’t know the backstory on Max, he was a respected, if iconoclastic, ‘elder statesman’ farmer and thousand-acre landowner in this area of Sullivan County, NY, even though he was only 49 years old at the time of the festival. (And what a 50th he must have had that December!) Max was known to speak his mind and go his own way in a conservative old-world rural culture that was very much go-along-get-along.
The festival organizers were kicked off of their months-of-development site just 30 days before the festival was to begin. Max had been reading in the local papers about the trouble “these kids” were having, and told them when they first met, “I want to help you boys. You got the raw end of the deal.” He had a very evolved philosophy of equality and justice — a living 20th century Thoreau, he was a pro-active ethicist for whom a handshake was a binding contract — and injustice did not sit well with him. Plus, he was also a pretty sharp businessman.
Picture Woody Allen meets Jack Benny – as Max is noodling around his farm all weekend licking the end of his pencil and jotting down every bucket of milk a cow didn’t deliver to make sure he was covered for it. But beyond his pencilings, because it was Max, and the respectful relationship they evolved, the promoters spent months and tens of thousands of extra dollars restoring his land to what it was when they arrived.
One story, to give you the idea, and something only his wife Miriam could relate: When word spread that Max was talking to these ‘hippies’ about having this banned festival on his farm, somebody put up a sign along the Route 17B road in front of his house — “Stop Max’s hippy music festival — Buy no milk.” When Max & Miriam saw it for the first time, as she recalled — “I thought, ‘You don’t know Max. Now it’s going to happen.’ That did it. He just turned to me and said, ‘Is it alright with you?’ … I knew he was not going to get past this sign, so I said, ‘I guess we’re gonna have a festival.’ And he said, ‘Yup, we’re gonna have a festival.’ And that was it.”
Max would have been a great political leader or writer or millionaire businessman if just a couple cells had been different. But ol’ Jack Fate cast this activist philosopher as a farmer — who happened to have a perfect natural amphitheater in the same neck of the world as that little artists’ colony that Dylan happened to stumble into a few summers earlier.
And thus, in one of the festival’s innumerable karmic twists, the organizers were thrown out of the town of Wallkill and onto Max Yasgur’s farm along Happy Avenue in Bethel(hem). There was a whole lotta Shinin’ goin’ on with this man and this moment. .
And up to his homestead we did roll — bought in 1985 by Roy Howard and now run by his widow, Jeryl Abramson, in The Spirit, letting Woodstockians the whirled over gather on Max’s land every anniversary since 1998. And this was only the second year it’s been legal!
Jeryl Abramson taking The Oath at The Bus.
As soon as you come up the small rise onto the land — there’s Max’s house — where the deal for the festival was consummated — and where it’s honored with an official historical marker befitting an official historic figure.
And there’s … The Bus! The Magic Bus. The Kesey Bus. Furthur. The psychedelic painted school bus that spawned it all.
It wasn’t the same Beat-up 1939 International Harvester that Neal Cassady drove across the country in 1964 or came to Woodstock in ’69, but as Father Ken maintained: It was the same spirit — much like Max’s homestead wasn’t the actual field for the concert in 1969 — but was the same spirit being created by its current inhabitants.
The Bus at Woodstock ’69
In the Crazy Karma 2014 Dept.: So, we hang out Thursday night in the anticipation glow, then I retired to the nearby cheap motor hotel I found for the night — flipped on the CNN — and there’s Kesey’s bus!! . . . wait–what?!?! And there’s Kesey & Babbs talkin’ about La Honda and the birth of it all! And they’re ravin’ on about Kerouac!!! Rub my eyes and ding my bell! It’s their series “The Sixties,” and the “Sex, Drugs, & Rock n Roll” episode! Jack didn’t make Woodstock or ride on The Bus — but here he was being described on CNN as The Father of us all ! — the On The Road back-to-the-land mountain climbing searcher who put into poetic prose the rose we were all smelling so sweetly.
And The Chief saw to it that they were reunited in the driver’s cockpit of the new starship to deep space.
On Friday morning, there was Zane bright and early manning the merch tent, selling everything from painted toy buses and fridge magnets (I got one of each), to prankster t-shirts and DVDs of “the world’s mightiest home movie” as the original Pranksters dubbed their footage from the first trip (I scored a shmancy original Acid Test poster t-shirt – already had the movies).
Floating around The Bus were the film crew — appropriately from British Columbia — and all sorts of Next Generation Pranksters like Chris Foster who appeared as The Wizard, Carmen Miranda, and a psychedelic cowboy over each of the three days, and actually lives in Bloomington, Indiana, where I’d just recently summited with Neal’s son John Cassady, director Walter Salles, and On The Road scroll preserver Jim Canary for the “On The Road” movie premiere.
And then there was Milton, the George Walker of this incarnation, responsibly covering the practical bases; and Thumpah who came from the High Times Cannabis Cup tribe and had actually filmed my induction of Jack and Neal into the Counter-Culture Hall of Fame in Amsterdam in 1999. And in the role of Babbs on this tour of duty is Lieutenant Derek Stevens making sure the operation ran with military precision. Or at least Prankster precision.
But this was no dosed-kool-aid acid party. It was a business, and they’re rightfully concerned The Bus is a blazing target in this crazy militarized America — so they have to play it clean.
The real action and spirit evocation was out in the woods where decades of the owners hosting events had resulted in dirt roads and footpaths and campsites and drum circle centers and full-on stages for non-stop performances all day and night. There were deliciously elaborate kitchens making the best pizza I’ve had since New York, and a breakfast guy making vegi-rich omelets that put the best restaurants to shame — in price and quality. Then there was the giant tent general store selling everything — camping supplies, toiletries, first-aid stuff, cigs, batteries and whatever a prankster or camper of eternity might need.
Then there were the art installations, like Christopher VanderEssen’s, who created a florescent blacklight dreamcatcher weaving through the woods —
and custom painted clothes like on the back of the new Kesey Acid Test poster t-shirt — with Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, The Grateful Dead and The Merry Pranksters listed as the entertainment!
Or Eddy Miller the bubble man using giant nets to create clouds of bubbles sparkling across the fields as little kids screamed in joy chasing them …
and eyeful Canadians captured them …
It’s where you’d meet people named Dragon Fly or Band-Aide or Thumper or Normal or Sky or Lake, and every single person is saying “High” to every single other person in this church of camaraderie. . . . “Everywhere was a song and a celebration …”
Meanwhile, back at The Bus, I ended up talking to this colorful couple, Rick and Sherry. He went to the first Woodstock, arriving Thursday morning, parking his car on site, settin up their tent in the woods, then wandering over to the field where they found a spot 30 feet from the stage and never moved (or went back to their tent and car) until Monday! He was wearing this cap of rainbow dreads, and she was under a colorful jester’s hat with dangling bells, and to be quite confessional, I was feeling a little under-dressed.
And they were like most of the people I met here — super smart. This wasn’t a bunch of brain-dead loogans, but rather highly evolved explorers and sophisticated pranksters. People who knew how to Adventure, and survive on a farm for a long weekend, and how to make fun happen. In fact, it was over an in-depth discussion of Obamacare (not positive) that Rick & Sherry & I really bonded, and were joined by The Wizard, Chris Foster, talking through his costume, and the four of us thereafter became a fairly inseparable quartet — and by Sunday realized we would be for life.
The Spirit of Woodstock was alive — and being created by the people — not rock stars or anyone else dictating from on high. It was an organic connection among souls who’d been driven to drive some distance to spend a formless whacky weekend in the woods. Not only was no one aggressively drunk, but I never heard a harsh word spoken over four days. When I first heard someone impatient and frustrated a few days later, it sounded so foreign and out of place and unnecessary and unhappy.
And that’s what these things do — the fabric of your soul becomes dipped in a rainbow dye and permanently transformed by the swirling colors of love and happiness and peacefulness and camaraderie all collectively blending together — all based on happenstance … with a purpose. Who knows what’s going to happen or who you’re going to meet? But tossing yourself into this tribal gathering of like-minded Adventurers, you’ll go lots of somewheres cool. Like the endless jam sessions going on all over the fields — with the Grateful Dead dominating the airwaves — and sumpthin I never saw before — a tent with two drum kits!!
Then there was the woman running the booth for the non-profit Eden’s Rose Foundation that sells handmade alpaca clothes and hardwood carvings (including of the Ice Cream Kid and Cats Under The Stars and all sorts of Grateful Dead images) made by native tribes in the jungles of Peru and Brazil and Bolivia, and the money goes directly back to the local tribes to keep their ancient cultures self-sustaining.
And hanging here at this soulful booth I learned about “spunions” — the new term for people who are well spun and happily blazing in the middle of the night. And in this scene — where no one is drunk and stumbling around and starting fights, but so many are so high — it really puts a lie to our drug & alcohol laws. High people wander through the woods like a pack of wild comedians cracking each other up, their laughter heard long before you see them, or like gentle little children in a fairy tale amazed at everything they see. Hanging at the booth and seeing all the traffic flow in and out, it would have been completely different if they were as drunk as they were high.
And in a perfect parallel corollary, the Woodstock Museum Director confirmed what friends and facility staff had already mentioned — that it was the drunks, particularly at the “country” shows that were the only times they had problems.
Anyway . . . There was this HUGE arc of people — an anthropologists delight! — from 4 & 5 year old kids running around playing, to 70 & 80 year olds shuffling along who’d been at the first Woodstock — and both ends of the spectrum beaming beatific faces of joy. Whatever your age, there was a gorgeous farmful of friendly people to play with.
And a funny-nice thing from Sunday afternoon — all weekend we’d been hearing excellent bands play their own stuff along with The Dead, The Band, Santana, CSNY, etc. … as you do at any of these Woodstock reunions or music festivals in the woods. But all of a sudden I’m hearing some girl singing “Brand New Key” by Melanie!
“No way! This is so great!” Melanie and I had a memorable flirty evening on the night of the Folk City Anniversary Concert and afterparty in New York in 1980-something, and I always thought she was the real deal — very spiritual and spirited. So, I’m boppin’ away to this, and what does the girl singer on stage do next? but the hit song Melanie wrote about her historic unplanned performance at Woodstock, “Candles In The Rain.“
And dancing in front of the stage is Rachel, who’d been Stage Manager on the main double-stage all weekend. You don’t meet many women stage managers period, let alone running the main stage of a major festival — with acts one after another using two stages side-by-side so each band has the other’s performance time to set up. And they had a different act every 15, 30, 45 minutes from 9:30AM till 3AM. Finally by Sunday afternoon here she was dancing with me and everybody else to “Candles In The Rain.” And after it’s over we have a big hug, and I say, “How great is it to hear Melanie played at Woodstock?!”
And she goes, “And by her daughter no less!”
And sure enough … a little later I’m hangin’ at the Blue Bomber which was centrally located between The Bus and The Woods, and I look over next to me and there she is! Jeordie, Melanie’s daughter, with her guitar player! And the poor bastards are trying to open some nice indi beers without an opener. See … that’s the difference between our two countries — even cool Americans don’t know how to pop a cold one with a lighter. And these micro-breweries have quite the pop with their lively brews — and I could send those puppies half-way across the field, impressing the hell out of ol’ Melanie Jr. And suddenly we’re huggin’ n flirtin’ and I’m thinkin’ this whole Woodstock thing is alright.
Back at The Bus, there were any number of adventures. At one point they said they wanted to go “out front” to take some pictures with The Bus on The Farm. ‘Course I wanted to be in on that, but Prankster plans are like dreams — they might be real or they might go poof — they might be right now, or in ten days, or just a goof.
At some point I’m hanging in the woods at the dual main stages when a telepathic spark went off in me bean — “Wait a minute — maybe they’re takin’ the picture!” And as I walked out into the clearing — sure enough — The Bus was missing! I scooched as fast as my skinny legs could scooch me back to The Mighty Blue Bomber, jumped in to go find The Bus, and Boom! right around the corner there they were parked under Yasgur’s big barn sign! Bolted over with my camera … just as they were coming down off the roof! . . . Bummer!!
But there was no way I was going to miss this if I could do anything about it, so I ran over and spotted this girl Angie Lee I’d been talking to in the scene, handed her my camera with instructions to shoot away like crazy, then ran to the back of the bus before everyone got off, and climbed on up and said I had to get my pic with the Woodstock and Yasgur’s signs — which was a bit forward of me telling these stray cat Pranksters what to do — but sure enough they went for it — and it led to a whole new round of shots — with other photographers falling into the scene who’d missed the spontaneous moment earlier now catching it, and suddenly there was a whole second photoshoot going down cuz I’d insisted on it!
As my new best friend Sherry wisely says, “What’s meant to be will not pass you by.”
See … these are the truths you re-learn at Woodstock.
Or then there was the time The Bus was thinking of maybe going to the original Woodstock site and museum just a mile down Route 17B at the new Bethel Woods Arts Center. ‘Course this plan muddled around all day until I decided I wanted to go over there for reasons also including porcelain facilities and free wifi. So I did, parking with a nice view of the road, and sure enough before long this bright blue bus came barreling along out of the dark tree tunnel with a loaded rooftop including Thumpah tootling the multitudes with his flute and everyone whooping and waving and pranking the unsuspecting touri wandering the fancy grounds.
Furthur at the Woodstock corner — Hurd and West Shore Roads.
And just as this was happening, in the magic Crazy Karma synch that is Pranksterhood, Museum Director Wade was just leaving for the day and spotted them and screeched over in his car, and offered to let The Bus drive up the walkway to the front doors of the museum! So, suddenly there was the larger-than-life psychedelic Magic Bus parked at the doors to Woodstock, just like the first Bus had been. And of course Mr. Museum Director comps us all in (normally $15 per) and before you know it the unsuspecting museum goers are overrun with Camp Prankster colors and voices and giggles and music.
I hadn’t yet shown Zane the fancy Bethel Woods pamphlet that had an aerial shot of the ’69 crowd on the front cover — and a Prankster bus on the back!
And just as I’m showing him this, we turn a corner in the museum — and there it is! A bus based on his Dad’s is the promotional and literal centerpiece of The Woodstock Museum! And we climb aboard and … they’ve made a movie about The Bus and the Hog Farm that’s playing on the inside windshield of the bus! And they’re interviewing Max’s son Sam … and I’m … sitting with Ken’s son Zane … in a psychedelic school bus at Woodstock watching a movie about his Dad’s psychedelic school bus at Woodstock … while Furthur’s sitting out front!
Mind = blown!
Or there was the time we all went for a Pranksters Walkabout late Saturday night, about 20 of us in a roaming nomadic crazy loud krewe with light sticks and magic wands and guitars and flutes and drums and pretty girls and silly boys making noise and begetting smiles and breaking into song as we ambled along.
At some point we found ourselves at the giant nearly abandoned 3-ring drum circle in the jungle dark, and the band members and some singers broke into funny falsetto versions of Led Zeppelin songs, while Zane’s throwing out zany one-liners like his father would — delivered dry and coming from some alternate universe. Somebody mentioned the bell that fell off the bus and almost hit the follow car, and he goes, “That car isn’t done being hit yet.” Somebody said, “There’s certain things that must remain unsaid.” Zane pops, “That’s the first rule of Prankster Club.” And it was all in perfect harmony with The Unspoken Thing — San Francisco comic and de facto Prankster Robin Williams … who we just lost and were collectively mourning.
It wasn’t dark, but it was getting there. Comedy in the dark, but not dark comedy. You didn’t know who was riffing unless you recognized their voice, and everyone was playing along, banging the gong, beating the drum, all with a Robert Plant falsetto as the giggling soundtrack.
Or there was that sunset moment on Sunday where I was tuned into the simultaneous sacredness of the celestial and human event, and going around suggesting to people like new Prankster Moray that I use their camera to take pics of them in that special light, when Zane picked up on what I was doing, the moment I was capturing, and he rounded up the stray cat krewe and wandered us out to the open field between Max’s house and barn and took our jumping-for-joy-Woodstock photos.
And Zane tells us this story of how his Dad would gather people for sunset and watch for the green flash of light just as the sun crosses out of sight, and of course we all do this … and I think I’m seeing flashes — but it may have been from all the jumping we just did!
Anyway, as he’s telling the story in his big booming Oregon farmer Kesey voice — he was looking me right in the eye and telling it directly to me. And I’m thinkin’ this whole Prankster thing is alright.
Later I started riffing with the Canadian film crew, some B.C. buds that went by Colby and Puds, and even though it’s late in the proceedings I’m spewing my usual nonsense that to some people occasionally sounds articulate, and Puds sez, “I gotta interview you for the movie. Would you mind?” It felt like I hadn’t had a shower since July or a night’s sleep since June, but The Bus was clanging it’s bell to leave for D.C. in the morning, and now the bell hath tolled for thee.
Puds starts lookin around for a set — someone’s on The Bus doin’ sumpthin’ — and he remembers the giant Woodstock banner he bought that afternoon using Prankster dollars, which was just play money they printed but were able to trade for cool shit. So, BOOM! We hang the flag over the inside of the back door of their equipment truck (which Zane calls, “Our trunk”) and climb inside and do a whole long interview there where I riffed on some lessons I learned from Father Ken (soon to be available in my book about our first hang), and how I could see the father in the son with his quick dry one-liners, and how the bus has influenced generations — and even in my three-days-of-Woodstock madness I knew any answer had to be 15, 30 seconds tops. No long winding Brian stories here — conscious to speak in soundbites cuz they’re making such an epic new Mightiest Home Movie that there’s gonna be a whole lotta noodles to tootle.
And by the time we’re done, it was 10:30 Sunday night, and Lieutenant Hassett’s watchin’ his watch and knows the only nearby beer store is closing at 11, so in this wonderful living flashback to our Canadian roots, me and ol’ B.C. Puds make a last-dash Beer Run just like the old days — two wise Canucks swimming away from the ducks to try our luck and sure enough! Bingo! We’re bongo with bounties of brewskies for blast-off!
And after Zane and I had not really connected when I first arrived, by the end of the last day, it was just he and I together at the back of The Bus as he wound up the giant flags into ropes so he could tie them to the ship — the Stars & Stripes and the Oregon State (the only state flag in America with something on both sides, he tells me with pride) in preparation for their highway-driving departure in the morning. It was just the two of us rapping and wrapping the show — about what worked (everything above plus the impromptu gig they did one morning that I missed), and what didn’t (they shoulda been parked down in the woods), but he had a beatific smiling calm about him that another show was successfully done, and of all the sites they visited this was the first one The Bus had been to before, and that living history was meeting living history (maybe it was me who said that) and that the two family reunions had blended so well. . And by now the Woodstockians and Pranksters have morphed back into the world around us, and maybe you can’t even recognize who we are. And The Bus has continued it’s Trip, toootling the multitudes in Washington and New York and Cleveland and Chicago on the never-ending Road Trip started by Jack and driven by Neal and jumped on by Jerry and captained by Ken that’s still hugging hearts with loving arms and ever going → .
Here’s the opening of the Prankster Family Reunion in 2016 . . .
Here’s “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jack Kerouac’s first public reading — at the Pranksters In Wonderland in 2015 . . .
And if you wanna go Furthur here — here’s the part where I compared the first Obama Inauguration to Woodstock — and one Michael Lang, conceiver and creator of Woodstock, chose to use it as the climax of his book on the matter.
Or here’s where you can get “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jack Kerouac“
Or here’s a review of the Prankster documentary “Going Furthur” about this Woodstock event and everything else about the 50th Anniversary Tour.
Or here’s the time the Pranksters brought in New Year’s.
Or here’s the Merry Pranksters in Wonderland family reunion Adventure.
Or here’s the surreal tale of the 2016 Prankster Family Reunion.
Or here’s Levi Asher’s tale of meeting the Pranksters in New York.
Or here’s an excerpt from my upcoming book on Kerouac, the Dead and Ken Kesey — about arriving at a Dead show at Red Rocks in 1982.
Or here’s my keynote essay from “The Rolling Stone Book of The Beats” on the decade that birthed the Beats — go here.
Or also from “The Rolling Stone Book of The Beats” — here’s my riff on The Power of The Collective.
Or here’s a whole Prankster riff on the New Orleans Jazz Fest.
Or speaking of unusual road trips, here’s this early feature story in Relix about the Festival Express.
Or there’s my tribute to Neal’s wife and my dear friend, Carolyn Cassady.
Or here was another Road Trip where a bunch of us Beats including the Cassadys invaded Jack’s longtime hometown of Northport, Long Island.
Or here’s the tale of first meeting Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, John Clellon Holmes and Herbert Huncke at “the Woodstock of the Beats” — the Boulder ’82 SuperSummit — where I also met Ken for the first time and he invited me back to his house and I wrote a whole book about it coming out later this year.
And since we’re takin about The Road and The Bus made Manhattan for the first time since 1964, here’s a Wild Tale of driving the whole length of that badboy island in one fast shot.
And since On The Road seems to be a working theme, here’s going to the movie premiere in London via Carolyn Cassady.
Or here’s the North American premiere story in Toronto where by wonderful Pranksterness I ended up becoming good friends with its director Walter Salles.
Or here’s a colorful riff on doing Beat-and-music shows in Greenwich Village with the likes of Cassady’s kids.
by Brian Hassett firstname.lastname@example.org BrianHassett.com