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How The Beats Begat The Pranksters

September 17th, 2017 · 3 Comments · Grateful Dead, Kerouac and The Beats, Merry Pranksters

How The Beats Begat The Pranksters


Beat Carolyn & Prankster Babbs, Boulder ’82


It all started on September 5th, 1957 when a certain book got published . . .

Or no . . . it all started in April 1951 when a guy sat down at a typewriter with a long scroll of paper so he didn’t have to stop writing every 11 inches . . .

Or no it all started when Neal Cassady came to New York, Christmastime 1946 . . .

Which really flips back to Denver’s Hal Chase coming to Columbia University and telling all his new soon-to-be-Beat writer friends about this catalytic conman he knew from Colorado . . .

Which waves back to Twain’s playful Huck or Shakespeare’s pranksterish Puck or eternity’s Irish luck . . .

But what I can tell you for sure is this — pretty much all the Merry Pranksters — from their Perry Lane / Stanford writers’ birthplace to the Bus-painting bohos of Ken Kesey’s house in La Honda — had read Jack Kerouac’s On The Road . . . before collectively taking their own Road trip with the real life Dean Moriarty hero of the book, Neal Cassady.

As Kesey used to say when asked how someone becomes a Prankster — “We just recognize each other.”  And one of the traits — one of those recognizable admission requirements — was that you’d read On The Road.

As Kerouac & Grateful Dead scholar Dennis McNally opens the Cassady/Acid Test chapter in his definitive book on the Dead et al, A Long Strange Trip, “Neal Leon Cassady was ‘Dean Moriarty’ in On The Road, a fundamental document of the cultural odyssey that all the members of the Grateful Dead would travel.”

They had also all heard of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl because of the internationally reported on obscenity trial in 1957 that was extra prominent in the local West Coast newspapers, although not many of them had actually read the book, and none of them cited it as a breakthrough work for them.  But it sure made everybody aware there was some chit goin on.

Nowadays there are over 50 Kerouac-written books in print, and gawd-knows how many biographies … and Allen books … and books by members of the Beat Generation who were never known of in the late ’50s and early ’60s.  But back then there was really only one book.

It’s hard for us in the present to imagine a world with only one Beatles record — but effectively that’s what it was for pretty much all the original gelling Pranksters and Dead.  It wasn’t “Beat” like we know it now — not a group show at the Whitney or de Young, or the latest hardcover collection, or multiple major motion pictures.  It was one book.  Even though by the early ’60s, The Dharma BumsThe SubterraneansBig Sur and more were in print, not one of the living Pranksters has ever mentioned to me any one of them being read in their pre-Bus-trip years.  It was an On The Road mindset that changed everything.  It was a way people were beginning to think.  “It wasn’t a club, it was a way of seeing,” as Prankster bandleader Jerry Garcia phrased what “Beat” meant to him.

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At this point this story goes very in-depth with quotes by Allen Ginsberg, Ken Kesey, Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann, Robert Hunter, Paul Krassner, Ken Babbs, Dennis McNally, Robert Stone, Sterling Lord and Paul Foster,

plus new interviews with Wavy Gravy, Mountain Girl, George Walker, Anonymous, Roy Sebern, Mary Microgram & Kesey biographer Robert Faggen —

Which appear in the new book How The Beats Begat The Pranksters & Other Adventure Tales — available starting Sept. 27th 2017 right here or wherever books are sold. 😀 

But here’s how the story ends —

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One other connection that I have no proof of — but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true — is that the central character in the central book of Kesey’s canon is the same central character in the central book of Kerouac’s canon.  The Chief tells us Randle’s story, and Sal tells us Dean’s.

Knowing of Kesey’s association with Cassady, I assumed for years that Randle Patrick McMurphy in Cuckoo’s Nest was based on Cassady — until I found out it was written and published long before Neal ever showed up in Ken’s driveway on Perry Lane in 1963 — the reason for his unexpected arrival never disclosed to Kesey or anyone else, although Dennis McNally says of Cassady and that moment in A Long Strange Trip, “He’d read One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and felt a spiritual kinship with Randle Patrick McMurphy, and indeed there was a bond.”

McMurphy was a charismatic good-looking fast-talking Irish jailbird conman and master manipulator who had a way with women.  He instigated road trips, and stole a boat for a joyride in place of a car.  He had the gift of gab and unflinching confidence.  He loved to play and goof and get away with whatever he could between the cracks.  He sure seemed like Dean Moriarty in On The Road to me.  “McMurphy” & “Moriarty” even sound alike.  And not fer nuthin but Jack Nicholson coulda played both with manic aplomb. 🙂

Kesey told Faggen in the Paris Review interview, “The Irish names — Kesey, Cassady, McMurphy — were all together in my mind as well as a sense of Irish blarney.  That’s part of the romantic naiveté of McMurphy.  But McMurphy was born a long time before I met Neal Cassady.  The character of McMurphy comes from Sunday matinees, from American Westerns.  He’s Shane that rides into town, shoots the bad guys, and gets killed in the course of the movie.”

And indeed, both Cuckoo’s Nest and Road end on sad notes for their heroes.  Or antiheroes.  Yet their lives as recounted lifted them to legend.

And legend and myth are a big part of it.  “It happened even if it isn’t true,” Kesey would say with his leprechaun twinkle.  Or there’s his oft-quoted, “To hell with facts!  We need stories!”  Kerouac called his collected work “The Duluoz Legend” — unabashedly mythologizing and fictionalizing his real life.  Playing with reality is both an author’s and a Prankster’s mission.  As is having fun and Adventure — and capturing it.  As is “tootling the multitudes” and practicing “first thought best thought.”

Kerouac wrote on an endless scroll. Kesey filmed an endless movie.  Both were shaking up the conventions of America, which by 1964 was still not much different than 1954.  The Beats were the blooming and the Pranksters the fruition.  The Beats were the sprouts from the garden earth and the Pranksters the flowers that turned black & white to color and became something you could wear in your hair and turn round from square.

Kerouac captured the discovery of America by post-WWII modes and means . . . and the Pranksters turned it into a Bus with beans.  Kerouac made literature fun … and the Pranksters made living funny.  Kerouac opened up possibilities and the Pranksters closed the deal.

On The Road was the cardkey pocketbook you needed to pull out of your back pocket to get through the door of The Bus.  Neal Cassady was the guy who drove Kerouac on the most important Road trip of his life, then did exactly the same for Kesey — in case anyone missed the obvious.  Kerouac lived through and captured the birth of BeBop, and Kesey created the Acid Tests that birthed The Grateful Dead and the psychedelic revolution.  Kerouac and Kesey are next to each other in most alphabetical lists of great 20th century authors — but they were also 1, 2 in a much bigger chronology.  And so much of the world is still On The Road and On The Bus.



Here’s the first time the book appeared before a microphone . . . unexpectedly at a small club show in Toronto just before the Fall On The Road 2017 tour began . . .

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To find out about how this is all playing out in live shows and where you can see them — go here.

For The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jack Kerouac — go here or here.

For reaction to The Hitchhiker’s Guide … check out here, here and here.

For a Hitchhiker’s excerpt about first meeting Ken Kesey — go here.

For how this all got rekindled check out Woodstock with The Pranksters.

For the story of the last great Beat summit — The Beat Museum’s Shindig in San Francisco — go here.

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by Brian Hassett  —   —

Or here’s my Facebook account if you wanna follow things there —

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3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Sky // Sep 17, 2017 at 4:19 PM

    This is such an exciting read.
    Thank you.

  • 2 matthehoff // Dec 14, 2017 at 6:12 PM

    So, in the words of every greedy reader, “what comes next, tell me tell me.”

  • 3 Gubba Topham // Apr 4, 2018 at 4:38 PM

    I just finished your piece (for the first time!) about watching a screening of “On the Road” in London.”

    Great Piece! Love the way you interleaved a rather fantastic story about how you planned, set up, and executed your exit (with two full beers from a closed bar!) with your very clever review of the movie!

    I bought the DVD but never made it to the end. Now I will try again as soon as I get home. I think it may be like how you got me to finally read PIC! I am up at my cabin and will finally finish “Begat” and write the review long since promised!

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