If you’re on the east coast of the USA these days, you might catch a painted bus called Furthur running up and down the seaboard. This colorful vehicle is named after the original Furthur that took novelist Ken Kesey, Neal Cassady, Ken Babbs and the rest of the Merry Pranksters across the country on a famous road trip 50 years ago. I caught up with Zane Kesey and the giant rolling metaphor he designed for his father when they finally rolled into Brooklyn, New York last month.
Ken Kesey is a writer we have always appreciated here on Litkicks, both before and after he died in 2001. Kesey may be more often remembered for his crazy bus than for his great books these days, but we shouldn’t forget that it was the critical and commercial success of his powerful novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1962 that made the bus journey in 1964 possible.
If the idea of a bus trip in 2014 to honor a bus trip in 1964 sounds strange, we should recall that Kesey’s original bus trip was itself an homage to Jack Kerouac’s On The Road (which it enacted in reverse, California to New York) as well as a forward-looking and freewheeling hippie Dada experiment. We can’t know for sure what sociological and countercultural expectations Kesey had when his first journey began, but it’s obvious that the author was aiming to create a spontaneous living novel, even though the debris of the journey overtook its chief and he never transformed the journey into a book of his own. It fell to visiting journalist Tom Wolfe to write the definitive book about the bus trip, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
I had all these literary themes on my mind as I strolled over to a bar called Brooklyn Bowl in Williamsburg at dusk on a Friday night and found the bus placidly parked on the corner in front of the bar. A happy gang of tie-dye-wearing hippies, clowns, musicians, dusty travelers and eager tourists milled around.
The bus had generated a lively and talkative sidewalk scene, though I had trouble finding anyone who could fill me in on the concrete details of how the cross-country journey had been going, whether expectations were being satisfied, and where I could find out more of the dirt and the details than were being posted on Facebook. I eventually found a friendly guy who seemed to be a member of the core traveling group, and he let me step onto the empty bus to take a selfie (posted above).
However, when I tried to ask him serious questions I quickly learned that he was coping with the crowd of interested tourists (a group which, unfortunately, he thought I was a part of) by delivering only oblique answers in the form of ciphers and koans. Recognizing this technique as Prankster-speak, I didn’t push too hard for answers to my questions, and instead wandered inside the bar where a Grateful Dead band called Half Step was tuning up for their first set. I found Zane Kesey working a table stacked with t-shirts, keychains, bumper stickers and other Kesey-related paraphernalia (the one thing that was missing, I’m sorry to say, was books).
I was eager to chat with Zane, but I quickly realized that the conversation would go nowhere, because the room was too noisy, and because he was busily working the t-shirts-n-stuff table all by himself. I had a few questions for him about his father’s legacy — I was particularly interested in asking about the play Twister, a postmodern parody of The Wizard of Oz that had been one of Ken Kesey’s later works, and which I’d always been curious to learn more about. Zane brightened up when I asked this question, but there was clearly no opportunity for a serious conversation as the band began to play across the room. I hope I’ll get another chance to chat with Zane about his father’s legacy some day.
I was not at all disappointed that I couldn’t engage in a serious literary discussion of Ken Kesey’s works with his son or with anybody else at this gathering, since no Prankster would ever answer a question seriously anyway, which meant the inhabitants of the bus were doing it right. I decided to switch gears and enjoy the music, and had a great time dancing with a happy half-Brooklyn half-Prankster crowd to the wonderful tones of Half Step.
The band struck the right chords for the night, and they cooked.
As they began their first song, I thought to myself that if they really knew about all the Ken Kesey/Neal Cassady/Grateful Dead connections, they would prove it by doing ‘Cassidy‘ or ‘The Other One’. They did both.
My encounter with Furthur only lasted one night. But Beat scholar Brian Hassett had a longer encounter with the 50th anniversary Furthur crew in Bethel and Woodstock earlier in August, and he has more stories to tell.