Fifty years ago today, Ken Kesey, not yet thirty and already the author of two acclaimed novels, invited the members of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang to a party at his home in the coastal mountains south of San Francisco.
When the Angels arrived it was just past 3 p.m. A blue summer afternoon: Kesey and his Merry Pranksters—the friends who’d accompanied him, the year before, on the cross-country bus trip that would later become the subject Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test—watched as biker after biker gunned it across the small wooden bridge to his property.
They wore denim jackets with no sleeves, the Angels. They were bearded and greasy. Each rode a Harley Davidson, its 74-cubic-inch engine audible from miles off. On their backs they sported the gang’s emblematic insignia: a skull, in profile, adorned with streaming yellow wings.
An intimidating sight, to say the least. But the Angels, from the moment they killed their engines, would’ve been greeted by something that, at least on a sensory level, rivaled the degree of intimidation their own entrances were choreographed to evoke.
Throughout the three-acre property, Kesey and his Pranksters had arranged a number of enormous, high-powered, sonic amplifiers. They were hidden among the branches of the hundred-foot-tall sequoias, the trunks of which were painted in DayGlo neon. From the tops of these trees came a constant crash of sound. Some of the amps played music: the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Jumpin Joe Jackson, and more often than not, Bob Dylan. Others were rigged to live microphones, which had been set to a one-second delay and hidden in squirrels’ nests, bathrooms, bedrooms, even along the bank of the rushing creek. Still others were wired to broadcast an imaginary radio station, “KLSD,” over which certain Pranksters recited impromptu, fifty-stanza poems. Across all of this, strung as if to mark the path of a holiday parade, a fifteen-foot long banner of enormous red, white, and blue letters proclaimed: THE MERRY PRANKSTERS WELCOME THE HELL’S ANGELS.
Perhaps forty Angels had accepted the invitation. The two groups had been brought together by none other than Hunter S. Thompson—at the time he was writing a book on the Angels, and a few months earlier he’d run into Kesey at a San Francisco television station—and each was quickly becoming identified with the Bay Area’s burgeoning counterculture: on one hand you had the educated, artistic, consciousness-expansion-advocating Pranksters; and on the other, the working class, reclusive, vengeance-seeking outlaws of a motorcycle gang who’d recently found themselves flush with media attention. Both were seen as anarchic and non-conformist. Also, both were in serious legal trouble—the Angels over a series of rape accusations, and Kesey and his group for cultivating and consuming marijuana.
In fact, police had been staking out Kesey’s house for months, and on this occasion—thanks in no small part to the arrangement of a certain banner—they’d increased their contingent to six cars, which took up a position just beyond the entrance to the wooden bridge, their lights rotating in the low mountainside shadows of the afternoon.
Kesey’s guests that day would also include Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, and Richard Alpert, the Harvard professor at the center of the LSD movement. Hunter Thompson was there too; he arrived from San Francisco in his small Ford Anglia accompanied by his wife Sandy and his young son Juan shortly after the Angels’ dramatic entrance. And seeing them gathered together now on the grounds of Kesey’s property, he immediately regretted introducing the two groups.
And as he and his family drove across the wooden bridge—greeted, like the Angels, by the mountain’s graffitied redwoods, their branches strung up with sound, their trunks coursing like enormous, inhuman veins—his fears seemed confirmed.
Already the Pranksters had offered their new guests lysergic acid diethylamide, LSD, and the Angels had taken it without hesitation, even though most of them had never done it. In terms of drugs, they preferred to combine alcohol with Benzedrine and also Seconal, which, as Thompson would later document in his book, had a tendency to make them turn violent. Now he couldn’t help but watch on as Kesey, broad-necked and muscular and dressed in a buckskin shirt, dolled out a far more unpredictable substance than most of his new guests had previously ingested.
Thompson had just turned twenty-eight. The Hell’s Angels project was his first book deal, and he was worried about seeing it to completion. He declined the offer of LSD, a drug he’d never tried. Besides, he was convinced there’d be violence—so much so that he put his wife and son back in the car and drove a half-dozen miles through the mountains, to the Pacific Ocean, where, at a beach in San Gregorio, they had a family picnic.
An hour later, when he returned to La Honda, driving past the police cars and the parked bikes and stepping out again in the midst of the DayGlo redwoods, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
The Merry Pranksters were showing a movie. On a large trampoline screen they’d projected parts of the film they’d taken during their bus trip the year before—footage from their daily lives that, it soon became apparent, was so repetitive and frivolous and banal as to be unwatchable, even with a head full of acid.
But members of the Hell’s Angels were sitting there peacefully enough. They seemed content. Others were wandering the grounds. The film being shown, it turned out, was four hours long.
The total number of guests that afternoon amounted to perhaps a hundred: in addition to the Angels and the Pranksters there were professors, writers, doctors, and psychologists, many of whom had brought along their families.
Nearly everyone was on acid. The Angels, the Pranksters, even some of the children. Together they took turns blowing soap bubbles. Throwing Frisbees. Playing flutes. Banging drums. The trees sounded and gleamed. Between them, dogs wandered. DayGlo paint, the same that had marked the redwoods, now masked faces. From one direction Bob Dylan could be heard singing “Mr. Tambourine Man.” From another, Radio KLSD broadcast a hastily composed blues poem, the lyrics of which described the real-time actions of the people listening below.
After the film, Allen Ginsberg had the Pranksters and Angels arrange in a circle. He grabbed the microphone. He was wearing finger cymbals. And he proceeded to sing Hare Krishna, his long beard swaying with his hips.
Later Neal Cassady, the inspiration for Jack Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty character in On the Road, stripped naked and ran toward the cops. From the small wooden bridge he cursed them. “Come on over here and see what you get!” he screamed. “Goddamn your shit filled souls anyway! Don’t fuck with me, you sons of shitlovers!”
At some point Kesey took off his buckskin shirt. In its place he donned a long, white, hooded robe.
By 8 p.m. the sun had disappeared. The house was lit from inside: a yellow chandelier, blazing. The floor vibrated, everyone danced, the trees kept up the music, there’d been no threats (apart from Cassady’s), no violence, and as the evening turned to night, the members of the Hell’s Angels wandered about, tripping on LSD and discovering, at various points, Kesey’s vast collection of sculptures. Who could blame them if they didn’t quite believe what they were seeing? A hanged man near the creek. A thundering bird, its voice amplified with light. Even this: two metal figures locked explicitly together, water shooting from their waists in a single, continuous stream.
Hunter Thompson watched these developments from his relatively sober vantage point; to his astonishment, the night seemed a success on every measurable front.
He planned to stay with his family until the next day. A few hours before midnight, with his son asleep in the backseat, he and Sandy drove out to buy more alcohol. Ginsberg went along, too. But as soon as they pulled onto Route 84 they were stopped by the police, who proceeded to issue Thompson a $25 ticket —no small amount of money at the time—for a malfunctioning taillight.
After arguing with the cops over this fine for perhaps an hour—a conversation Thompson captured on his tape recorder and that includes, at intervals, Allen Ginsberg’s brief, childlike interruptions (“What’s in Redwood City?” Ginsberg asks, cutting off a cop in mid-sentence, to which Thompson replies: “It’s called a jail!”)—he returned to the party, where he noticed a number of people beating a path to a small studio about a hundred feet from the main house. He walked over to see what was going on.
In the small room were about twenty Hell’s Angels, many of them naked. Together they were watching a slim blond woman as she was engaged by three or four men at once. The woman was in her mid-twenties. She was sprawled out on the wooden floor, her loose red dress bunched up to her chest. The Angels descended on her in shifts. Like the rest of the partygoers, she’d taken LSD, and it was clear to Thompson that she was drunk to the point of incoherence.
Someone told him that she was Neal Cassady’s ex-wife, but in fact she was probably Cassady’s girlfriend; earlier in the evening she was said to have approached three Angels with an invitation to join her in the shack. Her motivation for doing so was never explicitly touched upon by either Thompson or Tom Wolfe, who both described the La Honda party in their subsequent books (Wolfe, who wasn’t present, would borrow Thompson’s tapes and notes to recreate it). And while there’s been recent speculation that she had initially instigated the encounter as an act of revenge—Cassady had been seen sneaking off with Ginsberg, his former lover, and in response she’d supposedly approached the Angels—by this point, word of what was happening had gotten out, drawing more people into the shack.
Later, in Hell’s Angels, Thompson would describe the whole thing in a hysterical light; for him the incident fell “somewhere between a friendly sex orgy and an all-out gang rape”; and while he stops short of calling it one or the other, it’s fair to say that events had reached the point where consent—a term that, despite its recent prominence in our national conversation, has always been as good a guide as any toward the definition of a voluntary sexual encounter—could no longer be given.
At one point some of the Angels in the room, for reasons that in retrospect were never quite clear, went back out into the party and found Neal Cassady, who was high and naked and stumbling drunk, and dragged him into the shack where, at their behest, he eventually took his own turn on the floor with his girlfriend.
For Thompson it was too much. The party had gotten completely out of control—in a way he’d feared if not predicted. He’d avoided indulging in the night’s excesses for a reason, after all; he was a working reporter following the subjects of his inquiry, and the success of the book would determine the sort of job he’d be able to do next. During the preceding decade he’d reported in the Caribbean, South America, and throughout the West Coast, but he’d yet to achieve the notice that would allow him the freedom and financial security to map out his own career path. This was why he’d brought his family along; the more sober he forced himself to remain, the better the reporting. And it’s why he’d turned down the initial offer of LSD, which he’d heard had a tendency to bring out the worst in a person. In the end, such discretion must’ve begun to feel taxing. No doubt he’d have gotten roaring drunk by noon at a party like this if the stakes were different. And now, as everything around him fell apart and the gang rape in the shack wore on—one he’d witnessed but failed to stop—he arrived at the conclusion, understandable if ill-advised, that when the people around you begin forcing one another into perverted and humiliating acts of sexual aggression, all bets are off regarding professional decorum and artistic integrity. Why hold back when the worst that can happen already has? This was when he made the decision to approach Kesey and ask for LSD. He swallowed his first dose around midnight.
The party continued. The cops remained on the road, their lights shining through the leaves beyond the creek. At some point Cassady and his girlfriend returned to the main house, where they danced slowly together, despite the music’s frenetic beat, surrounded as they were by many of the men who’d just either raped her or witnessed her rape in the shack.
For Thompson, the effects of the LSD came on and he was surprised; he didn’t feel violent or wild. For the next few hours he wandered quietly around the property. A tree turned into a snake. Drums beat out the shape of the forest. Later he’d say how relieved he was, once the full weight of the drug had finally hit him; it blasted away the immediacy of the awful scene he’d recently witnessed. At the same time it failed to unleash the demons he’d always suspected he harbored. He’d finally gone to the bottom of the well, the place he feared most, and to his enduring astonishment he’d found these depths empty.
In 1965 LSD was relatively unknown; it had been synthesized two decades earlier, yes, but very few people understood what it was—or for that matter, had tried it. It’s important to point out that, at least in its initial conception, the drug was seen as a technological development: with the advent of LSD, it suddenly seemed possible to lab-manufacture substances that would allow us, for the first time in history, to reach into our own consciousness and rearrange the most remote processes of human functioning. This wasn’t as crazy a concept as it might sound; the same thing had already happened, along an almost identical timeline, with nuclear physics. And in such a light, why should the splitting and fusing of atomic structures really be all that different, at least in terms of scale, from the arrangement of particles within the broader structures of the brain?
At least that’s how Ken Kesey and his Pranksters saw it: LSD would allow us to unlock the potential of our limited animal intelligence and increase our powers of perception to unimaginable levels; and once everyone tried it, society itself would leap forward in a similarly inconceivable manner. In short: he and his friends were at the front of a revolution—one that would make the future so unrecognizable, it might as well not exist.
This was why, in 1964, Kesey decided to give up writing altogether. What use was such an outmoded form of communication when a new era of consciousness was on the horizon? He saw amplifiers and film projectors as precursors to what was coming next—tools that might facilitate, as oppose to limit, the way we expressed ourselves—which was one of the reasons he’d gone to such lengths to embed them throughout his property.
Hunter Thompson would arrive at a different conclusion. In a 1965 letter to his editor Don Cooke, he explained that he greatly respected Kesey and his work, but the earnestness of the La Honda scene was troubling: “I kept waiting for him to grin and look sane for one minute but he never did.” He went so far as to compare the events there to a “kid’s home circus.” It’s an image that would reappear six years later, in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, during his description of the Circus-Circus casino: a place that, with its “County-Fair/Polish Carnival madness” and visual and aural distortions, vividly recalls the delirium of Kesey’s parties.
In fact, when Thompson reflects in Fear and Loathing about the failure of the 1960s counterculture movement, it feels as if he’s referencing the ideological goals of Kesey and the Pranksters directly: “And that, I think, was the handle—the sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs.”
The danger, of course, lies in what Thompson refers to as “the grim meat-hook realities” of consciousness expansion—something he witnessed at that party: while LSD might mellow out some admittedly violent people, it can just as easily result in a deplorable gang-rape you won’t soon forget.
Another thing we tend to overlook about the 1960s counterculture movement—and especially its consciousness-expansion advocates—is that psychopharmacological substances weren’t the only technological advancement they were facing. In retrospect, it can feel as if everything then was new. Personal recording devices, amplifiers, motorcycles robust enough to ride across the country if that’s what you wanted—all these things had only recently come into existence.
Looking back at this party, what we find is that, despite the half-century that has elapsed since, Kesey and Thompson’s divergent interpretations of the potential of LSD feel strikingly similar to our present-day debate over psychopharmacological substances like anti-depressants and stimulants. They can offer the opportunity for personal improvement, but they also might make things drastically worse. In other words: after fifty years, we still seem to be navigating a pair of outcomes that, over the course of a drug-fueled party in the Santa Cruz mountains, were dramatized so explicitly.
That night, Hunter Thompson and his family stayed until the sun started coming up, at which point they drove past the cops and back to San Francisco, where he arrived, without incident, just after 5 a.m., and proceeded to narrate into his tape recorder the initial description of the night he’d just experienced.
The Hell’s Angels would stay in La Honda for another full day. Over the next few months they’d enjoy a few more psychedelic parties at Kesey’s, until, amid the growing controversy over the Vietnam war, they and the Pranksters would part ways for good—each returning, as it were, to their separate counterculture tracks. Soon enough Kesey would be arrested on marijuana charges. He’d flee the country, return, and be arrested again. Eventually, under the terms of a plea-bargain that demanded he leave La Honda for good, he’d relocate to Oregon, where he’d spend the next three decades with his family. In February of 1968, Neal Cassady would be found dead in Mexico.
Thompson would finish his book on the Angels and write two more before flaming out himself, creatively and physically. But that morning, as he crossed the thirty miles back to San Francisco, the effects of the LSD were still working on him. It was a difficult drive. In the tape recording he made just afterward you can hear it in his voice, his vowels lilting, the words coming out in stops and starts:
Tonight was Saturday, August 7th. Now it’s Sunday morning, August 8th, I suppose. Ah shit. It’s a long and dirty story and I’m tired and it’s 5:30 in the morning and I’ve just driven back, from Kesey’s, in that awful evil heavy Pacific fog.
Timothy Denevi‘s first book, Hyper, will be available in paperback from Simon & Schuster on September 29th. His work has recently appeared in The Normal School and Gulf Coast, and online in The Atlantic and Time. He’s an assistant professor in the MFA program at George Mason University, where he teaches nonfiction. He lives near Washington D.C. with his wife and two children.
Sources & Further Reading:
- The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, by Tom Wolfe, Bantam, 1968
- Hell’s Angels, by Hunter Thompson, Ballantine, 1996
- “Playboy Interview, Hunter Thompson,” by Craig Vetter, Playboy, November 1974
- “Night of the Hunter,” by Bill Dunn, Esquire (London), November 1998
- “Hunter Thompson, The Art of Journalism No. 1,” by Douglas Brinkley, The Paris Review, Autumn 2000
- “Lecture: University of Colorado (Boulder),” Ancient Gonzo Wisdom, edited by Anita Thompson, Da Capo Press, 2009
- Gonzo: The Life of Hunter Thompson, by Jann Wenner and Corey Seymour, Back Bay Books, 2007
- Outlaw Journalist, by William McKeen, Norton, 2008
- Fear and Loathing, by Paul Perry, Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1992
- When the Going Gets Weird, by Peter Whitmer, Hyperion, 1993
- Aquarius Revisited, by Peter Whitmer, Macmillan, 1987
- The Proud Highway: The Fear and Loathing Letters, Volume 1, edited by Douglas Brinkley, Ballantine, 1997
- “First Party at Ken Kesey’s with Hell’s Angels,” by Allan Ginsberg
- Freewheelin’ Frank, by Frank Reynolds, Grove, 1967
- Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by Hunter Thompson, Ballantine, 1971
- Gonzo: The Life and work of Dr. Hunter Thompson, directed by Alex Gibney, Magnolia, 2008
- The Gonzo Tapes, “The Merry Pranksters Welcome the Hell’s Angels,” Shout Factory, 2008