Merlin's Return: When Ken Kesey Toured Britain with the Merry Pranksters (Part 2)

"I'm not proselytising for LSD anymore. There's not enough of the good stuff to go around" - Ken Kesey, 1999.

I was working in a care home in Kettering when the Pranksters came. I remember reading about their imminent trip in a newspaper; it must have been The Guardian because I didn’t go near any of the others. I’d read Cuckoo’s Nest years ago and at the time I was in the middle of another one, I think it was The Last Go-Round, the under-rated novel that Kesey wrote with Babbs. Somehow, although I was aware of the continuing existence of most of my heroes—Ginsberg had died two years before, but a great many were still with us—the fact that they were all in America made them as remote as death anyway. But Kesey was coming here, onto my streets, to breathe my air. That was, indeed, like being told Merlin had been seen in a peaked hat and a velvet cape dancing a jig on Montague Street.

I sat in the park in Kettering one day writing or sketching in my journal (it’s always one or the other even now), and I remember looking up thinking how marvellous it would be if I saw the Pranksters’ bus pulling uphill along the road that ran beside the park. Now that would be something, I thought. I might just do what Dylan does in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, take off my apron, hand my clipboard to the nearest boy and go off in search of outlaws. But I didn’t see the bus. I don’t remember what I saw, although I’m certain my eyes would have passed quickly over the gloomy gothic horror of the corner building down the hill, where the evil dentist Mr. Hargreaves used to ply his wicked trade in the 1970s. I’d been there as a boy and experienced such pain and fear I still thought of Hargreaves as a cross between Ian Brady and Vincent Price.

If I’d had the internet then I might have been able to work out the Pranksters’ schedule. But the internet was barely on my radar in those days. So I just kept watching the roads, watching and hoping, for at least the first two weeks of the month they were supposed to be here. Then some other fancy took my thwarted attention away--probably just the horrendous schedule of night shifts I’d put myself on to stay away from an unhappy home situation--and I forgot about it.

The Pranksters, meanwhile, had arrived in the country and were heading south. That’s what the websites I’ve found tell me anyway. The information on them is conflicting, but that’s the way it should be. Talk and cross-talk, stories over a campfire. Poems being written. Each giving its own version of what happened and when. If this account is wrong in some details so much the better. We are speaking of Merlin, after all.

The idea was to travel through the high roads and low roads of the country stopping in different towns to do shows and meet the people. Then, on August 11th at 11.11am, the precise time of the last solar eclipse before the millennium, the Pranksters would perform their pageant “The Knights of the Not So Round Table” at the Minack Theatre in Cornwall.

A day or two days before they reached the Minack site, the Pranksters visited Stonehenge. Merlin would, wouldn’t he? Kesey, according to some stories, was disappointed by the ancient druid site. Perhaps he could still feel the vibes from the Battle of Beanfield twelve years before when, on Margaret Thatcher’s orders, hundreds of cops had brutally attacked the rainbow travellers assembling there for the summer solstice. Maybe the kingdom had picked up its bags and gone somewhere else after that. Things had changed for Kesey too. The last time he was here, his companions included Jerry Garcia and the Hell’s Angels. Things happened after dark, he intimated, that wouldn’t be going on in broad daylight with cameras and spectators surrounding them.

“Merlin isn’t here,” said Prankster John Swan (not buying into my thesis), “but I know we’ll see him before the eclipse.”

After Stonehenge it was on to the Minack Theatre. I’ve been to the Minack. It’s an incredible open air playhouse built out of the rocks overlooking the sea. When I was there it was mid-September and the wind and lashing rain blowing across the cliffs was so intense and cold my enjoyment of the amateur production of “Fiddler on the Roof” I’d gone to see was ruined utterly. Accounts of the Pranksters’ performance are sketchy--all I can find is a comment about the play being panned in the local paper--but the weather looks fabulous in the pictures Kesey’s son Zane sent to me recently. I wouldn’t want anybody to go through the suffering I did perched high on the cliffside with the elements doing their best to destroy me. (The local press, by the way, were never going to get what the Pranksters were about. Half of the smart, cynical mainstream press wasn’t either. Kesey and his friends didn’t give a shit about them, though. They knew they had a smarter constituency.)

One of that smart constituency was/is my friend Graham Scott. Being less of a dope than me, Graham found out where the Pranksters were going to be on their tour and went to see them with his “fellow traveller” Helen. Their rendezvous with history happened in Liverpool ten days after the eclipse. Graham’s vivid memories of that day take us inside the tour in a way that other accounts I’ve found don’t quite manage to do:

The top of the show saw Kesey read his account of coming to London and hanging out at the Apple Building with the Beatles. He was wearing a fisherman's smock and held the stage in his hand. A deliberate reader with perfect cadence; an ancient American bard. Then there was their play: Where's Merlin - a great ramshackling Arthurian affair with Pranksters n japes n mistakes n fun and which culminated in a jalopy jam of Dead tunes.

We hung out outside after the show. Kesey and Babbs came and sat on the back of the bus and shook everyone's hands and exchanged smiles. No doubt I had my legend filters in but Kesey had a golden hue, something other, and serene, about him. At one point a girl, maybe sixteen and beautiful, made her way through the crowd and beheld Ken, and Ken beheld the girl and they hugged like you've never seen. Everyone watched, quiet. Bong!

We got talking to Carolyn Adams-Garcia who i'd been in love with ever since reading Tom Wolfe when I was a teenager. Mountain Girl asked us what we thought of the show, and "Didn't you think it was kinda chaotic?" "We love chaos," we laughed. She pulled us in to her chest, a breast each, and held us there exclaiming "My children!" I'm still reeling.

During the Dead jam Kesey had mentioned "John Cassady" on guitar. I made a point of waiting for Mr John Cassady to exit the stage door and had a great chat with him. How mad this evening was. He told me about his dad bringing home Jerry Garcia to teach him guitar... A lovely bloke, worked in a tyre shop somewhere in the States...

Maybe I’m still the starstruck kid who picked up a copy of On The Road and fell madly in love with the whole mythology of the American counter-culture, but I can’t even begin to tell you how much I envy Graham that experience.

As for the Search for Merlin . . . well, as I’ve indicated, Merlin was there all the time, like happiness is always (or usually) at home. If Kesey wasn’t a charismatic shapeshifting wizard giving counsel (however unheeded, by kings at least) about the fate of nations, who was? And if, soon, he was to be imprisoned for the ages by death, the legend, like Merlin’s, will continue for as long as there are people intelligent enough to look outside their door at what’s going on in the streets and know something isn’t right. Kesey offers an answer. But it’s not in drugs, although that might be one way, for some. It’s in freedom. Like Ken once said to a reporter (I paraphrase), “Everyone should be free to be as large as he feels he has it in him to be.” As large, or as small. Because that’s large too when it’s rooted in happiness and arrival and a refusal to hurt anyone. Whatever your trip might be, take it, in other words; and if it’s not fun try something else. Life, as that other great philosopher my mum would say, is too bloody short.

When Kesey died a couple of years later, I remembered the opportunity I’d had to say hello to him or catch one of the shows in ’99 and wished I’d tried a little harder. I can be a real idiot. In 2005, though, I started a poetry magazine called Blue Fred's Kitchen; and having discovered a complete fearlessness about knocking on the doors of the famous or the mythical, I sent an email to Ken Babbs asking if he’d like to contribute a poem to it. He did, and for some reason--maybe because of everything I’d read about him and the times he lived in--I wasn’t too surprised. Others were. “How’d you get Babbs?” another editor, Joe Speer, wrote. “Asked him,” I replied. That’s the way it always was with the Pranksters.

In writing this piece I am incredibly grateful for the support of Zane Kesey at, Ken Babbs, and Graham Scott for his brilliant first-hand account of a meeting with the Pranksters. All pictures here are copyright of Zane Kesey. Please approach him for permission before you use them.


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