An Encounter With The Merry Pranksters – 20 Years On

On the 11th August 1999, reflected in a murky puddle on Mathew Street, my then boss and I watched the last total solar eclipse to happen in the UK in our lifetime. It was quite the natural phenomenon, and eerie silent feeling descending momentarily before the street went about its regular business and the sun emerged and shone again.

Just over a week later a whole different phenomenon would hit Mathew Street, one that would prove to be my favourite thing to ever happen there in my time in Liverpool.

A few years beforehand I had read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe and had fallen under the thrall of the Merry Pranksters mythology, or at the idea of letting your freak flag fly anyway. And now Kesey, the Non-Navigator, was coming to the UK on some wild hunt for Merlin who was meant to return at the time of the eclipse. The hunt was a loose excuse for a bus trip around the country that included a visit to Liverpool, and the Cavern Club. And I just happened to work at the other end of Mathew Street.

This was a different Mathew Street than today by the way. It was just before it hit its stride as the stag and hen capital of the North West with bad karaoke and cheesy 90s pop oozing out of nearly every drinking establishment at full blast. Then it was still a street full of steadfast tourists out to live their Beatle dreams and locals just out for a quiet bevvy with their mates, and I think perhaps it wasn’t sure what hit it when the Merry Pranksters and their spectacular bus arrived.

The day before it landed on Mathew Street it was driven around the city, broadcasting out across the airwaves as went. A friend and I followed them in her car, tuning in the radio to the right frequency so we could hear the passengers on the bus rapping (not in the modern sense) over the White Album.

When it got to Mathew Street the bus found itself parked up nose to nose with its replica Magical Mystery Tour bus counterpart in a brief moment of publicity for the owners. One of them wandered pass in his suit and tie, taking in the scene and as he saw me he said “Whacky, isn’t it?” There couldn’t have been a stronger juxtaposition of the chaos of Further contrasting with the more sedately decorated Beatle version.

All the memories of the day are disjointed, jumbled in my mind. There had been some painting going on, there were colourful tire tracks and footprints and paint drips on the red bricks of the street surface. Kesey was signing down in the Cavern Club. I went down to look. I met Anonymous on the way down. She was barefoot and admiring my companion’s hair while local old ladies expressed concern that she may cut her foot on glass in the club or in the street. I remember not seeing Kesey for the crowd of people around him, all trying to get close and get things signed. It was just too busy and too much bustle so I went back up to the street. Stephen must have finished work and had joined us by then. All the photos with this post are his by the way.

The Lennon statue outside the Cavern Pub still had its Hamburg head back then and was also sporting a very fetching pink turban. The turban belonged to Mountain Girl, who was taking photos of the be-hatted statue. I remember she had a toy fairy wand (which I think came with the turban) that made a swishing noise when you waved it. We said hello. The conversation led to the Beatles and she told us she was a little disappointed that the Beatles Shop down the road was closed. Stephen produced the shop keys from his pocket and asked her if she wanted a quick look around. This was how we ended up in the shop after hours hanging out with a small handful of Pranksters. Mountain Girl posed for photos with us by the poster boards. John Casaday had come along too. Neal’s son. He was driving the bus as his dad had done on the original trips. I can’t remember who else was there, it was all cool though. They said they’d see us at the show.

The show! That was…something else! It was like a school play on, well, acid! I look at the photos and there are jesters, Kesey with a weather vane hat, the thunder machine and a guy dressed as Elvis and I honestly can’t remember very much about it at all apart from that everyone including a vast chunk of the audience ended up on the stage for a final jam. oh and there was a theremin! Before the chaos of the play, Kesey had made an offering of various readings including recounting a meeting with the Beatles.

I have stronger memories of afterwards. Emerging from the venue into the light of the summer’s evening there was a small gathering of Pranksters by the stage door, including John Casaday. We went to say hello and were greeted like old friends and introduced to the others there. I was getting a flyer signed as a memento and everyone was cool about signing it. John was saying how he threw in a few Grateful Dead licks in on his guitar for Stephen while he was playing in the final jam. The quick hello turned into just hanging out by the theatre watching the merch sell from the makeshift stall in the street. Kesey was signing again, this time with Babbs from the back of the bus. The vehicle was surrounded and it was quite a melee, so I was content to stay back and hang out by the stage door instead.

A girl approached me carrying a large book about the Grateful Dead. Her boyfriend was a Dead Head and she wanted to get Mountain Girl’s signature in the book as a surprise for him, only she didn’t know who was who. Mountain Girl hadn’t left the theatre at this point, so when she finally came out I made the introduction and the girl got the book signed. As a mark of gratitude, she took my flyer out of my hand, told me she would be right back and disappeared towards the bus. I saw her duck into the crowd, popping up in front of Kesey and Babbs moments later. She held up my flyer and got it signed before ducking back out of the crowd with the same ease to return it to me with a smile. I have never forgotten that gesture. I really hope her boyfriend appreciated his signed book. I’m sure he did.

It was soon time for goodbyes and heading homeward. I doubt the Pranksters themselves remember us that well, but I still have such amazing memories of even that short while with them.

Author: A-M