Features & Columns

Sonic Sutra

A trip to Canada to see Ken Kesey's sound system leads back to San Jose and Stevens Music
HOLY AUDIBLES: The Cantos Music Foundation displays the PA system used on Ken Kesey's famous bus.

THE anti-man-about-town recently made the equivalent of a mystical Sufi pilgrimage when he visited the Cantos Music Foundation in Calgary, Alberta, and set eyes upon the actual PA system used by Ken Kesey on the Merry Prankster bus in the mid-'60s. Kesey was often quoted as saying, "The need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer," and for this pilgrimage, that was definitely the case.

Constructed by electronic-sound synthesis pioneer Don Buchla with modules similar to the ones he had designed for the San Francisco Tape Music Center, the box was used to amplify and broadcast passengers on the bus, especially when the pranksters drove across the country in 1964.

If you don't know who Buchla is, well, just about every person currently playing a synthesizer has him to thank. His original modular electronic music systems forever changed the way sound is created and controlled.

During the initial stages of the '60s counterculture, before the hippies really emerged and when LSD was still legal, Buchla crossed paths with Ken Kesey and the result was this box. It now sits under a glass case as part of a mind-blowing collection of vintage keyboard instruments at the Cantos Foundation. Just being in the same room with this system felt like a mystical experience. It was like visiting the Bodhi Tree, where the Buddha first achieved enlightenment. I felt like dropping to my knees and bowing down on the floor.

The Cantos Music Foundation currently occupies a multistory building in downtown Calgary, offering a synthesis of programs, workshops and tours for the general public. It will eventually move to a brand new National Music Centre in Calgary's East Village, complete with more collections, exhibitions, a performing arts theater and much more. But for right now, the foundation has 2,000 musical artifacts in its collection, including what has to be the largest variety of keyboard instruments in the world, plus vintage recording equipment and electronic artifacts. They acquired the Buchla Box from a private collector in 2003. They would not tell me how much they paid for it.

Given Kesey's well-documented connections to San Jose, a few curious connections emerged from the transdimensional ether upon experiencing this box. Basically, anyone involved with that era is only a few degrees of separation from San Jose's Gordon Stevens, whose family operated Stevens Music on Lincoln Avenue for decades.

For example, in the mid-'60s, Kesey's attorney, Paul Robertson, lived in the Rosegarden neighborhood, and Kesey often parked the bus in front of Robertson's house, underneath the sycamore trees. Stevens and Robertson played in a band called Flower; they were the house band at the Poppycock in Palo Alto.

According to Stevens, Kesey gave them some of the dough he'd made from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, with which they purchased the band equipment and recording gear. When I showed up at his office, Stevens said he just recently discovered the original tapes from those sessions. Robertson played saxophone and flute, while Stevens played bass and mandolin.

Also, as Stevens recalls, he and Robertson joined one of the Merry Pranksters, Steve Lambrecht, a.k.a. Zonker, and synthesized LSD into capsules at another house in the Rosegarden. Again, this is when LSD was still legal, and Zonker apparently had a connection in the chemistry department at San Jose State who supplied the beakers. "That was one of the first times LSD was made in capsule form," Stevens said. "Owsley hadn't really gone big time yet."

After enlightening me with such history, Stevens said he just watched on demand the new film about the Merry Pranksters' journey across the United States—Magic Trip: Ken Kesey's Search for a Kool Place—which debuts at Camera 3 this weekend.

Just like a modular synthesizer, all of this seems connected with patch cords. I guess I have the Cantos Foundation in Calgary to thank. I don't even need to drop acid. I have knocked, the doors have opened, and the cosmic mystery is unfolding.

Magic Trip

Opens August 12