1964. It’s the middle of what is looked back on as being, arguably, America’s most turbulent decade (at least the most turbulent right behind the 1860s).The Civil Rights Movement is underway, the war in Vietnam is escalating, and, with that, the anti-war movement is growing. The strict social mores of the 1950s are falling away but the counterculture of the late 60s has not yet arrived.
It’s kind of a weird time. But things can always get weirder.
Enter: Ken Kesey.
Well actually, by 1964, Kesey was already a well-known author, having published the wildly successful One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1962. The book was inspired by Kesey’s time working in the mental health ward of a Menlo Park, CA hospital, where he witnessed patients being treated with LSD. Kesey volunteered for MKUltra, the CIA experiment in which subjects took hallucinogens like LSD and mescaline, and then began using LSD, which wasn’t illegal in the US until late 1966, recreationally.
Sometime in 1964, Kesey purchased a 1939 International Harvester school bus. He and The Merry Pranksters, a group of like-minded creatives and early hippies, including writer Neal Cassady, painted the bus in Day-Glo colors, named it “Furthur”, and took it on an acid-fueled cross-country trip. (It’s worth noting that they picked up Allen Ginsberg in New York.) That’s the most abbreviated version of that story ever told and to be honest, it feels wrong to shorten it so much. The trip was immortalized in one of my favorite books, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe and footage shot on the trip was finally turned into a documentary a few years ago. Both are fascinating and I highly recommend checking them out!
After completing their journey and returning to California, Kesey and his wife bought a home in La Honda, California, outside of San Francisco. Nestled in the mountains of northern California, Kesey painted the trees in the woods outside his home in Day-Glo colors and hid speakers around the forest. The Keseys began throwing parties where guests would take acid, sometimes unknowingly (not cool!), and wander through the woods, trying to survive the night as music emanated from the speakers. It was a wild ride.
While this sounds like an absolute nightmare to me, and some attendees would have agreed, the parties became popular. Even unexpected guests like the Hells Angels, whom Kesey met via Hunter S. Thompson, made appearances. Eventually, they became so popular that Kesey wanted a bigger venue. His home wasn’t cutting it anymore.
Before we go on, I want to make it clear that while Kesey undoubtedly turned quite a few people on to acid, he didn’t introduce it to California by any stretch of the imagination. It had been popular in fringe groups in the Bay Area since the early 60s and manufacturers like Owsley Stanley helped bring it more mainstream. (But not totally mainstream, it was still on the periphery of society.)
Cut to Thanksgiving 1965. Really, the day after Thanksgiving. The date of the first official Acid Test.
It was held in a ranch house called The Spread, home of Merry Prankster Ken Babbs. The event was “semi-public” and launched weekly Acid Tests as well as the career of a band called The Warlocks.
They later changed their name to The Grateful Dead. You may have heard of them.
Since the Test was held at Babbs’ house and the crowd was small, it was pretty similar to the parties Kesey had been having. The Pranksters were great at throwing parties, but not so great at marketing and event planning. They didn’t hire an event hall in time and their advertising was lackluster. In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe wrote, “About all the advertising they could do was confined to the day of the Test itself. Norman Hartweg had painted a sign on some cardboard and tacked it onto some boards Babbs had used as cue signs in the movie and put it up in the Hip Pocket Bookstore. Can YOU Pass the Acid Test?”
At the Test, movies were projected onto the walls of Babbs’ house (where Day-Glo “decorations” were painted) and the Pranksters provided the LSD and the music, although Jerry Garcia and members of what would become the Dead were there. Eight hours in, Kesey and Allen Ginsberg were debating about the war in Vietnam. And it was magical.
But it wasn’t what they envisioned.
The second Test would take place the following week on December 4, 1965. They were a bit more organized and Kesey managed to secure a venue in San Jose: the home of a “boho figure” known as “Big Nig.” (I know, I know.) They even advertised! Some flyers were drawn up with “CAN YOU PASS THE ACID TEST?” on them and tacked to trees and light poles outside of the San Jose Civic Auditorium. The Rolling Stones were playing there that night. The idea was that after the concert, people would come to the Acid Test and bring some of the energy from the concert with them.
The night was chaotic and electric. One of Jerry Garcia’s biographers, Sandy Try, went so far as to call it a “watershed moment” for the counterculture. Tom Wolfe wrote,
“They come piling into Big Nig’s, and suddenly acid and the worldcraze were everywhere, the electric organ vibrating through every belly in the place, kids dancing not rock dances, not the frug and the –what? –swim, mother, but dancing ecstacy, leaping, dervishing, throwing their hands over their heads like Daddy Grace’s own stroked-out inner-courtiers–yes!”
According to Paul Perry, author of On the Bus, 300-400 people were crammed into Big Nig’s house that night.
The Grateful Dead, who had changed their name by this time, blew six fuses in the house, undoubtedly adding to the atmosphere. (Big Nig asked for “rent” to pay for the blown fuses.) The Dead liked playing the Acid Tests because they didn’t have a setlist and they didn’t have to play “beer drinker music” (jazz). As Tom Wolfe put it, “For Kesey–they could just play.” Jerry Garcia would later say, “When we fell in with the acid tests we a started having the most fun we had ever had.”
The next week, on December 11, 1965, they did it again, just up the coast in Muir Beach, California. The Tests were held on Mondays because, according to Wavy Gravy, Monday was everyone’s day off.
I love that because it’s the same reason you or I would have to get together with friends and have a few drinks or veg out. But unlike the cost of a drink today, people could pay around $1 to get stoned and hear The Grateful Dead. (And when you or I get together with friends, it’s certainly not a watershed moment.)
The Muir Beach Test was special because that night Owsley Stanley, known as the “Johnny Appleseed of LSD”, was in attendance. He spent most of the night pushing a chair across the linoleum floor, making a horrible screeching sound. Despite distributing LSD up and down the California coast, no one in attendance had ever seen him take it before.
In that lodge on Muir Beach, where around 300 heads gathered, footage of the Pranksters’ bus trip was being projected while a strobe light flashed and people danced to…sounds. Carolyn Garcia, a Prankster with the nickname “Mountain Girl” who would go on to marry Jerry Garcia, said it…
“was a strange night. The poor band couldn’t get anything going…The lighting was bad in there and the band would go up and play for about 5 minutes and then they’d sit down; That was all they could do. “C’mon guys. Why aren’t you playing?”… ‘I don’t know. Why do we have to play?’ It was pretty funny. So then the Pranksters would play, and that was perfectly dreadful.”
Still, everyone had a great time…except Kesey. He thought things were getting too weird. Too many people. Too many bad vibes. The Acid Tests were done, he said.
Of course, they weren’t.
They continued through 1966 and spread south to Los Angeles and north to Oregon and Canada. There were also two three-day festivals, known as Trips Festivals, celebrating all things psychedelia. Of course, festivities included an Acid Test. The first of these festivals, held in January 1966, took place at Longshoremen’s Hall in San Francisco and is credited with bringing The Grateful Dead to the masses. Kesey had recently been busted for pot and had a warrant out for his arrest so he couldn’t just show up to the festival. In order to disguise himself, he dressed in a space suit, complete with helmet. He sat in the balcony and addressed the crowd over the PA system. The cops knew it was him but no one could find him.
A true Prankster.
And it was in 1966 that the phrase “electric kool-aid” came into existence. At the Watts Acid Test, Wavy Gravy…well, let him tell you. In a 2004 interview, he said,
“Although [Wolfe] did maintain that I put the acid in the Kool-Aid at Watts — and I still have mothers hit me over the head with umbrellas for that one — I didn’t. In fact, I spent a good part of the evening saying the Kool-Aid on the right is for the children and the Kool-Aid on the left is the electric Kool-Aid. Get it? Nudge, nudge. My big falling out with the Pranksters is that I didn’t think people should take LSD unless they knew they were taking it.”
If this was an audio format, I’d insert a record scratch right here because on October 6, 1966, LSD became illegal in California. It was time to graduate from the Acid Tests.
The graduation was planned for Halloween night. Word got out that Kesey was planning one last Acid Test and on October 20, he was arrested. He told reporters, “taking acid is not the thing that’s happening anymore.” Never fear, Kesey got out on bail and the graduation went on as scheduled. Around 200 people showed up, along with numerous reporters and TV crews. In a strangely sad turn of events, The Grateful Dead had already committed to another gig and couldn’t be there. The Anonymous Artists of America played instead. There was a commencement ceremony where Neal Cassady handed out diplomas to veterans of the Tests. In his address, he stated, “It [is] time to move on; this doesn’t mean to stop taking acid, but to do something besides get stoned and go to rock ‘n’ roll dances.”
In the late 60s, Kesey and his family moved to Oregon, where he remained for the rest of his life. He continued to write, mostly articles and short stories. He allegedly hated the movie iteration of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He had a stroke in 1998 and died due to complications from surgery in 2001. He was 66.
In February 1968, Neal Cassady attended a wedding in Mexico. Sometime after the reception, he went for a walk alone. He was found in a coma near railroad tracks the next morning. He was taken to the hospital but died four days later. He was less than a week from his 42nd birthday. To this day, his cause of death is unknown.
The Grateful Dead went on to…well, become The Grateful Dead. They’re one of the biggest American bands of all time. Unfortunately, Jerry Garcia died of a heart attack in 1995. He was 53. His former wife, Carolyn Garcia AKA Mountain Girl, is 71 years old. She has written books on marijuana cultivation and, as the San Francisco Gate put it in 1997, “She never got off the bus.”
Speaking of the bus, Furthur went to Oregon with Kesey, where it fell into disrepair. In 1990, Kesey had another Furthur made, this time from a 1947 International Harvester. In 2014, Further 2, restored by his family, toured the country to mark the 50th anniversary of the original Further’s cross country trip.
Ken Kesey was the cultural link between the 1950s and 1960s. His Acid Tests, although a simple enough concept, changed the burgeoning counterculture in San Francisco. Some might say he was instrumental in creating it.
And, of course, those acid-fueled parties brought us The Grateful Dead. What a long, strange trip it’s been…
Sources not linked in post
The Acid Test Chronicles (containing excerpts from The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, On the Bus, and Captain Trips.)
Acid Tests Turn 50: Wavy Gravy, Merry Prankster Ken Babbs Look Back by Jesse Jarnow
From Eternity to Here by Charles Perry
The Psychedelic 60s from University of Virginia Library
Unforgettable photos of psychedelia and debauchery from the golden age of LSD by Thomas Page