The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test


The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is Tom Wolfe’s classic book about southern California hippie culture from 1968. I had had this book kicking around my place for many years and even took it to Tristan da Cunha, but it was one of two books I did not manage to read while I was on the island. The Mississauga Library System chose this as a popular “Rave & Fave” a couple years ago, yet in spite of that timely nudge I chose not to read it until now. The main reason I put off reading it was that my 1969 paperback imprint (pictured) had the smallest type crammed onto now yellowed pages. It wasn’t an attractive or an easy read, to say the least, yet the library’s Raves & Faves designation enticed me to give it a go and I enjoyed Acid Test on my recent week-long trip to Florida.

Wolfe wrote about author Ken Kesey and his entourage of acidheads known as the Merry Pranksters. They had a flamboyantly painted bus which they named Furthur, and drove it across the US and into Mexico, on some of the trippiest highways at the time when LSD was still legal. Furthur was quite the sight as it rolled through town: 

“The painting job, meanwhile, with everybody pitching in in a frenzy of primary colors, yellows, oranges, blues, reds, was sloppy as hell, except for the parts Roy Seburn did, which were nice manic mandalas. Well, it was sloppy, but one thing you had to say for it; it was freaking lurid. The manifest, the destination sign in the front, read: ‘Furthur,’ with two u‘s.
“They took a test run up into northern California and right away this wild-looking thing with the wild-looking people was great for stirring up consternation and vague befuddling resentment among the citizens. The Pranksters were now out among them, and it was exhilarating–look at the mothers staring!–and there was going to be holy terror in the land.”

I found the spaced-out acid-drenched images quite astonishingly easy to read, and while the descriptions of LSD trips (mostly good, only a few bad) occupied entire pages with not a paragraph in sight, the imagery was easy to follow. I wonder if Wolfe himself dropped acid during his time with Kesey, because his descriptions of LSD trips were so lucid. Compare these to the high-on-horse incoherent ramblings of William S. Burroughs and you’ll know which is the literary drug of choice. I might regret saying this but Wolfe made the whole experience of dropping acid rather appealing. Judge my statement accordingly: I who have never even tried marijuana and who have never even allowed a tobacco cigarette to pass my lips is not about to seek out acid strips to lick. However I can see how anyone curious enough about tripping on LSD could make his mind up after reading this book. Had this been 1966, I might have joined them.

Kesey had a contemporary, Timothy Leary, who also publicly championed the mind-expanding qualities of LSD. Kesey and the Merry Pranksters were looking forward to a visit with Leary at the estate he and his own entourage were staying at. It was a bummer, to use acidhead parlance, when Furthur burst through with its Day-Glo swish and rock ‘n’ roll glitter, as no one in the Leary camp apparently cared:

“The Pranksters entered the twisty deep green Gothic grounds of Millbrook with flags flying, American flags all over the bus, and the speakers blaring rock ‘n’ roll, on in over the twisty dirt road, through the tangled greeny thickets, past the ponds and glades, like a rolling yahooing circus. When they got in sight of the great gingerbread mansion itself, all towers and turrets and jigsaw shingles, Sandy Lehmann-Haupt started throwing green smoke bombs off the top of the bus, great booms and blooms of green smoke exploding off the sides of the bus like epiphytes as the lurid thing rolled and jounced around the curves. We are here! We are here!
“The Pranksters expected the Learyites to come rolling out of the house like the survivors of the siege of Khartoum. Instead–a couple of figures there on the lawn dart back into the house. The Pranksters stop in front and there is just the big house sitting there sepulchral and Gothic–and them jumping off the bus still yahooing and going like hell. Finally a few souls materialize. Peggy Hitchcock and Richard Alpert and Susan Metzner, the wife of Dr. Ralph Metzner, another leading figure in the Leary group. Alpert looks the bus up and down and shakes his head and says, ‘Ke-n-n-n Ke-e-e-esey…’ as if to say I might have known that you would be the author of this collegiate prank. They are friendly, but it is a mite…cool here, friends. Maynard Ferguson, the jazz trumpet player, and his wife, Flo, are there, and they groove over the bus, but the others…there is a general…vibration…of: We have something rather deep and meditative going on here, and you California crazies are a sour note.”

So while the meeting between the two acid czars was anticlimactic, Kesey and the Merry Pranksters did strike up a surprising friendship with none other than the Hell’s Angels. It was amazing how much the Pranksters, and Kesey himself, could get away with, shooting off their mouths towards the Hell’s Angels no less, as long as they were surfing high on acid. I half expected the Angels to beat Kesey’s brain in.

That said, the antics of those who are flying sky high can make for some riotous reading. How could they drive such an enormous bus without causing an accident or a fatality? How can you keep your eyes on the road when you’re too preoccupied dodging space aliens? How could they elude the police when Kesey was on the run–on the run in a gigantic psychedelically-painted bus? I found the antics Kesey employed to escape the long arm of the law by crossing the border into Mexico to be quite hilarious.

LSD was not the only drug used regularly by the Merry Pranksters, as there was plenty of grass smoking and pill-popping as well. Sleep aids were in need when you were flying high for 48 hours on uppers:

“The Pranksters now realized that Sandy was in a bad way. Kesey had a saying, ‘Feed the hungry bee.’ So the Pranksters set about showering…Attention on Sandy, to try to give him a feeling of being at the cool center of the whole thing. But he kept misinterpreting their gestures. Why are they staring? His insomnia became more and more severe. One night he walked down the road to the housing development, Redwood Terrace, to try to borrow some Sominex. He was just going to walk up to a door in the middle of the night and knock and ask for some Sominex. Somehow he had the old New York apartment-house idea that you walk down the hall and borrow a cup of sugar, even if you don’t know the people. So he starts knocking on doors and asking for Sominex. Of course, they all either panic and shut the door or tell him to fuck off. The people of Redwood Terrace were a little paranoid themselves by this time about the crazies down the road at Kesey’s.”

What I found surprising throughout Acid Test was that LSD use was far more widespread–and occurred a lot earlier among Kesey and his followers–than I had thought. I had heretofore believed that tripping on LSD was more of a 1967 phenomenon, not realizing that Kesey was dropping acid regularly by 1965. For example, Wolfe wrote about the Pranksters attending a Beatles concert at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. A look at the dates of the Beatles’ American tour schedules shows that they played two shows at the Cow Palace on 31 August 1965. I as a Beatles fan found this section particularly interesting, as it captured the feelings of fans who were there in the audience. It also captured the environment of a busful of doped-up acidheads barrelling through San Francisco, waiting to be blissed out by the British Invasion:

“Each group of musicians that goes off the stage–the horde thinks now the Beatles, but the Beatles don’t come, some other group appears, and the sea of girls gets more and more intense and impatient and the screaming gets higher, and the thought slips into Norman’s flailing flash-frayed brain stem ::: the human lung cannot go beyond this :::: and yet when the voice says And now–the Beatles–what else could he say?–and out they come on stage–them–John and George and Ringo and uh the other one–it might as well have been four imported vinyl dolls for all it was going to matter–that sound he thinks cannot get higher, it doubles, his eardrums ring like stamped metal with it and suddenly Ghhhhhhwooooooooowwwwww, it is like the whole thing has snapped, and the whole front section of the arena becomes a writhing, seething mass of little girls waving their arms in the air, this mass of pink arms, it is all you can see, it is like a single colonial animal with a thousand waving pink tentacles–it is a single colonial animal with a thousand waving pink tentacles,  –vibrating poison madness and filling the universe with the teeny agony torn out of them. It dawns on Kesey: it is one being. They have all been transformed into one being. –Mountain Girl grins and urges them on–its scream does not subside for a moment, during after or between numbers, the Beatles could be miming it for all it matters.”

The Beatles obviously weren’t deemed uncool for the acid crowd, yet it was the Grateful Dead who became known as the era’s acid band. They evolved through the Kesey group and for fans of Jerry Garcia and those interested in the earliest days of the Dead, Acid Test is essential reading. I found the description of the preparations for an early Dead gig to be quite a laugh:

“The Dead had an organist called Pig Pen, who had a Hammond electric organ, and they move the electric organ into Big Nig’s ancient house, plus all of the Grateful Dead’s electrified guitars and basses and the Pranksters’ electrified guitars and basses and flutes and horns and the light machines and the movie projectors and the tapes and mikes and hi-fis, all of which pile up in insane coils of wires and gleams of stainless steel and winking amplifier dials before Big Nig’s unbelieving eyes. His house is old and has wiring that would hardly hold a toaster.”

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is a Day-Glo time capsule of life on the road, fuelled by hippies high on acid on a kaleidoscope bus. It has aged well, and one is not left laughing at the descriptions of fashions or the phrases that were used then. For fans of Kesey and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which he wrote in 1962, Acid Test takes the reader on a trip exploring Cuckoo‘s aftermath. I recommend it for its historical portrait of a time when life, sex and drugs flowed copiously in the early ages of acid discovery.

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