1994-06-06: The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968)

by Tom Wolfe (1931-)

This book (genre: social history) documents the activities of Ken Kesey and the community that formed around him between ~1959 and 1967, concerned with the use of psychoactive substances (especially LSD) to achieve altered mind states. As such it documents some links between the Beat movement and the Psychedelic movement.

The first part of the book describes the wild bus trip of 1964, from San Francisco to New York, through the South, and (briefly) the return through the North, along with the meeting between Kesey and his Merry Pranksters and Timothy Leary’s group. A prominent figure, as in On the Road, is Neal Cassady. A characteristic of the Pranksters was documentation for “the archives” of their activities on audio tape and film (“the Movie”).

Kesey financed most of the activities of the early psychedelic movement from the proceeds of his novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (itself partly written under the influence or inspiration of LSD-induced mental states). After the bus trip, Kesey was prominent in the promotion of LSD to “open the doors of the mind”. He put on a series of public performances, called “Acid Tests”, at which LSD was ingested. These and the rowdiness that accompanied them naturally outraged many “straight” people. There was little legal recourse, since LSD was not illegal in California until 1966. Among the participants were some musical groups, especially the Grateful Dead, who developed the style known as acid-rock.

Kesey was also able to enlist another radically fringe group: the Hell’s Angels. These men used motorcycles, costume and other (violent or violence-threatening) behavior to promote their image as outlaws and to intimidate “straight” society. Yet Kesey’s charisma (and his acceptance of them on their own terms) entranced them into becoming allies. They were recruited on occasion to act as bodyguards or shock troops (although they proved unreliable).

Eventually Kesey was busted for marijuana possession, and opted to flee to Mexico. After a few months, he returned and, as a fugitive, appeared in newspapers and on TV in San Francisco, rubbing the nose of the FBI and local police in his ability to remain underground in the Haight-Ashbury community of heads. Yet, when he was captured he was released on bail.

Out on bail, Kesey set up a last great “Acid Test Graduation”, at which he was expected to announce the need to move beyond LSD. The organization of this test involved several people who had transformed the original Acid Test format into commercially successful “happenings”, regularly scheduled and legal. Though they at first agreed to cooperate and participate with Kesey, including signing the contract to rent a large hall, they later reneged, leaving Kesey to his own devices.

– – –

An interesting incident (not central to the narrative) involves Kesey’s participation in the Vietnam Day Committee anti-war rally at Berkeley in the fall of 1965. The Pranksters planned (if that’s not too strong a word) a great entrance, fitting up the bus in a dull red color and bristling with dummy gun-ports. They were to be led to the rally by a full-dress contingent of Hell’s Angels, and basically intrude on the activities. (No one admits to actually inviting Kesey, in light of the fiasco it turned into.) In the end, their arrival was hardly noticed, due to various mishaps. Kesey arrived so late he spoke next-to-last. The final speaker was to get the crowd wound up to fever-pitch and start them marching to the Oakland Army Terminal, starting point for many tours of Vietnam. Kesey waited his turn under the stage, watching an orator, listening to the sound of his amplified voice and feeling the crowd response, though he couldn’t hear the actual words. He was struck by the man’s resemblance, at least in manner and gesture, to Mussolini. When his turn came, he said so. He played “Home, home on the range” on a harmonica, and basically dampened the crowd, while the organizers steamed. His message was: You know you’re not gonna stop this war with this rally, by marching … that’s their game, holding rallies and marching … you’re playing their game, and they know how to win that one … they’ve been winning that one for ten thousand years … there’s only one thing to do … there’s only one thing’s gonna do any good at all … and that’s everybody just look at it, look at the war, and turn your backs and say … fuck it …

Even in Free Speech Berkeley, the phrase “fuck it” had a shocking impact, rolling out of the big speakers over the  heads of 15,000 people. In the end, the march fizzled out, rather than confront the police and national guard.

– – –

The memetic content of Kesey’s movement is primarily concerned with the development of a community around a single charismatic figure (or two, depending on the influence of Cassady), concerned with a well-defined set of problems, developing their own memes about those problems and propagating them to others. Kesey was not the first person to take LSD, nor the only person promoting it (even in San Francisco). He was able to attract people to him, and to hold their loyalty, partly because of his financial resources, and partly because of his personality. Some of these became disciples of his mind-opening message and some were simply in it for kicks. Kesey used the phrase “you’re either on the bus or you’re off the bus” to distinguish these.

The Prankster community and the outer fringe that clustered around them were drawn from many of the same kinds of people who had been Beatniks before 1966, and became the Hippies of 1967 and later. The inner and outer communities were opposed by other communities of the society: the police, the political leadership, the white middle-class parents of most of the younger (college age) participants.

Some of the memes of the communities:

  • opening doors
  • on the bus
  • in the movie
  • never trust a Prankster
  • beautiful people

Some references and memes from the work:

  • heads = acid heads

(Kesey, Oct/Nov 1966):

Its been my idea that it’s time to graduate from what’s been going on, to something else. The psychedelic wave was happening six or eight months ago when I went to Mexico. It’s been growing since then, but it hasn’t been moving. I saw the same stuff when I got back as when I left. It was just bigger, that was all – there’s been no creativity and I think my value has been to help create the next step. I don’t think there will be any movement off the drug scene until there is something to move to.

According to Wolfe, he was struck by “a strange phenomenon, that strange upcountry charisma, the Kesey presence.”

In 1966, Wolfe saw that “North Beach, the fabled North Beach, the old fatherland bohemia of the West Coast, always full of Big Daddy So-and-so … was dying. … The action was all over in Haight-Ashbury. … The old-style hip life – jazz, coffeehouses, civil rights, invite a spade for dinner, Vietnam – it was all suddenly dying, even among the students at Berkeley, heart of the ‘student rebellion’. It had even got to the point that Negroes were no longer in the hip scene, the very soul figures of Hip, of jazz, of the hip vocabulary itself, man and like and dig and baby and scarf and split and later and so fine … all over finished, incredibly.” His New York view was shown by the facts to be invalid,out of date.

He encountered Cassady in the garage, tossing and catching a small sledge-hammer to his (ticcy?) internal rhythm and incessant monologue. Someone repeated the legend that whenever Cassady missed the hammer, it was for a reason, to call attention to bad vibrations.

Some fragments/references:


p.30 Perry Lane

p.41 Cuckoo’s Nest

p.46 Carl Lehmann-Haupt – was he or a relative at Black Mountain?

snug harbor dead center vs. Edge City – metaphors for two opposite ways to live

Superhero as mythic figure, influence of superhero comics on Kesey and friends

p.55 intellectual communion & Cassady – he apparently craved recognition for his own thoughts, not just for his free-spirited nature

p.56 class fear & Hell’s Angels

p.56 pranks = great public put-ons

messing up the minds of the citizenry

p.40-50 the experience = the LSD experience

p.58 Youth’s three options: school, job, home. Boring!

p.62-63 the god Speed – Cassady

p.65 do our thing, right out front, none of us deny what other people are doing

p.74 on the bus or off the bus

p.78 crackups ~ Dope ?

p.89 playing people like music (also p.100)

p.90 Cassady the mercury for Kerouac & the whole Beat Generation; the mercury for Kesey & the whole – what?

p.92 Cosmo the Prankster God

p.95 rapping (off the Crypt Trip) ?

p.99 Group Mind & Cosmic Control

p.104 Attention – feed the hungry bee, a way to deal with bad trips and people bucking the community

p.111 Unspoken thing, weird shit, Edge City

p.112 If you label it this, then it can’t be that

Kesey the non-navigator, non-teacher

p.113 not religion,not theology, no ism, no goal of moral or social order, salvation or hereafter! here and now!!

the experience shared (LSD)

p.113 Founded religions based on overwhelming new experience (of the holy) (possession of the deity) (being a vessel of the divine, of the All-one)… leader, followers

p.114ff Joachim Wach paradigm of founding of religions, 1944

p.119 Beautiful People (LA, SF, NYC)

enough money to do this thing,live together with other kids – our own thing, without having to work at a job, live our on own terms – Us! and people our age! beautiful – a whole feeling, the straight world never understood it.

Beat generation & psychedelic drugs

p.123 Heinlein – Starnger in a Strange Land

p.125 Jung’s synchronicity ~ LSD experience

p.127 Go with the flow; put your good where it will do the most

p.127 Other World,higher level of reality, cosmic unity, feeling of timelessness

open doors of perception

p.127 I Ching a book of Now, the moment, the synch (of hexagram, now, layers, pattern)

p.128 Hermann Hesse, Journey to the East, 1932

p.129 Sensory lag, 1/30 sec or more, to react to sensory input

Present is a movie of the past, at least 1/30th sec ago

Historical & social lags, people living by what ancestors perceived, 25 or 50 or 100s of years ago.

Psychological lags, emotions remain behind because of training, education, the way you were brought up, blocks, hangups

p.130 God is red

In his movie, trapped in his script

p.131 Zea-lot the scapegoat/serpent

p.132 extend the message to all the people

p.134 the cop game/movie

p.136 immediate influence in hip-intellectual circles; prankster lifestyle

p.137 intellectual tourists

p.141 common intellectual currency – ideas, concoctions, brain candy, shadows of life, substitutes for living

p.143 why should I take your bad trip?

p.144 lazy = personal, self-centered

p.147 Since time was, the serious concerns of man have always been fights against catastrophe, against sickness, war, poverty, enslavement … but what to do in that scary void beyond catastrophe …

p.152 outlaw marijuana vs Hell’s Angels

ahor = ancient horror

p.158 the worst hangup that intellectuals know – the real-life hangup

p.159 Q: How do you pick new members [of Hell’s Angels]?

A: We don’t pick ’em. We recognize ’em.

bummer = bum trip = bad trip [HA slang]

p.160 people who are bullshit

p.166 can’t know an emotion until experience

p.167 Do it!

p.169 Control, drawing into a movie

p.172 the christ trip

the Prankster Thing was building up to some conclusion

p.183 Beatles & Control, don’t know what to do with it.

p.?? freak, freakout

[These fragments are only allusions to other fragments. Pulling these into a connected structure will be difficult.]


Print Friendly, PDF & Email