5 Groovy Things You’ll Learn from “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”

Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) is a perfect time capsule.

Reading it today is like taking an acid trip in Mr. Peabody’s “way back machine”–it’s a frenetic, dizzying, eye-popping journey into the heart and soul of what would become known as the psychedelic era.

Acid Test is the ideal vehicle for glimpsing and vicariously experiencing the foolish/noble/brave/excessive experiment in living and consciousness that Ken Kesey and his band of followers (the so-called Merry Pranksters) ushered in.

The hippie/psychedelic movement–and what it ultimately represented–has been fiercely debated for over four decades now. But there is no debate that the one indispensable chronicle of that era is The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

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For many people nowadays, the hippie/psychedelic era is pretty much summed-up by the love beads and tie-dyed shirts and headbands they don for a Halloween costume party.

But Wolfe’s book is a vivid reminder of how much more was going on back then. Yes, there was epic foolishness and epic posturing and loads of questionable, risky, even dangerous behavior . . . but there was also something uplifting and daring and even–can we say it now?–admirable about the whole crazy enterprise.

Re-reading Acid Test in 2014, you realize that many of the hallmarks (and eventual clichés) of the hippie era were actually invented by Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. Not just the trappings, but the root essence of the era. This is all captured and distilled in Wolfe’s ground-breaking and still thrilling account.

So here are 5 GROOVY THINGS you can learn from reading The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test:

tom wolfe

GROOVY THING #1:

It’s impossible to write about Wolfe’s writing WITHOUT . . . starting to MIMIC HIS STYLE!!!!:::::::YEEEESSSS!!

Wolfe has his detractors, but for those of us who buy into his approach and style, his prose is so much fun that it starts seeping into our pores. His writing bristles with energy and vitality . . . it wriggles on the page like a living thing. It’s so organic and tactile I found it hard to pick out short quotes to capture the essence of his style.

His words swirl and swoop and dive and double-back and soar. Half the time, you find yourself just holding on for dear life.

Here he is trying to define the essence of the Prankster world view, trying to figure out what it all means. You can see his mind working:

. . . there was no theology to it, no philosophy, at least not in the sense of an ism. There was no goal of an improved moral order in the world or an improved social order, nothing about salvation and certainly nothing about immortality or the life hereafter. Hereafter! That was a laugh. If there was ever a group devoted totally to the here and now it was the Pranksters.  I remember puzzling over this. There was something so . . . religious in the air, in the very atmosphere of the Prankster life, and yet one couldn’t put one’s finger on it. On the face of it there was just a group of people who had shared an unusual psychological state, the LSD experience–

But exactly! The experience–that was the word! and it began to fall into place. . . .

He goes on to detail how the LSD experience was similar to the kind of transcendent experience that all the great world religions (Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, etc.) were founded on:

” . . . none of them began with a philosophical framework or even a main idea. They all began with an overwhelming new experience . . . the sense of being a vessel of the divine, of the All-one. . . .”

And that experience is at the heart of the Acid Test–dividing the uninitiated from the initiated, the profane from the holy, the straight from the stoned. As Jimi Hendrix would famously ask: “Have you ever been experienced?”

And has there has ever been a more seamless match between subject matter and style than this book? I don’t think so.

kool-aid bus

GROOVY THING #2:

The SEEDS OF THE HIPPIE ERA were actually sewn–not at Woodstock in 1969, nor in the “Summer of Love” in 1967, not even in Haight-Ashbury in 1966–but much earlier . . . in the EARLY SIXTIES . . . . . . . . . . . .  By the time the REST OF THE COUNTRY was hip to Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, their thing was ESSENTIALLY OVER!!!!!

It’s amazing to realize that Ken Kesey was one of the very first in the whole world to try the new drug, LSD (years before it would become widespread and then criminalized). Starting in 1959, Kesey volunteered for a government-sponsored experimental program at the Veterans Hospital in Menlo Park, California in which he was given a number of “psychomimetic” drugs (including mescaline, cocaine, psilocybin, DMT, and, of course, LSD). It was LSD that Kesey found to be the most profoundly mind-altering. And the psychedelic era was abornin’ . . .

In the early 1960s, Kesey began his serious experiment in drug-taking and consciousness-altering in Perry Lane, a bohemian enclave situated across from a golf course, near Stanford University. Kesey attracted a group of like-minded experimentalists and away they went:

It was a strange feeling for all these good souls to suddenly realize that right here on woody thatchy little Perry Lane, amid the honeysuckle and dragonflies and boughs and leaves . . . this amazing experiment in consciousness was going on, out on a frontier neither they nor anybody else ever heard of before.

Later Kesey moved his group (what would later be called a “commune,” I suppose) to La Honda, California, a more remote location where this experiment in living would flower.

It’s hard to imagine how the rest of the country would have reacted to what Kesey and his followers (who eventually came to calling themselves the Merry Pranksters) were doing out there. The music provided by The Warlocks (eventually to be renamed The Grateful Dead), the Day-Glo posters, the drug-taking parties with the Hell’s Angels (!!!). Remember, this was years before LSD became a mainstream drug, before the term “hippie” had been coined, before the “Sixties” had really started:

And by and by, of course, the citizens of La Honda and others would start wondering . . . what are the ninnies doing? How to tell it? But there was no way to tell them about the experience. You couldn’t put it into words. . . .  The citizens couldn’t know about the LSD experience, because that door had never opened for them. To be on the threshold of–Christ! how to tell them about the life here? The Youth had always had only three options: go to school, get a job or live at home. And–how boring each was!–compared to the experience of . . . the infinite . . .

ken kesey

GROOVY THING #3:

KEN KESEY was one cool, LARGER-THAN-LIFE dude!!!!

He was voted “most likely to succeed” in high school. Was a star wrestler for the University of Oregon (a BMOC as they used to say back in the day). A grad student in the creative writing program at Stanford. Respected and popular novelist with the publication of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962).

Wolfe paints Kesey as the classic charismatic leader: who leads not by force or bribery or trickery but simply because he is attractive and appealing and exudes  . . .  a larger-than-life aura . . . that makes others want to follow. Even though the Merry Pranksters were supposedly a purely democratic little club, there was little doubt that Kesey was their de facto leader.

Here is the way a late joiner to the Pranksters remembered Kesey:

Kesey was the most magnetic person she had ever met. He radiated something, a kind of power. His thoughts, the things he talked about, were very complex and metaphysical and cryptic but his manner was back-home, almost back-country. Even while he was reeking with paranoia, he seemed to have total confidence. That was very strange. He could make you feel like part of something very . . . He had even given her a new name, Black Maria. . . .

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GROOVY THING #4: 

Many of the HALLMARKS (and what were to become the ENDURING CLICHES) of the HIPPIE ERA were actually . . . . GET THIS!!!  . . . INVENTIONS of Kesey and the Merry Pranksters!!!! YESSS . . .

Ever wonder where the Haight-Ashbury scene actually came from?  The seeds of the San Francisco’s “Summer of Love” in 1967? Day-Glo poster art? Strobe Lights? “Acid rock” and Edge City bands such as the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Jefferson Airplane? Amoeba light shows? Black lights? Brightly painted VW mini-vans tooling around the country crammed with freaks and freakettes??? Kids dressing up in tie-dyed shirts, headbands, American Indian garb, costumes of all sorts? Communal living? And, of course, the LSD experience as the main portal to a new consciousness?

You can thank (or blame–depending on your point of view) Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters for virtually all of the above . . .

By the time the hippie era had firmly taken hold, of course, Kesey was on the run in Mexico from drug charges and was already beginning to become distanced from the very scene and lifestyle he had helped birth. Even a visionary like Kesey couldn’t have foreseen how widely and rapidly his movement would become adopted:

The Watts test in L.A. [in February, 1966], coming on top of the Trips Festival in San Francisco, had caused the fast-rising psychedelic thing to explode right out of the underground in a way nobody had dreamed of . . . This new San Francisco-L.A. LSD thing, with wacked-out kids and delirious rock ‘n’ roll, made it seem like the dread LSD had caught on like an infection among the youth–which, in fact, it had. Very few realized that it had all emanated from one electric source: Kesey and the Merry Pranksters.

merry-pranksters-1

[Timothy Leary visiting with Neal Cassady on the bus in 1964]

GROOVY THING #5:

The Merry Pranksters’ fabled bus trip of 1964 represents the logical culmination of Kerouac’s “ON THE ROAD” adventures. . . . . . Amazingly, NEAL CASSADY–the hyper-active, chain-smoking, pill-popping, lunatic driver–is a MAJOR FIGURE in both counter-cultural road stories!!!!!!

Imagine you are a farmer sleepily driving his tractor down the road somewhere in the mid-west in the summer of 1964. Suddenly you come upon . . .  a 1939 International Harvester bus covered in Day-Glo paint and festooned with the most vibrant, eye-popping images you have ever seen. At the wheel is one Neal Cassady (the figure on whom Kerouac’s Dean Moriarity was based), driving like an amphetamine-fueled madman (which he was).

Meanwhile, assorted weirdly costumed . . . FREAKS (there really is no other word) . . .  are hanging out of the windows of the bus, hooting and gesticulating, while one of the band, movie camera in hand, is shooting the entire scene as the bus barrels past. The front of the bus has a sign that says FURTHUR. As it rumbles on by, the sign on the rear bumper reads, CAUTION: WEIRD LOAD . . .  What to think?

Wolfe captures the weird and wonderful adventures of the Merry Pranksters as they made their epic 1964 cross-country road trip. By-standers didn’t realize that they were seeing the future rumble by, weren’t quite prepared for what else would be coming down the road in the next few years.

Even Timothy Leary and his east-coast LSD disciples didn’t quite know what to make of these madmen/madwomen. They were pretty cool towards Kesey and his ragged band when the Pranksters showed up uninvited to Leary’s sedate and tranquil Millbrook, NY retreat.

But really, who could have known how to react to Kesey and the Merry Pranksters?

. . . nobody really comprehended what was going on, except that it was a party. It was a party, all right. But in July of 1964 not even the hip world in New York was quite ready for the phenomenon of a bunch of people roaring across the continental U.S.A. in a bus covered with swirling Day-Glo mandalas aiming movie cameras and microphones at every freaking thing in this whole freaking country while Neal Cassady wheeled the bus around the high curves like super Hud and the U.S. nation streamed across the windshield like one of those goddamned Cinemascope landscape cameras . . .

So being “on the bus” became a kind of short-hand for the dividing line between the hip and the square, the holy fools and the establishment, the experienced and the non-experienced:

“There are going to be times,” says Kesey, “when we can’t wait for somebody. Now, you’re either on the bus or off the bus. If you’re on the bus, and you get left behind, then you’ll find it again. If you’re off the bus in the first place–then it won’t make a damn.” And nobody had to have it spelled out for them. Everything was becoming allegorical, understood by the group mind, and especially this: “You’re either on the bus . . . or off the bus.”

A PERSONAL NOTE . . .

Let me make one thing perfectly clear: I was definitely not “on the bus.”

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test still has particular resonance for me because back then, I was on the edges of the whole hippie scene. But never dead center.

Why? Mostly because of my age and temperament.

I was a little too young to be a real “hippie.” (I was only 12 when the famous “FURTHUR” bus trip happened; only 15 during the “Summer of Love.”) Even when I went to Woodstock, it was only because my older sister, Liz, was kind enough to let me tag along with her and her college friends (it was the summer before my senior year of high school). So the hippie life appealed but hard-core hippies tended to be a somewhat older crowd.

And temperamentally, I guess I was a little too straight. My roots were working-class, so while others kids might have felt comfortable blowing their parents’ tuition money and running off to San Francisco, I was busy working my way through college.

Finally, I was never really a drug-taker. Sure, like many kids my age I had smoked the occasional reefer. But never anything much harder. When I finally got around to trying LSD, I was already in grad school and experimented with it once. (It was a positive experience that I’ve never felt the necessity of repeating.)

Here’s what I and some of my family looked like back then.

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The photo above was taken in the early 1970s by my sister Claire (too bad she’s not in the picture, she was the most photogenic of us all). We are in front of the carousel in Central Park. From left to right:

  • Ed, my younger brother who would become a darned good musician
  • Liz, my older sister (she took me to Woodstock–bless her heart)
  • Susan, my then girlfriend, now lovely wife (of nearly 40 years!)
  • Me, with a very unfortunate Fu Manchu mustache
  • Phil, my brother-in-law, looking very Carlos Santana-ish (Phil and I attended Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys’ 1969 New Year’s Eve concert at the Fillmore East)

Suffice it to say we’ve all had better hair days.

FINALLY . . .

So for all you former hippies out there, or quasi-hippies like me, or hippies in spirit (like some of my younger acquaintances)–make the effort to read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. It’s a LONG, STRANGE TRIP . . . but well worth it.

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29 Comments

Filed under baby boomers, books, literature

29 responses to “5 Groovy Things You’ll Learn from “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”

  1. Barbara127

    ERIC–what a mustache! Very impressive. I too was too young to be a real part of all the craziness described in that book, but it held a great allure: the freedom, the comradery, the mind altering substances. Alas, I was just a suburban chick reading “Acid Test” in paperback form at the beach. But as we know, I am still a hippie at heart. I think I read that book 6 times. Far out!

    • I was so stinking proud of that mustache! File under: What the Hell were they THINKING? Acid Test is still one of my all-time favorite books — Wolfe captures that whole scene so perfectly. (Don’t know why you say “alas” . . . reading a paperback of “Acid Test” on the beach doesn’t sound so bad . . .) Thanks so much for commenting.

  2. What a fun post! Brings back many happy memories from that era. Love that family picture! And I agree with Barbara’s comment above: that ‘stache is one for the ages!!!

    • So glad you like the post. I was a little worried because it’s kind of on the long side, but like eating post-reefer brownies, once I started writing . . . I just couldn’t stop. And please, no more comments on the mustache!

  3. What a fun, interesting piece! It was especially enlightening for someone like me, who wasn’t able to experience the psychedelic 60′s firsthand. On the movie side of things, I’d recommend checking out two far-out flicks from the late 60′s, if you haven’t seen them–The Trip (’67) and Psych-Out (’68). Both are incredibly goofy, but capture that psychedelic spirit pretty well, I think!

    • Thanks so much for reminding me of those two great film relics from the psychedelic era! I love (and had almost totally forgotten about) both of them.

      I actually remember seeing a revival of “The Trip” when I was in grad school (at our local art cinema). Saw it with my friend John D. — who after seeing the movie (which is about a guy taking his first LSD trip), suggested that we drop some acid ourselves. We did so at his apartment the next day (this was my first and only LSD experience). He lived in married student housing, near the Rutgers football stadium. We walked over to the game, stoned out of our minds, which made for an extremely interesting and entertaining way to watch inter-collegiate football. NCAA officials take note!

  4. Such a good post! I want to draw my fellow readers into a circle, and share our thoughts…please pass the brownies (unlaced, sugar free, gluten free; ok, never mind ) on the people and the literature of those days. Side note-you casually dropped a nugget that is the GOLD STANDARD of the 60’s…you went to Woodstock!!! Holy cows on crutches, even if you were 12, that’s a story to tell! Please share, someday.

    • Thanks so much for reading along and commenting. We boomers have to stick together (they’re out to get us you know!).

      Funny you should mention Woodstock — that was a serendipitous happening and there are some funny stories to share. (btw, I had just recently turned 17 at the time).

      You’ve inspired me to write a post about it — which I will at some future date. For now, one interesting thing about it was that I and my future wife both happened to be at Woodstock — but we didn’t know each other at the time and wouldn’t meet for a couple of years after. But we always took it as some kind of cosmic sign (which it probably was).

  5. Nice post, Erich. I never read “Acid Test,” though I was a big fan of Kesey (and am a sometime fan of Wolfe), but now I feel as if you have filled in a gap for me. The prose is striking, both Wolfe’s and yours. But really my favorite thing is the picture of your family and Sue. I’d forgotten that Marlboro Man smile of yours. Thanks.

    • Thanks, Jack. As I mentioned in a previous post, one of the unexpected bonuses of writing this blog is the opportunity to connect with some old and dear friends (of whom you are near the top of the list!).

      I wasn’t sure about including that family photo (btw, thanks to Phil and Claire Palma for providing it). But I thought it might add a little more texture to the piece to demonstrate that we all looked a little hippie-ish and weird back in the day.

      Like you, I am not a lover of all things Wolfe, but in Acid Test (as in The Right Stuff) you have to give it to the guy, he really nailed it. Thanks again for commenting — I really look forward to seeing your take on things.

  6. marie

    You should be radically proud of that ‘stache even now. You look magnificent & COOL.
    Thanks for the derivation of “on the bus.” I so love the latest variant, “Nuns on the Bus” – another movement with a different wardrobe – fighting for social justice.
    Interesting to read that hippie-dom was started by these utterly carefree hedonic guys. Why is it that only these men are remembered and celebrated? Surely there were women who also experimented at the time. Why doesn’t Grace Slick for example get a mention – separate from her role in Jefferson Airplane. I loved their music.

    Like you I’ve always admired the gloriously dapper Tom Wolfe. I never read his early work. His “From Bauhaus to Our House” was the first for me. And I devoured “Bonfire” like so many NYers in that era. Another novel about heedless, reckless, self-besotted characters. I remember seeing at least 8 readers in one subway car one day. Too bad the movie was dreck.

    • Hi Marie — thanks for reading and commenting! There definitely were some women included in the Merry Pranksters — Wolfe does mention them throughout Acid Test (although the guys–Kesey, Cassady, et al — tended to get more attention). At least it’s better than the treatment women typically got from the Beats from the previous generation — the women in Kerouac’s On the Road, for one, really get short shrift.

      Funny you should mention the Jefferson Airplane — I’ve been listening to them a lot lately (trying to get into the spirit of Acid Test). One of their songs that I’ve rediscovered is called “Good Shepherd” and it’s fantastic — I’ve been telling people to go out and give it a listen. Most of it features acoustic guitar, but there’s this electric guitar part that comes in every now and then that just blows me away. Give it a listen if you get a chance.

      Anyway, always love to hear your comments. Thanks again.

  7. Before my time, but those drugs really unleashed a lot of creativity. Music was king too. To listen to it now, it still seems fresh. So you are a Woodstock hippie? Cool, never ran into one.

    • You make me sound like some sort of rarely sighted jungle creature, but that’s OK, I guess.

      As I tried to make clear at the end of my post, no I wasn’t a hippie but I was and still am a huge music lover. Woodstock (or Bethel as it turned out) was only a couple of hours away from where I lived in Northern New Jersey.

      And we didn’t know when we went up there that it was going to become this big cultural watershed — just seemed like a fun concert to attend, with an awesome line-up of performers. We didn’t realize how big a deal it had become until we go home and saw all the news coverage. My favorite headline was from the always dependably right-wing New York Daily News (the Fox News of its day): “Hippies Mired in a Sea of Mud.”

      Thanks, as always, for commenting. btw, Loved the wintry Niagara Falls photos in your latest post! Here’s the link for anyone interested in seeing some awesome nature pics: http://gardenwalkgardentalk.com/2014/01/30/niagara-falls-is-not-closed-nor-is-it-frozen-but-it-is-beautiful/

  8. Ah, I remember that book and those days. I was more of a Bohemian, but my daughter was a Flower Child of the 60’s. Loved the music. Loved the young people trying to change things, but the heart was ripped out of them with the deaths of JFK and Bobby. That generation had change right in their hands, and then they let it drop after that. The only drawback, for me, were the dangerous drugs, such as LSD. Too many young people died as a result,and others had their brains fried. But, finally, “the times were achangin'”

    • Thanks for the comments and the follow. We former English teachers have to stick together! (I was in the Ph.D. program in English at Rutgers many, many moons ago. Taught English Comp and a couple of Intro to Lit courses as a TA.) I guess I was neither a bohemian or a hippie — just an admirer of both.

  9. I’ve not read this for years. I think I’ll dig it out later this year.

    • Yeah, Acid Test is definitely worth a look. Also, it’s fun if you are a music lover — to see the milieu where The Grateful Dead, The Jefferson Airplane (before they became the Starship and got awful), and Big Brother and the Holding Company (with Janis Joplin) emerged from. Thanks for following and commenting.

      • I really enjoyed that first time round. Janis was at her best with BBHC. Don’t get me wrong Kozmic Blues was brilliant, and Jefferson were great with Grace Slick. Man I need to read that book again…

  10. Really liked this last post. You always make me want to go out and read the books you discuss. Thanks.

  11. Reblogged this on BEATNIKHIWAY and commented:
    Very good article

  12. Rick Agresta

    Erich, Just read the EC-AAT blog post. Man, you can write! Took me back right to the time and place. So, here is a funny aside, I also attended the Jimi Hendrix Band of Gypsys concert at the Fillmore East that New Year’s Eve. I took my then girlfriend from St. Doms and a small flask with some foul brew in my pocket. It is definitely possible that I did not recognize you with that interesting facial hair, if you had that look in high school.

    • Wow. My head is about to explode. We were both at the New Year’s Eve Band of Gypsies concert and didn’t know it? What are the odds?

      [An aside for those of you wondering what’s going on: Rick and I were childhood buds — really tight from ages 12-15 or so. After my freshman year of high school (St Peter’s Prep, Jersey City, NJ), my family moved way out to the suburbs. No internet, Facebook, cheap long distance service back then, so to my deep regret, Rick and I lost touch over the years. . . . Until I did a post last year about reading “Earthblood” — this sci-fi novel that Rick and I devoured in our adolescence. Writing that post prompted me to look him up. Long story short, we recently hooked up again after nearly 50 years!!! And, somehow, the magic was still there.]

      Now to discover that we were both at that same Jimi Hendrix concert. Wonder how many other times our paths unknowingly crossed over the years? Have to compare notes, Rick. BTW, I was on my HS basketball team and looked much straighter than the photo in this post (some folks likened my look to Glen Campbell, which I did not take as a compliment). Now we definitely have to get together soon and compare notes . . . hmmm . . . you didn’t happen to go to Woodstock in August 1969 did you?

  13. Rick Agresta

    One more comment. We read Tom Wolfe’s short story “Mau Mauing the Flack Catchers” in Business School in 1979. The class was Business and the Changing Environment and the purpose was to show us how special interest groups could get their way without very many members, by employing savvy PR techniques. Might be worth a re-read as well.

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