In today’s society, it seems as though many people use drugs to escape from something. Getting high is what you do to forget the bills are unpaid, the past is a memory you need to erase, school is too stressful, your life is in shambles-the world is a place you don’t want to be. The mood and lifestyle of the 1960’s when Tom Wolfe interviewed Ken Kesey and the people belonging to his commune, The Merry Pranksters, was entirely different. As the first generation of young people growing up after WWII, these kids rebelled like no American youth had before them. The drugs they experimented with were not taken as a mode of escapism, they were meant to explore other dimensions of the mind.
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is Tom Wolfe’s journalistic endeavor to peer into the world of Ken Kesey who had recently been jailed for possession of marijuana. Kesey had given an interview where he mentioned the need to ‘go beyond’ acid. When Wolfe questioned him about this, he responded that it was time for people ‘to graduate’ from acid. As a drug, acid had been done long enough; it was time to get more creative. Kesey was a man people listened to. He needed to ‘be the lightning, not the seismograph.’ Unbelievably, in exchange for his freedom, the FBI agreed to let Kesey out of jail if he agreed to tell youth to stop using acid. Kesey concurred because this was his way of promoting his idea of moving beyond the drug. He would have an ‘acid graduation’ ceremony.
The coverage of the event deemed the ‘acid graduation’ is an impressing reading experience. Wolfe is there to see first-hand, Kesey’s followers, the Merry Pranksters, their 1939 bus decked out in an array of colors-ACID TEST GRADUATION banner sprawled out across the side with loud speakers blaring announcements from the roof. He describes hippies running around wearing torn apart pieces of American flags and flowers in their hair. The reader actually feels as though they are caught up in the midst of a Grateful Dead song .
There are few writers who have had the opportunity to be around to record the excitement, beauty, and craziness that was the 60’s counterculture in a moment such as this. Wolfe records his surroundings and the thoughts of the people he sees. At the same time, he makes judgments that he doesn’t necessarily have the right to make as a journalist. The Pranksters have a lifestyle and perspective that is uniquely their own. They live in a warehouse which has no bathroom and must use one at the gas station across the street. They also speak about life and the world using allegories and hyperboles. Wolfe looks down on them, pointing out that despite their mostly middle-class upbringing; they chose to live in poor conditions. The way they talk, he claims, is ‘phony.’ He seems to miss the reason for the Pranksters’ manner of living which is to think, act, and live differently.
It’s odd that all the time and observation Wolfe spends with the Pranksters goes over his head in that he misses the real point of the counterculture movement. His interviewees are true rebels, people willing to be judged despite what society or Tom Wolfe thinks of their decisions. Doing drugs, breaking the law, anti-religious views are all considered wrong by the outside world. It takes serious guts to say that is how you want to live when everyone else is against you, including the law. In discussing the current state of California, one of the Pranksters, Hassler, informs Wolfe: ‘they’re transcending all the bullshit!’ It seems as though Wolfe has trouble understanding and/ or communicating with the Pranksters. Why can’t he see that there’s bullshit to transcend?
At first, Wolfe’s inability to accept the Merry Pranksters for the way they choose to view the world was problematic for me as a reader. After all, the reader isn’t looking for his opinion, but the story of the Pranksters’ 60’s experience. Later in the text I understood that the acid test graduation scene at the start of the book is just his introduction to a long story he is reflecting upon. He is not necessarily as bitter and unaccepting as he seems at first because he has heard about this lifestyle in detail before assessing it.
Ken Kesey attended Stanford in 1958. This is where he and friend Vic Lovell, were introduced to the wonders of LSD at the Veterans Hospital. They were paid $75 for tests they participated in. Soon, it they discovered that: ‘All of us have a great deal of our minds locked shut. We’re shut off from our own world. And these drugs seem to be the key to open these locked doors.’ Kesey and friends would be the people to unlock their own minds again and again over the next several years.
The Merry Pranksters took their 1939 decked out bus on the road, the word FURTHUR written on the front. The bus trip across the country included guys Kesey had known from California and Oregon, where he’d grown up. They gave each other nicknames like Intrepid Traveler, Speed Limit, Hassler and decided to film the journey.
The situation Wolfe describes is funny because every bit of it is absolute foolishness and chaos without a single person noticing or admitting it. Smoke pours out the window and they all wear costumes and drink only from a bottle of orange juice labeled-AUTHORIZED ACID. Neal Cassady of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road fame is allowed to drive everywhere despite the fact that he is- without a doubt, out of control as they come. No one cared about anything but tripping. This is, perhaps, the reason Tom Wolfe became judgmental after hearing the repetitive stories after a while.
The Pranksters travelled America from California to New York and back doing nothing but taking turns getting high. The Experience was the thing. For them, the trip was an amazing time, filled with a variety of different events and alternating intricacies. These intricacies were not so detailed and spectacular to a sober person. They began to create names for instance- such as ‘the dis-mount’ for each time Sandy would leave the bus due to paranoia after a bad trip-something that became a reoccurring event. They referred to cosmic control to refer to one person thinking of doing something (such standing up to turn on the air-conditioner), when instead another person would do the same thing before the first person got a chance. In the mind of a person not taking drugs, this would be mere coincidence, to a stoner, it was psychic power.
For Tom Wolfe, the Pranksters were exaggerating their experiences; they were ‘phony.’ I personally understood their need to search for an alternate state of mind. Some people really enjoy thinking in alternative mindsets. My issue was that their actions on the bus became really repetitive and got a bit boring. For them, in retelling their own experiences, it must have been great to hear. I would have been satisfied with a couple versions of their tripping out.
To me the most interesting parts of the book involved the day of the acid test graduation- it was Halloween night in California and the information about Kesey’s life(he wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). There’s plenty of colorful, historical, and funny content to make a reader smile in this book. Anyone interested in counterculture, Beat writers, the 60’s or recreational drugs should check this one out.
Final Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars
For more information:
Must see documentary (available on Netflix instant streaming): Magic Trip (2011)
Read: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
Hell’s Angels by Hunter S. Thompson