The Electric Kool' Aid Acid Test

By Tom Wolfe; Farrar, Straus, and Giroux; $5.95 (pp. 416)

A LOT OF ACID has flowed under the bridge since Ken Kesey dropped his first cap of Sandoz nine years ago. Ken Kesey, the novelist who wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962), and Sometimes a Great Notion (1964), is--if one were to believe Tom Wolfe's chronicle of his recent life--responsible for a lot. Hippies, for example, communal living, flamboyant costumes, strange puns for people's names (like Stark Naked, or Mal Function, or Black Maria), new words (like "bummer"--a term borrowed by Kesey from the Hell's Angels), and mixed psychedelic happenings (with the difference that at Kesey's happenings--The Acid Tests--you were served LSD).

Whether Kesey is in fact responsible for all this is, I think, a moot point. But he was taking LSD in late 1959, "a full two years," as Wolfe says, "before Mom&Dad&Buddy&Sis heard of the dread letters and clucked because Drs. Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert were french-frying the brains of Harvard boys with it."


KESEY'S first trip in a supervised hospital experiment is beautifully described by Wolfe. Forced to stay in a hospital bed, all he had to do for entertainment was look at the ceiling:

It began moving ... not in a crazed swirl but along its own planes ... of light and shadows and surface not nearly so nice and smooth as plasterer Super Plaster Man intended with infallible carpenter level bubble ... not so foolproof as you thought bub, little lumps and ridges up there and lines ... like spines on crests of waves of white desert movie sand each one with MGM shadow longshot of the ominous A-rab coming up over the next crest for only the sinister Saracen can see the road and you don't know how many subplots you left up there Plaster Man, trying to smooth it "all" out ... with your carpenter's level ... to make us look up and see nothing but ceiling ... because it has a "name" ceiling ... no room for Arabs up there in Level Land, eh Plaster Man"


Acid was too good not to be shared. At that time the stuff was still legally available, and Kesey took to turning on all his friends. At Kesey's rustic La Honda home anyone who felt they belonged there was welcome to live off Kesey, tank-up on acid, paint themselves day-glo if they wished, and freak out among the Redwoods.

And so the Merry Pranskters were born, including in their number such people as Neil Casady (Dean Moriarity of Kerouac's On the Road), and many other luminaries. Their mission was to freak out each other and the straights. Their tools were colorful clothes, painted faces, odd expressions, strange names for each other, and the secret weapon, LSD.

Their whole communal Merry Prankster life was an insult to the established order. They had placed a complex public address system in the trees that surrounded the house, and they soon took to broadcasting at the neighborhood: "This is non-station KLSD, 800 micrograms in your head, the station designed to blow your mind and undo your bind, from up here atop the redwoods on Venus." Or they would invite say all of California's Hells Angels for a visit to the community of La Honda.

BUT more interesting than their super-sound system or their super orgies, was the kind of communal consciousness that developed at La Honda. Everyone knew what everyone else was thinking, or thought they did. Everything, by Kesey's command was brought "out front." If you were angry with someone, desired someone, hated someone, you said so directly. Soon everyone seemed to be thinking the same things at the same time, and I am you as he is you as you are me.

The Merry Pranksters brought their message, or just themselves to the whole country by means of a magical mystery tour, a cross-country trip in a pyschedelic magic bus with loudspeakers on top, a sleeping bag for screwing, acid in the portable fridge, and lots of merry pranks along the way: "... in Barry Goldwater's home town ... they put a streamer on the bus reading 'A VOTE FOR BARRY IS A VOTE FOR FUN.' And they put American flags up on the bus and Casady drove the bus backwards down the main drag of Phoenix ... The citizens were suitably startled, outraged, delighted, non-plussed." Of course the bus looked like it had been painted by Hieronymus Bosch, a sign in back of the bus said "Caution: Weird Load" and everyone had painted their bodies in various day-glo ways.

And the final instrument for bringing the Word were the Acid Tests ("Can you pass the Acid Test?"), mixed-media happenings at which LSD was served diluted in Kool Aid). The just-born Grateful Dead would make music. There were plenty of things to play with, like fingerpaints or day-glo, movies to watch, strobe lights, and Pranksters directing the show.

INEVITABLY Kesey came in conflict with the society he was trying to transform or freak out. He was busted for possession of marijuana and fled to Mexico. There he played at Outlaw for a while. Eventually he came back to the States, freaking out the California cops by appearing at public functions, even being interviewed on T.V., and then evaporating like the Scarlet Pimpernel.

Kesey became the F.B.I.'s most wanted man, not so much for his enormous crimes, but for the way he refused to take the F.B.I. seriously, sticking his tongue out at law and order. They got him of course, trapping him finally in a traffic jam on the L.A. Freeway. And then, when they finally had him nabbed dead to rights, they let him go.

It seems that Kesey's lawyer made a deal with the Court. Kesey was to be released on condition he would go among the hippie masses (by this time there were hippie masses, such was the strength of the Word), and tell them to stop taking LSD.

Well he did tell them as his lawyer had promised he would, and then again he didn't. What he said was, it's time to graduate from acid: "Once you've been through that door you can't keep going through it again." He never said acid shouldn't be the first step. He said you had to make the kind of consciousness acid created deeper, more permanent, without the drug.