I recently read “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” by Tom Wolfe. This book is about a group of people back in the 60’s who used LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) and wanted to share the experience with the whole world. A friend who knew about my daydream of living in a school bus as I travel the country recommended I read it. She said she wasn’t suggesting it for the drug part but the living in the bus part. Well, what I am about to write is not a commentary on drug laws or the wisdom, or lack thereof, of using substances that alter one’s state of consciousness for whatever reasons. When I started the book I was reading for the adventure of the bus, but after just a few pages I wanted to get inside the heads of these heads so I could try to understand the whole scene. Translated – I wanted to understand what the folks who used LSD were thinking. How did this particular group of people start using LSD? Why did they continue? Why did they want other people to use it? What was the philosophy behind their beliefs? As I found answers to some of these questions I noticed a few other things. Group dynamics, their attitudes toward cops, race relations, idiomatic phrases, influence on fashion, music, and art; all these things are in this book. Some have said it is a very accurate picture of what the hippie life was like at this time. If you are looking for a source of info on the drug culture’s views and influence on any of these subjects, this is probably a good one.
So, back to the first question. How did this particular group get into LSD? It started with Ken Kesey, the author of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” In 1959-60 he was a paid volunteer (only the government, right? -“paid volunteer”) for some experiments at the Veteran’s Hospital in Menlo Park, California. He was paid $75 a day to take whatever pill the guys in the white coats gave him to swallow. As it turns out the whole thing was put on by the CIA. They were doing research into drugs they thought might be used for mind control purposes as well as truth serum during interrogations. So, this is why John Lennon said we could thank the CIA for LSD. Anyway, Kesey figured out which was which among the substances he was ingesting and he managed to take some home and share with the neighbors. Eventually, in the name of ‘progress’ the neighborhood was bulldozed so new houses could be built and Kesey moved to a few acres in a redwood forest. Some of the friends from the old neighborhood came around but there were other folks who were just sort of showing up from here and there as well. One group who didn’t just show up, but came by invitation, was the Hell’s Angels. Eventually, the inside group – you know how that goes – every group has a real inner circle – became known as the Merry Pranksters.
From their perspective they were becoming one in some cosmic sense as they used LSD. Where Timothy Leary went into his own religious vein with it, these guys – these Merry Pranksters – didn’t want to do it that way. They thought the whole world could do this with them and we could all be these creative peaceful people all happily coexisting with one another. Basically, Ego and Non-Ego would merge and all would become part of the Cosmic Mind. If two people happened to have the same thought at the same time they said they were “in synch” and the merge was happening. This anticipated merge of all things into one was also their explanation for such things as the ability to smell colors when they were high. The way to spread this experience was with big parties they called “acid tests.” LSD was not illegal at this time, by the way; that didn’t happen in California till October 6, 1966. So, they could have these acid tests, with music (usually supplied by the Grateful Dead) and strobe lights and LSD in the Kool-Aid, and not be breaking any laws.
Some folks didn’t understand why this generation was unhappy with the world as it was. After all, they had not suffered through the economic hardship of the Depression and had not lived through WWII. The Cold War sounded like just a lot of talk to some of them. The parents of these youngsters thought they had been given everything and they were going to waste their golden opportunity to have a suit-and-tie good life. The parents who held this view appeared to their deep-thinking children to be living a one-dimensional life. They wanted more than a job, house, car and 2.5 children. They had a spiritual yearning, a desire for meaning, that wasn’t satisfied. And a lot of them couldn’t get answers to their questions about life from their parents. Seems some parents couldn’t even explain why they held their own moral and/or religious beliefs. Since the parents had lived through the difficult times, it seemed a reasonable goal to them to just have a peaceful and quiet life along with nice material possessions. They thought a sense of security was a wonderful thing and their offspring thought it was boring and totally lacking in purpose. This group of Pranksters did not want to be a nameless, faceless cog in the machine. They sought an alternate way of living, but not by spiritual means. I really wanted to put a label on this and call it Existentialism, but I’m not so sure that fits. They were creating their own reality and meaning inside their own heads but they also wanted to merge with something outside themselves. Nietzsche, the Bible, the I Ching…all are mentioned in the book but like Tom Wolfe says, everything centers on the experience of using LSD. In that sense, maybe LSD was the religion; during the early 60’s drugs were used in an attempt to find meaning. (Francis Schaeffer wrote about this in “How Should We Then Live.” It’s been about 30 years since I’ve read this book and I probably need to read it again.) In the end though Kesey said they were only going through the same door over and over and he wanted to find the thing beyond this acid thing.
Gotta’ tell you about this bus. It was a 1939 International Harvester school bus that Ken Kesey bought under the name “Intrepid Trips, Inc.” The Pranksters painted it in bright, beautiful, wild psychedelic colors and named it “Furthur.” There was an opening in the top where the Pranksters could climb out and ride on top and play the flute in such a way that the music matched the expressions on the faces of the folks on the street who tried to take in this site. Reactions were mixed. The US wasn’t real big on bright colors back then. Houses were mostly white or pastel colors with lots of brown and gray roofs, and cars were the same type of tame colors, so this bus was a shocker. So were the passengers with their faces painted with Day-Glo paint and wearing clothing that could really only be called costumes. They drove across the south and then up to New York in a failed attempt to visit with Timothy Leary, then back to California by a northern route. All along the way they gave out LSD to people who had never heard of it before.
I am amazed they made the trip from California to New York and back all in one piece. Oh, this bus adventure happened in the summer of 1964. If I had been on the freeway at the right time I would have seen them pass through where I lived. Back to the “all in one piece” comment. These folks’ heads were so messed up. They had to leave a young lady passenger in Houston who ended up in a psych ward. The driver was coming unglued but they were so freaked out on LSD and other things besides, that just like with the lady, they didn’t realize what was happening to the poor guy at first. When they figured it out they just tried to show him some love and make him all better. That didn’t work. So, they were really only “in one piece” physically. Mentally, it was a bit different for a couple of them. If you look up race relations in 1964 you will understand the danger they were in when they decided to jump in and swim at a segregated beach at Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans. The cops rescued them from that predicament. And of course, anyone who is driving while totally freaked out and doesn’t kill anyone who’s on the road with them is a bit more than “intrepid” – that person is traveling under Divine Protection.
This was one of the most interesting books I’ve read. I learned that you can’t lump the drug users of the early 60’s in with the ones of the late 60’s. In the early 60’s, drug use was tied in with ideology but, by the end of the decade hope was lost as it seemed that society was unraveling at the seams and drug use became a means of escape from life. I’ve run across some of the people who are part of this story in a book, “The Sixties Chronicles.” I remember quite a lot considering how young I was at the time, but reading “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” has made me want to read more about this incredible and tumultuous decade.