Chapter 5: Can YOU Pass the Acid Test?
Page 87, upper-middle; more on the Acid Test at big Nig's:
Robert Hunter, who had been down in Los Angeles auditing Scientology courses and doing National Guard duty from time to time (his unit was even called into Watts during the riots there in the summer of '65), was at Big Nig's that night and admitted later that "I wasn't sure at all about the idea of the Acid Tests. It was hard to believe they let us get away with it. I had this constant sense of apprehension when are they going to arrest people?" Of course possession of LSD was still not a crime at this point, but "disorderly conduct" was, and there were usually plenty of other illegal substances, like pot and amphetamines, in someone's pockets, and the thought of dozens of rowdy people, all high on acid, suddenly being carted away to the San Jose jail was frightening indeed. "It was a terrible crowd," Hunter added. "None of the Acid Test mentality that you saw later."
Garcia agreed: "It was too weird because it was somebody's house it just didn't make it. [But] we just decided to keep on doing it; that was the gist of it. ... The idea was to move it to a different location, and then the idea was to move it to a different location each week."
Page 89, bottom; on the crowds at the Acid Tests:
Kesey rhapsodized many years later: "It's like a new tribe on a new seashore, and they're pounding on new drums. ... For all those people doing the psychedelic dancing, there was absolutely nothing for them to base their dancing on. They're making it up right there in front of you. All those people there, high and dancing, had never seen anything like this before. Up until then, if you were going to a dance, you did what had been done before you danced the jitterbug or the boogaloo or the mashed potato, or whatever was happening in the culture at the time. But when the Dead's sound started to spark that acid consciousness, the way people moved to music absolutely changed. It was absolutely new and spontaneously creative. I don't think that kind of movement had ever happened before. It's not like Krishna. It's not like aborigines. It's not like Africans really. It's its own thing."
Adding to the overall tribal vibe of the event was a multimedia presentation called "America Needs Indians Sensorium," put together by Stewart Brand, a former Stanford biology student who'd lived with two different Native American tribes the ___ and the Navajos in the course of studying how indigenous populations lived in harmony with their environments. Along the way he dabbled in the Southwest Indians' sacramental psychedelic, peyote, and later he took LSD, so by the time the Acid Tests rolled around, Brand was right there making the connection between the ancient tribal societies and this new urban, electric counterpart. Brand and many others believed that America needed Indians, so to speak, to better understand how to live a spiritual life in balance with nature and each other, and to show us how the frenzied materialism that has gripped "civilization" for thousands of years is bad for the human race and, ultimately, the planet. Now, how much of that sort of message got through to people in the midst of the sheer disconnected bedlam of an Acid Test is unclear, but no doubt for some the giant images of Indians projected on walls, amid the Pranksters' swirling lights and who knows what kind of amplified din, was more compelling than watching Neal Cassady tossing his giant hammer into the air and catching it for hours on end, and perhaps even more interesting than listening to the Grateful Dead. Different strokes for different folks, and all that. The point is, Brand brought in more stimuli and added to the richness of the event. Perhaps it was the mixture that was most interesting.
Page 90, middle; more on Owsley:
Owsley's teachers recognized that he was brilliant, if unmotivated. One of the few things he liked about school was playing saxophone in the marching band. He also loved to sing as a kid, "but when my voice changed I think I lost my confidence and I never went back to it," he says. "I've always liked music of all kinds and I was into theater and dance and I loved opera I even studied Italian for a while to be able to better understand opera. So I've always been quite involved with music, even though I was never really a performer."
Page 91, upper-middle; more on the Muir Beach Acid Test:
Also on hand that night was Hugh Romney (now known as the counterculture clown Wavy Gravy), who was working in San Francisco as a member of the hip Bay Area comedy troupe called The Committee. Romney had come out of the Greenwich Village nightclub world and had a finely developed theatrical streak himself. He'd attended acting school at New York's Neighborhood Playhouse and in the evenings he would read his poetry and improvise stories about his life at beatnik coffeehouses. Lenny Bruce caught Romney's act one night and was so impressed that he became his manager and subsequently sent him around the country opening for jazz players like John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk. He briefly shared a room with Bob Dylan above the Gaslight cafe in Greenwich Village and he developed a peculiar way-off-Broadway show that featured him, the bizarre ukulele-strumming singer Tiny Tim, and the blind, robed New York street singer Moon Dog. Eventually Romney moved to the West Coast to help Lenny Bruce with his unending legal battles (over the alleged obscenity of his stand-up act), and then he found his way into The Committee, who were sort of post-Beat satirists on the fringes of the San Francisco drug culture. As "Al Dente," a name he took off the cooking instructions on a pasta wrapper, Romney became a major supplier of psychedelics in North Beach, which put him inexorably on the path to the Acid Tests. At Muir Beach he struck up friendships with the Dead and the Pranksters that have lasted to the present.
Florence Nathan's counterculture credentials weren't quite as impressive as Owsley's or Romney's, but she nonetheless became a fixture in the Dead's scene beginning at the Muir Beach Acid Test. Born in Paris to French parents, she and her family emigrated to San Francisco when she was 5. She says she had a "pretty sheltered, very strict upbringing with a lot of rules," even after she went to S.F. State on a drama scholarship at 16. After her scholarship ended, she was forced to drop out of school and she took a job working for a detective agency, of all things, and then doing land surveys. At the same time, though, her brief life in the local theater world led her to The Committee, and then to Tom Donahue, who was working at KYA and running Autumn Records. "He saw that I was in a job that was really, really boring and he offered me a job in his record company, so I went to work for him, and that was my transition into the rock 'n' roll scene. While working with Donahue, she helped him with backstage logistics for some of the big Top 40 concerts he put on at the Cow Palace, and she says, "It was a pretty exciting scene. For me it was an extension of the theater. It was show business. I was never star struck; I was stage-struck. I loved the behind-the-scenes stuff." Through Donahue, Florence became friends with the elusive, reclusive L.A. record producer Phil Spector, and Spector in turn introduced her to Lenny Bruce, which brings us to why she showed up at Muir Beach that night:
"It indirectly had to do with Lenny Bruce," she says. "We'd had an encounter and then a friendship for a little while, and I was at a party somewhere in San Francisco that Lenny was supposed to be at, but he wasn't there, and someone said, 'Oh, he went to this Acid Test out at Muir Beach.' So I got in my car and drove over the mountain. When I got there it was just ending and I didn't know what an Acid Test was. I had never taken acid at that point. I think I was high on pot. I walked in and ... I think it's been written about the Muir Beach Acid Test how Owsley dragged a chair across the floor endlessly making this horrible noise. Well, I actually walked in and witnessed that that was the first thing I saw! Here is this strange guy, pushing this chair around, making this horrendous noise and talking to himself. I was thinking 'What the hell is going on here?' Parts of it looked like the end of a gig people were putting stuff away, getting things ready to put in Bill's station wagon. That was the night I met Phil. He was high on acid, I wasn't. We connected that night and we ended up going together and living together for five years."
The next time Phil and Florence got together she took acid, too, and that was also her first exposure to the music of the Grateful Dead. It would be several years before she took on the name by which she is known today, Rosie McGee.
M.G. on the Muir Beach Acid Test: "The delay machine was also one of the most important things there, because there was this short lag on your voice; it was just long enough to be really uncomfortable, and it would really fuck you up. It was exactly the length of time it would take you to form a thought, so just as your next thought was formed, you heard your voice speaking the previous thought. It was really hard to make progress through that. I had a strobe light that my brother Donald, who had hung with the Pranksters a bit, had borrowed from SRI [Stanford Research Institute], and that was really great it had a huge calibrated dial and was worth thousands of dollars."
Page 92, top; more on the Acid Tests:
Dick Alpert, from the East Coast acid scene, also had some serious reservations about what he saw at the Acid Tests. "My general feeling is that the Acid Tests were extraordinary," he said in On the Bus. "I felt they were sheer magic. And they were scary magic. In many ways I saw it as religious ritual. I call them scary because there were clearly bad trips going on within the framework of the Tests. They seemed to me to be not bad trips in the sense that they were lethal, but bad in the sense that people were getting more than they bargained for.
"Those of us from Millbrook saw acid tests as religious rituals and sacramental events. Going into the Acid Tests we still thought that acid had that quality about it that made us feel like religious seekers or research explorers. But the Acid Tests were different in that they had an incredibly strong sensual immediacy. They turned people inside out into the moment, in a way that they felt extremely alive. These events were crowded, wild and confusing; they almost demanded surrender. For some the surrender was great; but others didn't like the feeling of having no safe ground."
Page 93, lower-middle; more on Neal Cassady:
"I came to love the man dearly, but at first I found him very intimidating," Sara Ruppenthal says. "It wasn't until the Palo Alto Acid Test at the Big Beat that I really came to appreciate him. That was the night I saw him do that thing where he could tune into everybody's reality. He had an extraordinary gift. He really was a 'Martian policeman,' as he called himself. Doing his monologue with a hammer juggling a hammer and talking. And somehow managing to touch everybody in this circle of people watching him, to call each of them on their trip or let them know what they were thinking and could never say. He was a genius, maybe psychopathic. Probably really psychic and a brilliant psychologist. And a very gentle soul. A very compassionate person, although he would always head for the medicine cabinet and help himself to whatever you had."
"He was a unique individual, for sure, and anybody that was that filled with energy and that much in motion all the time was never easy to be around," adds Dave Parker. "You had to balance right there on the edge to stay with it. He came around the house on Waverly a few times and I got to hear his amazing raps on a few occasions and I had the rare privilege of driving with him around Palo Alto one time. He had this zen driving technique where he would just fire right on through whatever was in the way. If there was traffic, it didn't matter. I remember one time he drove up on this sidewalk and there was a space between a telephone pole and a building that was wide enough for the car to go through with maybe six inches on either side and he just whizzed through there. Talk about edge of your seat! But everything with him always happened so fast he'd be onto the next thing by the time you figured out what you'd just experienced. He was a fascinating guy to be around but a difficult guy to spend a lot of time with because he was so exhausting; who could keep up with that?"
Bob Weir said, "When I fell in with Ken Kesey and Neal Cassady, it seemed like home sweet home to me, to be tossed in with a bunch of crazies. There was some real serious crazy stuff going on. Jesus, where do you start? For one thing I had to abandon all my previous conceptions of space and time. It was pretty conclusively proven to me that those old concepts were shams. I thought I was pretty well indoctrinated into the 'anything goes' way of dealing with life. But I found much more than anything goes with the Pranksters. There was a world of limitless possibilities. It was ... God, it's hard to say anything that doesn't sound clichιd. But it was really a whole new reality for this boy. We were dealing with stuff like telepathy on a daily basis.
"It might have been partly because of the LSD or the personal chemistry of everyone involved, and the times. We picked up a lot from those guys. Particularly from Cassady. He was able to drive 50 or 60 miles an hour through downtown rush-hour traffic, he could see around corners I don't know how to better describe it. That's useful if you're playing improvisational music; you can build those skills to see around corners, 'cause there are plenty of corners that come up. We gleaned that kind of approach from Cassady. He was one of our teachers, as well as a playmate."
Page 95, middle; on the hiring of Rock Scully:
"I'm kind of responsible for Rock, I'm sorry to admit," Owsley says. "I'm going to have to take the blame for that one. The Grateful Dead didn't have any management, and the only person I knew who had any experience managing anything was Rock, and at that point I didn't really know him; I knew about him. I knew that he and this woman named Luria [Castell] had put on some shows. So I met him and talked to him." And evidently convinced Scully on the spot that being part of this weird whatever was the only sensible path his life could take.
Page 96, bottom; more on the Kesey-Mountain Girl bust:
"Kesey Wears Tie For a Few Hours" was the headline on the January 21 San Francisco Chronicle story on the arraignment. The photo accompanying the story showed a nattily dressed Kesey with his two young sons, Jed and Zane, his wife Faye and M.G., identified as "Carolyn Adams, the 19-year-old beauty with whom Kesey and a small bag of marijuana were found on a Telegraph Hill apartment roof." The article went on to note that an hour after the court appearance, "Kesey appeared at Union Square dressed in pale blue shoes and a striped blue work shirt and tan jeans liberally inscribed with spray paint symbols and legends 'Hot' on the left hip, "cold' on the right, 'TIBET' across the buttocks. Still with him was Miss Adams who had exchanged her demure courtroom jumper and blouse for an Indian headband, orange stretch pants, sequined vest and other exotically clad members of Kesey's 'Merry Band of Pranksters.'
"They arrived in Kesey's now famous, garishly painted school bus (dominant colors: magenta, cerise and chartreuse) to create a 'Happening' to publicize the Trips Festival ("Trips to the outer levels of consciousness," one Prankster explained) at the Longshoreman's Hall at Fisherman's Wharf today, tomorrow and Sunday."
So much for staying away from the Pranksters.
Page 97, bottom; more on the Trips Festival:
"Everybody there was high," Garcia said. "I mean every soul there except for Bill [Graham]! And he was trying to organize the whole thing. It was a roomful of loaded people and he was trying to pull it together. I had heard the rumor that it was time for us to play; let's put it that way. [In other accounts, Garcia said he was drawn to the stage by a flashing sign that said "Jerry Garcia plug in."] So we went up onstage and I'm looking around and the stage is total chaos, absolutely crowded with people milling around. So I go over to my guitar and my guitar is broken; it's smashed. The bridge is pulled off of it, the strings are all over the place and I'm looking at it and it occurs to me that my guitar is wounded, it's hurting, it's broken.
"Bill comes over and he says 'Why aren't you guys playing? You guys are supposed to play right now.' Here he is sweating and his eyes are buggin' out and he's got his little sweater and clipboard. It was the way you could distinguish him from everyone else he was the guy trying to make things happen. So I pointed at my guitar and said 'I think my guitar's broken.' And he immediately drops what he was doing and falls down and he starts fumbling around trying to put the pieces of my guitar together. I looked at him and I thought, 'What a hero! What a guy!'"
Mountain Girl's recollection of Graham at the Trips Festival is considerably less glowing: "There he was, whacking people over the head with his clipboard. We're saying, 'Who is this guy? Get him out of here. He's ruining our lovely trippy event with his clipboard and all that shouting.' But Stewart had hired this shmo to come in and be in charge of the guest list, so there he was, and after that is when he started putting on his own dances regularly.
"The Trips Festival was a shocking success," she continues. "I think it was actually a sell-out and we couldn't believe it. We'd never had a sellout before. Stewart Brand had done this incredible thing of getting everybody down from the techie world, and of course everyone from our crowd was there. It was amazing. There were reciprocating video loops and light machines and light sculptures; just incredible stuff that had never been done on this kind of scale before. Ken had set up this thing where he would write things on an overhead projector and we'd project that on the ceiling, so his writing was 12 feet tall. He had a hatful of phrases he'd culled from his desk drawer, so we'd project this on the ceiling and you couldn't believe the weight of these giant words the energy of these words was immense."
"If you were straight at the Longshoreman's Hall that could really offer some scares for you because people were just nuts," said David Nelson. "It was really, really wild. For me it was an incredibly solid thing one of the most solid hits in my life. The universe seemed like time stopped and molecules changed; it was so exciting. It was such a secure, solid feeling. I realized that the world had changed and now it was going to go this way. There was nothing bad happening, there was no immoral stuff going on. There was no innuendo or hidden stuff. It was just plain, simple fun. But everyone from the outside looking in was morally outraged, as if there was some betrayal there!"
Page 99, top: The Acid Test heads to Los Angeles:
"I remember the bus being parked outside of Waverly and the motor running and people going in and out, Cassady running around hustling things up, and they were planning to go to L.A.," Dave Parker remembers. "That was one of those famous points where you either got 'on the bus' or you didn't. And I was one of the ones that didn't. I wanted to continue going to college and working part time, so I chose not to go."
Page 99, middle; more on Owsley as sound man:
Though Owsley did have his self-taught electronics background, he had no experience working with electric musical instruments and amplifiers "and I didn't consider myself a design engineer in any way, shape or form," he says. Still, he was convinced that what the Grateful Dead needed what rock' n' roll needed was a better, more reliable sound delivery system. As he said, "I knew we had to do something, because the technology was so primitive that it seemed like it was holding the music back; that we could go to another level if we had better instruments. Half the time they'd crackle and pop and hum and there would be distortion out of the speakers." To aid him in trying to develop better equipment for the Dead, Owsley took on a young charge with considerable electronics aptitude of his own, named Tim Scully (no relation to Rock). Scully, who had been a bona fide science prodigy in his teen years, later also became an enthusiastic assistant to Owsley in his growing LSD manufacturing concern. Together, they pieced together a sound system consisting of "weird bits of [Altec] Voice of the Theater speakers and other, mostly hand-made stuff," Owsley says. It was primitive by today's standards, but superior to most of the equipment touring rock bands were using in that era.
Page 100, middle; more on Owsley:
"He was something of a benefactor," Weir said in early 1967, "even though he was as broke as we were, and we were real fucking broke. I remember one time in L.A. when we were starving and broke and I had one pair of pants and no underwear and my one pair of pants ripped right across the ass, both sides, and I was forced to play onstage that way. I never once turned around."
Page 100, bottom; the Watts Acid Test:
In short, everyone got way too high, the band included, and there were a number of freak-outs, including a scared and disoriented young woman who kept screaming "Whooooooo cares? LSD! LSD!" into a microphone that Ken Babbs had put in front of her, the sound whooshing through the Pranksters' sound system and reverberating through the room for everyone to hear and experience.
"Well, I certainly cared, at least to get her to shut the fuck up," said Wavy Gravy (Hugh Romney), who had conceived of the Electric Kool-Aid. "If she was unglued, I might at least find some way to get her glued back together. I went looking for her 20 minutes, 20 years, who knows how long it took to find her? and found her standing in the middle of a circle of Pranksters and people I didn't know still saying 'Who cares? Who cares?' I got everybody to join hands, which caused the woman to laugh and turn into jewels and light. That was when I passed the Acid Test. I realized that when you get to the very bottom of the human soul and you're sinking, but you'll still reach for someone who is sinking worse than you are, everybody's going to get high. You don't need acid to get there."
Different groups of L.A.P.D. and California Highway Patrol officers got as far as the building's foyer at different times during the evening, and mainly stood around glowering at the madness they saw around them, but it wasn't until mid-morning the next day that they actually attempted to roust the remaining trippers, most of whom were so fried they were ready go home. "Some of the Acid Tests were up and going and fun and some of them were real dark," Owsley says. "It was the full gamut."
What probably would have been the biggest of the L.A. Acid Tests, scheduled for Pauley Pavilion on the campus of UCLA, was canceled before it happened. As Ken Babbs tells the story, "We were going to have an Acid Test down there, on a Friday or Saturday night, and we went in to Pauley Pavilion during the afternoon to do a preview or sound check, to see if everything was the way it needed to be. Tiny Tim, who was a good friend of Wavy's, was there playing his ukulele and singing. There was a grand piano on the stage and some of the guys from the Grateful Dead got in there and started picking the strings and making all these weird noises, and then Cassady got on the microphone and started rapping. This guy comes up to me and says that so-and-so whoever the guy was that ran the place wants to see you. And so I went up to his office and he said, 'We can't have this here." I said, 'Wait a minute, we signed the contract, it's all set up, we've got the fliers printed.' He says, 'Nope. Can't do it. Not here.' And then, talking about Tiny Tim, he says 'Who was that girl up there playing the ukulele? She was the worst!' I was real discouraged. I was ready to leave right then and never go back to L.A. again in my life, but Wavy and all of them found another place and put out these fliers, and it turned out to be a pretty good evening."
Page 101, lower middle; Sara and the Acid Tests:
"I was dropping out of school again," she says. "I had taken Chinese Literature that quarter and had brought some books down in my backpack. I called my parents and told them what I was doing and they said 'Please come home. Today.' I had religious zeal basically, and I framed this whole thing in terms of spiritual development for the country. This was going to save us by expanding people's minds out of the narrow cultural biases we all shared, because when you take acid you go beyond the personal and historical into the cellular, and you connect with the cosmos and the earth and with God. With aliveness. With love. It was a profoundly religious experience for me to take acid and I called my parents and told them that."
Page 101, lower middle; end of the L.A. Acid Tests:
"This was the devolvement of the Acid Tests and it wasn't a great thing," says Mountain Girl, who had returned to the Bay Area earlier to deal with her legal situation following the bust with Kesey. "Basically, there wasn't enough to go around down there. There wasn't enough sleeping space, there were too many people.
"The way it happened is Life magazine sent over this asshole photographer to do a photo shoot of the Pranksters. And right in the middle of all this Babbs sent someone through the crowd saying, 'You better come to the bus right now,' but only to certain people. I guess he unloaded people's stuff by the side of the road and the people he had chosen got on the bus and everyone else was left behind. Cassady was among the uninvited. I was among the uninvited; the bus ducked me. It was paranoid but it did thin things out."
M.G., who was seven months pregnant by Kesey, may have been among the "uninvited," but she had a friend on board: Hassler called her and told her the bus was heading into Mexico imminently. "In order to get back on the bus," she says, "I had to hitchhike from San Francisco to San Juan Capistrano [north of San Diego], where there was a park on the beach where the bus was hiding. They were there provisioning for this trip to Mexico and resting up after the Acid Tests.
"The other thing that was unfair is the guys on the bus had some money, and the people who were left behind didn't. We had made a little money [at the Acid Tests] $150, $175 bucks and that was enough to get us to Mazatlan. Mazatlan was very small in those days and it was very hot and the first thing that happened was that the people who had money on the bus bought food and drinks, and those who didn't couldn't. But the joke was that if you bought the food you got sick and if you didn't you were healthy. It was a long, long trip."
Page 101, bottom; Babbs on the end of the Acid Tests:
"We were never in a position where we were trying to 'make it' in the sense of being discovered and becoming famous. We were just doing what we liked to do and people came to them and we kept going like that. If we had gone on, it probably would've been like that movie The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao [which was very popular in the psychedelic community] You go to a town, you find a place and you put on your show and then you leave. But there were no promoters or managers or anything like that around. It was all much more spontaneous than that."
As for Sara, "Roy and I left the Acid Test and went off to New Mexico with Heather in the back seat to find The Answer. Hunter gave us a sealed envelope and said, 'If you don't find the answer, open this.' We went off to Taos determined to find the answer. We saw God in the rocks. We weren't taking any drugs, but everything seemed really alive at this hot springs we went to. We didn't find the answer, so after we got to Joshua Tree on the way back, we opened Hunter's envelope and it said, 'The answer is within.' I was so pissed!" she adds with a laugh. "So then I had to call Jerry's mother collect to send us some money because we'd run out of money and didn't have enough for gas to get home. She didn't know Jerry and I had broken up. She asked, 'How's Jerry?' and I said, 'Oh, uh fine.' So she wired me the money, which enabled us to get back to the Bay Area. Roy and I started living in a tool shed of a friend over near Homer Lane [in Palo Alto] with Heather and I started reconnecting with my friends from Stanford."