In 1967, at the peak of the Summer of Love, Tom Wolfe set out to chronicle the adventures of Ken Kesey and his followers, the Merry Pranksters. All he knew about Kesey at that point was that he was “a highly regarded 31-year-old novelist and in a lot of trouble over drugs”. Five years earlier he’d achieved best-sellerdom with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which was made into a play the following year; in 1964 he followed that up with Sometimes a Great Notion, which has been described as the quintessential novel of the Northwest.
Wolfe, who died last week at the age of 88, was no slouch, either, having honed his writing skills as a regional newspaper reporter and coming to prominence with The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, a collection of essays that heralded the advent of New Journalism. Wolfe probably felt there was no one better placed than he to get inside the story and bring it to life. And he was right. Kesey and Wolfe were a perfect fit. As The Guardian’s Jarvis Cocker has said, it was a case of “someone seeking new ways to tell stories described by someone else seeking to find a new form of journalism.”
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, published in 1968, is an as-if-first-hand account of the Pranksters’ journey across the country in a colourfully-painted school bus named “Further”. The way Wolfe writes it, it’s difficult to believe he wasn’t there, embedded with the Kesey troupe, right from the beginning. But he wasn’t. His first meeting with Kesey is three years later, when Kesey’s released from the San Mateo County Jail after serving six months for marijuana possession. At that point he embeds himself with the Prankster contingent, and interviews just about every individual connected with the “journey” including, of course, Kesey himself. Using flashbacks, poetry, and changing points-of view, Wolfe translates the psychedelic experience with a versimilitude that is almost uncanny. He doesn’t just describe tripping on acid . . . the encounters with the Hell’s Angels . . . the music of the Grateful Dead. He makes you feel it.
The saga begins on a three-acre property in the California redwoods, where Kesey and his entourage – his wife Faye, their children, and an increasing number of followers – experiment with mind-expanding drugs, most notably LSD. Kesey had been introduced to acid and mescaline a few years earlier, when he volunteered to take part in government studies to supplement his income. A charismatic and dynamic individual, Kesey quickly becomes a kind of psychedelic warrior, the evangelistic leader of drug-fueled revolution which spreads from his estate near La Honda to the San Francisco Bay area and, eventually, across the country to New York. They buy an old school bus, slather it in Day-Glo paint, and set off to drive across the country. As luck would have it, Neil Cassady turns up and offers to do the driving. This would appear to be a gift from Heaven – to have the driver/hero of Kerouac’s On the Road conduct them on their soon-to-be historic journey is an obvious sign that they are the direct and rightful inheritors of the tradition of the Beats.
The goal of the bus trip (which sounds like a nightmare, by the way, if only for the lack of any washroom facilities) is partly to get Kesey to New York in time for the publication release of Sometimes a Great Notion. Beyond that, they plan to meet up with the Acid Culture guru himself, Timothy Leary, and the League for Spiritual Discovery, based in Millbrook, New York. High on speed, driving with one hand and keeping up a running commentary on – well, on everything, Cassady drives while the Pranksters take turns filming the trip, which results in over 100 hours of pretty random footage. When it’s finally edited – somewhat – it’s 30 hours long and only Cassady stays awake long enough to see it.
The rendezvous with the Leary cohort is not a success. The Pranksters are put off by the subdued, almost monk-like nature of the Millbrook adherents. They’d expected to be greeted with wild jubilation; instead, as Wolfe puts it, there’s a general vibration of “We have something rather deep and meditative going on here, and you California crazies are a sour note”.
Back in California, the Pranksters set out to turn on the masses. They stage a series of Acid Tests: light-and-sound events featuring the Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company, offering Kool-Aid laced with LSD. In the middle of the fun and mayhem, Kesey and Mountain Girl are caught and charged with smoking marijuana. Kesey fakes suicide and escapes to Mexico, where he hides out in Manzanillo on the Pacific coast, and is joined by a few of the others. After eight months of living with increasing paranoia, Kesey returns to the States with a new mission: drugs have taken them along the path to enlightenment, but it’s time to move on. As you might imagine, the idea of giving up drugs doesn’t go down well with the “toggle-coat bohemians, boho slugs, lumpen beatniks” and “the jellybeancocked masses”. An Acid Test Graduation is planned for October 31, 1966 but The Grateful Dead, Bill Graham, and other influential people pull out of the deal at the last minute. The event goes ahead, on a much smaller scale, with only the Pranksters themselves buying into the whole thing.
Afterwards, Kesey is arrested on the previous drug charge and sentenced to six months in jail. Before he begins his stretch on the work farm, he moves his family to Oregon, and sets up house on his brother’s farm. Neil Cassady dies by a railroad track outside San Miguel de Allende, and the painted school bus, “Further”, is resigned to the “swamp”, a wet, low-lying area behind the Kesey family farm.
Wolfe himself never took acid. He believed it was far too dangerous and he had good reason to think so. He felt he could tell a better story by “saturation reporting”, staying with his subjects and observing them for long periods of time. He wasn’t immune to Kesey’s charm, but the book is not a hagiography. What comes through, time and again, is the absolute, overwhelming egomania of the Pranksters, only thinly disguised as a search for enlightenment. Satori through abandoning every vestige of responsibility. Not for nothing did he come up with the phrase the “Me Generation”
But there are some wonderful moments: the Hell’s Angels roaring up Highway 84, descending in all their awesome badness on the peace-loving Pranksters. Cathy Casamo, stoned out of her gourd, racing from the bus without a stitch on, and immortalized in “head” lore as Stark Naked. The denizens of Haight-Ashbury circa 1966 – Jack the Fluke, “a laughing grizzly Irishman with a beard like an Airedale”; Owsley Stanley, the paranoid acid genius; Terry the Tramp, of Hell’s Angels fame . . . Not to mention the Pranksters themselves: Mountain Girl, Doris Delay, The Hermit, June the Goon, Marge the Barge, Freewheeling Frank the Hell’s Angel, Cassady flipping his sledgehammer, Babbs, Gretchen Fetchen, George Walker, Zonker with his Arab headdress playing Torrence of Arabia. And Kesey himself, “the elder statesman of psychedelphia”, in his buckskin shirt and red Guadalajara boots.
The things that bother me, rereading the book, are exactly what disturbed me back in the 60s. The way women are portrayed, for example, as very minor characters in the psychedelic journey, even when they’re married to the hero, or about to give birth to his child. And the attitude of the “heads” towards those who are working to make political change:
“Some kid who could always be counted on to demonstrate for the grape workers or even do dangerous things like work for CORE in Mississippi turns up one day— and immediately everybody knows he has become a head. His hair has the long jesuschrist look. He is wearing the costume clothes. But most of all, he now has a very tolerant and therefore withering attitude toward all those who are still struggling in the old activist political ways for civil rights, against Vietnam, against poverty, for the free peoples. He sees them as still trapped in the old ‘political games,’ unwittingly supporting the oppressors by playing their kind of game and using their kind of tactics, while he, with the help of psychedelic chemicals, is exploring the infinite regions of human consciousness”.
Much of it seems almost quaint – the fervent belief held by so many at the time that “mind-expanding” drugs would lead to a new and better society. But the writing itself is powerful, intense, visceral, absolutely engaging. As a counterculture document The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test stands with On the Road, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. As Siskel and Ebert used to say, “Two thumbs up!”