The American Experience In The American Experience In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test Mass Comm and Society Late November, 2000 Kesey in la casa grande with the wind up and the sky cloudy, and the Gulp flapping, and the Rat plaster paneled with pages from out of Marvel comics, with whole scenes of Dr. Strange, Sub Mariner, the Incredible Hulk, the Fantastic Four, the Human Torch–Superheroes, in short. All heads believe them to be drawn by meth freaks, because of the minute phosphorescent dedication of their hands. Superheroes! Ubermenschen! (Tom Woolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, page 288). The Electric Kool-Aid Acid test by Tom Woolfe is a lovely piece of literary journalism cooked up by renowned paperman Tom Woolfe. Written in 1968, the book (henceforth referred to as Acid Test) was a rousing success at providing the world at large with a stranger than fiction narrative of the formative days of the early hippie, or head movement.
This book contains it all: Hells Angels, the formation of the Grateful Dead, Owselys Acid, Jack Keuorac, Timothy Leary and more. It centers on an enigmatic young Oregoniana man who could be a farmer, or your son-in-lawwho, for all intents and purposes, co-founded experiments into things psychedelic and the attendant lifestyle that followed. The man I am speaking of is one Ken Kesey, best-known for authoring One Flew Over the Cookoos Nest. This man, via mind-altering hallucenogens, transitioned from Stanford University to Everywhere, U.S.A., picking up other interested parties every which way. These fellow travelers become the Merry Pranksters, and, on their painted bus dubbed Furthur, they attempt to explore the very edges of reality and consciousness.
And Tom Woolfe writes about it. Some academians (Of the New York University School of Journalism) were so impressed by his work that they put it on a (relatively) short list of the 100 best examples of American journalism for the 20th century. Is this designation deserving? I think so. Im going to show you this rather than telling, but suffice it to say the highest complement that I can pay is that Acid Test is truly a non-fiction novel. Pay careful attention to the excerpts which follow. Here you will get a taste of Woolfes style, his attempt to capture, as he might say, not merely the overt facts of his subject but the psychological flavor as well.
It would be impossible to give a roll call to Keseys band of Merry Pranksters, just as it would be laughable to portray their story in a linear progression. A key element to the overall motif of Acid Test issssss…(Im using a Tom Woolfe-ism here.) The American Experience. If there is one thing about these Pranksters, these Intrepid Travelers, that makes them of interest, it is that they seek to experience life in a way that utterly thumbs the nose at all attempts to grovel at the posits of history. They dont want yesterday. In fact, the whole point is to catch up to the cusp of now.
Let me set the scene for you: psychedelic drugs. In the 60s. Theyre everywhere. But as our story opens, theyre just beginning to proliferate. Here is an in-house description of the Power the psychedelic experience packs, not in causing hallucination but in giving a truer portrait of Reality: ..These drugs seem to be the key to open these locked doors. How many?-maybe two dozen people in the world were on to this incredible secret! One was Aldous Huxley, who had taken mescaline and written about it in The Doors of Perception.
He compared the brain to a reducing valve. In ordinary perception, the senses send an overwhelming flood of information to the brain, which the brain then filters down to a trickle it can manage for the purpose of survival in a highly competitive world. Man has become so rational so utilitarian, that the trickle becomes most pale and thin. It is efficient, for mere survival, but it screens out the most wondrous part of man’s potential experience Without his even knowing it. We’re shut off from our own world. Primitive man once experienced the rich and sparkling flood of the senses fully.
Children experience it for a few months–until normal’ training, conditioning, close the doors on this other world, usually for good. Somehow, Huxley had said, the drugs opened these ancient doors. And through them modern man may at last go, and rediscover his divine birthright.. (Acid Test, page 40. All of the references contained herin are to Acid Test, unless otherwise noted.) But these are just words, man! reads the next line in the book.
Words that were taken in different ways by different parties involved. One of the best-known parties, from slightly before Keseys era, was Timoth Leary. Leary was a founding fellow for the League for Spiritual Discovery, a kind of First Church of Acid that worked to provide a safe place for heads to have psychedelic experiences, and, ultimately, for drugs to be legalized and approved as a holy sacrament. This was a holy crusade for Leary and his ilk, who had a penchant for all things old and eastern. Observe: ..an apartment with India-print spreads lining the walls and couches on the floor and hand made Indian teapots and cups and three small crystals suspended from the ceiling by almost invisible threads and picking up lights like jewels in the air, a place devoid of all the crap and gadgetry of the modern American plastic life, for, as Leary had said, a home should be a place of purity that the Gautama Buddha himself could walk into from 485 B.C. and feel at home. For some day grass must grow again in the streets, in pastoral purity, for life is crap, a duress of bad karmas, endless fight against catastrophe, which is to be warded off finally only by purification of the soul, utter passivity in which one becomes nothing..but a vessel of the All..the All-one..(page 323) For Leary, the new experiences and planes of existence were best utilized when integrated with the most ancient pathes of Buddhism and Hinduism.
New wine in the old wineskins.. ..as against the Kesey direction, which has become the prevailing life style of Haight-Ashbury..beyond catastrophe..like, picking up on anything that works and moves, every hot wire, every tube, ray, volt, decibel, beam, floodlight and combustion of American flag-flying neon Day-Glo America and winding it up to some mystical extreme carrying to the western-most edge of experience.. (Page 323). The Merry Pranksters had a penchant for technology. After two commercially successful novels, Kesey was already calling writing a thing of the 2-D past and was more than willing to welcome television and high-quality audio as the written words successor. ( Historical note: Today, in the present, Kesey has went back to writing mere novels, according to his website, http://www.key-z.com) Their bus and their hangouts were wired for sound, quite literally, and smell and taste and sight, to boot! They once made a great Bus Trip from east to west (U.S.A.) and recorded a much of it for the first Acid Movie. And while the League for Spiritual Discovery was meditating at some shrine, the Pranksters were splicing their film and merging it with strobe lights, variable-lag playback microphones, music and smoke for the very first multi media …