Can YOU Pass the Acid Test? - Garcia: An American Life (2000)

Garcia: An American Life (2000)


Can YOU Pass the Acid Test?

o one seems to know exactly when Garcia and the others first connected with Kesey and the Pranksters. Garcia and a couple of other members of the group were definitely at the party that is usually considered the first Acid Test, held in late November at Babbs’s spread near Santa Cruz. Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg were there, as were all the Pranksters who were around, and even a few curious thrill-seekers who responded to a little sign Hassler had put up in the Santa Cruz bookstore he ran: CAN YOU PASS THE ACID TEST? The evening was fun and profound enough that by the end of the night, as Prankster Lee Quarnstrom put it, “It was like a Mickey Rooney movie where we suddenly said, ‘Hey, I know—we can put on a show!’”

“Before there were Acid Tests,” Garcia said, “there were parties, and we got invited to one of these parties and we went down and plugged all our stuff in and played for about a minute. Then we all freaked out. But we made a good impression on everybody in that minute, so we were invited to the next one. So we just started playing at these things and they were great fun… . We were ready for something completely free-form. It kind of went along with where we were going, which is we were experimenting with psychedelics, as much as we were playing music.”

The next Acid Test took place in the wee hours of December 4, 1965, after the Rolling Stones had played a show at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium, with the Dead and Kesey’s gang in attendance. The Pranksters had unsuccessfully tried to rent a hall in San Jose for a party, so in the end Kesey called a bohemian acquaintance in that city known as Big Nig and talked him into hosting the postshow gala. As the Stones concert ended, the Pranksters swung into action, handing out “Can YOU Pass the Acid Test?” handbills to the masses filing out of the auditorium, then hopping onto the bus and hustling down to San Jose. Tom Wolfe’s description of the evening in his funny, hip and hallucinatory 1968 book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test gives some of the wild flavor of these early acid parties:

“They come piling into Big Nig’s, and suddenly acid and the worldcraze were everywhere, the electric organ vibrating through every belly in the place, kids dancing not rock dances, not the frug and the—what?—swim, mother, but dancing ecstasy, leaping, dervishing, throwing their hands over their heads like Daddy Grace’s own stroked-out inner courtiers—yes!—Roy Seburn’s lights washing past every head, Cassady rapping, Paul Foster handing people weird little things out of his Eccentric Bag, old whistles, tin crickets, burnt keys, spectral plastic handles. Everybody’s eyes turn on like lightbulbs, fuses blow, blackness—wowwww!—the things that shake and vibrate and funnel freak out in this blackness—and then somebody slaps new fuses in and the old hulk of a house shutters back, the wiring writhing and fragmenting like molting snakes, the organs vibro-massage the belly again, fuses blow, minds scream, heads explode, neighbors call the cops, 200, 300, 400 people from out there drawn into The Movie, into the edge of the pudding at least, a mass closer and higher than any mass in history, it seems most surely …”

On December 10 the Grateful Dead played its first show under the new name in San Francisco at the Fillmore Auditorium, a black-run nightspot that had hosted countless great R&B shows through the years. The occasion was a benefit for the radical performance group the San Francisco Mime Troupe, who had been seriously harassed by San Francisco police for performing their politically charged musical plays without the requisite permits from the disapproving city government. The Mime Troupe’s business manager was Bill Graham, a brash New Yorker who once had acting aspirations of his own but who now brought the full force of his excitable personality to keeping the Mime Troupe solvent, defending them against the hostile powers that be and getting them lots of publicity however he could. Though not particularly a rock ’n’ roll fan (he preferred Latin music and jazz), Graham was savvy enough to see the potential for making money to defray the Mime Troupe’s mounting legal costs by putting on benefit concerts for the group using local bands as his drawing card. The first Mime Troupe benefit, on November 6, featured the Jefferson Airplane (who sometimes rehearsed in the Mime Troupe’s loft), eclectic guitar virtuoso Sandy Bull and New York gutter-rockers the Fugs. At the December 10 Mime Troupe benefit, the Dead (whom Graham billed as “The Grateful Dead [Formerly The Warlocks]” because he was so uncomfortable with the name) shared the bill with some of the best young rock bands in the city, including the Jefferson Airplane, the Great Society and the Mystery Trend, as well as local jazz saxophonist John Handy.

While the Warlocks had been playing bars and getting deeper into acid on the Peninsula, an even bigger psychedelic scene was developing in San Francisco. A group called the Charlatans, conceived and led by an artistic San Francisco State student named George Hunter, spent much of the summer of 1965 in the arid hills of Virginia City, Nevada, near Reno, taking acid, strutting around town with their friends in Victorian finery they’d picked up in San Francisco thrift stores, taking target practice in the surrounding hills and playing their rough-hewn rock ’n’ roll music in a Western bar called the Red Dog Saloon, which was built in a gambling hall that dated back to the 1860s. Word quickly got around San Francisco that there were high times to be had at the Red Dog, and for a while there was a small but steady stream of visitors from the city making the pilgrimage to Virginia City. Kesey and the Merry Pranksters even stopped by the Red Dog near summer’s end, but their timing was off: one of the Charlatans had been busted back in the Bay Area, the police had traced his connection to what was going on in Virginia City and the scene was forced to disperse.

That fall, some of the folks who’d been part of the Red Dog summer and who were living together in a commune called the Dog House (in honor of various mutts who’d lived there) on Pine Street in San Francisco decided to seize upon the energy of the Virginia City romp and put on a dance with the Charlatans at Longshoremen’s Hall in San Francisco, a big, funky space near Fisherman’s Wharf that was often used for more conventional teen and young-adult dances. The first “Family Dog” dance concert, October 16, 1965, was billed as “A Tribute to Dr. Strange,” after the Marvel Comics hero. Also playing that night were the Jefferson Airplane, who had begun to create a stir through their appearances at a San Francisco club called the Matrix, and the Great Society, with Grace and Darby Slick. The Warlocks had a connection to the Airplane before they ever shared a bill with them: guitarists Jorma Kaukonen and Paul Kantner had both been folkies in the South Bay during Garcia’s bluegrass days.

The Family Dog’s second dance, “A Tribute to Sparkle Plenty,” was held the following weekend, with an even bigger turnout, mostly because word of mouth on the first event had been so positive. This time the headliner was the Lovin’ Spoonful, the popular New York folk-rock group then riding high with their smash hit “Do You Believe in Magic,” fresh from a sold-out week at the San Francisco music and comedy club the hungry i.

“The first time that music and LSD interacted in a way that really came to life for us as a band,” Garcia said, “was one day when we got extremely high on some of that early dynamite LSD and we went that night to the Lovin’ Spoonful… . That day, the Grateful Dead guys—our scene—went out, took acid and came up to Marin County and hung out somewhere around Fairfax or Lagunitas or one of those places up in the woods, and just went crazy. We ended up going into that rock ’n’ roll dance and it was just really fine to see that whole scene—where there was nobody there but heads and this strange rock ’n’ roll music playing in this weird building. It was just what we wanted to see… . We began to see that vision of a truly fantastic thing. It became clear to us that working in bars was not going to be right for us to be able to expand into this new idea.” It was that evening, too, that Phil Lesh uttered his famous remark to Ellen Harmon of the Family Dog: “Lady, what this little seance needs is us.

The Family Dog dances were mainly that: dances, though they also featured primitive light shows—strobe lights were the perfect accompaniment for LSD because, like that drug, they seemed to fracture both light and time. And people increasingly used the dances as an excuse to dress up in odd thrift-store clothes—capes and long coats and feathered boas and strange hats direct from grandma and grandpa’s musty attic trunk. The Acid Test, on the other hand, made no pretense of being a concert of any kind. Yes, the Grateful Dead was part of the package, but as Garcia put it, “We had no significance. We weren’t famous. Nobody came to the Acid Test to see us, particularly. We got to play or not play, depending on how we felt. We could play anything we could think of, which meant we didn’t have any constraints on our performance. We didn’t have to be good, or recognizable even. We had an opportunity to visit highly experimental places under the influence of highly experimental chemicals before a highly experimental audience. It was ideal. And that was something we got to do long enough to get used to it.

“Everybody there was entertaining. Everything there was entertaining; every event that happened. And you didn’t need expertise. The musician’s chauvinism—‘I can do something you can’t do’—all that stuff went up in smoke, which I think was very good for everybody; everybody learned a lot from that process. I think everybody who ever went to an Acid Test came out a different person and loved it.”

Everyone who attended paid a buck to get in—musicians and Pranksters included—and there were no rules; whatever happened is what happened.

The night after the Dead’s Fillmore debut, the third Acid Test was held at a club in Palo Alto called the Big Beat. This was the first Acid Test where the Dead got to play on a real stage, but as usual they were just part of a larger, more amorphous event. The Pranksters always commanded as much attention as the Dead at these affairs, with their piles of sound equipment, Roy Seburn’s light show and the unholy triumvirate of Kesey, Babbs and Cassady always moving in three equally weird but compelling directions at once, doing strange things with microphones—laying down a rap or playing ghastly tuneless harmonica or chanting nonsense or narrating the insane scene in the room, sometimes even while the Dead were playing. There were times when the Dead were too high to play; other times they’d hit monstrous fat grooves that had everyone in the place dancing deliriously. “Our trip with the Acid Test was to be able to play long and loud … as long and as loud as we wanted and nobody would stop us,” Garcia said.

The following week the Acid Test moved out of the South Bay/Peninsula area for the first time. Originally it was scheduled for a public lodge at Stinson Beach, on the coast twenty-five perilous but scenic miles north of San Francisco on Highway 1, but that fell through at the last minute and instead it took place in the log lodge at Muir Beach, a few miles closer to San Francisco. Perhaps because it was nearer to the city and the San Francisco freaks had already gotten a glimpse of the Dead at the Mime Troupe benefit, the Muir Beach Acid Test drew a lot of new faces. (It probably would have attracted even more if untold numbers hadn’t shown up at Stinson Beach instead; which brings to mind the most famous Prankster axiom: “Never trust a Prankster.”)

Owsley Stanley, who was already legendary in underground circles for making high-quality LSD, was at Muir Beach that night seeing the Grateful Dead for the first time. He had met Kesey about a month earlier in La Honda, after friends had tipped him off about the acid parties in the redwoods, and before too long he became a primary supplier to that scene, though he continued to live in Berkeley.

Owsley, known to most then and now as “Bear,” was an interesting fellow. He was a few years older than the guys in the band—he and Kesey were the same age—and like Kesey, he had grown up in a very straight world. He was the grandson and namesake of a U.S. senator from Kentucky (Augustus Owsley Stanley) and the son of a Washington, D.C., lawyer (A. O. S. Jr.). His misfit tendencies showed up fairly early—in junior high he was expelled from Charlotte Hall, a military prep school in southern Maryland, “for smuggling a lot of booze into the school and getting the whole campus intoxicated,” he says. Later he went to public high school in Arlington, Virginia, “where I ate at the same table in the school cafeteria where Shirley MacLaine held court; she was a year ahead of me.”

Although he ultimately dropped out of high school after the eleventh grade, he managed to get into the University of Virginia’s School of Engineering, where he studied for just a year before quitting. In 1956 Owsley joined the air force and, on the basis of experience he’d gained working as a rocket test mechanic for Rocketdyne, was assigned to the Rocket Engine Test Facility at Edwards Air Force Base, east of Los Angeles. There, “I wound up teaching myself electronics, which I knew nothing about. I was reassigned to the salvage yard, and took apart every piece of gear that came in—and there was some pretty high-tech stuff at Edwards.” He also took and passed the tests for the ham radio and First-Class Radiotelephone Operator’s licenses.

When he landed a job at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Owsley was released from his military obligations. Later, he worked at various Southern California radio and TV stations, including a stint as chief engineer at an AM station in San Diego. Eventually, though, he went back to college, this time to UC Berkeley. He lasted only two semesters there, but he liked the city of Berkeley, which was filled with people who were, like him, intellectually voracious, stimulating to be around and definitely weirder than your average citizen. Then, as now, he was given to expounding at length, lucidly and enthusiastically, on a startlingly broad assortment of pet theories, which he held with absolute conviction, no matter how far away from the mainstream thinking on a given subject they were. In early 1964, Owsley “got turned on to the Beatles’ first album and LSD in the same week,” he recalls. “It was amazing. It all seemed to fit together. We had Meet the Beatles within a few days of it coming out. One of my friends who was a folkie brought it in and said, ‘Man, you gotta listen to this!’ And I was off and running on it. I loved it.”

But not quite as much as he loved LSD. Acid had a deep and profound effect on Owsley—so much so that with the help of his girlfriend, Melissa Cargill, a Berkeley chemistry grad student, he set up his own lab in the bathroom of his house to make the stuff, and in short order became renowned for the superior quality of his potion. Which is what led him to Kesey in the fall of 1965 and brought him that night to the lodge at Muir Beach.

There was a lot of weird energy in the air that night at Muir Beach. Owsley, for one, was overwhelmed by the totality of the experience—by what he saw as an almost maniacal edge to the Pranksters’ mind-warping assault, and by the sheer power of the Grateful Dead: “I’d never heard anything like it,” he says. “It was a little bit scary. Garcia was sort of frightening with that cosmic electric intensity he had back then. I remember at some point that night thinking, ‘This band is going to be bigger than the Beatles.’ That was my thought as I listened to this incredible cosmic shit they were playing. Of course I was out of my gourd that night… . But that was my thought, and I think on some level they proved me correct.”

Mountain Girl, who was a few months pregnant with Kesey’s child, remembers, “That was a strange night. The poor band couldn’t get anything going. I know Pigpen got dosed and he was very unhappy about it. The lighting was bad in there and the band would go up and play for about five minutes and then they’d sit down; that was all they could do. ‘C’mon guys! Why aren’t you playing?’ ‘I dunno. Why do we have to play?’ It was pretty funny. So then the Pranksters would play and that was perfectly dreadful. It sounded like a bad version of Sun Ra—screechy, but still kind of fun and upbeat; dissonant, goof-off kind of music. There were lots of silly costumes and colored smoke and bubbles and whatever I could come up with. I did a lot of light show stuff—I ran various slide projectors and film loops, mainly Prankster footage—the bus going down the road, and so on.”

In Tom Wolfe’s account of the evening, the night ended with Owsley screaming denunciations at Kesey for the dark power he had seen unleashed on the world during his peculiar night at Muir Beach. Owsley jumped into his car and started to roar off into the night, but crashed into a tree almost immediately and tumbled out of the car still raving and railing at Kesey and the Pranksters. As Garcia said later, “[Owsley’s] mind was completely shot—he thought they’d come and taken it from him… . He didn’t get along too well with our wilder version [than the Berkeley psychedelic scene Owsley was from] because the big, straight psychedelic scene always called our scene too high-energy—‘You can freak out in there, you know.’ That was what they always used to say.”

Garcia explained the allure of the Acid Tests from his perspective in a 1969 Rolling Stone story on the band:

“What the Kesey thing was depended on who you were when you were there. It was open, a tapestry, a mandala—it was whatever you made it. Okay, so you take LSD, and suddenly you’re aware of another plane, or several other planes. And the quest is to extend that limit, to go as far as you can go. In the Acid Tests, that meant to do away with old forms, with old ideas, try something new. Nobody was doing something, y’know. It was everybody doing bits and pieces of something, the result of which was something else.

“When it was moving right, you could dig that there was something that it was getting toward, something like ordered chaos. The Test would start off and then there would be chaos. Everybody would be high and flashing and going through insane changes during which everything would be demolished, man, and spilled and broken and affected, and after that another thing would happen, maybe soothing out the chaos, then another; it’d go all night ’til morning… .

“When we were playing, we were playing. When we weren’t, we’d be doing other stuff. There were no sets; sometimes we’d get up and play for two hours, three hours. Sometimes we’d play for ten minutes and then freak out and split. We’d just do it however it would happen. It wasn’t a gig—it was the Acid Test, where anything was okay.”

Commented Bob Weir: “When we played the Acid Tests, we set up before the whole thing began—wisely so. Then we’d take acid and wait until we could kind of deal with the physical. Back then, God knows who decided what the doses were gonna be, so there were times when it was a couple of hours before we’d make a stab at trying to play. And oftentimes we’d pluck around a little and then abandon ship pretty quick. It was hard to relate when we were heavily into hallucination.

“We began turning up loud pretty quickly. From the start, it was faster, looser, louder and hairier. We were going for a ride. We were gonna see what this baby’ll do. It helped that we were playing in an uncritical situation. What didn’t help was that the fact that we were completely disoriented, so we had to fend for ourselves and improvise. When we would come around in a song to what should be a familiar chorus, it seemed completely unfamiliar. The jams made us rely on each other a lot. ‘How are you doin’, man?’ ‘I don’t know! How are you doin’?’ ‘Well, I got this,’ and you’d play a little line. ‘Okay, I think I can relate to that.’ So we had to hang together. We got better and better at it as time went on, so we could take a pretty massive dose and hang in there for a while.”

Garcia often said that one of the biggest turn-ons of the Acid Tests for him was getting to know an ever-growing assortment of odd, interesting people who shared his own insatiable taste for adventure, the unexpected and the truly weird. It was under the aegis of the Acid Tests that Garcia encountered Kesey, Babbs, Bill Graham, Owsley, Wavy Gravy, Stewart Brand and many of the people who would become the movers and shakers of the blossoming San Francisco music scene. But the figure who impressed Garcia the most during this period was Neal Cassady, the fastestmanalive!, legendary for his verbal and physical dexterity and his death-defying feats of reckless driving. His exploits were dutifully chronicled by writers from Kerouac to Wolfe, and seemingly everyone who encountered him was affected by him.

“It’s hard to even know what to say about Cassady,” Garcia said in 1994. “He had an incredible mind. You might not see him for months and he would pick up exactly where he left off the last time he saw you; like in the middle of a sentence! You’d go, ‘What? What the …’ and then you’d realize, ‘Oh yeah, this is that story he was telling me last time.’ It was so mind-boggling you couldn’t believe that he was doing it.

“If you’d go for a drive with him it was like the ultimate fear experience,” Garcia continued. “You knew you were going to die; there was no question about it. He loved big Detroit irons—big cars. Driving in San Francisco he would go down those hills like at fifty or sixty miles an hour and do blind corners, disregarding anything—stop signs, signals, all the time talking to you and maybe fumbling around with a little teeny roach, trying to put it in a matchbook, and also tuning the radio maybe, and also talking to whoever else was in the car. And seeming to never put his eyes on the road. You’d be just dying. It would effectively take you past that cold fear of death thing. It was so incredible… .

“He was the first person I met who he himself was the art. He was an artist and he was the art also. He was doing it consciously, as well. He worked with the world… . He was that guy in the real world. He scared a lot of people. A lot of people thought he was crazy. A lot of people were afraid of him. Most people I know didn’t understand him at all. But he was like a musician in a way. He liked musicians; he always liked to hang out with musicians. That’s why he sort of picked up on us.”

“The only thing I can really say is everybody who ever knew Cassady was tremendously influenced and affected by him,” Kesey said. “People from all sorts of stations in life, from Stewart Brand to Garcia to Kerouac to Ginsberg to Burroughs to strange little teenage girls who had never read a book—were all very affected by him, and that in itself should say to people, ‘Pay attention to this guy. There’s more going on than you get in the first glimpse.’ It takes a bit of study.”

“One of the essential points of the Acid Tests is that you were safe in your idiosyncrasies and safe to be who you really were,” M.G. says. “That idea is at the heart of Ken’s nature, and it’s also the heart of Jerry’s nature. Jerry adored idiosyncrasies, and Ken as well. They would genuinely be charmed by weird people. Jerry would take people in who he thought had some special charm or something fascinating about them. It was an openness to weirdness.

“We also had this commitment to a group decision-making process and that worked fine as long as Ken or Jerry—in either one of the groups—hadn’t already made a decision about things, in which case we were going to do what they wanted to do. That’s the hilarious thing about it. We had this system which was truly democratic a lot of the time, but occasionally veered into being a dictatorship. I think Bill Graham shared that same oddness, of letting people do what they want to do and run stuff until suddenly it contradicted what he wanted.”

The Grateful Dead’s first performance of 1966 was an Acid Test at Beaver Hall in Portland—Kesey country—and then a few days later the Acid Test finally hit San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium. Hundreds of heads turned out and had their minds blown by what they experienced. The Dead played an incredible set that night and the place was jumpin’ in a way it never had before. “All I know,” comedian-social satirist Paul Krassner said into a microphone at the Fillmore that night, “is that if I were a cop and I came in here, I wouldn’t know where to begin.”

Indeed. The “authorities” were not happy about these public carnivals of what was, by mainstream societal standards, deviant behavior on a mass scale taking place under their noses. Since LSD was still legal, they couldn’t just shut the Acid Test down, but there’s no doubt that they were taking notice of what was going on at these events. As early as the Big Beat Acid Test, newspapers began running stories about “drug orgies,” and police and government officials started talking about making the drug illegal and cracking down on the anarchic scene.

“The Acid Test started expanding at an incredible rate,” Garcia said. “It started from about enough people to fill a room this size, to enough to fill the Longshoremen’s Hall in San Francisco. And it had virtually no advertising or anything. You sort of had to be a detective to even find out where they were gonna be. But even so they got to be immensely popular. More and more people came to them, more and more people got high. After about three or four months, it seemed like the Acid Tests were going to take over the world in about a year.”

One person whose life was changed by seeing the Grateful Dead at the Fillmore Acid Test was Rock Scully, who as part of the Family Dog organization was actually putting on a competing dance concert featuring the Charlatans and the Jefferson Airplane at California Hall half a mile away the same night. In an early example of freak solidarity, Scully and the Pranksters worked out an arrangement where tickets were good for both events, and even set up a shuttle bus between the two venues. At one point Scully left his own show to check out what was happening at the Fillmore, and he was so mesmerized by what he saw and heard that he never returned to California Hall. Shortly afterward he became the Grateful Dead’s first manager.

Just as UC Berkeley was the center of cultural upheaval in the East Bay in the mid-’60s, and Stanford the bohemian nexus on the Peninsula, San Francisco State, located on an often foggy stretch of land at the southwest end of the city, produced many of the “pioneers” of Haight-Ashbury, Rock Scully among them. Rock hailed from Carmel, an idyllic coastal village 125 miles south of San Francisco, but much of his youth had been spent in European boarding schools. After attending college in Switzerland he went to S.F. State for graduate school and fell in with a crowd of students that included members of the Charlatans, Rodney and Peter Albin, and a New York kid named Danny Rifkin, all of whom, like Scully, lived in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, near the eastern edge of Golden Gate Park. Rifkin was living in and managing a stately old Victorian at 710 Ashbury when the two became friends, and after a while Scully moved into the building. Through Luria Castell, a former 710 resident who’d moved into the Dog House, Scully became involved with the Family Dog, and he in turn persuaded Danny Rifkin to help put on the dance concert with the Charlatans that December night at California Hall. Scully first heard the Dead at the Big Beat Acid Test, where he claims he and Pigpen were the only people in the room not on acid, but it wasn’t until he blasted into the Fillmore Acid Test, high as a kite, that he understood why so many people were latching onto this band.

That January the Dead also began playing regular gigs at the Matrix club in San Francisco, giving those who found the whole Acid Test scene a bit too strange, frantic and unpredictable (as well as those who simply dug the band and wanted to see more) a chance to groove on the Dead’s music without the confusing distractions that pretty much defined the Acid Tests. The Jefferson Airplane had been the first group to play the club when it opened in August 1965, and by year’s end they were signed to RCA Records. Though in early 1966 no one was beating down the door trying to get the Grateful Dead into a recording studio, the Matrix gigs certainly elevated their status around town and helped establish them as a “San Francisco” band, whereas before they had been considered a Peninsula group.

It was Stewart Brand, not Ken Kesey, who was the driving force behind a three-day multimedia extravaganza known as the Trips Festival at Longshoremen’s Hall on January 21, 22 and 23, 1966. Brand’s concept, or at least what he told the local media, was an event that would be like an acid trip, but without the acid (wink wink). What an extravaganza: Friday was to feature Brand’s multimedia America Needs Indians Sensorium and something called the Open Theater, which consisted of everything from the Congress of Wonders comedy troupe to a recitation of an Aimee Semple McPherson sermon, to a group called the Jazz Mice. Saturday evening was turned over to Kesey and the Pranksters, with music by the Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company. Sunday’s lineup brought together elements of Friday’s and Saturday’s events, along with such new stimuli as Henry Jacobs’s Air Dome Projections and the Stroboscopic Trampoline. A flier for the Trips Festival offered this explanation to the curious: “the general tone of things has moved from the self-concious happening to a more JUBILANT occasion where the audience PARTICIPATES because it’s more fun to do so than not. maybe this is the ROCK REVOLUTION. audience dancing is an assumed part of all the shows, & the audience is invited to wear ECSTATIC DRESS & bring their own GADGETS (a.c. outlets will be provided).”

Basically the festival was designed to be a three-day freak convention, a big party to usher in the dawn of the acid age. The gullible press completely bought into Brand’s rap and gave the event lots of free publicity.

Meanwhile, Ken Kesey had a problem. Way back in April 1965 the police had raided his house in La Honda and busted him for possession of pot. He was released on bail, and it wasn’t until just four days before the Trips Festival that the case finally worked its way through the crowded court docket. Kesey found himself on the receiving end of a stern lecture from San Mateo County court judge Louis Demateis. The judge said that the crime Kesey had committed could have landed him in the state prison, but since he was a first-time offender, Demateis instead sentenced Kesey to six months in the county jail, three years probation and a $1,500 fine. As part of the probation, the judge also ordered Kesey to sever all ties with the Merry Pranksters and the Acid Test. Kesey paid a $5,500 bond and announced his plan to appeal the sentence.

But that wasn’t the worst of it. Kesey’s situation was complicated further when the night after the sentencing he and Mountain Girl were busted on the roof of Stewart Brand’s Telegraph Hill apartment. The pair had been lying around on the roof late at night, smoking pot, watching the stars above them, the lights of North Beach below them, and playfully tossing gravel from the rooftop. This was not a good idea: some of the gravel apparently hit the window of an apartment beneath them and a woman called the cops. Kesey and M.G. watched as police cars arrived in the street below them and officers entered the building they were on top of, but they failed to make the connection. The next thing they knew there were two cops on the roof with them. Kesey tried to throw away a baggie containing a small amount of pot, and the officers, with guns drawn, took the pair into custody. Mountain Girl bravely tried to take the rap, but nobody was buying her claim. No, Kesey had not only been busted a second time, but he was also caught consorting with a Prankster! This could land him in jail for an extended period—maybe even the three years the San Mateo judge had originally said was a probation period.

The Trips Festival was a huge success. Longshoremen’s Hall was jammed all three nights, with more than 10,000 people attending overall. The event grossed $12,500, which was good money for its day, a fact that was not lost on the man Stewart Brand had hired to help run the event—Bill Graham. Contrary to Brand’s pre-event assertions to the press, nearly everyone who attended the Trips Festival was high on something; acid was everywhere. It was, in fact, undoubtedly the largest concentration of psychedelicized people in one place that the world had ever seen. Kesey turned up Saturday night wearing a silver space suit and a bubble space helmet, and managed not to be too conspicuous, which gives an idea of how wild many people’s outfits were.

The handbill ads for the Saturday night event promised “ken kesey, members of the s.f. tape music center, big brother & the holding company rock ’n’ roll, the don buchla sound-light console, overhead projection … ‘the acid test,’ the merry pranksters and their psychedelic symphony, neal cassady vs. ann murphy vaudeville, the grateful dead rock ’n’ roll, allen ginsberg, roy’s audioptics, movies, ron boise & his electric thunder sculpture, the bus, hell’s angels, many noted outlaws, and the unexpectable.” In the middle of the hall the Pranksters constructed a giant tower—their command control center—which they filled from top to bottom with stacks and stacks of sound, lighting and movie equipment. What a pile of stuff: It was as if the little ol’ Acid Test of yore had been zapped by some ray and mutated, like the Amazing Colossal Man!

“The Trips Festival was a continuation of what was happening at other events, but in a much bigger dose,” says Steve Brown, who was managing a local band called the Friendly Stranger at the time. “Our thing was we did a liquid light show, strobe lights, a fog machine and projected cartoons. We had all that environmental thing going already. What this added to it was a more chaotic, unpredictable type of edge: tying everybody together with string, turning off the lights and throwing thousands of marshmallows down on everybody. Weird stuff that was sort of like performance art and got everyone participating. You’d be going along doing whatever you were doing and all of a sudden you’d find yourself in the middle of some other completely weird scene that somebody else was doing, so you did that until it ended or until something more interesting came along. And if a band happened to be playing and was good, that was an added bonus. The place was packed. There were people inside and outside, and people who didn’t know if they were inside or outside. There were all these people just kind of bumping around Fisherman’s Wharf scaring the tourists; it was great! What it really was, was a public drug event. Everyone was completely aghast that this many young people would want to do this. They couldn’t believe it!”

For Garcia the Trips Festival was “thousands of people, man, all helplessly stoned, all finding themselves in a roomful of other thousands of people, none of whom any of them were afraid of. It was magic, far-out beautiful magic.”

Facing a bail hearing on February 2, which would almost certainly result in his being jailed because of the rooftop bust, Kesey decided to go on the lam, but not before he hatched one more prank. He arranged to have an old panel truck driven up to the rainy northwestern corner of California, outside of Eureka, and parked on a cliff overlooking the ocean. On the front seat he left a “suicide” note that concluded: “I Ken Kesey being of (ahem) sound mind and body do hereby leave the whole scene to Faye, corporation, cash, the works. And Babbs to run it. (And it occurs to me that nobody is going to buy this prank and now it occurs to me that I like that even better.)”

Of course the police didn’t buy it; not for a second. But by leaving the truck so far north, Kesey led people to believe that he’d returned to his native Northwest, whereas in fact he’d hopped into a rented red Mustang convertible with Hassler, driven down to Los Angeles, then hooked up with Ron Boise and headed across the Mexican border in a truck. As the anointed successor, Babbs tried to keep the momentum of the Acid Tests going, and in fact there was more craziness to come in the weeks after Kesey’s departure, but most agreed that the Acid Tests were never quite the same. This brings to mind Prankster axiom number two: “Nothing lasts.”

All during this period, the band was still living in and around Palo Alto. Jerry, Sara and Heather had moved from the cottage on Bryant Court into a huge Victorian house a block or so from the Gilman Street pad, on the corner of Forest and Waverly Streets, along with Dave Parker, Robert Hunter, Rick Shubb and David Nelson. There were palm and avocado trees in the large yard, and most of the rooms were big and sunny. Inside, there was sometimes a palpable tension between Jerry and Sara, who were still drifting apart despite their shared love of tripping and of Heather. Jerry had been unfaithful to Sara on numerous occasions with a few different women, but what finally broke up the marriage was Sara’s falling in love with Roy Seburn, one of the Pranksters:

“He and I started hanging out and then he came and stayed at our place on Waverly Street. The Acid Tests were going and I was just miserable with Jerry, absolutely miserable. One evening Roy was camping on the couch in the living room and I went down to be with him. And Jerry came down and found us hanging out together—we hadn’t done anything together yet—but I had strong feelings about Roy and I hadn’t had any strong feelings about Jerry, except disappointment, for quite some time. And Jerry basically said, ‘I can’t tolerate you being with somebody else,’ so I said, ‘Okay, that’s it. We’re done.’ I threw away my wedding ring and burned the letters he’d written me and gave a lot of my stuff to Cassady’s girlfriend and took off with Roy.”

Garcia noted that one of the effects of his experimentation with psychedelics during this period was that “It freed me, because I suddenly realized that my little attempt at having a straight life and doing that was really a fiction and just wasn’t going to work out. Luckily I wasn’t far enough into it for it to be shattering or anything. It was like a realization that just made me feel immensely relieved. I just felt good and it was the same with my wife; at that point it sort of freed us to be able to go ahead and live our lives rather than having to live out an unfortunate social circumstance.” Of course his “attempt at a having a straight life” was never very earnest, and it’s doubtful that Sara, who continued to care for Heather, enjoyed the same relief that the now unburdened Garcia did.

In early February the Dead and the Pranksters headed down to Los Angeles. For the Pranksters this was a chance to bring the Acid Test to new crowds on their way down to Mexico to reconnect with Kesey. In the Dead’s case, going to L.A. offered an opportunity to spend some solid time working on new material to expand a repertoire that new manager Rock Scully said was getting stale.

Owsley had also reconnected with the Dead in the weeks since his rough time at the Muir Beach Acid Test. While still somewhat distrustful of the whole Prankster ethos—“I thought they were probably messing with something that was probably very dangerous. It was not so good,” he said—seeing the Dead again at the Fillmore Acid Test confirmed his earlier notion that they were onto something special. “I met Phil,” he said. “I walked over to him and said, ‘I’d like to work for you guys.’ Because I had decided this was the most amazing thing I’d ever run into. And he says, ‘We don’t have a manager …’ I said, ‘I don’t think I want to be the manager.’ He said, ‘Well, we don’t have a sound man,’ and I said, ‘Well, I don’t know anything about that, either, but I guess I could learn. Sounds like more fun.’ That’s how that happened.”

Owsley knew Los Angeles well from his years in the air force, the electronics industry and radio/TV, and he’d actually made LSD there as recently as the spring of 1965. He had roots and connections there, and a little bit of money from his drug operation to help support the band, yet he says he was opposed to the Dead’s moving there in that late winter of 1966: “The Acid Test went to L.A. and the Grateful Dead felt obligated. I argued long and strongly that it wasn’t really a very good idea to do it because I didn’t see any point in it. It was going to be expensive, none of us had a place down there to stay and there were no assurances there was any income; I had limited amounts of money. When I first met those guys they couldn’t make enough to live on. If they went out and worked a show, there were five of them and they were lucky to get $125 a night. So there was no money in it; it was more like a hobby.

“But, like I said, they felt like they had to do it, that they were part of the Acid Tests, so they went ahead and did it. I missed the first one because I couldn’t disconnect whatever I was doing [in Northern California], but I showed up the next week. We went down there and then somebody who was connected with the Pranksters had met some person who was in real estate and they located this house in Watts. I thought, ‘Who the fuck wants to go there?’ It turned out it was right next door to a whorehouse, and the whorehouse patrons would throw pot seeds out the window, so there were little pot plants growing all around—that’s all we needed, since we were bringing the cops there almost every day because of the noise.”

The big pink stucco house on the edge of Watts had no furniture in it at all, and, according to Rosie McGee (née Florence Nathan), who was Phil’s girlfriend, “That whole scene down there was totally controlled by Owsley. He rented the place, paid for everything. They had very little income during that period. They’d do a few gigs here and there for a couple of hundred bucks, and there was a house full of people to feed. But because Owsley was in charge of it and paying for it and was the massive control freak that he was, he controlled every single thing, down to what we ate. I’ll never forget that when you’d open the refrigerator there were big slabs of beef in there. The shelves weren’t even in there—just these big hunks of meat. So of course behind his back people were sneaking candy bars in. There were no greens or anything—he called it ‘rabbit food.’

“It was kind of an odd period because the band wasn’t working very much,” she continues. “They were home a lot and practicing in the house.” And how did they sound? “They were very rough but they were working hard at it; at the same time they were all having a lot of fun. I’m not sure they really had a direction at that point, except to stretch—musically, with drugs or whatever. It all went off in so many directions at once. They weren’t very focused. But that’s to be expected, because they were pretty loaded much of the time.”

For the record, Owsley acknowledges that he kept the band on the all-meat diet (which he preferred because he believed that humans are essentially carnivorous and that vegetables poisoned the body) and he admits, “I tend to be a control freak. I’ve had that epithet thrown at me a bunch. I like to see things done right.” Still, he was no Svengali telling the Dead what to do or what to play. Phil Lesh once noted, “He was our patron, in the ultimate sense of the word… . He never once thought about the money. We were able to be the Grateful Dead, and if they hired us, great. But we could at least eat.”

While the Dead contingent was staying in Watts, the Pranksters were spread out in several different locations around L.A., setting up Acid Tests at various odd places, including a Unitarian church in Northridge, Cathay Sound Studios, and the most notorious Test of them all, the Watts Acid Test, held in an old warehouse on Lincoln’s Birthday in 1966.

“We got a couple of 30-gallon garbage pails and mixed Kool-Aid,” Lee Quarnstrom said in On the Bus. “Owsley had a couple of glass ampules with pure LSD in them and he poured it into the Kool-Aid. We did some quick mathematics and figured that one Dixie Cup of Kool-Aid equalled 50 micrograms of acid. The standard dose, if you wanted to get high, was 300 mics. So we told everyone that six cups would equal a standard trip. After a couple of cups, when I was as high as I’d ever been, somebody recomputed and realized each cup held 300 micrograms. I remember hearing that and realizing I had just gulped down 2,000 micrograms. The rest of the evening was as weird as you might expect.”

The other L.A. Acid Tests were considerably more benign, and there’s no question that the Pranksters made quite an impression on the Angelenos who turned out. “It was a very different scene than San Francisco,” says Rosie McGee. “The San Francisco scene and the Pranksters and all of that was always a really funky, real, hairy kind of thing. It was the true edge and it was gritty. We brought that down to L.A. and there was this overlay of the glitzy people trying to be hip coming to this event and not knowing what to make of it. There were always people at the L.A. Acid Tests who were not on acid and who were very Hollywood, so they were standing around like poseurs, looking at all this stuff while we were down on the ground, holding on for dear life, and getting down to it. Then, those of them who did get high … well, glitz and acid don’t mix too well, so when these people started shedding their skin, so to speak, a lot of them got pretty freaked out. It was definitely a collision of cultures there.”

Jerry and Sara were tripping at the same events, but were psychically far apart for most the L.A. Acid Tests. While Jerry and the band were shattering the peace of their Watts neighborhood (Rosie McGee says the band’s response to noise complaints was “to open the window and put the speakers going toward the neighbors”), Sara and Heather were across town with Roy and the other Pranksters. “I loved being part of that scene,” she says. “There was a can-do attitude about the Pranksters that was just thrilling in those days. There was great idealism. We were going to take the Acid Test across the country and save the country by opening people’s minds.”

Sara even took baby Heather to the Acid Tests with her: “I would always find a place for a little nest that would be safe and quiet for Heather, like the projection room in a theater or someplace like that, and set her up with her toys and crayons and snacks and a snug little bed.” One time at an Acid Test in L.A., “Jerry wanted to see Heather,” Sara says, “and I remember taking him up to this place where I had nested her, and him just kind of adoring her while she was asleep. He asked me to come back to him, and I said no.”

After about six weeks in L.A. the Dead and the Pranksters finally parted ways, with the bus heading south to Mexico and the Dead returning to Northern California. “The Acid Test had sort of run its course and it was time to do something else and take it apart,” Babbs says. “For one thing, we had a huge crew that was traveling with us, and we didn’t have any money. The choice was either to take it on the road and head east and try to keep limping along, or to stop it. But it wasn’t like people were after us to do it in their town or anything. Not that many people knew about it, really.”

With the Pranksters suddenly out of their lives and the Acid Tests over (at least for the time being), it was time for the Grateful Dead to become more self-reliant and carry its own version of the Acid Test spirit into the clubs and ballrooms of San Francisco. It wasn’t, Garcia noted, quite the same:

“In order to keep on playing, we had to go with whatever form was there. Because for one thing, the form that we liked [the Acid Test] always scared everybody. It scared the people that owned the building that we’d rent, so they’d never rent twice to us. It scared the people who came, a lot of times. It scared the cops. It scared everybody. Because it represented total and utter anarchy. Indoor anarchy. That’s something people haven’t learned to get off with. But our experience with those things is that’s where you get the highest… .

“The Acid Test was the prototype for our whole basic trip. But nothing has ever come up to the level of the way the Acid Test was. It’s just never been equalled, really, or the basic hit of it never developed out.”

But what it evolved into over the next three decades was no less remarkable.