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Drugs and their Stories

California’s Acid Tests marked the Birth of the Hippie Movement

By August 31, 2021No Comments

Long hair, oriental garments, Indian beeds, Day-Glo paint, oil projections, strobes, mandalas, peace signs, psychedelic rock and LSD—all of these things are now synonymous with the hippie movement. But the undisputed pioneers of this most colorful pop culture were Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters. With their (in)famous Acid Tests in California, they first brought all of these elements together in a series of wild parties. Which provided the aesthetic of the psychedelic revolution. 

Text: Aron Friedman

A while ago, we wrote about the discovery of LSD by Albert Hoffman in 1943. Initially, the substance was mostly used in psychiatry. But as the 50’s rolled along, the drug was becoming more popular with the cultural elite. It would take until the mid-60’s for LSD to become famous as the drug of the hippie generation. The cultural framework of this movement—most notably the music, attire, decoration and way of dancing and partying—was shaped in large part by The Merry Pranksters, a flamboyant bunch of psychonautic adventurers, led by the charismatic, controversial writer Ken Kesey. 


During his youth in Oregon, Kesey had always been an exemplary citizen. A handsome young man who received good grades in high school. As a wrestler in university he would have made the Olympic team, were it not for a shoulder injury. He enjoyed reading and going to the movies, and also had an exentric and theatrical side, reveling in ventriloquism, magic and hypnotism. At 21, he married Faye, his high school sweetheart. All in all, he was your textbook all-American boy. 

‘The cultural framework of this movement was shaped in large part by The Merry Pranksters, a flamboyant bunch of psychonautic adventurers.’


Secret Military Project

That changed when he moved to San Francisco beginning of the 60’s. He landed a job as a night guard at Menlo Park hospital, where he enlisted for a very special programme. As part of a secret project of the American army, psychedelic substances were being tested on volunteers. They would become guinea pigs for drugs like psilocybine, mescaline, DMT and most notably LSD. They would be monitored throughout the experiments, to see what was happening to them, both mentally and physically. 

At Menlo Park, Kesey got his inspiration for ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’ a gripping novel about a group of psychiatric patients in a closed ward. After his job as a guinea pig was done, Kesey would often roam around the hospital, still tripping, and would strike up conversations with exactly those types of patients. He was under the impression that they weren’t actually insane, but rather rejected from society; too unconventional to be accepted by the American society. ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ was an instant bestseller, and was later turned into a movie, starring Jack Nicholson.

Scene from ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’

Psychedelic Experiments
Kesey’s experiences at Menlo Park had such a profound impact on him, he decided to go on experimenting with psychedelics himself. He found the environment of these tests far too clinical and unimaginative. You’d lay in a bare hospital room and every half hour, someone would speak through a little hole in the door to ask how you were feeling—not exactly the best setting for a trip. Kesey wondered how it would be to take psychedelics in a safe, unrestricted and stimulating background. What would happen if you were surrounded by friends, enchanting sounds and mesmerizing images? Would that bring the already amazing experience to an even higher level?

 

It wouldn’t take long before he got the chance to start experimenting. He had made enough money with his book to move into a considerable piece of land at La Honda, California. Together with a group of friends, fellow adventurers, they retreated to consume large amounts of LSD, DMT, speed, marijuana and other substances. He motivated everyone to explore the furthest corners of their creative minds. Soon enough, the house got covered in the most colorful drawings, and several cassette recorders were built, making it possible to record voices, play them back, record them again and play them back with another echo—resulting in the most trippy sound recordings of the 20th Century. 


‘The group of friends had enough LSD, DMT, speed and weed with them to knock down an entire village’

 

The Furthur Bus
In 1964, Kesey was invited for the book presentation of his second novel ‘Sometimes a Great Notion.’ He decided to make an epic journey through America, which they would record on cam all the way. It would be the first LSD movie ever made. They had bought an old school bus—an icon of American culture. Just like the house, they painted the bus in multi-colors and armed it with state-of-the-art audio equipment. Using the drum of a washing machine, they built an observation tower in the roof of the bus. To make sure they would have a proper amount of adventures, they brought enough LSD, DMT, speed and weed to knock out an entire village.   

 

From then on, they decided to call themselves The Merry Pranksters. The name of the bus became Furthur, because their aim was to go further than anyone had gone before them. And further was indeed their destination. Their driver was the legendary Neil Cassidy (known from the famous novel ‘On the Road’ by Jack Kerouac), who barely slept throughout the trip, because he was always taking speed. He was also babbling on relentlessly on the bus’ intercom, with all its delay effect-ects-ects…

The Furthur bus, icon of the American counter-culture.


The Pranksters were eager to consume the available drugs. They’d dance, play instruments and improvisational games in which they’d finish each others sentences and songs, most of it recorded on film. At times, someone would panic because of a bad trip and would have to be hugged and calmed by the others. Other times, their bus would break down, and they’d have to stay in small towns, where the locals would marvel at their flamboyance. Often, the  Pranksters would get stopped by the police. Then they’d simply pretend to be performers shooting a movie. 

 

Overall, the police didn’t know what to make of the Pranksters. In the orderly kept America of the mid 60’s, these strange birds of color were an anomaly. Moreover, LSD wasn’t known to the general public yet, and was still legal in those years, too. So the cops just let these multi-colored freaks continue on their marvelous journey. The epic bus trip is now generally regarded as the birth of American counter culture. From that moment on, there was a clear divide between people who were ‘on the bus’ (those who got it), and people who were ‘off the bus’ (those who didn’t get it). Furthur also laid the groundworks for the Acid Tests, which would go on to make the Pranksters and their turbulent lifestyle world-famous.

‘Can you pass the Acid Test?’ it said on the posters. This extreme form of psychedelic daredevilry wasn’t for the faint of heart’ 

 

Acid Tests

After his second book came out, Kesey didn’t get to write much. His new medium—that of the transcendental LSD experiences—was taking up most of his days. Besides, he and the Pranksters had a new goal in mind: sharing their trip experiences with the outer world. Through public events by the name of Acid Tests, they would give people the litmus test, expressed on the flyer in the following words: ‘Can you pass the acid test?’ After all, their extreme form of psychedelic daredevilry wasn’t for the faint of heart. 

 

During these Acid Tests, so-called ‘Electric Kool-Aid’ was distributed freely, i.e. lemonade laced with LSD (since it was still legal). Just like in La Honda, the place was strewn with speakers and recording devices, resounding not only the psychedelic rock of the house band The Grateful Dead, but also the cryptic sentences of the Pranksters (-ters-ters-ters…). The light shows were unprecedented. New innovations like strobes and blacklights created a completely estranging ambiance. Meanwhile, the Pranksters would walk around in the most amazing and colorful costumes. Basically, you were tripping even before the LSD started working… imagine the feeling when the acid waves were starting to come on! 

Acid Test poster from 1965.

Counter Culture
Generally speaking, the Acid Tests are regarded as the birth of the hippie movement, because they made such a significant impact on the psychedelic revolution. They provided a look, a sound and a lifestyle for the LSD experience. The Greateful Dead’s improvisational rock had a massive influence on The Beatles’ later work and on that of other leading artists of the era. The lighting techniques pioneered at the Acid Tests are still used today at concerts and raves. The colorful decoration and clothing styles of the Pranksters have been embraced by an entire generation. And their controversial lifestyle have served as a shining example for the American counter culture, which still appeals to new generations. 

If you’d like to know more about Ken Kesey, The Merry Pranksters, Furthur and the Acid Tests, you should definitely read the book ‘The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test’ by Tom Wolfe. It’s one of the most impressive novels about drugs and subcultures ever written. It’s also worth checking out the documentary ‘Tripping’ from 1999. Not only can you see plenty of original images from the Acid Tests, but you will also see the Pranksters who are still alive at that time talking about those days, as well as Hunter S. Thompson (the writer of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). The hundreds of hours of material that were shot on the Furthur trip have also been made into a documentary, which really isn’t that good. Apparently, like with most legendary parties, the saying applies: ‘you can’t truly understand unless you were there at the time’…  

Acid Test-poster from 1965

Counter Culture
Generally speaking, the Acid Tests are regarded as the birth of the hippie movement, because they made such a significant impact on the psychedelic revolution. They provided a look, a sound and a lifestyle for the LSD experience. The Greateful Dead’s improvisational rock had a massive influence on The Beatles’ later work and on that of other leading artists of the era. The lighting techniques pioneered at the Acid Tests are still used today at concerts and raves. The colorful decoration and clothing styles of the Pranksters have been embraced by an entire generation. And their controversial lifestyle have served as a shining example for the American counter culture, which still appeals to new generations. 

If you’d like to know more about Ken Kesey, The Merry Pranksters, Furthur and the Acid Tests, you should definitely read the book ‘The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test’ by Tom Wolfe. It’s one of the most impressive novels about drugs and subcultures ever written. It’s also worth checking out the documentary ‘Tripping’ from 1999. Not only can you see plenty of original images from the Acid Tests, but you will also see the Pranksters who are still alive at that time talking about those days, as well as Hunter S. Thompson (the writer of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). The hundreds of hours of material that were shot on the Furthur trip have also been made into a documentary, which really isn’t that good. Apparently, like with most legendary parties, the saying applies: ‘you can’t truly understand unless you were there at the time’…  

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