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 otherwisenoted.)
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 presentations of any sortthe Acid Tests.
And yet, there was nothing irreligious about any of this. The Pranksters seeming apprehension of the metaphysical was forming a religion all its own; an American religion. No shrines, no sacraments. Buuuut, as Woolfe began to muse out loud:
The experiencethat was the word! And it began to fall into place. In fact, none of the great founded religions, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, none of them began with a philosophical framework or even a main idea. They all began with an overwhelming new experience, what Joachim Welch called the experience of the holy, and Max Weber, possession of the deity, the sense of being a vessel fo the divine, of the All-one.
Woolfe goes on to say that the kernels of foundation these religions came in a flash! of insight (or experience) to their founders. Zoroaster, Guatama Buddha flash! Their initial experience had nothing to do with morals, salvation, or the hereafter, but with experience. What made the Pranksters dangerous, Woolfe mused, was that they realized this and so wouldnt seek to stabilize and normalize their experience. They would simply seek to be, and continue experiencing (…what?…) until they went further…down the road, in their bus, Furthur.
Today, in the 21st century, the dominant chic philosophie is postmodernism, which (among many things) supplants absolute truth claims with meaningful myths, or metanarratives. These are stories in which we derive lessons for life, or a context for living. The Pranksters found and internalized a uniquely American Myththat of the comic book superhero. It is my suspicion that both Kesey and Woolfe were avid comic book readers. Do see what I mean:
The Life! A glorious place, a glorious age, I tell you! A very Neon Renaissance–And the myths that actually touched you at that time–not Hercules, Orpheus, Ulysses, and Aeneas–but Superman, Captain Marvel, Batman, the Human Torch, The Sub-Mariner, Captain America, Plastic Man, The Flash–but of course! On Perry Lane, what did they think it was–quaint?–when he talked about the comic-book Superheroes as the honest American myths? It was a fantasy world already, this electro-pastel world of Mom&Dad&Buddy&Sis in the suburbs. There they go, in the family car, a white Pontiac Bonneville sedan–the family car! –a huge crazy god-awful-powerful fantasy creature to begin with, 327-horsepower, shaped like twenty-seven nights of lubricious luxury brougham seduction-you’re already there, in Fantasyland, so why not move off your snug-harbor quilty-bed dead center and cut loose-go ahead and say it -Shazam!-juice it up to what it’s already aching to be: 327,ooo horsepower, a whole superhighway long and soaring, Screaming on toward … Edge City, and ultimate fantasies, current and future … Billy Batson said Shazam! and turned into Captain Marvel. Jay Garrick inhaled an experimental gas in the research lab… and began traveling and thinking at the speed of light as The Flash … the current fantasy. (Page 38)
The current fantasy was transforming the Pranksters, with their American Religion, into
larger-than-life Superheroes quicker than you could say Shazam!There are over fifty references to
superheroes, and comic books, in Acid Test. Reading and drawing from comics, code-names were donned:
Steve Lambrecht was the Zonker. Cassady was Speed Limit. Kesey was Swashbuckler. Babbs was Intrepid Traveler. George Walker was Hardly Visible. And Paula Sudsen became…Gretchin Fetchin the Slime Queen! (Page 69.)
And the name The Merry Pranksters,of course. They had costumes, too:
Mountain Girl has on the purple robe. Babbs has on an iridescent pair of pants of many-colored stripes, made by Gretch. Kesey appeared in a glowing Yin-yang jacket. It was an iridescent jacket with a huge Yin-Yang symbol painted on the back red, white, and blue (Page165).
In this new religion ritual did begin to develop, then. The naming of a person was a signifier that
they were accepted in the groupthat they were on the bus, so to speak.At one point the
Pranksters were in Mexico, fugitives from the law. A new girl began coming around, and it was questionable whether or not she was going to be accepted. Finally the matter was settled, for Kesey had given her a new name, Black Maria. She was…Black Maria (268).
With new names replacing old, strobe lights replacing altars, and costumes replacing clothing, what replaced Food in their arcane world? As one could surmise, the hallucenogen, Acid, was the food of the future. But even their attitude toward the old familiar LSD began taking on new dimensions with the Merry Pranksters American Experience…
The LSD capsules had whimsical emblems on them, to indicate the strength. The most famous among the heads were the Owsley Blues–with a picture of Batman on them, 500 micrograms worth of Superhero inside your skull (188).
Where, you might ask, do these daring antiheroes go with their mind-numbing escapades?
Where does their road take them? Well, not to ruin a good thing for you, the reader, but their Trip takes them further. Agree with them or not, they do explore the far reaches of Reality, and Life itself, in attempt to reach, as Prankster Cassady would put it, now. Not moments of lag time behind the present moment, but now now now. Futhur. This search for the Now, the true American Experience, gets them into trouble though. To fulfill their calling as superheroes to a Nuclear world they must be wiling to stand up, heroically, for the path of Right, despite how their popularity with the heads, the staight world, or anyone would be affected.
At the midnight hour, Kesey, masked and disguised in a Superhero costume, on the order of Captain America of the Marvel comics pantheon, will come up on stage and deliver his vision of the future, of the way beyond acid. (Page 328)
Beyond acid. They have the trip now, close the circle, all of them and they either emerge as Superheroes, closing the door behind them and soaring through the hole in the sapling sky, or just lollygag in the loop-the-loop of the lag. Almost clear! Presque vu!–many good heads have seen it–Paul telling the early Christians: hooking down wine for the Holy Spirit–sooner or later the Blood has got to flood into you for good–Zoroaster telling his followers: you cant keep taking haoma water to see the flames, man–And Dr. Strange and Sub Mariner and the Incredible Hulk and the Fantastic Four and the Human Torch prank about on the Rat walls of la casa grande like stroboscopic sledgehammer Cassidys, fons et origo::::and it is either make this thing permanent inside of you or forever just climb draggled up into the conning tower every time for one short glimpse of the horizon::::(290).
Popeye the Sailor I am what I am (309).
…the Bay Areas Superheroes… (347)
Kesey is …wearing only white leotards, a white satin cape tied at the neck, and a red, white, and blue sash running across his chest. Its…Captain America! The Flash! Captain Marvel! the Superhero, in a word… (352)