The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test Essay, Research Paper
Tom Wolf s “The Electric Kool Aid Acid test” explores the magnificent and mysterious world of an age long gone but definitely not forgotten. An age of testing the boundaries of not only the human conscience but of social awareness and tolerance. An age in which seemingly anything could happen and through the eyes of a new generation of visionaries an age of enchantment and personal empowerment. I m talking about none other than the nineteen sixties. Hippies, Hell s Angels, psychoactive drugs and a new way of thinking for a new kind of culture. This is a very in depth account of the underground drug culture s emergence in San Francisco. Not only a look at the movement from the outside but a rather compelling perspective drawn from the innards of this thriving culture is portrayed by Wolf. The book much like the emergence of the “scene” is centered around one man, Ken Kessy. A man of power, vision, authority, and from most respect. In his retrospect Wolf digs into issues such as social views displayed by society outside the inner circle. Also ideas touched upon include the essence of the “hippie” mentality (what makes a hippie tick) and some rare glimpses through the eyes of the LSD induced mind. Wolf takes us from the beginnings of an LSD visionary s creation through the convergence of a revolutionary subculture to one man s life as a fugitive from the law and finally an attempt at redirection. In-between we as the reader get an unadulterated realistic view of what life was really like for this subculture. We get to experience life through the eyes of a new consciousness. Many different perspectives throughout America are displayed by wolf as well. From the hippie to the middle aged American differing opinions are offered as to just what the hell is really going on. Are these kids stark raving lunatics or just crazy?
We open with a pickup truck full of very colorful characters rolling through the hills of San Francisco. A very attentive Tom Wolf showers us with a barrage of depictive narration setting the theme in our conscience for one hell of a wild ride. Our characters are in-route to a rendezvous with “The Chief” , a.k.a. Ken Kessey. Ken has just been released on thirty five thousand dollars bail for a second conviction involving possession of marijuana. Upon arrival at the sight of interest we are introduced to a vast array of characters. Everyone present seems similar only in respect to an overlying sense of peculiarity. Energy pulses through the air and although the whole scene seems to be saturated with symbolic meaning nobody really understands what it is. Everyone appears interesting enough but lost inside their own mystery and you can definitely sense the presence of drugs. At this time literally thousands of young people have begun to move to San Francisco to pursue a life based around LSD and the psychedelic experience. I feel Tom Wolf is very successful in capturing the true essence and nature of this abstract crowd in such a way as to leave the reader with a vivid, graphic representation of the whole scene imprinted on the mind. Everyone is eagerly anticipating the return of the Chief, mulling about and displaying strange little facets of their identities. Upon the arrival of their mentor (Kessy) this eclectic group gathers around awaiting knowledge like a classroom full of kids at story time. The reader senses a difference between Kessy and the followers like a separation of levels in consciousness. It looks as though Kessy has moved beyond the movement and is seeking understanding from his followers so that he can move them forward from what Kessy believes has become a stagnant effort. Progress is the prevailing theme for Kessy as he rallies his followers to lead them into the future “beyond acid”, the eternal visionary. Many of the followers, who we will later learn to be “The Merry Pranksters”, do not understand why Kessy is leading them away from LSD. Tom Wolf relays this to us first hand as he is present for the whole demonstration as it occurred. All Tom Wolf knew about Kessy prior to this event was the fact that he was a young, highly regarded author who had stumbled into quite a bit of trouble with the law over drugs. Wolf, being a young reporter probably had no idea what he had in fact stumbled into, maybe one of the most fascinating real life accounts of cultural phenomenon ever. Through the rest of the book we will come to learn through the eyes and minds of this emerging culture as translated by a literary genius, Tom Wolf. Wolf portrays Kessy as an all American youth. Kessy grows up in a small town and enjoys normal activities like a normal, healthy, red blooded American boy should. With a great lust for life Kessy participates in high school sports and likes to hang out at the drive-in movies just like all the other young people in town. Wolf gives you the impression at this point that we are in a “Happy Days” type of environment, wholesome. In other words family values are important and the community appears to be closely nit and relatively free of crime. After growing up in this type of environment Kessy sets off to college and graduates from a masters program in creative writing at Stanford University. Living in a low rent but highly intellectual closed community after college Kessy is married and pursuing a writing career while working in a mental institution. Around this time Kessy learns the veteran s hospital is paying seventy five dollars a day for people who will consent to psychoactive drug testing for the military. With little money and a strong sense of curiosity Kessy submits himself to experimental drug sessions at the hospital. While submitting to testing of many varieties of psychoactive drugs Kessy manages to get some out of the hospital. Although Kessy is subjected to many different drugs he favors the LSD over all of them. Kessy introduces LSD into his community, it is a small, closed community by the name of Penny Lane. The members herein are a group of poor but educated intellectuals, perhaps the perfect subjects for an exploratory drug such as this. These so called intellectuals put their minds in Kessy s hands and he in turn becomes the leader and organizer of the LSD induced vision shared by all. Before long the community becomes dissolved and Kessy, enjoying profits from his first published novel “One Flew Over The Cuckoo s Nest” moves on to live in a house secluded by the woods in La Honda, CA. The house comes to be known as a safe haven for drug use and Kessy is the king in his own realm. He is the owner of the property and the supplier of the drugs and if you want to experience these things he will tell you how to do it. Wolf describes all this wonderfully as you feel the gravitational power of Kessy s charisma pulling something together out of nowhere. The group of people drawn in by Kessy and the LSD come to be known as the Merry Pranksters. They are a strange group and are consumed with the LSD experience. The Pranksters come from sorted histories but eventually merge together, the intellects, visionaries, and weirdo s. By this time we begin to see the first signs of social awareness of what is going on. Although secluded, Kessy s house is not cut off from the world entirely. The neighbors begin to wonder what the hell is going on. “What do these kids come from, broken homes or what?” The surrounding society outside the circle has no idea what is really in the making. They begin to question the possibility that society has begun to rot at the core but they also play stupid as to the reasoning and deny responsibility for the youth s action. LSD at this time is still completely legal. Information concerning the drug is limited and as a result ignorance runs rampant in regard to this new psychedelic experience. An idea is presented to the group one day by one of Kessy s former classmates turned prankster. The notion is to buy an old beat up school bus and convert it into psychedelic battleship to sail the highway to New York. Along the way the Pranksters could shoot film footage of the trip and the experiences they encounter. The Pranksters love to cause commotion, this is what they are about. The concept of these people was not solely to take acid and “freak out”, but to experience. Whether the experience was to give someone else a shock or a laugh or confusion, as long as it was interesting and out of the ordinary, the Pranksters loved it. There was another reason for the journey as well, at the destination all would be present for the New York s World Fair and the publication of Kessy s second novel “Sometimes A Great Notion”. The journey, considering it s pioneering nature marked a milestone in cultural history. A school bus filled with day-glow freaks rambling cross country from coast to coast. Along the way more social awareness is obviously present and differing opinions of what is going on are offered from different perspectives. Basically everyone believes these people are lunatics and you don t get an overwhelming sense of acceptance. Even Timothy Leary will not visit with Kessy and his Pranksters when they make an appearance at his home in Millbrook, NY . You get the impression that the Pranksters are not taken seriously. I believe Mr. Leary would have considered Kessy s group to be immature and without purpose. To this point everything has been left pretty undefined. What is the purpose of all this madness? Is it because The Pranksters wanted to show the world what they were about? Was there any political motivation or concern on any issues of that era? Not really. For Kessy the crusade seems to be pretty obscure and the pranksters just want to follow along and get some ya ya s. Kessy seems to be really intense and focused but we still don t really know what he is chasing. Does Ken just want to be a super hero or does he want to lead the whole world into some kind of new existence? Tom wolf s portrayal of this unusual pioneering group of hippies shows us that the Pranksters just wanted to enjoy life, they did not have any overwhelming need to go out and change the world. Perhaps they felt some kind of need for understanding or maybe they just got off on messing with people. Maybe the Pranksters just wanted to be part of something and what ever it was they trusted Ken to lead it. After many adventures in taking LSD and traveling through the country the Pranksters and Kessy return to Ken s house in La Honda. With growing curiosity and concerned neighbors police involvement is eminent. Kessy gets his first conviction for possession of marijuana, but manages to evade other drug charges for more serious offenses. Never the less Kessy is now labeled a criminal and is on ice infinitely thinner than his previous state. Kessy happens to meet some of the Hell s Angels one day shortly after his conviction through none other than Hunter Thompson, another young revolutionary writer doing a book about the Angles at the time. Kessy invites The Hell s Angels to his house in La Honda for a huge party with intention of introducing the Angles with the Pranksters. This coming together is not kept secret from the community at all, in fact the publicity is enjoyed by the pranksters as they gain more ground in the shocking game they love to play. The party goes marvelously and the Pranksters and the bikers form a kind of bond. LSD is offered to all the Angels who want to try it and it goes over fabulously as they explore the fantastic frontiers of psychedelic drugs. Kessy enjoys the whole ordeal thoroughly as he shows the community a real outlaw. This attitude is spawned due to Kessy s character being labeled criminal after his arrest for marijuana. This gives us a glimpse of social opinions on drugs in this time period. Marijuana was still considered a bad and possibly dangerous drug. Although marijuana is still not legal in our country penalties have been reduced and more knowledge of the substance has provided a milder and more tolerant perspective of the drug. It is entirely possible Kessy and Co. are directly responsible for the spawning of these freewheeling attitudes concerning drug use. Whether these attitudes are irresponsible or a step in the right direction is still to be determined in our current day and age. The Pranksters and Kessy continue to explore new avenues after the befriending of the Hell s Angels including Dabbling with religious groups and attending a Beatles concert to see what all the hype is about. The Beatles at this point have not entered into the psychedelic realm. Eventually popular musical acts will begin to tune into the LSD wavelength introduced by Kessy. Surprisingly the Pranksters are not impressed with the Beatles and actually end up leaving the show in a panicked hurry “bad vibrations”. After the show Kessy has the pleasure of meeting Augustas Owsley Stanly III. Owsley is the new generation of LSD manufacturer s and Kessy has hooked up. Owsley s LSD came to be known throughout the country as “Owsley acid” and this was a mark of excellence; certified; guaranteed. We find the use of LSD becoming much more popular on a wide spread level by this time and obviously access to the drug is improving daily. By now we are beginning to pick up on the fact that everything is not Kessy. A culture is evolving around the pranksters and they are becoming a group inside a movement. The pranksters are a special breed of hippies. Political issues are beginning to be addressed by a new culture of hippies and symbolic events are being staged to bring issues into the light such as social injustice, prejudice, and human rights. Kessy and the pranksters are not involved in any of this new world consciousness in fact they almost out right denounce it. The pranksters are concerned with the pranksters and seem to have little interest with offering anything really useful to society. Kessy will later display his utter contempt for politics when asked to speak at an antiwar rally at Berkley, CA. Kessy sees this as an opportunity to prank and instead of graciously declining Kessy accepts and the Pranksters are off to Berkley. With Kessy riding atop the school bus the pranksters make their appearance at Berkley. Kessy is listed as the second to the last speaker before the group of some twenty thousand people that were to march into Oakland to the Oakland Army Terminal. This was the facility where draft candidates were shipped off to Vietnam. Kessy and the Pranksters make a mockery of the rally and leave many people very angry and with a lowered opinion of the group. In essence Kessy has done his best to discourage interest in the war going on by encouraging the protesters to “just turn their backs to the war”. This is not motivating for the anti war effort to say the least and displays aspects to Kessy s personality that suggest immaturity and irresponsibility.
Soon after the antiwar rally the first inclination of the acid tests emerges. Kessy puts into motion an idea to create a “new experience”. With the use of lights, sounds, atmosphere and LSD Kessy intends to create a new world type experience for everyone he can draw in , “He develops a strong urge to extend the message to all people he develops a ritus, often involving music, dance, liturgy, sacrifice, to achieve an objectified and stereotyped expression of the original spontaneous religious experience”. The pranksters solicit their market outside a rolling stones concert as it lets out by passing out flyers proposing “can you pass the acid test?”. Large amounts of people show up and for the first time a mass of people all dose acid in the same place at the same time. Kessy and the pranksters enlist musical groups to play for them at the acid tests such as Big Brother and the holding company, Quicksilver Messenger Service and low and behold a very young Grateful Dead. The acid tests come off wonderfully. Huge masses of people experience Psychedelic strangeness and there is little mention to none of violence or aggressiveness. Kessy and Co. begin running acid tests every week and they go by the name “The Trips Festival”. The community is led to believe these are not LSD gatherings but only simulations of the experience through lights and strange music. By doing this Kessy and the pranksters avoid unwanted publicity and police involvement surrounding the events. Around this time Kessy finds his way into a second arrest for possession of marijuana and is in quite a bit of trouble considering the laws governing illegal drugs at the time. In order to evade the police Kessy and the pranksters plan a fake suicide and Kessy departs to Mexico to hide out from a stiff sentencing. It is not long before the police figure out the suicide is a prank and are on to Kessy s game. While in Mexico Kessy lives a strange paranoid life as a fugitive and seems to enjoy the whole experience. Planning escapes into the jungle and hiding out for days at a time are all part of “the fugitive game” for Kessy. Glorified delusions of the FBI and the federales chasing him is probably all Kessy has to keep his mind occupied in these strange days. The merry pranksters continue the best they can to keep the acid tests going while Kessy is hiding out. Although they feel a crucial element is missing, namely Kessy, the tests go over fairly well. The pranksters even run an acid test just outside of Watts, CA. The event is called the “Watts Test” and happens just after the riots occur in that area in regard to African-American issues. Tom Wolf is present for the Watts acid test and gets his first taste of the movement in full color. After drinking a glass of Kool-Aid Tom Wolf begins to feel a little out of the ordinary. Before long Wolf is unexpectedly taking off into his first LSD induced experience. The Kool-Aid has been spiked with LSD. Wolf goes into a great recreation of the psychedelic experience, beginning with paranoia turning to anxiety and blossoming into a beautiful creation of swirling color and oneness with the universe. After experiencing this great awareness wolf will have only taken LSD two more time before the release of his novel “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”. Although the experience was enjoyable and exiting Wolf shares that he has no “urgency” to take the drug again. Publicity begins to run high following the Watts test and the public s knowledge of the dread LSD drug and the pranksters continues to grow in a unfriendly and menacing fashion. Kessy is also news during this time and it s considered hip to know the whereabouts of Kessy in Mexico. Kessy s paranoia becomes somewhat validated after Mexican officials become interested in his whereabouts as well and begin looking for him. Kessy has many adventures in Mexico and narrowly averts arrest a few times. The pranksters meet up with Kessy eventually in Mazatlan and before long Kessy is smuggled back into the good ol USA.
Still making waves after his return, Kessy can see how large the LSD phenomenon has become. Growing probably the fastest in colleges everyone is turning on to LSD in a big way. Kessy is a hero. I believe maybe at this point Kessy begins to feel the burden for all of this wide spread drug use. Kessy has a new vision, “beyond acid”. While putting the concept together Kessy orchestrates an interview with a newspaper reporter. During the interview Kessy makes remarks directly to J. Edgar Hoover who was then the leader of the FBI. Quickly following this up Kessy arranges a television interview and again makes similar comments such as “I intend to stay in this country as a fugitive, and as salt in J. Edgar Hoover s wounds”. Unfortunately just after viewing himself on television Kessy is apprehended by federal agents on the freeway in rush hour traffic. Kessy makes a valiant effort for escape but is unsuccessful in his attempt and is captured facing three felony charges. Unbelievably Kessy only spends five days in jail before he is able to be released on bail. Upon release Kessy begins to organize what he has labeled “The Acid Graduation”. Initially Kessy tries to capture the whole encompassing scene but due to all the media hype and controversy Kessy loses his cosponsors. Everyone is fearful of Kessy because he is a figure head of the movement. Political issues concerning the movement begin to evolve as money becomes a motivating force behind all the hoopla. The graduation is moved to an old warehouse where some of the pranksters have been living and Kessy does not display any negativity over this. At this point the book has come full circle and we find ourselves surrounded with the same characters at the very beginning of the book. With a much more involved perspective of the characters, their attitudes and beliefs the reader feels an added layer of comfort in understanding this atmosphere. Surrounded by pranksters, hippies, Hell s Angeles s. and reporters Kessy speaks out on his new concept of direction. Unfortunately this direction seems to be mostly empty. Offering no concrete future combined with the idea of depriving this culture of it s psychedelic crutch Kessy is not embraced by all present. In fact most of the bodies present do not even understand what Kessy is really saying. I believe it is quite possible that even Kessy himself does not understand what he is saying. The common belief offered by Tom Wolf is that Kessy was copping out to the system in order to receive a lesser sentencing. By the end of Kessy s speech we are left with a whole lot of confused people and one visionary with a very obscure goal. Kessy goes on to serve a lenient sentence to a reduced charge, six months on a work farm just a few miles from his house in La Honda. After serving the sentence Kessy accompanied by his wife and three children headed to Oregon where they took up residence with Ken s brother. The pranksters scattered to several different locales. Some went to Mexico, some to L.A., and some simply disappeared. Although it would seem the end of an era this would only be true in part. The acid scene continued to explode throughout the entire nation. A beast had been released and there would be no accounting for anything left in it s wake. Ken Kessy and the merry pranksters were bygones but the hippie revolution would carry on. The Grateful Dead did more than their part in carrying the torch in the acid world as did many other rock groups spawned from the psychedelic drugs introduced by Kessy. Tom Wolf brings everything together beautifully in his recreation of an era influenced more heavily by psychedelic drugs than any other to date. Wolf does this first by giving the reader an extraordinary look at Ken Kessy the man. The reader gets a strong sense of Kessy s character and learns to view him as the good guy against a restricting, faceless, monster known as ignorance. We also learn to view Ken Kessy as a leader and an educator of the unknown. Personally I visualize Kessy not being the holder of genuine wisdom but instead a man of great personal power. Kessy would condemn the restrictions of society while at the same time harboring a passion for control over his followers. Kessy s power and unusual charisma would emulate an obscure force powerful enough (with the aid of some psychedelic drugs) to set the stage for a revolutionary age. Wolf gives us an all around look at the man who brought LSD into the culture of San Francisco. With Wolf s insightful writing style one gets the impression that this was the real deal. Good or bad in the eyes of the masses Wolf offers a realistic, unbiased account of real events as they happen. Released in the middle of the sixties revolution “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” may have not only clued people in to what was happening but influenced them as well. One cannot help but feeling inspired by Wolf s encounters with this freewheeling, cosmic mentality shared by the Merry Pranksters and company. I for one found the book very educational as well. It is common belief by younger generations that “hippies” did come around until 1967. For those of us who were not around to see it music is our recourse to establish time lines and mind sets of the sixties and early seventies. After reading Wolf s work I personally can now see the music was created by the movement and not vice versa. This book I believe will shed light on many common misconceptions of the nineteen sixties. This light will extend even further to reach into the shadows and corners to luminate ideas and concepts present in the minds of this culture. I believe the book to be not only beneficial to the young reader but also to those who were there and took part or those who just looked on. Tom Wolf s “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” was one hell of a great book!