Today marks the 55th anniversary of the first time the Grateful Dead, still known as The Warlocks, attended one of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters‘ Acid Tests, where like-minded individuals would take LSD and enjoy “permissive bedlam” and untethered visual and, eventually, musical displays. This was the first Acid Test opened to the public, and the members of the Warlocks attended not necessarily to perform, but rather to check out the scene. However, the Warlocks would soon become the Grateful Dead, the Grateful Dead would soon become the Tests’ house band, and the regular gatherings would become the training ground that allowed them to evolve into an improvisational force the likes of which had not been seen before.
As Phil Lesh noted in his 2005 memoirs, Searching For The Sound: My Life With The Grateful Dead, “We were at the first Test not to play, but just to feel it out, and we hadn’t brought any instruments or gear.” The band members in attendance did eventually pick up some Prankster instruments and mess around. As Ken Babbs, Kesey’s Prankster lieutenant and host of the fateful party, recalled to Rolling Stone in 2015, “I remember the band, the guys who later became the Grateful Dead, showing up and playing on our instruments … and us playing on our instruments, and [Neal] Cassady being there and [Allen] Ginsberg and [novelist] Bob Stone and being up all night lying on the floor with microphones rapping stuff into tape machines until dawn.”
Many years later, Jerry Garcia discussed his initial experiences at the Acid Tests. Garcia reveals he came upon the band’s name by opening “an old dictionary at Phil [Lesh]’s house. I just opened it up and there I saw ‘the Grateful Dead.'”
The in-depth interview, which would later be donated to the Library of Congress, goes on to describe how the band we’ve come to know and love came to be. Listen/watch this animated recording of this magnificent interview via PBS‘ Blank on Blank below:
Jerry Garcia Talks About The Acid Tests
Full Transcript Below:
Joe Smith: So when the band finally fell into place as The Warlocks it was basically what was the Grateful Dead.
Jerry Garcia: Absolutely. Kreutzmann. Me, Phil…
Joe Smith: Pig and Bobby, huh?
Jerry Garcia: That’s right.
Joe Smith: And what did it sound like?
Jerry Garcia: It sounded like hell. It sounded really awful for the first few gigs.
Joe Smith: Was it The Warlocks very long before you became the Dead?
Jerry Garcia: About a year.
Joe Smith: And what triggered the new identity?
Jerry Garcia: Well we finally discovered that there was a band that was recording using the name Warlocks. We thought: “oh, shit, we can’t have that kind of confusion.” So we went on the band hunt, you know, looking for a name.
Joe Smith: The name came from whom? Who dug it up?
Jerry Garcia: Well I found it in an old dictionary at Phil’s house. I just opened it up and there I saw “the Grateful Dead.”
Joe Smith: Jesus. You could have been… could you imagine what would have happened: the Warlockheads. The dictionary changed society.
Jerry Garcia: It absolutely did. Yes, it did.
Jerry Garcia: That was about the time we fell in with the acid tests with Kesey and those guys. We had starting taking acid ourselves while we were still The Warlocks. We didn’t do it at shows. At the time we were playing the divorcees’ bars up and down the peninsula. You know. Our booking agent was this guy who used to book strippers and dog acts and magicians and everybody else. It was the standard gig: six nights a week, five sets a night. Standard bar stuff. We were doing that for about a year. And, you know, after that you’re ready for anything. We knew a lot of the people in Kesey’s scene, because it was all part of the Palo Alto scene, which we were a part of. And they knew of us. The one guy, named Paige, who was one of the Pranksters, came to one of our late night sets at one of the bar’s we were playing at.
Jerry Garcia: And said: “hey, you guys, we’re having these parties up at Kesey’s place in La Honda [California] every Saturday night, why don’t you guys come?” I said: “well, we’re working all the time.” Luckily the following week we got fired. And we had nothing to do. So Saturday night came around. We went to the first one of those parties, which later became the Acid Tests.
Joe Smith: What did you do there? It was just experimenting?
Jerry Garcia: No. We just set up the equipment. Everybody got high. And stuff would happen. Now Kesey and his Pranksters have been doing this for a long time, so they had instruments and they played weird music. But mostly it was completely free. There was no real performance of any kind involved. Everybody there was as much performer as audience. You know.
Jerry Garcia: These guys had never been confronted with a regular rock and roll band, you know. And we plugged our gear in which looked like space age, military nightmare stuff. Compared to all their stuff, which was all hand painted and real funky you know.
Jerry Garcia: And WHAM, we played for about five minutes. Then we all freaked out. You know. We played for about five minutes, but it completely devastated everyone. So they begged us to come back to the next one. And that’s how it happened essentially.
Joe Smith: When you guys now you’re doing some acid, you were playing around. What did you expect to be? Were you going to be a Beatles? Were you going to be a great rock n roll… what were you going to do?
Jerry Garcia: We didn’t really care whether we went somewhere specifically. We mostly wanted to have fun. And when we fell in with the acid tests we a started having the most fun we’d ever had ever. More than than we could have ever….. I mean it was just incredible.
Joe Smith: And how long did that go on?
Jerry Garcia: For about six months. But that was probably the most important six months in terms of directionality. Because the neat thing about the acid tests was we could play if we wanted to. But if it was too weird, we could always not play. So that was the only time we ever had the option of not playing.
Jerry Garcia: I think The Grateful Dead kind of represents the spirit of being able to go out and have an adventure in America at large. You know what I mean? You can go out and follow the Grateful Dead around. And you have your war stories. Something like hopping railroads. Something like that. Or being on the road like Cassidy and Kerouac.
Joe Smith: That’s interesting.
Jerry Garcia: But you can’t do those types of things anymore. But you can be a Deadhead. You can get in your van and go with the other Deadheads across the States and meet it on your own terms. Sort of a niche for it, in a way.