When Tom Wolfe passed away on Monday, the literary world lost one of its most influential minds. Throughout his career, Wolfe tackled the human experiences, manners, and morals of a variety of areas within American culture. His 1979 book, The Right Stuff, captures the bravery and resolve of post-war military test pilots during the beginnings of NASA’s push into outer space. His satirical 1987 novel, The Bonfire of The Vanities, tackled all the vastly varying, endlessly interlocking storylines that make up New York City. From Wall Street suits to Grand Concourse street criminals and everyone in between, Wolfe’s examination of the ripples that emanate from a racially tinged hit-and-run in the Bronx deftly echoed the city’s all-too-real societal ills, despite being a work of fiction. The list goes on and on…
Wolfe was a pioneer of “New Journalism,” the more narrative, novelistic style of reporting used by many of the celebrated writers of the 1960’s—a time of cultural revolution and reinvention in American unlike any the country had seen before. As Wolfe explained in his 1973 anthology, The New Journalism:
The Sixties was one of the most extraordinary decades in American history in terms of manners and morals. Manners and morals were the history of the Sixties. … A hundred years from now when historians write about the 1960’s in America, they won’t write about it as the decade of war in Vietnam or of space exploration or of political assassinations…but as the decade when manners and morals, styles of living, attitudes toward the world changed the country more crucially than any political events.
That notion was never more true than in one of Tom Wolfe’s earliest books, 1968’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. The work of nonfiction still stands today as one of the seminal examples of “New Journalism,” as well as one of the most thematically and descriptively accurate depictions of the burgeoning LSD culture in the mid-’60s.
In the book, Tom Wolfe trails author, scholar, and West Coast psychedelic pioneer Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters as they begin the acid-oriented lifestyle that eventually made them idolized figures in the growing counterculture. Tom’s writing style fit this new lifestyle perfectly, making him ready and able to capture the interactions, emotions, and often fragile mental state of affairs that came along with it. Despite being fully engulfed in the movement and aligned with the Prankster’s philosophy, the book is still hailed for Wolfe’s ability to distinguish between the realities of the Pranksters and Kesey’s experiences and the emotions and actions triggered by their acid-fueled paranoia and disarray.
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test chronicles the rise of LSD culture with Kesey and the Pranksters as its vessel, from the earliest acid parties thrown on his La Honda, California property to, eventually, the notorious “Acid Tests” for which the book is named. That is where they came in contact with The Grateful Dead, another rising psychedelic institution that truly cut their teeth as improvisational musicians playing at Kesey’s manic Acid Tests.
Today, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test stands as one of the most important 60s’ counterculture texts, as it sees Tom Wolfe (now known for his unconventional and uniquely descriptive style of nonfiction reporting) using all his literary power to describe the experience of the Grateful Dead (which would become widely known simply for defying description)–well before either entity was a household name. You can check out several great Tom Wolfe passages about The Grateful Dead and the Acid Tests from The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test below:
On The Grateful Dead’s Acid Test Performances
Those who were … not on the bus … would come to the realization that there was no schedule. The Grateful Dead did not play in sets; no eight numbers to a set, then a twenty-five-minute break, and so on, four or five sets and then the close-out. The Dead might play one number for five minutes or thirty minutes. Who kept time? Who could keep time, with history cut up in slices. The Dead could get just as stoned as anyone else. The … non-attuned would look about and here would be all manner of heads, including those running the show, the Pranksters, stroked out against the walls like slices of Jello. Waiting; with nobody looking very likely to start it back up. Those who didn’t care to wait would tend to drift off, stoned or otherwise, and the test would settle down to the pudding.
On The Origins Of Ken Kesey & Jerry Garcia’s Relationship
Kesey had hooked up with a rock ‘n’ roll band, The Grateful Dead, led by Jerry Garcia, the same dead-end kid who used to live in the Chateau in Palo Alto … and you had to throw them out when they came over and tried to crash the parties on Perry Lane. Garcia remembered—how they came down and used to get booted out “by Kesey and the wine drinkers.” The wine drinkers—the middle-class bohemians of Perry Lane. They both, Kesey and Garcia, had been heading into the pudding, from different directions, all that time, and now Garcia was a, yes, beautiful person, quiet, into the pudding, and a great guitar player. Garcia had first named his group The Warlocks, meaning sorcerers or wizards, and they had been eking by playing for the beer drinkers, at jazz joints and the like around Palo Alto. To the Warlocks, the beer drinker music, even when called jazz, was just square hip. They were on to that distinction, too. For Kesey–they could just play, do their thing.
On Young Jerry Garcia Trying To Have A Real-Life Conversation At The Acid Tests
Garcia, for his part, however, doesn’t know which bursts out first, the music or the orange laugh. Out the edges of his eyes he can see his own black hair framing his face—it is so long, to the shoulders, and springs out like a Sudanese soldier’s.
On Owsley’s Acid & How The Dead And The Acid Tests Invented “Acid Rock”
When the acid scene spread to England in late 1966 and 1967, the hippest intelligence one could pass around was that one was in possession of “Owsley acid.” In the acid world, this was bottled-in-bond; certified; guaranteed; and high status. It was in this head world that the … Beatles first took LSD. … Through The Dead’s experience with the Pranksters was born the sound known as “acid rock.” And it was that sound that the Beatles picked up on, after they started taking acid, to do a famous series of acid-rock record albums, Revolver, Rubber Soul, and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
On The Influential Effects Of The Acid Tests & The Grateful Dead On Media Consumption
“Mixed media” entertainment—this came straight out of the Acid Tests’ combination of light and movie projections, strobes, tapes, rock n’ roll, black light. “Acid rock”—the sound of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album and the high-vibrato electronic sounds of the Jefferson Airplane, the Mothers of Invention and many other groups—the mothers of it all were the Grateful Dead at the Acid Tests. The Dead were the audio counterpart of Roy Seburn‘s light projections. Owsley was responsible for some of this, indirectly. Owsley had snapped back from his great Freakout and started pouring money into the Grateful Dead and, thereby, the Tests.
Maybe he figured the Tests were the wave of the future… Maybe he thought “acid rock” was the sound of the future and he would become a kind of Brian Epstein for the Grateful Dead. I don’t know. In any case, he started buying the Dead equipment such as no rock n’ roll band ever had before, the Beatles included, all manner of tuners, amplifiers, receivers, loudspeakers, microphones, cartridges, tapes, theater horns, booms, lights, turntables, instruments, mixers, muters, servile mesochroics, whatever was on the market. The sound went down on so many microphones and hooked through so many mixers and variable lags and blew up in so many amplifiers and roiled around in so many speakers and fed back down so many microphones, it came on like a chemical refinery. There was something wholly new and deliriously weird in the Dead’s sound, and practically everything new in rock ‘n’ roll, rock jazz I have heard it called, came out of it.
Rest in peace, Tom Wolfe. To purchase The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and read more about Tom Wolfe’s adventures with Ken Kesey, the Merry Pranksters, and the Grateful Dead, head here.