The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test Summary and Analysis of "Departures," "Cosmos' Tasmanian Deviltry," & "The Trips Festival"

In verses of poetry, Wolfe describes some of the changes happening around the Prankster camp. Kesey puts up a sign telling all the Pranksters to prepare for a trip to Mexico, though none of the Pranksters know when this trip is going to occur. Mountain Girl returns to her hometown of Poughkeepsie, NY, because she is pregnant - presumably with Kesey's child. Sandy also returns to New York because he begins having neurological problems from his intense drug use. He promises, though, that this is not the end of his trip.

After spending a night in a graveyard, Kesey comes up with a new vision for the Prankster life called the "Acid Test." This is Kesey's attempt to "extend the message to all people." Wolfe describes the problem that the Pranksters face as being the problem that confronts all religious movements: how does a group take their experience and bring it into the wider world? Kesey comes up with the acid test as a way to solve this problem.

At first, Kesey envisions "the Dome" as a solution. The Dome would be a giant tank in which people could take Owsley's LSD while being surrounded by a multitude of lights, video, color, and sound - the beginnings of a mixed media party. But for practical purposes the Pranksters see the Hell's Angels party as a better model for the Acid Test. That party had been "an incredible concentration of energy" - and that energy is what the Acid Test will be about.

The first Acid Test ends up being just another acid party. The Pranksters, not being particularly inclined towards organization, fail to find a party hall in time and so end up just having a party at "The Spread," which is the name of the house that Babbs owns in Los Angeles. Since they haven't done much advertising, the attendees are mostly from the La Honda and Berkeley crowd, including Allen Ginsberg and his gang. As the party dies down, Kesey and Ginsberg begin to disagree about the solution to the conflict in Vietnam, until Babbs, a Vietnam vet, says "it's all so very obvious," seeming to make sense of everything. Though this Acid Test doesn't reach out to the world, the Pranksters see it as a good start.

The next Test happens in San Jose. The Pranksters decide to advertise to the crowd at a Rolling Stones concert, and they talk a local bohemian character named "Big Nig" into letting them throw the party at his old house. Kesey hooks up with a local rock-and-roll band, The Grateful Dead, which is fronted by Jerry Garcia, who had been a "dead end kid" he had known back on Perry Lane. The band agrees to come and play the party. Big Nig's house is old and the circuit box can't accommodate the band's electrical needs, so they keep blowing out the circuits in the house. Big Nig tries to get Garcia to pay rent for using the place, but Garcia is so stoned that he just grooves off of what Big Nig is saying.

The third Acid Test is scheduled to take place at a secluded bohemian beach resort named Stinson Beach, but gets changed to Muir Beach at the last minute. Nobody worries about the change, because the Pranksters all feel that whoever is "on the bus" will simply know where to go. And, as it turns out, people do find it. At this Acid Test the Pranksters bring out a new toy, strobe lights, which help take the Test to another level. Everyone has taken LSD this time, including Owsley, whom no one has seen actually take the drug before. Owsley ends up having a very bad trip in which he sees himself in the French Revolution amidst rat corpses and time flies by him. He screams out to Kesey for help. His bad trip becomes legendary, and is talked about for years to come.

The Acid Tests begin to make some of the leaders of the psychedelic movement, such as Richard Alpert, nervous. These leaders want to make the psychedelic experience mainstream, and they don't like that the Pranksters are using LSD for "manic screaming orgies in public places." But the Pranksters continue holding Acid Tests - ultimately more than ten of them - throughout California. According to Wolfe, the Acid Tests were "the epoch of the psychedelic style and practically everything that has gone into it." The Grateful Dead epitomized the "acid rock" sound, and it all started in the Acid Tests. Even the psychedelic posters that the art world would embrace began there.

The Trips Festival takes place in January 1966. It is the brainchild of Steward Brand, who thought it up as a way to incorporate a multi-media celebration that "was going to simulate an LSD experience, minus the LSD." Kesey and the Pranksters are scheduled to coordinate the big night of the festival. Kesey has just put on his biggest Acid Test yet at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, which the cops shut down. They try to arrest Babbs, and eventually all of the Pranksters, but Kesey's lawyers bail them out of the situation. Kesey's lawyers have been very busy dealing with Kesey's arrest at the raid at La Honda. The cops are trying to say that Kesey dealt drugs to minors, and the lawyers are trying to prove that the raid was unwarranted. Eventually, Kesey makes a deal with a judge and gets three years probation and six months on a work team. Ironically, this is the same punishment that Randle McMurphy, the wayward hero of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, received. To further the irony, the work team is given the assignment of clearing land in La Honda, right next to Kesey's home.

A few days before the Trips Festival, Kesey and Mountain Girl go to Steward Brand's apartment to make plans. They sit out on the roof of Brand's building and talk about the electronic setup. They throw small pebbles off the top of the roof and into the alley below. Kesey, feeling old and tired, begins to recall his days as a wrestler in college, and how all the wrestlers would take drugs that would get them excited for the match. They don't know it, but one of the residents of the building calls the cops on them for being rowdy. When the cops arrive, they say they see Kesey throw a small bag of brownish material onto the roof of another building. Kesey begins to wrestle one of the cops. The bag the cops find contains marijuana, and this begins the majority of Kesey's legal troubles.

Kesey is bailed out of jail, but this charge is quite serious: he could go to prison for five years if convicted. The Trips Festival must still go on, however, and so he and the Pranksters load into the bus and ride around San Francisco advertising it. Kesey is not supposed to hang out with the Pranksters anymore - or go to the Trips Festival - but the enormity of the thing is starting to dawn on everyone. The night of the festival, a huge mass of "heads" show up, already high on acid. The Pranksters have built an enormous tower of scaffolding in the center of the hall they rented out, and have covered it with electronic equipment. Kesey dresses up in a spaceman suit and has a projector that he uses to project things onto the wall. There are two bands playing, one of which is The Grateful Dead, and a huge acid party ensues. One of the Pranksters, Norman, takes so much acid that he begins to imagine that he is God and that he can control the crowd, levitate them, and make them move at his command.

The festival lasts three nights, and out of it is born a new kind of club experience. Weekend Trips Festivals begin happening at the Fillmore on a weekly basis, and for the first time the acidheads can come out into public, stoned. All the while, the media outlets still believe that it is an acid experience "without the acid." According to Wolfe, "the Haight-Ashbury era began that weekend."

After the Trips Festival, Kesey's troubles are waiting right where he left them. A judge makes him sell his house and leave San Mateo county, and so goes to stay at Babbs' home in Los Angeles. Another warrant is put out for his arrest, this time for having violated his parole at the Trips Festival. Since parole violation carries a mandatory prison sentence, Kesey comes up with a plan: he is going to run away to Mexico and become an outlaw. One of the Pranksters will sneak him over the border at night. They also devise to fake Kesey's suicide by having one of the Pranksters slam his truck into a tree by a cliff and leaving a suicide note in the truck saying that he'd jumped off the cliff into the ocean. Kesey and the Pranksters get high on drugs and compose a long, maniacal suicide note, and Kesey leaves for Mexico.


The Acid Test is a sort of coming-out party for acidheads and for Kesey and the Pranksters. The theme of religion continues as the Pranksters seek out a way to evangelize those who have not had the acid experience. The only way to do this, of course, is to create an environment in which people can experience the transcendence of the acid experience. This is what the Tests are intended to accomplish.

Kesey's movement, however, is always teetering on the line between religion and anarchy. Some of the prominent leaders of the psychedelic movement, such as Richard Alpert and Timothy Leary, believe that the ultimate goal of taking LSD is to have a true religious experience, and they view Kesey's use of the drug as more of an abuse - all Kesey wants, they think, is to have a never-ending party. Nevertheless, Kesey's approach to LSD is gaining more and more converts, and soon the acid movement begins to really take off in San Francisco.

Race also plays a small role in these chapters. For the Beat Generation, African-American culture was something to idolize. For these proto-hippies, however, racial distinctions don't seem to matter as much. This is epitomized by Jerry Garcia's confrontation with "Big Nig," the African-American bohemian who hosts one of the first Acid Tests. Big Nig asks Garcia and the other partygoers to help pay his rent, as he is obviously not as economically well-off as the Pranksters. But Garcia, stoned on acid, doesn't understand that Big Nig is telling him about his needs. In a way, the Pranksters and the acidheads exhibit racial ignorance. Acid makes them blind to the social and economic realities of the lower classes. The Beat Generation sought to emulate those lower classes; the Acid Generation just doesn't care.

In this section the interactions between the Pranksters and the police grow more heated. Kesey and the Pranksters have always had a tenuous relationship with authority figures, seeing police and law officials as being part of the "game" and part of a greater conspiracy to keep them from achieving transcendence. However, they have often relied on the police and on lawyers to protect them when things get out of hand. Now, the Pranksters have broken too many laws, and their situation has grown far more serious. Unlike previous counter-cultural forces, which sought to stay under the radar and avoid police attention, Kesey and the Pranksters seek to confront authority. Ultimately Kesey, like so many other counter-cultural figures, is forced to go on the run not out of a sense of adventure or to find a truer American culture, but rather for his own self-preservation. The fake suicide shows just how little regard Kesey has for authority or for those around him. Indeed, the Prankster lifestyle seems to be characterized by an inherent selfishness.

The Trips Festival is an all-out acid bonanza that somehow manages to pull the wool over the eyes of the media and the authorities. Again, Wolfe's New Journalism style tries to get inside the heads of the participants in the festival. He is not just reporting on who was there, what they were doing, and what happened, but is instead trying to get into their minds. This is best expressed through Wolfe's description of Norman's God delusions. Through Wolfe's jerky, strange prose, the reader is transported into the minds of the Pranksters.