Wolfe, Tom. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Picador, 1968.
Summary of Work
Tom Wolfe documents the lives of the Merry Pranksters, the group of acid-tripping hippies who drove around the nation in a Day-Glo covered bus with Ken Kesey, the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The group forms around Kesey as they start using LSD to have transcendent experiences, a drug he had on hand from volunteering as a test subject in a study at a college and from working at the mental hospital for a time while he wrote his first book. However, upon the announcement of the destruction of the neighborhood he is living in, he moves to La Honda, California, where a group of people, later known as the Merry Pranksters, follow him. They all live in the same home, spread out on the land and in the woods, and each work on their own projects. But two things bring them together: LSD and sound. Taking after William Burroughs’ ideas, they decide to wire everything up with both microphones and speakers and record all of it. They play back the sound by splicing it and speaking over it, as well as gathering any and all sound they can. When they decide that they’d also like to make a grand movie to cover their experiences on LSD, they take it one step further. Kesey buys a bus, which they paint in various Day-Glo colors. They completely gut the bus and remodel it to be a road-trip vehicle for them, and they wire it for sound inside and out so that they can play music, broadcast sound, and record while they are on their trip. Neal Cassady is the driver of the bus, and they take off across the country, doing acid at various points along the way and filming the acid trips.
As they start to become noticed across the country (LSD was not yet illegal), Kesey becomes a main face of the counterculture movement, and they start to come in contact with people such as the Grateful Dead and Hells Angels, and the relationships and associations help all groups they come in contact with gain more prominence. Kesey writes one more novel but then gives up writing and focuses on making acid tests catch on for the public. He and the Merry Pranksters host many different acid tests in California, fooling the cops along the way. They even attend a Beatles concert ridiculously high on LSD and don’t get caught for it. They watch the crowd and see how enthralled they are by the Beatles and the control the Beatles have over the crowd but do not use for anything outside of the music or money-making business itself, and Kesey and the group leave back to their bus to make noise on their microphones and tapes. They host a big party for the Beatles, who never show up.
When they do finally get in trouble for something, it is for possession and use of marijuana. The first time the sentencing is lighter, but the next time Kesey is caught with it, he knows that it will be a prison sentence. So he runs away to Mexico, becoming more and more paranoid that the cops are after him and he is going to be extradited. The Pranksters make their way down to Mexico and stay with him for a time, and then help him get back across the border, where he spends some time in California before he is caught and thrown in jail. He avoids sentencing by saying that he would like to tell people that they need to go “beyond acid.” The authorities, thinking that he means that he will tell everyone to stop doing acid and talk about the dangers of it, give him a light sentence and ask him to go on public television to make his statement. But when he goes public with his statement, he never outright declares acid to be a bad influence or as having negatives. He simply says that once you go through the door that acid opens up, you have to take more steps rather than just keep opening and closing the same door.
Kesey and the Pranksters host one more “Acid Graduation” event, where they show that the next step is trying to achieve the transcendence they experience on LSD without the mind-altering drugs. Many news crews, journalists, and others show up to document the event, but leave before it ends, unable to understand what is going on.
The Pranksters themselves aren’t sure that they understand what Kesey’s new goals and direction are, and eventually, one by one, the group members go their own separate ways. Kesey serves his time in work camps in California while his family lives in Oregon. The movie never gets finished, although during the whole time the Pranksters are active people are cutting it and editing it and shooting more film. The film, writings, and sound recordings that are in the Prankster archive are what Wolfe used to piece together the biographical, very subjective narrative that is the book.
Brief Note on Themes
This work is a prime example of New Journalism, and it is considered a great representation of the counterculture of the Beat Generation in the 1950s and 1960s. Sound and music plays a large part in this book, making it great for sound studies considerations. Pseudo-religious activity is also a major part of the work, as the Pranksters nearly worship Kesey as the new Messiah, with the Pranksters as the apostles, and they utilize LSD trips to have essentially religious experiences. Drug use is a major theme, particularly acid use. Intersubjectivity is prominent in the work, and focuses on the idea that people can enter into a space where they know what it’s like to be someone else and achieve the ability to think and act as a group. For counterculture, the work focuses on the differences between what others were doing at that time, which was largely unknown, and what the Pranksters were doing, which was bringing the alternate lifestyle to the public eye rather than keeping it underground.
Questions about the Work
- In this book, we see clearly the obsession that the Pranksters have with mixed media content in conjunction with their acid trips. Claire, a young and naive girl who shows up to an Acid Test event in Watts, states in her account that before she, unawares, dosed herself with LSD, she didn’t understand what was going on: “This may explain why a lot of people were digging the film, laughing, and also why a lot of people were there . . . I’m sure that I was one of a minority who had no idea what to expect. The word must have been passed, but didn’t get to me” (272). After ingesting the LSD, Claire’s perspective of the film and sounds changes from simply odd nonsense to an otherworldly environment. This got me wondering, what is it about sound, lag, and reverb that create situations that seem otherworldly or out of place? What is the purpose of the acid trips and the sound and image manipulation beyond the vague notion of expanding understanding or knowledge?
- Tom Wolfe describes his process as one that tries to encompass the full Prankster experience: the drugs, the pranks, the adventures, and the recordings. He states, “The Pranksters recorded much of their own history in the Prankster Archives in the form of tapes, diaries, letters, photographs and the 40-hour movie of the bus trip” (415). How does having so many recordings of people change the way we approach writing a nonfiction work, and when is it useful to stray away from transcription and become more subjective, as Wolfe suggests that he does throughout the work?
- Geographically speaking, the many of the acid tests are done in largely black communities (see the houses they rent/use, geographical areas like Compton). What is problematic about the image the Pranksters and other whites have created around these black communities?