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From Beats to hippies: the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

30 December 2019

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid TestThe Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I probably should have read this book 50 years ago. I’ve known the title for a long time, but I never saw the book before this month. I had read a couple of Tom Wolfe‘s novels, and from the blurbs in those I had become aware that he was the author of this book too, so I pictured it as being like them, a fictional novel about fictional characters. I was rather surprised, then,  to see that it was actually a documentary about Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, whom I had known had played a role in the rise of the hippies, though precisely what role I did not realise until I read this book.

This may or may not be the actual Prankster bus. In most accounts the name on the front of the actual bus was “Furthur”, not “Further”.

So, having read it, I think I should have read it 50 years ago. I knew vaguely that Kesey and the Merry Pranksters had toured around North America in a brightly painted bus, but that was about it. I’d read one of Ken Kesey’s novels, but not been particularly impressed. I had known that the hippies of the 1960s were a more colourful outgrowth of the Beats of the 1940s and 1950s, but had not realised how deeply Neal Cassady was involved in the Merry Pranksters (he drove the bus), even though I had read biographies of him. So it tied up a few links of literary and cultural history for me, and filled in my knowledge of some gaps in the transition.

I was introduced to the Beat Generation and its literature by an Anglican monk, Brother Roger, of the Community of the Resurrection, in 1960, when he read a paper on Pilgrims of the Absolute at a student conference. He guided my reading over the next few years on paths very different from those approved by my university lecturers in English literature.

When I became aware of the emergence of hippies in 1967, the connection seemed obvious, but there was a missing link, which this book supplies. In parts its language seems old-fashioned, more appropriate to the Beats of the 1950s  than to the hip[pies of the 1960s. This passage, for example, shows both the difference and the transition. One noticeable difference was that the hippie movement was largely white.

All of a sudden the Negroes are out of the hip scene, except for a couple of pushers like Superspade and a couple of characters like Gaylord and Heavy. The explanation around Haight-Ashbury is that Negroes don’t take to LSD. The big thing with spades on the hip scene has always been the quality known as cool. And LSD freaking well blows the whole lead shield known as cool, like it brings you right out front, hang-ups and all. Also the spades don’t get much of a kick out of the nostalgia for the mud that all the white middle-class kids that are coming to Haight-Ashbury like: piling into pads and living freaking basic…

So one of the differences was that the Beats were cool and the hippies were hot. And one could say that the Beats were black and white, and the hippies were full colour.

But there is also a danger that this book can give a distorted picture of the hippie era. There was much more to it than LSD, though that was the  main aspect that Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters were involved in. Some aspects of it were dealt with in 1968 in Retrospect, which dealt mainly with the student power movements of that year, and made no mention at all of flower power.

There was a brief mention in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test of countercultural Christianity, but it mainly involved “square hip” Unitarians, rather than the kind of countercultural Christianity that would lead to the Punx to Monks and Death to the World movements.

I also noticed some interesting parallels with my own experience. At almost exactly the same time that Ken Kesey snuck across the US border into Mexico, for fear that he would be arrested for possession of marijuana, I snuck across the South African border into UDI Rhodesia, and from there to the UK, for fear that i might be banned under the Suppression of Communism Act. Maybe I’ll write about that some day.

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