Many years ago a “new journalist famous” famous for wearing white suits and writing non-fiction in a novelistic form wrote a book about a writer and former college wrestler named Ken Kesey who took a band of hippies on a cross-country trip in an old school bus painted in psychedelic slashes of color with the name Further emblazoned across the front. The book was The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and author in the spiffy white suit was Tom Wolfe (not to be confused with the earlier novelist Thomas Wolfe).
I was reminded of this when the online publication Plaid Zero recently published an article by Rob Hoffman titled “How Ken Kesey used LSD and a travelling bus of hippies to start the 60s psychedelic revolution.” Reading Hoffman’s article brought back memories and made me aware of just how very long ago that was. Kesey died 19 years ago, and Wolfe passed away at the age of 88 in 2018. I was 25 years old when Acid Test was published. I had just graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi with a degree in drawing and painting. Earlier that year my art history class studied Wolfe’s first book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, which was all about the style of hotrods, of all things for an art history class to be studying. I loved that book. I wrote a review of it written in the style of Wolfe, and my teacher lauded it to high heavens. Whoopee! And then that summer I read Acid Test and my mind exploded. There was this exciting movement on the West Coast that traveled cross country to New York, and I was stuck in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where we were a good decade behind the times. I would have given anything to have been at the acid tests grooving to the Grateful Dead and on the Hog Farm with Kesey and Mountain Girl and Wavy Gravy (actually, I think Wavy Gravy came along later, he was the leader of the Hog Farmers at Woodstock). Since I know all this stuff only from books and movies, I tend to blend it all together.
What they called the acid test was to see who could go to the Dead concerts tripping on acid and keep it all together by going with the flow.
I few years after reading Acid Test and after finishing grad school in East Tennessee, I move to Nashville. I shared a big old house near Vanderbilt University with a couple from California. From time to time other people would rent a room from us for a week or a month, and sometimes if they didn’t have any money we’d let people crash with us for a while. Did I say it was a big house? Yeah, really big, with many rooms, pretty much my idea of an antebellum plantation big house, but rundown. We had tie-dye sheets for curtains and slept on mattresses on the floor. I remember there was this one Black dude who crashed with us for maybe a week. We wanted to make a show of black-and-white togetherness, so we walked together through an all-white neighborhood with arms around each other singing badly at the top of our lungs. I don’t think anybody played the least bit of attention to us. And I remember a skinny little redhead whose life’s ambition was to be a Hells Angel. But he didn’t have a motorcycle. Not even a scooter.
I had a drum set, and I let some neighborhood kids come in and play the drums. One day when nobody was at home, the drums were stolen. We never locked the doors. We assumed it was those kids that swiped the drums. Apparently they chickened out or had second thoughts, because they ditched the drums in some bushes in the ally a block away. So we got them back.
We smoked a lot of grass and played a lot of music. The guys who lived next door to us played in a band. I never knew them, but I saw them coming and going and heard them making music in the basement. Somebody told me they had a girl singer who was exceptional and that she was just a little kid.
One day the strangest looking truck I had ever seen pulled into their driveway, and a bunch of hippies piled out and went into the band’s house. There were five of them, two couples and one of the women’s pre-teen son. The truck had the top of an old Hudson sedan welded onto the top and the stovepipe of an old woodburning stove poking out. Inside were beds and couches and a fold-down table and the stove, but no sink and no running water. The Truckers, as we called them, lived in the truck and had an agreement with the band to let them use their bathroom and wash dishes in their sink.
We became good friends with the Truckers. They had been at the Hog Farm and had traveled to Nepal where they were pictured in The Whole Earth Catalog standing in front of a tent that flew the Whole Earth flag. They showed me the picture in the catalog. Sure enough, it was them. I remember only one of the truckers by name. Steve. I don’t think I ever knew his last name. One of the women, the mother of the kid, told me she had once been roommates with Janice Joplin. They introduced me to acid, which was―well, as they say, a trip. I thought I had died and gone to hippie heaven.
The teenage girl who sang with the band next door cut her first record, and it was an immediate hit. They threw a party in the basement to celebrate. I went to the party, but I can’t remember anything about it. Her name was Tanya Tucker. They said she was thirteen years old. The record was “Delta Dawn.” I can’t remember if she was even at the party.
A few years later, I ran into Steve in New York. He was no longer with the other Truckers. Either I went to his apartment or we met at a coffee shop and visited for an hour or two. My memory of those days is pretty fuzzy.
The Grateful Dead played a concert in a dome stadium somewhere out in Long Island. My buddy Mike got us tickets, and he scored some acid that we dropped before getting on a train to the concert. The dome was huge. Everybody went down to the floor. It was almost pitch black on the floor, with the only lights being on the stage where the Dead were playing while thousands of us danced on the jam-packed floor and waved a thousand neon green light sticks. I was not down there on the floor all the way through even the first song before the acid kicked in and I started freaking out. Something about all the movement and the sound and all the lights was so disorienting I had to get out of there. Despite having paid for the tickets and the trip out to Long Island and despite wanting to enjoy the concert, Mike left with me and we went back to Manhattan where we spent hours in Grand Central Station watching all the people come and go as I gradually mellowed out. It was my first acid test, and I guess I flunked it.