Yesterday marked the 10th annual Record Store Day and with it came a plethora of limited edition releases, first time pressings, and reissues. Representing the more way-out/fringe realm of RSD titles, Portland‘s consistently terrific Jackpot Records offered up a reissue of Ken Kesey‘s, The Acid Test. Originally released by Sound City in 1966, it’s less of an album by the late-critically acclaimed author/counter-culture icon, in any musical or coherent sense, and more so an artifact of a bygone era. Those who have read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe‘s 1968 book chronicling the escapade of Kesey and the crew of “day-glo crazies” known as the Merry Prankster, should recognize “acid test” as a term used to describe the numerous freak-out parties the group would throw in which participants got weird and experimented with LSD.
In 1959, while a student at Stanford University, Kesey volunteered for studies at the Menlo Park veterans hospital, which involved him having LSD administered to him and were, only years later, revealed to be part of the infamous CIA funded mind control experiments under Project MKUltra. From there, Kesey began sneaking the substance out of the facility and distributing it to friends, ultimately becoming the face of an entire movement. With money generated from the success of his novel, One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest and the subsequent Broadway play that was based on it, he was able to purchase a large property in La Honda, California, at which he would host these experimental hallucinogenic gatherings. The acid tests were also noted for providing a foundation for The Grateful Dead, who became somewhat of the house band at these events, to really cut their chops early on and develop the otherworldly improvisational skills that they remain both so infamous and influential for.
La Honda wasn’t the only place that the acid tests took place — if memory serves me correct, they even threw one at a venue in Compton, at one point — and the The Acid Test LP documented one such experiment that definitely took place outside of the Merry Prankster compound. From my understanding, the half-hour‘s worth of material that appears on this album is actually pasted together from excerpts pulled from a 14 hr recording session at the legendary Sound City Studios. Original copies can go for as much as $450 on average, so the desire to reissue it is understandable, but, as a listener, you’re really not getting anything more than the audio recording of somebody else’s acid trip. And as someone that used to fuck with the stuff quite a bit myself, in my day, it always sounds like a brilliant, if not necessary, idea to document the wacked out shit that you’re coming up with and the inside references created, but ultimately, it’s never anywhere near as interesting later on, let alone to someone that was never even in the room or knows anyone involved on a personal level. The album begins with a little interview segment with Kesey conducted by Frank Frey. After that, fellow prankster icon, Ken Babbs rambles about topics like death and squawks around on his harmonica for a bit. There are somewhat interesting little spoken word segments backed by music, as well as “Peggy The Pistol,” a “Minnie The Moocher“-style segment about a woman shooting meth. Although they never completely pull out into any typical song of their own with Jerry Garcia on vocals, the whole fiasco is soundtracked by The Dead knocking away at their instruments in the background — albeit in a generally unfocused manner — laying the platform for the bugged-out hallucinogenic rants of their compatriots to stumble across.
The reissue offers a fine piece of history for those already well-versed with the whole scene that can fully appreciate it for what it is, but for those looking for a more coherent account related to the acid tests and, more specifically, to how the Grateful Dead first became involved with that scene and the subsequent impact that it had on their lives and art, I recently stumbled across one particular interview excerpt where Jerry addresses just that. Originally recorded in 1988 by author/interviewer, Joe Smith, who later donated his recordings to the Library Of Congress, a portion of his conversation with Garcia was eventually animated and produced by Brooklyn-based non-profit content studio, Blank On Blank in association with PBS Digital Studios. Most of the information within this 5 1/2-minute clip may be common knowledge to those of us who are huge fans of the Dead, but even then, it’s still nice to hear Jerry’s voice as he reminisces about such things as naming the band and forming their defining sound out of those acid test experiments.
Check out the video below after the following specifics regarding the project
Jerry Garcia was interviewed by phone on May 23, 1988. At the time, Joe was writing Off the Record–his oral history of rock and roll. Joe interviewed more than 240 music artists and executives from 1986-88.
In 2012, Joe donated a trove of 238 hours of interviews on cassette tapes to the Library of Congress. Listen to the Joe’s full interview catalog here.