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The Grateful Dead's Spiritual Context

The first time that music and LSD interacted in a way that really came to life for us as a band was one day when we went out and got extremely high... and we went that night to Lovin’ Spoonful... It was just truly fantastic. We began to see that vision of a truly fantastic thing. It became clear to us that working in bars was not going to be right for us to be able to expand into this new idea. And about that time the Acid Test [sic] was just starting to happen. — Jerry Garcia (1970)

The Acid Tests

The Acid Tests were events in 1965 and 1966 organized by the Merry Pranksters, a guerilla art group led by author Ken Kesey and best described in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. The Merry Pranksters possessed a strong, almost messianic, sense of mission and a high commitment to mind expansion, to be achieved with the aid of sensory overstimulation and psychedelic drugs. Their goal—insofar as they had one—seems to have been to enable people to break through the normal limits of consciousness and attain a state of inspired intuitive oneness with universal forces. As Kesey wrote, “We have to do something to break us out of that rut, the rut of our minds. ... You can’t have a new idea. You can’t strain... and go forward and find a new idea... [but] you can be enlightened, which is, like, ‘Ah!’ But to do that, though, you have to wander into a new area.” There are clear overlaps here with Stephen Gaskin’s discussion of the “sudden school” of Zen, as he understood it: he felt that the universe was being recreated in every moment, and so there was always the possibility for sudden enlightenment. Like him, the Pranksters believed in the potential for immediate spiritual awakening.

The Acid Tests were of pivotal importance for the Grateful Dead. The band’s career did not literally begin at the Acid Tests, but it was at these events that the Grateful Dead collectively discovered its vocation, its defining environment. When asked in an interview in 1983, “When did you start realizing that there might be something of greater human significance available to the Grateful Dead?,” Lesh was quick to respond: “[At the] Acid Tests. That’s when it really hit me.” Later in the interview, he added: “I know that if the Acid Tests had never happened, we would have been just another band.” When asked, in the same conversation, “How did the personal, collective quest [for musical transcendence] turn into this incredible myth?,” Jerry Garcia responded that it happened “as soon as we were playing at the Acid Tests.” In an earlier interview, in 1972, Garcia had presented it very clearly: “The Acid Test was the prototype for our whole basic trip. But nothing [that the band had done since] has ever come up to the level of the way that the Acid Test was.” The Acid Tests were where the Grateful Dead felt that they had glimpsed transcendence; as Garcia put it, “that Acid Test experience gave us glimpses into the form that follows chaos.” Given the significance of the Acid Tests for the band, the ways that they crystallized and revealed the group’s spiritual or religious mission, the Acid Tests and the meanings that were derived from them can reasonably be described as the Grateful Dead’s foundation story. It is in that light that I will now examine them.

Religions need myth, and they need in particular foundational myth, the creation of which involves the establishment of a “year zero” that is crucial to any religious movement (providing the axis mundi that supports the religious world, as William Paden might have put it) from which aspirations can be derived, aesthetic and ethical standards set up, and the future predicted or preenacted.

Since foundation stories describe the establishment of the sacred period from out of its secular historical context, it logically follows that they delineate three situations: a state of potential that sets the stage for the foundation story; the foundation period, in which a particular period is liberated from history and moved into an archetypal realm, and in which the bases for the religious movement and its values are set; and the move out of the liminal realm and back into history, which presents particular challenges for the new religious movement. In the discussion that follows, we will see how this tripartite delineation played into the Grateful Dead’s relationship to the Acid Tests.

To illustrate the importance of foundation stories for the understanding of religious movements, we could look at such works as the gnostic writings found near Nag Hammadi in Egypt, in which challenging reconstructions or re-presentations of mainstream Christianity are very often legitimized through their ascription to the apostolic period. The foundational period is where religious power comes from.

Foundation stories derive from the historical period that marks the beginning of the religious movement in question. They lift this period out of history, turning it into normative myth and the template for future ritual. In this way, “the actual processes of human agency ... are overlaid with a historiography that confers legitimacy to religious claims and practices.”As Paden notes, “Each religious world has its own past ... these pasts and histories are given form ... through the memory and continuity of tradition. Every past rises up around key events and exemplary figures.” Myths and foundation stories arise from “prototypical time in which divine events and words have been definitively posited.” Or, as Roland Barthes more jadedly put it, this sort of myth “has the task of giving an historical intention a natural justification and making contingency seem eternal.”

Whether or not these myths are literally true is not the point. As Mikael Rothstein puts it, when discussing issues of truth/history from religious points of view, “It is necessary to acknowledge that the mythical rendering of time and history is much more important than ‘history’ in the everyday (secular) sense of the word. Here I have to emphasize that ‘mythical formations’ are dif­ferent from ‘lies.’ ... Things that are not factual may easily be appreciated as true in religious contexts.” And, indeed, they may do religious work, making them “authentic fakes,” a concept that we will discuss.

Table of Contents

Get Shown the Light 

Chapter Eight

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