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Get Shown the Light  (Chapter Eight)

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The creation and maintenance of a foundation myth

I have been arguing that the Grateful Dead’s inspiration can in some sense be described as religious. As for when and how this aspect of things enters the picture, there is no evidence in any of the sources that I have examined for any of the original members having had strong attachments to organized religious groups prior to the band’s formation, nor in the interviews that I have read do band members speak of spiritual crises or religious concerns before 1965. It does not seem, either, that the mere fact of playing rock music was religiously fraught for them—a notable difference from the experiences of many earlier rock and rollers such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and Elvis Presley. Steve Turner brings out this difference between many of the first-wave rock and roll musicians and their successors when he notes of the Beatles that “they were typically second-generation rock and rollers in that none of them suffered any anxiety over a secular-sacred split in their lives” with regard to their music.

To speak generally, and to judge by the extant accounts—as well as by the band’s musical developments—it was the Grateful Dead’s use of LSD, beginning in 1965, that led several of the band’s members to start feeling that their music was potentially of religious significance. It was, however, at the Merry Pranksters’ Acid Tests that these more or less inchoate feelings turned into something more definite. At the Acid Tests, the Grateful Dead found a  community, and with it an identity and a legend: they were no longer merely a folk-rock-blues group, but became Ken Kesey’s “faster than light drive,” the house band for a new kind of public experience. In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Wolfe presents the Grateful Dead as, essentially, the Acid Tests’ house band. It might be argued that Wolfe, as a non-hippie New Yorker, could easily have been ignorant of the real situation, but, as band insider Augustus Owsley Stanley III (better known as “Bear”) has said: “Grateful Dead were Pranksters. They were musicians, but they were also Pranksters.” He adds that “all I know is, I joined up with a band that were Pranksters; they were part of the scene that was doing something that was right on the edge.” It is with their association with the Pranksters, and specifically their role at the Acid Tests, that the band’s distinctive myth really begins.

The Acid Tests were all-night, drug-fueled multimedia parties, a source of inspiration for psychedelic “happenings” and the later rave scene. The point of these parties was to encourage people to be as picturesquely weird and open to the moment as they could be, all in an environment that combined unpredictability with sensory overload and as much of an absence of control as was possible for events sometimes drawing thousands of people. Many of the participants would have taken lsd, and so a night at an Acid Test would be passed in the company of very stoned, often oddly dressed or oddly acting people while strange music played, often provided by the Grateful Dead, ambient sounds and conversation were fed into the PA, and images and lights were projected on screens. By all accounts, attendance at an Acid Test could have a tremendously powerful impact on the participant, often changing lives, for good or for ill.

Based on that description alone, the Acid Tests could have been no more significant than great parties. What turned these parties into foundation stories was the way that they were mythologized after the fact—or, to put it another way, the sorts of meaning that were ascribed to them, and the future activities that were suggested or rendered possible by them. For example, the hippie spiritual teacher Ram Dass (born Richard Alpert) writes that “the Acid Tests were extraordinary. I felt that they were sheer magic. And they were scary magic. In many ways I saw it as religious ritual.”

While the impact that the Acid Tests had on at least some of their participants is clear, their meaning is less clear—perhaps by design. They were carnivalesque events at which participants were encouraged to “freak freely,” to express themselves as fully, flamboyantly, and spontaneously as they liked, responding to the sensory overload environment and drugs, and at which magic was felt to arise from the conjunction of spontaneous events, particularly when enhanced by the Grateful Dead’s music. One of the main Pranksters, Ken Babbs, notes that “we always thought of the Grateful Dead as being the engine that was driving the spaceship that we were on.”

The Acid Tests bear strong similarities to some of Victor Turner’s ideas about liminal spaces, in which social roles are altered or suspended and a ludic approach to life is privileged. But, for some participants, they were significant in ways that transcended sociology. As Farber writes, the Acid Tests were “geared toward maximizing psychic, sensual input, loading up the mind and pushing tripsters toward a vast collective experience that roared toward the unknown. The Acid Tests pointed toward the creation of enclaves, social spaces in which visionaries played out new collective games.” In a 1969 interview in Rolling Stone, Garcia said that the purpose of the Acid Tests were to “do away with old forms, with old ideas. ... Nobody was doing something, y’know. It was everybody doing bits and pieces of something, the result of which was something else... when it was moving right you could dig that there was something that it was moving toward, something like ordered chaos.” Garcia did not elaborate on the origins of the order in this “ordered chaos,” but later comments from him and Lesh suggest that the order arose through the visible manifestation of universal consciousness—the “uncontrolled anarchy” that took place at the Acid Tests was actually, when properly understood, “the dance of the cosmos.”

This freely occurring magic—the overwhelming presence of what was felt to be deeply meaningful, if often inexpressible, coincidence—was interpreted by several band members as signs of the manifestation of a divine energy, invoked by this most modern and ad hoc of rituals. Lesh concludes his autobiography by writing that “it’s safe to say that in the 90 days or so that the Acid Tests existed, our band took more and longer strides into another realm of musical consciousness, not to mention pure awareness, than ever before or since. At the beginning we were a band playing a gig. At the end we had become shamans helping to channel the transcendent into our mundane lives and those of our listeners.”

Thomas Wolfe was a close but nonconverted observer of the Acid Tests and Kesey’s scene. In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Wolfe makes it very clear that the Merry Pranksters, the loose organization that Kesey founded and that hosted the Acid Tests, took on some of the characteristics of a new religious movement. These were not—or were not just—a bunch of deranged bohemians getting high in the woods. The craziness was enfolded in or justified by a sense of religious mission, a pursuit of fleeting contacts with something large and meaningful. As Wolfe notes, although the Pranksters scrupulously avoided religious language, nonetheless “there was something... religious in the air, in the very atmosphere of the Prankster life.” Kesey served as the charismatic leader, and there was a shared view of their activities as being spiritually significant, a sense that in their daily lives they were taking part in extremely important immanent metaphysical explorations. William Plummer speaks of the sense that a “new church” was being founded: “The landscape was littered with portents. ... Increasingly, [the Pranksters] were coming to believe they were in an I-Thou relationship to the universe.”

Looking back, Kesey argues that “when we got into acid with a group of people, we felt that we were dealing with the end of time.” Garcia points out that “I’ve been lucky enough to meet people like Kesey, who’ve been able to illuminate some sense that this is not just a drug induced fantasy, but part of the larger picture of consciousness which we’re making an effort to map and... well, we’re making an effort to evolve. ... [Without the influence of people like Kesey] I tend not to believe that the voice I hear is the voice of God.” The religious nature of the events, and Kesey’s dominant role in them, is clear.

In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Wolfe cites Joachim Wach’s theory of the primacy of the religious experience in founding new religions: the experience is brokered by a leader, and those who have undergone this life-changing experience come to recognize themselves as a unique new group, in need of new means of expressing and accessing transcendence. Although this theory is not universally applicable—there are other ways in which new religions can form—it certainly does apply here. This is the purpose that the Acid Tests served for Kesey and the Pranksters; also, the tests were the group’s major public statements, their first steps outside of their own tight scene to engage the outside world and build a place for themselves there. Very literally, the Acid Tests were laying the foundations for Kesey’s new movement, and Wolfe presents them in his book as the ultimately unsuccessful attempts to found a new religion (more on that later). Plummer concurs: “There was an undisguised messianic purpose behind the Tests”—or, as Kesey put it at the time, “The millennium started some months ago.”

In the quotes from Jerry Garcia or Phil Lesh that I have presented, we can hear the mythologization of the Acid Tests: they have become archetypal events sufficient to provide the starting point, the legitimation, for an approach to music that sustained the Grateful Dead through a thirty-year-long career: “The Dead’s drive for improvisation is quintessentially American... but their practice of it is the most audible legacy of their experience with the Acid Tests.” Although the musicians were by no means as accomplished as they would later become, nonetheless it was at the Acid Tests that the transcendent potential of their music became clear to them. In later years they would discuss the Acid Tests as their soteriological high point, as the purest manifestation of what their music could and was intended to do.

It is clear that the Acid Tests were fundamental experiences for the band, particularly when the Grateful Dead is considered as a religiously motivated organization. They functioned in the band’s mythology much as did the period of Jesus’s earthly ministry for later generations of Christians—that is, they represented a time when the parameters and standards for the new movement were established, when miracles were possible and utopia dimly visible, when the walls between the transcendent and human realms were thinnest. Thus, the tale of the Acid Tests represents a foundation story for the Grateful Dead seen as a religious organization.


David G. Bromley and Douglas E. Cowan note that “because they are literally religions-in-the-making, new religious movements (NRMs) offer a particularly fruitful source of insight into the processes by which religion is socially constructed.” In this case, the Acid Tests provide us with a reminder of the unexpected ways in which religious feeling can manifest. But, when we think about what we do or do not expect, we should keep in mind that the aura of reverence, of sanctity, that is often cast over religious beginnings comes later. Things happen, and then later people realize—or decide—that they were extremely significant, and they backdate that feeling of significance, so that the memory of the primal event expresses the understanding of that event that developed since it happened. The Acid Tests, whatever they were at the time, have been remembered by the members of the Grateful Dead and many Deadheads as profound, significant experiences, just as what may have been a somewhat drunken party at a place called Cana has been remembered by generations of Christians as being deeply sacred and significant.


Get Shown the Light 

Chapter Eight

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