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Get Shown the Light (Chapter Eight)

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Although Phil Lesh and Jerry Garcia acknowledged the Acid Tests as in some sense the beginnings of the Grateful Dead’s spiritual mission, nonetheless in several accounts both of them can be heard to emphasize not only that the band and its scene existed prior to the Acid Tests but also that its mission was in some way present then as well. As both Lesh and Garcia have presented it, the Grateful Dead’s religious significance arose from the time when the band was exposed to, and started playing under the influence of, entheogonic drugs, including most prominently LSD, well before their participation in the Acid Tests.

Thus, for Lesh, it is the two-month period of gigless rehearsal in the fall of 1965 that enabled the band “to meld our consciousnesses together in the unity of a group mind,” the necessary precondition for musical transcendence, and they had already played their first “big gig” before Lesh “wangled invitations for the band to the first [Acid] Test”—to attend as guests, not to play. Lesh describes this first Acid Test as being “subdued,” in need of “some kind of focus” to “transform diffuse individual energies into coherent collectives. Clearly, music was the answer,” and it is when the Grateful Dead bring their music to the second test that the tests become truly magical. As Lesh recounts, “We knew we had something, but we didn’t know how deep it was. We directed and focused it through these parties.”

Garcia, for his part, made it clear in his interview with Charles Reich and Jann Wenner that the fundamental changes in his attitude toward life and music that LSD caused had all taken place well before the first Acid Test, and that the Acid Tests, for all their mystical powers, were ways for him to continue in the musical direction that he had already mapped out. As he described it, “In the night clubs, in bars, mostly what they want to hear is short fast stuff... and we were always trying to play a little, stretch out a little. ... So our trip with the Acid Test was to be able to play long and loud. Man, we can play as long and loud as we wanted and no one would stop us.”

When the Acid Tests started happening, Garcia said, “we were ready for something completely free-form. It kind of went along with where we were going, which is we were experimenting with psychedelics, as much as we were playing music.” When asked directly, “Were you under Ken Kesey’s tutelage?,” Garcia responded, “Not really. I was getting high with those guys, but ‘it’ wasn’t coming from them—it was coming from ‘it,’ whatever ‘it’ was.” Lesh has stated that “we were always more aware of ourselves as a unit, as a band, than as representatives of the culture, or any other abstract—that’s why we didn’t stick with the Acid Tests, because we wanted to be the Grateful Dead, and not the Acid Tests house band. ... I remember that as an unspoken but totally conscious thought.”


The above excerpt runs by gracious permission of Duke University Press. Get Shown the Light drops on November 17, 2023.

fourth moon

Get Shown the Light 

Chapter Eight

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