The Hippie Ethos.
An intimate exploration of the 60s counter-culture with some of my favorite Authors to boot.
The Greatest Book’s Ranking: #51/100
I haven’t been shy about expressing my distaste for the hippie artistic cannon. Thanksgiving is where I expect a little substance is needed to enjoy it, not entire movies. Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider are prototypical examples: the storyline’s a mess; the themes are simply for the sake of preaching to the choir; there is no evolution of purpose. It’s as if everyone was sky high during the production.
Well, most likely they were.
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test explores the beginning of the psychedelic counter culture, and it centers on an unlikely person: Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I say unlikely because I had no idea. Unbeknownst to me, Kesey used his LSD trips as inspiration to write the perspective of the book from the Chief instead of the main protagonist. Larry McMurtry, who writes westerns for God’s sake, is even present as a tertiary character. Who knew!
Reading about Hippies is way more interesting than their artistic expression. While the book sometimes goes too far in trying to imitate the subject matter (“let’s make the narration FEEL like an acid trip” gets tedious), it was a riveting, in-the-trenches insight into a world I understand so much better now. Well, as much as I can understand it.
Serendipitously, Ken Kesey signs up for to participate in a drug study while attending Stanford’s creative writing program. The drug: LSD. While the researchers are interested in how the drug affects their processing speed and reasoning skills, they miss out on the subjective reports of transcendental transformation. Kesey secures some for recreational use and distributes it among class mates. A movement begins to swell.
Kesey uses his wealth from the success of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to create a new center of psychedelic experimentation in La Honda, California. His crew names themselves the Merry Pranksters. While meant to be a non-hierarchal organization, everyone follows the lead of the charismatic leader. He says many pithy things while high:
Now, you’re either on the bus or off the bus. If you’re on the bus, and you get left behind, then you’ll find it again.
Speaking of buses, the crew paints an old school bus psychedelic colors, writes “further” on the front (as this is their destination), loads it up with acid and weed, and takes off for the east coast. They use technology to record outside sounds and reverberate back inside the bus to give their highs plenty of input. They become the experts of guiding people through drug-induced trips.
They return to California with an even higher profile. They team up with The Grateful Dead and many other icons of the 60s, putting on huge parties known as “Acid Tests.” Things are all going according to the opaque plans until disaster strikes: Kesey is arrested for marijuana, flees to Mexico to escape jail, and eventual plea deals to avoid harsher sentencing. After this, the momentum of the movement is lost.
The book is fascinating. After every reading break, I would come back to consciousness in my clean and furnished apartment. Quite a contrast to the hippie dens where they lived in open industrial buildings with communal sleeping quarters or slum apartments with nothing in it. The focus was chasing that “one with the universe” feel through getting high and all other bodily needs (sleep, food, water) were ignored. I almost can’t believe people lived this way.
The style of the book is a mix between subjective and objective. Tom Wolfe took copious amounts of notes and details, but he told the story very much from a perspective and doesn’t attempt to hide it. He oscillates between the confused, discursive, and meandering perspectives of the people he’s reporting on with the sober and straight injunctions of an outsider. It’s a constant contrast bath.
While some people don’t like the style (you never really can tell where Wolfe confabulates or exaggerates), I wouldn’t have it any other way. Instead of reporting just what someone says, he tries to capture their true experience. This transcendental feeling where the group would become one and synchronously move toward some new grand epoch would never have been done justice through quotes. Wolfe instead makes the people he’s reporting on characters — they come fully fleshed with internal monologues, motives, and feelings.
Less objective, perhaps, but more true in capturing the actual experience.
Intersection of Culture and Technology.
It’s easy to assume the hippie culture was mostly about the organic. The themes were anti-materialism while opening gateways already within your mind. Nothing was necessary beside a small tablet, your friends, and four walls to set your trip. That and a bus load of new technology.
They used mics, projectors, strobe lights, amps, movie cameras, recorders, speakers, and more. Several pages are dedicated just to the sounds and effects created by the prankster team to heighten the spiritual existence. This got me thinking.
Imagine the unbridled creativity that opened up at the same time as a mind-altering drug. I think we sometimes forget all the consequences of our unfeathered access to media. I can choose any sound in all of history and play it on command. I randomly-rolodexed through my mind to challenge my theory:
We don’t have to wait next to a church at high-noon to hear this. It is at our finger tips. That generation was able to record things and play it back on command, an almost Godly ability at the time. More than that, they could morph it and change it, put it through the wringer until it becomes so distorted leaving no verisimilitude to the original sound. There was no limit to what weird things you could do with it.
When reading this novel, I felt conscious-expansion akin to a flower blooming not because of the stories of LSD, but how technology was changing art that was changing expression that changed how people were brought together. The beginning started in a cabin with a handful of people but ballooned into event hall auditoriums. It would not have been possible without the technology.
How did people live this way and survive to talk about?
Other People’s Takes:
- The Selfish Book Club: “Wolfe drags out the bummer phase a little too long for my taste, but he packs on enough fuel in the beginning to sustain us through the inevitable descent of the rocket man that was wrestler, novelist, friend, lover, husband, father, Prankster Ken Kesey.”
- Scrawled: “As the Pranksters disperse to their respective self-made beds, Wolfe invites the reader to take one lesson from this cultural moment in defiance of the never-ending lag of consensus reality and consumer perspective.
- the !n(tro)verted yogi: “The language is often fun and trippy in a way that contributes to the story. Wolfe put an author’s note amid the book’s back matter that explains his desire to not only tell people about the events but to convey the atmosphere, and I felt he did a nice job in that regard.”