Ken Kesey Talks About the Meaning of the Acid Tests

For me, there have always been at least three Ken Keseys. First, there was the anti­au­thor­i­tar­i­an author of the mad­cap 1962 clas­sic One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Inspired by Kesey’s own work as an order­ly at a Men­lo Park men­tal hos­pi­tal, the author’s voice dis­ap­pears into that of the nar­ra­tor, Chief Brom­den, and the dia­logue of the most mem­o­rable ensem­ble of trou­bled per­son­al­i­ties in twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry lit­er­a­ture. Then there’s the Kesey of the 1964 Some­times a Great Notion, a Pacif­ic North­west epic and the work of a seri­ous nov­el­ist pulling Amer­i­can arche­types from rough-hewn Ore­gon log­ging coun­try. Final­ly, there’s Kesey the Mer­ry Prankster, the mad sci­en­tist who almost sin­gle-hand­ed­ly invent­ed six­ties drug cul­ture with his ‘64 psy­che­del­ic bus tour and acid test par­ties. It’s a lit­tle hard to put them all togeth­er some­times. Ken Kesey con­tained mul­ti­tudes.

The acid test par­ties began after Kesey’s expe­ri­ence with mind-alter­ing drugs as a vol­un­teer test sub­ject for Army exper­i­ments in 1960 (lat­er revealed to be part of the CIA’s mind con­trol exper­i­ment, Project MKUl­tra). Kesey stole LSD and invit­ed friends to try it with him. In 1965, after Hunter S. Thomp­son intro­duced Kesey to the Hell’s Angels, he expand­ed his test par­ties to real hap­pen­ings at larg­er venues, begin­ning at his home in La Hon­da, Cal­i­for­nia. Always present was the music of The Grate­ful Dead, who debuted under that name at one of Kesey’s par­ties after los­ing their orig­i­nal name, The War­locks. The cast of char­ac­ters also includ­ed Jack Kerouac’s trav­el­ing bud­dy Neal Cas­sady, Allen Gins­berg, and Dr. Tim­o­thy Leary. Out of what Hunter Thomp­son called “the world cap­i­tal of mad­ness,” the psy­che­del­ic counter-cul­ture of Haight-Ash­bury was born.

In the inter­view above, Kesey talks about the acid tests as much more than an excuse to trip for hours and hear The Dead play for a buck. No, he says, “there were peo­ple who passed and peo­ple who didn’t pass” the test. What it all meant per­haps only Kesey knew for sure. (He is quot­ed as say­ing that he and his band of com­pa­tri­ots, the Mer­ry Pranksters, were try­ing to “stop the com­ing end of the world”). In any case, it’s a strange story—stranger than any of Ken Kesey’s works of fic­tion: covert gov­ern­ment mind con­trol pro­gram turns on one of the generation’s most sub­ver­sive nov­el­ists, who then mas­ter­minds the hip­py move­ment. The video below, from the Kesey doc­u­men­tary Mag­ic Trip, takes us back to where it start­ed with ani­ma­tion of a tape record­ing of Kesey nar­rat­ing his first gov­ern­ment-spon­sored acid trip.

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian. He recent­ly com­plet­ed a dis­ser­ta­tion on land­scape, lit­er­a­ture, and labor.

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  • Steve says:

    I found the ani­ma­tion of the LSD trip so unset­tling that I felt I was trip­ping myself. What an intriquing man Kesey was. he indeed embod­ied sev­er­al per­son­al­i­ties, but con­sec­u­tive­ly, not at the same time. He was a straight-arrow ath­lete in his yourh, then a con­ven­tion­al writer, and then mor­phed into one of the main spokes­men for the in-crowd. And remained so for

  • Ken Godwin says:

    Tak­ing LSD should be part of the required cur­ricu­lum for enter­ing into adult­hood.

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