Friday, July 14, 2017

Electric Kool-aid Acid Test - The Grateful Dead

Money burning a hole in his pocket (royalties from his debut novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), Ken Kesey, just shy of 30, concocted an elaborate scheme to drive a bus from California to the New York World's Fair. In June 1964, a psychedelic 1939 Harvester school bus hit the road. It was no ordinary journey. Kesey's Beat Generation pal, Neal Cassady (the inspiration for Dean Moriarty in Kerouac's On the Road), was behind the wheel of the bus they called Further. On board were a dozen "Merry Pranksters" and a jar of LSD-laden orange juice. The trip, immortalized in Tom Wolfe's book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, was the Genesis of the psychedelic 60s. Marc Weingarten, author of The Gang That Wouldn't Write Straight, a treatise on the New Journalism of the 60s, said of Wolfe: "Wolfe rearranged his words in nonlinear fashion and used punctuation as a graphic element, like e.e. cummings on a mescaline bender. He was fond of ellipses, because his subjects talked in elliptical patterns, even thought in them. Punctuation, Wolfe discovered, allowed him to control the pace and timing of a scene, so he could write the way people on hallucinogens actually think." This erratic and unusual manner of writing is what created such an enthralling context for Wolfe's tale of Kesey’s devotees, and descriptive passages such as "some kind of Seven Dwarfs Black Forest gnome's hat covered in feathers and fluorescent colors..." – you get the point  exemplifies the fact that it's far better for Tom Wolfe to tell the tale of the Merry Pranksters than yours truly.

Carolyn Garcia
Meanwhile, at some point in the early Fall, 1965, Phil Lesh was record shopping and picked up a 45 with the name Warlocks on the label. His band, which included Pigpen McKernan, Bill Kreutzman, Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir, had not made the record, though they'd been playing and touring under that banner since 1964. Based on the purloined moniker, on November 3rd, the band recorded a handful of demos using the name The Emergency Crew. Nine days later, Garcia, Weir, Lesh and Kreutzmann met at Lesh's apartment on High Street (no joke) in Palo Alto, where he'd moved from Haight-Ashbury to be close to the rest of the band. As Lesh remembers, he and Garcia flipped through Funk and Wagnalls' Folklore Dictionary, spouting phrases for consideration as a new band name. None seemed better than Garcia's The Mythical Ethical Icicle Tricycle. Finally, a pair of words jumped out at him. Garcia blurted out, "Grateful Dead - that's it," and let out a holler. Deadhead or detractor there's little argument; that's the best ever band name, hands down.

At this point in time, The Grateful Dead essentially became the "house band" for Ken Kesey's Acid Tests, parties centered on the use of LSD, now colloquially known as acid. There was little in the way of format for the parties and research on the events is sketchy at best, but it is believed the Dead played at least 15 of the Acid Tests (there were 17 total, the majority in San Francisco, five in L.A., one in Portland Oregon and one, organized by author Larry McMurtry (The Last Picture Show, Brokeback Mountain) in Texas. It was from the Acid Tests that the Grateful Dead gained their reputation as an acid-rock band, indeed the jamming style would attest to this throughout their thirty year career.
Sound engineer and roadie, Owsley Stanley played a key role in the Acid Tests and also at Dead shows throughout the sixties; he was memorialized by the band in their jam "Alice D. Millionaire" (LSD Millionaire) Stanley is credited with supplying LSD not only to the band, but to tens of thousands of future Deadheads (the name wasn't coined until 1971). Owsley was instrumental in the new band's success in that he helped with living expenses throughout 1966. He's is also credited with the Dead's logo (the skull and lightning bolt) and was the impetus behind the dancing bear (Owsley's nickname was Bear). Popular mythology has it that "Purple Haze" was Hendrix' tribute to Bear, but Hendrix denied the rumor.

The band's first album, simply called Grateful Dead was released on March 17, 1967 to no fanfare at all and no AM radio airplay. What it did provide was sorely needed studio experience and a sense that The Dead were more than just a jam band. The album in retrospect is raw and certainly not of later caliber, but these are the songs that the Dead would introduce to the masses at Monterey Pop. Monterey wasn't just Janis and Jimi, it was the launch of a tour oriented career for The Grateful Dead that would last until the death of Gerry Garcia in 1995.