Acid Tests Turn 50: Wavy Gravy, Merry Prankster Ken Babbs Look Back

Participants recall seminal psychedelic happenings where Beats, Del Close held court and seeds of Grateful Dead were sown

Wavy Gravy staged L.A.'s Lysergic A Go Go in 1965, six days before the first Santa Cruz Acid Test. Credit: London Entertainment/Splash/Corbis

This week in Santa Cruz, California, a concert, reading and site dedication will commemorate the 50th anniversary of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters' first LSD-fueled Acid Test, held in the small neighborhood of Soquel on November 27th, 1965. More than a half-dozen Pranksters — plus the hammer Neal Cassady once juggled, recently found in storage — will be in attendance for a reading at Bookshop Santa Cruz on Thursday and a concert at Don Quixote's International Music Hall on Friday. In addition to a marker near the now-demolished house once rented by Merry Prankster Ken Babbs, county supervisor John Leopold has announced plans to turn an adjacent bus shelter into a miniature museum, an unlikely but fitting symbol for the group that tripped their way cross-country (and back) on still-legal LSD in a garishly painted International Harvester school bus named Furthur.

The first Acid Test, a small semi-public event advertised only at the local Hip Pocket underground bookstore, kicked off a series of weekly psychedelic blowouts that provided a launching point for the Grateful Dead and a public turning point for the counterculture that followed. Lasting through early 1966, the Acid Tests provided a chaotic forum (and template) for experimental musicians, filmmakers, dancers, writers, comedians and more. Given that attendees consumed 250-microgram LSD capsules, it is perhaps unsurprising that accounts of the first Acid Test vary.

Ken Babbs, now 76, recalls the first Acid Test not as a post-Thanksgiving soiree but "a Halloween party with everyone in costumes and getting high and having a good time." While no photos of the event (or even of the house that hosted it, known as the Spread) are known to exist, others have concluded the November 27th date to be most likely. "I remember the band, the guys who later became the Grateful Dead, showing up and playing on our instruments," says Babbs, "and us playing on our instruments, and [On the Road hero Neal] Cassady being there and [Allen] Ginsberg and [novelist] Bob Stone and being up all night lying on the floor with microphones rapping stuff into tape machines until dawn." The Pranksters showed pieces of their in-progress movie.

Getting ready to change their band's name from the Warlocks to the Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh and Bob Weir all headed to Santa Cruz for the trip too, according to Dennis McNally's authorized biography. But while they hung out and stargazed and jammed on the Pranksters' gear, nearly all agree that the band didn't play in any formal capacity and wouldn't have been advertised, as a more recently surfaced poster implies. Nicholas Meriwether, the historian who oversees the Grateful Dead's official archive at nearby UC Santa Cruz concurs. "I have never seen anything to suggest that the Dead actually performed at the first Acid Test," says Meriwether, who will also speak at the dedication, "and that's what set the stage for their first show as the Grateful Dead at the San Jose Acid Test the following week."

Earlier in 1965, LSD made by underground chemist Owsley Stanley had saturated the West Coast and transformed local arts scenes in its wake. Enshrined in Tom Wolfe's 1968 book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, the Merry Pranksters' parties are merely the best remembered. One other such event, held six days before the Santa Cruz Acid Test, was the lesser-known Lysergic A Go Go, staged November 21st in Los Angeles by the comedians Hugh Romney and Del Close. Not as participatory as the Pranksters' Tests, attendees "brought their own head," recalled Romney recently, who would change his name to Wavy Gravy a few years later. "We did not supply any psychotropics," Gravy says. "What we provided was a palette."

Though they distributed "solar meat cream" capsules at the door, according to a Los Angeles Free Press report, they were merely filled with "Safeway hamburger." The light show was provided by Romney's roommate, Del Close, who would go on to be known as the inventor of long-form improvised comedy.  The ukulele player Tiny Tim, who would join Romney and Close for other endeavors, appeared only via record. While beginning as satire of the psychedelic scene that had already permeated Los Angeles and elsewhere, the Lysergic A Go Go was a genuinely chaotic happening, crammed with some 500 heads.

"Del did interferometry, where he stretched plastic under lenses that caused psychedelic images to appear on the screen, and did some liquid [light-show] things," recalls Gravy, 79. Per the Free Press, the night "ended with the theater dark and an ultraviolet projector trained on the stage where people were dancing, pressurized cans were spraying mist, a band was playing ... ropes were twirling, serapes waving, and everything was fluorescing." Both Romney and Close would go on to join the Acid Test when it came to Los Angeles the next year, though, according to Gravy, Close would receive special dispensation to stick to speed only.

By the end of 1966, LSD would be illegal, and Ken Kesey would be on the lam in Mexico, escaping a pot bust. In 1970, acid was declared a Schedule 1 drug in the United States, with "high potential for abuse" and "no currently accepted medical treatment in the U.S."  By the time of Jerry Garcia's death in 1995, following a decade of anti-LSD campaigns, the DEA had imprisoned up to as many as 2,000 Deadheads for possession of small amounts of LSD under the so-called carrier weight laws, which meted out punishment by the weight of the blotter paper instead the amount of LSD contained within.

With new studies underway alongside reports of productivity-increasing "microdosing," some are calling for the old laws to be reexamined. At the 2015 International Drug Reform Conference, held in mid-November in Washington, D.C., Amanda Feilding of the U.K.-based Beckley Foundation called for the regulation of LSD and other substances for full recreational use. "It would have been much better if [cannabis and psychedelics] had remained as an integral part of the social fabric, controlled by social pressure, with the purpose of minimizing harms and optimizing benefits," Feilding said in a statement. The four-day conference concluded with a gathering on the Mall in front of the Washington Monument, featuring a Burning Man–style fire vigil for the Drug War.

"I remember the guys who later became the Grateful Dead, showing up and playing on our instruments." —Ken Babbs

"Rescheduling of LSD or MDMA or psilocybin will almost certainly take place only after the FDA has determined that Phase 3 studies have proven safety and efficacy," notes Rick Doblin, founder of the Multi-disciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, based in Santa Cruz, who have championed formal research since the mid-Eighties. "MAPS is assuming this will happen for MDMA in 2021. I think [Heffter Research Institute] has a similar timeframe for psilocybin. There isn't enough research with LSD underway or planned at the moment to even make a guess as to when it might be rescheduled. There is very low public support for legalization of any psychedelic, around 8 to 15 percent or so."

But with President Obama's Justice Department promising clemency for many non-violent drug offenders, psychedelic prisoners might finally feel some reprieve. With some 6,000 prisoners released already, "we are hoping for roughly 100 grants between now and January 1st, and more next year," notes Julie Stewart, founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. This number could likely include a number of longterm Deadhead prisoners.

And while LSD remains a Schedule 1 substance, California remains California. "Here in Santa Cruz, it's a little bit different," says Santa Cruz county supervisor John Leopold. "MAPS is based here," says Leopold, "so they have a presence on a regular basis. Santa Cruz from the mid-Sixties on, really starting with the Merry Pranksters and the Acid Test and the Hip Pocket [bookstore], has really always been a home for bohemia. That's part of the reputation of the community." A longtime Deadhead, Leopold is happy to honor his district's psychedelic heritage where the 71 bus stops at the corner of Soquel and Dover.