December 4: The Grateful Dead become Ken Kesey’s house band for the Acid Tests

Merry Prankster Page Browning was a friend of the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh and thought they would be a good band to play the Pranksters’ LSD parties. Their first show as the Grateful Dead (after changing their name from the Warlocks) was on Saturday, December 4 in San Jose, after a Rolling Stones gig at the San Jose Civic Auditorium. The Pranksters handed out flyers after the gig with Uncle Sam on them, saying “Can You Pass the Acid Test?” Per Stones bassist Bill Wyman, Keith Richards and Brian Jones were there, and within a few days recorded “19th Nervous Breakdown,” in which Jagger sings about his first acid trip. Up to four hundred people showed.[i]

The Prankster named Mountain Girl (a.k.a Carolyn Elizabeth Adams Garcia, Garcia’s second wife) recalled the Dead at first “were almost voyeuristic. They would come through, perform, and take off again.”[ii]

Sara Ruppenthal Garcia said, “The new thing was, ‘Can You Pass the Acid Test?’ Do you have the resources to open up your nervous system to anything? I wasn’t sure I could … It meant a lot to him [Garcia], and it was hard for him to figure out. He was amazed by it.”[iii]

Garcia’s brother Clifford said, “Actually, Jerry didn’t love that scene up there at Kesey’s right away. It took him a while to fit into it. He was always telling me, ‘These people are up in the woods getting ripped and doing this …’ like it was beneath him to do that. I said, ‘Jerry, people do that all over. What’s the big deal? If you want to play with these guys, that’s what you have to do.’ I’d lay that kind of trip on him whenever I talked to him about it. I said, ‘Don’t feel bad about doing that shit.’ He didn’t think they were too stable of a group and he knew they were party animals. He wasn’t into it. It was a wild scene.”[iv]

But gradually, Garcia realized the band had the freedom to play if they wanted to and the freedom to not play if it got too strange. They ended up performing at, by guitarist Bob Weir’s estimation, every Acid Test except one, in Mexico. Weir said, “No one had ever even imagined that stuff like that could possibly happen until it did. It was actually better than realizing my dreams … You would walk by a microphone, for instance, and maybe say something, and then a couple minutes later you’d hear your own self in some other part of the room coming back at you through several layers of echo. The liquid light shows began there. I think it was the first time anyone saw them. People were rather gaily adorned: dyed hair, colorful clothing and stuff like that. And everybody was loaded to the gills on LSD. There was a lot of straight-ahead telepathy that went on during those sessions. We learned during those sessions to trust our intuitions, because that was about all we had to go on. When you learn to trust your intuitions, you’re going to be more given to try things, to experiment. And you’re going to be more given to extemporaneous assaults of one sort or another. We learned to start improvising on just about anything. We were participants, and so were they. We were all just making waves, as big and bold as we could, and seeing where they rippled against each other and what kind of shimmers that all caused.”[v] The Dead started to do long extended improvisations, like jazz with a rock beat.

The third Acid Test on December 10 was in a log cabin, the first one with a strobe light. Along with the Dead, the poster advertised “[Beat hero Neal] Cassady and Ann Murphy vaudeville.” Each test was bigger than the one before, and established the template for rock shows and raves to follow with its pulsating amoeba river-skies projected over the group and the dancers. On December 17 at Muir Beach, some cops showed up in the parking lot, but Garcia headed them off and somehow convinced them there was no reason for them to go inside. As the police walked away, he touched his hat to them with the words, “The trips, Captain.” From then on he was Captain Trips.[vi]

References:

[i] Wyman, Stone Alone, 359.

[ii] Greenfield, 60-61.

[iii] Greenfield, 73-74.

[iv] Greenfield, 71.

[v] Miles and Perry, 45.

[vi] Miles, Hippie, 54.

 

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