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L.A. Scene / The City Then and Now

Merrily Tripping Into Los Angeles' Colorful Past

April 10, 1995|Cecilia Rasmussen

The boundary between what we remember as the recent past and what we revere as history sometimes is a hazy one--particularly here in Los Angeles, where our preoccupation with the present can make last year seem like a long time ago.

But at some mysterious moment, the places and things we individually remember cross that mental border and become part of our common history. Something like that is happening now with the places and personalities who helped launch the defining movement of the 1960s, the counterculture.

Ride along with us, then, to three Los Angeles bus stops, the sites of seminal events in the history of the 1960s. These are the places--now unremarkable and as yet unmarked--where countercultural pioneers like the Grateful Dead played and author Ken Kesey's LSD-fueled Merry Pranksters gave new meaning to the phrase "acid test."

The Pranksters arrived from Santa Cruz in early February, 1966, temporarily without leader Kesey, author of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1962) and "Sometimes a Great Notion" (1964). In attempting to avoid arrest on marijuana possession charges, he had first faked a suicide attempt, then fled to Mexico.

The Pranksters followed him in their 1939 International Harvester school bus, which they called Furthur or, in other moods, Further. The sides of the bus screamed with swirls of bright paint, a style soon to be called psychedelic. The back sported a deck with a Harley Davidson. A sign on the front bumper bore the warning "Caution Weird Load." There was always a chemical larder stocked with LSD--then legal --and marijuana --very illegal --and an intricate sound system that could broadcast and record whatever interesting decibels happened by.

The most joyful noises were those generated by the Grateful Dead, whose earliest concert tours were the soundtrack for the Pranksters' odyssey.

The entourage's Los Angeles pilgrimage--with 14 people dressed in bizarre clothes--stopped first at the Sepulveda Unitarian Universalist Society's bulbous wooden sanctuary, nicknamed "the Onion" because of its distinctive architecture. The Pranksters had a friend there, the Rev. Paul Sawyer, a Unitarian minister who invited the group to party at his church. The next day, under the watchful eyes of passersby, the group headed toward Compton for what would become known as the "Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," just a few months before LSD was outlawed.

At the wheel was Neal Cassady-- the model for Dean Moriarty, the character in Jack Kerouac's Beat literary classic, "On the Road"--who a short time later would die in Mexico from exposure to the cold.

While L.A. was still smoldering from the riots six months earlier, helmeted police set up wooden sawhorses to cordon off the area around an automotive repair garage at 13331 S. Alameda St. The Pranksters were inside lining 30-gallon trash cans and filing them with Kool-Aid. They poured a couple of glass ampuls of pure LSD into the Kool-Aid. Then someone did some quick math and figured that one full Dixie cup equaled 50 micrograms of acid. The standard dose was about 300 micrograms, or six Dixie cups. After many guests downed several glasses, someone with a better knowledge of math recomputed and figured that one cup equaled 300 micrograms.

"Wavy Gravy"--patriarch of another countercultural institution, the Hog Farm--stood by the trash cans all night saying, "The one on the right is for the kids or kittens, and the one on the left is electric for the tigers."

Prankster Ken Babbs kept repeating into the microphone, "Freak, freak, freak!" and a woman sat in the middle of the floor screaming, "Who cares? Who cares?"

A slide show of flowers and patterns continued through the evening and a strobe light flashed everywhere. Many of the locals who dropped in thought the 'happening' was just a friendly get-together, until one woman yelled, "It's LSD! It's LSD! My shrink told me never to take it again."

Many of the several hundred guests hit the pay phone to call doctors; others phoned friends with the address.

The last test took place at the Carthay Studios on Pico Boulevard. This time no acid went into the Kool-Aid, only some dry ice for a bubbling effect. However, many who attended thought they were high.

When the party was over, more than half the Pranksters quietly piled into the bus and took off for Mexico. The ones left behind never quite knew what happened.

The revolution of the LSD-soaked exercises in mass ecstasy collapsed in the late 1960s, with LSD's reputation bloodied by tales of suicides, haunting flashbacks and bad trips.

Some of the Pranksters--who once were dedicated to spreading the gospel of expanded consciousness through freedom and drug use--now live more material lives as writers, publishers, builders, lawyers. One is a yogurt magnate.

Unlike Further, the Grateful Dead keeps traveling, while the infamous old bus rests with its faded paint crinkling on Kesey's 65-acre ranch near Eugene, Ore. And no one knows what happened to Kesey's old familiar sign that once welcomed guests with the greeting, "No Left Turn Unstoned."

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