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The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

Tom Wolfe

Average Review Rating Average Rating 9/10 (1 Review)
Book Details

Publisher : Black Swan

Published : 1989

Copyright : Tom Wolfe 1968

ISBN-10 : PB 0-552-99366-2
ISBN-13 : PB 978-0-552-99366-1

Publisher's Write-Up

'I looked around and people's faces were distorted... lights were flashing everywhere... the screen at the end of the room had three or four different films on it at once, and the strobe light was flashing faster than it had been... the band was playing but I couldn't hear the music... people were dancing... someone came up to me and I shut my eyes and with a machine he projected images on the back of my eye-lids... I sought out a person I trusted and he laughed and told me that the Kool-Aid had been spiked and that I was beginning my first LSD experience...'

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Reader Reviews

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Review by Richard Meads (200609) Rating (9/10)

Review byRichard Meads
Rating 9/10
"Sparkling dazzle!" It says, on the back of my copy of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. I think this rather misses the point.

Yes, it's the story of The Merry Pranksters: the day-glo bus riding pioneers of what would become 'psychedelic' culture. But the tale rolls from the analytical pen of conservative journalist Tom Wolfe, and the story that's really told is massively at odds with the book's garishly optimistic cover art.

Originally setting out to investigate the 'fugitive author' Ken Kesey, who in the mid-sixties was on the run form the FBI for narcotics offences, Wolfe is soon drawn into the world of Kesey and his disciples, The Pranksters. To use their own words, he gets 'on the bus'.

It's that very sense of being 'drawn in' to something that becomes the major focus of the book. Wolfe, the New York critic-out-of-water tells the Prankster's tale in their own words. Compiled from a combination of interviews, first hand investigation, and trawling through The Prankster Tapes (they recorded almost everything they ever did, on a day to day basis, either on tape or film), the book offers a rare brand of journalism, in that it's immersively subjective, while at the same time remaining critical. He tells the tale with exactly the kind of disjointed euphoria these proto-hippies must have felt.

And what a tale it is! Kesey's ranch in La Honda reads like a who's who of the sixties. From Hell's Angels to Allen Ginsberg, from the Grateful Dead to The Beatles (sort of), it seems that The Prankster's experiments had repercussions that reverberated throughout decades. They experimented with variable lag in music, accidentally created Acid Rock, pioneered all night multimedia events and popularised the use of strobe lighting. I was genuinely astounded by just how much we owe to such a small group of innovators in one time and place.

Of course there's a bad side too, and although the experimental, highly stylised Prankster tone carries on into the latter sections of the book, the content becomes increasingly darker as their hastily assembled revolution crumbles about their ears.

Again the balance of empathy and critique is maintained masterfully. Wolfe allows us to see both how the Pranksters contributed to the downfall of the 'psychedelic wave', and the forces, within the group and without, that made this inevitable. It's such a fantastic piece of modern tragedy that at times I had to remind myself it wasn't fiction.

But it wasn't. And there are many valuable lessons to be learnt within this deceptively gaudy looking volume. For anybody with the slightest interest in the 'hippy' movement, or any musically oriented subculture, this is a fantastic slice of history told in such an immediate way as to make you feel like you've been on the Prankster trip yourself. Whether on the bus or off the bus, I'd highly recommend you let this book take you for a trip.
Richard Meads (20th June 2009)

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