Ken Kesey, Merry Pranksters, And Acid Tests: How The '60s Began

By | March 25, 2019

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Cover of the first edition of Tom Wolfe's 'Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test;' Wolfe speaking with Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, 1966. Sources:; Ted Streshinsky/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

What do we think of when we say "the '60s?" For many people, the decade is memorable for peace and love, hippies, psychedelia, Woodstock-era classic rock, non-conformity, free expression, experimentation, and no shortage of drugs. But in some ways this romantic idea of the '60s is inaccurate -- that's really only the late '60s. You didn't see tie-dyes, long hair on men, Jesus sandals and peace signs in 1961, 1962, or 1963.

But somebody had to do it first -- somebody had to get the ball rolling that led to that trippy day-glo explosion of 1967's Summer of Love and afterward. That was writer Ken Kesey and his "Merry Pranksters," who traveled around the country in a multi-colored bus called Furthur and spread the gospel of freedom, non-conformity, and enlightenment through the wonders of LSD. This was 1964, when the Beatles were still wearing suits and ties and Jim Morrison was a freshman at UCLA.

Journalist Tom Wolfe, who created a new literary approach called New Journalism, later caught up with Kesey (author of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest), who happened to be in jail at the time, and asked if he could write about his experiences at the forefront of the LSD-laced counter-culture movement. The result was The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Published in 1968, this book went beyond documenting one man’s decline into the hippie drug scene. It detailed how the gifted writer accidentally ignited the social movement that was then thriving all over the country. 

Ken Kesey On Acid

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Author Ken Kesey; poster art for the movie adaptation of 'One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest' (1975). Source: Wikimedia Commons; IMDB

In 1959, Ken Kesey was among a small group of people who participated in experiments on the effects of LSD that the United States government conducted, making him one of the first people in the country to try the psychedelic drug. The experience was like an awakening for Kesey. He later wrote that LSD provided him with enlightenment and allowed him to tap into the unknown recesses of his brain. With his new-found creativity and freedom of expression, Kesey wrote his first novel, the groundbreaking One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The book won him widespread acclaim, but Kesey had more pressing plans. He smuggled LSD to his group of literary friends so they, too, could feel the world open up to them.