Fifty years ago Santa Cruz hosted a landmark moment in counterculture history—the first ‘Acid Test.’ Some of the participants are returning to celebrate the golden anniversary this week
Who knew? I mean who could have known, really? Maybe some of them did. Maybe Kesey, because he seemed to have the big vision, and perhaps even a sense of cosmic history—he was “Captain Flag,” after all, the literary “Swashbuckler” and “Chief.” But it took far more than one heartbeat and one big persona for the moon and the planets and the stars to align so perfectly, so opportunistically, in such a crystalline fashion that cold Soquel night in November of 1965, precisely 50 years ago. But align they did.
The Spread is gone, along with the ranch house and the chicken coops and whatever else there was, and the condos and track homes have come to that sacred ground in the western watershed of Rodeo Gulch, which few Santa Cruzans—even those who have lived here forever—realize passes directly to the sea, into Corcoran Lagoon, a direct link to the grand Pacific, the great force that lured so much of that energy and consciousness and courage, yes courage, to the western shores. Because the Pranksters who assembled that night at the Spread were courageous in ways that we today cannot fully fathom, bold if not always fearless, breaking through, going places, crashing beyond the various doors of perception, to borrow Aldous Huxley’s phrase, trying to plow through the mind-numbing blue-window conformity of the postwar American night.
It’s all connected—the holy sacred earth, the watersheds, our dreams, our souls, our pasts, our destinies. That was a part of their continued discovery, their psychic journey toward something further, their collective mission to save the soul and the minds of a generation.
But back to the Spread, located just above Soquel Drive near the junction of Mattison Lane, catty-corner from what is today the Silver Spur Restaurant. It was there on that fateful Saturday night in late 1965 that what has been identified as the “First Acid Test” was staged with some of the major cultural figures of the era: Kesey, as in the novelist Ken Kesey, celebrated author of One Flew Over Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion; the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, author of Howl and Kaddish; Neal Cassady of On the Road fame, who steered the Pranksters across America and into the naked cosmos; Faye Kesey, the Chief’s wife and mother of three of his children (Larry McMurtry called her the glue that held it all together); and Ginsberg’s lover and poet, Peter Orvlosky, along with his brother Julius.
Many of the Merry Pranksters, Keseys’ wild inner-circle of psychic cosmonauts who had accompanied the author the year before on his bus called “Furthur” (or “Further,” depending on the date) were there, including Ken Babbs, Kesey’s Prankster lieutenant, the “Intrepid Traveler,” an ex-Marine and Vietnam War vet who actually first rented the Spread after relocating from San Juan Capistrano. Various members of that Palo Alto quasi-rock band the Warlocks, who in a matter of days would be known as the Grateful Dead—Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh and Bob Weir and Pigpen and Bill Kreutzmann—attended with their friends “Foxy” Connie Bonner and “Faithful” Sue Swanson.
And perhaps the most endearing (and enduring) Prankster of them all—Carolyn Adams, aka Mountain Girl (she “penetrated the Boys Club”)—was rumored to have been there, Adams being described by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test as “a tall girl, big and beautiful, with dark brown hair flowing down to her shoulders,” mother of another of Kesey’s kids (“Sunshine”) and later Garcia’s wife.
Or was she there? That’s the rub. Maybe she was and maybe she wasn’t—no one is quite sure. Lee Quarnstrom—former San Jose Mercury columnist, lifelong Prankster and author of a thoroughly enjoyable memoir entitled When I was a Dynamiter (see sidebar)—thinks she was there, he’s pretty sure she was. So is Babbs, but who knows? Mountain Girl herself doesn’t remember. Other Pranksters, well, they aren’t sure, either. If nothing else, she was there in spirit, her energy a critical component of the Prankster tribe, its psychic gestalt.
At one point, when I pressed Quarnstrom for details of the evening—the music, the guest list—to the point, I am sure, of being a pest, he wrote me back that “frankly I cannot remember who all was at the Spread that evening, nor whether the whole band [the Warlocks] was there or just a few. Fifty years superimpose either a golden hue or a thick fog over many memories … I doubt whether this is all that helpful to you, but my mental exercises in 1965 were often too strenuous to help me remember that party clearly.”
Babbs, for one, remembered it as a Halloween party. “It’s all a myth now anyway,” he said, laughing that deep wild Intrepid Traveler laugh of his. “Tell it however you want.”
So it goes. I have now assembled nearly two-dozen accounts of the evening and what led up to it, and I suppose what emerges is more of an abstract painting than a precise photo-like rendition of history in the making. My sources were all high on LSD and weed and who knows what else.
Plus, as Lee said, it’s been 50 fucking years. The hue is indeed golden, if a little tarnished. Myths have been created and legends destroyed. The historical narrative of the last half-century has been warped, carpet bombed and digitized. Moreover, one of the mottos of Kesey and Co. was “never trust a Prankster,” which adds yet another degree of difficulty to what is already a challenging task. So take this all with that proverbial grain of salt, or better yet, with that even more anti-proverbial tab of whatever it is that gets you there.
Let us start this tale with the Hip Pocket Bookstore, mid-1960s downtown Santa Cruz (located in the St. George Hotel complex, near where Bookshop Santa Cruz is today). It is tempting to say it all began there, but instead of envisioning it as a beginning, let us view it as an entrée into a cultural cataclysm, as a time and place where social magic and cultural alchemy took place.
And please allow me one small caveat: I get sick of people describing Santa Cruz as a “sleepy, conservative town” before the arrival of the university, mostly because I was a kid here then, and Santa Cruz was far more complex and multi-faceted than such easy historical bromides suggest. There were other hip places in Santa Cruz before then, most notably the Sticky Wicket, a cool and very hip coffee shop first located downtown that later moved out to Aptos (and which played a supporting role in this tale). And there were plenty of hip people. The war in Vietnam was raging, and an entire generation of young Americans was rising up against it. Both Cabrillo College and UCSC had opened and the Free Speech Movement was going off in Berkeley. The shifts of change were already in motion.
That said, there were strong forces of conservatism here at the time—members of the John Birch Society were on the Santa Cruz City School Board when I was growing up—and in the landmark presidential election of 1964, while this wasn’t quite Barry Goldwater Country, the Santa Cruz Sentinel actually endorsed him, calling him a “moderate.” At precisely the same time that the Hip Pocket was opening, in September of 1964, Ronald Reagan came to Santa Cruz for a series of speaking engagements on behalf of Goldwater that included a mass rally for Goldwater at, dig this, the Santa Cruz High Auditorium.
So that’s the firmament that Peter Demma and Ron Bevirt, the two principals of the Hip Pocket, were entering when they took out an ad in the very same Sentinel in September of that year with just blank space (I always wondered if the Sentinel censored the image) and a notice at the bottom of the ad announcing the unveiling of a legendary (and controversial) sculpture by Ron Boise and a book signing by none other than Ken Kesey, autographing his new novel Sometimes a Great Nation (sic—that must have been a Freudian slip by someone at the always-literate Sentinel) and the “Intrepid Traveler’s Merry Band.” Which means that Kesey and the Pranksters had been here en masse more than a year before the First Acid Test.
Demma and Bevirt were clearly going against the tide. The Santa Cruz Polk’s Directory for 1964-65 listed Demma as the bookstore’s “Director,” Bevirt as the “Hassler,” Patricia Ann Dutton as “Assistant Nexologist,” and Albert Smullin as being in charge of “Books for the Imagination.” A paid advertisement in the same directory proclaims that the Hip Pocket sold “Books for Cowboys.”
Demma, who passed away this summer, was a key figure in the story as well. A native of Oakland, like many of the Beats and Pranksters, he had spent some time in the military and merchant marines, before lighting down on Perry Lane in Palo Alto, where his sister was living, and he came into contact with Kesey and iconic Beat legend Neal Cassady.
Demma once told me that he and Cassady, who loved Santa Cruz, would scoot over Highway 17 for quick visits to the beach and Boardwalk, and then return to Perry Lane. Demma also said that it was Cassady who first brought him to Santa Cruz, and that he felt it was his “destiny” to own a bookshop, like a preternatural calling, and he had enlisted a close pal from the Kesey circle, Ron Bevirt—another ex-military guy in the Pranksters, who had been stationed at Ford Ord—to join him in his bibliophile dreams. He hired Cassady to work there, too, and also Quarnstrom. It was a very cool place to hang.
While there was an article-with-picture earlier in the summer announcing the new downtown business, the Sentinel didn’t exactly go out of its way to promote the Hip Pocket’s grand opening in October of 1964. In fact, the lone mention of the store’s unveiling came on the cops-and-robbers page the following day, where it was noted that someone from Big Sur attending the event was arrested on a “dope charge” for carrying a bottle of “shredded marijuana” and some pills that were “thought to be dangerous narcotics.” It also noted that the unruly crowd assembled had the audacity to block Pacific Avenue, and that the cops had been forced to break up the gathering and move the onlookers to the sidewalk.
Let me note with no small amount of pride—and dare I say a certain amount of surprise—that the one welcoming mention in the Sentinel of that fateful event came in a notice written by my late (and highly eccentric) aunt, Estrella Stagnaro, who quoted E.P. Whipple with a nautical theme (“Books are lighthouses erected in the great sea of time”) and which celebrated the “lovely” Hip Pocket’s arrival in the community. She noted: “The Owners welcome you at all times!”
Perhaps so, but Santa Cruz did not really welcome the Hip Pocket. For its less-than-two-year run downtown, the place was embedded with controversy. From the very get-go, Ron Boise’s statue, entitled “Mankind”—a pair of nude figures, a man and a woman, pounded out of sheet metal and placed above the Hip Pocket sign (which Boise had also crafted)—became an immediate cause célèbre downtown. (Quarnstrom remembers that a woman living in the St. George had a fit over the fact that a ‘nekkid’ sheet-metal ass was blocking her view).
Boise was yet another critical figure in this drama, and, for an all-too-brief moment, a significant artistic force in the counterculture movement in California. Earlier that year, his sheet-metal nudes (part of a series he called Kama Sutra were featured in a show at the avant-garde North Beach Vorpal Art Gallery) had become a target for the gendarmes. San Francisco cops actually seized nearly a dozen of the sculptures, the show was shut down, and Muldoon Elder, the gallery’s owner, was arrested for obscenity. The ensuing trial brought Boise lots of publicity (and Elder an acquittal by jury).
Boise’s next move was to come to Santa Cruz. The same summer that the Hip Pocket was opening for business, Boise had a show at the aforementioned Sticky Wicket featuring his Kama Sutra sculptures, and also had works in a show sponsored by the Cabrillo Music Festival. He had moved with his girlfriend Space Daisy (a member of the Merry Pranksters and later Quarnstrom’s wife) out to the Spread in Soquel.
Although the Boise statues were an affront to local conservatives’ tastes, an obscenity case had already failed against him, so the local powers-that-be waited until some nude images by celebrated New Mexico artist Walter Chappell graced the walls of the bookshop. In the fall of 1965, Santa Cruz County District Attorney Richard Pease (pressured heavily by the brass in the Santa Cruz Police Department) slapped obscenity charges on Demma and Bevirt, which were followed by a string of wild-eyed headlines in the Sentinel. Pease proclaimed that “there will be a substantial number of people who will testify that they were outraged” by Chappell’s images.
Apparently not that many. Only one local—Robert Husband, president of the then-ultra-conservative Santa Cruz Art League—testified against the photos. Several, however, took the stand in their favor. The local conservative power structure was shocked—and more than a little ticked—when Judge Harry Brauer dismissed the obscenity charges in a preliminary hearing based on First Amendment findings—much to the dismay of many, including the Sentinel’s resident “liberal” columnist Wally Trabing, who acknowledged that he “was one who wanted to see a guilty verdict.” Et tu, Wally?
That ruling came on Friday, Nov. 26—the day before the celebrated “happening” at the Spread.
Some have speculated that the First Acid Test held the following night in Soquel was a celebration of the court’s ruling in favor of the Hip Pocket. As Quarnstrom notes in When I Was a Dynamiter (and as he explained to me in even more detail in conversation and via email), it most certainly was not. But it undoubtedly added some additional joy to the festivities.
Quarnstrom had hooked up with Kesey and his band in La Honda after writing an article for the San Mateo Times about the author and his latest novel, Sometimes a Great Notion. Quarnstrom soon quit his gig, collected unemployment checks, moved into a cabin in La Honda near Kesey and Co., and was later arrested with Kesey, Cassady and a host of other Pranksters for marijuana possession in April of 1965.
Kesey and the Pranksters, who had returned to La Honda after their cross-country journey on “Furthur,” where they had hosted several acid-fueled “happenings,” were wanting to bring their show—and their experiences with mind-expanding drugs—to the masses. In the words of Wolfe, Kesey had intended to develop “a ritus, often involving music, dance, liturgy, sacrifice, to achieve an objectified and stereotyped expression of the original spontaneous religious experience.” Kesey wanted to bend time. Kool-Aid spiked with LSD became sacramental wine of the ritus.
The Pranksters were ready to hit the road once more. The scene in La Honda was beginning to feel cooped up—both literally and figuratively (Quarnstrom says that the septic tank there had filled and sewage was backed up into the kitchen sink)—and there were too many Hell’s Angels hanging around, so that “one by one, the Pranksters living in La Honda began a Diaspora that brought me and a few others down the coast to Santa Cruz.”
By November of 1965, Quarnstrom, along with other Pranksters and associates (including the entire Kesey family, Babbs, Demma, Mountain Girl, Bevirt and his girlfriend Space Daisy) had moved into the run-down ranch house in Soquel that Babbs says he had first rented when he was relocating from San Juan Capistrano.
According to Wolfe, the Pranksters had been looking for a larger public venue in Santa Cruz to hold their embryonic Acid Test, but the “Pranksters were not the best mechanic at things like hiring a hall.” So the Spread was a last-minute fallback location.
Word of the party was passed through the likes of Hassler and Bevirt and Demma and Quarnstrom at the Hip Pocket. Wolfe asserts that writer and artist Norman Hartweg used some cue cards to make up signs (a fact disputed by others) to put up in the bookshop asking “Can You Pass the Acid Test?” A handbill advertising the event—replete with a single eye and a reference to the Warlocks and Babbs showed up on eBay several years ago (some dispute its authenticity as well), but since it’s the only surviving artifact of the event—no photos, no film, no audio tapes—I am holding on to its verity even if it was conjured after-the-fact. It’s all we have.
Roughly 50 people showed up during the evening. One of them, Carole Kettmann, a 16-year-old junior at Santa Cruz High School, had befriended Quarnstrom and others at the Hip Pocket and was one of those outside the Prankster inner-circle who attended the event. “I loved hanging out at the Hip Pocket,” she recalls. “People were always fun and interesting. They all had this great vibe. I felt the excitement.”
The Pranksters had set up a film projector and were showing sequences from the footage accumulated on their cross-country bus trip. Music was blasting, there was a light show—and there was LSD (which, it should be noted, was legal at the time). In Dennis McNally’s landmark history of the Dead, What a Long Strange Trip, he notes that Phil Lesh “would always recall the capsules they took that night, completely transparent except for the tiniest of scratches on the inner surface that marked the LSD that was their transport to another world. He spent much of the evening staring at the stars.” Kettmann remembers that “the acid was really good. It was pure.” Any other details from the night elude her—but she apparently passed the test.
Some people remember the Warlocks setting up in the living room. Others are not so sure. Lesh recalled trying to wrangle an electric guitar from Kesey. After staring at him long enough, Kesey eventually, albeit reluctantly, gave up the guitar. Bob Weir remembered staying close to Ginsberg and tripping out on whatever he had to say. In The Grateful Dead: Vanguard of a New Generation, Hank Harrison says that the music played that night wasn’t “rock and roll, just prankster music.” Garcia (soon to be dubbed “Captain Trips”) would tell Blair Jackson that he and the other Warlocks “plugged all our stuff in [at the Spread] and played for about a minute. Then we all freaked out. But we made a good impression on everybody in that minute, so we were invited to the next one.”
Boise, who was staying in his truck at the Spread, had made a large contraption called a Thunder Machine out of a 1958 Chevy that Quarnstrom had crashed. Boise apparently made several of these devices, which had been painted in psychedelic Day-Glo designs by acclaimed Santa Cruz artist Joe Lysowski (whose father worked as a cook at the wharf). The machines were of nondescript shape—a large glob of sheet metal—with wires strung tightly like a guitar, so that the machine itself, according to Quarnstrom, “could be pounded on, plucked, shouted into and climbed.”
Cassady rapped into a microphone; Ginsberg chanted. Of the party, Weir would later say, “It was actually better than realizing my dreams.”
At the end of the evening, according to Wolfe’s account, which is as reliable as any, at about 3 a.m., a “thing happened.” Those people who had come strictly for the party, the “beano” as Wolfe dubbed it, had split, leaving just the core group of those connected one way or another to the inner circle.
The two power forces among them, Kesey and Ginsberg, yin and yang, found themselves, figuratively and literally, on different sides of the room, with everyone who remained circled around “these two poles like on a magnet,” and the Kesey people pulled closer to the young, muscular novelist, and the Ginsberg people toward the older, long-haired poet—“the super-West and the super-East”—and suddenly the subject turned to the war raging in Vietnam. Wolfe goes on:
Kesey gives his theory of whole multitudes of people joining hands in a clump and walking away from the war. Ginsberg said all these things, these wars, were the result of misunderstandings. Nobody who was doing the fighting ever wanted to be doing it, and if only everybody could sit around in a friendly way and talk it out, they could get to the root of their misunderstanding and settle it—and then from the rear of the Kesey contingent came the voice of the only man in the room who had been within a thousand miles of the war, Babbs, saying, “Yes, it’s all so very obvious.”
It’s all so very obvious … How magical that comment seemed at that moment! The magical eighth hour of acid—how clear it all now was—Ginsberg had said it, Babbs, the warrior, had certified it, and it had all built to this, and suddenly everything was so … very clear.
And that is how the very First Acid Test, held at the Spread in Soquel—in the heart of Santa Cruz County—ended, not with a roar, but on a quiet magical moment. Something heavy had happened—you had to be there to experience it, to feel it, to grasp it—but like a pebble tossed into a quiet mountain lake, its ripples would be felt on distant shores for years and decades to come.
It hadn’t really been a fully public event—far from it. As Wolfe noted, “it didn’t really … reach out into the world”—it had been contained, and not all that different from parties thrown by the Pranksters and Warlocks in La Honda, but the happening in Soquel would serve as a test run, a prototype, for many more to come.
The Pranksters and the newly named Grateful Dead took their Acid Tests on the road immediately thereafter. The next one was a week later in San Jose—following a concert by the Rolling Stones at the San Jose Civic Auditorium—ensued in quick succession by similar events at Muir Beach, Palo Alto, Portland, and then, in mid-January, a three-day “Trips Festival” at the Longshoreman’s Hall in San Francisco that had been organized and promoted by Stewart Brand, later of Whole Earth Catalog fame.
At the door was Bill Graham, who, according to Mountain Girl, made sure that everyone who came in had paid for a ticket. When Garcia wanted to let friends in for free, Graham became unhinged. Garcia recalled that the only person who wasn’t high that day was Graham. As Graham liked to say, it wasn’t about the money—it was about the money. The commodification of the counterculture and getting high had begun.
There was one hitch to the Trips Festival. On the “Acid Test” day of the event, Kesey had to come incognito—he wore a space suit and helmet, while his voice blasted over the sound system—because he and Mountain Girl had been busted a few days earlier on a rooftop in San Francisco a second time for pot (he had just been sentenced to six months in county jail for his first offense, promising the judge that he was moving permanently to Santa Cruz). Now, he was being threatened with up to five years in prison. The Feds were out to get him. By January of 1966, Ken Kesey was viewed by the United States government to be a very dangerous man.
Shortly thereafter, Kesey faked his suicide and headed for Mexico (driven there by Boise). The FBI came to the Hip Pocket and the Spread looking for the outlaw author, but everyone played dumb. Many of the Pranksters followed Kesey down to Mazatlan later that year after Kesey had called Demma from Puerto Vallarta to tell him of his whereabouts. Not long after, Mountain Girl was placed on two-years probation, the Hip Pocket went bankrupt, Boise died at the age of 34 from congenital heart failure, the scene at the Spread broke up, and Kesey—having served out a plea-bargain jail sentence on lesser charges in San Mateo County—moved back to his home base in Oregon. And on Oct. 24, 1968—a week before the election of Richard Nixon as President of the United States—LSD was made illegal.
The party was over. Sort of. Rumor has it that the Grateful Dead played a few more gigs.
There’s a poem I love by Jack Spicer called “Imaginary Elegies: IV” that I thought a lot about while researching and conducting interviews for this story. It concludes:
Upon the old amusement pier I watch
The creeping darkness gather in the west.
Above the giant funhouse and the ghosts
I hear the seagulls call. They’re going west
Toward some great Catalina of a dream
Out where the poem ends.
But does it end?
The birds are still in flight. Believe the birds.
I do believe the birds. Stories do not end. Narratives do. Endings are the conceit of storytellers and morticians.
Earlier this week, as I was rereading The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, not far from where the Hip Pocket Bookstore opened its doors below Ron Boise’s two naked sculptures in the mid-1960s, I watched a group of young kids, the same age as many of those who staged and attended the First Acid Test 50 years ago, their necks bent downward and their eyes glued to electronic devices made at sweatshops in China, all utterly oblivious to the glories and the other human beings around them.
The scene at once disturbed and frightened me. I felt a little unnerved. I decided to go to the beach at Fourth Avenue, where I encountered a glorious autumn sunset, neon hues of orange and indigo shooting into the heavens. And there on the horizon, the birds were still in flight.
I thought of Kesey and Cassady and Garcia and Mountain Girl and all the Pranksters who struggled to break free from their era’s imposing conformities that shackled their lives. What I hoped for at that moment was that all of us—not only those kids I had just encountered downtown, but indeed all of us—could somehow find our way through those dangerous doors of perception and discover the inner Prankster that still lurks inside us all.•
Geoffrey Dunn’s most recent book is ‘Santa Cruz Is in the Heart: Volume II.’ He is the 2015 Santa Cruz County Artist of the Year.
Acid Test Golden Anniversary Events
Two special events will be held in Santa Cruz County this week to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of “The First Acid Test,” held at the Spread in Soquel on Sept. 27, 1965.
Lee Quarnstrom: When I Was a Dynamiter
Former San Jose Mercury columnist and Merry Prankster Lee Quarnstrom, a journalistic mainstay in Santa Cruz for the better part of 35 years, stages a Santa Cruz homecoming with a reading and book signing of his delightful memoir, When I Was a Dynamiter! Or How a Nice Catholic Boy Became a Merry Prankster, a Pornographer and a Bridegroom Seven Times. Many of the Merry Pranksters will be in attendance. 7 p.m, Thursday, Dec. 3, Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. 423-0900.
Acid Test Dedication/Concert with Slugs & Roses
Supervisor John Leopold will unveil two historical markers at the event commemorating the First Acid Test, the Hip Pocket Bookstore, the Warlocks (Grateful Dead), and Beat icon and author Neal Cassady. (Merry Prankster George Walker will present Neal Cassady’s hammer to his daughter Jami Cassady). “The foundation that was laid on that night in 1965 has helped build the architecture of the bohemian lifestyle that we still cherish in our community,” said Leopold. “It served as a beacon for several generations of artists, authors and musicians.” Local Grateful Dead cover band Slugs & Roses will perform. Many of the Merry Pranksters will be present including Walker, Ken Babbs, Carolyn Garcia (“Mountain Girl”), Lee Quarnstrom, George Walker, Roy Sebern, Linda Breen and Denise Kaufman (“Mary Microgram”). 8 p.m, Friday, Dec. 4, Don Quixote’s, 6275 Hwy 9, Felton. 335-2800.