Ken Kesey hadn’t been able to rent a hall in San Jose, so he used the house of a friend in town nicknamed Big Nig. Unfortunately the house was too small for the event, as perhaps four hundred people arrived (though everyone was charged a dollar at Big Nig’s request). The Dead played on one side of the living room, while the Pranksters set up their equipment on the other side: speakers, micophones, tape loops, the Thunder Machine, and strobe lights. The result was a deafening chaos.
Per McNally, “Sara Garcia would remember the night as frenetic, with people milling around a terribly loud environment…the Dead playing in too small a room.” (1) Phil Lesh would also write, “Unfortunately the room was very small, so all the attendees were crammed into the same space as the band, and the crush of bodies together with the wind-tunnel sound and flashing projections turned the Test into a mind-numbing blur of noise, light, and heat. There was no way any one individual could be aware of everything going on in the place. It was a free-for-all.” (2)
The Rolling Stones were the coolest band around, sending young audiences into frenzies everywhere. The Dead themselves were playing lots of Stones covers, in fact had formed earlier that year mainly to copy the Stones. When the Stones had played San Francisco, Emmett Grogan (who would found the Diggers the next year) distributed a flyer saying the Rolling Stones were “the embodiment of everything we represent, a psychic evolution…the breaking up of old values.” (3)
It was no coincidence that the acid test came to San Jose the same night as the Rolling Stones. In August, the Pranksters had gone to see the Beatles at the Cow Palace, and Kesey had been very impressed by what happened to the audience; he’d hoped to invite the Beatles to a party at his place, but they never came. Tom Wolfe suggests Kesey’s plan for the Stones’ show: “He can see all the wound-up wired-up teeny freaks and assorted multitudes…pouring out still aquiver with ecstasy…all cocked and aimless with no flow to go off in…” The Pranksters were ready to capture that audience for their own freakout – “and what if the multitudes didn’t know where it was going to be until the last minute? Well, those who were meant to be there…they would get there.” (4) (But admittedly, “a lot of the kids the Pranksters had corralled coming out of the Rolling Stones show did not take LSD that night.”) (5)
There was some effort to bring some actual Stones to the acid test. McNally writes that “Sue Swanson, Connie Bonner, and Neal [Cassady] went off to ‘bring back the Stones.’ Unfortunately the girls rushed the stage in the general melee occasioned by Mick Jagger’s shirt coming unbuttoned, and were ejected.” (6)
No eyewitness account of the acid test mentions any Stones arriving, and even in the mayhem you’d think they’d be noticed. Yet, a story has spread that some Stones did attend the acid test. The San Jose Mercury News had an article in 2008 on local rock landmarks which mentioned the acid test house, mistakenly writing that per Bill Wyman’s autobiography, “Keith Richards and Brian Jones also stopped by the party.” (This was quoted by the Jerry’s Brokendown Palaces site, and also repeated elsewhere.)
Wyman actually wrote in his book Stone Alone: “After the San Jose show, which earned us a cool $18,000, Mick, Chrissie, Brian and Anita flew to San Diego. The rest of us returned to the San Jose hotel before going to a party. We rejoined Mick and Brian in San Diego next day and after a successful afternoon concert continued to Los Angeles, checking into the Beverly Wiltshire Hotel before the final concert of the tour… After the [Los Angeles] show some of the group went with Jack Nitzsche to visit the top session drummer Hal Blaine… It was that night, also, that Keith and Brian took LSD at a party given by the writer Ken Kesey and his followers.” (7)
So Wyman says nothing about any Stones going to the acid test; and he places the meeting between Kesey and some of the Stones a day later, in Los Angeles.
It is still possible that the unspecified “party” Wyman mentions in San Jose was the acid test. (I haven’t seen his Rolling With The Stones scrapbook, which may have more info.) But it’s hard to imagine any Stones slipping in incognito, especially among a crowd of kids who’d just seen their show. The Stones are absent from all the firsthand accounts of the acid test – Tom Wolfe's book doesn't mention any such encounter that I could find, nor does Phil Lesh’s book say a word about glimpsing a Stone. Wouldn’t someone who was there have remembered it?
Two actual Rolling Stones at an acid test would've blown everyone's minds - particularly the Dead’s. The idea of some of the Stones watching the Dead play in 1965, perhaps even covering some of the same songs the Stones had just played, is so surreal I had to investigate further.
But a little research uncovered multiple conflicting stories about just what took place. Most of our sources are treacherous: Kesey and the acid test, like a sixties shadow, slip from date to date, from city to city, in different books, leaving it uncertain whether anybody actually knows what happened.
The most standard story is that Keith Richards and Brian Jones attended an acid test at the end of the Stones’ tour. (Keith had been electrocuted onstage at the December 3 Sacramento show, but by the next day was apparently none the worse for wear. After December 4 in San Jose, December 5 was the last date of the tour: an afternoon show in San Diego, and an evening show in Los Angeles.)
For instance, one chronology states that on December 5, “Following the Los Angeles concert, Keith Richards and Brian Jones attend an Acid Test party by Ken Kesey and sample LSD.”
Another website changes the date and adds some more details: on December 4, "Keith Richards, Brian Jones, and Mick Jagger, alongside poet Allen Ginsberg, attended an acid test... Only Mick refrained from participating, but Jones and Richards quickly became converts."
(Ginsberg had hung out with Kesey’s group and attended the first acid test a week earlier, but I don’t know if he was at any later acid tests. In any case, no other source puts him with the Stones.)
Some books place the acid test (correctly) in San Jose on December 4. David Dalton’s book Rolling Stones is the earliest account I could find: “Brian and Keith got a taste of Electric Kool-aid at the second Acid Test party thrown by Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters after the [San Jose] concert.” (8)
Victor Bockris’ biography of Keith Richards states: “Wrote the author of Haight-Ashbury, Charles Perry, ‘When the Stones show ended leafleteers appeared out in front distributing hand-lettered sheets reading “Can you pass the acid test?” and giving an address. This was shrewd advertising, and this time the acid test drew about four hundred people.’ Keith and Brian attended Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters’ acid test party that night.” (9) (Perry had not actually mentioned anything about Keith & Brian.)
Scott Allen's extremely dubious book Aces Back to Back says that 12/4/65 was the first acid test, and invents a brand new story: “Before the Acid Test, Ken Kesey and some of the Merry Pranksters attended an afternoon concert by the Rolling Stones at the San Jose Civic Center. Prior to the evening show, Keith Richards and Brian Jones ran into Kesey and his crew outside the arena. After discussing Jimmy Reed's music to break the ice, the Pranksters offer the two some acid. During the Stones' late show, Jones and Richards take their maiden voyage on LSD.” (10)
Other books place the acid test in Los Angeles on December 5. For instance, Laura Jackson’s biography of Brian Jones: “The tour wound up in Los Angeles on 5 December. To celebrate the end Brian and Keith went off to an Acid Test party given by the writer Ken Kesey and his crowd. Needless to say, Brian passed the test as did Keith, which was to try out a man-made drug so new it had not yet been declared illegal…LSD, more commonly known as acid. That night he dropped acid and set his ever curious feet on a new and, this time, destructive path.” (11)
Philip Norman’s biography of Mick Jagger follows the same path: “On December 5, after the Stones played their final date of the tour at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, Brian and Keith attended one of Ken Kesey’s regular LSD parties, or acid tests, listened to Kesey’s sermon on the new consciousness and creativity it could unlock in them, and then tested it on themselves. For both, the experience fully lived up to expectations, and they urged Mick to try it without delay. But the cautious, health-conscious Mick…preferred to hold back awhile.” (12)
Christopher Anderson’s biography of Mick repeats the story: “Until now, Mick had resisted LSD; at a party thrown in LA by One From the Cuckoo’s Nest author Ken Kesey, Keith and Brian both dropped acid, but Mick declined. ‘He was afraid of losing control,’ Chrissie said, ‘and that’s the most important thing to him, more important than love or even money: control.’” (13)
Paul Trynka’s biography of Brian Jones adds a new twist: “…5 December, the final date of the Stones tour, which also inspired the first public Acid Test, run by Ken Kesey and his Pranksters – the first time a San Francisco R&B band, the Warlocks, performed under their new name the Grateful Dead. In the following weeks, stories filtered out that Brian had turned up for this crucial event, briefly appearing on stage with Jerry Garcia, as if to give the emerging counter-culture his blessing. It wasn’t true. ‘We did go to the Stones venue and pass out pamphlets,’ says Prankster Ken Boss, ‘but Brian showing up was just a myth.’ The myth would circulate for years, though, cementing Brian’s reputation as the Stone who was unafraid to venture into new psychic territory.” (14)
This is a rather bizarre story that I’d never heard; at least it doesn’t show up in any Dead books. I suppose it was the writer’s imagination? What’s more interesting is the quote from prankster “Ken Boss” – which could be either Ken Babbs or Kesey. Though the pseudonym doesn’t inspire confidence, Boss’s statement does sound accurate.
Trynka’s book also states that this wasn’t Brian Jones’ first time on acid – far from it. “He dropped his first tab on the way to a club on Sunset Boulevard on 16 May … ‘He said the whole ground was covered with snakes,’ recalls Bill Wyman. ‘He jumped along the pavement trying to avoid them.’ The snakes would become a leitmotif, says Marianne Faithfull… ‘[His] paranoiac condition worsened on acid. Everyone would be looning about, and Brian would be over in the corner, crumpled up.’” (15) Despite this, Brian immediately started taking acid regularly and urging everyone to try it.
Bill Wyman’s book Stone Alone confirms that Brian was indeed taking acid on May 16, 1965. The Stones’ car was crushed by fans as they tried to leave the Long Beach Civic Auditorium afternoon show that day: “Back in Los Angeles, unbelievably, we went straight to work in the evening, probably good therapy. We filmed four songs for a television show, and Brian and I later felt fresh enough to go out to the Action Club, where Brian eventually got up on stage and sat in with the band, playing harmonica. Brian’s behavior was bizarre that night and Kathy (West) Townsend, a girlfriend of mine at the time, recalls that he had been ‘dropping acid, running all over the Ambassador Hotel, jumping over snakes.’ I, too, remember Brian walking from the car to the entrance of the Action Club, saying the ground was covered with snakes; he proceeded to jump over the imaginary reptiles.” (16)
But did Brian’s acid appear out of nowhere? No! Wherever there’s acid, it seems, Kesey must be too. According to John McMillian's book Beatles vs. Stones: “On May 16, 1965, Ken Kesey's group, the Merry Pranksters...drove from San Francisco to Long Beach, where they partied with the Stones and plied Brian Jones with a fistful of acid.” (17)
Stephen Davis’s book Old Gods Almost Dead adds more detail: after the May 16 Long Beach show, “the Stones flew back to LA. Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters had driven down from Frisco to party with the Stones, and they gave Brian a load of acid… Brian took to acid like someone who’d found God. Tripping his brains out, stepping over hallucinatory snakes, he took his harmonica to the clubs along Sunset Strip and spent his nights jamming with any band that would let the dissolute, wide-eyed young rock star onstage. After dropping a few cubes of Orange Sunshine, Brian even disappeared for a few hours, causing a frantic search so the Stones could make their May 17 gig in San Diego. They were so late for the show that the Byrds began to play Stones songs…” (18)
(Davis gets a little carried away here. Wyman’s memoir says nothing about Brian disappearing: “In San Diego, our car broke down, making us thirty minutes late arriving at the theatre. The Byrds…had preceded us on several concerts, and now they had to stay on stage to keep the audience entertained until we arrived. We were amused to see that by the time we got to the stage, they had run through their entire repertoire and were playing Rolling Stones songs!”) (19)
Davis doesn’t rest with just one Kesey encounter. As well as the party in May, after the December 5 Los Angeles show, “Keith and Linda and Brian and Anita attended the second Acid Test run by the Merry Pranksters. …Brian was flying on acid all the time now.” (20)
In the end, we are left none the wiser. Did Kesey meet the Stones in May, or in December? In San Jose, or in Los Angeles? Or did he ever really meet them at all? The whole story of the Stones at an acid test is probably an urban legend! None of these books offer convincing sources for their tales, needless to say, as the facts seem to shift around and Kesey pops up in various places. In most cases I suspect the writers are just copying earlier Stones books, making up new details to add color to the story.
Wyman's account looks the most accurate to me – Stone Alone is a firsthand memoir, definitely taken from some kind of diary he kept at the time (though of course it's not the original unaltered diary). So if he writes that Kesey was at a party in Los Angeles on December 5, giving out acid to the Stones, that’s the best evidence we have. Not quite an acid test, but close.
Despite the multitude of books on the Rolling Stones, we’re still lacking a good biography of Ken Kesey. Tom Wolfe’s book is the most thorough account of Kesey’s activities at the time, but it shouldn’t be the last word. I haven’t seen any confirmation outside of Stones books that Kesey went down to LA to meet the Stones – Kesey did have friends in Los Angeles, but for all we know, it might not have been Kesey after all. Perhaps some aging Pranksters will remember and tell the story…
Keith Richards doesn’t specifically mention meeting Kesey in his memoir, which isn’t surprising in the blur. But he has some harsh words for Kesey’s legacy, referring to people (like himself) who kept taking acid despite bad trips:
“It was the idea of a boundary that had to be pushed. There was a bit of stupidity there as well. Wasn’t so good last time? Let’s try it again. What, are you chicken now? It was the Acid Test, Ken Kesey’s goddamn thing. It meant if you hadn’t been there you ain’t nowhere, which was really dumb. A lot of people felt obliged to take it even if they didn’t want to, if they wanted to stay and hang with the crowd. It was a gang thing… Acid made Brian feel he was one of an elite. Like the Acid Test. It was that cliquishness; he wanted to be a part of something, could never find something to be a part of. I don’t remember anybody else going about saying, ‘I’ve taken acid.’ But Brian saw it as a sort of Congressional Medal of Honor. And then he’d come on like, ‘You wouldn’t know, man. I’ve been tripping.’ …It was the typical drug thing, that they think they’re somebody special. It’s the head club. You’d meet people who’d say, ‘Are you a head?’ as if it conferred some special status. People who were stoned on something you hadn’t taken. Their elitism was total bullshit. Ken Kesey’s got a lot to answer for.” (21)
- Dennis McNally, Long Strange Trip, p.113
- Phil Lesh, Searching for the Sound, p.65
- John McMillian, Beatles vs. Stones, p.158
- Tom Wolfe, Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, p.210
- Wolfe, p.215
- McNally, p.112
- Wyman, Stone Alone, p.358
- David Dalton, Rolling Stones, p.59
- Victor Bockris, Keith Richards, p.100
- Scott Allen, Aces Back to Back, p.50
- Laura Jackson, Brian Jones, p.143
- Philip Norman, Mick Jagger, p.193
- Christopher Anderson, Mick, p.75
- Paul Trynka, Brian Jones, p.176
- Trynka, p.155
- Wyman, p.320
- McMillian, p.159
- Stephen Davis, Old Gods Almost Dead, p.124-5
- Wyman, p.120
- Davis, p.149
- Keith Richards, Life, p.192, 206