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How the Warlocks Passed the Acid Tests

by Dean Budnick on December 04, 2015
In honor of the 50th anniversary of what is thought to be the first public performance by the Grateful Dead, today we're reposting our conversation with Ken Babbs...




Before they became known as the Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann and Pigpen gigged together as The Warlocks. Many of their formative improvisational experiences took place at The Acid Tests, a series of freeform, multimedia events staged by Ken Kesey, Ken Babbs and the Merry Pranksters.

As we begin our exploration of the band’s 50 year anniversary, it seemed fitting to discuss The Warlocks’ participation at the Acid Tests with Babbs. Although Kesey never completed his own memoir of this era before he passed away in 2001, Babbs is currently working on such a tome. He explains, “It’s not a novel, and it’s not a memoir. It is what you call a ‘burlesque,’ and the definition of a burlesque is ‘a historical occurrence embellished with inventions and exaggerations.’ This is perfect for me because it’s all about the adventures with Kesey, the Pranksters and our friends.” 

Can you describe your initial meeting with Jerry Garcia and the first time you saw The Warlocks?

In 1961 or ‘62, while I was in the Marine Corps flying helicopters in Vietnam, Kesey was living in Menlo Park [Calif.] on Perry Lane at this place that was sort of like a cluster of cottages. It was a bohemian- artistic kind of group, and down around the corner was this other big house called The Chateau and a guy named Alan Trist [who would later run Ice Nine, the Grateful Dead’s music publishing company] and some of the Grateful Dead guys lived there too—Jerry did and I’m not sure who else. The next year Kesey went back to Oregon, out in the woods and started writing Sometimes a Great Notion. But then he bought a place in La Honda up on the hills on the ridge between Palo Alto and the ocean out in the redwoods, and that’s where it all kind of started.

I got out of the Marine Corps in ‘64, and Kesey and I were talking about going back to New York City to go to the World’s Fair, and it was also the publication party for his book, Sometimes a Great Notion. By then it was a bunch of us hanging out together; people that were friends and all that, and have been part of stuff that we were doing, and they all wanted to go too. Obviously they couldn’t fit in the station wagon, so that’s when Kesey bought the bus, and we outfitted it with speakers on the top and bottom inside, microphones on the top and bottom, a Sony tape recorder that ran off a generator in the back and a big Air flex 16 millimeter professional movie camera with a 400-foot magazine. We were going to make a movie of the whole trip and we were getting away from writing because it was too much trouble with all that typing. [Laughs.] So we went to New York and back and started working on the movie and editing it.
All the Pranksters—all 14 of us—were living at Kesey’s place in La Honda. Then on Saturday nights we would show it, but it would get too crowded, messy and awful and we would have to clean up the next day. So we started renting these halls and we called it “The Acid Test: Can You Pass The Acid Test?”

The Warlocks were at the first ones. It wasn’t the first official Acid Test yet, but it was a Halloween party at my house in Soquel, right outside Santa Cruz in 1965. We were all outside, all the Pranksters and myself in a circle, rising about 6-10 feet off the ground, surveying the attitude and the altitude. Then we heard music coming from inside the house. At that time, the Pranksters were an actual band who played instruments—by then we had gone electric with Kesey on electric guitar. I played electric bass, Paula Sundsten (“Gretchen Fetchin”) was on electric piano and keyboard and George Walker was on the drums. Mike Hagen was also on backup electric guitar. So we went in there, and here they all were: All the guys in The Warlocks were playing our instruments, using our sound system, and our PA! 

So we dug that for a while, and then they played it out and we took over and spent the whole night doing that there. It was a little bit later when we started running the halls, and they came on with us to be part of the scene and play along with us. We set up in a place that was empty—they would set up on one end and we would set up on the other.

We showed the movies on the wall. Roy Sebern was probably one of the first ever to do a light show, which he developed. Sometimes they played, sometimes we played and sometimes we would play at the same time. We had movies going on all at the same time. Then there were two plastic trash cans in the middle of the floor with Kool Aid, and one trash can said, “For Kids: OK” and the other said, “Adults Only: No Kids.” We never knew or ever cared who did it, but somebody would fill the adult one with LSD.

One funny myth that has grown is that we were purveyors of LSD, and the bus trip was all about us going across the country and giving out LSD to everybody, but we never did that. We only used it ourselves. We never paid attention to where it was coming from or who was doing it. We did have one rule about the Acid Test—we said that everyone should stay until dawn because we didn’t want anybody running around out on the streets, acting loony and drawing attention.
So it just developed from that and then, at some point [November 1965], Jerry Garcia opened up a page [in a Funk & Wagnalls dictionary], stuck out his finger and from then on, they were the Grateful Dead.

Jerry Garcia said that part of the beauty of the Acid Tests was that the band could play or not play and it didn’t really matter. Either was acceptable and the band took a lot away from that in the long run.

Well yeah, because there were no stages. We would just set up on the floor, and of course, the audience was on the floor. There was a thing that really happened during that time where the barrier between the audience and the band was not there. A lot of times during those Acid Tests there would be a lot of people banging and playing on things; bringing their own noisemakers and all that, so it would be the whole place going. We had one Acid Test at the Fillmore where there was a stage, and the other place there was a stage was the Trips Festival. That was a three-day event, and we were one night—the Dead, and the Pranksters. We did our show there.

The only footage that I have seen from the Acid Tests focuses on Pipgen as a frontman. What are your memories of him?

Pigpen was a tremendous guy. I was lucky to have all these guys as friends first, and the ones that are still alive are still friends today, too. We could get together and not have all that stuff hanging on them [due to their popularity]. But Pigpen was free of that stuff early. He was really a remarkable guy as a musician—his voice and this knowledge of these R&B tunes with his dad being an R&B disc jockey, and also his ability with the harp and with the organ. The communication between him and Jerry was fantastic. This is what it was all about: These musicians weren’t just playing songs and each one just playing their part of the song. They were paying attention to each other and listening to each other, so where one was going, the other one would go with them. When Pigpen would be doing his thing, Jerry would be playing along with him—it was really those guying meshing and playing back and forth together, complementing each other musically. 

We were still filming when we were making the Acid Tests. We still had the camera and everything. This one Acid Test that we had in LA, we had the camera going and we almost did get all of Pigpen on that! We did the sound system ourselves and the mics and everything. We had a screw- up there when he was doing “King Bee” and a few other songs. You can hear him OK on the PA, but his voice wasn’t coming through into the board and into the tape recorder. All the others were, and that was really bad because if that didn’t happen we would have some dynamite tapes. Still the tapes we did get were really good and their playing was unique—you couldn’t describe it as a form, type or style. It had a little bit of country, a little bit of R&B and it had the trip-out. 

Jerry Garcia’s taste in literature seemed to be pretty close to your own. Can you talk about that side of Jerry or the other band members?

I would have to admit that Jerry was my closest friend of the band, and I would go to his house a lot and we spent a lot of time together talking about stuff. He was an all-around good guy. He liked literature, philosophy, religion, far-out-spacey stuff; he could get into any of it. The guy had a brilliant mind, and he liked to rap. We always had a good time and he would like to come on and goof. His tastes in books were similar to mine because we liked stuff that had a very good plot and a lot of imagination to it.

Jerry was on that line of freeform, off the wall, spontaneous eruption stuff that did not follow any script or require any figuring-out ahead of time. Kerouac really brought it to the forefront with On The Road, but he was inspired by Neal Cassady, who did it as an art form by talking. Kesey and I read that in ‘57 when we were seniors in college. We were thinking about doing some writing and it totally had influenced us because it is about having the ability to blow—just go and let it come. Cassady talked a lot about the lag, the one thirtieth of a second lag between the thought and the brain, and the notion with the pen and the typewriter to bring it to life—the notion of racecar driving was his metaphor for everything, because the reaction times of these drivers had to be so fast that they could lick the one thirtieth of a lag. Neal was the same way, in which he would talk without thinking ahead of time. Jerry was part of that in his own way.

Looking back on those performances by The Warlocks and the Grateful Dead, is there a moment that jumps out at you?

Well, the classic one I think about all the time is “Dark Star” in 1972 out on the Creamery Field Trip [8/27/72]. That was unbelievable; there will never be anything like that again. The day, the acid, the music, everything—the heat! The guitars were all warped. We shot a hell of a movie! When we went to go show it to them, they all bitched and said that their guitars were out of tune, and they did not want it out there. I was like, “Shit...” [Laughs.]

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