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One Legendary Party: The Hell’s Angels and the Merry Pranksters Meet at Kesey’s

7 Jul
Hell's Angels Group with Jackets

Guess who’s coming to dinner.
Image via nostalgiaonwheels.blogspot.com


WARNING: This post contains descriptions of alleged sexual violence. 

For the last six years or so, one party has been haunting me. It wasn’t any soiree I’d attended—this party took place on Saturday August 7, 1965 at Ken Kesey’s LSD-laced ranch in La Honda, California. It was a fete that epitomized the West Coast psychedelic movement’s embrace of drugs, music, and above all, the outlaw lifestyle. What made this party special wasn’t its mix of intellectuals—poet Allen Ginsberg and Harvard psychology professor Richard Alpert (aka Baba Ram Dass) among them—and countercultural icons such as Hunter S. Thompson and Neal Cassady; it was the 15-foot-long, red white and blue sign strung up outside the ranch: THE MERRY PRANKSTERS WELCOME THE HELL’S ANGELS. Continue reading

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Clunk Clunk Moo: Dilemmas of 21st Century Protest

16 Apr
Occupy Wall Street visitors check out books at the People's Library in Zuccotti Park, October 2011 Image taken by Emily Wachowiak

Visitors check out books at the People’s Library in Zuccotti Park, October 2011
Image taken by Emily Wachowiak


My mom took me to my first protest at age 15—a reading of Lysistrata at Chicago’s Heartland Café. This was early in 2003, before the invasion of Iraq. I ate some vegan pastry, laughed at an ancient Greek sex comedy, and listened to middle-aged folks talk past each other in the post-play discussion. I walked out with a “Not in My Name” button I hoped would counteract the one I’d seen around school that read “Hug a troop, not a tree, hippie!”

A few weeks later, bombs lit up the skies over Baghdad as spring lighting flashed over my suburb.

As an adult, I’ve marched and chanted in only a handful of Chicago protests, mostly anti-gun and pro-union affairs over the last two years. Each experience has both moved and unsettled me. I’ve born witness to the stories of old union activists and young gun-massacre survivors, their words stinging me to my core. But as I looked over the mostly middle-aged and elderly crowds, I also felt I was bearing witness to a dying tradition. Continue reading

Bringing it All Back Home II: Mapping Cultural Waves

13 Apr

This post contains part XII (the final chapter!) of my senior capstone paper, Speed Limits: The Formation, Dissemination, and Dissolution of the Counterculture in American Literature 1951-1972. Click here to view a full list of works cited. Click here to view all sections of the paper.

A protester tries out flower power at an anti-war protest at the Pentagon, 1967. Image from wikipedia.com

A protester harnesses flower power at an anti-war protest at the Pentagon, 1967.
Image from wikipedia.com


There are lessons to be learned from the ultimate demise of the counterculture, precipitated by its constant push to extremity and its marginalization of moderate voices in favor of calls for radical social change. By constantly pushing boundaries in search of IT, those seeking an authentic, meaningful way of life fell victim to the same material excess they had tried to avoid. Although Kimball characterizes sex, drugs, and rock & roll as the counterculture’s “chief weapons against the obligations of traditional culture,” they were merely a symptom of a middle-class rebellion against its own limited existence (Kimball 7). Even by pushing social boundaries, counterculturalists found that they could not avoid the obligations of traditional culture for very long. When striving for social or political change, it is important to remember the value of diverse (even conflicting) opinions and of freedom tempered by moderation. The counterculture’s failure to achieve many of its political goals illustrates the dangers of polarizing rhetoric and extremity.

The American political climate is often compared to a pendulum, swinging left to right over time. The period after WWII represented a monumental swing to the left—in social attitudes more than the political establishment. The reasons for political failure are obvious; Suri notes the irony of the fact that “the political moderation that supported stability and prosperity came under attack for its very moderation” (Suri 53). As the counterculture movement migrated from Beat coffee shops to massive street demonstrations, violence became an increasingly frequent component of demands for domestic social change and peace abroad (case in point: the Weather Underground). Suri notes that countercultural groups in the early 1970s “treated violence as a means for proving cultural authenticity in an international environment filled with lies” (60). And yet it seems that moderation won out in the end; “countercultural disorder created a perceived ‘emergency’” to the point where citizens were easily galvanized to react against this disorder by any political party promising “law and order” (62). The militarization of the counterculture is an example of what happens when the political pendulum reaches the limits of its leftward shift, precipitating a rightward swing. The attempt at authentic experience that began with speed, grass, and jazz in the 1950s snowballed into overindulgent drug use and violent protests during the 1960s. This contributed to a loss of faith in the movement in the eyes of mainstream America—who had taken much culturally from this movement, only to betray its values ultimately in favor of its own security. Continue reading

Bringing it All Back Home I: Counterculture, Commodified

10 Apr

This post contains part XI of my senior capstone paper, Speed Limits: The Formation, Dissemination, and Dissolution of the Counterculture in American Literature 1951-1972. Click here to view a full list of works cited. Click here to view all sections of the paper.

Vintage Pepsi ad showing the absorption of countercultural symbols within the mainstream Image from kathykavan.com

Vintage Pepsi ad showing the absorption of countercultural symbols within the mainstream
Image from kathykavan.com


The counterculture of the fifties and sixties was not as revolutionary as it believed itself to be. Though some artists of the counterculture “may wish to imagine themselves exempt from the marketplace,” the success of their literary endeavors is actually the product of market forces (Adams 80). The counterculture had been at least partially commodified all along, operating easily within mainstream capitalist and patriarchal conventions, despite its antiauthoritarian stance. “The international counterculture was [sic] complicit in many of the elements of society it criticized,” claims Suri; despite its revolutionary rhetoric, the essential demands of the counterculture movement dating back to the Beats was “rapid and personal reform within existing social and political structures” (Suri 48, emphasis mine). Because these goals were in some sense achieved as the counterculture entered the mainstream, the counterculture itself “soon became a commodified touchstone of prosperity” (48). While the Beats were “dedicated to the rejection of popular culture,” their movement came to “further [the] development of popular culture” through their mainstream success and influence on sixties youths (Elteren 75, 85).

The success of the counterculture certainly depended on “the very capitalist structures that it often purported to despise,” but it is an oversimplification to blame the degradation of the movement on “corrupting corporations” who fed on “innocent artists” (Gair 2, 6). It is clear that despite the “free love” message of the hippie movement, everyone was in fact trying to sell something—their art, their music, their ideas, their interpretations of authenticity. “Christ, everybody and his brother has a manifesto,” Wolfe writes in Electric Kool-Aid, “Everybody has his own typewriters and mimeograph machines and they’re all cranking away like mad and fuming over each other’s mistranslations of the Message” (Wolfe 377). This image of mass production and consumption of ideas by the counterculture itself runs counter to the rejection of capitalism and consumerism advocated by both the Beats and hippies. While the counterculture was capitalizing on its growing media audience (signing hippie bands to major labels, granting TV interviews, organizing for-profit Acid Tests), major corporations were using psychedelic imagery, language, and music to sell products ranging from blue jeans to soda pop. To quote Herbert Marcuse, “The music of the soul is also the music of salesmanship” (Gair 5). Continue reading

Right on Paradise: The American Dream at the End of the Road

6 Apr

This post contains part X of my senior capstone paper, Speed Limits: The Formation, Dissemination, and Dissolution of the Counterculture in American Literature 1951-1972. Click here to view a full list of works cited. Click here to view all sections of the paper.

Thompson finally locates the American Dream.Image from cosmicsmudge.com

Thompson finally locates the American Dream.
Image from cosmicsmudge.com


In many respects, Gonzo journalism embodies and embraces the final step in the mainstream absorption (and subsequent commodification) of countercultural beliefs. Gonzo journalism depicts a grotesque web of countercultural immorality; nonetheless, we as readers enjoy vicarious participation in Thompson’s crime sprees, sprees which are actually financed by major media outlets, including Sports Illustrated and Rolling Stone magazine.[18] While sitting poolside at a Beverly Hills hotel, Thompson receives a call from “some total stranger in New York, telling me to go to Las Vegas[,] expenses be damned” and then “another total stranger” hands him “$300 raw cash for no reason at all” (11). Thompson chalks this up to “Free Enterprise. The American Dream. […] Do it now: pure Gonzo journalism” (12).

Kerouac himself attempted to “test the American dream by trying to pin down its promise of unlimited freedom by following the example of Dean Moriarty” (Charters xxi). Kesey strove to “claim whatever he can rightly get by being man enough to take it” because there “is no limit to the American trip” (Wolfe 37, 112). But driving on the outskirts of Las Vegas in 1972, Thompson seems to have finally nailed down the exact location of the American Dream, what the counterculturalists had been looking for all along—“Big black building, right on Paradise: twenty-four-hour-a-day violence, drugs”—yes, unlimited freedom and consumption (Thompson 167). In a seven-page chapter towards the end of Fear and Loathing, Thompson’s narrative reporting breaks down and we are left with an editor’s note introducing us to a “verbatim” tape recording of Thompson and his attorney as they question some locals on the whereabouts of “the American Dream” (161, 165). Through this, they are led to a seedy joint called the “Old Psychiatrist’s Club” that had “burned down about three years ago” (168). This section encapsulates what Thompson believes to be the empty promise of the American Dream, one that is plagued by corruption and sinister greed. Continue reading

No Mercy: Gonzo Journalism on a Failed Revolution

4 Apr

This post contains part IX of my senior capstone paper, Speed Limits: The Formation, Dissemination, and Dissolution of the Counterculture in American Literature 1951-1972. Click here to view a full list of works cited. Click here to view all sections of the paper.

Ralph Steadman's take on Hunter ThompsonImage from Examiner.com

Ralph Steadman’s take on Thompson
Image from Examiner.com


Thompson’s writing exposes the inherent hypocrisies of the counterculture movement and helps explain why, only four years after the hope and rage of 1968, the movement had become a washed-up mockery of itself—and inadvertently paved the way for a conservative revolution. Suri points out that “the counterculture’s mainstream roots raised expectations for extensive political reform, but those expectations were ultimately a victim of the coercive leverage exerted by the figures who dominated the mainstream […] Rapid political change required something much more akin to social revolution than what the international counterculture could offer” (Suri 53). The leaders of the counterculture ended up as corrupt and manipulative as the mainstream political figures they railed against—instead of coercing followers into racist status-quos and unnecessary war, they instead lead them into extreme indulgence and a near-deadly narcissism.

Thompson expresses disappointment with the so-called leaders of the counterculture movement, especially the great Chief himself, Ken Kesey: “Tune in, freak out, get beaten. It’s all in Kesey’s Bible. . . . The Far Side of Reality” (Thompson 89). Throughout Fear and Loathing Thompson provides an echo to the Pranksters’ final refrain—“WE BLEW IT!”—and adds to the mix his own interpretation of the consequences. After the worldwide civil unrest of 1968, government leaders “rebuilt their authority around commitments to restore rationality, reasonableness, and domestic peace” (Suri 63). Needless to say, calls for “law and order” were immensely appealing to the “silent majority” of Nixon voters who lived in dread of the violent chaos that the countercultural movement had come to represent. Thompson writes from a place of disillusionment as he grapples with the fact that the movement he once believed in has been left flailing and leaderless while a conservative climate of fear and loathing had taken hold of America. Continue reading

The Undisguised Menace: Participation as Protest

2 Apr

This post contains part VIII of my senior capstone paper, Speed Limits: The Formation, Dissemination, and Dissolution of the Counterculture in American Literature 1951-1972. Click here to view a full list of works cited. Click here to view all sections of the paper.

The counterculture in its death throesImage from Fark.com

The counterculture in its death throes
Image from Fark.com


One individual who was profoundly influenced by the traumatic downfall of the hippie movement—crystallized by such tragic events as the 1968 Democratic National Convention and Kent State—was Hunter S. Thompson. He describes the general cultural malaise of the early 1970s in this way:

But what is sane? Especially here in “our own country”—in this doomstruck era of Nixon. We are all wired into a survival trip now. No more of the speed that fueled the Sixties. Uppers are going out of style. This was the fatal flaw in Tim Leary’s trip. He crashed around America selling “consciousness expansion” without ever giving a thought to the grim meat-hook realities that were lying in wait for all the people who took him too seriously. (Thompson 178).

Thompson’s writing gives voice to a segment of the counterculture that was left completely disillusioned and disaffected at the end of the sixties. He also represents a unique manifestation of the outlaw figure in popular culture; Hunter Thompson not only embraces the outlaw lifestyle of restlessness, lawlessness, and drugs, but he seems to have built his entire career on those very premises.

However, Thompson’s illegal exploits do not relegate him to the outskirts of society like Dean Moriarty or to exile like Ken Kesey. Thompson’s popular success as a countercultural, outlaw journalist comes to signify the final step in American society’s absorption of countercultural ideals. The countercultural drive for authenticity had irreversibly changed American culture, but the results were far stranger than anyone could have imagined. At the time of its serial publication in Rolling Stone magazine in 1971, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas simultaneously railed against mainstream culture and counterculture as it exposed the wretched consequences of both cultures’ excesses and hypocrisies. Continue reading