Jun 30, 2017

February 6, 1966: Acid Test, Unitarian Church, Northridge CA


Sunday night, February 6th, the Acid Test began in L.A. at the Valley Unitarian Church. Inspired initially by novelist Ken Kesey, it amounts to a revolutionary concept of the function of the theatre and the relationship of individuals in a society.
Kesey was not here; he has ridden into the hills and will return again when his people call "All free!" As it is, although his group had only been here a day, police were hunting down its distinctive bus under orders to roust it wherever it was found. However, I do not get the impression that Kesey's group is dependent upon any one person to do its job nor that it's distracted by persecution.
When I asked Lee Quarnstron, one of the central group, if they began the performance with any set format, he answered, "'Freak freely' is our motto; as long as you hurt no one. We groove together. To repeat any procedure or method is to play an old game. We want to play new games."
Their first performance in L.A. was indicative of their methods. The floor of the room was littered with musical instruments, creatively dressed people, tape recorders, movie projectors, pieces of colored material... The walls and ceiling relentlessly changed color and images; my eyes were caressed and assaulted by random juxtapositions of shapes and colors. It appeared to be an integrated aesthetic fantasy controlled by some masterly yet casual hand.
Then two people, obviously not performers, rose and began playing with a large sheet of cellophane during a particularly beautiful musical session. By really digging what they were doing, they entertained all who watched. Events were moving in harmony despite their seemingly random development. The experience demanded each person to add honestly and creatively. By forsaking your anxieties and bullshit, you surrender yourself to the room and achieve a height of involvement equal to the sum total of all exposed potential in it.
Poet Neil Cassidy went out on an hour's worth of fascinating word salad over a mike while interferometric Del Close began casting magical and ineffable colors onto a wall, directed only by his spontaneous explorations of what he was doing. Hugh Romney began a monologue like an incantation while watching a film being shown on another section of wall. Dick Webster beat his gongs whenever some musician's sound enticed him; musicians tastefully tried musical possibilities until all were in the same place at once. A girl ran in a circle, stopping sporadically to dance enchantingly. Free Press editor Art Kunkin rambled over to a still projector and jiggled the image on the opposite wall for five minutes before I realized he wasn't part of the performing group.
Frightening, insane, chaotic? I suppose the answer depends on where you're at. To me, what went down was a recapture of an experience Man hasn't given himself the simple luxury of since he left his cave. It was a unification which insisted on confident naturalness. There were no distinctions between roles and functions and identities - only good people tripping out on their mutual creative expression and free exultation. I'm sure someone must get his head in a bad place during one of these performances, but it would be impossible to keep it there among such good vibrations.
Quarnstron later told me that all these experiences will ultimately be organized into a movie. The show I came to watch is a show in which I am a performer. To be passive in this experience - as in any other - is to deny myself my own capability.
The Acid Test will be here about two weeks and is currently seeking a place to live, work, perform. The central group works all day on their maze of tapes and films and plays all night to radiate epiphanies. The Free Press and your local grapevine will let you know where and when the next Acid Test will be.
Ralph Gleason, in San Francisco (where the group successfully performed for some three months) has described their efforts with Dylan's lines about Mr. Jones: "Something is happening here, but you don't know what it is." Quarnstron describes them in the paraphrase, "THIS is what's happening here." The difference in tone is crucial: the Acid Test warmly welcomes all who come to it cleanly, clearly, totally. Their Yes is open and unqualified; they say No only to negatives.
Is this a nihilistic Hedonism or a new attempt to achieve fulfillment in a world of increasingly maniacal rigidity? I suppose the answer depends on how up-tight you are, how certain you are of your own validity and stature.

(by Paul Jay Robbins, from the "Happenings" column, Los Angeles Free Press, 11 February 1966)

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  1. I've always wondered what Paul Sawyer's regular congregation made of this event taking over their Sunday service. It must have tested their open-mindedness.

    1. Since it took place at night, it might not have interrupted regular services, and I wonder how much of the congregation participated. Sawyer was known to be an open-minded reverend, and the church held other unorthodox events as well.
      From the book The Visionary State:
      "Sawyer was caught up in Los Angeles's thriving arts and culture scene, and he wanted the Onion's 'church in the round' to open its doors to the innovative theatrical and musical performances that he believed fleshed out the life of the spirit. Under his exuberant guidance, the Onion hosted jazz services, absurdist plays, and poetry readings by the likes of Robert Duncan, the Bay Area's Gnostic modernist...
      Sawyer had met Kesey at a Unitarian convention held the previous year at Asilomar, a lovely state park in Monterey. The theme of the conference was 'Shaking the Foundations,' and Sawyer thought Kesey, who at one point stomped and burned an American flag, shook them pretty well. (Other ministers agreed, and were not amused.) When the Pranksters [came to LA] in early 1966, Ken Babbs...called Sawyer up on the spur of the moment. Without informing his congregation, Sawyer agreed to host [the acid test]."
      (Unfortunately I couldn't read the next page, which might have more on the event.)

      According to one account, "It was not that strange of a request for the facility, because the church leaned heavily to the left, and was a gathering place for anti-war rallies and activist forums... Sawyer said it would be okay as long as LSD wasn’t passed out to the crowd. This request was ignored and acid was served as dessert following an opening meal’s main course, which was a Prankster concoction known as Pineapple Chili."

      Sawyer was committed to social-justice causes, and remained friends for years with Paul Krassner and Wavy Gravy.

  2. There's no mention of the Dead here, but I've posted it since it's the longest contemporary (pre-Tom Wolfe) description of an Acid Test that I've seen.
    The LA Free Press was an underground paper with surprisingly in-depth reporting. One striking thing here (and in the later LA Free Press article I've posted) is that there's no mention of LSD. Unless mass public drug use was considered not worthy of note, this must be intentional - Ralph Gleason had also left out LSD in his acid test report, so I'm guessing some journalists courteously decided not to bring it up in public. Those 'in the know' would know what an "Acid Test" was. (On the other hand, when Life magazine sent photographer Lawrence Schiller to cover the acid tests, all they cared about was the LSD use. Schiller recalled, "Everybody who went knew they were going to drop acid there or knew there was acid there.")
    Granted, the Pranksters themselves may have kept coy. Ken Babbs later claimed, "We never passed out acid to anybody. It was strictly a personal thing. In those days it was legal. Where it came from, I don’t know. We didn’t have access to any of that kind of stuff. We’d get stuff once in a while and go turn on ourselves... It’s not like we didn’t know people were taking acid. We weren’t the supplier, though. The raison d’ĂȘtre of the Acid Tests was not to pass out acid and get people high; that was just something people did." Which sounds bogus to me; but it's possible the Pranksters kept up a layer of deniability while they were serving "electric Kool-Aid" to one and all.

    The LA Weekly reported in 2004: "Reverend Paul Sawyer offered to let the Pranksters stage their first L.A. Acid Test at his Unitarian Universalist Church in North Hills. His only requirement was that LSD not be served, since his congregation would be participating. 'I was kind of concerned that the thing would become a publicity ploy,' he says... Sawyer met Kesey in 1965 at San Francisco State University, where Kesey was giving a speech about Sometimes a Great Notion. Afterward, Kesey invited Sawyer, his wife and kids up to La Honda for a ride on the bus... Later that year, Sawyer and Kesey were invited to speak at Asilomar, a new-age conference center."

    Robbins, reporting on the first LA acid test, was firmly in favor of the event, and this is a very positive review. In Kesey's absence, no one else was well-known yet, but a few notables are named in the article, and Lee Quarnstrom is quoted on the acid test policy. Neal Cassady is called "a poet" rapping to the crowd.
    It's mentioned that Kesey's group is making a film (they're not called the Pranksters here), and that the police are hassling them to little effect. "The Acid Test will be here about two weeks," it's said - the Pranksters were able to put on a few more LA acid tests before drifting away at the end of March in a cloud of paranoia.

    There's no indication of a single band playing; rather, the impression is that instruments were all over and anyone could play. There's references to "a particularly beautiful musical session," and "musicians tastefully [trying] musical possibilities until all were in the same place at once" - the impression is that all who came could join in and perform, which as Robbins emphasizes, was the point. (The SF Chronicle reported of the Fillmore acid test, "On stage there was a rock group; anybody could play with them. It was a kind of social jam session.")
    I've noticed that nowhere is there any memory of the Dead playing at this acid test, and it's odd that Robbins doesn't mention a rock group. Possibly they did play, but it could be one of the tests where they didn't feel like playing.