The High Price of a Degree in LSD

September 12th, 2012

When the bidding closed on September 16, 2012, 7:21pm, a torn and tattered piece of paper from 1966, measuring 8½ by 11 inches, sold for $24,255 at the Heart of Rock and Roll Poster Auction. Obviously, this was no ordinary piece of paper. In fact, it’s one of the most important documents of the psychedelic ’60s—Mountain Girl’s Acid Test graduation diploma.

In case that last sentence leaves you scratching your head, the Acid Tests were a series of parties held in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, and Portland, Oregon, between the falls of 1965 and ’66. The brainchild of novelist Ken Kesey (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” 1962; “Sometimes a Great Notion,” 1964) and a group of his friends and acolytes known as the Merry Pranksters, these anarchic events featured music by a new band called the Grateful Dead, experimental light shows, and the liberal consumption of LSD, which Kesey was introduced to in 1959 when he participated in CIA-funded experiments exploring the effects of various psychotropic compounds on human guinea pigs.

When rumors circulated that Kesey planned to put LSD in the water supply of Winterland, Graham pulled the plug.

Some of the earliest flyers produced to advertise these events asked, “Can You Pass the Acid Test?” By October of 1966, on Halloween no less, it was finally time to answer that question and hand out the diplomas. By all rights, Mountain Girl, née Carolyn Adams, should have been there. After all, she was Kesey’s mistress/girlfriend, had been in on the tests from the beginning, had fled to Mexico with Kesey to help him evade drug charges (for marijuana; LSD was still legal at the time), and had given birth to Kesey’s daughter, Sunshine.

In short, there were probably a lot of reasons in 1966 why Mountain Girl, now a new mom, would want to leave Kesey, but the fact that she did so for an even more influential figure from the 1960s, the Dead’s lead guitarist and singer, Jerry Garcia, makes her something of a legend, too. According to an article on Mountain Girl published in the San Francisco Examiner in 1997, Mountain Girl and Garcia had only connected that October, at an Acid Test held at San Francisco State University. By the time Kesey’s final graduation-themed Test rolled around later that month, neither she nor the band which had been so much a part of the Tests would be present for the ceremony.

This show, whose poster was created by a Hells Angel and Merry Prankster who went by the name Gut, was canceled by rock promoter Bill Graham.

This show, whose poster was created by a Hells Angel and Merry Prankster who went by the name Gut, was canceled by rock promoter Bill Graham.

The circumstances leading up to the graduation have been well documented, by Tom Wolfe in his 1968 novel “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” and by the first salaried employee of Rolling Stone magazine, Charles Perry, whose 1984 “The Haight-Ashbury: A History” stands as a definitive chronicle of the late-1960s San Francisco scene. Kesey had been working with rock-promoter Bill Graham to host his graduation ceremony at the Winterland Arena. The Grateful Dead would be the headliners, with support from a group of former Stanford University students called the Anonymous Artists of America.

But Graham was worried about Kesey’s increasingly erratic behavior. When rumors circulated that Kesey planned to put LSD in the water supply of Winterland, or maybe coat every surface of the arena with the drug so that people attending the California Democratic Convention, scheduled for the following day, would all get dosed, Graham pulled the plug on the event. By then, though, the Grateful Dead had committed to playing a show called the Dance of Death Costume Ball at California Hall, with folk singer Mimi Farina and Quicksilver Messenger Service as the opening acts.

Kesey hastily relocated the graduation ceremony to a dance company’s warehouse on Harriet Street in San Francisco. Attended mostly by Merry Pranksters and a few members of the press, including, inexplicably, representatives from Vogue and Women’s Wear Daily, Kesey gave a rambling commencement address to his assembled family and friends. He urged them to “move on” beyond the cycle of getting stoned and going to rock ’n’ roll dances all the time. “The class motto should be Cleanliness Is Next,” he said. “It’s time we did something with our experience.” Then, Neal Cassady, the main character in Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” and the key link between the Beats and the Hippies, handed out the diplomas, which had been hand-lettered by an artist named Paul Foster.

The Dance of Death Costume Ball was held on the same night as the acid test graduation ceremony in 1966.

The Dance of Death Costume Ball was held on the same night as the acid test graduation ceremony in 1966.

So how did Mountain Girl get her diploma? According to Grant McKinnon, manager of S.F. Rock Posters in San Francisco, which listed the diploma in the 2012 auction, Mountain Girl and members of the Grateful Dead and their entourage were given their diplomas a few days later. Even though they had bailed on the graduation ceremony, they were still considered graduates—no hard feelings. As for Mountain Girl, she took Kesey’s advice about moving on by moving in with Jerry Garcia at 710 Ashbury Street. The couple had two children together and eventually married, but that’s another story…

18 comments so far

  1. David Sholts Says:

    Tom Wolfe’s book “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” isn’t a novel, it’s a reliable account of real events that happens to be highly entertaining.

  2. Wayward Bill Says:

    “Cleanliness Is Next!” Classic Kesey.
    How clean does it look from above Ken?
    Peace, Pot, Politics,
    Wayward Bill
    Chairman, US Marijuana Party

  3. Simon Babbs Says:

    Wolfe’s Book is not real events as they happened. Why you “think” that is just stupid… For one, he hung out with the pranksters for only a few weeks and they told him stories of the trip. Second hand stories that are kind of based on reality of the absurd..

  4. Catriona Watson Says:

    Hank Harrison’s books (Google him) are far more definitive and they take you there, all of the other books are journalistic in style and have basic information available anywhere especially these days…

  5. robin ade Says:

    Good history – does anyone have news of Paul Foster, Salty the musical instrument maker, Steve who became a muslim in Herat in 66? I knew them on Burgazada island, Istanbul that year

  6. Shady Backflash Says:

    MG’s Acid Test diploma is an artifact, no doubt! She also has a story about giving an Acid Test diploma to Albert Hofmann shortly before he passed.

    Here’s a similar story with an image of Hofmann holding up the diploma:

    Charles Perry’s “Haight-Ashbury: A History” is one of the best histories of the neighborhood and, by extension, the influence of the Haight on the rest of the counter-culture. Thanks for giving it a mention! Alas, it’s also out of print, so people have to scour used book stores and online sites to find a copy.

    Paul Foster, unfortunately, passed away in 2003. Here’s a link from Merry Prankster Ken Babbs’ web site with some obituary info:

  7. Ned Farn Says:

    I can only laugh at the prices of this material-esp the poster with occupy wall street–the hippies are the”one percenters”!

  8. Old Hippie Says:

    Has nobody else noticed that this article was written 4 days before the auction?

    Ben Marks is clearly a time traveler.

  9. Kyle Says:

    A disgusting representation of how the 1960’s hippy cowardly “counterculture” has pervaded modern American society. The impact of the hippies is now taught in US history books, patently ignoring any other viewpoint but absolute opposition to the US involvement in Vietnam. We canonize Ken Kesey and Jack Kerouac and write off as anachronisms and criminals people like General Westmoreland, Malcom X, Huey Newton and Sonny Barger.

  10. Johnnyskidmarks Says:

    Kyle, your anger towrds the hippies is misdirected. It was the well documented CIA experiments on US citizens that caused the counter culture movement you are so offended by.

  11. John Ramsey Says:

    It’s a good thing people had the foresight to document the ‘Acid Test’ days in film,sound & print because I doubt if many of the survivors of those involved can remember much about what went on.

  12. Deva Singh Says:

    Ok you people. quit taking sides already. Kyle… We’re all light. yes Light. so enjoy your story, or your trip. but don’t take it for real. ;-)

  13. Laura Foster Says:

    The artist, Paul Foster, was my husband for 25 years. He drew the Can You Pass the Acid Test poster and the diplomas. Quite a prank that Norman Hartweg would reprint them in the 80’s and sign them, and that Zane Kesey would go along with the false accreditation, though it takes no art expert to identify Paul’s black and white pen cartoon style. Contact his daughter Euphoria Marie in Tacoma is you want some authentic Paul Foster art. Pranksters indeed!

  14. Wavy Davy Says:

    Kesey said about Tom Wolfe.’ Tom Wolfe is the shit that sinks to the bottom,Hunter Thompson is the cream that floats to the top’ in other words Thompson lived it and Wolfe didn’t.I still enjoyed reading both authors.

  15. Lataunes Zolar Says:

    My father has passed away now, but he had told me that he was walking down an industrial type street in San Francisco and a man opened a door to one of the buildings, grabbed him and said, “You’re it!” What my dad described was so vivid and of course it was his first Acid trip. He referred to it as the acid test. However, I haven’t read anything that describes someone being pulled off the street and turned on. Anyone… ring a bell? I have searched many photos and movie reels, but can’t positively place him there. He never read the books mentioned here and never used the internet. I just wish I had a photo or something that places him with the group.

    I was born in 1968. Our family resided in a commune in Northern California until 1980. I am doing research. Perhaps, someone here knows or met my father “George Willson” and perhaps met him at the Test???

  16. Zane Kesey Says:

    I don’t know who started saying the posters were created by Norm Hartwig, it was very established in print…
    BUT I am the first I know to say to poster collectors that it looked like Paul’s art to me, and I continue to. But that is just my opinion…I let the poster pro’s fight that one out.

  17. JAY KING Says:

    i missed that show too. i met paul f at a show, he had a jug of water, i was really thirsty, i chugged. then i askled “anything in it?” “yup” how much is adose? “a sip” i had just chugged a shtload of owlsley, or brownshoe…not sure, paul had on his labcoat…i should have known. that night the dead took us out into space

  18. Mark Morey Says:

    I don’t remember being pulled into a doorway (that was hookers in Honolulu, later on), but I was definitely *latched onto* by a group of folks in Haight-Ashbury. I had just gotten off a plan from Florida, in uniform, on my way to my next duty station. This was the late spring of 1967, and I had seen some of the posters, etc., when I was in tech school in Denver. They were lots of fun, everything was new and shiny, the mob hadn’t settled in as they did a year later. My new friends tried to persuade me to desert, but I demurred.

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