By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
L.A.’s underground acid scene took hold at an unlikely place — the neighborhood deli. "I found out very quickly that Canter’s Delicatessen was where everybody hung out and dropped acid from 11 at night until 4 in the morning," Schiller says. "By hanging around there three, four, five, six nights, I also discovered that at 1 in the morning Phil Spector would pull up in his car, and I also discovered that The Who would pull up — that in the wee hours of the morning, when the Troubadour was done and the Whisky a GoGo was done, this was the place."
Schiller’s method of ingratiating himself was to disarm the people he was shooting by being upfront with his address and phone number at the outset of an encounter. At organized Acid Tests this was less of an issue because attendees were required to purchase an identification card for a dollar or two that included such information. To this day, Schiller’s not sure if it was his honesty or the ID card that led the Pranksters to his swimming pool; however, he did find out that they had been using his mailbox as a drop-off and pickup spot for drugs. In the course of his reporting, Schiller invited the Pranksters to his studio on Sunset Boulevard for a photo session that he hoped would yield a cover shot for the Life spread.
"As Tom Wolfe writes, they started getting real paranoid of me, distrustful of me," Schiller says. "Because they saw me shooting black-and-white film, and they thought the cover of Life magazine was color. They didn’t realize that I had an idea in my head in which I was going to use their images in black-and-white and then do a solarization of color — like Richard Avedon’s pictures of the Beatles, like Andy Warhol’s lithographs. But even better than that." Kesey’s right-hand man, Ken Babbs, was the first to think he smelled a rat and, in typical Prankster fashion, aborted the shoot, hijacked Furtherand headed for Wavy’s. Those who chose to stick around ended up in a photo spread inside the magazine.
Like Tom Wolfe, Schiller didn’t indulge in LSD, though he does testify to the ubiquity and significance of the Tests. "Everybody who went [to the Tests] knew they were going to drop acid there or knew there was acid there. The music was incredible. It was music you hadn’t heard or felt before. People just existed as they wanted or as they came, not knowing how they were existing. It was the first time that I think I saw strobe lights being used to enhance an experience. There were light shows all over the fucking place. They used different types of projectors — this and that — different types of images that had no relationship to each other, but all had a relationship because they were all organized and coming alive and exploding in different ways," Schiller says, and then hesitates. "I don’t know if I’m making myself clear."
Among the photos Schiller took of the Tests, the most enduring is the image of an aimless wanderer that later graced the cover of the Flaming Lips’ Soft Bulletinalbum, which is a testament to Schiller’s influence on pop culture. But Schiller’s legacy doesn’t end at pictures. "If it wasn’t for the Lifemagazine essay, do you think The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test would exist?" he asks me. "I’m not saying that Tom Wolfe wouldn’t have written a book, but that essay was one of the things that got him interested in the subject."
Not only does this year mark the 40th anniversary of the Pranksters’ odyssey, but it is also the 10th anniversary of my discovery of Ken Kesey and the Pranksters, the Beats, the Grateful Dead, recreational drugs, free thinking and, as someone who had a hankering to be a writer, the internal debate over whether it is more meaningful to be the author of a remarkable story or the character who makes the story remarkable. During my senior year in high school, I had to give an oral report on the poet or writer of my choice for English class. My teacher, Mrs. Pittman, tired of my inability to choose a subject, suggested I check out a guy by the name of Allen Ginsberg. Coincidentally or serendipitously, I soon thereafter found myself watching a film in American History in which Ginsberg rallied a group of demonstrators with his words. Considerably more intrigued, I nonetheless waited until the night before the presentation to pore through Ginsberg’s Collected Poems 1947–1980. I was mesmerized. "That’s poetry?" I thought. Cool.
Delving into Collected Poems and related writings, I got hip to the names behind the words, the characters giving shape to the verse. William Burroughs, Carolyn Cassady, Neal Cassady, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Bill Graham, The Grateful Dead, Chet Helms, John Clellon Holmes, Herbert Huncke, Robert Hunter, Jack Kerouac, Timothy Leary, Michael McClure, Mountain Girl, Peter Orlovsky, Gary Snyder, Augustus Owsley Stanley III, Hunter S. Thompson, Wavy Gravy, William Carlos Williams, Tom Wolfe . . . But it was Kesey — not so much for his writing as for his individualism and ability to forge his own destiny — who grabbed my throat after I read "First Party at Ken Kesey’s With Hell’s Angels," a poem I delivered to the class:
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