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The Day-Glo Effect 

Exhuming Ken Kesey and Further 40 years after the Acid Tests

Thursday, Dec 30 2004
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Page 3 of 7

While under contract with Life magazine in the mid-’60s, Schiller was lured away by the big money of The Saturday Evening Post. When that publication failed, he returned home with his tail between his legs. No matter. He had a "get" that would land him back in the good graces of his Life editors. Following up on a tip from Dr. Sidney Cohen, an LSD expert stationed at Wadsworth Veterans Administration Hospital near UCLA, Schiller modified his idea of doing a medical story on LSD to focus on the subculture of teenagers winding up with psychoses from using the drug indiscriminately. The result was "LSD: The Exploding Threat of the Mind Drug That Got Out of Control," a cover story in the March 25, 1966, issue of Life that unintentionally aided in criminalizing the substance less than six months later.

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.

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"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 Further and 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 Bulletin album, 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 Life magazine 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."

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