Jan 5, 2017

March 19, 1966: Carthay Studios, Los Angeles


It is early afternoon, Saturday, March 19, in a quiet South Los Angeles neighborhood. I’ve come here for an interview with the Grateful Dead and the Acid Test people, both of whom have been cancelled out of UCLA’s Grand Ballroom and what promised to be a huge gate.
Parked as unobtrusively as it can be is the Acid Test’s multi-colored tour bus. It is attracting a great deal less attention here than it did in Beverly Hills, where a small crowd gathered to watch it make a U turn. Off to one side a few children are giving the Merry Pranksters a wide berth; and other than their less than rapt attention, the bus is being completely ignored. There is a constant flow of Pranksters between the bus and a huge three story house that, in better days, was somebody’s mansion.
On the front porch glider is Bill Summers, a drummer for the Grateful Dead. He is taking a morning cup of coffee, and he gestures towards me with it as I head for the front door.
“You from UCLA?” he asks.
“No,” I tell him. He looks up at me from under his eyebrows, still a bit suspicious.
“You sure?”
“Of course,” I assure him, and quickly head into the house. I AM from UCLA. Inside is that same hurried activity. There is a feeling of tense anticipation, like before some stupendous event – like a hydrogen bomb explosion. Upstairs I find who I am looking for, Rock Skully.
Skully is the band’s manager and promoter of the ill-fated UCLA Acid Test. He is sitting on the edge of a mattress, deeply involved in a phone conversation. He nods hello and waves me over to the only other piece of furniture in the room, an Altec speaker crate. The house rents unfurnished.
Skully is nodding and agreeing, “Yeah…yeah…uh-huh…no…they did, huh? Son Of A Bitch.” This last statement is made one word at a time, with each word drawn out, given the proper inflection and clipped off, at the end.
Skully’s room is in the apparent center of the ant-like activity. People dash in and out, showing flyers and posters, making pantomimed requests, sometimes just ducking their heads in, taking a quick look around and spinning off down the hall.
A cute long-haired girl comes in, makes a grab for Skully’s green felt hat, and gets a rap on the ass for her trouble. The one-sided conversation continues.
“Yes…yes…oh, Hell, yes,” no to a boy with a still-wet poster, yes to a flyer, and an intricate hand gesture to someone looking for the head. Jerry Garcia, the Dead’s lead guitarist, sticks his head in the door. He is, I learn later, an ex-member of the Asphalt Jungle Mountain Boys Blue Grass Band.
Garcia looks to Skully, who is now nodding “yes” whenever he says “no” and shaking his head “no” whenever he says “yes.” This is too much for Garcia, who directs his attention to me.
“You from Life? Look? Newsweek? Time? Playboy?” I shake my head no.
Garcia pushes himself back, holding onto the door frame for balance. He snaps his head left and right, looking both directions down the hall. He leans back into the room and assumes a conspiratorial tone.
“You’re from ‘Storm Trooper,’ right?”
I tell him “no.” His eyes narrow.
“You’re not from UCLA, are you?”
“No,” I reply, a little too loudly.
“Hmmm.” He still isn’t sure. “Well, if you really are from ‘Storm Trooper,’ come on by my room; I got some shiny boots there, I know you guys like that kind of stuff.” Garcia gives me a knowing wink and disappears down the hall. I turn back to Skully, who has finished his conversation and is looking at me.
“Why isn’t there going to be an Acid Test?” I ask.
“There is,” says Skully, “but not at UCLA.”
“I don’t know,” says Skully, looking rather morosely at his boots.
“Don’t you see how they’ve hurt him?” says Garcia, who is back, standing in the doorway. “Leave him alone – come on, we’ll go look at Pig Pen.”
“Pig Pen?” I ask, trying to direct the conversation back to Skully.
“He plays organ and harmonica for us,” Garcia answers for Skully. “Comes from San Bruno, that’s where Gill Hile Lincoln-Mercury is. You guys from Storm Trooper ought to pick up on a name like that.”
“It’s not Hile, it’s Arrata Pontiac,” says Skully, coming to life a bit.
“Wait here,” says Garcia to me. “I’ll get Pig Pen.”
“Arrata does the late show on TV. He gives his pitch hanging upside down from a rope and rotating.” Skully seems to have brightened up.
“What happened at UCLA?” I ask again.
“They cancelled us. I don’t know why. They told Ken Babbs (spokesman for the Merry Pranksters) they wanted fifteen hundred dollars guarantee, because they didn’t think there’d be a draw.”
“When was this?”
“Thursday. They waited till five and then told him they wanted the money by ten that night – otherwise, no show. We got the money to them Friday morning.”
“Why did they cancel then?” I ask.
“It was a check; they said it had to be cash.”
“Who is ‘they’?”
“Dale Spickler from the Student Union, and Chuck McClure from the Administration. Spickler said that there was a signature missing from the contract, so they didn’t have to have the show anyway.”
“Had they mentioned the money or the contract before Thursday?”
“No. They could have. They could have told us about the money at two instead of five. We were there setting up at two.”
“Whose idea was it to use UCLA for the Test?”
“They came to us. Chris Bryer asked us to talk with them about it. We talked with Joel Peck of the Graduate Students Association, and it was with their sponsorship that we got the Grand Ballroom.”
“And it was the Graduate Students who cancelled the show?”
“No, it was Spickler and McClure. McClure’s from the Administration or Student Activities, I’m not sure which. They said the contract wasn’t valid because John Economos, the GSA Vice President, hadn’t signed it. They must have known that for two weeks, but they told us Thursday. Then they took our ad out of Friday’s paper (The Daily Bruin) and put in a notice that the Test was cancelled.”
“But you’re still having it?”
“Yeah, but I don’t know if anyone’ll come. If anyone’ll know where it’s at. We put up a sign in the Grand Ballroom with the new address. Ken just called and said they tore that down and put up one that just said ‘Cancelled.’
“Everyone’s out postering now, and there’s word of mouth – that’s about all we can do tonight. What the Hell, it’s a party. We’re gonna have a good time no matter how few come.”
Skully is looking down at his boots again. “Yeah, no matter what. Hey, man, wait’ll next week. Next week we got Trouper’s Hall on La Brea. Del Close – light show; Tiny Tim – old timey singing on the breaks; and the Grateful Dead – sound, pure sound. – Come on downstairs.” We go downstairs.
In the living room Garcia, Pig Pen, Summers, and the rest of the band – Phil Lesh and Bob Wier – are standing around waiting to hear a tape. The Dead’s engineer and electronic genius of the group is setting up.
Skully shows me a row of six “Voice of the Theater” speaker enclosures. They run the length of one wall. Behind and around us are microphones, stands and instruments. The engineer is dickering with a phantasmagoria of plugs, dials, and switches. Skully motions to him and he comes over to us.
“We operate at about one hundred ten decibels, three hundred thirty watts going through the speakers. I changed all the instruments from high to low impedance – that way we get pure sound,” he says.
I nod like I understand.
“See,” he goes on, pointing proudly, “four Macintosh preamps, one for each instrument. We got Super Basses, vacuum sealed for the lows and basslines, four Voice of the Theaters – one for each instrument. Oscilloscopic monitorization; we do continuous mix, as we play. That way you get recording studio quality in live performance.”
I nod again, looking out the window. In the street three kids and two neon-costumed Merry Pranksters are standing around the back of a Good Humor truck. I look back and Skully nods to the engineer. He starts the tape.
The sound comes. Pure sound – sound that makes you giggle that anything could be that loud. I look outside. The sound is like in an air raid. I expect to see people running for cover. But they are standing around, buying ice cream, like nothing is happening. They are cut off from us. We are enveloped in sound.
“What is it?” I yell, but even I don’t hear the words. I finally get Skully’s attention by nudging him.
“What is it?” I write on my pad.
“Our record, out Monday – ‘I Know You Rider,’ and the flip is ‘Otis On The Shake Down Cruise,’” he writes back.
I listen. It is loud, that kind of loud heavy sound that drives you towards the speakers. It is pure sound, never dissonant or muddy. Crystal clear, even at this volume. It is good groovy sound, with strong down home runs and good throaty voices. The music ends. Rock smiles at me.
“You like?” he wants to know.
“Boss,” I say, “you’ve really got that Sonny and Cher sound down.”
“Sonny and Cher eat,” says Pig Pen, looking like a bewigged Wallace Beery.
“How about an ice cream?” someone says, and we all head outside.
That night I go to the Carthay Studios, to see if they can draw a crowd on such short notice. There are people there – lots of people, over six hundred people – people from UCLA, from Canter’s, from Hollywood. Dick Alpert is there. Life Magazine is there. A cop is there. But most of all the Grateful Dead and the Acid Test are there.
There are three screens going, two with movies and one with a light show. People are dancing under the strobe light, people are flipping out, things are happening. And behind it, under it, over it, and permeating it is sound – pure sound. On the break I corner Skully.
“They sound great.” Skully shakes his head.
“This building, it’s soaking up all our sound. Wait, wait till next week – Del Close, Tiny Tim, the Dead, and sound – plenty of sound. You think this is something? Wait till next week.” The band starts again, the projections start, people start to dance, everyone starts to smile.
“What about UCLA?” I yell over the Dead. “Are you going to sue?”
“No,” yells Skully over his shoulder. “I’m having too good a time.” I look around. Everyone is having a good time. Later I catch sight of Skully, standing by the speakers; he mouths the word “sound.” I wave good-by smiling; there’s next week, too.

(by Steve White, Los Angeles Free Press, 25 March 1966)

Thanks to jgmf.blogspot.com


  1. JGMF discovered a preview for the Acid Test in the Daily Bruin (the UCLA paper).

    “Acid Test to Happen Here,” Daily Bruin, March 11, 1966, p.14

    "Barring the apocalypse, GSA ASUCLA, will allow the Merry Pranksters of Intrepid Trips, Inc. to let loose their version of interpersonal nuclear fission. The Acid Test, from 8 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. March 19 in The Student Union Grand Ballroom. What is The Acid Test? Well, it is a sort of a happening, a very total happening. There is no audience, no group of performers; everyone comes and the thing happens. There is music — The Grateful Dead will play genuine rock-'n-roll for dancing. But anyone can play music — there will be mikes and amplifiers available — and any person or group is urged to bring their equipment. There will be movies, three or four at a time, of the Pranksters and others doing whatever they do. But anyone can bring their own films and/or equipment. There will be people in strange clothes; come as you will. There will be strange lights, strobes and color wheels; bring more if need be. There will be Neal Cassady of On The Road doing battle with the fabled Thunder Machine, Roy's Audioptics, the Electric Man, the Psychedelic Symphonette, assorted miracles and marvels, more noise and yet more music. Tickets ($1.50 for students) are on sale at the Kerckhoff Hall Ticket Office or can be purchased at the door."


    An ad for the Acid Test also ran on the 16th, but as Rock Scully mentions in this article, the Daily Bruin replaced it with a cancellation notice on Friday, March 18, p.13:

    "CANCELLED - The Program Manager's office late yesterday ordered tomorrow night's performance of The Acid Test cancelled on grounds that the troupe displayed a lack of talent and ticket sales were going slowly, making this production economically unfeasible. Students holding tickets to The Acid Test may obtain refunds at the Kerckhoff Hall Ticket Office."

    Scully gives a lengthy account of the university's suspicious withdrawal - all kinds of reasons were given, whether "lack of talent," slow ticket sales, or an invalid contract.
    Deadlists gives the most likely reason: "As soon as UCLA caught wind what an Acid Test event was, they promptly cancelled it, figuring giving unsupervised college students hallucinogenics was probably not a good idea. Since the event had already been advertised...the event was moved at the last minute to Carthay Studios."

  2. The LA Free Press was a hip underground paper - kind of the Los Angeles equivalent of the Village Voice. It's remarkable to find any paper in early '66 devoting such a lengthy report & interview to a cancelled event and a completely unknown band - in fact this is the earliest known article on the Dead.

    The reporter probably didn't know much about the Pranksters or the Dead, besides their names. (Ken Kesey's never mentioned, only Babbs.) He doesn't mention San Francisco; he doesn't know Owsley's name or drug production (he just calls him "the Dead's engineer and electronic genius"). In fact, he never mentions LSD at all! Quite a feat for someone reporting on an Acid Test, which makes me wonder if he was really a total innocent, or if it was an editorial omission.
    Garcia makes a brief appearance - the reporter learns he was formerly in bluegrass, and Garcia's anxious to introduce him to Pigpen. (When Pigpen does appear, belittling Sonny & Cher, the only comment is that he "looks like a bewigged Wallace Beery"! Not most people's first reaction.)
    Garcia suspects the reporter is from the Stormtrooper (an actual magazine of the American Nazi party), which I assume was a running joke. It's interesting that Garcia asks which national magazine he might be from - this isn't so far-fetched, since the acid tests were getting some media attention. Life magazine was doing an LSD article at the same time, and the reporter spots them at Carthay Studios. Their article also ran on March 25:

    Most of the conversation is with Rock Scully, who tirelessly promotes the Dead at every chance. Surprisingly, there's already a strong emphasis on their sound system and gear - loud but "crystal clear." The reporter's taken aback by the volume, but doesn't say much about what the Dead actually sound like, comparing them to Sonny & Cher!

    The Dead play him a tape of I Know You Rider & You Don't Have To Ask (which they then called Otis on a Shakedown Cruise) - one of Bear's demos, which has never circulated, but might possibly still be in the vault. (It wasn't included in the Rare Cuts & Oddities release.)
    Scully says the Dead are releasing this as a single - was he making this up? Possibly; but just as likely he and the Dead had naive plans for an independent 45 release (similar to the Scorpio single release later that year), but ran into reality when they tried to get it pressed.
    In 1972 Ron Rakow suggested that the Dead's independent label could distribute their records out of Good Humor trucks. Since one of these trucks is lurking outside the house here, I wonder if the idea went as far back as 1966!

    This issue of the Free Press also included an ad for the Dead's March 25 show at Trouper's Hall, which wasn't an acid test. Scully actually seems a lot more excited about that show than he does about this acid test. "You think this is something? Wait till next week."

  3. Good one! To think, 51 years later..the legend,the myth, the American reality... such an amazing story.