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Tom Wolfe Made Me Cry

June 17th, 2018 · 9 Comments · Merry Pranksters, Weird Things About Me

Tom Wolfe Made Me Cry 


We’ve had a flood of famous & important people dying the last few years.  2016 was the recent one most think of as the mass kill-off year that had us all praying for it to end — which it did, sadly, in November, with democracy and decency being cremated before our eyes.

The last famous person’s death that really threw me — well, it was two in 2014 — Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams, both completely unexpected, and both inspirational teachers in my life.

But Tom Wolfe’s passing on May 14th brought me to unexpected tears several times that day.  And it was really because of one work — The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

That book changed my life as much or more than any other.  When I first read it at age 15 it blew open what was possible to this comfortable kid in Mayberry, Manitoba.  Acid Tests . . . the Grateful Dead . . . road trips in a bus . . . a new way of talking . . . a new way thinking . . . a new way of being.  A Prankster!  Playful & goofing, but productive & curious.  These weren’t people sitting around waiting to be entertained — everything about them was proactive, about doing, about making things happen.  And being funny!  I wanted to be one of them — and I became one of them by my own actions, in consort with others.  That book changed my approach on how to live, how to interact with others, how to be part of a collective, and I carried it with me into high-end concert production & low-level club shows, into life in a giant corporation & life within a tiny community.

As the years rolled on, I read a lot of other books — including Kerouac, who Wolfe in part hipped me to by writing about this Neal Cassady guy on the bus — and I began writing more and more seriously as the years went on.  I was influenced by Dr. Seuss and William Shakespeare, James Joyce and Hunter Thompson, Dave Barry and Eugene O’Neill, the Beats and the rock poets.  But as my writing and life evolved, I read less of the playwrights of my formative 20s, only occasionally dipped back into Dr. Seuss’s playful mastery, and retained the lessons of Joyce without rereading him too often.  But the one prose canvas, more than On The Road or Huckleberry Finn or Fear & Loathing that I kept returning to with jaw-dropped awe was Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

As Kerouac wrote in a piece for the Writer’s Digest titled “Are Writers Made or Born?” — “It ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.”  And Tom Wolfe applied that playfulness to his playful subject, so perfectly reflecting in prose the scatological waves the Pranksters thought and operated.  It’s the greatest, most effective long-form blend of prose and subject I’ve ever come across.

Kesey said to me in a “you gotta hand it to the guy” way, and also thankfully put it on the record in this 1989 interview with NPR — “Wolfe’s a genius.  He did a lot of that stuff, he was only around three weeks.  He picked up that amount of dialogue and verisimilitude without a tape recorder, without taking notes to any extent.  He just watches very carefully and remembers.”

Looking back on the oeuvres of literary masters of the 20th century, Wolfe joined a pretty esteemed group that included Jack Kerouac, John Clellon Holmes, Allen Ginsberg and Ken Kesey who wrote about that singular inspiration Neal Cassady — “smiling and rolling his shoulders this way and that and jerking his hands out to this side and the other side as if there’s a different drummer somewhere, different drummer, you understand …. “

When I was writing The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jack Kerouac, every night that I went to bed still having the mind strength to read, it was Electric Kool-Aid that I’d open the pages of.  Not On The Road or Fear & Loathing, but rather the guy who stretched language even Furthur, who left me in awe with the rules he would break paragraph after paragraph, while still maintaining a clear, gripping, fact-rich narrative.  He was moving James Joyce up to the 1960s; he was breaking more rules than The Subterraneans; he was simultaneously being Pollock and Rembrandt.

Some people over the decades disparaged Wolfe, and Electric Kool-Aid in particular, and I think that caused me to not speak up for the book as much as I should have.  But when he died, I realized how that one work changed my life.  Twice.  First in its subject matter . . . and years later in the mastery of its prose.  And what brought me to tears was that I never told him that.  Or anyone, really.  I met and spent time with most of the authors I admired who were alive when I was.  Except Wolfe — even though we lived in the same city for a quarter century.

I regret not thanking him for changing my life.  I regret not defending his writing.  I regret not standing up for him, and not celebrating his book.  I regret letting other people silence me, or make me think I must be wrong in my take on that book.

With Wolfe’s passing, and my uncontrollable tears that day, I learned the tough lesson to never again be silenced by anyone else’s opinion of a work of art — especially writing!

I need to get in touch with Kinky Friedman and Aaron Sorkin and Matt Taibbi before its too late!

Love your inspirations.  And don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.  And if you can tell the creators while they’re still alive — do it.  Thoughts & prayers & platitudes aren’t going to cut it for you or them after it’s too late.


(my original copy, bought at The Bay in Winnipeg in 1976)

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Here’s where you can get my book — How The Beats Begat the Pranksters.

Here’s a piece about meeting Ken Kesey — at the Kerouac summit in Boulder in 1982 — an excerpt from my book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jack Kerouac which you can get here.

Here’s meeting up with the 2014 Pranksters at Woodstock.

Here’s another piece about valuable life lessons — Love Is.


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by Brian Hassett  —   —

Or here’s my Facebook account if you wanna follow things there —

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9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 S.A. Griffin // Jun 17, 2018 at 9:34 PM

    Thanks, great piece! I love Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, one of my all time favorite books!! How dare they, whoever they are, disparage that book!

    Crimea River, comrade.

    Much love,
    Trips Griffin

  • 2 Jeannie Welch // Jun 17, 2018 at 10:31 PM

    I grew up in “Mayberry Manitoba” too …. except I was in Minnesota …… and it kicked his high school girl in the head with a rainbow full of sound.
    Right after we graduated, I bought a yellow VW Bug, drove it to the west coast and never looked back. Well not for 10 years anyway. I’m sure the party’s still going on somewhere. But YYR — this book started the whole “trip” for a lot of us.

  • 3 Scott Moore // Jun 17, 2018 at 11:53 PM

    A great tribute Brian. Thanks for letting me and I’m sure others live through the personal observations of a writer. It is a very rewarding experience for me personally to read this piece.

  • 4 Dale Topham // Jun 18, 2018 at 12:47 AM

    Nicely done…. Somewhere Tom is smiling.

  • 5 Sky // Jun 18, 2018 at 11:07 AM

    I love the “simultaneously being Pollock and Rembrandt” line.
    Thanks for turning me on to both at The Met last year.
    I’ll never forget our sit with Jackson.
    And what a cool way to explain how Tom Wolfe wrote.

  • 6 Ken Morris // Jun 20, 2018 at 6:43 PM

    I also read that Kandy-Kolored Tangerine whatever, and The Pump House Gang. He sure immersed himself in whatever the hell he wrote about. But Kool-Aid was the best of them. And the best subject, too, as you well know, Jester.

  • 7 Alex Nantes // Jun 24, 2018 at 8:59 PM

    I remember when you first told me about this book back in the early 2000s and we were both still in New York …. it blew my mind!! You mean you can find out about this stuff IN A BOOK?!?!?! Who knew?! That turn-on of yours sure led to a lot of other cool things. Including my first Dead show. 😀

    Write on and read on my brother!!!

  • 8 Kurt Westbrook // Jul 4, 2018 at 11:47 AM

    Are we not all sick of the “thoughts and prayers” bullshit by now? It’s time for all of us to speak up for not just writers but school kids and all the other victims of this perverted Amerikan gun cult-cher.

  • 9 Wizard of Wonder // Jul 6, 2018 at 11:07 AM

    A Masterpiece thru and thru. We wouldn’t be where we are if he didn’t write that book.

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