Big Nig's House
43 S. Fifth Street moved to 635 St. James Street (Naglee Park)
San Jose, California
43 S. Fifth St., San Jose -- One of the world's most historic rock-'n'-roll sites. On Dec. 4, 1965, the Grateful Dead played its first gig here at an "Acid Test" organized by author and LSD advocate
Ken Kesey. The Rolling Stones played a concert at San Jose Civic Auditorium earlier in the evening, and Kesey's followers handed out fliers inviting concertgoers to the DayGlo party at a large house
near San Jose State University. A band from Palo Alto formerly known as the Warlocks provided the entertainment after changing its name to the Grateful Dead a few weeks earlier. The entire episode is
documented in Tom Wolfe's book "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test." In former Rolling Stone Bill Wyman's autobiography, he writes that Keith Richards and Brian Jones also dropped by the party. Later, the place served as local headquarters for the radical Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). The house was moved when San Jose's new City Hall was constructed.
635 St. James St., San Jose -- New location of the Acid Test/Grateful Dead house. The San Jose Redevelopment Agency moved it here when a buyer offered to renovate the 1895 Victorian if it were moved to this lot. The interior renovation is under way, but the exterior has been redone spectacularly. Bill Ekern, the agency's director of project management, had no clue of the structure's past while he supervised the move. "I'll have to go back and read Wolfe's book," Ekern said.
"We made a decision to save as many of the homes on the City Hall site as possible, and I'm glad." Another former resident of the house, Ron Cook, says it later was the home for his band,
Throckmorton. Cook and his pals filled the basement walls with sand to create a soundproof rehearsal space, and it became a virtual open house for many musicians, including Moby Grape member Skip Spence, the future Doobie Brothers and Stevie Nicks, then a San Jose State student.
"Yes the house was moved to 635 St. James. It is green and looks in decent shape. I think by the city hall to 1958- 2005 they are referencing the old City Hall which is not downtown and is located on North First Street at Mission Street. The new City Hall is about 8 or 9 years old and is located on East Santa Clara Street between 5th and 6th Streets. The house had to be moved to build the new city hall."
"As to the San Jose Acid Test...we were told by those older and wiser that the 16th
Street house was the "house", where the Tests took place, one, I was told, of
many (I will remind all that Friday comes once a week) weekly
occurrences..., so we tested it also, just to be sure the vibes were still
right...Of course the legend says the house the Dead lived in was on S. 12th..." 
Jerry performed here on
12/4/65 Grateful Dead
1st public Acid Test
First Grateful Dead public performance.
Jerry plays an early 1960's Guild Starfire III guitar.
Six days later they play the Fillmore, San Francisco, CA.
The San Jose Acid Test was the first to use any form of mass flyering or advertising.
This advertising, however, was limited to the night of the Rolling Stones concert and the event itself.
Posters were tacked to trees outside the show, and handbills were passed out to people on their way home after the show. The idea was to get them to go to the Acid Test right away. Some fortunate ones did, and the unlucky ones lost out. The posters and handbills were hand-drawn with crayons and had very primitive design, basically, all it was, was the lettering that reads, Can You Pass the Acid Test? and the location of Big Nig's house. Neither the poster nor the handbill which I know exist, have the date or name of the band on them.
A poster and a handbill have finally turned up. The poster was tacked to a tree, and the handbill was picked up off the ground that night, by two sisters who later attended one or two of the events and saved the items all these years.
"For three or four days the Pranksters searched for a hall in San Jose and couldn't come up with one-- naturally -- it really seemed natural and almost right that nothing should be definite until the last minute. All that was certain was that they would find one at the last minute. The Movie would create that much at least. And what if the multitudes didn't know where it was going to be until the last minute? Well, those who were meant to be there--those who were in the pudding--they would get there. You were either on the bus or off the bus, and that went for the whole world, even in San Jose, California. At the last minute Kesey talked a local boho figure known as Big Nig into letting them use his old hulk of a house.
The Dead had an organist called Pigpen, who had a Hammond electric organ, and they move the electric organ into Big Nig's ancient house, plus all the Grateful Dead's electrified guitars and basses and flutes and horns and the light machines and the movie projectors and the tapes and mikes and hi-fis, all of which pile up in insane coils and wires and gleams of stainless steel and winking amplifier dials before Big Nig's unbelievable eyes. His house is old and has wiring that would hardly hold a toaster. The Pranksters are primed in full Prankster regalia. Paul Foster has on his Importancy Coat and now has a huge head of curly hair, a great curly mustache pulling back into great curly mutton chops roaring off his face. Page Browning is the king of face painters. He becomes a full-fledged Devil with a bright orange face and his eyes become the centers of two great silver stars painted over the orange and his hair is silver with silver dust and he paints his lips silver with silver lipstick. This very night the Pranksters all sit down with oil pastel crayons and colored pens and at a wild rate start printing handbills on 8 1/2 X 11 paper saying CAN YOU PASS THE ACID TEST? and giving Big Nig's address. As the jellybean cocked masses start pouring out of the Rolling Stones concert at the Civic Auditorium, the Pranksters charge in among them. Orange and silver Devil, wild man in a coat of buttons -- Pranksters. Pranksters!--handing out the handbills with the challenge, like some sort of demons, warlocks verily, come to channel the wild pointless energy built up by the Rolling Stones inside.
They come piling into Big Nig's, and suddenly acid and the worldcraze were everywhere, the electric organ vibrating through every belly in the place, kids dancing not rock dances, not the frug and the --what? --swim, mother, but dancing ecstacy, leaping, dervishing, throwing their hands over their heads like Daddy Grace's own stroked-out inner-courtiers--yes!--Roy Seburn's lights washing past every head. Cassady rapping, Paul Foster handing people weird little things out of his Eccentric Bag, old whistles, tin crickets, burnt keys, spectral plastic handles. Everybody's eyes turn on like lightbulbs, fuses blow, blackness ---wowwww!--the things that shake and vibrate and funnel and freak out in this blackness--and then somebody slaps new fuses in and the old hulk of a house shudders back, the wiring writhing and fragmenting like molting snakes, the organs vibro-massage the belly again, fuses blow, minds scream, heads explode, neighbors call the cops, 200, 300, 400 people from out there drawn into The Movie, into the edge of the pudding at least, a mass closer and higher than any mass in history, it seems most surely, and Kesey makes minute adjustment, small toggle switch here, lubricated with vasaline No. 634-3 diluted with carbon tetrachloride, and they ripple, Major, ripple, but with meaning, 400 of the attuned multitude headed toward the pudding, the first mass acid experience, the dawn of the Psychedelic, the Flower Generation and all the rest of it, and Big Nig wants the rent.
"How you holding?"
How you holding---
"Yeah, I mean like," -- says Big Nig to Garcia. "I didn't charge Kesey nothing to use this place. like free, you know? and the procedure now is that every cat here contributes, man, to help out with the rent."
With the rent--
"Yeah, I mean like," -- says Big Nig. Big Nig stares at Garcia with the deepest look of hip spade soul authority you could imagine, and nice and officious, too--
Yeah, I mean like---Garcia, for his part, however, doesn't know which bursts out first, the music or the orange laugh. Out the edges of his eyes he can see his own black hair framing his face--it is so long, to the shoulders, and springs out like a Sudanese soldier's--and then Big Nig's big earnest black face right in front of him flapping and washing comically out into glistening acid-glee red sea of faces out beyond them both in the galactic red lakes on the walls--
"Yeah, I mean like, for the rent, man," says Big Nig, "you already blown six fuses."
Blown! Six Fuses! Garcia sticks his hand into his electric guitar and the notes come out like a huge orange laugh all blown fuses electric spark leaps in colors upon the glistening sea of faces. It's a freaking laugh and a half. A new star is being born, like the lightbulb in the womb, and Big Nig wants the rent--A new star being born, a new planet forming, Ahura Mazda blazing in the world womb, here, before our very eyes--and Big Nig, the poor pathetic spade, wants his rent.
A freaking odd thought, that one. A big funky spade looking pathetic and square. For twenty years in the hip life. Negroes never even looked square. They were the archtypal soul figures. But what is Soul, or Funky, or Cool, or Baby---in the new world of the ecstacy, the All-one...the kairos…"
"The next Acid Test was in San Jose on the night of the Rolling Stones concert, the second tour, and the door was kept by a cat called Big Nig, who very cordially set up a gig that made money for Big Nig and some of the musicians. That was one of the few Acid Tests that kept Kesey out of the money trough. The crowd was big and the guys in the band decided to put pressure on Kesey and Babbs to do a big production. The first Human Be-In was just around the corner."
"The next Test was in San Jose, at a house occupied by a friend of Kesey's known as "Big Nig". It was located down the street from the old San Jose coliseum, where the Rolling Stones were playing that night. We set up our equipment on the other side of the room from the pranksters, an orientation that would later prove very productive. Kesey's avowed goal was to "diffuse the pyramid of attention" so that people weren't focused solely on the stage; we were after a more rounded experience, where many types of stimuli were occurring simultaneously.
Unfortunately the room was very small, so all the attendees were crammed into the same space as the band, and the crush of bodies together with the wind-tunnel sound and flashing projections turned the Test into a mind-numbing blur of noise, light and heat. There was no way any one individual could be aware of everything going on in the place. It was a free-for-all, with untold amounts of input quanta streaming into one's sensory cortex all at the same time. The band was set up in one corner, with speaker columns so large one could crawl into the subwoofers and lie there. Across the room was Prankster Central, where the supplemental sound and some lights resided. The tape-loop master control was in Prankster hands; this ran a series of very long delays through the Mobius strip speaker setup, with speakers in all corners of the room, receiving input from microphones and other mixers scattered everywhere.
Occasionally, the Thunder Machine -- Ron Boise's tuned metal sculpture bristling with contact microphones and festooned with areas marked "HIT ME!, STROKE ME, SCRAP ME, and other tender endearments designed to encourage participation -- would make an appearance. The output of this was also plugged into Prankster Central. And then there were the strobe lights: intensely powerful flashes of pure white light, which could be pulsed quickly or slowly, or anything in between. With several of these light sources operating at different speeds throughout the whole darkened space, the experience could be intensely disorienting, even phantasmagorical. The finest exemplar of strobe-light art was, of course, Neal Cassady. Even in broad daylight, his every move was part of a sacred dance of life --- under a strobe, the line was split up and reassembled in time, leaving me wondering: How on Earth can he catch that hammer in the dark, or in between those flashes? Neal was the closest thing to poetry in motion I've ever seen.
The chaos at the San Jose Test didn't stop us from playing as long and as loud as we could, and we found that while high we were able to go very far out musically but still come back to some kind of recognizable space or song structure. I knew instantly that this combination -- acid and music -- was the tool I'd been looking for. After the cops closed the party down, it was low comedy at it's finest to watch Kesey, Babbs, and Billy divvy up the take (one dollar at the door) at the end of the evening. 
Mountain Girl described what happened: "San Jose was the first [public] Acid Test in 1965. It was a complete blowout -- manic bash. Nobody forgot it-- It was cataclysmic! The band played, everybody got high, weird and strange. LSD was legal then and people were taking high doses. Some people took their clothes off and it spilled out into the street.
It was a watershed event that drew the public into the psychedelic adventure that Kesey and the pranksters had begun. The San Jose Acid Test was on the night of the Rolling Stones concert in the Bay Area, and the Pranksters had passed out handbills at the concert that read: "Can YOU Pass the Acid Test?" and giving the location of the event. About four hundred people showed up and the psychedelic revolution had begun.
After that, the Pranksters got the idea to do it regularly. Garcia remembered, "After that first one we all got together, us and Kesey and everybody, and had a meeting about it, and thought, well, you know, that first one there had all those people there, but it was too weird 'cause it was somebody's house.
...We decided to keep on doing it, that was the gist of it...the idea was to move it to a different location each week."
Ram Dass: "I remember the first time that I saw, in the San Jose Mercury, a story about a "drug orgy." I realized at that point that Ken and the group were forcing society to reckon with this stuff that we had hoped would stay underground a little longer. I felt that the Acid Tests forced drug legislation. It was our whole hope that before society caught onto the heresy that was inherent in acid, we could get more entrenched into the policy-making levels. We were spending time meeting with psychiatrists and turning on people connected with the government -- as well as major philosophers and poets -- people who could be a voice for this stuff that undercut established societal structures. Kesey brought it to the surface too fast."
Meet "Big Nig", tall, gangly, affable, the guy who wanted to sponsor the first Acid Test. Kesey and the Dead had decamped at Big Nig's house, Big Nig planted at the door-ready to charge one dollar cover.
Prankster Paul Foster wrapped himself in bandages to become a Grateful Dead mummy. They started, played and fuses started blowing like lady fingers, Big Nig running in and out of his house replacing them as fast as they could pop…
I borrowed my Mom's Corvair and drove myself to San Jose. I left Lafayette in the mid afternoon with only one admonition from Mom. "Just have the car back by 8:30 tomorrow morning because I have to go early to church."It was not the first time of taking Mom's car overnight. Since I had received my license less than two months earlier on my sixteenth birthday I had spent part of two other weekends with my brother Al. Al was a freshman at San Jose State University and, to escape living in a dorm, had pledged Delta Upsilon Fraternity. Al's fraternity brothers frowned upon letting his kid brother sleep on a frat room floor, though they did not object too strenuously because Al was 6'2" of solid 230-pound muscle. He was a fullback on the San Jose State Football Team, and, as someone regarded merely a freshman, with whom one would not want to tangle.
The Rolling Stones were playing that night at San Jose Civic Auditorium and some of the frat guys decided they were going to walk the few blocks over to the Auditorium and try to crash the door, but security was tight and it thwarted our plans. Some guys tried to sneak in, but did not succeed, so we gave up and started back for the frat house. As we were crossing the street a school bus of brightly painted swirling colors drove up with a bunch of wild looking college students (I thought) on top of the roof and hanging out of the windows banging on drums and blowing kazoos.
The bus stopped in the middle of the street and some of the passengers got out and began passing out handbills, which were invitations to a nearby party. The handbill read, "Can You Pass the Acid Test?"
My brother and his frat brothers discussed what to do and a few of us, having nothing better to do on a slow night in town, opted for the party. They all believed it was just another frat party that they hadn't gotten wind of. We determined it was no more than 4 or 5 blocks away and walked to the "Acid Test" not knowing a single thing about what we would find, but the general consensus was if there was any possibility of girls and beer being there then that's where the action was and off we went. There I was, 16 years old going to my first frat party. HOO BOY!
Once there it was obvious that we were in for something most likely out of our league. There were at least a hundred people in the front yard with probably fifty more on the front porch. This crazy, screeching wailing was emanating from within and there were cops driving slowly by in their squad cars maneuvering around all the double-parked cars.
We attempted to get inside the house where the frat guys were hoping they could score liquor, but it was plain to quickly observe there was no liquor extant. This did not sit well with the Frat guys and, though there were girls there, the girls were not provocative enough to quench the curiosity of the Frat boys, so they left. My brother said he was going to go with them, but that he would return later, so he advised me to stay and listen to the bands-he'd be right back. I think he had been pressured to ditch "Little Brother." That was the last I saw of him until Christmas Vacation.
I stood there on the sidewalk for a while and then heard the band start playing "Wooly Bully" a hit record at the time for a group called Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. It was the loudest thing I had ever heard and it was wonderful. Minutes later the music stopped abruptly. There were all these drunk-looking people running in and out and around the yard and street in American flag-decked white jump suits.
Many of the jump suited had their faces painted in this stuff so bright it made them glow in the dark. They were in sharp contrast with the others. Most of the crowd was college aged, some were older-more sophisticated, some were around my age, and a few were downright ancient-at least 30 or 35 years old. Most were dressed in the popular garb of the day-Pendleton shirts and Beatle boots for the guys, and bouffant hairdos and culottes for the girls. At the time I wore a red and blue Madras shirt with a white dickey, a v-necked gold sweater, wingtips and dark green Levis jeans.
Eventually I got up more courage and went inside the house, which was bursting to the seams with ear-to-ear swaying-drunk college students, but nobody had a drink in their hand. The music started up again and moments later the entire house went black-blown fuses! Everybody was screaming, but not the screams of fear. They were screaming the screams of ecstatic delight. I felt terribly out of place.
Then the band started playing the Loving Spoonful song "Do You Believe In Magic?" and it was so loud I thought I was going to barf. It was a large house, a Victorian, like I'd seen before in the neighborhoods of San Francisco near Golden Gate Park. At one end of the living room was the loud band blasting versions of Folk and R&B tunes like nothing I had ever heard or even conceived was possible. On the other side of the room was another band playing God knows what. It was just all this disjoint and cacophonous noise. What was also highly unusual was that one person would sit down on the organ and noodle around on its keyboards and then would get up and go start playing a flute while another drunk sat down to the organ. This went on for a while until the fuses blew once more and jettisoned us all into darkness.
Slowly I moved towards the kitchen and when the lights came back on I looked in the refrigerator. There was a gallon of apple juice in it and I pulled it out and began to look for a cup, but there were none. Some woman all dressed in lace and heavily made up eyes said, "I wouldn't drink that, if I were you!" Thinking I was stealing somebody's juice I put it back in the fridge just as another guy walked up all done up in motorcycle club colors. I thought he was a Hells Angel.
He takes the fridge door and grabs a beer and while popping the top of the can notices me with the apple juice. "Hey," he says rather gently, "I'm Ron." I say hey back and he grips my hand in what was to become known as the soul shake. "Don't drink my beer, okay man? That's all I have left," he added gruffly but with a slight smile bending the corner of his mouth. I nodded sheepishly--trying to be cool and he walked menacingly away.
I stood there in absolute shock and then this other guy walks up also in biker's colors. This guy was definitely a Hells Angel and he was black. I'd seen Angels before-they were sporting an infamous legend in 1965-but I'd never seen a black one. The black Angel was collecting money from everybody and he hit me up for two dollars-which I was glad to impart in deference to his enormous, fierce demeanor.
After that I kept inching my way through the partygoers. There were wires on every square inch of floor and theater lights, speakers and microphones in every corner of the living room. People would be standing in little groups arguing intellectually about politics and metaphysics. I stood there listening-thoroughly confused. Heck, I was still playing with model trains and these nuts were discussing Nietzschean philosophy! I still don't understand Nietzsche!
I turned to walk away when suddenly I heard the lofty conversation being broadcast back through the P.A. system and echoing all through the house-just bits and pieces of all this gobbledygook all garbled until the words came out played back in hilarious little snippets: "Buttttwas obserrrrvedexistentiallllygoing to the toilet." I couldn't get over it and staggered off in utter delete. This was way too much for my young brain.
The loud band was playing again and people were dancing so hard the chandelier shook. The music was gloriously vibrant. I had attended a few rock and roll concerts, but those concerts were nothing compared in sound volume like this party band. This was 1965. Public address equipment and guitar amplifiers were puny jokes compared with the equipment that would replace them not three years later.
I didn't know the party band was the Grateful Dead. I didn't know that the gruff-looking biker dude with a sweet disposition was Ron "Pigpen" McKernan. Everybody had heard about the Hells Angels, but nobody had ever heard of the Grateful Dead in sleepy Lafayette, and though I'd seen people smoking funny looking, hand rolled cigarettes I had no idea it was marijuana. I could not have possibly understood that the garbage can in the middle of the room was laced with Owsley LSD. I merely assumed it was booze because in those days everybody who drank liquor brought their flask and poured the contents of the flask into the punch bowl.
When the loud band took a break I spotted Ron and asked him if I could play the organ and he said, "Sure, man!" and stalked away with a girl on each arm. So I went right up to the loud band's equipment, stepped upon the Vox organ's volume pedal and started wailing away. My mom had an electric Wurlitzer Organ and I had taken organ lessons, but the Wurlitzer wasn't anything so loud as the Vox and I was creaming in my green Levis playing that thing.
And I'm really into it when all of a sudden this kinda ugly looking guy comes up and taps my shoulder and growls at me, "Get the fuck outta here, man!"
I shrink away from the Vox with tail 'tween my legs. I look back at the nasty bastard as he was slinging his guitar around his back. I was going to tell him that Ron had given me permission to play his organ, but the asshole launched into the loudest solo guitar ever and I turned around and left the party.
Once outside I noticed the cops hassling suspected curfew violators and slinked away from their grasp. It was 5:00 a.m. I walked about 5 blocks, found my Mom's car and drove home. I got home around 7:30, put the keys on the kitchen counter and slipped into bed. Mom and Dad never said a word.
A number of weeks later I attended the Trips Festival in San Francisco and recognized the guitarist who had kicked me off of Pigpen's organ. It was Jerry Garcia. It took me a long time to like Jerry Garcia, but I got over it."
"The First Acid Test that made much of a splash was in December, right after the Rolling Stones concert in San Jose. The band had just changed its name to the Grateful Dead, and played to several hundred tripped-out young people who followed the instructions on the mysterious flyer handed out at the concert, challenging “can you pass the acid test?”)
One of the intrigued Stones fans was aspiring journalist Jann Wenner, future founder of Rolling Stone, who remember the event variously over the years: “Here they were in the living room at someone’s house playing, and it sounded great. I was staggered, and I was taking drugs at the time, too I remember going, “What do you guys call yourself?” And they said, “The Grateful Dead.” And I went, “Wow!”
“The impact, in my state of mind at that point, was severe.”
Big Nig's house, San Jose, CA
2.)^Christensen, Mark, Acid Christ: Ken Kesey, LSD, and the Politics of Ecstasy, pg. 151, http://books.google.com/books?id=IEpIVbgz5JsC&pg=PA151&lpg=PA151&dq=big+nig%27s+house&source=bl&ots=bVyYP_qWo9&sig=XXLF0bYfLxCUlPL7QT1WZaikJjY&hl=en&sa=X&ei=2PXfT-7ZHqX42gX9jqmGCg&ved=0CGcQ6AEwCDgU#v=onepage&q=big%20nig%27s%20house&f=false
3.)^Mernit, Susan, Local History: The San Jose Acid Test, 2003-06-25, http://www.susanmernit.com/blog/2003/06/local-history-the-san-jose-aci.html
4.)^ Wolfe, Tom, Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, pg. 236-39.
5.)^Harrison, Hank, The Grateful Dead-Vanguard of a New Generation, pg. 132.
6.)^Lesh, Phil, Searching for the Sound
7.)^Troy, Sandy, Captain Trips, pg.71-72.
8.)^Perry, Paul, On the Bus, pg. 148.
9.)^Purdy, Mark, Historic rock landmarks in Santa Clara County, 2008-06-29, http://www.mercurynews.com/lifestyle/ci_9739133, http://sixties-l.blogspot.com/2008/07/historic-rock-landmarks-in-santa-clara.html
10.)^Hunt, Evan, The First Time I Met Jerry Garcia, 2002, http://www.thebestofwebsite.com/Bands/Grateful_Dead/Misc/EvanHunt/Meeting_Jerry.htm
11.)^Keit, Richard, Managing Director, Redevelopment Agency of the City of San Jose, 2013-01-16, email to author.
12.)^Wright, Tom, Garcia musical instrument historian, 2014-03-02, email to author.
13.)^Smith, Smith, Off the Record (New York: Warner, 1988), p. 237.
14.)^Wenner, Jann “Forward,” to Garcia, Reich, and Wenner, Garcia: Signpost to a New Space (Straight Arrow Books, 1972), p. 12.)