Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters’ trip across America in the summer of 1964 is a keystone of the countercultural mythos, largely due to Tom Wolfe’s much read ‘new journalism’ non-fiction book The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. The legend runs that Kesey, an ex-Olympic wrestling hope and Stanford graduate, on the rise after the positive reaction to his novel One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, took a yellow school bus and, with a revolving cast of kooks, painted it in rainbow colours, christened it ‘Further’ and took it on the road with Beat legend Neal Cassady (the Dean Moriarty of Kerouac’s On The Road) at the wheel. They made a long arc starting in La Honda, California, and sailing through LA, Arizona, and New Orleans to end up at New York to see the World’s Fair, and deliver Kesey to a promotional event for his second (published) novel, Sometimes a Great Notion. On the way much marijuana and LSD were imbibed, the pranksters hooked up with Timothy Leary and sundry Beat writers, many squares were freaked out and social conventions overturned and, y’know, everybody learned stuff about themselves, and the road was paved for the full-blown hippie freak-out of the later 60s, especially by the Acid Test, which occurred after the bus carried on moving after New York and became a kind of roving psychedelic party centre.
Kesey wanted to document the original trip, but seemed to believe that his prose wasn’t suitable for the task, and so filled ‘Further’ with tape recorders and 16mm movie cameras. Forty-odd hours of footage were shot, but unfortunately guys called Zonker tripping balls on acid don’t necessarily make for the most technically adept film crews. Much of the resultant film was haphazardly framed and composed, key events of life on the road went undocumented, and, more often than not they failed to synch up the sound correctly, resulting in chipmunk-voiced mayhem. Whatever Kesey’s ambitions for the film were, it largely ended up as background projection at various parties, with only the Dexedrine-assisted Cassady making it through the whole thing when the Pranksters attempted to screen it (unedited) for the first time. Magic Trip, a documentary by Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood, valiantly attempts to make something cohesive, feature-length and watchable from all that tape and stock, incorporating archive news reportage to give context, a little subtle reconstruction to fill in the gaps, some trippy animation frills and an artfully layered soundtrack culled from various interview sources, held together with a linking, questioning voice-over by Stanley Tucci.
The result is fascinating, but largely for the way it contradicts and undercuts the legend in various ways. For a start, the Merry Pranksters don’t look the part. They were, in Kesey’s words, ‘too young to be beatniks and too old to be hippies’, but I’m sure most readers of Wolfe’s work still pictured a mass of Indian-flared fabrics and flowing locks, not the vaguely preppy-looking Beach Boys session players the film reveals - Kesey is balding, for Christ’s sake. They are graduates, ex-marines, women seeking work at the World’s Fair aquatic ballet. These aren’t drop-outs or revolutionaries, at least, not yet.
Secondly, the trip was a bummer, or at least much more of one than most of the later hippies must have assumed. Wolfe’s prose (or Kesey’s, if he’d written his own book) could give forward momentum and meaning to the events depicted, putting you in the centre of the giddy psychedelic whirlwind. But other people’s trips, like their dreams, are personal, internal. 16mm film stock doesn’t record a kaleidoscopic audio-visual/emotional freak-out, it just shows a bunch of stuff happening, or, more often, not happening. Leary was apparently freaked out by the bus and his inhabitants and stayed in his room when they came to visit, Kerouac is a bitter old man nursing a cold beer, the World’s Fair is a let-down. Someone is left behind, another is lost to a psychiatric hospital. Time and again the voice-over reveals how much various Pranksters (mainly the women) wanted to get off the damn bus and go home, how much the soap opera couplings and uncouplings created tension and rancour, and how little of Cassady’s speed-freak psychobabble you could endure before wanting to beat him over the head with a steering wheel just to get him to shut the hell up for God’s sake. Magic Trip shows the ramshackle, unheroic reality of it all. An especially queasy sequence has the Pranksters rushing to dive in a lake outside New Orleans before realising, with mounting paranoia, that they are the only white guys there, swimming in the wrong part of a racially segregated lake. I’m sure that most viewers these days will be a touch disappointed that their reaction to this turn of events is not to throw together a desegregated protest party/bar-b-q, but to grab their stuff and get the hell out of there as fast as their pasty white legs can carry them.
Still, a fair bit of the footage makes you envious that you weren’t on the bus, at least for a short while; the restored photography is crisp and colourful; the landscapes, and some of the passengers, are beautiful. A great sequence creates entertaining imagery to accompany Kesey’s tape-recorded Stanford University LSD experience (part of the CIA’s MKULTRA programme!). There is much here to amuse, bemuse and tantalise; we get to see the inside of a particular bubble, with Ginsberg and Kerouac and the Grateful Dead, a nascent scene before it went global. And then trace it’s decline. Cassady was a nowhere man outside of the ‘Further’ driving seat, ending up dead on some rail tracks in Mexico. The Pranksters atomised, and Kesey never wrote another novel worth a damn. Still, we have this. It’s a record of being where it’s at in 1964, even if where it’s at is never truly, y’know, all that. Groove on that, brothers and sisters.