A painful sinus problem has been bothering me all summer and yesterday I felt really lousy so I ate a spoonful of uncooked chocolate brownie mix, got on my bicycle and rode full-speed to the Varsity Theater, telling myself, “Remember! Safety third!” That’s where I saw “Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place.”
Reviews of this movie were tepid, but I had to see it. I’d read Tom Wolf’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test several times in my younger years and longed to see the real thing, or least the bus trip that had spawned so many psychedelic buses, so many trips, and so many “kool” places. Kesey died the year of my first trip to Burning Man, and I wanted to see if there was a straight or crooked cultural line from the Merry Pranksters to the dusty Burners.
The answer is conclusively “maybe.” In some ways, Burning Man is the acid test writ large across a desert landscape; transformed from the imagination to four dimensions. I’ve often wondered about how utterly unlikely an event Burning Man is, and so was the bus trip: uncomfortable, unexpected, and spray-painted with LSD. Somewhere in the film Kesey says, “We were too young to be beatniks, and too old to be hippies,” but I don’t think that’s quite right. They were at the heart of the hippie phenomenon, if you ask me. The Pranksters maybe stood apart from hippies (and tried and failed to direct and the channel the movement) but like it or not they were the models.
In 1964 the guys on the bus were not long-haired. They made an attempt to wear colorful striped, red, white, and blue T-shirts. That’s about it. The rest came later. In this film you watch them sort of invent tie-die by pouring enamel paint onto the surface of a pond and holding someone’s white shirt under the water and then pulling up it through the paint. (This was after Neal Cassady had driven them off the road and got them good and stuck in the mud somewhere in Arizona.)
Anyway, my head still hurts, I need more chocolate, and I’m glad I saw the film. Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, the Grateful Dead (when they were still called the Warlocks), Ken Babbs–these people are worth an occasional visit. There is a dotted, curvy line between the bus trip and Burning Man. Cultural experimentation lives on. By the way, I saw Kesey’s multimedia show “Twister” when they brought it to Seattle in 1994 or thereabouts and it sucked. However, I highly recommend his first two novels, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion, and his short essay collection, Demon Box.