When people tell me the 1960s aren’t history, I try to convince them otherwise by describing the process of transcribing decades-old audio from a reel-to-reel tape player. Gingerly string the tape onto the player and try to avoid mangling a piece of history. Miss a word and a say a prayer that the tape doesn’t get gnarled when you rewind. The headphones are like a phone line to another time; if you accidentally splice the tape, you’ll need to ask the archivist to patch you through again.
Filmmakers Alex Gibney and Allison Ellwood had an infinitely more difficult job. Working with UCLA’s Film and Television archive and an illustrious group of funders, they had the opportunity to take day-glo canisters of footage from Ken Kesey and the Merry Band of Pranksters’ cross-country bus trip and craft a coherent chronicle out of them. What they made with the film—some of it shrunken, lost, or reassembled in a variety of alternative narratives—is Magic Trip, a historical argument riding on an origin story about where the “Sixties” began.
The movie’s press kit wants you to know that the film’s guiding metaphor is the collision between the Pranksters and the Happy Plastic Family, featured in Dupont’s musical The Wonderful World of Chemistry at the 1964 World’s Fair. This collision “gave us the sixties.” The Happy Plastic Family symbolized a conformist, consumerist, postwar American Dream of the future. The Pranksters envisioned a future in which people were freer, more open-minded, skeptical of the status quo and curious about the mysteries of the universe. They, too, used chemistry to get there. And the clash between the Happy Plastic Family and the Merry Pranksters created the future that became “the Sixties.”
This historical interpretation of the era has reached mythic proportions (that’s why I used quotation marks). I think it has something to do with the drugs.
Drug use is so strongly associated with the 60s counterculture that the psychedelic aesthetic has come to function as a kind of realism. In order to reconstruct Kesey’s first “trip” (he didn’t call it that then), which took place under medical supervision in a Veterans Administration hospital, the animation company Imaginary Forces drew from Kesey’s own doodles. They used the audio recording of his experience to match their cinematic effects to Kesey’s description of his enhanced perception. “As he goes down his trip, we see things double, multiply, blur, and it gives you a sense of kaleidoscopic point of view, which would later take off and become a graphic point of view for the 60’s,” said creative director Karin Fong. In 1968, Tom Wolfe reported that Andy Warhol’s art scene had been “two years behind” the Pranksters, at least according to Ken Kesey.
The Pranksters’ subjective experiences of their trip are captured through period-appropriate cinematic effects meant to illustrate drug-induced perception. Director Alex Gibney suggested that Magic Trip should be filed under a new sub-genre: “archival vérité.” Like the Drew Associates’ Direct Cinema (or cinéma vérité), the Pranksters’ recordings were made possible by lightweight camera technology. The advent of lighter cameras and recording equipment allowed documentarians to follow their subjects in their day-to-day activities. By rejecting the use of omniscient voice-over narration and static stock footage, the new wave of documentary filmmaking was designed to position the viewer as an engaged observer of daily events. Without bringing a professional documentarian on board, Kesey and his crew set out to emulate this new style of filmmaking. In re-assembling the Pranksters’ footage, directors Gibney and Ellwood tried and abandoned a “talking head, look back” narrative approach in favor of an “immersive,” vérité-style reconstruction. They used the archive to faithfully reconstruct the experience of the trip, and to place the viewer on the bus “with charismatic but utterly undependable narrators.”
Sometimes Magic Trip criticizes these narrators by filtering them through their own psychedelic tropes (how did making tie-dye with house paint in a puddle seem like a good idea? This remains a mystery). The viewer gets the sense that the story would be less truthful without the analog effects Gibney and Ellwood used to represent the LSD experience.
Earlier this year, Joe Gabriel argued that alcohol and drugs historians focus too much on the harms of addiction and neglect the experiences associated with spiritual or recreational drug use. Partly, this is an archival problem: drug users tend to enter the historical record when problems with their usage bring them into contact with courts or hospitals. The Merry Pranksters left records of their recreational drug use, and also they bequeathed an aesthetic that expresses how they experienced it. Their records are a rare and important legacy.
But they also leave me wondering why the Pranksters’ language hasn’t evolved. The experience evoked by psychedelic art and cinema has been used to suggest a sensory overload that, today, can supposedly be derived just as well from music or sugary beverages. It has been almost twenty years since Kesey’s bus was used to sell Fruitopia, and four years since the Grateful Dead archive was donated to UC Santa Cruz, further illuminating the band’s business savvy. The myth that the pure but misguided mission of the counterculture was corrupted—and co-opted— persists, no matter how many critics argue that counter- and the business cultures were actually compatible. (Thomas Frank might say that when the Pranksters met the Plastics, the result was a blended family, not a legendary battle).
Marketers, more than historians, have perpetuated ideas about what countercultural drug use was like. Last year, I taught a course on the history of addiction: I found pop culture had already given the students an idea about how baby boomers experienced the drugs of their era. Although the demographics indicate that college students today favor marijuana or stimulants, my class-sized sample suggested that they have also consumed the nostalgia for a drug culture in which relatively few people actually participated. The drug use associated with the Sixties has helped the era’s myths loom large in living memory.
Where does this leave alcohol and drugs historians, holed up in the archive with our tapes, handling concert posters with white gloves? We can certainly study the marketing, as Thomas Frank did. Following Erika Dyck, we can question how drugs like LSD came to be associated with the counterculture in the first place; we can look at how hallucinogenic clichés emerged. We could help archives collect and preserve primary source materials from the 60s and 70s. We could take a cue from Gibney and Ellwood, and find novel ways to present these materials to the public.
According to Magic Trip, the bus ride back from the World’s Fair was a bummer; the Pranksters spent decades trying to edit a film that recaptured the journey there. Historians are still piecing together the legacy of the Sixties. I hope if we find a new origin story, we’ll make an attempt to popularize it.
As for right now, I’m back to transcribing the voices from the past, listening for advice. With a good pair of headphones, I can hear them saying “Fruitopia.”