Magic Trip’s Druggy Sixties Origin Story (or, Why Historians Should Think About Selling Out)

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.

The Bus
(Source: Magnolia Pictures)

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.

The Wonderful World of Chemistry

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.

Kesey’s Doodles and Magic Trip’s credit sequence
(Source: Imaginary Forces)

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.

Reel to Reel Player
(Source: Imaginary Forces)

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.”

7 thoughts on “Magic Trip’s Druggy Sixties Origin Story (or, Why Historians Should Think About Selling Out)”

  1. Psychedelic use is a living tradition in the Americas. Today about 15% of US adults over 18 have tried LSD or magic mushrooms (NSDUH survey). Compare to US college surveys circa 1969 in which between 1-10% had tried LSD or other psychedelic. Mescaline peyote cactus, psilocybin mushrooms, and DMT ayahuasca have been used ceremonially in the Americas for millenia and are protected under freedom of religion in the US and other countries.

    Advertising borrows psychedelic imagery in part because artists need to have jobs. Please, it is absurd to suggest that a soft drink “evokes” the psychedelic experience or that “sensory overload” is a valid summary of the effects. In recent clinical studies at Johns Hopkins University (by Roland Griffiths and colleagues), most people who got psilocybin called it one of the most personally and spiritually meaningful events of their lives (comparable to the birth of a child).

    I’m not sure what you mean that the “language hasn’t evolved”. If you mean that advertisers and hack writers keep returning to old hippie-exploitation cliches, true enough. But psychedelic culture has certainly grown and developed, albeit while avoiding the mass media because of the stigma and legal persecution. For example, look up “psytrance”.

  2. Hi Jenny, Thanks for your comment– I think we agree. There have been some fabulous posts elsewhere on Points that discuss the wonderful renaissance in interdisciplinary scholarship on hallucinogens (including religious, anthropological, and medical research), and I hope the blog has helped get the word out about these studies. I did mean to refer to hippie-exploitation cliches, and it does seem to me that psytrance is less well known than those familiar tropes–although it may be that I just travel in the wrong circles. I think that if we want the uninitiated to learn about the way that psychedelic culture has grown and developed, new media might be able to help. Thanks again, Claire

  3. “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.” – Such a good point!

  4. I think Kesey even popularized the use of the word “trip” to refer to a drug experience, because of his combined drug trip/bus trip. I’ve been trying to pinpoint the exact time when “trip” was first used to refer to drug experiences, but it seems to be around 1965–the same year Kim Fowley came out with his record, “The Trip,” and a nightclub in L.A. opened as the Trip later that fall.

  5. Thanks, Emily– it’s a problem that comes up in all sorts of addiction research, and I thought worth mentioning again. Jon, that’s fascinating!

  6. I agree with Emily. I appreciate your awareness of the materiality of the archive and the absences implied by the archive. Presumably, those who encountered (and enjoyed) the 1960s drug culture without addiction were less likely to become a part of the record. I’d imagine you would have to look more to the art of the era to get that voice, which you gesture to when you talk about the concert posters and the way in which the art of the time period has begun to be appropriated for its commercial value.

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