On Friday, Darby and I took a trip to Eugene to celebrate Ken Kesey Day. We looked at old photos and other artifacts including Kesey’s prison journal (he served six months for a marijuana bust). We attended a reading where University of Oregon scholars read passages from unpublished works by Kesey and finally we attended the west coast premier of The Magic Trip, a new documentary film that restores original footage shot in 1964 by Kesey and the Merry Pranksters on their journey from La Honda, California to New York City and back in the DayGlo-painted bus called “Further.”
It’s an extraordinary film, and a major achievement in editing by the filmmakers, Alex Gibney and Allison Ellwood. The Pranksters shot some 100 hours of footage on their coast-to-coast jaunt, but their audio and video rarely synced up (and there were other technical issues to address, as well). I’d say Gibney and Ellwood hit a home run, because the film is truly immersive. In fact, Ellwood said after the screening that she felt like she could smell the fumes from the bus at times.
Of course, many in the audience, myself included, were already familiar with the story. Tom Wolfe laid it out for all to see in his book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. It’s also the stuff of legend in Grateful Dead circles. Be that as it may, actually seeing the characters and hearing them is a gift. Finally, we have a sense for what it’s like to ride along with Neal Cassady at the wheel. We see the camaraderie between Ken Babbs and Kesey and other relationship dynamics (for instance, Kesey, or Swashbuckler to use his Prankster name, “steals” George Walker’s girlfriend after she gets on the bus in New York). The film also provides a great look at another time in America. Hippies did not yet exist in 1964, so while the Pranksters drew lots of curious onlookers, most had warm smiles on their faces. In other words, the American people were not scared by the Pranksters’ strangeness. That would come later, when the media, and other powers that be, enacted a smear campaign against free-thinking, freedom loving Americans.
There’s a passage in the film when Kesey talks about a writer needing to enjoy the process of writing a book, because the culmination of that process–the publishing part–isn’t much fun. It is worth noting that the idea to make this “travel film” was an attempt by Kesey to move beyond the confines of format. After all, his first two novels were huge literary successes. Why not push Further into another, more modern storytelling medium? That the Pranksters were filmmakers didn’t seem to matter to them. What mattered was the adventure and the pursuit.
That the group would manufacture its own drama was a given. Take Stark Naked–one Prankster who got a bit too high and wandered off into Larry McMurtry’s middle-class Houston neighborhood wrapped only in a blanket. She was picked up by the police and put into the psych ward. A friend from San Francisco had to come get her and take her home. Meanwhile, the Pranksters were unwittingly integrating a “colored” beach at Lake Pontchartrain, inadvertently leaving Babbs’ brother behind in Georgia, freaking Jack Kerouac out at a party in Manhattan and showing up at Tim Leary’s, where they failed to be welcomed except for the graciousness of Richard Alpert, a.k.a. Ram Daas.
As a literary device, I think the bus can be likened to Huck Finn’s raft. When the raft is the water, everybody’s safe and happy–that’s what going with the flow brings. When the raft pulls into harbor, trouble can ensue. That Kesey was made to serve time for a pot bust shortly after the bus trip culminated is an example of this. But even in the face of jail time, he managed to keep a positive outlook and he came out of the experience recommitted to his family and the work to be done at home in Oregon.
When Wolfe asked Kesey why he didn’t want to write anymore, Kesey said he’d “rather be a lightning rod than a seismograph.” Kesey also said, “When people ask me what my greatest work is, it’s the bus. And they say, ‘Why the bus?’ It’s because the bus is a living piece of art where you’re out with the people and it’s happening right now, whereas writing, which is good, is removed.” Despite these sentiments, Kesey did continue to write. He also taught creative writing at U of O. In 1993, he published his third novel, Sailor Song, that may not reach the exalted heights of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes A Great Notion, but it is a very good book, nevertheless.
After the film last night, the filmmakers were joined on stage by Kesey biographer, Robert Faggen, and by Pranksters Mountain Girl, Ed McClanahan and George Walker. Walker, dressed in a DayGlo jumpsuit and Cat in the Hat tophat was the liveliest of the bunch, but all seemed to delight in the moment. The events in the movie happened 47 years ago, but the need to remember those events and the thoughts that created them and flowed from them are as important as ever. Personally, I feel reinvigorated to push for higher ground. For me that means getting my “real writer, not ad writer” self moving in the right direction again. For others it could mean just about anything. Anything, that is, that has to do with stretching oneself to be more compassionate, more vital and more involved. Kesey once said, “If it doesn’t uplift the human heart, piss on it.”
Note: University of Oregon is seeking funds to help purchase the Ken Kesey Collection and keep it in its current home, the UO Knight Library, as Kesey wished.