When most people think of the Sixties, they are really thinking of the last smoke-filled breath exhaled by a group of people positioned to change the world, but by the time the 70’s came around, many of them were unable to catch their breath again, and in the process lost their voice. For most, the trip lasted a little longer than a drug-enduced one, but for Kesey’s sojourn, it never ended, although it looked that way to the rest of the world, until now.
By Sam Sabzehzar | August 15, 2011
In Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood’s new film, Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place, the filmmakers point out poignantly and profoundly a drug-fueled decade in American history through a series of intimate interviews of one of the most influential explorers in American history and the magical mystery tour it went on across America with a band of Merry Pranksters, Neal Cassady, and Kesey himself.
They would meet with Ginsberg and visit Leary’s sanctuary, visit the World Fair and find new ways to get weird, performing music and street theater while handing out acid to the masses.
This was before the 60’s became their own iconoclast.
In 1949, when LSD was first introduced to the US, the scientific community embraced the drug and by the beginning of the 1960’s, “the drug had risen to a position of high standing among psychiatrists,” writes Martin Lee and Bruce Shlain in their groundbreaking book, Acid Dreams.
“More than one thousand clinical papers were written on the subject, discussing some forty thousand patients. Favorable results were reported when LSD was used to treat severely resistant psychiatric conditions,” including “a dramatic decrease in autistic symptoms… in severely withdrawn children following the administration of LSD.”
“The drug was also found to ease the physical and psychological distress of terminal cancer patients, helping them come to term with the mystery of death,” adding that “chronic alcoholics continued to benefit from psychedelic therapy,” the pair write, as they conclude that the rate of recovery or significant improvement was often higher with LSD therapy than with traditional methods.
Kesey, while attending a graduate writing program at Stanford in 1959, first discovered LSD while he volunteered to take part in a CIA-financed project, MK ULTRA at the Veterans Hospital where he worked nights. It is from this perspective where he first has the idea for Cuckoo’s Nest, and the place from which he would allow his own explorations to forever guide him, and those lucky enough to follow, and scholarly enough to graduate when the test was over.
The trip that Gibney and Ellwood’s Magic Trip takes us on isn’t the search for a ‘kool place’ that Kesey takes his band of Merry Pranksters on, but rather the idea that never really took root long enough to grow back then, but finds a mirror image, a clone, growing higher now than any of the pranksters, hippies, hipsters, beats, and bohemians ever saw.
During Postmodernism, the America that won the war was on display. Chemistry was advancing technology, and vice-versa. As the World’s Fair was putting on a show for all to see the limitless possibilities that exist when one follows an idea through. For Kesey, the magic and the trip all started with an idea, and the mind and motion did the rest of the traveling, but always for a purpose.
Kesey’s journey would be to go into that place where ideas would come from. He was the Great American Explorer archetype and he was taking the greatest journey a human can take; through the depths of one’s own consciousness to all that is consciousness.
“I thought it was as American as you can get because we were exploring a new territory,” says Kesey.
They documented their journey with 16mm film, which is made available to wide audiences for the first time in what Variety calls ‘like a hipster’s King Tut’s Tomb.”
Dream they did, and build they tried, but the power of love did not overcome the love of power and after serving a jail sentence for possession of marijuana in California, Kesey’s metamorphosis yet again, this time to farmer, helped him do what he was doing all along, shepherding, this time at his own pace. On the road, truckin’, going further, forward, always.
Never leaving where Louis and Clark landed, ever-remaining the genius that he was with words, Kesey, through a different medium, explored new ways to explain man and machine and the paradox of that relationship, wherein lies the idea that Power as the most dangerous drug of all.
Magic Trip is playing in limited theaters in Los Angeles and New York. To see the trailer or for more information, please click here.