LSD Drives Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters on Their Magic Trip

By , Columnist

Magnolia Pictures

This bus carried the Merry Pranksters from California to the 1964 World's Fair.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest author Ken Kesey started taking LSD in 1960, way ahead of the curve. Four years later, he assembled a band of "Merry Pranksters" for a cross-country road trip that caught middle America completely off guard.

As documented in a new film Magic Trip, a wildly painted school bus filled with proto-hippies traveled from northern California to the 1964 New York World's Fair, with time-outs for Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, and Jerry Garcia. Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney and co-director Alison Ellwood, who earlier made the Hunter Thompson documentary Gonzo, stitched together home movies made by the Pranksters themselves for Magic Trip.

It took six years to assemble 40 hours worth of chaotic footage into a coherent story. Ellwood told me, "The Pranksters didn't know how to use the equipment, they weren't cinematographers, the shots were jerky and didn't last very long, they never considered the possibility of slating scenes. When they recorded audio, I guess they didn't understand there were different speeds to the tape recorder so sometimes the voices are all speeded up, and other times it sounds really distorted and sl-o-o-o-w."

That Kesey and company captured any usable material at all is a minor miracle, given the tankards of LSD-spiked orange juice they drank during their travels.

Magic Trip serves as a belated companion piece to Tom Wolfe's 1968 psychedelic classic The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. In both cases, Kesey comes across as an insightful pied piper driven by big thoughts about both the promise and the fear that cohabit the American Dream.

Equally compelling: Neal Cassady. Inspiration for Jack Kerouac's On the Road, Cassady bridges the Beatnik and hippie eras through sheer force of his manic, methamphetamine-fueled imagination.


Shirtless throughout the film, the manic hipster (pictured above) drove the bus, bobbing his head as he free-associated about jazz and literature with whichever Prankster happened to be sitting next to him.

Cassady's untethered charisma carries with it a bittersweet undertow. The man had to keep moving, even when the "scene" changed courses. Four years after his Merry Prankster adventure, Cassady died alone at the age of 41 while walking down a railroad track in Mexico.


Magic Trip opens August 5.

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Los Angeles-based writer/musician Hugh Hart covers movies, television, design, art and miscellaneous slices of pop culture for publications including Wired Magazine, Los Angeles Times and New York Times. When he's not interviewing people like Quentin Tarantino or Lindsay Lohan, Hugh likes to glug blackā€¦

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