Mountain Girl And The Magic Trip : A Conversation With Carolyn Garcia

Magic Trip posterOne of my favorite interviews I’ve done was my Jambands.com feature with Carolyn “Mountain Girl” Garcia (wife of Jerry). The occasion was the release of the Magic Trip documentary, which put you aboard the “Further” bus with Ken Kesey & The Merry Pranksters back in 1964 as they made their cross-country voyage with the legendary Neal Cassady at the wheel. Our conversation covered lots more, however …

(Originally appeared on Jambands.com in August 2011)

Whether you lived the 1960s or are a student of them, your personal philosophy can easily be defined by answering one single question.

What do you feel was the important voyage: Apollo 11’s mission to the moon’s surface and back in 1969 or Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters’ cross-country bus trip in 1964?

Or boil it down to a bumper sticker, if you’d like: Neil Armstrong or Neal Cassady?

Think about it.

The only downside I can come up with as far as Magic Trip is concerned is that one viewing is not going to be enough. There are two magic trips afoot in this movie: the first, obviously, is the one taken by Ken Kesey and The Merry Pranksters aboard the 1939 International Harvester schoolbus named Further back in 1964.

(And before the debate starts about the name of the bus, I’ll defer to Captain Ken Babbs, Kesey’s co-pilot in innerspace exploration. The Intrepid Traveler says, “The bus was Further, named by Roy Sebern, who painted FURTHER on the sign on top in June 1964. It was a good luck name, he said – one that would keep the bus going to its destination. Later on, the sign on the bus was misspelled as FURTHUR, a mistake by someone who repainted it. That’s the reason lots of people think the bus is called ‘Furthur’ instead of ‘Further’ – and now, to complicate things even more, Furthur is a band.”)

The second magic trip is the one filmmakers Alison Ellwood and Alex Gibney take you on over the course of an hour and forty seven minutes. “Magic Trip” is not a collection of “I remember back when …” present-day interviews done over cups of tea in the sitting room.

Oh, no.

Magic Trip scoops you up and sets you down right in the middle of the happenings – from Kesey’s recorded observations during his early (government-funded) trips at a VA hospital in 1959 to the Acid Test Graduation in 1966. You’re there when the Pranksters slather Further with its initial coat of many colors at Kesey’s home in La Honda, CA; you’re riding shotgun with Neal Cassady at the wheel singing “Love Potion #9” as the bus makes its approach into New York City; and you’re on the floor at the Acid Tests with the music of the then-Warlocks-but-soon-to-be-Grateful-Dead pumping through you.

Working with the blessing of the Kesey family (and access to Ken’s manuscripts, letters, photos, and other materials), Ellwood and Gibney overcame the idiosyncrasies that rendered the original 16mm footage shot by Kesey and the Pranksters nearly useless. Oddball fluctuations in recording speeds due to unsteady genset power threw the sound and video totally out of sync at times; attempts to edit footage over the years had made the materials even more disjointed; and, of course, the acid-soaked weirdness that fueled the original filming presented its own set of challenges. If the filmmakers hadn’t gotten it – if they had approached the story of Kesey, the Pranksters, and Further as if they were oddities in a time-capsuled zoo – then the movie would never have worked.

But it does. Magic Trip is totally on the bus.

Carolyn “Mountain Girl” Garcia (or MG) wasn’t aboard Further for the original cross-country voyage, but she logged in her share of miles as a Prankster, for sure. Arriving on the scene soon after Further’s return to La Honda (introduced to Kesey by none other than Cassady himself), Garcia spent untold hours over the years working with Kesey, Babbs, and her fellow Pranksters at trying to tame the wild-ass film footage and audio from the bus trip. When she refers to Magic Bus as “amazing,” then you’d better pay attention.

Former wife of Jerry Garcia; mother of three; board member of the Rex and Furthur foundations; member of the Women’s Visionary Congress; author, visionary, psychedelic pioneer, and Merry Prankster for evermore. If the Grateful Dead are thought to be the forefathers of the jam scene, then Carolyn “Mountain Girl” Garcia is its godmother.

We were lucky enough to have the opportunity to speak (and laugh) with MG in early August. It was a magic trip of its own.

BR: Carolyn, before we get too far into the movie – and this isn’t too far off-topic, as there’s some great early footage of The Dead playing at the Acid Tests – I feel like it wouldn’t be right if I didn’t ask you about this time of year. It seems like the whole world becomes honorary Deadheads when the first week of August rolls around – from Jerry’s birthday on the 1st to the anniversary of his death on the 9th.

MG: Yes, it does – I get a lot of extra e-mail around this time of year and a lot of extra phone calls. It’s gotten almost a little bit eerie for our family, actually. They’ve chosen to call August 9th “Jerry Day” in San Francisco, but his birthday was back on the 1st and I like that day better. It’s just gotten a little creepy.

BR: There are so many holidays now that are celebrated on days other than when the actual cause for celebration happened …

MG: That’s right – exactly. But I do love that people are paying attention to Jerry’s music – I think that’s great.

BR: Also, I’m supposed to say “Hello” from Ken Babbs. In an e-mail earlier today he said to tell you that he’s seen the movie and gives it “two thumbs up” – he really enjoyed it.

MG: Oh, it’s delightful. I’ve watched the movie four times now and each time I notice completely different stuff about it. The last time I watched it, I was in a room full of properly-prepared people and they were rolling in the aisles. (laughter) They were roaring with laughter – it really caught me by surprise.

But the way the movie is put together is just amazing. The work the editors did was phenomenal – they took film that was so messed up and they made it viewable again.

BR: And to put things in historical context, you arrived on the Prankster scene in 1964 just in time to get involved with the original editing effort, correct?

MG: That’s right – it was the week after they got back from the cross-country trip. And it was really interesting, because Kesey says to me, “You can go to work on cataloguing these audio tapes.” And there were three boxes of these tapes – oh my God! (laughs) Some of it had fallen off the reels and some of it was unlabeled … I had to try to figure out which piece of film it went with.

BR: Oh, man. (laughs)

MG: You know, the camera would shut off, but the tape would keep rolling. (laughter) And the soundtrack was all wiggly because the generator on the bus wouldn’t run at a constant speed – the tape recorder would speed up and slow down. It was all so wacky to try to make sense out if it, you know? And I was just a kid; still a teenager.

But it was a huge challenge for me – and the Pranksters were just so much fun … such a hoot. (laughs) We took time to have fun, which is really rare in my experience as an American – nobody was doing that then. The Pranksters put “fun” at the top of the priority list, which is so unusual.

BR: That’s what I’ve enjoyed about getting to know Babbs: he’s serious about the things he’s passionate about – but he’s serious with a twinkle, you know? He’s serious about the fun.

Ken Babbs (left) & Ken Kesey

Ken Babbs (left) & Ken Kesey

MG: Oh, Babbs has a big twinkle going on – and he really enjoys getting out and talking to all these people he didn’t know. He’s having the time of his life with his book and this movie coming out in the same year – he’s having fun.

BR: Was there a point in the Pranksters’ attempt to put all the bus trip footage together when you simply said, “We can’t do what we wanted to do with this” – when you knew it was impossible with what you had to work with?

MG: Yeah, but it took a long time to get there – it took years. Even just before Kesey passed away, he was still working on pieces of that film to sell. He and Babbs had a little office and they would just get up there and work and work on that stuff. By then they had transferred it to video and had computers that they really didn’t know how to run very well. (laughter)

And then, of course, before they mailed them out they’d have to hand-paint each box that the videos went into … and the paint wouldn’t dry properly so the boxes would be sticky. (laughter) It was never easy; it was just never an easy project … and to have this much fun … (laughter)

BR: Is there any footage in Magic Trip that you hadn’t seen before?

MG: Yeah, there is, actually. Like, I had not seen the stuff from up at the lake on the way back – or the Millbrook part, either. When they come in with the green smoke bombs? (laughter)

BR: Yes! It was great that somebody went ahead to be able to capture their entrance!

MG: And you know, at that point they were running out of film – and film was wickedly expensive back then. Nowadays, everybody has video cameras and they don’t think about what it used to cost for film. They didn’t want to waste a single shot, you know? And it wasn’t like they had “auto-focus” or anything. (laughter) There was a lot of wasted film. Technology has really come so far and it’s amazing what we have at our disposal now. But, still – I don’t think that there are too many people having the level of fun that we had. (laughter)

BR: One of the big things in Magic Trip for me personally is the video and audio of Neal Cassady. There isn’t a lot of it around.

MG: No – and there’s still stuff that needs to be found in that archive; there’s much more of Neal, but it’s gotten lost. Oh, what a character he was! (laughs) We were just surrounded by these characters: Tiny Tim; Neal; and Ginsberg – what a character he was! And they were so sure of who they were and they didn’t have any problems worrying about exactly who they were going to be. They were like strong cheese – they were exactly who they were and kept the ball rolling, all of those people.

BR: I already know this is a doomed question: do you have a favorite Neal story? Something that sums him up?

MG: Oh … how do you sum up Neal? He was such a character – and he always had a sidekick. He always had some young guy that he was teaching how to be a character. That’s it: he was in charge of character development for young men. (laughter) What really is the key to Neal’s character is in the new version of On The Road that came out a couple of years ago – the unedited version. It tells Neal’s story much more clearly than the original book that came out in the late 50s.

BR: Really? You know, I haven’t read it.

MG: Oh, it was so much better of a story before they cleaned it up. Neal was the most amazing womanizer in America at the time and Kerouac tells the story beautifully. I really recommend it. It’s a wonderful read – I couldn’t put it down.

BR: Great – I’ll tell my wife you said that. There’s my Christmas present. Thank you. Sometimes I wonder what would’ve happened if Kerouac had been bitten by the film bug the way Kesey was …

MG: (laughs) Imagine it! Kesey had this lightning flash that words weren’t enough any more. I think the LSD experiments convinced him that words fail to convey imagery properly. What he really wanted to do is have all this colorful imagery on the screen and he only partially succeeded in making that work. It was so complicated …

BR: They really did quite a job of syncing up the audio and video in the actual footage that’s used in Magic Trip though, didn’t they?

MG: Oh, yes – an amazing job. They found these beautiful scenes, cleaned up that film, and made it look all fresh – an incredible job. They did some creative scenes to put it all together, too, which people will eventually notice – it helps the story flow. Like Ken’s first acid trip in the hospital: they created this wonderful animated sequence. They did such a marvelous job.

FurthurBR: So, the bus itself was a machine, of course – but mystical at the same time –

MG: Exactly!

BR: And you’d be driving around in this … well … almost like a being that could magically put a smile on people’s faces when you drove by, right? But then a little while later, it’s just a cranky old bus, broken down alongside the road with a bad wheel bearing or a pooched water pump. (laughter) Is there an easy way to describe what the bus meant to you?

MG: Well … to me, the bus was the beginning of realizing that art didn’t have to hang in a museum. Art could be an ongoing project. When I first put my hand on the bus and felt it already had layers of paint and bubbles of stuff stuck on it, it seemed like it had been worked over several times already. I was so excited, because it meant that people had touched it and walked on it and fiddled with it and gone back and repainted stuff and it just … it was exciting.

The bus was a liberation from that whole old attitude of [deep voice] “Make a painting and then it goes on the wall.” (laughter) This wasn’t an “old master”; this was a new creation that was being renewed all the time – and that was really exciting to me. I didn’t know how to put that into words then; all I knew was the thing felt alive to me and this group of wonderful, funny people.

BR: And then, sadly, you watched first-hand the disintegration of the bus over the years. The scenes in the movie of the original bus all gutted out were sad to watch.

Ken Kesey's son Zane is currently leading an effort to restore the original bus. For more details go to: www.furthurdowntheroad.org

Ken Kesey’s son Zane is currently leading an effort to restore the original bus. For more details go to: http://www.furthurdowntheroad.org

MG: Well, but come on – it was a 1930-something-or-other! It was real antique and it just kind of fell apart after a while … it couldn’t be fixed after a certain point, and Ken parked it. But then he found another one that looked just like it – only newer – and he painted that and it’s still running.

Ken’s son Zane takes that bus all over the place: various festivals and Furthur shows … and it’s gorgeous. It’s going to be at the theater in Portland [Oregon] next week for the opening of the movie. You’ve got to come out here and see it to believe it, Brian. It’s just beautiful.

BR: I suppose if anybody has a glimmer of belief in reincarnation of the human soul, then maybe it’s fair to say that the old bus’ soul …

MG: Absolutely! Absolutely! Come on out and we’ll take a ride. (laughter)

The present-day bus that Zane Kesey skippers

The present-day bus that Zane Kesey skippers

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