One cannot underestimate the significance of the Trips Festival. Without the sprawling psychedelic event that took place on January 21-23, 1966 in San Francisco’s Longshoreman’s Hall, there would be no modern music festivals or raves, and this website wouldn’t exist because the notion of jambands would have never evolved from the primordial soup. Director/Producer Eric Christensen’s documentary, The Trips Festival Movie takes an in-depth look at the January weekend which would give birth to the entire hippie scene and impact American culture in ways that are still being felt to this day.
LSD was still legal in 1966, and Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters had been producing smaller Acid Test parties in the Bay Area when someone casually floated the idea of creating a “Trips Festival.” Prankster Stewart Brand realized there was something to this notion, so he spearheaded an effort to produce this festival and called in the assistance of Bill Graham, a young promoter who had gained notoriety in the city for producing a successful benefit for the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Together with the Pranksters, the Open Theater, a bevy of performance artists, multiple lighting designers (many of whom were anxious to show off their petri dish experiments for the first time to a massive audience), and a little band called The Grateful Dead, this three-day indoor festival took shape. The line between the performers, presenters, and audience was completely blurred, as the patrons came dressed in outlandish costumes and were anxious to participate in a venue that seemed to lack any real boundaries. For many, it was the first time they had seen other “freaks” like themselves, and this massive gathering of experimentation, art, and good times would soon yield to the Be-In, the Summer of Love, and the massive explosion of the hippie movement in the Bay Area.
Through a series of informative and entertaining interviews, Christensen’s film explains why a crazed event with 10,000 folks on LSD was able to work: it was organized and run by some very bright and innovative people. Indeed, the alumni from the Trips Festival would go on to play vital roles in communes, be responsible for a surge in growth in the Sierra Club and other like-minded ecological movements, develop the Whole Earth Catalog, create the influential online group, THE WELL, and much, much more. For his part, Graham entered the Trips Festival as a relative novice, but he left that weekend with a plan, and within a short amount of time, he was producing rock concerts at the Fillmore, eventually leading to a career as the pre-eminent rock impresario of his generation. Oh yeah, those Grateful Dead guys did okay, too.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much in the way of footage that exists from The Trips Festival, so Christensen relies upon a wealth of fascinating photos, many of whom he took himself after eating the dosed ice cream that was served inside. It would have been nice had some audio of the Dead’s performance been available, rather than the studio cut of “Cream Puff War” that he uses repeatedly, but it’s a minor criticism. Experimental filmmaker Ben Van Meter’s wild and bizarre short of the festival, which he describes as “the viewpoint of a goldfish in the Kool-Aide bowl,” is included as a bonus, as well as a great and somewhat informal panel discussion with many of the participants in the festival, including Mountain Girl and Bob Weir.
The Trips Festival really was the launch pad for the revolution of the late 1960s. In addition, it served as the blueprint for all sorts of future gatherings, from concerts to raves to Burning Man to Bonnaroo. Its impact can even be seen in our vocabulary, as phrases and words, such as “drinking the Kool-Aide” and “trip,” come to us from this gathering. Christensen does an excellent job of documenting the tremendous impact of The Trips Festival, and since it is mankind’s duty to understand where we came from and where we are going, this film should be required viewing for any reader of this site.