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Festival tripped out before Summer of Love
By Paul Liberatore
Article Launched: 10/13/2007 03:04:21 AM PDT
In hippie lore, the Trips Festival is regarded as nothing less than the launching pad of the psychedelic '60s. It was so revolutionary, so freeform and creative and communal that it still resonates in the popular culture 40 years later.
Before there was the Summer of Love, before there was the Haight Ashbury, long before there was Burning Man, there was the Trips Festival.
I would have liked to have been there, to have experienced such a seminal event first hand. No such luck. The closest I've come to getting what it must have been like, and to really understanding its countercultural significance, was through Eric Christensen's enlightening documentary, "The Trips Festival," which will have its world premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival.
As narrator Peter Coyote says in the documentary's opening lines: "It was the proverbial lightening bolt that hit the primordial soup. Just the right ingredients, just the right spark to create a new life form.
"This one event gave birth to a new idea, and all were invited to join. A mix of music, lights and entertainment, a happening both planned and unplanned that would evolve into the way entertainment would be presented from that time forward."
An offshoot of Ken Kesey's Acid Tests, the Trips Festival took place on Jan. 21-23, 1966, at the Longshoremen's Hall in San Francisco. The Grateful Dead were the house band (when they weren't too stoned to play).
It could be considered the West Coast's Woodstock, only it
was far ahead of that massive tribal gathering, preceding it by three years.
For the then-young people who were there, who may or may not have sampled a communal tub of LSD-laced ice cream, it was probably the first time they'd been to a psychedelic rock concert, the first time they'd seen a light show, the first time they'd realized that there were other long-haired freaks just like them that they were part of a movement.
"On the order of 10,000 hippies showed up and nobody, including the 10,000 hippies, knew that there were 10,000 hippies," Sausalito's Stewart Brand, the festival's mastermind, says in the film.
Christensen didn't have to rely entirely on the accounts of others in re-creating the festival. He's 58 now, but he was a wide-eyed 17-year-old rock fan when he slipped in a side door for two of the three nights, never imagining he'd be making a film about it all these years later.
"It was a breakthrough event in that it was the first time you paid as much attention to what was going on in the audience as you did on stage," he recalled the other day in his Mill Valley home -- a trove of rock records, posters, vintage photographs and all manner of hippie-era memorabilia.
From being a whiz kid rock radio program director, Christensen went on to a long career as an arts and entertainment and sports producer for KGO-TV in San Francisco. Along the way, he was in a position to interview the counterculture VIPs who organized the festival and who went on to play key roles in creating the various alternative movements and technologies that sprang from it.
In addition to Brand, who later published the Whole Earth Catalogs and co-founded the Well, Christensen spoke to festival organizers Ramon Sender and Roland Jacopetti, publicist Jerry Mander and Bill Graham, who went from the Trips Festival to producing concerts at the Fillmore on his way to becoming a major rock impresario.
"These are the architects, the seed planters of the whole thing," Christensen said. "I was younger than them, so I looked up to them, and I was lucky enough to get to know some of them."
He also spoke to other voices of the times -- the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir, Carolyn "Mountain Girl" Garcia, Ken Kesey, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Chet Helms, Sam Andrew and Peter Albin of Big Brother and the Holding Company, among others.
After his recent retirement from KGO, Christensen suddenly found himself with the time to rummage through his collections, uncovering a great deal of San Francisco rock history in the process.
"I started playing archaeologist in my own basement," he said. "At some point, I realized I had a project."
In his hour-long film, Christensen not only documents the Trips Festival but examines the connection between the counterculture and the cyberculture as well as the festival's impact on the movements and alternative and communal lifestyles that were inspired by it.
"I wanted to show the small picture and the big picture," he said.
In telling the Trips story, he assembled footage and photos from the Trips Festival, the Human Be-In, the Beat scene and other historic events, including sound recordings from the Acid Tests, one of which was staged in Muir Beach.
Deadheads will be disappointed to hear that, surprisingly, the festival didn't record the music by the Dead or Big Brother. On his tight budget, Christensen could afford to license a single Grateful Dead song for his soundtrack, but he got his money's worth with an eight-minute live version of Garcia's rarely heard "Creampuff War."
While most of us missed the Trips Festival, we're nevertheless part of it in a larger sense. it was the beginning, after all, of something that's still going on.
As Merry Prankster Ken Babbs says near the end of the film: "What we started has not reached its peak yet. It hasn't come to fruition. We're still working on it, and everyone everywhere else is still working on it. Love, peace and happiness -- that's the whole thing."
Paul Liberatore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Take a Trip
The first Mill Valley Film Festival screening of Eric Christensen's "The Trips Festival" sold out, so a second showing has been added at 8 p.m. Sunday at Sequoia 1 Theatre in Mill Valley.
The film fest ends Sunday. For more information on events and movie screenings going on today and Sunday or to buy tickets, go to http://www.mvff.com or call 877-874-6833.
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