The three-night event, the Trips Festival, held on Jan. 21-23, 1966, was the first time that the hitherto hidden-away psychedelic scene came fully into the open.
Photo: An Electronically Infused Moment of Rupture and Social Transformation in the 1960s
29 October 2021 | Gary Kamiya | San Francisco Chronicle | With Additional videos and photos
The event that kicked off the hippie era, and whose cultural reverberations are still echoing today, took place in San Francisco’s Longshoremen’s Hall on the evenings of Jan. 21-23, 1966. As recounted in the past Portals, in October that same unlikely venue had been the scene of the city’s first rock dance concert, called a Tribute to Doctor Strange.
That show was groundbreaking, but the Trips Festival, as the three-night event was called, was epochal: It was the first time that the hitherto hidden-away psychedelic scene came fully into the open.
As Tom Wolfe wrote in his account of the festival in “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” “For the acidheads themselves, the Trips Festival was like the first national convention of an underground movement that had existed on a hush-hush cell-by-cell basis.”
The secret sauce of the nascent hippie scene was the psychedelic drug LSD, especially when combined with rock music — much of it played by musicians who were themselves high on acid.
The novelist Ken Kesey’s “Acid Tests” had drawn attention to LSD; the Grateful Dead sound man and underground chemist Augustus Owsley Stanley had begun making large quantities of the drug; and by late 1965, a small but growing number of young Americans had begun taking it.
A not-yet-formed subculture was bubbling below society’s surface. The Trips Festival brought it to a boil.
The Trips Festival was inspired by acid and was all about acid. Although LSD was still legal at the time, the Festival’s creators disingenuously billed it as “an LSD experience without the LSD.” That was less than truthful: Many of the attendees were not just figuratively but actually tripping.
The Trips Festival was the collective product of an eclectic group that included Kesey; Stewart Brand, a Kesey associate who would become famous as publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog; Ramon Sender, an electronic music composer and co-founder of the San Francisco Tape Music Center; and Ben (later Roland) Jacopetti, an experimental artist and co-founder of Berkeley’s Open Theater.
The event was publicized by San Francisco’s radical ad man, Jerry Mander, and managed by a young promoter named Bill Graham, who had made his name holding two benefits for the San Francisco Mime Troupe and agreed to do the Trips Festival for free.
When thousands of people poured into Longshoremen’s Hall that weekend, they found themselves part of an unclassifiable, participatory, drug-fueled, ecstatic, out-of-control 50-ring circus, party, art installation, light show and rock concert.
The handbill advertising the Friday night “program” read: “Slides, movies, sound tracks, flowers, food, rock n’ roll, eagle lone whistle, Indians and anthropologists, plus Revelations — nude projections, the God box. The endless explosion. The Congress of Wonders, the Jazz Mice, liquid projections, etc. & the unexpectable.”
Friday night’s program featured a multimedia installation called “America Needs Indians,” as well as Jacopetti’s experimental theater-art pieces. But as Jacopetti says in Eric Christensen’s documentary “Trips Festival 1966: The Movie,” “We didn’t go over as well because these people were out for rock ’n’ roll.”
For his part, Brand saw the Trips Festival as a passing of the torch from the older, high-art Beat aesthetic to the new, drugs-and-rock-driven one. “There was a kind of Beatnik era of art that got to participate in a big public way — and then pass,” Brand told Christensen. “The Grateful Dead, and Kesey, and basically the audience, the people who came in costume and stoned and basically as performers themselves, were the show. Those of us who could accommodate that were part of the next era. The kind of thing that Burning Man is now, the idea that there are no spectators, it’s all art, was born that night.”
Saturday night featured Kesey’s Acid Test, with music by Big Brother and the Holding Company and the Grateful Dead.
As Wolfe wrote, “Well, the kids are just having an LSD experience without the LSD, that’s all, and this is what it looks like. A hulking crazed whirlpool. That’s nice. Lights and movies sweeping around the hall; five movie projectors and God knows how many light machines, interferrometrics, the intergalactic science-fiction seas all over the walls, loudspeakers studding the hall all the way around like flaming chandeliers, strobes exploding, black lights with Day-Glo objects under them and Day-Glo paint to play with, street lights at every entrance flashing red and yellow…”
Mr. Acid Test himself, Ken Kesey, was up in the balcony, wearing a space suit as a disguise because he had recently been busted for possession of marijuana in North Beach. Kesey had a projection machine and was using it to write messages on the wall, so that suddenly the thousands of people in the hall beheld the enormous words ANYBODY WHO KNOWS HE IS GOD GO UP ON STAGE. A tub of ice cream dosed with acid fueled the proceedings.
The setting and atmosphere was Dionysian, unprecedented. But as Chronicle music critic Ralph J. Gleason noted, the heart and soul of the thing was the music. And it was when the Grateful Dead — who had had their minds blown at Kesey’s first Acid Test in November — took the stage that the Trips Festival really took off.
The Festival’s final night featured the same bands and some of the same attractions from the first two nights, as well as an Olympic-caliber trampolinist who dove from the balcony onto a trampoline under a strobe light as the Grateful Dead played. In “The Haight-Ashbury: A History,” Charles Perry writes, “The crowd was so psychedelicized nobody seemed to pay him any particular mind.”
The Trips Festival was a box-office and financial success. Reports differ, but over its three nights, anywhere from 6,000 to 15,000 people attended, and it netted between $4,000 and $12,500. For the young Bill Graham and others, the Trips Festival proved that the emerging youth counterculture was not only real but could be profitable.
The Trips Festival was a bugle call for the hippie movement, the start of the psychedelic revolution in American culture. For those who attended, the Trips Festival was a coming-out party, a gathering of the tribes. It announced that heads, freaks, hippies, whatever members of this countercultural vanguard called themselves, were not alone, that they could do their thing in public, with kindred spirits.
As Jacopetti told Christensen, “I’m sure people went to the Trips Festival thinking, ‘Nobody’s gonna be as far out as I am,’ and they were very surprised to find that whoever you were, there was somebody farther out than you.” Wolfe wrote, “The heads were amazed at how big their own ranks had become — and euphoric over the fact that they could come out in the open, high as baboons, and the sky, and the law, wouldn’t fall down on them.” He concluded, “The Haight-Ashbury era began that weekend.”
Gary Kamiya is the author of the best-selling book “Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco.” His most recent book is “Spirits of San Francisco: Voyages Through the Unknown City.” All the material in Portals of the Past is original for The San Francisco Chronicle. To read earlier Portals of the Past, go to sfchronicle.com/portals.