A hippie-trippy trip on San Francisco's Magic Bus Tour
By ANGELA HILL | The Mercury News | Published: May 16, 2017
I'm on a hippie bus. A rolling commune on a road trip to the Summer of Love.
No, not in 1967, but in 2017, on a two-hour, time-warped, phantasmagorical journey with San Francisco's Magic Bus tour. It takes guests through S.F.'s hippie history -- the music, the flower children, the Haight -- and back to that famous, hallucinogenic summer. All without dropping any (real) acid. They give you peppermint candies for make-believe LSD.
This trippy trip begins on a gray, drab Saturday morning in Union Square. In the shadow of Macy's, herds of huge, shiny, modern tour buses -- tools of The Man, no doubt -- huddle together, vying for curb space and the all-mighty tourism dollar. But soon, our transcendental transportation arrives -- a funky, bubble-spewing bus of many colors. Somebody must have totally spilled Electric Kool-Aid all over this thing!
Bus driver James "Tipsy Love" Fischer -- his eyes tinted by rose-colored glasses -- parks the ride and tour guide Jessica "Moon Babe" Risco floats out the door in that happy, hippy-dippy, Goldie-Hawn-on-"Laugh-In" kind of way, greeting the dozen guests with open arms.
"Welcome, my brothers and sisters! This is your family now. Your tribe," she coos as we climb the steps. "We're not just commuting, we're a commune!"
While there are other tours of the city's counterculture past, this one comes from a place of authenticity. For one thing, it's really on an old school bus, a 1995 Carpenter, all dolled up in primary colors inside and out, with full-blown hippie vibe -- like the famous bus of novelist Ken Kesey and his group of Merry Pranksters.
And it's a rolling piece of performance art with professional actors (Risco and Fischer) and cosmic effects -- not only with tunes from Joan Baez, the Grateful Dead, the Freedom Riders, The Beatles and more, but with movie screens that drop down over the windows during parts of the ride. It's a full immersion of images, snippets of news footage from back in the day and swirling blobs of psychedelic colors (if you get motion sickness, this may not be the tour for you).
The tour -- created in 2008 by Chris Hardman of Antenna Theater, a small, nonprofit, experimental theater group -- is super popular right now because of this year's 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, and it books up fast. So get on the web to get on the bus, now.
With everyone seated, Tipsy Love turns on the motor, Moon Babe tunes in to Scott McKenzie, and we all drop out of the 21st century into the Age of Aquarius, the ostensible nirvana of the counterculture '60s.
"If you're going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair. If you're going to San Francisco, you're gonna meet some gentle people there ..."
Our happy bus draws stares, glares and smiles as we rumble through the city. Moon Babe rolls down a window, "You're beautiful!" she calls to bewildered bystanders. "Peace! Love! Have a beautiful day!" The screens come down, and we see scenes of '50s jukeboxes and bowling alleys, then the changing times -- soldiers in Vietnam, moon landings, flower children. "We were carefree," a recorded voice says, "ready to do anything."
Screens up, and we're transported to Chinatown. It's a chance to learn how Eastern cultures influenced young America, introducing things like yoga, Buddhism, sitars and Nehru jackets. We're blocked for a moment by a double-parked truck unloading boxes. But hey, we're children of the universe, floating on the happiness ride! So we don't mind. Tipsy gets out and helps lift boxes to speed the process, and Moon Babe gets a game going, bestowing hippie names upon all of us. I'm Gossamer Dew.
Finally moving again, and we're in North Beach for a bit of Beatnik lore, passing City Lights Bookstore and Vesuvio Cafe. We hear Jack Kerouac's voice: "It's the beat generation, it's beat, it's the beat to keep, it's the beat of the heart, it's being beat and down in the world and like old-time lowdown ..."
Ooh, a bummer storm -- we've hit the Financial District. But relax, it's just to get to the other side. "Use your third eye, my people," Moon Babe says as we near the Transamerica Pyramid. "You can see all the people slaving away and the big man at the top making all the money."
"Yeah," one rider chimes in, "but he was probably a hippie!"
We roll along Market Street. Screens are down again. We see Vietnam protests marching here, civil rights demonstrations. We hear the Freedom Riders:
"Ain't gonna let nobody turn me 'round, I'm gonna keep on a walkin', keep on a talkin', keep on a marchin' on to freedomland."
Near South Van Ness, Moon Babe tells us about The Carousel Ballroom, a big-band dance palace that became the Fillmore West in the '60s. "You'd get to hear groovy bands for $10 a night," she says. "Jimi Hendrix, Santana, Mama Cass and a little band called the Warlocks -- you might know them as the Grateful Dead."
Wanna see what the place looks like now? It's a Honda dealership. Bummer storm, man.
We not only travel time, but space, expanding our consciousness. The window screens are down as we motor up the foot of Haight with moon-launch images timed to the bumpy ride. Screens rise, and we're at the infamous intersection: Haight and Ashbury.
"This is the mother land. The center of the universe," Moon Babe says. "Use your third eye again. Instead of those hipsters eating at Ben & Jerry's over there, see this street filled with our sisters and brothers, playing music."
We pass head shops, record stores, murals, Tibetan gift shops. Moon Babe points out places that used to be communes, or one of Jimi Hendrix's "crash pads." She tells of the Free Stores, where furniture and clothing were free for the taking and giving. And the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic. "They had a room where, if you were having a bad trip, you could just go in and hang out," she says.
We swing through Golden Gate Park and glimpse Hippie Hill in the distance. Screens come down again with footage of the Human Be-In, and voices talk about running barefoot through the park.
We're tripping on nature, man, and nature's calling. So Tipsy stops at the Conservatory of Flowers for everyone to stretch and take a bathroom break. Then we head back downtown. We're briefly bummed, but our consciousness is sufficiently expanded, and the sun is finally out. Our groove returns with a final sing-along:
"When the moon is in the Seventh House, and Jupiter aligns with Mars, then peace will guide the planets and love will steer the stars ..."
The Magic Bus Tour
When: Departs 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. on Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays during the summer months. (Days and times change for winter.)
Where: Ticketed riders meet on the sidewalk across from Macy's at Union Square.
Cost: $70 for adults, $65 for students; must book in advance.