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February 24, 2009

Book Notes - Rory MacLean ("Magic Bus")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published books.

In Magic Bus, Rory McLean brings to life the 60's experience of traveling through Asia, from Turkey to India. The Asia Overland hippie trail has been taken by thousands of young Americans, and their camaraderie and extraordinary experiences are shared in this unforgettable book. My favorite travel books both teach me about a region as well as inspire me to visit, Magic Bus does both.

The Boston Globe wrote of the book:

"MacLean's ardent eye for detail is lovely, as is the way he sets his more visually descriptive prose against the sturdier explanations of the names and places in his travels. 'Magic Bus' meanders as much as the author did on his trip: There's an intended plan but it's open to serendipitous detours. The book's form reflects the content - and it works."

In his own words, here is Rory MacLean's Book Notes essay for his book, Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail From Istanbul to India:

Five Songs – And Five Books – On the Hippie Trail

Thirty years ago Western travelers breezed through Afghanistan. English girls hitchhiked alone across Iran with flowers in their hair. Free-spirited teenagers from London and Los Angeles were welcomed as honoured guests in Baghdad.

The greatest journey of the Sixties and Seventies – the real Magical Mystery Tour -- was the Asia Overland hippie trail to India. Between 1961 and 1979 hundreds of thousands of Western kids headed east in search of experience, enlightenment and a better world. Inspired by Kerouac and the Beatles, these intrepid pioneers travelled in the weirdest procession of unroadworthy vehicles ever to rattle and rock across the face of the earth: rainbow-coloured double-deckers buses, clapped-out VW Campers and war surplus Jeeps.

I missed out on the Summer of Love. I was born too late to join a Haight-Ashbury co-op, to score at Woodstock, to man the barricades in Paris. But I realised that I could still catch hold of the spirit and stories of those heady years by following the hippie trail…today. I wanted to compare youthful idealism then and now, looking for the links between the ages of Kennedy and Obama. So over five months, on foot and by bus, I traveled from Europe through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. In Istanbul I met an original Flower Child. In Pakistan I broke bread with a one-time dope-smoking Christian who converted to Islam and became an imam -- because of Bob Dylan. At Bagram air base in Afghanistan I sang the Age of Aquarius.

One thing I learnt on the road was that songs – and lyrics -- inspired, guided – or in some cases misguided -- the Sixties travellers in their search for a new way of living, as well as expressing genuine concern for the state of the world. So I named the book's chapters after the great hits of the Sixties and Seventies. Here are my top five:

The Times They are a-Changin' – more than any other artist, it was (freewheelin') Bob Dylan who wrote the sound track to the great, decade-long Sixties road movie: Like a Rolling Stone, Mr. Tambourine Man, Highway 61 Revisited, Down the Highway. Without him, as well as Kerouac, Ginsberg and the Beatles, we'd all still be at home watching Leave it to Beaver.

Light My Fire – The Doors – especially after Jim Morrison's drug-related death in Paris – epitomised the self-destructive side of the Sixties. That dark hedonism isn't so different today. While crossing Turkey I fell into a wild Mediterranean beach rave where we danced all night around bonfires, signing Morrison's lyrics over and over.

Dark Side of the Moon – Forget the Axis of Evil soundbite. In Isfahan, at one of Iran's most beautiful mosques, I met a group of geeky tech students who knew everything about Pink Floyd. In Magic Bus I tried to reach beyond the political cliches to speak to ordinary – and extraordinary – men and women.

Spirit in the Sky -- Norman Greenbaum's 1969 hit single sold 2 million copies in 1969/70. Its compelling combination of gospel and psychedelic rock made it an anthem for young people who were searching for something older and more serene than western consumerism.

Sesame Street – I never expected to meet Ernie and Big Bird in war-torn Afghanistan, and Sunny Day is no rock anthem. But at Bamiyan, site of the sixth century Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban, I found an Afghan child singing -- phonetically -- Sesame Street. ‘Sunny day, sweepin' the clouds away…'

Like song lyrics, books also passed freely between travellers in keeping with the Sixties' openness to new experiences. Top reads included More's Utopia, Kafka's The Metamorphosis and Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London. Dog-eared copies of the novels of Hermann Hesse went back and forth from west to east countless times, as did Ginsberg's Howl, Paul Bowles' The Sheltering Sky and Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy. My selection is inevitably personal but these are the five books I would have stuffed into my backpack in 1967.

On the Road -- Jack Kerouac's restless, seminal, Benzedrine-fueled adventure blended fiction and autobiography to define the 'Beat' generation. Its influence in propelling countless kids onto the road cannot be overstated.

Siddhartha -- Hesse's story of spiritual awakening is a classic of twentieth-century fiction. A man living in India at the time of the Buddha deserts his wealthy Brahmin family, discarding first a contemplative and then a hedonistic life, to find a new understanding of suffering, a growing sense of peace, and, finally, wisdom.

Walden -- Henry David Thoreau's account of his time spent in solitude in the woods by Walden Pond in 19th century Massachusetts is a treasure. “I went into the woods,” he wrote, “because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” The same spirit of discovery -- including self-discovery -- defined many Sixties travelers' quest.

Brave New World -- Far in the future, the World Controllers have created the ideal society. Aldous Huxley's bewitching, insidious and prophetic masterpiece describes a haunting utopia, albeit an ironic one, where humanity is carefree because family, cultural diversity, art, literature, science, religion and philosophy have been eliminated.

The Way of the World -- Nicolas Bouvier's passionate and exhilarating travel stories inspired a generation of young Europeans. 'I dropped this wonderful moment into the bottom of my memory, like a sheet-anchor that one day I could draw up again,' he wrote while travelling through Turkey.  'The bedrock of existence is not made up of the family, or work, or what others say and think of you, but of moments like this when you are exalted by a transcendent power that is more serene than love.' Although this account of his 1950s journey was not published until 1985, The Way of the World (L'Usage du Monde) is one of the definitive Sixties travel books.

Rory MacLean and Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail From Istanbul to India links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
the book's website
Facebook group for the "hippie trail"
Flickr group for the "hippie trail"
publisher's page for the book
excerpt from the book (first chapter at the New York Times)
excerpt from the book (at World Hum)

Boston Globe review
Guardian review
Independent review
Lonely Planet review
National Geographic Traveler review
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review
Time Out London review

Contemporary Authors profile of the author
Spike Magazine interview with the author
World Hum interview with the author
YouTube video of the "hippie trail"
YouTube video of the "hippie trail"

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Online "Best Books of 2008" Lists
Largehearted Boy Favorite Novels of 2008
Largehearted Boy Favorite Graphic Novels of 2008
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Why Obama (musicians and authors explain their support of the Democratic presidential candidate's campaign)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)

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