Cleaning Out Sheds with the Merry Pranksters' Ken Babbs
Time has been good to Babbs. At 73, he still bursts with energy and ideas even if he no longer looks like the spry, DayGlo weirdo from Tom Wolfe's legendary book.
I was about an hour into my interview with Merry Prankster elder statesman Ken Babbs when he suddenly jumped up and announced that we needed to have an "outside adventure." This sort of erratic suggestion would have been kind of weird and off-putting coming from anyone else. But for Babbs—the Merry Prankster who helped Ken Kesey teach the hippies how to be hippies—the impulsive and unexpected come naturally.
It's been almost half a century since Babbs, Kesey, and the Pranksters painted technicolor murals across their 1939 Harvester school bus, stocked it full of acid, and drove from LA to New York's 1964 World Fair—a trip that later inspired the Beatles to write The Magical Mystery Tour. The Pranksters and their driver, Neal Cassady, who was immortalized as Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac's On the Road, went on to party with the Hell's Angels, live side-by-side with the Grateful Dead, and host psychedelic sensory orgies called Acid Tests. Their exploits were captured in Tom Wolfe's 1968 book, Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
Time has been good to Babbs. At 73, he still bursts with energy and ideas even if he no longer looks like the spry, DayGlo weirdo from Tom Wolfe's book. These days, he dresses like a grandfather. When I met him, he had on a fedora, a button-up shirt, and loose-fitting stonewashed jeans. As he told it, the conservative clothes are Prankster tools of deception. They let him slip around unnoticed. But his tie-dye socks still peeked out from under his cuffs.
I visited Babbs at his home back in October. He lives on a few acres of land in the woods outside of Eugene, Oregon, with his wife in an eccentric barn-style house that he built himself. The place smells of old books and Triscuits and, of course, it didn't have a normal bathroom. Instead, there were two stalls with multicolored seats sitting right in the living room. If someone had taken a shit, you would've seen their feet dangling from the dining room table. My hungover photographer, who desperately needed to drop some friends off at the pool, kept his cheeks clenched the whole time we were there.
Babbs has collected so much historical detritus from his life with the Pranksters he had to build ramshackle sheds around his property to house it all. He lead me to one of these sheds for our "outside adventure." It hadn't been opened for decades. There wasn't even a door. When we took a screw gun to the shed's wall and Babbs and I peered inside, I felt like Geraldo Rivera at Al Capone's vault. Babbs dove in and started tossing out DayGlo toilet seats, psychedelic piano keyboards, and handfuls of tie-dye trinkets. He riffed on each item we dug up except for the giant "WHUMP!" banner. He let that one speak for itself.
Basically, Babbs lives in a museum. It's funny that the guy who always played the lighthearted counterweight to Kesey is now the Prankster's myth builder, spending his days among his artifacts, spouting off quotes that he attributes to Kesey—even though I'm pretty sure he makes them up on the spot.
In the midst of excavating his shed and avoiding his bathroom, I managed to talk with Babbs about pioneering the acid culture, what happened to their bus named Furthur, and how it feels to build a personal mythology.
VICE: Hey Ken, the life you've led has become a modern legend. How much of it all was real and how much was revisionist history?
Ken Babbs: People always ask, "Was this true? Was that true?" I say "Absolutely." Our story has been retold so much that it has become myth. If all the people who said they were on that bus when we went to New York City in 1964 laid end-to-end, it would be about ten miles long. The really neat thing is that, as time goes on, the myth continues to grow. Everybody is adding to it. It's getting huge. And then, a long time will pass, and it will be like Homer finally writing about Achilles. It'll be condensed down into just the essence. I'd like to be around in 1,000 years and see what this myth will be condensed down into.
You'll be the new Saint Peter.
I doubt that. Kerouac was the saint. We called him Saint Jack.
He was the holy dharma bum, the holy Beat, who saw that the "beat" was for "beatitude." He blew soul. He sacrificed his life by drinking so much. He had to do that in order to keep his center centered. A lot of people drop out that way. It's a sad story.
In 2011, a documentary came out called Magic Trip. It uses the footage you and the Pranksters shot during and after your bus trip. Those four years, from 1964 to 1968, are the basis for your entire mythology.
The bus trip only lasted six months. But then we were making a movie—The Movie. We had a 16-millimeter camera and we recorded sound on a reel-to-reel tape recorder that ran off a generator. We called it "the jitterator" because it was always going "jit-jit-jit-jit." Sometimes it'd go "jug-jug-jug."
What happened to The Movie?
After the bus trip, we got the film and tape together and watched the whole thing, 48 hours straight, at Kesey's house. That's where we discovered something strange. The soundtrack was all messed up. In the movie, Neal Cassady would say, "Well, Chief? Is it about time we get a rat burger...[makes garbled noise] ...I think we're going to get pulled over." By the time he was done saying that, the film would be past the cop stop scene. We thought, whoa-oh-oh this is going to be tough.
We spent a good time working on it. We transferred the tape to mag stripe, which is a 16-millimeter tape. To edit you have to cut the film, cut the tape, and glue it together. It was almost impossible. We'd edit it and on Saturdays we'd show what we came up with that week. We had a big sound system. That was really The Movie. People came from San Francisco and everywhere on Saturday nights at Kesey's house. That's what started the Acid Tests. And what led to the bust.
How'd the bust go down?
Willy Wong was a DEA agent in San Francisco. One day he heard someone say, "Let's go to Kesey's house and get wasted!" Wong thought, Wasted?! Drugs! So he set up a stakeout.
There was a car going in and out and they found out it was Neal Cassady. They said, "Cassady... He's been convicted twice for marijuana. He must be their deliveryman. One more bust and we've got him for life!" They went to this judge and convinced him everything was going on there.
You knew they were watching you guys, right?
I tried to get my buddy, a Marine, to give me a trip flare, but he said civilians weren't allowed. I said, "Not even Marines?" He said, "You're a long way from the Marine Corps, Ken!" It was one short step for Ken from the helicopter to the bus, but one giant step for the whole universe.
When the cops came in with a warrant, Kesey leapt into the bathroom. He hunched over the toilet with a jar in one hand, flushing with the other. There was this guy on his back, shouting, "You're destroying evidence!" I take the little guy by the collar and he flies back into the bathtub, which is full of water and Page Browning. Later, I'm in front of the judge saying, "Your honor, I can explain fully why I threw Willy Wong into the bathtub."
Only Kesey and Page were arrested, right?
Yeah, if Cassady would have been convicted, he would have been up for the three strike rule. Kesey made a deal and we agreed. Sure, Kesey, you and Page go to jail!
Did it slow you down?
Kesey got out on bail and we kept doing Acid Tests. A big thing about the Acid Tests was the band. The Merry Pranksters were one band. Sometimes we'd play, sometimes the Grateful Dead would play, sometimes we'd all play together. On screens we'd project The Movie. It was a multimedia thing.
We were going to go to LA to do an Acid Test down there, but Kesey decided he'd had enough. He was not going to go to jail. So he faked his suicide. He had his brother, or his cousin, who looked a lot like him, go to Yachats and drive down onto the beach in Kesey's car. He left Kesey's shoes and a note that said, "I can't be kept in Reading Jail and Writing Prison and Movie Dungeon!" I thought, This is Ken Kesey writing this crap? They must have known right away.
That's when Kesey went to Mexico.
We were in LA and I was stuck holding the bag. One night, this photographer from Life magazine was doing a spread on LSD. He rented a studio and we were supposed to go in there with our Acid Test gear. He was going to film it and everything, but he had canned music and stupid light shows. I tapped the Pranksters and said, "Let's go to the bus. I hope you've got everything you need right now because we're leaving." And off we went, down to Mexico. We spent six months down there.
We came back in the fall of 1966 and Kesey went to jail a year later. We were all living in the Bay Area, and it was getting wild. San Francisco didn't have that same sweet innocence. The sharks started coming in to eat the surfers—the surfers on the ether of the universal winds.
Have you ever worked a real job, Ken?
You're telling me this isn't a real job? Who else could be me?
[Two hours pass as Ken Babbs leads me outside to his shed.]
What I was trying to get to, before cleaning your shed, is that there's a small chunk of your life that is heavily mythologized. But you and Kesey kept going.
It's like you said. That was a section of my life. But I had another section of life in the Marine Corps, and before that was college, before that was high school, and before that was my wonderful childhood.
Kesey said the reason we could go into the unknown and come back was because we had a good foundation—a good launching pad. The LSD was so strong that a lot of people were affected in a long-lasting way. We weren't taken by it. If Tom Wolfe's book never came out, the Pranksters would be nobodies. Thousands of people in San Francisco did the same things we did. But because of Tom Wolfe, and because Kesey was a writer, our story was remembered.
Kesey basically stopped writing after the bus and the Acid Tests.
Kesey was once asked about his writing. He said, "I'm not a writer anymore. I'm a storyteller. When it comes to writing, I proved myself once, and I proved myself twice, and then I asked myself what else I had to prove. The answer is nothing."
The bus became his best work. Kesey wasn't writing about stuff. He was the art. We were out in the world and that became the real art. We would stop the bus to get gas and all these kids would come running up and people would gather around. We'd come out of the bus and set up our camera and be part of the drama. In a way, this is the Prankster secret. When we connected with people, we didn't impose anything on them. We'd see what they were doing and throw our wackiness in.
We filmed it all, and we wanted it to be on the big screen. It ended up as Magic Trip, which was made by this guy with his own view of what it's about. But I'm glad it's out there, adding to the myth.
Like how Gus Van Sant wants to make an Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test movie.
That still might happen someday. They just couldn't get the screenplay down. You know, Kesey never saw One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. I never did, either.
I've always loved how the Pranksters flew the American flag. It's important to take back the flag as a symbol for people like us, instead of the Tea Party and conservatives.
We flew the flag all the time! We were in Phoenix when Barry Goldwater was running for election. We painted "A Vote For Barry Is A Vote For Fun!" on the side of the bus. We waved flags with the sound system blaring. The flag belongs to us all. It isn't owned by a particular group of people. Especially not people who have rules about the flag. I have a flagpole in my yard and people say, "You can't fly the flag all the time. That's against the rules." I say, "But you can do it when you're a ship at sea. I'm at sea all the time. I never know what the hell's going on."
What happened to Furthur?
Kesey and the rest of us towed it into the swamp behind his house. It was finally going to rust peacefully. It was beautiful back there. It had moss all over it. The paintings were rusting and falling apart. And then somebody had a hair up his butt that the bus should be restored, so Kesey's son towed it up. It was sad, although we tried to be jovial. The restoration never happened.
You finally published your book, the one Tom Wolfe mentioned in Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
It's called Who Shot the Water Buffalo? and I started it in Vietnam. It sat for 45 years. It's about a Marine helicopter pilot in Vietnam in '62. It's a time capsule. The songs, the way they talk, the idiot pilots who were like frat boys... That was Vietnam back then. It's a pretty good book, thanks to working with Kesey and trying to emulate him. It's out now and you can get it at Tsunami Books in Eugene.
What about the fine people of New York?
They can get it at Barnes & Noble and on the internet. Now I'm working on a book called Cronies, about the Pranksters' adventures. It's a burlesque, which is a legitimate literary form, defined as a historical happening embellished with imagination and inventions. Perfect for me. Look, I am putting an ad in VICE magazine to drum up business for my book that isn't even written yet.
Who is this Ken Babbs? Why is he writing this book?!
Why does he take so long? Forty-five years! He doesn't have 45 years left. He better pick up the pace!
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