Wills, D., ‘Ken Babbs Interview’, in Wills, D., Beatdom Vol. 1 (City of Recovery Press: Dundee, 2007)
With the success of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey decided to travel to New York for a number of reasons: To see the World’s Fair; to throw a party for the release of his new novel, Sometimes A Great Notion; to turn America on to LSD and mind expansion; to hold summit talks with Timothy Leary; and to make a movie about the group that he would travel with, the Merry Pranksters.
The Merry Pranksters consisted of Kesey, Ken Babbs, Mountain Girl, Wavy Gravy, Paul Krassner, Stewart Brand, Paul Foster, and a few others. They are best known for their road trip to New York in 1964.
The trip was taken in a psychedelic-painted bus named ‘Furthur’ or ‘Further’, fitted with sound systems, couches and a vat of LSD-laced orange juice. They played pranks and turned folks on, but were never arrested, partly because of the legality of LSD at this time.
One of their aims was to meet with Timothy Leary. Leary and Kesey were leaders of rival factions in the counterculture movement, and disagreed over the uses of LSD. The Pranksters hoped to resolve these differences, but found Leary recovering from an acid binge, and unable to communicate with guests.
One of the Pranksters on that trip to New York was Neal Cassady, the Beat hero. He drove most of the way, reminiscent of his Dean Moriarty character in On The Road, a phenomenal driver.
In New York the Pranksters met Jack Kerouac, who apparently was extremely unimpressed with the Pranksters’ ways, considering them unpatriotic, and disliking their use of harder drugs than those he had personally used.
The Merry Pranksters fell between the Beat Generation and the sixties counterculture, and linked with, and participated in, to an extent, both. They furthered the Beat movement and helped create the psychedelic movement, mainly through their attitude towards drug use. Also, many of the well-known hippie expressions and ideals were originally conceived of by Kesey et al.
Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson and Allen Ginsberg all wrote about the Pranksters’ relationship to the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang, to whom the Pranksters supposedly introduced LSD.
With the criminalisation of LSD in 1966, Kesey faked his own death and escaped to Mexico, fearing a prison sentence for possession. In 1968, Neal Cassady died. However despite such troubles, the Merry Pranksters toured America intermittently until Kesey’s death in 2001.
Ken Babbs, Ken Kesey’s best friend and fellow Prankster, was known as the Intrepid Traveller of the Pranksters’ road trips. He had a “voice that put cops to flight” and led the group whenever Kesey was absent.
He served in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot, and claims that it took him six weeks to realise he shouldn’t have been there. Nonetheless, Babbs maintains that he learned some important lessons in Vietnam: “Being humble. Respect local customs, learn the language, and helping does more good than hurting.”
Babbs is currently promoting Kesey’s Jail Journal Art, a collection of the late writer’s artistic endeavours, which he created while incarcerated. He is also the Captain of the Sky Pilot Club, writing poetry, making music, and trying to change the world.
It was during my research into the aftermath of the Beats that I stumbled across the stories of the Merry Pranksters, and eventually found my way onto Babbs’ own website. Here, I found his e-mail address and decided to revisit the style of interview pioneered by Steve McAllister and myself earlier in this very magazine.
KapnKen, as he prefers to be known, was extremely laid back and formal in our short exchanges, encouraging me to ask whatever I wished to know, despite my apprehensions at interviewing such a significant figure for only my second ever interview. My e-mails to him rambled on into pages and pages, while his replies were never more than a sentence or two. I liked that. And when we neared the end of the interview, he began revisiting his old answers and elaborating upon them, editing him own words in the way I hoped this new form of interview would allow.
– – – –
D.W: How did you first meet Ken Kesey?
K.B: We met at Stanford in the graduate school writing class. We were both O boys. He came from Oregon, I came from Ohio. Oddly, we both had Woodrow Wilson Fellowships. Wallace Stegner, the head of the writing department, had a cocktail party for all the people in the writing class. Kesey said, “I’ve heard of you. You’re the guy who goes to the Place up on North Beach on Blabbermouth Night and harangues the Beats.”
“Yah,” I said. “Aren’t you the guy writing some book called Zoo, all about North Beach characters?”
We became firm friends and cohorts for 43 years
D.W: How did you first meet Neal Cassady?
K.B: A Cassady Pome
by Ken Babbs
Ever hear of Neal Cassady?
the Beat Generation legend
Best friends with Jack Kerouac
On the Road was Jack’s book
and Cassady was the character
named Dean Moriarity,
the man who bridged time
between the Beats, the Pranksters
and the Psychedelic Revolutionaries
The drug agents weren’t impressed
They called him Johnny Potseed
and he did two years
for two joints
and when he got out
he drove to
Kesey’s house on
Perry Lane across the street
from the Stanford golf course
talking all the time
and never repeating himself once,
the rear end went out
of his jeep station wagon
and he spent all weekend
repairing it while the
neighborhood croquet game
went on around him
and he enlightened them
with mystifying quips
we’re fourth dimensional beings
inhabiting a three dimensional body
living in a two dimensional world
black and white, good and evil
with a touch of grey
D.W: What can you tell us about the relationship you had with Cassady?
K.B: Wary at first but later we became friends.
I talk all over the place
sometimes only to myself
but as cassady once said
that way you can have
an intelligent conversation
D.W: Cassady influenced many of the key figures of the Beat Generation, and clearly was still influential to later writers and artists. Did you see much of Dean Moriarty in him?
K.B: Not really. Dean Moriarity was a character in a book. Cassady was a real life person and I never compared him to the character in the book. It is always interesting to read other persons’ takes on Cassady. He was a unique American genius combination of rough childhood, brilliant mind, literary aspirations, spiritual astronaut, sexual overdrive, used the car and racing patter as an allegory of life. Go to www.key-z.com for CDs and DVDs of Cassady talking for the real stuff.
D.W: It’s said that Further was most frequently driven by Neal Cassady… His driving skills were legendary… So how good a driver was he?
K.B: Coming down off the Blue Ridge Mountains in the dark of the night with no brakes, a masterful performance of downshifting and completely calm, afterwards Cassady was knighted: SIR Speed Limit.
D.W: Could you tell us a little about how you perceive your role in the transition from Beat Generation to Psychedelic Generation?
K.B: Kesey and I fell in the crack between the Beat and Psychedelic generations. Too young for one, too old for the other. Cassady was the link between the two. He introduced us to the Beats and was with us during the Psychedelic Revolution. We rode the psychedelic wave, were on the crest, along with thousands of others. The wave continues to roll on, probably all the way to Kansas by now. Our role is to keep the spirit alive, freedom reigns on us all, savor it.
D.W: In New York, the Pranksters met the Father of the Beats, Jack Kerouac. What was his opinion of the Merry Pranksters?
K.B: Jack was tired. He’d been through a lot by 1964. Any time someone is said to be the spokesman for something, it takes a lot out of you, either denying it or trying to rise to it. I’m sure Jack had seen plenty of shenanigans the like of the Merry Pranksters, so our cavorting was nothing new to him. He was kind and gracious, very patient, but after a while he left the apartment where Cassady and Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky had brought him to meet us. I definitely, after it was all over, had the sense the torch was being passed.
D.W: Have you met any other Beat figures?
K.B: Yes. Ginsberg. Burroughs. Huncke. Corso. Robert Frank. Ferlinghetti. Bob Kaufman. Anne Waldman. David Amram. John Clellon Holmes. Al Aronowitz. Kesey and I attended Jack Kerouac Conferences at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado and met many of them there. We also had two poetic HooHaws at the University of Oregon in the mid seventies and Ginsberg and Burroughs were two of the featured speakers.
D.W: What were your ideas regarding drug use back in the Prankster days, and have they changed since then?
K.B: Didn’t ever intellectualize the whole biz then and still don’t. Only real meaning in drugs is search for higher intelligence, according to Leary. Expansion of consciousness is main thrust. Blow out your old outmoded conceptions and open up to wider understandings to include kindness and mercy and awareness of infinite solutions to finite problems. ahem.
D.W: The Beat movement was extremely linked to the idea of travelling – travelling America, travelling the world – and so was the generation following it, and which you were a part of… From On The Road to Further. Would you agree with this? And if so, why do you think travel had such an appeal?
K.B: The car had a tremendous impact on our lives. The word peon means pedestrian. The car was an enabler. Enabled us to travel in meatspace, the windshield our TV screen, a constantly changing panorama as we raced out of the past through the present and into the future. Signs in bars said, Free Beer Tomorrow. It’s time travel on
the surface of the earth and you can stop and get out whenever you want. True liberation. All the modern accouterments of trains planes and the internet are okay but nothing beats piling the kids and dog and luggage and camping gear in the car and taking off for a few weeks of intense bonding excitement bounding between hellish and exultation and providing stories that last for years to come when
family members get together to rehash old times. Works with gangs of kids, too. Road Trip!
D.W: You’ve described yourself as falling between the Beat and Psychedelic generations. So how were you influenced by the Beats, and how did you influence the counterculture in the years following the bus trip?
K.B: We are on a path to far away that came across the seas to commingle with the indigents already here in order to formulate great literature and spiritual awakening exemplified by the writings of Melville and Poe, and the transcendentalists, and Whitman, Jack London, Mark Twain, Willa Cather, Steinbeck and Hemingway and
Faulkner and Kerouac and Mailer etcetera etcetera; not to forget the other arts of dance and painting and music etcetera etcetera. The beat goes on. Expanding through psychedelic awakenings and awarenesses of spantaneous eruptions of joy and glee in order to puncture the balloons of stuffy rigid necked spouters of ancient ugly
arguments they keep alive with hot air, having too much money along with utter disregard for the sanctity of life of those who are poorer, dumber, different, another color or religion; all that old malarkey the counterculture thumbs its nose at while practising the disciplines that will save this world from destrucktion. so ther.
D.W: How would consider the Pranksters’ and the Acid Tests’ roles in modern American culture?
When I was a kid, world war one was over forty years ago and it seemed like it was another century, another time. Ancient history. Now, all the action of the 60’s that happened over forty years is still alive and well. I speak all over the place (sometimes only to myself, but as Cassady said, “That way you can have an intelligent
conversation) and everyone wants to hear the stories, what our motivations were, was what we were doing something meaningful, does it have enduring importance that people today (especially the kids asking) can use in their lives. This being the fortieth anniversary of the summer of love, the questions and answers are being
re-examined once again, down to the nitty gritty, just like the jug band. Speaking of that, where did Steely Dan get its name? Inspector John Rebus in the new Ian Rankin novel supplies the answer. The only role that matters is jelly roll, thus we have morton. When it rains it pours. Make like a duck and let the water run off your back. These and many other secrets will be revealed.
D.W: What influence did Vietnam (both the war and the country) have in shaping your life and the lives of your friends?
K.B: Revealed to those whose eyes are open the idiocy and prevarications of the bunglers in goverment so far removed from the lives of us mere mortals they think they can get away with anything. Well, they can. For a while. When I was in Vietnam I tried to figure out what we were doing there. Stemming the red horde was the ostensible reason, and it was a good opportunity for the military to try out new weapons and tactics, but there had to be more to it than that. Oil or rubber or
opium. Pristine beaches. Hiltons on the seashore. Elephant tours to the native Montagnard Villages. Tiger hunts with crossbows. Camouflage face paint and flapping loin cloths. Book the tour, Granny, we’re gonna explore the tunnels. See the light! There, at the end. The truth revealed. It shall set ye free. Free of gummintbungling, of mowing the lawn, of ingesting the poisons. We gonna buddy up, conserve and share our natchral goodies. We gonna plow the lawn and plant a garden. Compost our garbage and throw out the chemicals. Deep six the glamor products and sharpen the hoe. Thumb our noses at the corporate propaganda. Give an elbow to the ribs of the knowitalls like me. Pinpricks to all the hotair balloons floating out of capitols and courthouses and city halls all over the land. We don’t have to take back what’s already ours. We merely have to see it, use it, dig it, groove, baby, groove. Heaven on earth is here, or as Cassady said, “It was so simple it eluded me.”
D.W: Finally, what are you doing these days? Tell us about the Sky Pilot Club and your poetry, music and protest of the last few years.
K.B. What’s to say. This bumper sticker sums it up: So many books, so little time. Skypilotclub was a supposedly brilliant way to pay for a website by enjoining potential members to cough up some bucks in order to share the costs, while at the same time accumulating club goodies like patches, decoders, T shirts and stickers. Also, a lot of the stuff I write and the vidies I make and the music/rap CDs I
create, are all available online. Every once in a while I summon up the local prankster/skypilots and we cobble together a musical skit we perform wherever we can find a shed or room willing to let us in. What good does it do to protest? Allows you to vent your spleen but as Kesey said, “You vent your spleen often enough you end up with a ventilated spleen.” So we don’t protest, per se, but we try, in a
humorous creative way, to puncture the balloons of pomposity and idiocy with our own over-the-top pomposity and idiocy, hopefully illuminating some godawful truth. What’s mostly revealed is our poor pitch, for we can’t carry a tune, let alone a message. Two examples of this are The Ballad Of Johnny and Jim, and Guantanamo, now
available on DVD from www.skypilotclub.com.
A skypilot is the person who, when you are so high you are stuck and can’t get down, comes and gets you and brings you down safely.