One of the leaders of the social revolution that occurred in America during the fifties and sixties was Ken Babbs . He, along with Neal Cassady, Ken Kesey, and several others were part of a group called the Merry Pranksters. What started as "Happenings" soon spread across the globe and infiltrated minds for lifetimes.
(Ken Babbs & Ken Kesey Left to Right)
Ken Kesey, who is best known for his popular novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which later became an Oscar winning movie was the leader. Neal Cassady was the link between the Beat Poets of the fifties and the new psychedelic movement of the sixties. In Ken Babbs words, "Cassady was the real link, Kesey and I fell into the crack between the beats and the psychedelic generation. The whole movement was much more than hallucinogens. It covered the gamut of the arts, a way of viewing life and relationships with others, a merciful attitude, plus a questioning of the government".
Ken Babbs and Ken Kesey's lives intertwined through the Pranksters and the movement they were a part of. When asked how the two met Babbs stated, "We met at the Stanford Graduate School creative writing class in the fall of 1958 and the crusade took off from there, destination the stars". He also says that, "Kesey and I were best friends and as such shared in many a moment of mirth and sadness, highness and lowliness, interchanging of ideas and musical moments, plus working together on many projects over 43 years. (At Right : Neal Cassady)
So what was a "Happening"?
Ken Babbs explains a "Happening" as something that, "can't be planned... It just happens! It takes place in public or private and involves everyone present. In Phoenix in 1964 we painted "A vot for Barry is A Vot for Fun" on the side of the bus and waved flags and played stars and stripes forever and drove the bus backward down the main street. This qualified as both a prank and a happening".
The most known "Happening" was when the Pranksters loaded up an old bus with equipment, painted it completely psychedelic, and drove across the country linking the tribes of the West with the tribes of the East. The main focus of the Eastern tribe was Timothy Leary and LSD. He, as a college professor in the early sixties, paved the way for LSD to be used for psychotherapy. He praised the use of the drug to take a "trip" from one's problems.
Ken Babbs explains the trip to New York on the bus writing, "We were going to Madhattan in 1964 and needed a rig for fourteen people and all our filming and taping equipment. Hagen spotted a revamped school bus in San Francisco that was for sale and the symbolism was we were on the road with a jug full of orange juice". The bus became known as "Further" and still is sitting around today sinking into a swamp. A movie was filmed of their trip and later shown at the infamous "Acid Tests".
That famous bus movie is available to purchase and watch today. ( Click Here )
Tom Wolfe wrote a book on the bus trip called, The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test about the trip. Babbs says of the book, "Tom Wolfe blows swell truth". To Babbs his most memorable moment with the Pranksters was on the bus trip. He states, "The time on the bus in '64 when we stopped for ratburgers and when it came time to pay I only paid for $10 instead of the $20 I ordered. (Neal) Cassady saw me and years later when we were playing pool and he was jiving with some women instead of watching the game, he accused me of not making a shot, saying, "Babbs lies". ".
When asked how the Pranksters met Neal Cassady Babbs stated, "He came roaring into Kesey's yard in a jeep station wagon in 1960 soon after he got out of San Quentin. He was doing two years for two joints. The back end went out of his station wagon and he spent four days under the car fixing it. He never stopped talking while all around him Kesey and his friends played a game of croquet. He wanted to meet Kesey, Cassady being a literary character".
Cassady had gained fame in the Beat era as the character of Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac's book On The Road . By him meeting Kesey he influenced the second half of the Social Revolution that was influenced by Kerouac in the fifties. Cassady had traveled with Kerouac across the country several times in the 1940s. Those road trips made up On The Road , a typing furry based on Jazz that Kerouac blew out in a few weeks. Neal Cassady died in the late 1960s of exposure in Mexico.
Most people don't realize how many of the "hippies" actually served in the military. Ken states his position as, " (I was in the) NROTC in college, took the marine option and was commissioned a second lieutenant". He was a helicopter pilot when his squadron got orders to go to Vietnam.
When asked his opinion of the Vietnam war, Mr. Babbs states" I had no perceptions of right or wrong before I went to Vietnam, but (it) took about six weeks to realize we were wasting our time there". He also stated that among the lessons he learned, "Being humble. Respect local customs, learn the language, and helping does more good than hurting."
The Acid Tests and LSD:
"We rented the hall and set up our musical and film projecting equipment. The grateful dead set up at the other end of the hall. Someone else, none of us, put a plastic garbage can in the middle of the hall, from which whoever wanted to could dip in with their cups," Babbs states. Contrary to popular belief the Pranksters didn't provide the acid. He explains, "Just because we used LSD doesn't mean we were promoting its use. (LSD) is a dangerous drug if taken lightly (one) must be of sound mind and body and have good touchstones in life. If not they will fall by the wayside muttering and mumbling like a ravaged mind sucked by venusians, which is a way, I guess, of breaking down conformist ideology". About bad trips Babbs writes, "Bad trips had to be absorbed like a bee freaking out is rubbed all over by the other bees until recovery". Having a ballroom with a group of people all experiencing the same thing helped the experience.
The Grateful Dead
The musical band of the Merry Pranksters was a rough and tough R & B band called the Warlocks. Around the time of the first Acid Tests they changed their name to The Grateful Dead. About the tests Babbs explains, "Acid tests came after the bus trip and came about because we were editing the movie of the bus trip and began renting places to show the movie and play our music. The grateful dead joined in with us". He also tells about the Grateful Dead that, "the Grateful Dead played the music that was the driving force. It was the power that propelled the rocket ship everyone rode to the stars and beyond the whole night the acid test took place."
Eventually all good things must come to an end, and this movement was no exception. When asked why Ken Kesey was not a part of the "hippie" movement he built, Babbs explained how the times changed. He stated, "(Kesey) got busted, went to jail, had kids in school, a wife, and friends. When you speak of the movement you act like it was something real but it was and is something that exists apart from organization".
Sadly a few years ago Ken Kesey passed away. His legacy lives on through his art and writings that are still extremely popular today. The Pranksters still are around and having "Happenings" in new bus.
The current project of Ken Babbs is promoting Ken Kesey's Jail Journal Art. He had a recent showing at an art gallery in Oregon. He writes on his website, "the main attraction, is the artwork from Kesey's Jail Journal. He first did the art on what are called pacer boards (furnished by his brother Chuck, slick card stock used as a promo for a defunct slot car pacer) in jail in 1967. When Kesey returned to Oregon later that year he set up shop in a trailer parked on his farm and turned it into a studio and added on to the collages with writing and drawings and more pasted materials.
Viking Press brought out the jail journal last november but the book wasn't big enough to show the artwork in all its glory, for they are big panels, twenty some in all. The remainder of the art exhibit consists of more Kesey drawings, sketches, paintings and collages done during his lifetime a fraction of the total in his his archives. He was a tremendous artist and some of his best work in the show is from the sketches he made on his trip to Eygpt for Rolling Stone. Hopefully this exhibit will tour the country and the rest of the world".
When I asked Ken Babbs to look back so many years later at what legacy he would like the younger generations to carry on?
He stated, " love, peace, and happiness extended in practicality to the simple act
of helping one another out, being kind and generous ."
I would like to thank Ken Babbs for his answers to these questions, pictures, and his time! We will all try to carry on the great legacy that he is a part of! Click Here for his website to see pictures from the recent art showing and other information!