How did a basketball-playing Marine Corps lieutenant from Ohio become a driving force for the Merry Pranksters, an emcee for the Grateful Dead, farmer, novelist, publisher and raconteur? The ageless Ken Babbs talks with PKM’s Gregory Daurer about how he’s still living the American dream and has even, at 84, become a fan of Metallica.
To hear him tell it, Ken Babbs once playfully and spontaneously declared to his friends, “‘Tis I, the Intrepid Traveller! Come to lead his Merry Band of Pranksters across the country in the reverse direction of the settlers. Our motto: The obliteration of the entire nation! Oh, not meant literally, of course. Blow their minds, not their buildings!”
The monikers stuck: Ken Babbs became the Intrepid Traveller, and he and his fellow passengers became known as the Merry Pranksters. Their eventual psychedelic bus trip from California to New York in 1964 achieved legendary status via The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe’s 1968 work of literary nonfiction. During their psychedelic trek, the Pranksters – including group captain and chief catalyst Ken Kesey (author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion), George Walker, bus navigator Neal Cassady (of On the Road fame), and a handful of other men and women – dosed themselves on LSD and filmed the proceedings, amplifying their music and running commentary for themselves and passerby, creating chaotic merriment, and seeding sociological revolution. Scores of hours of film were shot, later becoming one of the visual elements at the group’s public, multimedia acid tests. The film footage was eventually assembled as a video in 1999 entitled Intrepid Traveller And His Merry Band of Pranksters Look For A Kool Place, in addition to being included within the 2011 documentary Magic Trip. Whether apocryphal or not, it’s said the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour was inspired by the Merry Pranksters and their bus Further. (Or was it “Furthur”? It has been spelled both ways).
Ken Babbs. Athlete. Marine helicopter pilot in Vietnam. Author. Countercultural emissary. Occasional Grateful Dead emcee. (Hear him at the beginning of this recording of the 1966 Fillmore acid test and at this 1972 Grateful Dead concert in Veneta, Oregon.) Husband, father, farmer. Musician blowing his joyfully-cacophonous blasts of trombone. He of the outsized personality and the abundant laughter. His life’s journey has taken Babbs from birth in Ohio, to California and Vietnam, to Woodstock and other notable happenings over the years. For over four decades, he’s lived in Dexter, Oregon, having settled down on pastoral land near his late friend Kesey.
A man of letters like Kesey, Babbs, now 84, began his novel Who Shot the Water Buffalo? while serving in Vietnam in the early 1960s. It finally saw publication in 2011, thanks to his literary agent Sterling Lord (also Kesey and Jack Kerouac’s agent). Presently, the Intrepid Traveller is looking for a cool publisher for his collection of whimsically-embellished recollections, Cronies.
The Merry Pranksters kept each other on their toes, schooled each other to expect the unexpected. Toss a ball without warning at a fellow Prankster, he’d better intuitively catch it! Calling Babbs by phone to begin our second-ever, one-on-one conversation (the first took place in 2011 at his home – a couple of snippets of which find their way into this edited interview), he unexpectedly announced to me that he was presently livestreaming our conversation over Facebook to his online followers, thrusting me into adopting the role of public performer as well as interviewer, right from the get-go. Ken Babbs had metaphorically tossed a ball at my head, before I had even begun to toss out any questions! Whether or not he’d consciously meant to put me on the spot, I felt like I’d just been pranked by a storied Merry Prankster.
PKM: As a onetime “Mentorite” – a resident of Mentor, Ohio – how did growing up in that town by Lake Erie contribute to your character? And does it continue to inform your identity in any way?
Ken Babbs: Very much so. I was very lucky to live in a nice, small town on Lake Erie, and we spent hours and days on the beach, in the early ’50 – the Eisenhower years. The place was safe, the country was safe. My gang of guys, about four of us, we’d go out on our bikes with our packs, and camp out for three or four days in a row, and parents didn’t even worry about us.
PKM: And as a young man you wrote for the high school newspaper, played trombone, played basketball.
Ken Babbs: I did. I wrote for the newspaper, I was the sports editor. And I was the script editor for the yearbook. I played in the band; I played the trombone – and I still do. And, also, I was a three-sport athlete: baseball, basketball, and football. And the other thing that shaped my life when I was young, when I was in high school, in the summers, I would go work on my uncles’ farms down in central Ohio. And that gives me my link to my continuing farm work which I do now. I don’t play basketball anymore. [Laughs.]
PKM: But you did in college and you went to the NCAA finals, is that right?
Ken Babbs: Yes, Miami University in Ohio. In the 1957-58 season, we went undefeated in the Mid-American Conference. No other team has ever done it yet. And we went to the NCAA tournament and we won our first game, and then went to Kentucky; Adolph Rupp the famous coach [for the University of Kentucky] was retiring, and they beat us and went on to win the championship.
PKM: When you were a basketball player, you played against some noted hoopsters, is that correct?
Ken Babbs: How about Oscar Robertson? He played for [the University of] Cincinnati. Our coach’s plan was – we’re not going to win, so let’s keep the score down as low as we can. Well, I thought that was a bunch of bullshit! I’ve never gone to a game thinking we didn’t have a chance to win. So, I’m in there guarding Oscar Robertson like a son-of-a-bitch. And I fouled out in two minutes. [Laughs]
PKM: So what led you to graduate school at Stanford University in California?
Ken Babbs: I got turned-on to writing at Miami [University], in their creative writing class, by Walter Havighurst, who’s a well-known Ohio writer, does historical stuff there. And I went to Stanford then on what’s called a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship that I applied for. And then when I got there, I submitted some of my work for the graduate writing class [directed by Wallace Stegner], and I got in. That’s where I met Ken Kesey and Wendell Berry and Tillie Olsen and Ernest Gaines and other luminaries. In 2011, when my book Who Shot the Water Buffalo? came out, Wendell Berry said, “Ken, you’re the last one in the class to have a book published!” [Laughs.]
Kesey himself said, “We don’t need facts. We need stories.”
PKM: So, what were you writing at the time in the class?
Ken Babbs: Well, I was trying to write things that were happening to me – like my trip across country in my ’48 Pontiac with my big dog and all the adventures we had. And then, going back to Miami [University], some of the stuff that happened there that I was involved with – but fictionalizing it. And I think I’m still doing the same thing all the time.
PKM: Why do you think that you and Ken Kesey hit it off and remained friends for decades to come?
Ken Babbs: Well, the main reason was we were of like ilk. He said, “We came from the same herd of ilk.” And we liked to do the same things. He was a wrestler and he did sports. He was sharp, funny. Terrific guy. We just really meshed right from the beginning and maintained that friendship for 43 years.
PKM: There’s been so much said about Ken Kesey over the years. What more can you can say about him?
Ken Babbs: The beauty of the guy was that he was not only a showman, a ventriloquist, a magician, a wizard, a fantastic writer, a musician, performer, organizer, he never quit doing what he wanted to do. He didn’t want to be nailed down. He said one time, “I proved myself once” – he was talking about [his] books – “and I proved myself again. Now I have to ask myself: What do I have to prove?” He said, “The answer is: prove nothing.” And then he went his own direction, in terms of family and farm and friends and conceiving new projects.
Ken Babbs gives a reading and talk about Kesey, the Dead, Hunter S. Thompson, and his Vietnam novel.
PKM: So, you’re in the Marines right around the same time – or a little bit after – you were attending that class at Stanford with Kesey. When do you begin your active military service? Was it around 1958 or 1959?
Ken Babbs: Well, it was May of ’59 when I went in, see? I was in Naval ROTC. In those days, they had the draft going, so you had to do something. So, I thought if I was going in, I’d go in as an officer. And then I found out in the Naval ROTC program you could take what’s called the Marine Corps Option and not go in the Navy, which I didn’t want to do; I did a cruise on a battleship – the Wisconsin– in the summer, and I hated it. But the Marine officer told me to take the Marine Option and I’m really glad that I did [that]. So, anyway I had another year in the NROTC when I went to Stanford.
In May, when the class broke up, when everybody left, I went in the Marine Corps as a second lieutenant. And, dig this: I was at Quantico for a year going to what they call Officer’s Basic School, and I played on the Quantico Marines basketball team. And, oh boy, was that great, because I could cut out of classes at noon and go traveling all over the place – Bermuda and New York City and all the Marine Corp bases! And then, when I was there, I also applied for flight school. I got accepted. So, at the end of basketball season, I went to Pensacola, Florida for a year of flight training and got to fly fixed-wing planes, double-engine planes, and all kinds of things. But the helicopter I liked the best, so I chose helicopters and went into helicopters.
PKM: You’ve said that your novel Who Shot the Water Buffalo? was informed by your Vietnam experiences, although you didn’t base the characters directly on anyone you knew. Still, it seems to me that the main characters are informed certainly by your sense of humor and some of your experiences. For instance, I believe you’d said that you wanted to fly helicopters, because you didn’t want to drop bombs on people. Was that one of your direct sentiments that went into the novel?
Ken Babbs: Well, yes, it was. [Laughs] I didn’t want to drop bombs on people. You know they would ask stupid questions, hypothetical questions, when I was in flight school, like: “You’re in World War II and you’re flying over the Pacific, and you’ve got bombs, and you get a call that this hospital ship below you is actually a Japanese war ship with red crosses painted on it and you are instructed to drop the bombs. What would you do?” And I said, “Yeah, I’d drop ’em, of course!” And the guy moved on to somebody else, but then I turned to the guy next to me and I said, “But I’d miss.” [Laughs.]
PKM: You were there in the very earliest of days of America’s involvement in Vietnam, flying helicopters, dropping off Vietnamese troops. But you could tell that the war effort might not be going too well – or was not going to be going too well. Is that correct?
Ken Babbs: Well, I was lucky. I was there in 1962 and 1963 in Vietnam, which is the really early days, before it cranked up. But even then it was apparent to me, anyway – and others – that we were wasting our time over there. Think of it like the British coming in here and trying to take over for some reason – like the Revolutionary War. You can’t go to another country, trying to take them over unless they’ve attacked you or something. No, we had no business over there and everybody knows that now. But it’s water over the dam and under the bridge.
PKM: One of the images that sticks out in the book to me is when the Marines are visiting a village and someone gives one of the main characters, Cochran, a snake, a python, and it begins to wrap itself around him and won’t let up. He was told this was a gift from the people of Vietnam to him, and it’s choking him to death, just about. And someone has to take a machete and hack the thing to pieces.
Ken Babbs: Well, it was actually the town butcher, because, when we came in there, they were going to feed us and we ate this meal and it was a dog! And this little dog had been following us around and he wasn’t around anymore. So the snake thing happened when we were leaving, the butcher was the guy who whack whack whack chopped the python into pieces and it all fell off of Cochran.
PKM: Was that based on a real experience?
Ken Babbs: It was based on an experience of going to a village like that and eating the dog. And the snake was in there in the pond and all that. But you know the thing about fiction is when you are working with actual things you have the liberty to embellish and invent around it to make it richer. My goal in writing is communicating: I’m a storyteller and I want people to like my stories and read them. And then the other thing that I learned about writing was that you have to be able to write in such a way that each sentence goes right into the next sentence without a hesitation or flaw, so that you never have to – and I’ve had to do this in some books – be reading along and go, “Hey, wait a minute! What the hell happened there?!” – go back and read the paragraph again. So I never want to write anything that’s like that. And I’ve read some really good writers, where the best thing about it – well, besides their stories and characters – is their flow, their writing flow.
PKM: When you were in Vietnam, weren’t you providing feedback to Ken Kesey and maybe some editing suggestions regarding One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? Or was it Sometimes a Great Notion?
Ken Babbs: Well, by then, it was Sometimes a Great Notion. And yes, we wrote back and forth, all the time. He’d send me [drafts of] his book and I’d send him pieces of mine. Then we’d comment on each other’s works and encourage each other. We both liked each other’s writings.
PKM: Tell me about the book that you wrote together Last Go Round, which came out in 1994. How did you work on that together? It’s got both your names as co-authors.
Ken Babbs: Back in the early ’70s, we went over to Pendleton [in Oregon] to the Pendleton Round-Up, this big huge rodeo that’s been going on since 1911. And the thing we noticed there was that the arena is exactly the same as it was in 1911. It’s got new seats and new chutes, but it looks exactly the same. And we realized this would be a great setting for a movie, because you wouldn’t have to make up the set. And then the story we knew about of the three characters – Jackson Sundown and George Fletcher and [Johnathan] Spain from Tennessee – and how they had to have a last go-round, a bucking bronco contest, to decide who’s going to win the championship saddle.
So Kesey and I and Irby Smith, we got together and we wrote a screenplay. And we tried to sell it to Hollywood, have different people take it down there and champion it. But it never did anything. So, I said to Kesey, one time, “Hey, let’s write it as a novel. People will read that novel and think, ‘Hey, this would make a good movie!'” And so we did write the book. And it was a great experience, the two of us, we used that screenplay kind of as – not as a template – but as something we could look at for stuff. And Kesey wrote all the time in longhand. And I had a word processor I bought right then; and so he’d write it in longhand, then he’d pass it to me and I’d type it up and change it and add my bits to it and everything. And then back to him, and he’d rework it again. And then back to me, back and forth, a chapter at a time. And when we were happy with each chapter, we kept going.
PKM: Do you remember something specifically that you added that you were happy to see in it?
Ken Babbs: I don’t remember anything specifically, no. How could I? [Laughs.] I’ve still got all those manuscript pages in a box somewhere.
PKM: Let me read you a couple lines from it, because it was really striking to me: “Because the thrill doesn’t come free, we all know that. Everybody has to pay the merry-go-round man with something; and the more you relish the ride, the more you have to pay.”
Ken Babbs: [Laughs] That’s good! Who wrote that, I don’t know. It sounds a little too deep for me. It must have been Kesey.
2,000 years from now it will be sloughed off and there will be this beautiful, shining story – and that will be the ’60s, written by somebody like the Homer of the time. And that’s the one I want to read.
PKM: Tell me about post-Vietnam. You were always part of a bohemian clique, before you even went in the Marines, in California, and you were still part of that scene with Kesey and all the other folks there in Northern California.
Ken Babbs: When we were at Stanford, Kesey lived at this place called Perry Lane, which was a bohemian place across the street from the Stanford Golf Course. And everybody there was of like ilk. And then other people would get to know [Kesey], and we’d have scenes at his house or somebody’s house on Perry Lane all the time with the bongos and the guitars and the burgundy wine. That was about it. Pot hadn’t even made an appearance yet.
PKM: When did that come about?
Ken Babbs: Well, you know, I don’t really remember too well. I can’t remember if it was before I was in the Marine Corps or after I was in the Marine Corps – I mean, before or after I got in. But a guy Kesey knew from Springfield [in Oregon] came by one time and he had some weed. And so that was our introduction to it.
PKM: And tell me about the Merry Prankster’s bus Further. How come it’s sometimes spelled as Further with an “er,” as well as Furthur with a “ur”?
Ken Babbs: Well, the “ur” was an accident. “Further” was the real name when we were painting the bus. Roy Sebern, a real painter, was painting and he went up and painted [on] a sign-thing, across the top of the school bus, the word “Further.” And somebody says, “Why ‘Further’?” and he said, “It’s a good luck word. It’s a word to keep you going when you have breakdowns and there are cop-stops, so that you will continue unscathed to your destination.” Well, okay. So that was it. But then what happened? How did it change? Oh, I remember…there was a new painting of the bus at one point. And whoever painted the sign painted it with a “u.” And then on Kesey’s book, I can’t remember what it is, there’s a picture of a bus hurtling along and it’s got that “u” on there. And so…who cares? It’s like Kesey said, “There’s only one Starship Enterprise, no matter how many recreations or how many other things, it’s still the Enterprise.” Because everybody would ask him, too, after we retired the first bus and got a new one, “Which is the real Further?” [Laughs.]
[Ed.: According to Wikipedia, Sebern first painted the bus with the misspelled word “Furthur,” but then corrected it to “Further.” Within the TV documentary Tripping – which includes interviews with Prankster admirers like Jarvis Cocker and associates like Hunter S. Thompson – one can see both spellings on the bus as it rolls down the road.]
Ken Babbs narrates while watching film footage of the Merry Pranksters.
PKM: So if you had to distill it down, what was the most memorable aspect of the bus trip that you guys took from California to New York in ’64 to get to the World’s Fair?
Ken Babbs: Well, there were so many, but one of the really, really, really meaningful and outstanding things that happened to us when we were in New York in Manhattan, staying at an apartment of a friend of ours who was gone, Neal Cassady, our driver – you all know who he is – the famous Neal Cassady who was ‘Dean Moriarity’ of On The Road by [Jack] Kerouac. Anyway, Cassady went out and hooked up with Allen Ginsberg and they went over and picked up Jack Kerouac and brought him to the apartment. So, he came in there and sat down on the couch, and we regaled him for the rest of the night. It was Prankster shenanigans, dressing up, playing our instruments, filming. Really something. We shot movies of the whole bus trip; and our movie, when we got it done, that scene with Jack is really good. It’s one of the highlights on the trip.
PKM: Didn’t you once give some driving advice to Neal Cassady?
Ken Babbs: [Laughs] On the bus, when we first left and we were heading out across country, he was up front rapping like mad. He had a microphone right in front of him and it went up to the speakers, so everybody on the bus could hear him. And a lot of Pranksters were up there around him. He was talking about race car driving and he got to talking about the four-wheel drift: where you go around a corner with your speed full on and your brakes full on and you slide around the corner – and he was starting to demonstrate it with the bus! I yelled, “Neal, Neal, Neal! Quit it, man!” I says, “We’re not in a racecar – so this is a different driver you are now! You ought to be the best driver in the world. You will drive in such a way that nobody will know that we’re on the road and moving, it will be so comfortable!” [Babbs imitates Cassady make gruff, grunting, grumbling, cursing noises.] But, he straightened out!
PKM: How did you feel about Cassady?
Ken Babbs: He was a unique person. He put a lot of people off because he was a little bit abrasive; as Larry McMurtry said when I said that to him, [guffaws] “A little bit abrasive?!” The thing about him was he had a great moral compass in terms of trying to do the right thing even though he was constantly screwing up. His knowledge – with his genius IQ and his photographic memory, being able to spout paragraphs from Proust and stuff…He was always able to relate his own life in the stories that he did, and racecar that to some point he was making. It wasn’t just aimless motor-mouthing. But it took a while to catch on. He kind of took us under his wing in a way on that trip to New York.
PKM: What was it like going to see The Beatles on acid at the Cow Palace [outside San Francisco, in 1965]?
Ken Babbs: It was kind of scary. The crowd there were so mobbing, trying to get on the stage. In fact, I don’t know how he got up there, but at one point some guy stood behind Ringo on the drums, a young guy, and patted him on the head, before they hauled him off. And, all of a sudden, Kesey says, “Let’s get out of here, this place is going to explode!” So we all got out and drove the bus back to La Honda. [Laughs]
Someone asked “Ginzy” [Ginsberg] what he thought and he says, “Well, its like this: There’s a chicken trying to cross the road, and he sees another chicken on the other side of the road, and he yells over, ‘Hey! How do you get to the other side?’ And the chicken yells back, “You are on the other side!”
PKM: As far as the famous Acid Tests go, the first one was at a spread you were renting in Santa Cruz, isn’t that correct?
Ken Babbs: That has come down through history as the first Acid Test. I used to set it straight, because it was only a Halloween party. You know, as time goes on, everything that’s happened back there in the past has become a myth. And so anybody that says anything about it or writes anything about it or in any way talks about it is contributing to the myth. I don’t know how many people have come up and told me that they rode on the bus…and I say. “Oh yeah, really? That was fun, wasn’t it?” As I said to George [Walker] later, “If all the people who said they rode this bus with us to New York City were lined up side-by-side, the line would stretch from Keokuk, Iowa to Chicago, Illinois!” But, so what? [Begins rhyming poem:] Because this is the way it goes, the myth grows, the myth stands on its toes, the myth tells what it knows, and what it doesn’t know, what its nose knows, and it grows! Until, finally, 2,000 years from now it will be sloughed off and there will be this beautiful, shining story – and that will be the ’60s, written by somebody like the Homer of the time. And that’s the one I want to read.
PKM: As far as the myth goes about that first Acid Test in 1965, it’s said that the Warlocks, the pre-Grateful Dead band, played, and Allen Ginsberg was there, and Neal Cassady picked up a mike and was orating. And Richard Alpert [pre-Ram Dass] was there. Does that ring any bells?
Ken Babbs: Alpert wasn’t there, but Ginsberg was there and Robert Stone, the famous writer, and all of us. And after the music died down, we got on the floor and had the microphones and someone asked, “What do you think [happens] when we go to the other side? What’s it going to be like?” And everybody gave their little bit, until someone asked “Ginzy” [Ginsberg] what he thought and he says, “Well, its like this: There’s a chicken trying to cross the road, and he sees another chicken on the other side of the road, and he yells over, ‘Hey! How do you get to the other side?’ And the chicken yells back, “You are on the other side!” [Laughs.]
PKM: How did you meet Don Buchla, the instrument maker who’s considered one of the pioneers of electronic music?
Ken Babbs: It was at the Trips Festival in 1966 in San Francisco. We were setting up on the balcony and he was already there, set up with his equipment. So, we were right next to each other and we plugged our stuff into his stuff and kind of made a joint venture out of it. And we became real good friends and remained so. He made a [piece of equipment] for us called the “Buchla Box,” which we had on the bus, which was essentially a mixer. And now it’s in Canada in some museum on display.
PKM: What kinds of sounds did it make?
Ken Babbs: It didn’t make any sounds on its own other than being able to put in some reverb and some echo. What it mostly did was act as a mixer for our various things, so they would come out in stereo in two speakers.
PKM: And what was Don Buchla like?
Ken Babbs: He was a great guy. Don Buchla also built synthesizers, lots of them.
PKM: Owsley Stanley was famous for creating LSD that was legendary, but he was also known as a sound engineer. What can you say about him in either regard – as an LSD chemist or as a sound engineer?
Ken Babbs: Owsley was a singular individual, a unique guy. He was so smart. He was able to work in electronics and take things apart and put them back together and fix things. And in the chemistry end of it, he came up with the formula for [his LSD]. He was then able to provide LSD around San Francisco and to the band and to us. And he was really a good guy, but he was a very private person. He didn’t want to be in the spotlight, at all. [One time,] I was in the audience and I pointed up and I said “There’s Owsley, messing with the equipment, trying to get it to work.” And he heard me and he glared at me. He was really mad at me for doing that. So, I backed off of that, and let him be himself. He and I got along okay.
PKM: How many times would you say you’ve appeared with the Grateful Dead as an emcee or orating onstage? You’ve written how you’ve “gigged with the Grateful Dead more times than they’d care to remember.”
Ken Babbs: [Laughs.] I can’t remember. I mean, it must have been something like 470,312. [Laughs.] A low estimate. [Hearty laughter.] I don’t know. I mean, I knew them from 19…oh, when did we first meet?…1963, 1964, until Jerry died – and when was that, ’95 or something like that? And I still know the guys that are living. I mean, I saw ’em when they came to Eugene, here, as Dead & Company: Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart and Bob Weir. Got to talk to them. I always try to see them if I can.
PKM: And one of those times you appeared onstage with them was famously at Woodstock.
Ken Babbs: Yes, that was a good scene at Woodstock. I got hired through the Hog Farm to take four buses and forty people to go there and work, without any kind of definite task assigned until we got there, and mostly it was helping the Hog Farmers there with what they were doing, serving the free kitchen, and [helping out at the] Freak Out Tent. But I set up on the little hill looking down on ’em our instruments, because you know we all played instruments – Kesey’s cousin Dale played the violin and his wife Tilly played the guitar, and I had a guitar I played then. We had amps and all that. And then this band showed up and started playing with us, they were called The Quarry from the East Coast, and they became the “house band.” And pretty soon, we had a stage set up and all the buses parked in a semi-circle behind them. And we had an ongoing thing that went all day, every day. When nothing was happening [musically], people could line up on the left side and walk over and say who they were, where they were from, they could sing a song; they’d do that then walk off on the right hand side. Yeah, it was a good scene.
PKM: And Joan Baez appeared on that Free Stage, didn’t she?
Ken Babbs: Yes, she did. That was quite weird to me, because the night before, when she was on the big stage, I was up there sitting on the side and watching her from the side, listening to her. And then the next day I was messing around, I was sitting on the side of [our small stage] and I heard this voice, and I looked. I said, “Oh my gosh, that’s Joan Baez!”
But with the Grateful Dead, when it was their turn to play, I went up on the [big] stage with them. And a huge storm had just hit and it demolished everything on the stage, and water was up to the ankles and the canvas roof was all flapping around and nothing worked. And, finally, they got one microphone to work. Pigpen – I was standing there with him – he said, “Go tell them a story, Babbs!” And I laughed: Every time I’ve been on the stage with the Grateful Dead and waiting for them to start – because they always take an enormously long time to get going – he’d always say, “Go tell ’em a story, Babbs!” And I’d go up there and start talking – and the minute I start talking on the microphone, there they all came up and started playing, throwing me off of there! So, I knew that was Pigpen’s gimmick to get the band to start playing. But it took a while on the stage there at Woodstock to get going. It worked out and they went into “[Turn On Your] Love Light.” And this other guy from the audience or somewhere came up and started rapping about the Fourth Coast, the biggest coast of all; and what he was talking about was the coastline of all the Great Lakes, when they’re put together. And Weir says to me, “Get him off of there, Babbs!” And so I lit up a joint and [made a gesture of handing] it to him, and as he was reaching for it, I just led him off the stage and gave it to him on the edge of the stage and he took a couple puffs and [Grateful Dead roadie] Ram Rod [Ed.: sometimes spelled Ramrod, as well] eased him down into the crowd.
PKM: And you were onstage when Country Joe gave his famous public service announcement about the bad acid in the audience.
Ken Babbs: Right, that’s right. That was funny, too. The bad acid. [Laughs.] “We’re from California. We’re West Coasters,” he says, “and you East Coasters should know we know a lot about acid, about LSD.” [Laughs.] So, he was cautioning them not to take this bad acid that was going around.
PKM: So you didn’t take the “brown acid” at Woodstock?!
Ken Babbs: [Laughs heartily] Hell no! I would never take any acid, unless I knew where it came from.
Ken Babbs reads from his forthcoming book Cronies about his Woodstock memories.
PKM: What blows my mind is you were the guy who gave advice to the off-duty cops who were hired from New York City as a partial security force.
Ken Babbs: Yeah, that was because the head of security had been a former Marine and we hit it off from the beginning, and I happened to be there when these 40 New York cops, off-duty, came to be briefed about what they were supposed to do. And he said, “Ken, go tell them what to do.” So, okay, I went over there and told them that this was a mellow crowd and you shouldn’t expect any trouble, but mostly [to be there] for people who need help, be there to help others. And some guy says, “Well, what about the drugs?” And I said, “There’s going to be so many drugs, you don’t even want to mess with it! Unless, if you see somebody selling them, you ought to go up and tell them that’s not cool here, don’t do it or we’re taking stuff away from you.” So, they were all happy with that and they drifted off!
PKM: You’ve called your upcoming book Cronies a “burlesque.”
Ken Babbs: I called it a burlesque, because that’s a literary term, it’s a legitimate literary form and the definition is what I said before: it’s a historical occurrence embellished with inventions and exaggerations. You see, because let’s face it: It’s like [Timothy] Leary said about the ’60s – If you can remember it, you weren’t there. And I can remember a lot, but what I can’t remember I can make up, I can add on to. But it’s not fiction, because fiction would mean, you know, changing the names and everything. But it’s not memoir, because that’s got, like, the story of your life. But these are just adventures with the Pranksters and Kesey and Cassady and the Grateful Dead and other friends. And each chapter is a story in itself. But it kind of moves chronologically from the time I met Kesey in ’58 to when he died in ’01. I’ve done a chapbook, a chapter from it called We Were Arrested – when we got busted [for marijuana at Kesey’s place in La Honda in 1965]. And I’m doing another one about the Grateful Dead concert out in Veneta, Oregon in 1972, what they called The Field Trip. And these chapbooks, they’re a chapter from the book. And they’re little 6″ x 8″ or something book size, little book size, nicely bound and nicely printed. And I sell them on Facebook, along with my Vietnam novel.
PKM: How did it feel to be a character in a work of literary nonfiction, yourself? That early example of New Journalism: Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
Ken Babbs: Fantastic book. It didn’t bother me in the least. Because it’s the same thing: Who cares if it was true or not? I mean that guy, he was into his gonzo writing at its finest in that book. I mean, that is just a great book! It had nothing to do with truth – except truth on a higher level. It’s got nothing to do with facts. Kesey himself said, “We don’t need facts. We need stories.” And so Tom Wolfe really put a great story together there. Kesey one time said the thing that’s amazing about [Wolfe] is he never took LSD himself, yet he was able to describe LSD trips like they were. And I think he talked to people, you know, that were on the [Merry Prankster’s bus] trip and got a lot of information from them. But not me. [Laughs.]
PKM: Tom Wolfe never spoke to you?
Ken Babbs: Well, I spoke to him, but I never talked to him about that book. I don’t think he talked to Kesey. I don’t know who he talked to. But, anyway, some people crab, because it’s not factual. I tell them, “Well, how would you like to write a book printed in 1968, still being reprinted every year to this date?”
PKM: In your writing within the book On the Bus, you describe some of the things that you’ve done over the years. Maybe you could just give me a brief snapshot of some of these things. You “spent an evening with Norman Mailer.”
Ken Babbs: Yeah, that’s right, he came out here to give a talk at U. of O [University of Oregon in Eugene] and, after the talk, came to Kesey’s house up in Pleasant Hill, Oregon, and spent the evening there, and he was really great. He was so affable and friendly. When I shook his hand he said, “Oh, we meet at last!” I cracked up: “What are you talking about?! You’ve never heard of me in your life!” He goes like, “Ohhhhh-aaaaaaahhhh….!” So I liked it, whether it was true or not. [Laughs.]
PKM: And then there’s “worked with [jazz saxophonist and flautist] Rahsaan Roland Kirk at the ITSART Hoohaw” in Eugene in 1976. Can you say what that was, the ITSART Hoohaw, and maybe some of the musicians that appeared?
Ken Babbs: Well, you know, Roland Kirk was up there in San Francisco playing [sometime in the 1960s], and Kesey heard him and invited him down to Kesey’s house and they took acid together. So, they kind of got [to be] good friends, so when Kesey was wanting to do this Hoohaw poetic festival – with music and poetry – he needed a headliner, and so he contacted Roland Kirk, and Roland Kirk said sure; so he came and was the headliner. And this event, the headline stuff took place at McArthur Court, the big basketball arena. But most of the Hoohaw was outside during the day on stages. And we had, like, judges and they would pick winners from the stage and they’d get to perform on the big stage inside at night. And, yeah, it was wonderful, I did get to go in and meet Roland Kirk, talk to him. He said, “I want to knock you people out! I’m going to play the longest note you’ve ever heard in your life!” And he did. It was for like a minute and forty-nine seconds or something. One note. He did this thing called circular breathing, which he was able to bring breath in and put it out at the same time. His music that night was a knockout. We have that on tape. One of our guys we knew audiotaped the whole thing and we’ve got a tape somewhere of him playing. I know I have it on a cassette! I listen to it all the time.
PKM: You’ve long been associated with the Grateful Dead, and maybe some people think that’s all you listen to. Who are some of the other musical artists that you’ve appreciated over the years? What have you dug into that you quite enjoy?
Ken Babbs: Well, I’m a real jazz buff. I always have been, since I played the trombone when I was in a swing band. J.J. Johnson. And big bands; I like big band stuff. I like swing stuff. And then you get into modern jazz with all the greats. And then, also, all the San Francisco bands, the [Jefferson] Airplane and the Quicksilver Messenger Service. I can’t think of them all, right now. But my musical tastes really wander. [Laughs.] Pop music, jazz, rock.
“We’re God’s chosen rubes!” He says, “Yes, we always come up smiling and laughing!”
Hey, I’ll tell you a band that I’ve been listening to a lot lately: Metallica! Every once in a while, I listen to heavy metal and realize, Hey, these guys are good! And not only good, but these songs are really technically something else. Complex, very complex. And not just noise and all that. And Metallica, they’re unbelievable how long they’ve been together. The early [’80s] and still going on, right now. Touring in front of thousands and thousands of people. I watched a concert of theirs in Manila. Oh, my God! You should have seen the huge crowd there. They’re all going crazy, pumping their fists and they know the words to the songs. And sometimes the guy didn’t even sing it, he let the audience sing. They’re something else!
PKM: Here’s something you’re quoted as having said. And you’ve written it, as well – it’s certainly within Who Shot the Water Buffalo?: “Every man has a right to be as big as it’s in him to be.” In your estimation, how big have you been able to be in this lifetime?
Ken Babbs: As big as I’m able to be. Do what you love to do and give it all you’ve got. I’ve been pretty lucky in that I’ve been pretty independent all my life. And I’ve held down some steady jobs for short periods of time when I needed money, but I’ve pretty much with all the activities I’ve done – with Kesey and the Pranksters and the Grateful Dead and everything – managed to eke out a passable living. But really what it amounted to – and I give a lot of credit to my Marine Corps experience, where we were able to go into Vietnam, and a flat piece of ground pretty soon had a little town there, a place to live and eat and all that – I realized, you can do that: you can live pretty simply. The whole American Dream was supposed to always be that you would have your own house and your own place and your own car and your own family and you’d be making good money. And the corollary that always goes with it is you’re always in debt, paying off that mortgage. So, I realized, well, right from the beginning, you don’t want to go into debt. And if you do want to go into debt, pay it off real quick.
Kesey one time he says, “Our greatest thing – us, the Pranksters – is that we have always failed.” “What?!” “Yeah,” he says, “we go out there and put together some big show or some big deal, we’re going to put it out there, a movie or something, we think we’re going to make a lot of money, we’re going to be famous. But we always fail! We have to slink back home to our family and places and just live there, and after a while you realize, ‘Well, thank God we didn’t do that!'” And he was saying that one day and I said, “Well you know why it’s like that?” And he says, “No why?” I say, “Because we’re rubes!” He said, “What?!” And I said, “Yeah, the rubes always get fleeced by the shysters.” He says, “Oh, my God…” I say, “Yeah, but there’s a sunny side to that.” And he says, “What is it?” I say, “We’re God’s chosen rubes!” He says, “Yes, we always come up smiling and laughing!”
And I’ll tell you another thing: As a storyteller, you go through life, all those things – all of your fuckups and goofy things that happen to you – they become the best stories, they draw the biggest laughs. [Laughs] So, remember that!