An Interview with novelist Ken Babbs of Merry Pranksters: Answers from a Muse, about Further, Ken Kesey, Timothy Leary, Vietnam & Acid Tests

Ken Babbs: Vi Viendo El Sueno

"Pranksters definitely are a collective but it is a collective of the spirit and that American spirit has been passed on from the founding fathers through the literature of Melville, the transcendentalism of Emerson, the elusiveness of Whitman, the eyeopening of Faulkner, zoom into the Beat authors and here it takes a wild turn of spontaneity in tribal dance, uninhibited jazz, nonsensical word raps and other unfettered reaching of the spirit toward new found freedoms"

Ken Babbs is a famous Merry Prankster who became one of the psychedelic leaders of the 1960s. He along with best friend and Prankster leader, Ken Kesey wrote the book Last Go Round. Babbs is best known for his participation in the Acid Tests and on the bus Further.

Ken Babbs attended Stanford University and was in NROTC, where he became a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps. Soon after becoming second lieutenant, Babbs became a helicopter pilot when he was ordered to Vietnam. Babbs had no understanding of the impact the war had on him until he received his orders to go to Vietnam. His insight soon began to take definition. In contrast, his college experiences were not merely about the war. In 1958, Babbs took a writing class where he soon met future Prankster leader, Ken Kesey.

What started as a Happening emerged into a global frenzy and inspired people, still today. The most famous happening of the Pranksters was the nationwide trip on the Furthur. While on a trip to New York, the Pranksters needed an automobile that could hold fourteen people and all of their filming and taping equipment. One of the members saw a “revamped school bus” in San Francisco that was for sale. The Pranksters bought the bus and named it “Furthur”. Babbs was the engineer for the bus. Babbs is mostly credited for the sound systems he created for the Trips Festival.

During the legendary Prankster cross country bus trip to the New York World's fair in 1964, an epic movie was filmed and shown at several “Acid Tests”. The film is called "The Merry Pranksters Search for a Kool Place". Some have compared the Prankster’s trip to the Acid Tests. What inspired the Acid Tests was when the Pranksters met the Grateful Dead. Babbs' current project is promoting Ken Kesey's book Kesey’s Jail Journal. Babbs recently had a showing at an art gallery in Oregon to display Kesey’s artwork.  Babbs currently lives on his farm in Dexter, Oregon (near Kesey’s house). In 1994, he helped Kesey co-write The Last Go Round, about the oldest and largest rodeos in America. Babbs is also founder and leader of the Sky Pilot Club. Many of Babbs's trips are now available to watch on YouTube. Babbs recently published a novel based on his life in the armed forces during the first years of the Vietnam War, 'Who Shot the Water Buffalo?'

Interview by Michael Limnios

    Photo Credits: Michael J Lessner, Eileen Babbs, Richard Hayner

When was your first desire to become involved with the psychedelic area & who were your first idols?
There I was taking a nap with my mouth open, snoring like a logger sawing wood and some prankster dropped a tablet in my mouth and I woke up choking and coughing and the lights went crazy color and hovering over me were angels laughing like maniacs and they became my idols although no one can accuse me of idolatry.

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?
Most, as opposed to least, is a hip expression you hear, like, the food at that restaurant is the most, and they aren't talking about quantity, they are talking about quality, for you can guess who was the cook, that's right, the intrepid traveler hisself who skated on the greasy skillets and walloped the pots and why was that so interesting? Because it was the intersection of appetite and cleanliness and led to what came next.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the life?
From whom, indeed, and once again the word most doesn't necessarily mean the greatest number but could mean the wildest most outrageous secrets there are, and to get to the bottom of that one I would have to mine the depths and plumb the quests and come up with the Marine Corps Captain in Okinawa who coached the basketball team and taught me there is an invisible string connecting me to the man guarding me and with that string I can move that man anywhere I want, although I scissored him out of the play when I went to the toilet.

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD people, how do you want to be remembered?
Oh so many experiences, so little time to recount them all, such tired fingers from typing, but there is a good memory, of typing on a manual typewriter, to race to the end of a line, the ringing of the bell, the reaching up and slamming the carriage back to begin the next line without a pause, the letters whacking the paper faster than the mind can formulate the thought, ah those were the days my friend and they aren't over yet, just with a different typing contraption, but did all that make me a GOOD people? Certainly helped give me the chops to blast out the words, but what it really amounts to is when you get up from the typing and deal with the material world, how do you treat other people? With kindness, that's how, and it would be good to be remembered as being kind to others, forgive me my transgressions, those times I was flawed.

Which memory from Merry Pranksters makes you smile?
The time we were going to burn our Prankster shirts to commemorate the end of the making ofthe bus movie and realized we were starting a fire in the bus over the gas tank and we all bailed out of the bus and stood waiting for the explosion but nothing happened and when we peeked inside the bus we saw the fire had fizzled out.

Are there any memories with Ken Kesey, which you'd like to share with us?
Kesey used to talk about the goatheads of home; you know, those little sharp things grow on weeds down in Arizona? They are mean mo-fos and can really tear up your bare feet. When we were on the bus Further in '64 and would go through one of the Prankster's home town and the Prankster would go weird on us Kesey would say, "He's going through the goatheads of home." In Hawaii they are called Crown of Judas.

What are some of the most memorable tales with Pranksters?
In san francisco they have a st. stupid's parade every year. someone emailed me once to tell me I had been inducted into the stupidity club for all the great work I've done, and it was a compliment thing.

How do you describe the philosophy of Pranksters.
Pranksters definitely are a collective but it is a collective of the spirit and that American spirit has been passed on from the founding fathers through the literature of Melville, the transcendentalism of Emerson, the elusiveness of Whitman, the eyeopening of Faulkner, zoom into the Beat authors and here it takes a wild turn of spontaneity in tribal dance, uninhibited jazz, nonsensical word raps and other unfettered reaching of the spirit toward new found freedoms.

What is the "think" you miss most from the  Pranksters "family"?
The "think" is to be mindful of those who are here and those who have passed on and to think, isn't it wonderful we are still all good friends and miss those great gatherings when we would tootle on our instruments and warble with our voices and slop great gobs of paint on inanimate objects and dip and whirl in happy dance and film the whole thing and then watch it to see if what we're doing is anything worthwhile, afterwards sleep it off and get back to work.

Do you remember anything funny or interesting from the nationwide trip on the Furthur?

One of the funniest and most interesting things was Roy Sebern painting the word, FURTHER, on the destination sign on the top front of the bus, saying, ‘This is a good luck word, to keep the bus moving toward its destination,’ then later on, during one of the recurring repainting of the bus, someone spelled the sign, FURTHUR, and it stayed like that for a while before it was repainted back to FURTHER again, then much later, a couple of the Grateful Dead musicians formed a new band called FURTHER.

Why did you think that Pranksters, continued to generate such a devoted following?

Didn't think anything of the kind at the time, now the biggest reason so many people know about the Pranksters is from reading Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool Aid Acid Test.

Which of historical personalities would you like to meet?
You mean now or in the hereafter? Whatever, there's only a few million to choose from, so let's start with Adam and work our way through the Bible, Abraham, Joseph and Rachel and Isaac and Moses and Jonah and Noah and Jesus onward through Marco Polo and Ali Babs and Saint Francis and Homer, completely out of chronological order now, Picasso and Louis Armstrong and Don Quixote and Casey Stengel and Walden Pond and Pappy Boyington and Sonny Boy Williamson and that's enough.

Of all the people you've meeting with, who do you admire the most?
Timothy Leary is way up there. Brilliant mind, fearless psychedelic warrior, loyal friend and, surprisingly, a real down to earth guy, easy to be around, funny and up for most anything, long as it wasn't mean or dumb or harmful.

How did the idea of the book "Who Shot the Water Buffalo?" come about?
I was flying helicopters in Vietnam in 1962 while in the Marine Corps and realized this was a tremendous setting and situation for a book, but being a fiction writer, it had to be a novel.

How do you wish your book "Last Go Round" to be remembered? To which person would you like to send a copy?
As the really good book that it is, a good read, based on true characters and situations, make a hot shit movie, so let's send a copy to Gus Van Sant. Oh, he's already read it.

Is there a part of the books that you like most?
What books? Water Buffalo and Last Go Round? Water Buffalo, it's the party in the O club on the Marine Corps birthday. Last Go Round there's so many I can't pick one out.

Is "Psychedelia" a way of life & what does the "Psychedelia" mean to you?
Robust, always changing as the times and the surrounding material environment changes, as the living environment remains the same, fragile and enduring, we the caretakers, the peace loving firecrackers, doing what we can to save the world, raise the consciousnesses of those in power, those who have the money, helping others out, look the homeless in the eye.

What mistakes of the "Pranksters family" would you want to correct?
Let us not waste our energy hating our enemies but increase our energies with healthy dosages of pinot noir and intakes of the balm of the smoke and then turn our backs on those who do evil and apply ourselves to the worthwhile venture of saving the world.

What are the things that you miss most from your generation?
Playing hockey on the frozen ice of the pond behind the drive in movie, the drive in movie itself with the steamed up windows, pickup baseball games on the high school diamond, marbles on the scuffed up ground, the whistle of a steam engine and the chug of its drivers as it climbs the grade.

Did  Pranksters played an important role to the youth today?
Thor rode through the heavens during thunderstorms on his chariot, which was pulled by two goats. Lightning flashed whenever he threw his hammer Mjollnir, which magically returned to him. He was a big, powerful man with eyes of lightning and a red beard. I played the part when we were doing the musical castrophe Twister, written by kesey. The theme was: tough times never last but tough people do their housework and go to bed early.



Are there any memories of Allen Ginsberg and Ken Kesey?
One time Kesey and I were in Boulder Colorado at Naropa Institute where they were honoring Allen Ginsberg. We were sitting in folding chairs outside on the green on a warm sunny day, and up on the stage speakers were reading paens to Allen, who sat there bemused. One poet was reading a poem and said in praise of Allen, "He is a proud pedophile."
Kesey stood up and interrupted the poet in a booming voice: "Wait a minute. Neal Cassady said Ginsberg is as queer as a three dollar bill, which Neal should certainly know, but I'm saying Ginsberg is no damned pedophile. A pedophile preys on young kids. Allen's never done that."
Whereupon in the dead silence Kesey spun on his heel and strode off. Nothing I could do but, as inconspicuous as a panther out of his element, slink away after him.

Ken Babbs - Sky Pilot Club Home Page

                    Photo Credits: Michael J Lessner, Eileen Babbs, Richard Hayner


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