Q&A with Canadian writer/poet/traveler Brian Hassett, an iconic counterculture figure and Prankster in our days

"Some people are lighthouses that guide you for a long time, but others are just helpful buoys along the way. Let each light guide you to the harbor of your own destiny."

Brian Hassett: Further of Brainland's Nest

Canadian writer, poet, essayist, critic, columnist, reviewer, and songwriter Brian Hassett is the author of the new Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jack Kerouac about the historic ’82 super-summit in Boulder, and also helped put together The Rolling Stone Book of The Beats, and wrote two of its keynote essays. He’s produced many Kerouac and Beat-related shows in Manhattan at The Bowery Poetry Club, The Bitter End, The Living Room & other clubs; he inducted Kerouac into the Counter-Culture Hall of Fame in Amsterdam, and performed Jack’s words live from there to London to Toronto; and he produced the two “50th Anniversary of Jack Writing On the Road” shows in 2001—in New York on the day he started it, and L.A. on the day he finished.            (Brian Hassett / Photo by Rick Melnick)

Performer of spoken-word-with-music shows at writers conferences, festivals, nightclubs, schools, bookstores and such in the U.S., Canada & Europe. Stage manager at “On The Road – The Jack Kerouac Conference” in Boulder, CO, 1982; the Bear Mountain Folk Festival; all the Music Business & Technology concerts at NYU, etc. After touring with Yes and other major bands at age 17, moved from Winnipeg Manitoba to NYC, was on the road with The Rolling Stones by 19; lived in Manhattan for next 27 years; appeared on numerous TV & radio programs. He also became close friends with Carolyn Cassady, Edie Kerouac, Henri Cru, Walter Salles and many other Beat notables, and maintains an active web site of his ongoing adventures at BrianHassett.comHere's a list of his books: The Hitchhiker's Guide to Jack Kerouac; How The Beats Begat The Pranksters & Other Adventure Tales; On The Road with Cassadys & Furthur Visions; Holy Cats! Dream-Catching at Woodstock; and Blissfully Ravaged in Democracy: Adventures in Politics, 1980–2020.

Interview by Michael Limnios                 Archive: Brian Hassett, 2016 Interview

How has Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey and the counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Well, they changed everything. When I was a teenager growing up in the isolated Western Canadian town of Winnipeg in the early/mid-'70s, it was difficult to find sources of the magic I knew had to be out there in the world. I luckily had one older friend who knew about this stuff, and believe it or not Rolling Stone magazine circa 1973 to '78 provided a lot of leads. A bunch of articles and interviews kept mentioning this guy with a strange name — Jack Kerouac — and his book On The Road. So, I sought that out. They also published Kesey and Hunter Thompson and had articles about scenes happening from San Francisco to Greenwich Village that were sure unlike anything happening in Winnipeg. I learned there was a whole world out there that I had to get myself to. So, as soon as high school was over, I got a job, bought an old '67 Dodge Fargo window van, and hit The Road.

And sure enough I found, and continue to find, massive communities of like-minded people who are creating art and having fun, and are working together to express the playfulness of the joys of life. There's no dogma, or prejudice, or mean spiritedness, or pimping for popularity — but just pure love-filled joy in celebrating life. And once you've seen that light, even for a weekend, you realize there's tons of people out there like yourself. The Beats, Kesey & and the Grateful Dead were the first communities I found it in, but that began a domino tumble finding like-minded people the world over. There's the glass blowing art community, political activists of various stripes, there's the Swifties who are full of love and celebrating joy. Jack & Ken & Jerry were the first hosts ... but they just taught me there are a lot of scenes in the world that celebrate the best of the human spirit.

Kesey was asked how somebody becomes a Merry Prankster, and he answered, "We just recognize each other." And that's what I've found. You see it in someone's smile, in the twinkle in their eye, in the stories they tell, in how they listen and respond to yours.  It's part of who humans are. It's in people who speak every language on earth, who live in every country. Yeah, there's mean and selfish people everywhere — but there's also people playing and having adventures and searching for and living in the light of life. The Beatles, for instance. When you meet somebody whose eyes light up at their mention or when a song comes on, and you can see them almost melt and start exuding love out of their being, Boom!  You're home. "There's another one!" It's all about the journey and meeting people channeling magic. There's hundreds of millions of us.  And Jack & Ken & Jerry were the first to hip me to it.            (Photo: Brian Hassett & Ken Kesey)

"As Kesey signed my Cuckoo's Nest copy — "The boys produce the spirit." — meaning the Grateful Dead. The Dead became an extension of Kesey's spirit. If you wanna get into it, the whole festival culture in the world really spilled out of Ken Kesey's living room. Robert Stone said that before me, but it's true.  This idea of "the collective." It's existed since probably the caveman days — the idea of working together."

How important was/is music in your life?  How does music affect your mood and inspiration?

When I first came of age and discovered rock n roll in 1972 or so, I immediately knew this was insanely great. Whereas all my friends just loved the buzz of it, my question was, "Where did this COME from?!" I immediately went back to Chuck Berry & Buddy Holly and the guys who birthed it. I spent a lot of time studying 1955 to the present. But since then I've gone all the way back to the symphonic composers, Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mozart etc., and up through the birth of chamber music which was really the birth of the rock band — four musicians on stringed instruments playing together in small rooms.  And then ragtime in the 1890s was really the birth of the music I love — syncopated, rollicking, uptempo, playful, dance-inspiring.  And then there's gospel. Learning that Aretha and Ray and even Elvis got their start there, I began looking into that, and I've come to the conclusion all music is gospel music. It's a channeling of a spirit greater than ourselves. I'm very anti-religion — once people start putting names on it and rules and thinking they're right and everybody else is wrong, I'm out. But when music is played channeling something beyond — that's the magic of the artform and why it resonates with people. Tom Waits said "Music is a great thing to do with air," which I loved. It's intangible. You can't hold it in your hand.  Like a higher power.  Like love. Like a memory. There's something magic about it. And when I write books, I wanna take people to that place. Take them on a journey so they forget they're holding a book, and they just enter another world and you take them along for the symphony.

Was there something specific you experienced that made you first begin thinking about counterculture, or was it more of a compilation of experiences?

My experience was much like the Dead's upon meeting Kesey. There was this band and scene in little ol' Winnipeg that put on full-fledged acid tests in the mid-to-late '70s. I became part of the scene, and it was wild. There were some people from my high school who came, and I realized, a-ha! They get it. Then I met all these older people — in their 20s — who were living this life. "Holy heck!  There is this whole world out there of people who not only see life as I do — having fun in a colorful creative way — but they're proactively creating scenes for everyone to participate and play in. Wow!" I was home. There was a whole life there.  It was a really small community in Winnipeg — but I knew it had to be out there in a much bigger way in the world. So, I left and went and spent my life in that world — mainly in Manhattan where I became part of, geez, everything — the folk scene in the Village, the Off-Broadway world, the art world, the rock n roll world. There are entire worlds within our world that you can live in and find community and common purpose. And, gosh, it's fun! I learned in the memoirs after Jerry Garcia died that apparently, he'd always say to the rest of the band whenever some idea would come up, "Will it be fun?" It's so simple, but it's really the truth. Allow yourself to be drawn to the fun. If you follow 'fun' you're gonna end up in good places surrounded by good people. And as you soak that in, it emboldens that part of you. Then you become fun, and you're exuding it every day, and other people pick up on it, and pretty soon you're surrounded by fun. That's the joy of this journey. Once you start living with fun in your life, negative people just seem so ridiculous and they evaporate. 

I'm partial to proactive creators of art and fun, but someone can be a shy non-creative introvert and still exude it.  Again, you see it in their eyes and how they respond to you. I'm in my 60s now, but I have a lot of friends who are teenagers or in their 20s. They don't have the historical perspective, they don't know how we got here, but they have the same wide-eyed openness that Chuck Berry had when he first put three chords and a rhythm together, or when John & Paul wrote a song in their bedroom or when Jackson Pollock danced over a canvas. The joy of experiencing creation exists whenever a person channels something from beyond, when they write a poem in their room all alone, or all the way to the back row of people in a football stadium dancing to the music they love. As the joke in the Grateful Dead world goes, "Weir everywhere."

"And sure enough I found, and continue to find, massive communities of like-minded people who are creating art and having fun, and are working together to express the playfulness of the joys of life. There's no dogma, or prejudice, or mean spiritedness, or pimping for popularity — but just pure love-filled joy in celebrating life." (Brian Hassett / Photo by Brett Sigurdson)

In your opinion, what is the biggest revolution which can be realized today?  What do you think the major changes will be in the near or far future of the world?

Well, I'm with Michael McClure on this one — if you're not political, nothing else matters. Fascism and authoritarianism is ascendant in our world and I think everybody needs to be engaged in fighting back against that. And we need to be positive about the good people — not just negative about the obviously bad people. I was at both Clinton and Obama's first inaugurations, and boy, those were battery chargers!

I'm empowered by young people, and old people who never lost their joy of life and optimism. I often see in our world — say at a music festival or a political rally — people from 18 to 80 who all have curiosity and passion and proactive engagement that got them out of the house and away from their devices to experience life in the flesh. This is the future. It's engagement. And it can also happen online. I have close friends I've been engaging with for 15 or 20 years who I've never met! 

People can now create their own art that millions can experience — TikTok or YouTube videos, or blogs, or social media sharing that gives people today the same thing I was lucky enough to find in person in the '70s — a knowledge that there's people out there who 'get it.' And this connectivity we have would be so unfathomable to the entire history of humanity before now. Like, imagine if Van Gogh had a YouTube channel. He woulda sold a lot more than one painting! 

So, the major changes you ask about are going to come from connectivity. We can find kindred spirits easier now — and the good forces within humans can find others like them — and I think humans, in the aggregate, are more good than bad.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience on the road as a hitchhiker?

As I said, it's about finding out that people are good. And different. Hitchhiking is the same as talking to the person next to you on the subway or in an aisle at a store. I love that about life. We all have our friends, but I love talking to random people on the street or wherever. That's the same as hitchhiking — you have NO idea who the person is who picks you up. Hitchhiking doesn't really exist anymore, but the experience of meeting and engaging with strangers exists every time you leave your house. And it's the same sort of random survey — are people good or bad? And about 99% of the people I encounter randomly are good kind curious friendly people. And that's the basis of humanity. And that's why I'm optimistic about our future. People in the main are kind to others. There's this stereotype of New Yorkers being cold and uncaring — but it's the opposite. If someone slips and falls on the sidewalk, a half-dozen people rush to help them. I've travelled extensively and I find people, in the main, want the best for others. That's what I learned from hitchhiking. People are very different, but at their core, your average human is a kind and interesting person.

"So, the major changes you ask about are going to come from connectivity. We can find kindred spirits easier now — and the good forces within humans can find others like them — and I think humans, in the aggregate, are more good than bad." (Photo: Brian Hassett hit The Road from Denver to San Francisco)

Why is it important to preserve and spread the Merry Pranksters?  What is the role of Ken Kesey's legacy in today’s society?

As Kesey signed my Cuckoo's Nest copy — "The boys produce the spirit." — meaning the Grateful Dead. The Dead became an extension of Kesey's spirit. If you wanna get into it, the whole festival culture in the world really spilled out of Ken Kesey's living room. Robert Stone said that before me, but it's true. This idea of "the collective." It's existed since probably the caveman days — the idea of working together. 

In the counterculture, it really didn't exist before he did it. There were those Alan Freed rock n roll jubilee concerts, but there wasn't a grassroots creation of the counterculture until Kesey started doing the acid tests in 1965. Then only two years later there was the Human Be-In in San Francisco, and the Monterey Pop Festival where tens of thousands of people were suddenly getting together. So, the whole thing started with his house parties in La Honda. I know the vast majority of people attending mass music festivals today have never heard his name ... but then most people don't know about chamber music or ragtime, just like most graffiti artists don't know about Jackson Pollock or Peter Max.  I wish there was more of a consciousness in our species to want to know how we got here, and I do my best to share that, but it doesn't seem to be a dominant trait.  I think it's frickin fascinating. As Abbie Hoffman used to say, "We're not talking about the Peloponnesian Wars here." This is recent history!  I'm surprised people don't want to know, but it connects to when I first discovered rock n roll as a pre-teenager.  I wanted to learn how the hell this ever came into existence! But it seems like that's not that common a desire for most humans I meet. But so many millions are living in a world Ken Kesey created. They're living it, but they don't know it. So that's his legacy in our society. Just like people don't know Garrett Brown invented the Steadicam. We all live a life appreciating what he & Ken & others created — but don't know the names of the guys who started it.

What do you think is key to a life well lived?  Happiness is…

Well, of course, it's inner peace. And that takes some practice and focus, but if you work on it you'll get it.

The meaning of life to me is to create good art and to inspire people and to live with enthusiasm for this marvel of human existence. I was happily surprised to read Taylor Swift say this in her Time Person of The Year profile — "My response to anything that happens, good or bad, is to keep making art."

Happiness is waking up grateful you're alive and can make the most of another day. We've only got a short time to be here — live each day like it's your last. Tell everyone you love that you love them while they're still alive. End every phone call that way.  Be kind to everyone so you don't have regrets. Find what skills you've got that'll pay the bills, and find joy in that, but always be looking at the horizon and the goal of joy you're heading towards. Don't get distracted by people who don't 'get it' but rather surround yourself with people who do. Embrace them when you find them. And know that your surrounding choir is temporary. Next year, or 5 or 10 years from now, there will be different people in your choir.  And that's the way of the human experience. Somebody said our life guides are like what buoys are to a ship — they're pointing you in the right direction, but then once you've passed them, they're behind you. Some people are lighthouses that guide you for a long time, but others are just helpful buoys along the way. Let each light guide you to the harbor of your own destiny.

Brian Hassett - Home

(Photo: Brian Hassett)

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