BY HENRIK DAHL
Ever since the Sixties, journalists and historians have tried to give an accurate description of the Merry Pranksters. Some have got it right, but many have failed – focusing on simplified myths of Dionysian decadence. In this article, I’m trying to straighten out some of the misunderstandings about the group. Who better to ask than Merry Prankster Ken Babbs?
But first, for those who are not familiar with the group, here’s the short story: The Merry Pranksters were a group of friends formed around writer Ken Kesey. They were based in California in 1964 and onwards. Kesey wasn’t exactly their leader, but it’s fair to say he was a key figure when it comes to their activities. In 1959 Kesey wrote the famous novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The novel was published in 1962 and was a commercial and critical success. Many years later, it was adapted into an Academy award-winning movie directed by Milos Forman starring Jack Nicholson. Back in the late Fifties, Kesey was a student at Stanford University. During this time he volunteered to take part in Project MKULTRA, a study financed by the CIA. The purpose of the project was to investigate the effects of psychoactive drugs such as LSD and psilocybin. Being exposed to the powerful hallucinogens no doubt influenced Kesey, and he continued to take psychedelics privately after the study was completed. It’s worth noting that LSD was legal until October 1966, making Kesey’s private acid experiments fully legitimate.
In 1964 he and his group of friends, the “Merry Pranksters”, took a road trip across the USA using an old, wildly painted, school bus, which they named Furthur (sic). Along on the ride were Beat legend Neal Cassady and the novelist’s old buddy Ken Babbs. Kesey and Babbs got to know each other at Stanford’s creative writing program and the latter was immortalised in Tom Wolfe’s book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, frequently uttering the phrase “yeah, yeah, right! right! right!”. The Merry Pranksters were also behind the Acid Tests, a series of events mixing elements such as light projections, music and all night dancing in a somewhat random, chaotic fashion. The house band at these events was The Grateful Dead.
My reason for getting in touch with Babbs was to hear what he felt about Wolfe’s book finally becoming a movie. I also wanted to find out more of the author’s involvement with the Pranksters. In July 2009 I emailed Babbs, asking if he wanted to do a phone interview. He suggested we should correspond by email instead. Fair enough. I sent out a handful of questions, and soon his answers started to appear in my inbox. Looking back at Babbs replies, I think they really add something to the story of the Merry Pranksters. Anyone interested in the history and methods of New Journalism pioneer Tom Wolfe and his book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test should also benefit from hearing what Babbs had to say about the journalist.
Director Gus Van Sant is about to make a movie of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Have you been contacted by Van Sant or his team about the project? What do you think about making a movie of Wolfe’s book?
— Gus Van Sant is an old friend. Coming off MILK, he will really do a great job with [The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test]. My take is to leave him alone. If he wants me to help he will let me know. There is already a movie finished, you know, the one Wolfe talks about in his book, the one we were shooting at the time, the one Kesey and I and our sons Zane and Simon finally put together on the computer. You can get episodes one and two from Zane’s website. The titles are Intrepid Traveller and His Merry Band of Pranksters Look for a Kool Place part one and part two.
I did an interview with Grateful Dead soundman and acid legend Owsley “Bear” Stanley in 2003. He said that Tom Wolfe’s book is a “poor choice of information, since the Prankster’s were fucking with him”. What do you think of Owsley’s comment, and how do you feel about the book today? Would you say it’s a true story?
— I don’t think anything about Owsley’s comment, in fact I don’t ever think about any of that stuff anymore, water under the dam, over the bridge. I haven’t looked at Wolfe’s book since it came out in 1968 but it is a phenomenon since it has been in constant print ever since and that doesn’t happen to too many books. As Chief Randall Stamper said in the great American novel, Sometimes A Great Cuckoo, “It’s true even if it didn’t happen.”
Tom Wolfe wouldn’t join in on painting the bus because he might get paint on his white suit.
How much time did Tom Wolfe spend with The Merry Pranksters? When reading the book one gets the impression he spent a lot of time with you. Would you say he was “on the bus”?
— Tom Wolfe showed up after the bus trip, after Kesey got busted for pot, after Kesey came back to the states after hiding out in Mexico, and was with us when we did the acid test graduation in San Francisco. Tom has a photographic memory. He stands, in his white suit and white tie and white shirt, unobtrusively watching and listening and, later, is able to recreate the scene and the dialogs perfectly, in his uniquely brilliant inimitable writing style, which at that time he had developed to a high soaring peak, he was on a roll and I don’t mean a jelly roll.
— I can’t remember any pics or anything of Tom Wolfe when he was around. He mostly just hung out and remembered everything and then wrote it up in his book, a great retentive memory and a classy guy in his all white outfit which kind of beaked Kesey off because Tom Wolfe wouldn’t join in on painting the bus because he might get paint on his white suit. We all liked Tom Wolfe real well and he is a whale of a writer.
Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test has become THE source of information when it comes to the Merry Pranksters, and I was surprised to hear from Ken Babbs that Wolfe only went to the acid test graduation in San Francisco. I’m sure many people think Wolf hung out at Kesey’s place in La Honda, or was there when the Merry Pranksters met the Hell’s Angels. It sure sounds as if Wolfe was there… but maybe that’s what makes him such a great writer.
What would you say is the most common misunderstanding about The Merry Pranksters?
— That we spread LSD around, that our mission was to turn people on to acid, that we dosed people, that we provided the acid at the acid tests. All totally untrue and, even though I don’t give a shit about the lore and the stories as they go down now, for I know they all add to the myth, I will keep denying that particular misbelief, jeez, gotta cling to some shred of so called dignity, feeble as it may be.
How did one become a member of The Merry Pranksters? Did you ever talk about membership, or were you more like friends hanging out, doing your thing? On Wikipedia.org it says that Allen Ginsberg was a member. Is that correct?
— The Merry Band of Pranksters became the name of our gang of friends who were getting together and creating improvisational acts of maturity in the face of the lack of deadlines to keep our noses on the gindstones. We were making a movie and the name of our group, like that one in England, Beetles or something like that, became the name we were and still are identified by, and you can tell us, but you can’t tell us much, by the striped shirts we wore. We started out as 14 or 15 but as we got older others threw in on the deal, Allen Ginsberg certainly so circumsized, for he was on the stage in Boulder Colorado when we did Twister there.
In the mid-Nineties Ken Kesey went on a tour with the old Merry Pranksters. They performed Twister: A Ritual Reality, a musical play written by Kesey. The tour included a show in Boulder, Colorado. According to Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Allen Ginsberg was also with The Merry Pranksters when they met up with the Hell’s Angels in 1965.
The Merry Pranksters is a great name! Do you remember who came up with it?
— She asked me, “Do you know the Merry Pranksters?” and I said, “Know them? I named them.”
I get the impression you were an informal group using a lot of improvisation, still, at least from a media perspective, people talk about The Merry Pranksters as pretty structured with Ken Kesey as the leader. Was there a hierarchy in the group or was that something the media just assumed?
— Kesey was of course, whether on the course or lost in the rough, our liter or is it silly milly liter I could never keep it straight which is throwing you a curve ball because I was usually the straight man in the group.
The Merry Pranksters were no doubt pioneers, and in many ways influenced a lot of people. Is there any group of young people today that remind you of what you guys were doing in the Sixties?
— We had a name we made up and used in the movie we were making and we were an entity with an identification: our shirts our bus our Ken Kesey our performances, but we were certainly not the only ones in the game, when meatball hit, it hit everything: the rocks, the trees, the animals and the people. As Kesey said, we were riding a wave, we didn’t cause the wave, and many others were riding it too, so to talk about a group of young people today would be as difficult as breaking down all the people of yesteryears into groups. Generally speaking, the young people of today are okay and doing it their way and most of them know what’s right and what’s true or at least are trying to find out, and then extend that knowledge into the simple work of helping others out.
Before getting on the bus with Kesey and the other Pranksters, Ken Babbs was a helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War. When he got back to the USA, he wrote a novel about the experience. The book was never published, but there is actually a chance to read portions of it; Lost a Bird, Gained a Bird is a “chapbook”, pressed in a beautiful limited edition of 400 copies, all signed by Babbs, with excerpts from his unpublished novel.
I’ve just ordered a copy of Lost a Bird, Gained a Bird through your web page, which I’m really looking forward to check out. Will there be a release of your Vietnam War novel Who Shot the Water Buffalo? in the near future?
— Squirtenly hope so. The novel is in the capable hands of my astute agent and I await word from him as to the next step in this longest running American novel adventure of both the 20th and 21st centuries.
I got the chapbook through the mail only a week or so after the interview. The book was great. A couple of days earlier I had watched Apocalypse Now. Seeing the movie and reading the excerpt from Babbs’ novel brought the meaningless acts of war to life. Coming straight from the Vietnam and meeting up with his old friend Kesey for one of the wildest experiments of the twentieth century, surely must have been a major shift in Babbs life. Kesey’s free-flowing, psychedelic thinking was a blessing. Babbs ditched the darkness and horror – “the horror, the horror…” – of the Vietnam War, for a wild, rainbow-coloured bus trip through his home country, a trip that is reverberating to this day as a key event in the American counterculture. The story of the Merry Pranksters is a Sixties saga that will be told and retold for years to come, and the main storyteller up until now has been Tom Wolfe. But with the upcoming Gus Van Sant movie, it’s possible that that will change; a whole new generation is waiting to hear the story of The Merry Pranksters again.
The group’s mantra might have been “nothing lasts”, but their legend sure lives on.
By Henrik Dahl
Featured image: Ken Babbs of the Merry Pranksters (via Ken Babbs).