If you think the book has already been written about the ’60s exploits of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, Ken Babbs will set you straight.
Babbs — writer, musician, Vietnam war veteran, best friend of author Kesey and coiner of the “Merry Pranksters” name — was there for the Acid Tests in the ’60s. He was part of the maiden voyage of the bus, Further, as it carried the original Pranksters group from San Francisco to New York City in 1964. And he has continued to keep the spirit of the Pranksters alive through his writings and appearances — including an upcoming event at Worthy Brewing on Wednesday.
The event will focus on the stories behind Kesey’s 1962 novel, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Babbs said. He will also read from his upcoming book, “Cronies,” from which he released a chapbook titled “We Were Arrested” last year.
That chapter tells how 14 pranksters, including Kesey, Babbs and Neal Cassady, were arrested in 1964 for marijuana possession while editing the film footage from the first Further trip.
“Kesey had to go to an honor camp for six months; everybody else got cut free,” Babbs said from his home just outside Dexter, about eight miles away from Kesey’s old place (Kesey died in 2001). “People would ask Kesey, ‘When are we having that movie?’ and he’d say, ‘We got arrested.’ And we did get arrested, but it also stopped us from the editing job. We got off it, but at the same time, we had stuff that we had already edited, and we had these 40 hours of tape and film. And so, we started renting halls to show it.”
Those gatherings came to be known as the Acid Tests, which among other things served as the birthplace of The Grateful Dead.
“At the same time, we got to know these guys — what Kesey called these ‘hairy musicians’ — and it was the guys in those days were Mother McCree’s Jug Band,” Babbs said. “They showed up at these scenes we were doing called the Acid Tests, the very first one, and they just stayed with us throughout the whole run of the Acid Tests, and during that time, they became The Grateful Dead.”
Babbs has plenty of stories like that from the book.
“At this one (acid test), we were at in Mirror Beach — Owsley (Stanley, soundman for The Grateful Dead) was always part of the scene and everything — and this time, I don’t know why, he got real high,” Babbs said. “When the band was playing, he got this chair, and he started pushing it around the floor, making this (makes loud, exaggerated screeching noise). And the band was playing, and he was going, and they started playing to him, and he screeched to them.
“And then out of the kitchen came Neal Cassady pulling a dishwasher, and he had the hose, and there was water in there,” Babbs continued. “And so he was pulling it by the hose and had the hose up to his mouth, and he was going (gargling noises) to the band, and to the (screeching noises).”
Babbs acted this out over the phone, imitating the screeching chair and the gargling water noises. He paused to laugh after the back-and-forth between Cassady and Stanley.
“So you tell me if anybody else has written or heard anything about that before in their lives,” he added with another huge laugh.
Babbs has been teasing “Cronies” for many years. He said the book has been rejected by two publishers so far, which is perhaps surprising (though not to Babbs) considering the still robust public interest in Kesey, the Acid Tests and ’60s counterculture in general.
“I can see why: because it’s a different book,” Babbs said. “It’s a psychedelic book, and it’s rambling stories about the adventures we have, and it’s not in any kind of format (people are) familiar with. And it has no sex in it or murder or mystery or torture or any of that stuff — the stuff that sells now.”
Still more surprising is the fact Babbs didn’t publish his first book on his own, “Who Shot the Water Buffalo?,” until 2011 (1994’s “Last Go Round” was credited to Kesey and Babbs). The book is based on Babbs’ experiences in Vietnam in the early ’60s.
Before that, though, Babbs met Kesey at a cocktail party while in the graduate writing program at Stanford University.
“Right there when we met and shook hands and talked to each other, we could tell we were compatriots,” Babbs said. “So all that year there we really buddied up. He was married and living with his wife; I had my own little place, and we’d do all kinds of stuff together.”
By the Merry Prankster days, Kesey stopped writing books having burnt out after writing “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Sometimes a Great Notion,” Babbs said.
“The Prankster thing of spontaneity and coming on is something we were developing,” Babbs said. “The ability to do something that was legitimate and creative and even commercially viable by just making it up as you went along — kind of like Lenny Bruce except in stories. … We were doing that, and then George Walker, one of our Prankster guys, brought in a 16-millimeter movie camera, and suddenly, we were off the floor, on our feet acting out parts the same way.”
That brought Babbs back to the movie the Pranksters shot on Further’s inaugural trip to New York City in 1964, which eventually became 2011’s “Magic Trip.”
“Part of the theme of (‘Cronies’) that gets resolved finally is, whatever happened to that movie and how we finally got it out — not to be a spoiler,” he said.