How we met: Ken Kesey & Ken Babbs
Sunday 08 August 1999
Ken Babbs studied at Stanford University, and was one of the first American soldiers to be sent to Vietnam, serving as a helicopter pilot with the Marines. Babbs was Kesey's closest ally in the Pranksters, and was known to all as the `Intrepid Traveller'. After a drugs bust, he and other members of the group settled near Kesey's rural birthplace in Oregon. Ken Babbs has nine children by several wives
KEN KESEY: We met at Stanford University, California. We were both in Wallace Stegner's writing class for graduates, with a lot of people who went on to become very successful, like Larry McMurtry and Robert Stone. I've been fairly close to the whole bunch all these years, but Babbs more than the rest of them. He looked like a gleef, a Midwest term for somebody who's not quite an oaf but is on his way there. I really wasn't that impressed with him until I went to a place up on North Beach [in San Francisco] where you could get up and take the microphone, and Babbs took it and blabbered impressively. We became closer, and have been the best of buddies ever since. I saw underneath the oafishness pretty quickly. He's way better-read and has a better grasp of the English language than almost anybody I ever met.
Vietnam changed him quite a bit. He came back from there pretty wacky, and he almost never speaks of it, because it was like something that happened on another planet. Getting on a plane in this fetid jungle, and 10 hours later stepping off the aeroplane in Los Angeles - he said it was a tremendous culture shock. While he was there, I was sending him samples of LSD, not realising that he was going to be adjusting to them while flying around in a helicopter. Like a lot of people, when he came back, he had a kind of existential outlook. The difference was that his existential outlook was funny.
He wrote a good novel about it, it was bitter black humour, and if he had waited five years they would have published it in a hot second. At that time, nobody wanted to publish anything about Vietnam. He's written prolifically since, stuff I've never seen and don't want to. It seems off the subject. Writing's not really that important to us now.
Taking acid together when he got back was, though. There were times when we both knew that we were seeing the same hallucination, and when that begins to happen, it means there's something there. This was a real shock to our spiritual foundation, that we could find something that nobody else could see, but both of us could agree on. If you get too serious about it, you can get very scared. But with Babbs to see the humour in it, you're weeping and end up laughing.
Then, a couple of years later, we all got arrested. I don't know that it was anybody's idea to head back to Oregon and settle, but it sure seemed like the thing to do. Babbs has got a little spread over at Lost Creek, he built that house completely, and he has made a very successful homestead. He's far more capable than me.
The Pranksters' relationship hasn't changed much. Every year or so, we'll come up with some scheme, and head off and do it, and Babbs is always as willing to go in as wacky a direction as I am. We have lasted longer than any band I know of. The only thing that holds it together is affection, and respect.
KEN BABBS: We were both in the Stanford University graduate writing class in 1958, so we've known each other for 41 years. He and I and the other members of the class all hit it off terrifically well. The head of department, Wallace Stegner, had a cocktail party to greet everybody, and right away we knew we were all of the same type. Kesey and I were both athletes in high school, and free-spirited, so naturally we hit it off real good.
As time went on, Kesey and I spent more time together. The other guys I think were more serious. They were devoted to their craft. We were also devoted to life and San Francisco, because at that time the Beat generation was still going strong, and North Beach was a mecca for free-thinking and free-living. We'd go up to San Francisco a lot of times on weekends.
I left Stanford in 1959 and went into the Marine corps. We wrote back and forth all the time I was in Vietnam; he sent me whole chapters of his book Sometimes a Great Notion, and I'd write back long letters of what I thought. Writing was a bond. When I came back I hid in my house for five days, then went out into the middle of flamboyant consumer America. It was like an acid high, and it all extended from the rush of seeing Kesey and my other friends again.
The plan of the bus grew out of taking LSD. It opened up new ways of thinking, to the point where we were no longer happy with just writing. We were into taping - we'd lie on the floor at night, get high, have microphones on and recite novels. We'd progress from that to playing the parts we were making up, and then to filming ourselves. When we took the bus to New York, our plan was to play these parts on the road, and film ourselves interacting with the American people.
Then we got busted in 1966, and when you get arrested, you really get arrested - things come to a stop. Afterwards we moved right on up to Oregon, because we had kids to get in school, and we became ordinary citizens. But we still continued to do the things we've always done together. Kesey says our mission is no less than saving the world.
The way we work is that Kesey'll have an idea. But if it's too harebrained, we won't do it. You know how Indians pick their chiefs? They sit around in a group, and one guy becomes the one who makes the decisions. But when he starts making decisions that people don't go along with, they quietly leave the tent, until pretty soon he's the only one there. We're like that too.
Our relationship is one of those things you don't think about, it's like an old marriage. We still look out for each other. I don't let him cross the street without looking to the left. Particularly in England. What started in the Sixties has matured nicely, with a lot of grace.
The Pranksters are now touring Britain, and their perfor-mance at the Minack Theatre, Penzance, on 11 August, will be broadcast on Channel 4. The channel will also be showing a documentary of the tour on 30 August
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