I was about an hour into my interview with Merry Prankster elder statesman Ken Babbs when he suddenly jumped up and announced that we needed to have an “outside adventure.” This sort of erratic suggestion would have been kind of weird and off-putting coming from anyone else. But for Babbs—the Merry Prankster who helped Ken Kesey teach the hippies how to be hippies—the impulsive and unexpected come naturally.
It’s been almost half a century since Babbs, Kesey, and the Pranksters painted technicolor murals across their 1939 Harvester school bus, stocked it full of acid, and drove from LA to New York’s 1964 World Fair—a trip that later inspired the Beatles to write The Magical Mystery Tour. The Pranksters and their driver, Neal Cassady, who was immortalized as Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, went on to party with the Hell’s Angels, live side-by-side with the Grateful Dead, and host psychedelic sensory orgies called Acid Tests. Their exploits were captured in Tom Wolfe’s 1968 book, Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
Time has been good to Babbs. At 73, he still bursts with energy and ideas even if he no longer looks like the spry, DayGlo weirdo from Tom Wolfe’s book. These days, he dresses like a grandfather. When I met him, he had on a fedora, a button-up shirt, and loose-fitting stonewashed jeans. As he told it, the conservative clothes are Prankster tools of deception. They let him slip around unnoticed. But his tie-dye socks still peeked out from under his cuffs.
I visited Babbs at his home back in October. He lives on a few acres of land in the woods outside of Eugene, Oregon, with his wife in an eccentric barn-style house that he built himself. The place smells of old books and Triscuits and, of course, it didn’t have a normal bathroom. Instead, there were two stalls with multicolored seats sitting right in the living room. If someone had taken a shit, you would’ve seen their feet dangling from the dining room table. My hungover photographer, who desperately needed to drop some friends off at the pool, kept his cheeks clenched the whole time we were there.
Babbs has collected so much historical detritus from his life with the Pranksters he had to build ramshackle sheds around his property to house it all. He lead me to one of these sheds for our “outside adventure.” It hadn’t been opened for decades. There wasn’t even a door. When we took a screw gun to the shed’s wall and Babbs and I peered inside, I felt like Geraldo Rivera at Al Capone’s vault. Babbs dove in and started tossing out DayGlo toilet seats, psychedelic piano keyboards, and handfuls of tie-dye trinkets. He riffed on each item we dug up except for the giant “WHUMP!” banner. He let that one speak for itself.
Basically, Babbs lives in a museum. It’s funny that the guy who always played the lighthearted counterweight to Kesey is now the Prankster’s myth builder, spending his days among his artifacts, spouting off quotes that he attributes to Kesey—even though I’m pretty sure he makes them up on the spot.
In the midst of excavating his shed and avoiding his bathroom, I managed to talk with Babbs about pioneering the acid culture, what happened to their bus named Furthur, and how it feels to build a personal mythology.
VICE: Hey Ken, the life you’ve led has become a modern legend. How much of it all was real and how much was revisionist history?
Ken Babbs: People always ask, “Was this true? Was that true?” I say “Absolutely.” Our story has been retold so much that it has become myth. If all the people who said they were on that bus when we went to New York City in 1964 laid end-to-end, it would be about ten miles long. The really neat thing is that, as time goes on, the myth continues to grow. Everybody is adding to it. It’s getting huge. And then, a long time will pass, and it will be like Homer finally writing about Achilles. It’ll be condensed down into just the essence. I’d like to be around in 1,000 years and see what this myth will be condensed down into.
You’ll be the new Saint Peter.
I doubt that. Kerouac was the saint. We called him Saint Jack.
He was the holy dharma bum, the holy Beat, who saw that the “beat” was for “beatitude.” He blew soul. He sacrificed his life by drinking so much. He had to do that in order to keep his center centered. A lot of people drop out that way. It’s a sad story.