There are few legends nowadays. In the age of the 24-hour news cycle and the never-ending social media scroll, heroes and villains fade away as quickly as they are created. Stepping back into the annals of history, however, societal pillars stand the test of time. Forefathers like the Grateful Dead and Allman Brothers Band bear lasting relevance over half a century after their inception.
Nestled among those towering groups were other larger-than-life figures, non-musicians who were no less a part of the countercultural fabric. From Neal Cassady to Allen Ginsberg to Wavy Gravy, these unique minds served as the catalysts to ignite a new way of thinking for an entire generation. While these and many more minds were blowing the lid off the status quo, their ideas had to be delivered to the masses.
The post-war Beats had their gospel delivered unto them by Jack Kerouac‘s On The Road. The psychedelic generation, however, their New Testament was brought door-to-door by the traveling congregation of Ken Kesey‘s Furthur bus. And though the novelist’s apostles far outnumbered 12 in the span of his ministry from the early 1960s until his death in 2001, none were as devout as Ken Babbs. In his new memoir, Cronies, A Burlesque: Adventures with Ken Kesey, Neal Cassady, the Merry Pranksters and the Grateful Dead, the Other Ken details his life working beside Kesey as one of the original and longest-tenured Merry Pranksters.
At its heart, Cronies is a buddy picture. Babbs is defined by his relationship with Kesey, beginning with their time at Stanford University and stretching all the way until Kesey’s death, when the story ends. The two embark on a lifelong Easy Rider journey across the United States and back numerous times, including a trip to Mexico in 1966 when Kesey was on the run from the law. Along the way, their travails are dotted with lysergic breakthroughs and familiar faces as they continue to show up in countless historical moments like psychedelic Forrest Gumps.
The subject matter of Cronies is nothing new. Thomas Wolfe published the definitive log of the Furthur bus and Merry Pranksters in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test in 1968. The details were further corroborated in numerous other books by Kesey himself, Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann, chemist/sound engineer Owsley “Bear” Stanley III, and more. What Babbs instead brings to the saga of the psychedelic pioneers is an inside perspective that the previous storytellers lacked.
In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Wolfe is the straight man in the comedic picture, a seasoned journalist covering the objective facts of the story with his eccentric vocabulary and over-the-top storytelling abilities. Kesey himself was the enlightened mind whose visions made the entire movement possible. Then there’s Babbs, the Ohio-born marine who defied classification as he existed in both the Head world and the straight world. Too old to be a flower child and carrying a military ID in his wallet, Babbs acted as a medium between the two worlds, saving The Pranksters from numerous trips to jail and otherwise thwarting disaster.
That perspective shines through in Babbs’ recollections of adventures so fantastic they need no embellishment. He lets Kesey, in his own words, offer the artistic musings, with Babbs often chiming in to act as a creative catalyst, much like featured player and Furthur pilot Neal Cassady.
A meticulously quoted catalog of nearly a half-century of adventures, Cronies is its own historical document. A quotation opens each of the book’s 70 chapters—most often from Babbs or Kesey—acting as a mantra to guide the reader through the brief vignette contained in each installment. Babbs recollects the high watermarks of the psychedelic movement, the Furthur trip to “Madhattan,” the Acid Tests, Woodstock, and more. Even with those marquee historical events included, however, the pleasure is in the side trips.
Be it the countless times the bus was pulled over by local authorities on its cross-country journey (Cassady’s silver tongue and all-American good looks shielding the group from harsher scrutiny) or Babbs’ own walk-in-like-you-own-the-place mentality and military training turning Woodstock into a free concert, the experience was in the journey rather than the destination. The Merry Pranksters were many things—intellectual revolutionaries, a traveling circus, a pharmaceutical cabinet on wheels—but above all they were orators, and Babbs is a grand, exalted yarn-spinner.
To a younger audience, Cronies also does its part to dispel some of the myths predicated by a Baby Boomer society that has fetishized “Woodstock Nation” while hypocritically decrying the modern protest movement. Just like Kerouac was long over his cross-country exploits by the time On The Road hit shelves in 1957, so too were Kesey, Babbs, the Pranksters, and the Dead beyond the initial dayglo flare of the flower power explosion. Babbs offers a single memory of San Francisco’s 1967 Summer of Love:
Heading home we drove through San Francisco. Haight Street was crammed with pilgrims, come to revel in the liberation from bodily hang-ups, to enjoy the ecstasy of newly created relationships, and the bonding of being part of a new movement, expressed by sharing love.
We continued to the ocean, turned right on the coast road and over the Golden Bridge, our only appearance at the legendary Summer of Love.
That’s not to say that they were “above” the newfound freedom that millions of Midwestern children had finally encountered in the Haight, but rather beyond it. By the time transplants were flooding the Haight and Time was selling that scene to frightened parents all over the country, the Pranksters had done that trip and were already on to communal living in Oregon. With Cronies, rather than rehashing the ubiquitous headlines and snapshots of the time, Babbs opts to dig up the narratives that have gone unreported.
In the book, Ken Babbs presents readers with B-sides of countercultural history. Instead of once again dissecting the Three Days of Peace & Music like countless books and documentaries before, Babbs instead tells the story of the free Hog Farmers stage where anyone and everyone was invited to come up and share a song, a poem, or a thought. Jimi Hendrix‘s “Star-Spangled Banner” plays off in the distance as The Quarry—a (still) relatively unknown band from Pittsfield, MA—goes on to perform more music at the festival than any other act in a story seldom reported in the over half-century since the iconic festival took place.
Though it served as the creative impetus for the rest of the two Kens’ lives, what happened after the bus is of just as much importance as what happened on it. After breaking down the doors of perception in the 1960s, Kesey, Babbs, and the Pranksters navigated the 1970s with their newfound sense of enlightenment. Cronies tells of Chuck Kesey‘s Springfield Creamery facing foreclosure following a public relations nightmare, only for the Grateful Dead to come to the rescue and put on one of their most famous concerts on August 27th, 1972 in Veneta, OR.
Storylines birthed in the 1960s run parallel with Babbs’ own as the Dead climb to new heights, Dr. Timothy Leary enacts his own fugitive adventure, and Kesey once again takes to the road to enlighten the nation’s youth—this time on a collegiate book tour—with his faithful sidekick in tow, of course. Character arcs rise and fall over the course of a lifetime, with one of the more honest depictions of Hunter S. Thompson‘s later years put to print since Jann Wenner‘s biography, Sticky Fingers.
In the end, Babbs and Kesey finally realize a project nearly 40 years in the making as they at last disseminate the extensive audiovisual documentation of the Further trip, originally released as Intrepid Traveller and his Merry Band of Pranksters look for a Kool Place on VHS in the early 2000s through a mail-order service. Even 40 years later, their pop-and-pop business still had the harbingers of a group art project as dip-dyed VHS boxes hung up to dry in the office.
Now, 20 years after Kesey’s death, the world continues to evolve with some of the last faded dayglo streaks of the 1960s. Ken Babbs carries on the Prankster spirit into the 2020s, acting as an anthropologist and living historical record, still on the search for a Kool Place.
Ken Babbs’ new autobiography Cronies, A Burlesque: Adventures with Ken Kesey, Neal Cassady, the Merry Pranksters and the Grateful Dead is available now via Tsunami Books.
On January 14th, Portland, OR’s famed Powell’s Books will host a virtual conversation between Babbs and NBA great/celebrated Deadhead Bill Walton to discuss the book. Register for the Zoom call here and tune in on Friday at 5 p.m. PT/8 p.m. ET.