I promised that I would tell you more about the videos Ken Babbs sent me, and what better day to finally get around to it than 420, the International Stoner's Holiday of High Pride?
Ken Babbs you may recall (or not) is one of the co-stars of the popular book by Tom Wolfe The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. He is soon to become more famous because a film is in the works based on the book directed by the renouned film maker Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting) shown below on the left with Babbs.
The subject of the book, and now the film, is the infamous bus trip taken by Babbs and his best friend Ken Kesey (author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) a trip where legend has it they helped to popularize the use of psycheldelic drugs, in particular LSD, which was legal back in the mid-1960's when the cross country bus trip occurred.
That legend is both exaggerated and simplistic. The real purpose of the trip was to arrive in New York City for the official release of Kesey's second book, Sometimes a Great Notion, a lesser known novel but one which many literary critics consider better than Cuckoo's Nest, at least in terms of style and creativity. While there was drugs of psychedelic types onboard the bus, and many madcap adventures occurred, it was never specifically the desire of Kesey, Babbs and crew to turn on America, at least not by bus.
If the bus ride eventually had a pro-drug influence on society, that is largely the result of Wolfe's book, which had a romanticizing effect on the trip. Ironically not everyone associated with drug culture has praised it, with some complaining that Wolfe sometimes adopts a snarky tone in the book. In any case, forever after Kesey, Babbs and their friends, who sometimes called themselves the Merry Pranksters, were locked forever in the public's conciousness with that bus ride.
What wasn't always appreciated was that most everyone involved with the bus ride lived for decades afterward, indeed, a good many are still alive today. Kesey is not one of them, having died of liver disease in 2001. But much of what is so celebrated in Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test continued on through the years, even if no writers were hanging around to write books about it. Much of the psychic and cultural experimentation was recorded in one form or other and stored in the Prankster's legendary archives. Most of it has never been seen by the public, but that may change if the acid test movie is a success.
The most valuable archival material, that owned by Kesey himself, is under the control of his son Zane, who makes some material available on the website Key-Z.com, formerly known as Intrepid Trips, which was originally run by his father as one of the pioneering websites of the cyberspace revolution. The Pranksters were online as one of the earliest colonizers of cyberspace, and among the first to present their daily lives online in the manner that would later be called blogging. Whatever their cultural significance, Kesey, Babbs and the Pranksters were technological innovators as well. Not in the sense that they created new technology, but because they pioneered new uses and forms of self expression that the technology could be used for.
Today we consider it commonplace for people to make videos and other forms of recordings of private lives and then share them with the public through mass distribution online or by other means. But in 1965, when the Pranksters filmed their bus trip, the idea that private lives recorded by regular people could have a wider significance was by no means widespread. Yet the purpose of the film was to show a subculture, hidden from the view of the larger culture at the time, and to express the consciousness that subculture was experiencing. The fact that they were using drugs was almost beside the point.
For the Pranksters, and the musical group most associated with them, the Grateful Dead, it was considered essential to preserve everything one did that was of any significance, either by writing about it, filming or sound recording it, or all three! The Grateful Dead's credo of preserving everything has paid off handsomely in a string of endless live releases. But for the Pranksters, their archives have been less of a mother lode, at least commercially.
Part of the problem is the archives are in desperate need of editing. Kesey reportedly left behind mountains of manuscripts, miles of film and reels of recording from which no one has really attempted to sift the wheat from the chaff. What Zane Kesey has mostly made available is stuff that was already pretty much edited and ready for release around the time Kesey died. Much of this material is excellent, such as the original films shot on the bus trip, some priceless footage of a shirtless and stoned Neal Cassady tripping at Kesey's farm, and a 1970's poetry festival the Pranksters put on featuring some of the most important literary figures of the era. There is a grab bag of later material available, which is not as good but still interesting, such as videos about a trip the Pranksters took to England and the delightful but hopelessly spacey labor of love of Kesey's later years, the play called Twister. All these and more can be obtained here.
However, if Zane is the keeper of the vaults, then Ken Babbs has emerged as the definer of the Prankster message in the present. Actually the term Merry Pranksters has been mostly retired since the death of Kesey, in much the same way as the term Grateful Dead was retired after the death of Jerry Garcia. While the spirit lives on, the terms in both cases was too closely identified with a single individual to keep the same name. While the Merry Pranksters were always bigger than Ken Kesey and the Grateful Dead were always more than just Jerry Garcia, neither entity could really be called the same thing in their absense.
So for the future evolutions of the Prankster concept, Babbs came up with the Skypilot Club, a loose kind of spoof of the old cereal and comic book clubs of the 1940's and 50's. There are membership cards and other silly knockoffs of kid culture, all presented with a wink and a nod to drug culture. And there are videos of what Babbs and his cohorts are up to now. What those videos suggest is that the more things change, the more things stay the same in that wondrously odd world of those formerly known as the Merry Pranksters.
Two excellent examples are some videos Babbs sent me recently. The first is one that is about the United States military base Guantanamo in Cuba. Or at least that's sort of what it's about.
What the video is about as much as anything is wordplay. The Pranksters have always been fascinated by language and sound, whether it be puns and rhymes or just noise and the way it undulates through space. Babbs (and Kesey of course when he was alive) love to play language the way a jazz musician plays sound, arranging it in new and unusual ways that sometimes have only a tangental relationship with the normal usage of the words. The result is a kind of sonic intoxicant that is almost hypnotic in its effect, phasing back and forth between message and medium in a way resulting in fresh understandings. Babbs, a proud veteran, is obviously sincere in denouncing the alleged cruelties committed at Guantanamo, but as this video unfolds the constantly repeated script becomes more musical than political. In the end, it's all about the wordplay.
This is even more apparent in the second video Babbs sent me Dreamin.
Essentially a skit performed as part of a concert by the newly reformed Grateful Dead offshoot band New Riders of the Purple Sage, this short (35 minutes) performance is essentially a New Riders jam session set to a poem by Babbs. The performance, where Babbs and the New Riders are accompanied by a spirited cast of Pranksters and friends, again relies heavily on the juxtaposition of words so that they convey fresh meanings. The tone of the piece is very upbeat, and Dreamin is one of Babbs best poetic compositions.
Alas, if you are looking for a New Riders concert, this is much too freeform for a fair sampling of the current state of the band, which from all reports I've heard is as good on the road as it's ever been. This video is all about Babbs and friends, with the New Riders providing only tasteful noodling among the verses.
However, if you are looking for good videos to put on after midnight at your next party, then these are two certain to surprise and intrigue your guests. Or better still, watch them yourself when you can really get into the words and the rhythm of the literary beat. You'll be surprised by what these videos unveil with repeated viewings.
How can you get your mitts on these viddies? Well, Babbs is currently hard at work completing a novel with a strict deadline, and is officially discouraging any correspondence that makes demands on his time. But maybe if you were to send him a portrait of Andrew Jackson on greenish paper and a polite request to the address here, then perhaps he may be enticed to send you a surprise.
Continuing in a 420 vain, I spotted another one of those hula hoop defaced signs on King Street.
Don't understand what I'm talking about? Then click here
Finally, closing out our 420 post, here is Springfield native and Classical High graduate Timothy Leary, goofing with Cheech and Chong and ending with a worthwhile public service message by PeeWee Herman that I wish I had heeded.