The Merry Prankster

So we hit this amazing place to stay when visiting Ken Babbs. It was on a logging road and it had a cat called Freeloader, a dog called Jude (who was found wandering in LA) and another dog called Tito, who was found wandering Nashville. Those dogs were so good to me. There were chickens in the yard, a great greenhouse and when we arrived the stars were so clear. Ken met us in a car park to drive us up there and he said we were lucky to get such a clear night. It was so beautiful and dramatic! The place we were staying had a store room full of homemade chutney, jams, pickles all labelled and organic. There was a great artist living in the small yurt by the house, her name is Sohaila and I got into the habit of making us a breakfast of berries and a boiled egg. I’ll post some of her artwork up later.  The next day we were going to visit Ken Babbs at his farm. The countryside was so beautiful, I understand why people want to live there. Babbs (for anyone who doesn’t know) is a famous Merry Prankster who wrote the book Last Go Round with Ken Kesey, among a whole lot of other things. Babbs took part in the Acid Tests and he also helped fly and found the infamous bus Further. Babbs is incredibly funny, he’s sharp, not in it for approval and he has little time for negativity. When he laughs he could be any age and the man is fit and strong and seizing it. It was inspiring and fun to hang out with him. He made us burritos with his super cool wife (who I had a great chat with — she’s a writer as well) and his amazing daughter Elizabeth, between them they offered us a wee bit of home for the day. Ken took us over to his good friend Ken Kesey’s place and it made me think for the first time about how cool it would be to share the page with someone, to understand and respect someone else’s intellect and artistry enough to go on that journey together. I think there’s was a one-off kind of friendship and life, extraordinary, challenging and yet still with that position of being outsiders and understanding sometimes that is the best space for an artist to maintain, whether it be through politics or being a rube or a revolutionary, I don’t say that lightly either, my upbringing made me other without my consent and I have mostly kept that path and all the interesting artists I know have too, but also, friendship, community, conversation, laughter, argument, anarchy, sadness, fear, loss, beauty — those are the human things we need to share on the road. Ken made the kind of jokes and told the kind of stories that made me laugh so hard due to their wit, unexpectedness and deadpan dark humour too. I won’t repeat them because I don’t think its polite to quote someone who has invited you into their home and I will only post a few photos of us out in the yard on the way to the bus. I felt like we’d joined Ken on the bus, that he was still on the bus, that we are all of us on the bus, that sometimes we hitch a lift on someone else’s and they offer us a different view and when we get back on our own the way we see things has changed. I’ve always known about the Merry Pranksters, or since I was a teenager at least, they were a counter culture force in a time of great motion and change and we need that image of those amazing poets, thinkers, trippers, stoners, dressed up in all their finery and strange and brilliance, all the little kids that watched that bus fly through their town, all the people that heard about it, talked about it. I loved seeing the bus. Both of them actually. They are iconic designs and the history of the original bus is palpable, it is truly a thing of beauty and I’m so glad it wasn’t all restored and shiny, that would not have even true to its soul at all. History begins and somewhere out there in the cosmiverse two young men are still sat side-by-side, one scribbling, one typing. In the fall of 1958, Babbs took a writing class at Stanford with a young Ken Kesey. Babbs didn’t take a straight route to freedom. He was a marine. He was in the Vietnam war. He has lived. He struck me as archetypically American, tough, a bit lawless, seeking and writing the narrative anew. This is a man who is living! He has nine kids. He is vital. He’s still very much in motion. Babbs and Kesey formed the Merry Pranksters together. It was described as a Happening something that just occurs!  The most famous happening was when they saw a “revamped school bus” in San Francisco, pooled their money, bought it, and named it Furthur. Babbs was the engineer and he also did the sound systems for the Trips Festival. Babbs’ sorted out the the sound systems that usually distorted when cranked to high levels because of cement floors at Longshoreman’s Union Hall (where the Trips Festival was). He made sound amplifiers that would not create distorted sounds when turned up to high sound levels. How many of us are thankful for that in clubbing days. The Happening linked the psychedelic tribes from west and the east. The east tribe had Timothy Leary. Babbs still plays music when he feels like it, Bonnie Jo met him at one of her readings, he is a man who spiralled out into the universe at some point and who may always have that little sheen of stardust on him. He made us burritos. They were mighty lovely. We swapped books and stories and it was a highlight of this road trip for me, its funny, outwith the landscapes there are so many great people on the road, extraordinary,  I feel like I was meant to meet them along the way, it all makes sense somehow. Babes has been quoted saying he wants younger and future generations to carry on “love, peace, and happiness; extended in practicality to the simple act of helping one another out, being kind and generous.” Babbs is promoting Ken Kesey’s book Kesey’s Jail Journal. He recently had a showing at an art gallery in Oregon to display his friends artwork. Viking Press brought his jail journal last November. The exhibit consists of all Kesey’s artwork during his lifetime. Babbs hopes that “this exhibit will tour the country and the rest of the world.” Babbs is also founder and leader of the Sky Pilot Club. He also recently published a novel based on his life in the armed forces during the first years of the Vietnam War, Who Shot the Water Buffalo? It was great listening to Ken and Bonnie-Jo talk about horses, the land, working it and maintaining it. We went to see the calf and their beautiful cow, she was great, had attitude to spare. We fed some old goats that are seeing out their days in a field nearby. Ken built his home and I loved that, the act of creating something — where before there was nothing — of making a home and filling it with people to love, and argue with, and hope for, those we want to travel through time with, to be sick with, to dance alongside. He made me my first blueberry buttermilk pancakes. They were lush. He’s a gent, with a wicked sense of humour, self and a sharp mind. I’m glad to have got on the bus and as I continue on this crazy journey across America, all around is motion, endeavour, trials, tribulations, and those particular moments that let us know we are living. We found out later that Ken Kesey’s grave is at the home farm where all those great hippies, characters, kids, lovers, and wanderers lived together in a unique time. We didn’t go to see it and only found out later that it was there. I lost my best friend five years ago, and she is never far from my heart or mind so I get it, why visit the soil when the things our friends have given us, like the art and literature and friendship of Ken Kesey to his buddy and partner in troubadour wandering are still very much a vital, present and important part of life. I want to keep looking into Ken Kesey’s later artwork. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest influenced me so much when I read it, I was only a kid and I read it again later and as a girl raised in care it spoke to me and in some ways (alongside A Clockwork Orange and The Color Purple) helped inform the first novel I would publish. Here’s some photographs. The star is in Ken Kesey’s living-room and the outside barn type building with the star is where he lived on the farm as well. We had to roll under the electric fence because we couldn’t remember the gate code, it added a tiny touch of danger to a day of blue skies.



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