By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
Cool black night thru redwoods cars parked outside in shade behind the gate, stars dim above the ravine, a fire burning by the side porch and a few tired souls hunched over in black leather jackets. In the huge wooden house, a yellow chandelier at 3 A.M. the blast of loudspeakers hi-fi Rolling Stones Ray Charles Beatles Jumping Joe Jackson and twenty youths dancing to the vibration thru the floor, a little weed in the bathroom, girls in scarlet tights, one muscular smooth skinned man sweating dancing for hours, beer cans bent littering the yard, a hanged man sculpture dangling from a high creek branch,children sleeping softly in their bedroom bunks. And 4 police cars parked outside the painted gate, red lights revolving in the leaves.
Kesey died in 2001, at the age of 66, from complications during surgery to treat cancer of the liver. With Kesey gone, original Prankster Ken Babbs — the guy, in fact, who coined that term — survives as the most direct link to this period of history, and the best person to help me understand the essence of the merry pranks and the Prankster motto, "Never Trust a Prankster."
Babbs tells me that pranks were random yet calculated expressions of performance art meant to surprise people, shock them, make them laugh, shake them up a bit, but never make them feel as if they’re the butt of a joke. An example of a prank: When I e-mailed Babbs to request an interview — an admittedly scattered and overzealous request — he placed my e-mail on his Web site/blog, www.skypilotclub.com, without asking for permission (as if he needed it, but still), and next to it wrote a response: "Take your time. Take all the time you can, remembering time is money and if you need money seek no further than how much time you have on your hands or as grampa said, ‘Hold out both hands, shit in one and wish in the other and see which one fills up faster.’ Time waits for no man. What’s that other famous saying? Something about, sure, it will happen, it will happen when pigs fly. Well, we pilots know that is not an impossibility. It is a Skypilotclub reality, one we participate in every day. The interview is on. Michael, proving himself a participant, is joining Skypilotclub so this will be between members, for members, and about members." I caught his drift and mailed a check for $7 to cover the Skypilotclub membership dues.
Babbs and Kesey met in 1958 while attending the same graduate writing program at Stanford University as Robert Stone and Larry McMurtry. The following spring, while Kesey was working at the mental ward where he scored the drugs that fueled the get-togethers of poets, intellectuals, musicians and philosophers expanding their minds on Perry Lane, the bohemian spot in Palo Alto, Babbs left for Vietnam to serve a five-year tour of duty with the Marines. During his absence, Kesey wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nestand Sometimes a Great Notion. Upon returning ("I got off the helicopter and on the bus"), Babbs also managed to author a novel. To this day it sits in a box in his office in Dexter, Oregon, unpublished.
Babbs: One of the reasons I should have gone ahead and published it then was it’s a psychedelic novel. I didn’t realize at the time that I was writing a psychedelic novel.
Me: In what respect?
Babbs: Did you see the movie Apocalypse Now?
Babbs: Well, would you say that’s a psychedelic movie?
Me: Yeah, I’d say it’s pretty psychedelic.
Babbs: Okay, then. There you go.
Burned out on the typewriter, Babbs and Kesey started practicing the art of the come-on — "of making things up, spontaneous combustion, eruption," Babbs says, the Beat in him surfacing. "We’d lie on the floor at night and put microphones to our mouths and make up stories — complete novels right off the cuff, with characters and dialogue and everything." Eventually, these improvised novels grew into plays that they would film themselves performing. When someone in their circle proposed the trip to the World’s Fair, Babbs and Kesey decided to make a movie of their journey across America in Further. What they found was real drama playing out in ordinary, everyday situations, and they reasoned that if they entered into these situations — breaking the fourth wall — it would make for a good movie. Babbs adds, "We had serious intent here, because we thought that when we came back we’d edit it and put it all together and it would play in the theaters, just like movies do."
But the Pranksters had another thing coming when they returned to La Honda. "We got back home and hooked up the film and turned on the tape recorder and we went to watch the movie and the movie is going along and the sound would be going along okay and then all of a sudden it would start to sssssslllllllllllooooooowwwwwwww ddddddddddooooooooowwwwwwwwwnnnnnnnnn and the picture is going along right at the regular speed aaaaannnnnndddddd tttttthhhhhhheeeeeee ssssssoooooooouuuuuuuunnnnnnnnnddddddd iiiiiiiiisssssss ffffffffaaaaaalllllllllllllllllllllllllllllliiiiiiiiiinnnnnnnnnngggggggggg fffffffaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrtttttttttttthhhhhhhhhhhheeeeeeeeeeerrrrrrrr and fffffffffffaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrtttttttttthhhhhhhheeeeeeeerrrrrrrrrr and fffffffaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrtttttttttthhhhhhheeeeeeeeeerrrrrrrrrr. And then other times thesoundwouldspeeduplikemad."