It’s a crooked road, a long strange trip with no left (or right) turn unstoned. A trip of a celestial and even extraterrestrial nature where you never leave the ground. An intrepid trip without any guides, just some clown in the driver’s seat. And that clown could be you. I first heard about Ken Kesey and the Merry Band of Pranksters when I was in high school. 1969. Freshman year. A book called The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test showed up at the newsstand in the local drug store. I’m gonna’ say it cost me ninety five cents to bring it home and climb inside a bus filled with characters on a journey my fourteen year-old mind found fascinating. I had yet to smoke anything other than a Winston, but my curiosity was piqued.
The next few years, as I dove deeper into the world of the counterculture I learned that that book’s author Tom Wolfe was a damn good observer, a pretty decent journalist if you liked this stuff they called the New Journalism, and anything but a hippie freak. I read that book every summer in high school, the style and the story imprinted in my brain. As the 1970s wore on, I watched as the world of the grey flannel suits fought against the world of blue jeans, long hair and marijuana. I knew which side I was on. It wasn’t the ones wearing suits (figuratively speaking). Unlike the political world of the time—which ultimately put “if there’s going to be a bloodbath, let’s get it over with” Ronald Reagan into the White House in 1980—there were no clear cut victors in the cultural struggle. Capitalists in both realms figured out ways to sell the pieces of the counterculture that were salable. And the people bought it.
As for me, I moved to the Bay Area, where the counterculture was still hanging on. I began meeting some of the people I had only read about. I played it cool, listening to their stories while hanging out drinking beer in People’s Park, crashing at the Hog Farm house, at concerts big and small, the White Panther squats and the parties I ended up at. The storytellers included acid manufacturers recently out of prison, Black Panthers tending bar, hippie women turned Christian, street hustlers who fought the cops in the Haight uprisings and then People’s Park, college professors, working musicians and burnt out rock musicians whose bands had left them behind. Every collection of freaks had their memories and every freak had their own version of what went down. Still, certain stories and storytellers were paramount. Like the book of Genesis or the creation stories of the Tlingit, those stories were origin stories. Those were the ones I wanted to hear, to collect and remember. This interest remained even as those who knew them left their earthly existence, taking their tales with.
Now, in the year 2021, a book by one of the earliest Merry Pranksters sits ready to hit the shelves. Titled Cronies, A Burlesque: Adventures with Ken Kesey, Neal Cassady, the Merry Pranksters and the Grateful Dead, it is the story of the Pranksters as recalled by Ken Babbs, Kesey’s cohort in multiple escapades both foolish and fun, bizarre and benign; all of them intended to unbind the mind of modern misery. It’s the story of a trip and a story of the trip. From a bus named Further and its pilot Neal Casady who was also known as Dean Moriarty. There’s Babbs’ recollection of the bus trip across the USA that inspired not just a book or two but thousands of other trips across the star spangled nation whose legacy is schizophrenic at best and psychotic too. Cronies describes a journey of two friends placed together by the spirits inside psychedelic medicines and the Wallace Stegner Creative Writing seminar. Babbs takes the reader from Stanford University to the ever mounting flame of consciousness inside all of us. Yippie yi yo ti yay.
The author calls his book a burlesque, explaining the word’s use with a brief definition: “an historical accounting with additions, exaggerations, embellishments and inventions.” In other words, memories as he remembers them…or not. In a manner of speaking, it’s like the old guys at the coffee shop telling stories about the war, their jobs, their cars or women they have known. It’s mostly true, but memory is a funny thing. My dad used to say before he started up a tale: “I may have told you this before, so I hope I make it as interesting as the last time you heard it.” It’s one of things I borrowed from him a few years back and use more and more as the years pile up. Like him, I hope I make my stories interesting.
Needless to say, Ken Babbs has certainly made his story interesting. The moments he relates include tales from the aforementioned bus trip, the Woodstock festival, the Acid Tests, working with and for the Grateful Dead, and a multitude of other moments the reader may or may not have heard about. It’s a rip-snorting tale tempered by the wisdom of time and informed by the psychedelic enthusiasm of a culture founded in youth but defined by eternity. There are moments when the story being told reflects the sexism of the time and there are other moments that reveal today’s differences from the decades that have passed. Cronies is part tall tale, a memoir, and a song of brotherly love and camaraderie. It’s about a time when art and music meshed with acid in search of an ecstatic revival of the human spirit lost in the cloud of atomic war.
It’s too early in human time to tell what this tale means, but this telling of the tale is well worth the time.