Ken Babbs (born January 14, 1939) is a famous Merry Prankster who became one of the psychedelic leaders of the 1960s. He along with best friend and Prankster leader, Ken Kesey wrote the book Last Go Round. Babbs is best known for his participation in the Acid Tests and on the bus Further.
Ken Babbs was raised in Mentor, Ohio. He attended the Case Institute of Technology (where he briefly studied engineering) for two years on a basketball scholarship before transferring to Miami University, from which he graduated with a degree in English literature in 1958. He then attended the Stanford University graduate creative writing program on a Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship from 1958–59; having entered the NROTC program to fund his undergraduate studies, Babbs was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps following the end of his fellowship. He trained as a helicopter pilot and served in one of the first American advisory units in Vietnam from 1962-63 prior to his discharge and reunion with Kesey in 1964. Babbs had no understanding of the impact the war had on him until he received his orders to go to Vietnam. His insight soon began to take definition. Babbs later stated that he “had no perceptions of the right or wrong of the situation before I went to Vietnam, but it took about six weeks to realize we were wasting our time there... being humble, respect[ing] local customs, learn[ing] the language and helping does more good than hurting.”
In the fall of 1958, Babbs took a writing class at Stanford with another Wilson Fellow, Ken Kesey. Babbs later described meeting Kesey as “a moment of mirth and sadness, highness and lowliness, interchanging of ideas and musical moments.” They soon became best friends, maintained a correspondence while Babbs was stationed in the Far East with the Marines, and eventually formed the Merry Pranksters.
Acid Tests and Furthur
What started as a Happening emerged into a global frenzy and inspired people, still today. According to Babbs, a Happening is something that “can’t be planned ..It just happens! It takes place in public or private and involves everyone present. In Phoenix in 1964, we painted ‘A Vot for Barry is a Vot for Fun’ on the side of the bus and waved flags and played stars and stripes forever..this qualified as both a prank and a Happening.” .
The most famous happening of the Pranksters was the nationwide trip on the Furthur. While on a trip to New York, the Pranksters needed an automobile that could hold fourteen people and all of their filming and taping equipment. One of the members saw a “revamped school bus” in San Francisco that was for sale. The Pranksters bought the bus and named it “Furthur”. Babbs was the engineer for the bus. Babbs is mostly credited for the sound systems he created for the Trips Festival. Prior to Babbs’ creation, it was discovered that particular music usually sounded distorted when cranked to high levels because of the cement floor on the San Francisco Longshoreman’s Union Hall (where the Trips Festival was taking place). Babbs being a sound engineer resolved the problem. He made sound amplifiers that would not create distorted sounds when turned up to high sound levels.
The purpose for this Happening was to link the psychedelic tribes from the west and the east. Many people tend to remember the east tribe because of Timothy Leary and LSD. Many misjudgments have been made on the Pranksters and their promotion of LSD. However, Babbs makes it clear that “just because we used LSD does not mean we were promoting its use. (LSD) is a dangerous drug..[It’s] a way, I guess, of breaking down the conformist ideology.” .
During the legendary Prankster cross country bus trip to the New York World's fair in 1964, an epic movie was filmed and shown at several “Acid Tests”. The film is called "The Merry Pranksters Search for a Kool Place". Some have compared the Prankster’s trip to the Acid Tests. Babbs assures that the “Acid Tests came after the bus trip and came about because we were editing the movie of the bus trip and began renting places to show the movie and play our music.” What inspired the Acid Tests was when the Pranksters met the Grateful Dead. Babbs relates to that time as “it was the power that propelled the rocket ship everyone rode to the stars and beyond the whole night the acid test took place.” [IBID]
Looking back at his experiences as a Merry Prankster, Babbs says 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.” [ibid]
Keeping Kesey's legacy alive
Babbs' current project is promoting Ken Kesey's book Kesey’s Jail Journal. Babbs recently had a showing at an art gallery in Oregon to display Kesey’s artwork. Babbs said that the art gallery’s main attraction is “the artwork from Kesey’s Jail Journal”. Because of Kesey’s popularity and inspiration, 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.”[Iibid]
Babbs currently lives on his farm in Dexter, Oregon (near Kesey’s house) with his wife Eileen, an English teacher at South Eugene High School. In 1994, he helped Kesey co-write The Last Go Round, about the oldest and largest rodeos in America. Babbs is also founder and leader of the Sky Pilot Club. Many of Babbs's trips are now available to watch on YouTube. Babbs 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?'
"People always were saying, ‘Is this the real bus?’ and he would say, ‘Yes, there’s only one bus, like there’s only one Starship Enterprise."
- A profile of Ken Babbs at Oregon Live
- Ken Babbs profile at IMDB
- Grog All Around, a short story at Narrative Magazine, (Fall 2004).