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Published: 2012/01/21
by Brian Robbins

Kesey, Cassady, Meatspace, and the Fourth World: Checking In With Ken Babbs

BR: Cool. You know, as soon as you’re ready to start leaking pages and you need some trustworthy journalist type to bounce them off of …

KB: Oh, don’t worry. (laughter) I’ll actually be doing some readings in the months ahead, even though it’s a work in progress.

BR: Another event that took place in 2011 that you were certainly a part of – as far as being one of the people who lived the experience – was the release of the Magic Trip movie, which documents the Pranksters’ cross-country bus trip in 1964. I know you were right in the thick of the book signings when Magic Trip came out – have you even had a chance to watch it?

KB: (laughs) You know, I was at Miami University in Ohio – my old alma mater – back in October. My buddy Ed McClanahan had a new book coming out, as well, and we were there at the same time to visit classes and do readings and signings. We were at the school for two days – one night we did a reading and the other they showed Magic Trip. The university had me introduce the movie – and I had never seen it! (laughter)

So I gave a good, long introduction – had ‘em howling and rolling in the aisles with stories about how we shot the original film back in ‘64.

BR: Ah, cool.

KB: Yeah. So by the time the movie started, I had to take a leak, you know? And while I was out there, I got a phone call from my wife and we shot the shit for a while. By the time I came back in, the movie was over! (laughter) But it was a great time; I got to talk with everybody afterwards … a lot of fun.

BR: Well, you made the trip back in 1964 – followed by hours and hours over years and years of working with the original film. I wondered how it would feel for you to watch it as produced by someone else’s hands.

KB: Well, Kesey and I – along with his son Zane and my son Simon – eventually had an office nearby here in Pleasant Hill. By then, we were into video and were able to merge the sound and film, which had been a big problem for years. The sound was on a reel-to-reel tape recorder and in the old days we had to cut film and try to cut the tape to match, which was just impossible. But you can do that easily now on the computer with an editing program.

So, in the early 90s, we put out our own movie – we called it Intrepid Traveler And His Merry Band Of Pranksters Look For A Kool Place. We released it on VHS and sold thousands and thousands of them.

[Note: A DVD version of the original Intrepid Traveler bus movie, along with Magic Trip and other DVDs, books, posters, blotter art, and much more – can be found these days at Key-Z Productions the family business owned and operated by Zane Kesey and his wife Stephanie.]

When Kesey died in 2001, we closed the Pleasant Hill office and the business – Intrepid Trips – ended. Then the movie just sat until Alex Gibney came along. Alex was going to do a documentary about Kesey, but when he saw the Intrepid Traveler bus movie, he decided to do his own version. That’s how that came down.

BR: One of the things for me was the footage of Neal Cassady, as there just isn’t a lot of it around. There’s a great 3-part YouTube of Neal and Allen Ginsberg at the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco in 1965. It opens with a few minutes of Allen by himself before Cassady makes an entrance like a hipster Groucho Marx. But if you listen to what he’s saying …

KB: Right! (laughs) That’s a beautiful bit, as Neal makes a really valid point: the old forms are dead; and people that are following the old forms are dead, too – even though they’re banging the drum hard. Look at what’s going on now – in music as well as in life: there’s a new form, and if you’re not following the new form, you’re not following life. Right?

BR: Exactly. It’s classic Cassady: the casual observer might write off what he’s saying as clowning around, but if you really listen, there’s something to think about.

KB: Yeah – that was Neal. (laughs) In our original bus movie, we did a long, long piece with Neal driving on the New Jersey turnpike. We finally managed to sync up the sound and the video so that it’s the real deal.

The whole thing is a long and involved story that started back at Kesey’s place in La Honda, when Neal first came driving in at the wheel of his old clunker car with “Love Potion #9” playing on the radio. Later on, there’s a scene on the New Jersey turnpike when he’s at the wheel of the bus and yelling, “Exit 9! Strychnine! Love Potion #9!” (laughs) After all the days and all the miles, Neal brings it all back home again.

It made me realize that “Love Potion #9” was the real theme song for the Pranksters on that bus trip. (laughter)

BR: And that was classic Cassady, right? Jump back into a conversation from hours or days or weeks or months ago and pick it up where it left off.

KB: Right – tying it all together. (laughter) He was a genius at it. Incredible.

BR: Ken, do you remember the last time you saw Neal?

KB: Yes, I do. It would have been in January of ‘68 on Kesey’s farm and Neal was getting ready to go to Mexico. He had a flat tire at, like, eleven o’clock at night and he was out in the driveway fooling with this tire.

“It’s got a hole in the tube,” Neal says, “and I don’t have a patch kit.”

“Well, come on,” I says. “I’ll take you down to the gas station and see if we can get it fixed there.” So we went down to the station and they had the stuff. Neal whipped it together, got the tire blown up, and we headed back to the farm.

Neal put the tire back on his car and was about to get in when he turned and shook my hand.

“Thanks, Ken,” he says. “You know, I think you made that pool shot after all.” (laughter)

BR: What …? (laughter)

KB: He was talking about … oh, I don’t know how many months before that when we were playing pool. We were playing rotation and Neal was talking to some girls when I took my shot.

Neal says, “Hey – you didn’t make the seven ball!”

And I said, “Sure I did!”

And he says, “No, no, Babbs – you didn’t make it.” And then he turns to the girls and says, “Babbs lies, you know.” (laughter)

I said, “What are you talking about?”

“One time on the bus trip,” Neal says, “you bought twenty ratburgers at the ratburger stand and you only paid for ten.”

And I said, “Oh my God, Neal – I’m not like that anymore; I’ve changed! And it’s due to your influence!” (laughter)

But that’s what he was talking about the night of the flat tire: “You know, I think you made that shot after all.” (laughter) In the end, Neal okay’d me. (laughter)

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