Talking Sunshine Daydream with Ken Babbs: Kesey, The Dead & Little Kids And Dogs
Call it what you want: The Last Acid Test; The Field Trip; The Springfield Creamery Benefit; or perhaps simply 8/27/72.
Even the most casual of Deadheads are at least aware of the facts: the Grateful Dead played an outdoor concert in Veneta, OR that day, immersed in record-breaking heat. The show was a benefit to help keep Springfield Creamery going – a local business owned and operated by Ken Kesey’s brother Chuck.
Where the facts have morphed into legend over the years is the claim that this is – if not in the band’s history, then at least for that time period – THE SHOW. The Holy Grail. The big psychedelic machine firing on all cylinders, fueled by sunshine, good vibes, and Owsley acid. Umpteenth-generation bootlegs have been around since that hot August day 41 years ago, providing fodder for great debate.
Fortunately for us all, The Field Trip needs to be a myth no longer: Rhino Entertainment has released Sunshine Daydream, a 3-CD/DVD collection (also available in vinyl and Blu-ray formats) that documents that day. The music itself is amazing, captured on 16-track analog tapes and stored lovingly in the Dead vaults all these years. It’s the filmed account of 8/27/72 (and the events that led up to it), however, that provides the proof that what happened in that field on that scorching-hot afternoon is worthy of four decades’-worth of buzz. There are many great films that document the Grateful Dead’s history; none capture the essence of the Grateful Dead family quite the way that Sunshine Daydream does.
The Merry Pranksters played a large role in the events of 8/27/72 – most visible was Ken Babbs, Ken Kesey’s longtime friend since their first crossing-of-paths in a Stanford writing class in 1958. Over the years, Babbs was Kesey’s wingman for everything from the famous cross-country bus trip in 1964 (with Neal Cassady at the wheel) to joint adventures in words, sound, and film up until Kesey’s death in 2001. Babbs was the emcee for The Field Day in August of 1972 – the man at the mic, keeping his cool amongst the heat and craziness, combining cowboy good looks with R. Crumb-character moves and a rubbery grin.
These days, Ken Babbs keeps the Prankster spirit alive with his Skypilot Club while continuing to lead the sort of back-to-the-land lifestyle that he has long advocated. We’ve enjoyed our visits in the past; the release of Sunshine Daydream seemed like a perfect time to get out the shortwave and dial in Kap’n Ken at Skypilot Headquarters …
BR: Good morning, Ken. What are the current conditions at Skypilot HQ?
KB: Good morning, Brian! Atmospheric conditions are a beautiful, cool morning with a high of 90 degrees predicted for this afternoon. We’ve had three hot days in a row.
Enjoy it while it lasts – it’ll be time to get your winter firewood in before you know it.
Oh, I’ve been cutting and splitting wood like crazy. I don’t know what it means, though … maybe we’re going to have a real cold winter. (laughter) I’ve got a load in the truck right now that I have to go stack once we get done talking.
Well, then – we’d better get right to it.
I thought we already had! (laughter)
How about we run through just a little bit of history of the events that led up to the show captured on Sunshine Daydream ?
By 1972 Chuck Kesey and his wife Sue had been running the Springfield Creamery for a dozen years – it was an established business, correct?
Yes it was, but it was established as a bottling plant – Springfield was bottling milk for other outfits. I think something happened where one of Springfield’s competitors convinced a major milk supplier not to renew their bottling contract. There were offers to buy Chuck and Sue out and take over the creamery, but they didn’t want to do that … so there was a scramble over how to get the money to keep going.
And at that point, Springfield Creamery was part of the early yogurt movement in the US, as well?
Absolutely true. Even though the yogurt scene was well-established in Europe, it was small in the United States at that time. Springfield decided to do yogurt with live probiotics and see where that would take them. They called it “Nancy’s Yogurt” after a lady at the Creamery – Nancy Hamren – who still works there.
Do you think there was ever a sort of “guilt by association” with the Kesey family name and the Prankster scene that made it difficult for the Creamery business-wise?
No – no, I don’t. In those days, everything was still … I mean, it was Oregon we’re talking about! (laughs) Everybody was cool. In ’72 there were co-ops and communes all over the place; health foods and natural foods businesses were on the rise; Springfield Creamery was part of it all.
And at that point, someone came up with the idea to approach the Dead about a benefit concert …
They were talking at the Creamery about what to do and there was one employee – Benny The Benevolent Benefactor – who said, “Why don’t you guys get the Grateful Dead to do a concert and raise some money?” They talked about it and sent this other woman who worked there, Carolyn Hannah, down to talk to them.
The Dead were interested, but they weren’t real enthusiastic about it until Ramrod [the late Larry “Ramrod” Shurtliff, head Dead roadie and spiritual mainstay] spoke up.
Oh, yeah. Ramrod – who came to the Dead through the Pranksters – said, “Wait a minute – these are our people. We’re all in the same family; we’ve got to help out here.”
And that’s when the Dead said, “Okay – we’ll do it.”
So Ramrod was the real hero of things.
Yeah, and Maria, too – Carolyn Hannah’s Prankster name was Black Maria. The two of them … plus Benny The Benevolent Benefactor. (laughter)
I’ll make sure to capitalize his title.
Watching the early scenes of the movie, it just tickles me so to watch things come together. The folks building the stage and sound tower and everything – they weren’t experienced “show people”; they were simply folks that wanted things to happen.
That’s what the movie’s all about, Brian. It’s not about the Grateful Dead playing songs; it’s about exactly what you said: people coming together whole-heartedly to put this on.
It’s a time capsule that reveals a great spirit of cooperation and family that existed in Oregon at that time. The best reason to have it come out now is to have that spirit once again shown to people, and say, “Yes, yes … that’s the way we ought to be …”
And then maybe they’ll go out and do the same thing.
A lot of those people you see were living the country life; a lot of them had built their own houses and their own barns … they knew how to do that stuff.
I wanted to ask you: if you took the same set of circumstances and applied them to now … do you think this event could happen? I’m not talking the sort of massive festivals that we have now; I’m talking this sort of grassroots people-helping-people scene.
I do, I do. We’re finding a resurgence of that spirit now; more and more people are realizing – as they did in those days – that the search for the “American Dream” does not go through the materialistic, acquire-as-much-as-you-can world, but through returning to the natural world through health and spirit and body and community.
More and more people are finding that out; more and more people are being forced to as they’re losing their jobs and their homes – and they’re seeking another way … and when they do, they’re finding a better way.
Sometimes it takes a bad thing to make a good thing.
Hey – it’s like the guy who comes home from work and he’s just been fired. He sees the mortgage’s been cancelled and they’re gonna lose their home and he says, “Hey kids – we’re goin’ camping!”
Even the local law seemed to be caught up in the spirit of things on the Field Day; there were no hassles.
Well, no; there was no reason to. There weren’t any problems. (laughs)
But you and I both know there have been times when there aren’t any problems, but people with authority still find a reason to come down hard on folks.
Well, that’s true … but I think up here you have savvy people who know how to smile and be pleasant to the heat … and not aggravate them. (laughs)
The average attendance number that’s always been kicked around is 20,000. Do you think that’s accurate?
Oh, easily. Anywhere from 20,000 to 40,000. (laughter) What we’re dealing with when we talk about this kind of stuff is myth. It’s been long enough that everything’s been mythologized and still is. We’re just adding to the myth … and the numbers change and fluctuate.
Usually the myth keeps getting bigger as time goes on – and a thousand years from now, the extraneous stuff will waste away and there’ll just be the myth, sticking up like the last monument. (laughs)
Well, it’s like you told me once: the bus keeps getting bigger and bigger because there are a helluva lot of people who claim they were on the bus.
That’s right! (laughs)