Talking Sunshine Daydream with Ken Babbs: Kesey, The Dead & Little Kids And Dogs
Speaking of the bus, that’s one of the things I wanted to mention: early on in Sunshine Daydream they did a nice job of weaving in some Acid Test footage; and then later – during “I Know You Rider” – there was really nicely-done footage of Neal Cassady. There are some scenes of him at the wheel, which I know I’ve seen in the Intrepid Traveler And His Merry Band Of Pranksters Look For A Kool Place movie that you guys did and in the Magic Trip movie that came out in 2011. But there’s also a scene of Neal in his striped shirt and that goofy –
Straw boater hat.
Yes! That’s it – and he’s doing his Buster Keaton thing; balancing the hat on his head and then losing it …
Yeah. (laughs) He’s showing off to the secretaries that were in Central Park – when we were there on the bus in ’64. Neal, you know, was quite a ladies man – he was entertaining them. (laughter)
It’s perfect that Neal was included in Sunshine Daydream, even though the Field Day took place four years after he died.
That’s right – Neal was part of us; and he had a great relationship with the Grateful Dead.
The folks who shot the original footage had to understand the Dead’s music and the family vibe to capture things the way they did. They nailed so many moments that really counted.
Sam Field’s group – called Canis Major – had filmed the Dead in Europe earlier that year, and when they heard about this concert, they thought, “This would really be the concert to film.” They joined up with us – Intrepid Trips – and this other group called FWAPS – Far West Action Picture Service – who did local commercials and stuff like that. There were all these different cameras filming it, so they were getting all these shots from different people who each had their own view of the day.
Do you have a favorite scene?
Oh, yeah – the shot of the little kid sitting there eating the ice cream. (laughter)
With the dog! (laughter)
And the dog comes up and starts licking his ice cream. (laughter) That was shot by Bobby Miller, the son of Arthur Miller, who was one of the partners in FWAPS. And the little kid is the son of one of our guys, Paul Foster. (laughs)
And “Jack Straw” was playing, I believe: “We can share what we got of yours ‘cause we done shared all of mine” – it was perfect.
Yeah! (laughter) You know, when they showed the movie in theaters all over the country on August 1st, we watched it in one of the local movie houses in Springfield – and it was like a party! Everybody was having a good time; and afterwards, they hung around for hours. You realized after awhile that it was all people who had been at the concert – there were no young people at this one at all; it was funny. (laughter)
You know, Phil DeGuere did a really brilliant job of editing the film. That sequence at the beginning where the music’s playing while they’re building the stage and putting things together … I thought that was just magnificent.
Absolutely; in just a few minutes you caught the total essence of the event – and more importantly, the spirit of the people. Speaking of people, I wanted to say that you’re looking good in the movie, Ken.
Well … (laughs) I was kinda young then. I was only – what? 36?
Well, you still look good.
I try. (laughs) I work at it. Like I told you earlier, I’ve been splitting wood lately to get my exercise. I try to break up my day: in the morning, do my writing and computer work; and then in the afternoon, get out and work hard around the place – get the fresh air and sunshine and the physical labor.
How did you end up as the emcee that day?
Kesey and I did this thing where we came up with these characters: I was Poppinjay the Dee Jay – “poppin’ dee jay all dee way” – the emcee for the show. And Kesey was his cohort, Brother Bartholomew, up in the soundbooth in the middle of the thing. Poppinjay was up on the stage and they had these two-way radios so they could communicate back and forth.
Ah – I was going to ask you about that: there’s the skit being played out during the movie; the occasional voiceover with the bit about the jug of water that’s been hid under the stage – and, of course, we don’t want anyone to tamper with that water jug. Which they do and madness ensues …
That’s me and Kesey. I have boxes of old reel-to-reel tapes of us working that stuff up. I’ll get those out someday – there’s much, much more than what you hear in the movie.
Ha! That would something else to hear. And was that intended to be part of the movie; part of the soundtrack all along?
That’s right. We had so many ideas for that movie … I had one for “El Paso”: when they went into it, we’d put all the guys on horses with cowboy hats. They’d walk into a bar and go through the whole thing while the song was going on. It would’ve been like a precursor to MTV … boy, would that have been good.
Well … maybe next time.
Next time! (laughs) There ain’t gonna be a next time. (laugher) There’ll be a new time, maybe – but not a next time. That’s good.
Any big technical difficulties that day?
No – none. You know, that’s another one of the myths around this movie. This was supposed to come out right away and play in the theaters; it would’ve been a knockout. And part of the myth was that the band didn’t want it going out because the instruments wouldn’t stay in tune because of the record-setting heat of that day – 105 or 106 degrees or something like that. “Oh my God, that doesn’t sound good!”
Fuck that – that’s why it sounds so good; it was part of the whole day, you know? People were high; that’s the way it was – that’s the way it sounded. (laughter) I mean, you’ll never hear another “Dark Star” like that again in your life.
Oh, I know – and that jam from “China Cat” into “Rider”. Bobby takes the lead for a bit there and he’s just smoking. My wife nudged me and said, “Look how hard he’s working.” (laughter) It’s great. And “Bird Song” – we had tears in our eyes it was so beautiful. “Out of tune,” my arse. (laughter)
Yeah! Like I say, that’s a myth. The sound in this movie is incredible – the way that each instrument is heard so clearly.
I’ll admit: at first, I had my doubts about this new version of the movie, but it was Mountain Girl who said, “No – this is for a new audience.” And she was right.
So you’d seen the finished project yourself before the one-night nationwide screening in the theaters?
Yeah – I saw it last summer at the Oregon Country Fair at 11 o’clock on a Friday night. Everyone who had been at the concert that could come was there. That was where it was filmed, you know – in the parking lot of the Oregon Country Fair. Anyway, that’s where I got to see it first – the finished version had a few additions.
I loved the short documentary Grateful Days that introduced Sunshine Daydream at the premiere.
That was done by a really good guy named Adrian Marin who took it upon himself to do a documentary about the making of the movie. Oh my God … he came out and interviewed me for hours and hours. I said, “What are you going to do with all this stuff?” (laughter) But he did a great job of talking about the Creamery and how the concert came about. He told the story very well.
Hey – you know that naked guy on the pole in the movie?
Oh yeah … (laughter)
He drives you nuts after a while. He’s right there in the background – it looks like his balls and his dick are banging on Jerry Garcia’s head (laughter) – and then he’s gone! And then he appears again … but he has shorts on! When we were watching it in the theater, several people in the audience yelled out, “Oh, thank God!” (laughter)
They were clapping where we were. (laughter) I wonder where he is now.
Well, that’s the thing: when Adrian was making the documentary, he went to look for him. Turns out that he isn’t a long-haired, backwoods fella any more … he’s a straight guy and sells real estate. (laughter) And he didn’t want to talk about the movie. (laughter)
Well … that’s too bad. His loss.
And you have a great essay in the booklet.
Did you read it? (laughs)
Oh, yeah – that was a cool piece of writing, Ken. When did you do it?
They e-mailed me and asked if I’d write something for the booklet and I said, “Okay.” And then they told me they needed it in a week. (laughter)
Oh, man – it’s great. It’s like some of the passages in Who Shot The Water Buffalo? – you were just riffing; just letting it roll.
It was cool, because that’s what they told me: “Say whatever you want – right off the top of your head.”
Well, who knows, Ken. We’ll let the DVD and the soundtrack get out there into folks’ hands and – I’m a sucker for a happy ending – maybe it’ll do some good.
Maybe, Brian – maybe. (laughs)
In the meantime, your novel Who Shot The Water Buffalo? is out in paperback. And I know you’re working on your next book, which has a working title of Cronies – how’s that coming?
I started in 1958 when Kesey and I met at Stanford in the writing program and I’ve worked my way up to 1964 so far. (laughs) I’m in the middle of the bus trip as we speak, writing about that. (laughter)
Oh, man …
I know! I can’t believe how much material I have: tapes; movies; photos … and memories! I’ve got to get it all down.
I finally quit worrying about it and and I figured this first time through I’m going to put everything in there. Then after that, I’ll go through and get rid of all the crap. (laughter) It was Ernest Hemingway who said, “What’s important isn’t so much what you put in the book as what you take out.”
That’s right: just let it roll and get it down for now. You can sand it and shape it later.
Right, right! (laughter)
Okay, Ken – I’m going to let you get back to that firewood.
Yeah – I’ve got to get it out of the truck and stacked so I can put another load in tomorrow.
Any parting words for all the boys and girls out there?
Sure: keep the faith! The world is a great world … and we’re not going to let anybody destroy it; we’re going to save it for our kids.
And party on! (laughter)
Perfect! Take care, Ken – and let’s hope there’s generations to come of little kids sharing their ice creams with dogs.
Right on, Brian – right on!
Brian Robbins shares his ice cream with Bonnie the Chesapeake over at www.brian-robbins.com.