Includes commentary from Ken Babbs and Lee Quarnstrom
Paul Krassner, who died in August or was it July of 2019, was the first writer from the prior generation to say yes when I started soliciting interviews as a zinester in the early 2000s. Paul’s informal journal, The Realist, was the first modern zine. I read an interview with him in V. Vale’s Pranks! anthology, found his email address somewhere, and sent him one. We did an interview and became regular correspondents with each other for about fifteen years, as I went on to interview more and more people and develop more and more connections with forebears and peers and upcomers. When he died, I wanted to write a tribute right away, I had a conversation with Lee Quarnstrom to do something with in connection with that, but my paying contact wasn’t biting and I had a few other ideas on the burner. I got sidetracked. A few days ago I was in the books section at Goodwill and thought of Paul Krassner a few minutes before happening on one of his books. I didn’t purchase the copy of Pot Stories For The Soul I came across that day since I thought I probably already had a copy, if I hadn’t sold it by now, but I knew he was saying hello. I’m about to write it, Paul, I thought. I know it’s been a while, but it’s gonna be great.
Paul Krassner was the Lenny Bruce of journalism. He first came to my attention in Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool Aid Acid Test as an associate of the Merry Pranksters who never rode the bus anywhere but was active in organization and promotion of the LSD experience, including Kesey’s Acid Tests, once tripping with Groucho Marx, as recounted in his Ravings of an Unconfirmed Nut, published in 2012 (and there’s probably another recounting somewhere else). Paul was the child violin prodigy who grew into angel or coauthor of transgressive comedy founding father Lenny Bruce’s autobiography, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People. He was a freelance journalist on multiple sensational topics throughout his life—a film called The Last of the Manson Girls burlesques the early years, and Patty Hearst and the Twinkie Murders: A Tale of two Trials is a great compilation including more recent work. He invented the awesome self-descrptor “investigative satirist”, and, in his later years, he was a standup comedian (videos of his performances as such can be turned up easily on YouTube). He was also an insider in the founding of the Yippies, meaning something like outspoken hippies, which conclave included Abie Hoffman and other members of the Chicago 8 or 9 or however many there were, but Paul’s friendship with Lenny was a lifelong pillar of his character. In his last several emails to me, he spoke of being at work on a pseudo-autobiographical fiction about a modern-day Lenny Bruce-type comic. These emails included summations of the action and even brief excerpts as attachments. My email to Paul’s daughter expressing my condolences was replied to most graciously, but my follow-up inquiry about the unpublished Bruce-type manuscript went unresponded. As a hungry fan, I hope someone empowered to do so looks through Paul’s files and renders that work to fair completion because I want to read it. As a mortal, I’m struck by the bittersweet perfection that there should be so many incomplete, unknown, and undiscovered manuscripts as there must be, if you stop for a second and think about it. Keep writing, folks.
It makes sense this manuscript has perhaps been lost to the sands of time, carelessness having been a central altar in the Pranksters’ thesis. For years, Kesey published a journal called Spit in the Ocean. A film called The Magic Trip released in 2011 was cobbled together from the hours and hours of footage recorded by the Pranksters of their psychedelic bus trip to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1964. That’s a few hours edited down from many thousands. This stuff was filmed without any plan to eventually delete incidental or non-optimal footage or edit it into a cohesive form easily digestible by the squares, or maybe one or two of them did have such plans but it was never the point. Kesey declared he had gone beyond writing, considered himself to have done everything possible for him to do in that form and graduated to affecting reality itself, perhaps every fantasist’s true aspiration—to imagine things into existence like a god. “The novel is a jealous mistress. She requires more attention than I’m willing to give.” He didn’t have the urge to engage or go farther.
Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters did a lot to popularize taking acid for fun as opposed to spiritual development. Not to say they lacked soul, but it was more about activities than contemplation for the Pranksters—like when they drove their bus backward down a main street festooned with ironic Barry Goldwater promotion—“A Vote For Barry Is A Vote For Fun”—making waves in the real world. This kind of attitude led, in part, to a lot of people thinking it was the Age of Aquarius when it wasn’t really yet, but who can blame them, when no one was wearing a clock. It’s not me. In a scientific sense based entirely on likelihood, without any soul, it makes sense Paul’s last book’s still unpublished and “Intrepid Traveler” Ken Babbs’ excellent memoir of the Prankster years, Cronies, is still awaiting publication— he sent me an email: “I’m tired of waiting for a book publishers to publish Cronies, my big book about the adventures with Ken Kesey, Neal Cassady, the Merry Prankster and the Grateful Dead, so I’m initiating an online petition to encourage a publisher by showing publishers through this petition how many people want to read this book and will buy it. To sign the petition, click here.” That link’s not active anymore, so I think he found somebody.
Paul Krassner was more than a Merry Prankster, of course. In my judgement, his most essential self had more to do with the Lenny Bruce Archetype. He was a natural ally of their transcendentally transgressive ethos, though, having instinctively scratched one leg with the other while playing violin at Carnegie Hall as a child without interrupting the melody, making the audience laugh—which became a touchstone of his style. And his friendships with the other Pranksters were true, good, lifelong ones, at least the ones I know about. I know I made at least one and probably two attempts to arrange a panel in Denver with Paul and Ken Babbs and George Walker, which came very close to happening but never did, I can’t remember why at this late date. I did an interview with Babbs, reviewed another one of his books, and pre-ordered Cronies—which everyone might want to do if you’ve got a few bucks, let me now recommend—then one day, and I can’t remember exact details, but I came upon Lee Quarnstrom’s email.
Besides his own affiliation with the Pranksters, Lee also had dealings with Larry Flynt’s Hustler magazine, as did Krassner, who was its publisher for a few montrths. Lee was that magazine’s former Executive Editor during Flynt’s mental breakdown. That magazine seems to have become a safe haven for all manner of creative outlaws in the seventies, and you know that can’t be bad. Among the many connections I made following in Paul Krassner’s footsteps as a freelance writer drawn to the unconventional was someone who played Flynt’s agent provocateur on the outside while he was locked up in a mental hospital in Springfield, MO. I asked Quarnstrom if they knew each other, but they hadn’t met, being on opposite sides of the same patron. I remember trying to use the right words in saying how much I liked the Pranksters’ slogan “Stay In Your Movie” and ended up saying something weird.
“That’s just saying I’m the star of my movie,” Lee Quarnstrom simplified. “I’m the center of my universe.” Then he told me a story I haven’t got good notes for, but I think it was something about how there were kids in the neighborhood who came around when he was sitting there tripping and rotated around him as though he were the center of the universe, not really playing but rotating like planets. Something like that. And I may be misremembering it.
“That’s right. Don’t be an extra,” I think I said. And that’s all it was, really, but how incredibly eloguent and accessible a metaphor for we millions raised by the movies all these decades, to think of existence itself as a film, with directors, and extras, and stars, and I’m doing my best to keep it current—only maybe now it’s stay in your own meme.
“Did Cassady think of that one? I’ve always wondered.” Stay In Your Own Movie sounded to me like just the kind of phrase the Neal Cassady known for successfully bluffing the cops despite being high on speed and acid and who knows what else might have coined.
“No, I think it was Babbs. He was the foreman. A lot of people think of Kesey as the leader, but he was not so much the leader as a guy with higher consciousness who could explain it well. That was always the point, lifting the wool over people’s eyes, and not politics, but this was all happening against the backdrop of the Vietnam War so they think of it as a political deal. I started as an activist, but the thinking was so militaristic. My consciousness at the time was, ‘How can these people be so angry? How can you end violence with violent thinking?’ That’s when I found the Pranksters, where it was more about personal dynamics between a group of special people.”
Lee’s memoir of his times before, during and after the Pranksters, When I Was a Dynamiter, is big and great and can be ordered from Amazon. This conversation took place sometime in the fall, I think September or early October, when Paul’s death still felt fresh, and before Lee Quarnstrom, and I rang off, I mentioned that whatever I wrote about our conversation, wherever it ended up, might be part of a tribute to his memory. “A great man,” Lee responded. “No question about it.”
Paul Krassner once told me a Prankster byline: “Never take yourself as seriously as your cause.” One of the best pieces of advice for the idealists we’re all inclined to become, just as good as stay in your movie, if somewhat more specific. And as of a few days ago, so I hear, this is really the Age of Aquarius. Things can only get better.