The Merry Pranksters & the Thunder Machine

From See to Shining Look: Ken Babbs interviewed by Zack Kopp

CRONIES, A Burlesque by Ken Babbs (Tsunmai Press, 2021) covers much of the same ground as Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, detailing the adventures of the Merry Pranksters, led by novelist Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, others a  group whose literary antecedents and embodiments and offshoots are manifold, this time relayed from an insider’s perspective, making its publication a truly historic occasion.

1/ The placement of Kerouac’s going on the road as opening preamble emphasizies its thematic importance to their road trip, and the Pranksters’ meeting with him is central to Wolfe’s book, too. Anything yet to be shared on that?

Not really. The Pranksters cavorted and played music and did their thing while Kerouac watched from the couch while nursing a beer. He¹d seen all those kind of shenanigans before and did the same things with the Beats. Even made a move called Pull My Daisy (Robert Frank, 1961).

2/ I know it well. Here’s to David Amram, a great musician who wrote the score and acted in it, along with and Neal in absebtia. To what degree was America part of your vision as a Prankster?

All of Am
erica from see to shining look and be engaged.

3/ The Pranksters were a case of living art, and Neal’s behavior has been famously described the same way. It¹s my position true art, on or off the page, never has a place in that political muddle moil, that¹s what I think. What do you think?

I don¹t know, you can always goof on the subject, make something else out of it, play with it, get a few laughs even.

4/ Agreed. Which Kesey seemed to get at the Vietnam Day when he advised taking a look at the war, saying “fuck it” and turning your back, then playing a few lines of “Home On the Range” before stepping offstage [don’t miss it, readers]. Regarding group dynamics, Lee Quarnstrom rest him told me you were the foreman and Kesey was the one better able to articulate the project to inquirers. Is that about right? What one thing were the Pranksters best at, as a team?

We both had our bits and Kesey certainly was the main man. I was his sidekick. Pranksters best as all working together to create an entertaining and even sometimes enlightening take on things through music and drama and incomprehensible theatrics. More later, Ken.

5/ Neal’s son in Denver, Robert Hyatt, sees his father’s years with the Pranksters as a manifestation of his “I feel like a dancing bear” quote made to Carolyn in 64 or ‘5 about feeling pressured to live up to the role established for him by Kerouac and others.  His daughter Jami sees Neal’s going off with them as him surrendering to his wild side over his family, and no doubt her view has been colored by Carolyn’s. Did you have an impression of Neal as conflicted between responsibilities to his family and his wild streak?  

Neal was always very concerned with his family but also, as a professional, dug into the job he was doing as the driver of the bus and the star of the movie we were making.

EDITOR: Ken was kind enough to answer a few more questions for another piece, linked below.

Catch it HERE.

Ken Kesey with the newer Thunder Machine circa 1987.

External link here.

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