Pranksters, LSD and the Dead: Ken Babbs was there at Santa Cruz County’s most famous (or infamous) party
Ken Kesey, Neal Cassady and the crew immortalized in “The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test,” not to mention the band that became the Grateful Dead, got the party started at Ken Babbs’ Soquel digs. And it’s all in Babbs’ new book, which he’ll discuss in an upcoming Bookshop Santa Cruz event.
Surely, there have been more than a few epic parties that have gone down in Santa Cruz County over the years.
The wild, illicit, molly-addled ragers and the boozy, depraved, all-night bingefests, as well as the smart, performance-art, “Eyes Wide Shut” freak shows where great art, ideas, relationships, and even a few babies were conceived — that catalogue of carousing is likely to never be written. Those who will talk about those parties can’t remember them, and those who remember won’t talk.
But at least one party has lived on in legend for more than 50 years, and is likely to be remembered for 50 more years, or even longer.
That was the one that included the guy who wrote the novel on which Jack Nicholson’s greatest movie was based, several musicians who later would come together under the name the Grateful Dead, the most famous poet of his era, and copious amounts of pharmaceutical-grade, laboratory-pure LSD, which at the time was every bit as legal to use and consume as Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.
That party, and others like it that followed, was immortalized in the hippy-trippy Tom Wolfe book “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” first published in 1968. In the annals of the 1960s counterculture, the “Acid Tests” were a series of parties thrown by novelist Ken Kesey (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”) and his ragtag, eccentric group of friends known as the Merry Pranksters. Before LSD was declared illegal in 1966, Kesey and the Pranksters put together a series of events designed to enhance the psychedelic effects of LSD, or acid.
And the first one, in the fall of 1965, happened just a few miles from Santa Cruz, in Soquel. Ken Babbs was not only there. He was the party’s host.
Babbs, 86, was a central figure in the Merry Pranksters. Indeed, he could be characterized as Kesey’s lieutenant. He will be part of an online event Feb. 9 sponsored by Bookshop Santa Cruz to promote his new book “Cronies, a Burlesque: Adventures with Ken Kesey, Neal Cassady, the Merry Pranksters and the Grateful Dead” (Tsunami Press).
The Pranksters’ center of gravity was at Kesey’s place in La Honda, 45 miles to the north of Santa Cruz in San Mateo County, on the thumb’s knuckle of the Peninsula. Babbs, at the time, was living on what Wolfe’s book called a “run-down chicken farm” in Soquel known as “The Spread.” In “Electric,” Wolfe, avatar of a style then called “New Journalism,” described The Spread in less-than-glowing terms: “There were fat brown dogs and broken vehicles and rusted machines and rotting troughs and recapped tires and a little old farmhouse with linoleum floors and the kind of old greasy easy chairs that upholstery flies hover over in nappy clouds and move off about three-quarters of an inch when you wave your hand at them.”
In a phone interview from his home in Oregon, Babbs said there was no plan for that particular party in Soquel to become the first of a historic series of counterculture happenings, though ultimately that’s exactly what happened.
“It was actually just a Halloween party I was putting on,” he said. The owners of the Hip Pocket bookstore in downtown Santa Cruz, in roughly the same footprint where Bookshop Santa Cruz is today, were Merry Pranksters themselves. It was in the window of the Hip Pocket where a handwritten sign proclaiming “Can you pass the Acid Test?” advertised the party at the Babbs place. Among those who attended was Kesey, Babbs, poet Allen Ginsberg, Kerouac muse and literary cult figure Neal Cassady, newspaper reporter Lee Quarnstrom, and a group of San Francisco musicians calling themselves the Warlocks.
“I don’t know how they heard about it,” said Babbs of the band that would soon become the Grateful Dead. The Pranksters themselves were musicians, he said, and they had their instruments set up in Babbs’ living room.
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“We were out in the yard,” said Babbs of his first encounter with the Warlocks, “we’re communing with the moon, holding hands, and levitating off the ground. And then we hear this music. We realized it was coming from the house, and we went in and these guys were all playing our instruments. They ended up playing all night.”
In his new book, “Cronies,” Babbs writes of that night: “We sprawled on the floor, held microphones, rapped long nonsensical poetic free jazz wordplay that morphed into deep religioso, talking about meeting on the other side—whether we believed in it or not.”
Today, there is a bus stop on Soquel Drive near where the party happened that tells its history in appropriately psychedelic graphics. Babbs was among the surviving Pranksters who attended the bus stop’s dedication in 2015.
A second party followed in San Jose, but it was still not widely known as an Acid Test. That name and the notorious LSD-laced barrels of Kool-Aid served at the parties all came later. The “Acid Test” tour reached a fever pitched with the three-day Trips Festival in San Francisco a few months later and then moved into Southern California with the Pranksters making the trip in a day-glo colored school bus called “Furthur.”
Kesey died in 2001, but Babbs today lives near where Kesey grew up outside Eugene, Oregon. Kesey’s widow and adult children still live nearby, as does another famous Merry Prankster, Carolyn “Mountain Girl” Garcia.
Babbs said his wife was a local high school teacher who taught Kesey’s novels in her classes. Every year, for almost 20 years, Babbs would visit the classes to tell the stories of those years at Kesey’s side.
“I would make some notes before I went in to those classes,” said Babbs, “just to remind myself what I was going to talk about. So, about a year and a half ago, I started looking back through those notes and I thought, ‘By golly, this would be a good book.’”
He didn’t want to write fiction and he was uncomfortable with the idea of a memoir, so he uncovered a literary form called “burlesque,” popularized 200 years ago by Washington Irving. Burlesque, as Babbs sees it, exists somewhere in the no man’s land between fiction and nonfiction. It’s in the service of the story, where strict adherence to the facts isn’t nearly as important as delivering a satisfying story. (Indeed, Babbs claims that the Santa Cruz party was a Halloween party, but historical consensus puts it in late November, almost a month later. Then again, maybe every Prankster party was a Halloween party, regardless of what the calendar said.)
“It’s like what Kesey said, and I put it in the front of the book: ‘We don’t need facts; We need stories.’ And that’s what I am, a storyteller.”
Tom Wolfe’s book itself fudged the lines between fiction and nonfiction, and later in his career Wolfe moved freely from nonfiction reportage like “The Right Stuff” to novels such as “Bonfire of the Vanities.”
As for that first Acid Test in Soquel among the “fat brown dogs and broken vehicles,” it might have been a widely documented party, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we know much about what actually happened there. By Babbs’ account, the party was rather light on the depravity, unless you count the ingestion of not-yet-illegal psychedelic drugs. Babbs said he and his illustrious guests chilled and talked on weighty spiritual subjects until dawn. The culmination was when someone asked Allen Ginsberg about what awaits us on the “other side” (Ginsberg himself embarked to the other side in 1997):
Allen didn’t hesitate. “There was a chicken on the side of the road who saw another chicken on the other side. ‘How do I get to the other side?’ he yelled. The other chicken yelled back, ‘You are on the other side.’” He smiled benignly.
Yep, sounds exactly like a Santa Cruz party.