Thursday, August 4, 2011

Still on the Bus

The Magic Bus

Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place
Directed by Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood
Starring: Ken Kesey, The Merry Pranksters, Neal Cassady, The Grateful Dead, Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Robert Stone, Larry McMurtry, and Stanley Tucci

Watching Magic Trip, a film shot in 1964 and finally put together in a coherent form some 47 years later, is like watching a home movie of a family vacation. Except the family in question is The Merry Pranksters, a band of psychedelic pioneers led by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest author Ken Kesey. And the vacation in question is a cross-country road trip, from Kesey’s Oregon farm to the New York World’s Fair, in a customized, wildly painted, 1939 school bus called Further (or Furthur), driven by Neal Cassady, who served as the model for Dean Moriarty, the main character in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. And everybody on this bus was stoned on LSD most of the time. And pot. And speed. And a couple of other things.

Ken Kesey

Historically, it was quite a time. JFK had recently been murdered in Dallas. The Beatles had arrived. Vietnam was heating up. LSD was still legal. The Beat Generation, as Kerouac called it, was over. And hippies didn’t yet exist.

I might have been only 11 when The Pranksters were making their momentous journey, (and I hadn’t even heard of LSD), but I still feel a personal connection to this film. Because, in a manner of speaking, I was on the bus—though I didn’t know it yet. There’s an expression in Tom Wolfe’s comprehensive study of The Merry Pranksters, The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test: “You’re either on the bus…or off the bus.” Which I’ve always taken to mean, you’re either a Prankster at heart or you’re not.

Neal Cassady drives the bus.

And if there was ever any doubt as to where I stood with The Merry Pranksters, it was laid to rest in 1986, when I met a Prankster.

I was working in New York as a men’s magazine editor at the time, and I’d been buying stories from a writer in Oregon whose outrageous and hilarious erotic fiction had leaped out of the slush pile. Just before Thanksgiving that year, this mysterious author came to New York to visit me at the magazine office. That’s when I found out he was John Babbs aka Sometimes Missing—all the Pranksters had nicknames—younger brother of Ken Babbs aka Intrepid Traveler.

John Babbs, circa 1964.

John and I became friends, and I’d occasionally visit him in Springfield, Oregon, where a colorful cardboard cutout of Further stood on his fireplace mantle. We went camping, fished for trout—he was a passionate fisherman and wrote a novel about it, Yellow Leaves—tooled around town in his big old Mercury convertible, played full-court basketball at the YMCA, smoked a bit of weed, and drank a bit of beer. Such was the idyllic life of a Prankster in the late ’80s. Once when he visited me in New York, I hired John to help me out at the office. He spent a few days organizing into the proper pornographic categories photos for some of the magazines I was editing—good work for a Prankster if you can get it.

Robert Rosen (left) and John Babbs, 1987, New York City.

Watching Magic Trip reminded me that I hadn’t heard from John in a few years, so I got back in touch with him. He told me that he hadn’t seen the movie yet, which somehow wasn’t surprising. John seems to live outside time, outside money, outside fashion, outside most things that might demand the attention of a 21st century New Yorker.

John Babbs self-portrait: Trout Fishing in Oregon.

Magic Trip also reminded me how quickly time passes, how strange it must be for The Pranksters, many now in their 70s, to sit in a theatre and watch their youthful selves of 1964 “tootling the multitudes,” as they called it.

So, this is not a review of this time capsule of a film. It’s merely an acknowledgement that Magic Trip exists, and that I’m delighted to have finally seen this long-lost footage of the late Ken Kesey, a writer I’ve always admired and would have liked to have met; of Ken Babbs, whom I did meet, and who recently published a novel, Who Shot the Water Buffalo? based on his experiences as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam; of the Grateful Dead, when they were still The Warlocks and their job was to provide the soundtrack to the “Acid Tests,” those massive Kesey-organized gatherings where everybody drank the “electric” Kool Aid, and were probably better for it.

Before they were The Dead.

And, of course, I’m glad Magic Trip motivated me to get back in touch with John Babbs, whom I’m proud to call my friend, and who has allowed me to feel an intimate connection to a home movie that I wish I could have been part of.

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