Cronies: Adventures with Ken Kesey, Neal Cassady, The Merry Pranksters, and the Grateful Dead
The core credo of the Merry Pranksters is “never trust a Prankster;” however, Ken Babbs, one of the original Pranksters, sets that aside and delivers an honest and reflective memoir about his friendship with Ken Kesey, the famous author and psychedelic guru. Babb’s Cronies: Adventures with Ken Kesey, Neal Cassady, the Merry Pranksters, and the Grateful Dead is a rollicking good read, written in an accessible style that documents in exquisite detail the Pranksters’ role in the psychedelic revolution of the 1960s. It’s also an intimate look at the friendship between Babbs and Kesey, the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
The Pranksters were a group of cultural misfits that coalesced around Babbs and Kesey during the infamous journey across the United States in a psychedelicized 1939 International Harvester school bus named Furthur. Originally conceived as a trip to New York to publicize Kesey’s 1964 novel Sometimes a Great Notion, it evolved into a memorable cultural touchstone for the psychedelic cultural revolution. The bus trip is the centerpiece of the book––as it should be, because in the overlapping Prankster and Grateful Dead universes, one is either “on the bus, or off the bus.”
Babbs also reveals many behind the scenes details of the Pranksters’ antics and documents how Neal Cassady, by joining up with the Prankster and Grateful Dead circles, formed the link between the Beats and the Hippie subcultures. Babbs covers the big cultural events such as Woodstock, the Acid Tests, the Trips Festival, and Kesey’s fugitive life in Mexico. However, Babbs’ recollections of his conversations with Kesey are the real gems of the book. While previous writers have created caricatures of Kesey, Babbs presents Kesey in a much more personal way, as a friend and pal.
The book is an excellent read for anyone interested in learning more about the overlapping circles of the Merry Pranksters and the Grateful Dead. Be forewarned though, the book veers in places from its chronological path. For example, Babbs recounts the film premiere of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975 and then skips backwards to the famous Veneta, Oregon, Dead concert in 1972. As such, the reader can access the book as a series of stories, and as Babbs notes in the preface, it represents his honest recollections rather than a verbatim presentation of events.
So, “never trust a Prankster” is the operative mode for the reader. It probably went down the way Babbs says, but we’ll never really know. And that’s okay, because as Kesey once said, “we don’t need facts, we need stories.” And Babbs delivers a bundle of memorable stories in Cronies.
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