“The only true currency is that of the spirit.”-Ken Kesey
Ken Babbs. What a guy! This soon to be 85-year-old Merry Prankster lives on a 10-acre farm in the small, rural town of Dexter, Oregon along Lost Creek, a tributary of the Willamette River.
Babbs is still a Prankster and still boldly subjecting his endurance to unique irritations like recently answering 100 questions from a plucky sprat wordsmith who’s pieced together a rickety quasi-mythic collage of the psychedelic 1960’s while basking in the dual luxuries of 20-20 hindsight and internet access.
Writer, humorist, humanitarian, musician, athlete, Midwest native, former chopper pilot in Vietnam, Babbs is a wonderfully multi-dimensional character who is best known for co-creating the now legendary phenomenon of The Merry Pranksters.
Ken Babbs (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
Led by literary college buddies Ken Kesey and his best friend and co-pilot, Ken Babbs, the Merry Pranksters were a core group of 14 people who helped give birth to the psychedelic counterculture in the mid-1960’s.
There was the Beat Generation, then the Pranksters, then the Hippies. Neal Cassady was the living link between the Beats and the Pranksters.
These cosmic jesters had japes aplenty. There was the core group and an extended family of peripheral associates. Just reading a list of Prankster nicknames will make you chuckle: Intrepid Traveler (Babbs), Swashbuckler (Kesey), Zonker, Hassler, Sometimes Missing, Gretchen Fetchin the Slime Queen, Captain Trips, Space Daisy, Mountain Girl, Barely There, Lord Byron Styrofoam, Doris Delay, Cadaverous Cowboy, Mary Microgram, Sensuous X, June the Goon, Marge the Barge, Dis-Mount, Mal Function, etc.
One of the most well-known adventures of the Sixties, the Merry Pranksters two month long, cross-country bus trip from June-August 1964 symbolized the searching, mind-expanding spirit of the Sixties and is the adventure that kicked off the Psychedelic Sixties.
They crammed into a psychedelically painted bus named ‘Furthur’ and filmed their zig-zagging journey from La Honda, California to “Madhattan” New York and back. Along the way, amid hallucinogenic hijinks, the Pranksters (and the bus) all blended into one rollicking amorphous organism spreading cheer, humor, kindness, and good-natured mayhem to the unsuspecting citizens of America.
Merry Pranksters (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
Fueled by orange juice laced with LSD (which was still legal until October 1966), the Pranksters would stop in various cities, dress up their alter ego’s in weird clothing, play music and join people in their fluffy cozy web of institutionally-induced conformity coma. Synchronizing into a communal group consciousness, the Pranksters unsnarled uptightness and gave joy to of all forms of exploration: neurocognitive, geographic, interpersonal, multi-media, etc.
After the bus trip, the Pranksters began throwing Acid Test parties in the Bay Area of California. At an Acid Test, you would drink LSD-laced kool aid, dance to the Grateful Dead playing music live, watch Prankster home movies and engage in assorted shenanigans amongst dayglo painted everything, strobe lights, and smiles galore. There would also be the liquid light show going on, using a technique pioneered by Prankster Roy Sebern (he was also the guy who named the bus Furthur), using an overhead projector with changing cellophanes and liquid oil.
The Grateful Dead started off as a Palo Alto jug band with Bob Weir on washtub bass and Jerome “Jerry” Garcia on the banjo. They were called Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions, then they changed their name to The Warlocks and became the official Acid Test houseband before finally morphing into The Grateful Dead as electric rock & roll instruments transformed the musical landscape.
Everything the Pranksters stood for and promoted was geared towards generating fully joyful experiences. Blasting open those hidden vaults of your own mind, unlocking positive thinking, traversing new unexplored dimensions of your being, and accessing higher levels of reality beyond the usual mundane ordinary everydayness.
It had the flavor of a traveling circus of the mind and a sort of raw, universal quality to it. They personified the multi-colored living in the moment NOW spirit of the Sixties. Bold and inventive, the Merry Pranksters, were the ones who really, truly, unintentionally, popularized psychedelic culture on a large, global scale.
Prankster Acid Test (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
Babbs and company were the focus of ‘The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test’ (published August 1968), a superb in-depth tale of the Pranksters written by journalist Tom Wolfe, who never rode on the bus himself.
Although the Pranksters were early LSD proponents, the role of drugs in general has been over-magnified. Yes, the late Sixties youth culture was drenched in LSD from a veritable free flowing melting neon tap of acid but what was really at the forefront was the powerfully deep yearning amongst young people to increase their mindfulness, kindness and creativity. A line from The Bardo Thodol says “Everything can be transformed to limitlessly positive configurations” and that ethos was one of the main driving forces of the counterculture.
The impossibility of distilling the Prankster experience into words creates a hilarious paradox. The more ultra uber transformatively fantastic something is, the harder it is to accurately describe.
But Ken Babbs, whom due to his historical figure status over the decades becoming an almost fictional comic book type character himself, is gonna give it a whirl.
KEN BABBS BIO
Gretchen Fetchin and Ken Babbs (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
“My family has been in Ohio for a long time. Our ancestry is English, Scottish, Irish, German. I have nine kids. Was married three times. Had four, four, and one.”
“I grew up 30 miles east of Cleveland in Mentor, Ohio on Lake Erie. Used to call it ‘minor Cedar Point on the lake’. They had a roller rink, bowling alley, dancehall where one side was underage and the other side was for drinking age. Going there only cost a dime!”
“Fortunately, my parents accepted me being a Merry Prankster. We were never on the outs. Although, I’m sure they often found themselves wondering what happened to this All-American Boy?”
“In the past 55 years, what questions haven’t I been asked? Have I had venereal disease?” (laughs)
Ken Babbs & Neal Cassady on the Pranksters bus c. 1964 (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
“Oh man, the way things have been going, things are so crazy, gonna get crazier probably. Question of what’s next? In terms of global scale, this is the absolute craziest I’ve ever seen things in my lifetime. This whole Covid pandemic lockdown isolation experience forces you to dip into your creativity.”
“There’s been such a huge change from the 1960’s to now. There’s more people and everything has expanded exponentially. I love watching the faces of the world. We may totally fuck up and destroy the Earth, who knows? Need to look to space to get a good perspective on life. Best thing we’ve done lately is we got a puppy 4-5 months ago. Taking care of this creature living with us has been tremendous.”
“San Francisco and the Bay Area in the 60’s were halcyon. Hard to describe, you had to be there for the experience. As things change in life, one day’s fad is another day’s antique. Shit happens but the 60’s live on.”
“The Pranksters, the Sixties, we’re talking about myth, which is made up of everybody’s contribution to the myth. You don’t want to refute anything, just add your own version. The Sixties will be a mountain of myth. 2,000 years from now some Homer-esque historian scribe will put it all together.”
Babbs comes to Detroit
Grateful Dead at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom (December 01, 1968)
“I’ve been to Detroit once.”
“I was in Ohio at my uncle’s and Jerry Garcia called me saying the Grateful Dead would be playing Detroit (December 1st, 1968 @ the Grande Ballroom). So I got in my car and drove up there. Great show, then we all partied at a hotel downtown afterwards with Jerry, Pigpen and the gang.”
On The Art of Writing
Ken Babbs (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
“I used to write daily. Mostly journaling, thoughts, poetry. Still write frequently. My Vietnam novel Who Shot the Water Buffalo was published a few years ago. Also, recently wrote a big book called ‘Cronies’ which is about Kesey, Cassady, and Prankster adventures but can’t find a publisher for it. Might just self-publish.”
“I co-authored The Last Go Round with Kesey in 1994.”
“A recent chapbook, ‘We Were Arrested’ is about the April 23, 1965 bust at Kesey’s La Honda home. You can buy the chapbook on my Facebook page.”
Ken Babbs-We Were Arrested
“I have piles of manuscripts. No shortage of material. I will soon be publishing a book called ‘7 Poems of Ken Babbs’.”
“In terms of what I like to read, I’m mostly into fiction, works of imagination. At the time I graduated from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio in 1957, Kerouac published ‘On the Road’ and the free form jazz-like flow of his writing had a tremendous influence on me.”
“Plus, my mother was a librarian. My dad was a newspaper editor. I grew up in a literary household reading Faulkner, Hemingway. There’s a great book called ‘The Way West’ by AB Guthrie Jr. I also love fiction adventure stories, detective stuff. Michael Connelly does some great stuff. There’s so many great writers today.”
“Kesey and I both loved comic books. Our favorite character was The Spirit.”
“Comics are great. What we loved about Sixties Marvel comics was the heroes were always fighting against bad guys for noble ideals like rights and justice. Kesey and I had both been into comics since we were kids.”
“My dad thought comic books were trash, just a mind rotting waste of time. But not me, I loved them. Kesey even wanted to be a comic strip artist at one point.”
Experiences in Vietnam
Ken Babbs Vietnam (photo courtesy of Ken Babbs)
Babbs served in the US Marine Corps from May 1959-1963. He trained in Quantico, Virginia, then attended flight school in Pensacola, Florida where he learned to fly choppers. He moved to San Juan Capistrano, CA and was stationed at nearby Marine Corps Air Station El Toro in Irvine before shipping off to Vietnam. While in Nam, he flew a Sikorsky H-34D “Dawg” in the Delta and Da Nang and wrote a novel called ‘Who Shot the Water Buffalo’ which was finally published in 2011. You can buy it on his Facebook page.
“The entire experience I had in Vietnam was completely insane. It was still early in the war, I was flying the chopper, we were supplying troops. It was a beautiful country. Within a few weeks in country it was obvious that us being there was a ridiculous waste of time and resources.”
“The government always has to have an enemy that they can rouse the people against. Generals want to play with their toys, the big bombs and the fun guns.”
Vietnam domino theory (courtesy of Google Archives)
“In Nam they had the Domino Theory. First Vietnam will fall, then the Philippines, then Hawaii, then suddenly the dirty Reds will be in San Francisco having babies. The Red Horde will be at your door before you know it!”
“Still have my leather flight jacket.”
“The Pranksters and my Nam buddies never got together but I’ve had great experiences with both groups. Beautiful thing as you get older, all your experiences are the sum of who you are right now. Just incorporate those experiences into your being. We’re all material beings, we’re not angels. As such, we’re fucking up all the time. Over time, your fuck-ups become your best stories.”
Sikorsky H-34D in Vietnam
Babbs at Woodstock
August 15-18, 1969, the Pranksters attend Woodstock music festival along with an estimated 400,000 people at Max Yasgur’s 600-acre farm in Bethel, New York. Mistakenly anticipating violence and chaos, the police were shocked at how courteous and well-behaved the attendees ended up being. There were so many people that there was a perpetual 9-mile long traffic jam. Of the 5,000 reported medical incidents, 800 were drug related. Hog Farmer Wavy Gravy was the official head of security of “the please force.”
“Woodstock was pivotal. It was a wonderful, momentous scene and experience in American History. During times of turmoil, awful times, the magic and people living the good life, helping each other, keeps the American spirit alive. Woodstock was a celebration of collaboration among the peace-loving people.”
“I was hired by Wavy Gravy’s Hog Farm to help out. We took 4 buses and about 40 people from Ken Kesey’s farm in Pleasant Hill, Oregon and headed some 2,900 miles over to Woodstock in Bethel, New York.”
“Some of us Pranksters had our musical instruments. Across the hill from the main stage, we had the free stage. At one point I was on the main stage with the Grateful Dead. But mostly I was either helping out at the Freak Out tent or playing music on the free stage. I kept a very detailed journal of that amazing experience and should probably release it as a book.”
Memories of Ken Kesey
Ken Kesey on the Merry Pranksters bus (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
Ken Kesey and Ken Babbs were best friends. Kesey was a groomsman at Babbs wedding in 1959. Kesey then volunteered to take mind-altering drugs at the local Menlo Park VA hospital later that year. He didn’t know it at the time but this was part of the CIA’s clandestine MK-Ultra project. He fictionalized his experiences in the instant bestseller ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ (1962). Couple years later he moved to a large house (7940 La Honda rd, La Honda, CA) on 3 acres in the middle of a beautiful redwood forest. This became the HQ of the Merry Pranksters where spontaneous happenings would be attended by Hunter S. Thompson and the Hells Angels. In early 1966, Kesey was busted for marijuana, faked his death and became a fugitive in Mexico. He did time at a prison work farm called the Honor Camp (7546 Alpine rd, La Honda, CA) which was hilariously located only 1 mile SE of his house, practically in his backyard. After that he moved up to a farm in Pleasant Hill, Oregon and the rest is history.
“Oh, God, so many great times and fun memories of Kesey!”
“We met at Stanford University in the Graduate Writing program. We hit it off right away in grad school. He lived nearby on Perry Lane (9 Perry Lane, Palo Alto, CA), which was a collection of cottages. Block parties were frequent. Kesey was a social force. He’d written an entire novel called ‘Zoo’ before we even got to Stanford.”
Ken Kesey at a Pranksters Acid Test (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
“He had also been a wrestler at the University of Oregon.”
“One time he hurt his shoulder. He had shown me some wrestling moves and we both signed up to compete. They wouldn’t let him participate but I did and he became my coach and mentor for that experience. My first opponent was this big red headed guy. Kesey said ‘I’m gonna teach you a trick. This is called the Telephone Takedown. When the match starts, make a big noise and commotion, make it look like you’re answering an invisible ringing telephone. Then when the guy is confused, dive, flip and pin him’. So, I took Kesey’s advice. The match starts, I do what he said to do. The red headed guy looks at me, steps back, throws me over and pins me in two seconds flat. And the sonofabitch broke my tooth, I spit it out!”
“Kesey started off as a magician. He had a ventriloquist dummy named Blinky. In his hometown of Eugene, Oregon, he would do shows on Saturday’s at the movies. In between movies, he would come out and do his magic and ventriloquism and he was great, very captivating. He was also fond of sleight of hand coin tricks. He’d be expertly pulling coins out of people’s ears and noses.”
Ken Kesey (photo by Jerry De Wile)
“I remember in the 90’s when Kesey and I were traveling around the country performing our play ‘Twister’, Kesey would bring his ventriloquist doll Blinky out.”
“Kesey had a pet parrot named Rumiako. Man, that thing could crack macadamia nuts.”
“The story about Kesey’s involvement with the LSD test monkey’s is a bunch of bullshit. That was some guy down on the coast. Kesey was not involved with releasing them into the wilds of La Honda.”
During the Pranksters bus trip, they stopped at Millbrook in upstate New York, home of psychedelic Harvard exile Dr. Tim Leary.
“Leary had the flu, so we didn’t see him until leaving. He said he was sorry. We were on the same wavelength and we became really good pals shortly after that.”
Timothy Leary & Neal Cassady (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
Neal Cassady at the jukebox (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
Neal Cassady was a constantly on the go historical literary character who was intimately involved in both the Beat Generation in mid-1940’s New York when he linked up with Jack Kerouac and also the Merry Pranksters when he drove the Furthur bus in the mid-1960’s. From the mid-50’s onward, Cassady lived periodically in Los Gatos, CA until his mysterious death in Mexico in 1968, some 2,000 miles south of home.
“I first met Neal Cassady on the Prankster bus in 1964. Took a while for us to get acquainted. He called me a “tourist” (haha).”
Neal Cassady (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
“Super guy. He was the living link between the Beat Generation and the Merry Pranksters. He was a very rambunctious, energetic, knowledgeable person. Very intelligent. He was like our elder Uncle.”
“Cassady was also the very first sales clerk at the Hip Pocket bookstore. That was Ron Bevirt and Peter Demma’s store in Santa Cruz. Bevirt’s Prankster name was Hassler”
Hunter S. Thompson
Hunter S. Thompson circa 1967 (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
Hunter Thompson was the famous Gonzo journalist from Louisville. In the 60’s he lived at 318 Parnassus Ave, San Francisco. Over the years, his work has become tremendously influential, especially the seminal ‘Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas‘ (1971).
“Oh man, Hunter was a great guy. Lucky to get to know him. We need his acerbic wit today, right now.”
“One time in the early 70’s he wrote a story about the Marathon in Honolulu, for some running magazine. He couldn’t finish the article so the editors flew him to Eugene, Oregon and put him up in a motel. He had locked himself in a bathroom. Paul Perry got him out of there by calling me because Hunter had asked for me to get him some weed. Thompson comes out of there and lights a string of firecrackers right in the room. So I get him the pot, and he finished the article. He’s getting ready to leave. Kesey and I are outside in Kesey’s car, waiting. Then Hunter comes out. He’s standing by the car door in his white shorts, white shoes, white shirt. As we pull away, Kesey lights a long string of firecrackers and throws it at Hunter’s feet! He’s dancing around as we pull off laughing.”
Ken Babbs on The Merry Pranksters
Merry Pranksters bus Furthur (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
“The Merry Pranksters came together through divine planning. And the labels just happen. Deadheads are followers of The Grateful Dead. The Beats were named by John Clellon Holmes. The media came up with the label Hippies. I came up with the name Merry Pranksters spontaneously, naturally. This was not an intentional calculation whatsoever.”
“Early 1964, after hanging out at San Gregorio Beach, we were all back at La Honda around the campfire when I was goofing around and said: ‘Tis I, the Intrepid Traveler, who has come to meet his Merry band of Pranksters across the country in the reverse order of the pioneers. We won’t blow up their buildings, we’ll blow their minds!’.
“I’ve told that story about 6 million times. Good stories do not get old.”
“Initially, we were going to take my station wagon, a 1958 Ford, but instead we bought the bus right as our group grew, and we took the bus instead.”
Merry Pranksters on the bus. Ken Babbs (lower right, striped shirt). Ken Kesey (up top in the porkpie hat playing the flute) (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
“Kesey and I were tired of writing on the manual typewriter. We were tape recording. We’d lie on the floor at night and rap stories onto tapes. Problem with that method is afterwards you have to spend too much time listening to it.”
“Then (George) Walker bought a 16mm movie camera, so we started filming everything.”
“(Mike) Hagen saw the ad for the bus. It was located in Atherton. He and Kesey went to pick it up. Kesey sunk his money into the bus and the trip to Madhattan and back and the cost of filming the movie. Other than that, everyone chipped in what money they could and we did plenty of shows and performances which we got paid for.”
“On the trip, our very first prank was in Arizona. Barry Goldwater was a senator in Arizona and we drove through his hometown. Painted a sign ‘A Vote for Barry is a Vote for Fun!’ He was pro Vietnam. His actual philosophy was summed up in his phrase, ‘Nuke the Gook’.
Merry Prankster Mountain Girl (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
“Prankster nicknames were created in the moment spontaneously as the bus trip unfolded. Ron Bevirt became ‘The Equipment Hassler‘, which was just shortened to Hassler. This was because every morning he would be rooting around in a drawer for things.”
“The Prankster movie was about interacting. We’d stop at a gas station somewhere and people would flock to the bus. We’d get out with our musical instruments and movie camera and help turn it into a fun thing. This happened everywhere we went. NYC was the climax of the trip. It was like we were a moving theater and the random people we encountered were the audience, they didn’t have a choice.”
“We would balance intentionality and spontaneity. The intentionality is shooting the movie. Being spontaneous is having no script whatsoever. We were making it up as we went along.”
“The whole Prankster thing was about being open, friendly, creative, artistic, kind. Instead of participating in violence of any kind, take another path to keep the tranquility alive.”
Merry Pranksters bus with observation bubble (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
The Grateful Dead
UNITED STATES – CIRCA 1965: Photo of Grateful Dead when they started playing as the Warlocks (Photo by Paul Ryan)
“We became friends with them before they were even called The Warlocks.”
“They played our 1965 Halloween party at my house in Soquel. Wonderful group.”
LSD: The Merry Prankster’s Acid Test Parties
Merry Pranksters Acid Test handbill (courtesy of Google Archives)
The Merry Pranksters threw legendary LSD events from Fall 1965 to Spring 1966. This sort of gathering they dubbed an Acid Test, a reference to how a psychedelic chemical would test the strength and pureness of your being. An informal precursor to the official Acid Tests took place on Halloween night 1965 at Ken Babbs house ‘The Spread’ (Soquel Dr and Dover Dr, Soquel, CA). Then on November 27, 1965, the first official Acid Test also took place there. Since it was only advertised by limited word of mouth and a flyer at the local Hip Pocket Bookstore in Santa Cruz, the turnout was small compared to the thousands of attendees who would swarm future Acid Tests. The Pranksters went on to throw dozens of Acid Tests at various locations until the final Acid Test graduation at San Fran’s Winterland Ballroom on Halloween night 1966.
“Pranksters LSD was put into orange juice, kool aid, and let me see, oh yeah, elephant piss! (laughs).”
“LSD helped blow out the old imprints. You should keep the great ones but don’t get too hung up on old ideas. Make sure you let in some new stuff continually.”
“We took LSD in whatever form the doctor prescribed. We ate mushrooms. Nitrous might have even been popular but it wasn’t always pretty.”
Ken Babbs at the Merry Pranksters Trips Festival (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
“LSD was cheap enough back then, you could trade it for a pound of hash oil. Last time I took acid? 1866 or was it the Greco Roman war?”
“All psychedelics and drugs should be legalized.”
“The original Acid Test movie reels, the raw 45 hours of 16mm film are now in a vault in L.A.”
“Paul Foster, a fellow Prankster, created the acid test poster, it was printed at a local shop.”
Merry Pranksters Acid Test handbill (courtesy of Google Archives)
“Tom Wolfe the journalist was never on the bus. Great guy and great writer though.”
“His book Electric Kool Aid Acid Test was going to be made into a movie by Gus Van Sant but the project got shelved because a satisfactory screenplay never materialized.”
“We need Pranksters now. We need humor and off the wall happenings. The real battle is in minds between malevolent and benevolent thoughts, doing good or bad things. Don’t fight them. Just make a concentrated effort to grow your benevolent thoughts.”
Merry Pranksters Acid Test (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
Ken Babbs Final Thoughts
Ken Babbs with Kesey’s parrot Rumiako (photo by Jerry De Wilde)
What’s a good way to prank a Prankster?
“Ask him 95 ridiculous questions.”
General advice for young people?
“Follow your bliss. You need a daytime job to pay for your nighttime creative fun. As you go through life, make this your goal. Follow the donut, not the hole. Be kind.”
NOTE: this is a raw, unpolished timeline compiled from my research notes. I approach interviews like doing detective work and always try to assemble a timeline for story coherence. Thought I’d include it since it might be a helpful resource to others. Cheers! Ryan
January 14th, 1936-Ken Babbs is born in Ohio
1938-LSD synthesized by Dr. Albert Hoffman @ Sandoz Lab (Basel, Switzerland)
1939-Al Hinkle and Neal Cassady, both 12, meet in Denver at a YMCA gym circus class
April 19, 1943-Dr. Albert Hoffman unintentionally takes the world’s first acid trip
1946-47-Neal Cassady moves to NYC, meets Jack Kerouac
1949-Dr. Max Rinkel brings LSD from Sandoz Labs in Switzerland to the USA, Boston
1951-Dr. Nicholas Bercel, a neurophysiologist at the University of Southern California (Los Angeles) supposedly becomes the first American to experience LSD
1951-Dr. Humphry Osmond moves from London, England to Saskatchewan, Canada. He begins testing the therapeutic effects of LSD on schizophrenics and alcoholics at Weyburn Mental Hospital.
1951-Neal’s son John Cassady is born @ 29 Russell st, San Fran; Kerouac also lived here for a bit; Carolyn Cassady took the famous photo of them across the street
1953-CIA chemist Sidney Gottlieb buys the entire known world supply of LSD so the CIA can conduct mind-control experiments with it, thus kicking off the MK-Ultra Project
1953-City Lights books opens in SanFran, owned by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. A plucky young sci-fi novelist, Philip K. Dick, is a frequent customer.
Dr. Albert Hofmann (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
1954-Dr. Gottlieb starts Operation Midnight Climax where the CIA gives unsuspecting customers of prostitutes LSD inside a house (225 Chestnut Street, SanFran) so they can study their behavior
1954-68-the Hungry I nightclub in San Fran
1954-Neal Cassady buys house in Los Gatos (18231 Bancroft ave, Monte Sereno, CA). Lives here periodically until his death in 68. His wife Carolyn sells the house in 87 and it gets bulldozed.
1955-Babbs attending Case Tech school in Cleveland, then Miami University (Oxford, OH)
1955-Ginsburg reads Howl poem in San Francisco
1955-Baltimore, MD-Spring Grove State Psychiatric Hospital, founded in 1797, becomes early LSD experimental ground in Cottage 13, a small cottage on the property. Over 700 people are given LSD by Dr. Albert Kurland from 1963-76 when the program was “officially” running and was funded by NIMH. In 1968, Dr. Stan Grof arrived.
1957-Kerouac’s book On the Road comes out
1957-Dr. Humphry Osmond coins the term ‘psychedelic’
1958-Ferlinghetti’s book Coney Island of the Mind is published
1958-Ken Kesey and his wife Faye Haxby move to California
Fall 1958-Babbs gets a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship and enrolls at Stanford grad school writing program where he meets fellow outsider Ken Kesey at a cocktail party at professor Wallace Stegner’s house
1959-Pasadena, CA-Ken Babbs wedding. Ken Kesey is groomsman
Jack Kerouac (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
May 1959-Babbs enters the military; trains with USMC in Quantico, then Pensacola, FL flight school and learns to fly choppers
1959-Naked Lunch WSB
1959-Jerry Kamstra runs the Cloven Hoof Bookstore (Grant ave, SanFran)
1959-After being encouraged by Dr. Vic Lovell to sign up, Kesey volunteers at Menlo Park VA hospital (795 Willow rd, Menlo Park, CA) to take mind-altering drugs as part of MK-Ultra (financed by the CIA; they paid Stanford University; also supposedly tested LSD on monkeys). Kesey takes drugs under the supervision of Dr. Leo Hollister.
1960-Kesey lands job as psychiatric aid at the VA
1960-Cambridge, MA-Tim Leary and Richard Alpert conduct LSD experiments on themselves and others
1960-HST first encounters LSD in Big Sur but does not take any
1960-while working at Dow Chemical in Berkeley, a young Alexander ‘Sasha’ Shulgin has his first psychedelic experience in the form of a mescaline trip at Dow
1961-Springfield, OR-Ken Kesey, Ken Babbs, John Babbs all take IT-290 (aka: alpha-methyltryptamine)
1961-Ken Babbs moves to Ganado Road, San Juan Capistrano, CA. He’s stationed at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro in Irvine before shipping off to Vietnam.
1961-while living briefly in Paris, France, psychedelic researcher Dr. James Fadiman is introduced to psychedelics by friend Ram Dass when Dass, Tim Leary, and Aldous Huxley pass through town. Soon after this, Jim and Dorothy Fadiman become Perry Lane neighbors of Ken Kesey.
Ken Kesey one flew over the cuckoos nest 1st edition hardcover
Fall 1961-Kerouac writes novel Big Sur @ Ferlinghetti’s cabin in Bixby Canyon, Big Sur. Later, Kamstra writes The Frisco Kid here
September 1961-Cambridge, MA; Leary takes LSD for the first time via Michael Hollingshead
1962-Tim Leary’s Good Friday psilocybin experiment in Boston
1962-Kesey’s One flew over the cuckoo’s nest published; breakout success, instant bestseller
1962-under the supervision of Dr. James Fadiman, Stewart Brand (soon to join the Merry Pranksters) has his first LSD experience at Myron Stolaroff’s International Foundation for Advanced Study in Menlo Park, CA
1962-63-Babbs is USMC helicopter squadron in Vietnam (wrote novel Who Shot the Water Buffalo, unpublished until 2011); stationed down south in Delta, then north in Da Nang; he was flying a Sikorsky H-34D “Dawg”
Late 1962-Neal Cassady hangs out with Kesey in Palo Alto
1963-Babbs returns from Nam, hangs out at Kesey’s house (9 Perry Lane, Palo Alto) bongos and wine and pineapple chili. Pot wasn’t even on the scene yet
July 21, 1963-Perry Lane ends, bulldozed
1963-Leary fired from Harvard, moves to Millbrook
1963-Owsley synthesizes his own LSD in Berkeley. He then starts manufacturing homemade LSD via ‘Bear Research Group’
Merry Pranksters bus (c. 1964) Ken Babbs, Gretchen Fetchin the Slime Queen, Ken Kesey (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
November 22, 1963-JFK assassinated in Dallas
1964-Kesey publishes Sometimes a Great Notion
March 1964-sci-fi author Philip K. Dick takes LSD and says the experience transports him to Latin-speaking ancient Rome. He then writes the Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch during extended amphetamines binges at his house (3919 Lyon ave, Oakland, CA)
Early 1964-Kesey moves to La Honda (7940 La Honda rd, La Honda, CA) a large house on 3 acres in the middle of a beautiful redwood forest
1964-the Merry Pranksters are named by Babbs at San Gregorio Beach, CA. The Merry Pranksters form (core group of 14 people) = zapping the “squares” out of their conformity to the Establishment by using LSD, a day glo bus, music and laughter
Spring 1964-Prankster Hagen sees classified ad for 1939 International Harvester bus for sale by Andre Hobson in Atherton, CA. Kesey buys it for $1,200 with his ‘One flew over cuckoo nest’ money
June 17, 1964-the famous Furthur bus trip starts from Kesey’s house (La Honda, CA) to “Madhattan”; “Kesey wanted to see what would happen when hallucinogenic-inspired spontaneity confronted what he saw as the banality and conformity of American society”
June 29, 1964-Pranksters arrive in NYC. While in NYC, Neal Cassady introduces the Pranksters to Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg at Chloe Scott’s apartment (Madison Ave and 90th St)
August 1964-the Furthur bus returns to La Honda
1964-San Francisco area-Pranksters help give birth to the counterculture
Ken Kesey and Neal Cassady on the Merry Pranksters bus
1964-HST first reports on the Hell’s Angels
August 2nd, 1964-Gulf of Tonkin incident in Vietnam
October 1964-the Hip Pocket Bookstore opens (1500 Pacific Ave, Santa Cruz) Run by Ron Bevirt (aka: Prankster Hagen) and Peter Demma. Neal Cassady is the stores first sales clerk.
February 21, 1965-Owsley’s home/LSD lab (1647 Virginia st, Berkley, CA) raided by police
March 30, 1965-Owsley creates first big batch of LSD
April 12, 1965-Tim Scully first takes LSD. Shortly afterwards, Owsley hires him as a roadie for The Warlocks (whom in a few months become The Grateful Dead). After that, he becomes Owsley’s lab assistant in Point Richmond.
1965-Roy Sebern, Prankster affiliate and artist, invents the liquid light show
April 23, 1965-Kesey’s La Honda estate raided by Agent Wong (Willie Wong, SF Chinese narc) but the Pranksters had a few days heads-up and ended up pranking the cops. Kesey and 13 other Pranksters arrested
May 1965-HST first article on Hell’s Angels appears in The Nation magazine
1965-Wes Wilson creates the world’s first psychedelic concert poster (San Francisco)
Hip Pocket Bookstore (1500 Pacific Ave, Santa Cruz, CA) opened 1964
1965-Lafayette Hills, CA-While working for Dow Chemical in Berkeley, legendary chemist Alexander ‘Sasha’ Shulgin synthesizes MDMA at his recently built home laboratory.
1965-Vietnam big surge US troops 500,00 (Marines to north, Army to south)
July 1965-Dow Chemical Company (Midland, MI), the makers of saran wrap, score a $5 million dollar Department of Defense contract to become the US military’s only supplier of Napalm. Until 1969, they manufacture Napalm-B, a jellied mix of gasoline, benzene, polystyrene.
Aug 7, 1965-La Honda party w/ HST and some 40 Hells Angels; “amusingly incongruous cast of characters, a microcosm of an unsustainable social movement”; also present were Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsburg; 100 people total, all on LSD, HST’s first LSD experience; Lord Byron Styrofoam (aka Sandy Lehmann-Haupt) the KLSD radio station DJ, “800 micrograms in your head”
August 13th, 1965-Jefferson Airplane debut at The Matrix (3138 Fillmore st, SanFran)
August 24th, 1965-The Beatles first take LSD together @ Zsa Zsa Gabor’s house (2850 Benedict Canyon rd, Beverly Hills, CA) with Peter Fonda, David Crosby, and others
September 02, 1965-The Beatles concert @ SanFran Cow Palace (bad vibes, Pranksters leave early, return to La Honda to see 400 people there and Owsley, the world’s greatest acid chemist)
September 5th, 1965-the word “hippie” first appears in print in the San Francisco Examiner
October 15, 1965-Kesey and the Pranksters @ the Vietnam Day Committee protest @ University of Berkeley, Sproul Hall Plaza, some 15,000 people. Paul Krassner’s first encounter with the Pranksters
October 31, 1965-Babbs says that an informal Acid Test party, a precursor to the official Acid Tests, takes place during a Halloween costume party at his house “The Spread” (Soquel dr and Dover, Soquel, CA) on 400 acres
Merry Pranksters Acid Test LP
November 21, 1965-Lysergic A Go Go @ AIAA Aviation Academy Auditorium (7660 Beverly blvd, LA) event put on by Hugh Romney (aka: Wavy Gravy) and Del Close for 500 people
November 27, 1965-Soquel, CA-Babbs house ‘The Spread’ first Acid Test; advertised at the Hip Pocket Bookstore; Pranksters home movies, Cassady, Ginsberg
2nd test = December 4, 1965-San Jose Acid Test @ Big Nig’s house= The Warlocks first performance as the Grateful Dead; took place right after the Rolling Stones played San Jose Civic Auditorium
December 10th, 1965-Bill Graham takes over The Fillmore (1805 Geary blvd)
3rd test = December 11, 1965 = Muir Beach, CA feat. Grateful Dead, strobe lights; 300 people; Hell’s Angels, Owsley has LSD freakout, claims he goes into “parallel time dimension” with Count Cagliostro
December 18, 1965-acid test @ the Big Beat (998 San Antonio rd, Palo Alto)
January 1966-October 1967-Ron and Jay Thelin run the Psychedelic Shop (1535 Haight, SF)
January 8th, 1966-Fillmore acid test. Paul Krassner attends.
January 15th, 1966-Portland, OR acid test
January 19, 1966-Kesey arrested again for weed. Busted on Stewart Brand’s rooftop (Vallejo Street @ Grant St, North Beach, SanFran). Kesey along with Mountain Girl busted for only 3.54 grams of marijuana.
Merry Prankster Stewart Brand
January 21-23, 1966-Pranskters put on the Trips Festival, a 3-day long Acid Test @ Longshoreman’s Hall SanFran (considered the first true hippie festival/official gathering?) Babbs does the sound system and builds scaffold control tower; 10,000 attendees drinking LSD punch; Stewart Brand, Bill Graham
January 23, 1966-Kesey moves into Babbs house, The Spread, in Santa Cruz where he plans to, rather than do 5 years in prison, fake his death and become an outlaw in Mexico. Mountain Girl, Lee Quarnstrom, Ron Bevirt, Space Daisy, also move in.
January 31, 1966-Kesey’s abandoned vehicle is found in Orick, California. Inside is an 18-page long suicide note reading “O Ocean, ocean, ocean, I’ll beat you in the end”
February 04, 1966-Kesey becomes an outlaw in Mexico
February 1966-Ken Babbs becomes unofficial leader of the Pranksters. The Pranksters acquire the Sans Souci (saan soo see) old mansion in Stinson Beach. They have acid test at nearby Sawyer’s Church in Northridge.
Feb 12, 1966-Watts Acid Test (either 13331 S. Alameda or 9027 S. Figueroa, Compton, CA) 200 people; 30 gallon plastic trash can full of “Electric Kool Aid” (coined by Wavy Gravy), Grateful Dead
March 1966-Pranksters take the bus to Mazatlán, Mexico to visit Kesey. They do several small Acid Tests in Mexico. Kesey sneaks back into USA via Brownsville, TX.
1966-Mountain Girl has child with Kesey & also marries and separates from fellow Prankster George Walker. She later marries Jerry Garcia.
1966-Grateful Dead and Mountain Girl move to 710 Ashbury, SanFran
Summer 1966-1969-Lithuanian Leon Tabory takes over ownership of ‘The Barn’ in Scotts Valley from Big Daddy Nord. The Barn was a well-known beatnik, Prankster, hippie community gathering place located off Highway 17, just north of Santa Cruz. The Barn address (Granite Creek road and Santa Village Dr, Scotts Valley, CA).
July 24, 1966-Pranksters Lee Quarnstrom and Space Daisy (aka: Judith Ann Washburne) are married at The Fillmore. The best man is Julius Karpen.
September 1966-The Oracle newspaper begins
Merry Pranksters Trips Festival 1966 (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
October 1966-Prankster affiliate Julius Karpen becomes the manager of rock band Big Brother & the Holding Company for one year.
October 6, 1966-LSD becomes illegal in the state of California (note the overtones of 666)
October 20, 1966-Kesey arrested on freeway in San Francisco
October 31, 1966-final Acid Test graduation @ Winterland Ballroom (SanFran) strange end to the Pranksters acid tests. The group gradually go their separate ways afterwards, periodically hanging out.
January 14, 1967-The Human Be-In @ Polo Fields (Golden Gate Park, SanFran) 30,000 people
Jan-Feb 1967-Tom Wolfe’s first articles on Pranksters run in New York Magazine
1967-Ken Babbs moves to Oregon
1967-Owsley living and making LSD at 2321 Valley st, Berkeley, CA
1967-Hugh Romney (aka: Wavy Gravy) starts the Hog Farm (West Conover St, Sunland-Tujunga, CA). This is a 33 acre commune in the hills above Los Angeles. To find it on a map, use the address 9401 Tujunga Valley st, Shadow Hills, CA. In 1969, the Hog Farm moves to Llano, New Mexico.
Feb 1967-HST book Hell’s Angels published
March 1967-Prankster Denise Kaufman (aka: Mary Microgram) joins all-female rock band The Ace of Cups. She does vocals, guitar, harmonica.
Merry Pranksters Acid Test Graduation (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
March 16, 1967-Houston acid test @ Rice University. Teacher and novelist Larry McMurty was a Stanford Univ pal of Kesey’s.
May 26, 1967-The Beatles release Sgt. Pepper album
June 16-18, 1967-Monterey Pop Fest in Monterey, CA (feat. Hendrix, the Who, Shankar, Joplin, etc)
June 23, 1967-Kesey goes to work farm for 5 months for marijuana charge. This is the San Mateo County sheriff’s Honor Camp (7546 Alpine rd, La Honda, CA). 11 acres. Former Boy Scout camp in the Santa Cruz Mountains above Pescadero Creek. It is hilariously located only 1 mile SE of Kesey’s house.
Summer 1967-San Fran-Summer of Love-“flower children followed by the sharks; Bay Area wasn’t kind of place we wanted to be around anymore”
1967-Lenny Bruce protégé & quasi-Prankster affiliate Paul Krassner founds the Yippies (Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman)
1967-Tim Leary moves to Laguna Beach to live with the Brotherhood of Eternal Love (250 Woodland Dr)
1967-Quasi-Prankster affiliate Norman Hartweg car accident in Las Vegas, leaves him a wheelchair-bound paraplegic. He spends 1yr in hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan, then stays in Ann Arbor until moving back to LA in 1977. Norman’s father, Dr Norman E. Hartweg, was curator of reptiles at the University of Michigan, he was an international expert on reptiles.
October 21, 1967-Washington, DC-a group led by Abbie Hoffman attempt an exorcism of The Pentagon. They sing and chant, trying to get it to levitate so they can perform an aural exorcism
November 1967-Rolling Stone magazine begins
Merry Prankster The Hermit (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
November 1967-Kesey gets out of work farm after 5mnths and moves to Kesey Farm (64acres) in Pleasant Hill, Oregon
November 27, 1967-The Beatles release Magical Mystery Tour album
December 1967-William Leonard Pickard moves from Cambridge, MA to Berkeley, CA and gets a job at UC Berkeley inside Latimer Hall at the Department of Bacteriology and Immunology
December 1967-Owsley’s LSD lab raided in Orinda, CA; Owsley arrested; the Brotherhood of Eternal Love takes up the mantle of LSD production
Feb 1968-Neal Cassady dies mysteriously some 2,000 miles south of La Honda, CA in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
1968-Sausalito, CA-William Mellon (aka: Billy) Hitchcock introduces the Brotherhood of Eternal Love to chemists Nick Sand and Tim Scully
August 1968-Tom Wolfe publishes book ‘The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test’ detailing the fascinating exploits of The Merry Pranksters
September 1st, 1968-Stewart Brand (Prankster) publishes the first Whole Earth Catalog
Late 1968-the hippie scene starts getting ugly as the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood turns seedy and violent after an influx of street predators move into the neighborhood
October 24, 1968-Congress passed Staggers-Dodd Bill, effectively criminalizing the recreational use of LSD-25. LSD is made illegal in USA
Electric Kool Aid Acid Test (1968) Tom Wolfe first edition softcover
November 05, 1968-Nixon elected President
December 9th, 1968-the Mother of All Demos introduces email, hypertext, and the computer mouse via Prankster Stewart Brand and computer scientist Douglas Englebart at San Fran’s Brooks Hall, Civic Center Plaza. Stewart was at SRI HQ in Menlo Park working one of the computers
March 1969-LSD chemists Tim Scully and Nick Sand make the famous Orange Sunshine acid at their farmhouse (Mitchell Lane west of Baldocchi Way, Windsor, CA). They make 3 pounds (4.5 million hits) of Orange Sunshine LSD
July 20, 1969-NASA on the Moon
August 9-10, 1969-Charles Manson’s cult the Family kills 5 people
August 15-18, 1969-Pranksters attend Woodstock, along w/ an estimated 400,000 people
September 1969-The Beatles breakup
October 21, 1969-Kerouac dies
December 6, 1969-Altamont Free Concert (Grateful Dead hire Hell’s Angels as security, one of whom stabs a man to death)
1970-LSD declared Schedule One controlled substance in USA
Charles Manson and Sharon Tate (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
1971-Prankster Mountain Girl (Carolyn Garcia) and Jerry Garcia move into the Sans Souci mansion (18 Avenida Farralone, Stinson Beach, CA)
1971-Mark McCloud’s house (3466 20th st, SanFran) becomes an LSD museum called the Blotter Barn. He has over 30,000 blotter works of art here.
Nov 1971-HST publishes Fear & Loathing
1973-Nixon creates the DEA
November 1973-Billy Hitchcock rats out the Brotherhood of Eternal Love
1974-81-Babbs involved with Spit in the Ocean publication
1975-Vietnam War ends
1975-One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest movie released starring Jack Nicholson
Jerry Garcia (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
1978-Mountain Girl finally officially divorces George Walker
1982-Owsley moves to Australia
1983-Babbs editor of The Bugle (Eugene, OR zine)
1984-Kesey’s son Jed dies in car accident
1985-Prankster Stewart Brand & Dr. Larry Brilliant co-found The Well. Larry, a native Detroiter, is the guy who delivered a Native American baby on Alcatraz Island in 1969 during the Indians of All Tribes Occupation of Alcatraz. And then in 1975 he led the UN effort that successfully eradicated smallpox in India (eradicated globally by 1980).
1994-Norman Hartweg dies
1994-Kesey and Babbs co-author The Last Go Round
1995-Jerry Garcia dies
1997-Kesey sells his La Honda house
1999-Babbs plays Frankenstein in Twisted, a play he co-wrote w/ Kesey
2001-Kesey passes away
Merry Pranksters Roy Sebern liquid light show
2001-Jim Irsay (owner of Indy Colts fb team) buys original Kerouac scroll for $2.45mil
2001-Sandy Lehmann-Haupt dies
2003-work camp where Kesey served time is permanently closed
2003-Paul Foster dies
2005-Ken’s son Zane Kesey pulls the original Furthur bus out of the swamp at Kesey’s Oregon farm
2008-Dr. Albert Hoffman dies at the ripe ole age of 102
2010-George Walker published a chapbook
2011-Babbs book ‘Who shot the water buffalo’ published (thanks to Sterling Lord)
2012-Ken Babbs brother and noted fly fisherman John Babbs (his Prankster name is ‘Sometimes Missing’) passes away
Dec 2018-Al Hinkle (92; San Jose) dies; he was with Kerouac and Cassady in the On the Road story in the 1949 Hudson Commodore; Al was a brakeman and conductor with Southern Pacific Railroad for 40yrs
Dec 2018-Babbs publishes chapbook ‘We Were Arrested’ (talks about 14 Pranksters busted for pot at Kesey’s house; and the first acid tests)
July 2019-Paul Krassner dies
October 2019-Chloe Scott passes away. She was a Perry Lane neighbor of Ken Kesey’s. The Merry Pranksters stayed a night at her cousin’s apartment in New York in 1964 where they met Jack Kerouac.
February 2021-Lawrence Ferlinghetti passes away at 101 years old
Ken Babbs business card (courtesy of Ken Babbs)
Ken Babbs (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
Ken Babbs (photo courtesy of Ken Babbs)
Merry Prankster George Walker (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
Ken Kesey (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
Merry Prankster Neal Cassady circa 1964 (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
Haight Ashbury poster (courtesy of Google Archives)
The Warlocks (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
Pigpen of the Grateful Dead (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
Merry Pranksters Acid Test handbill (courtesy of Google Archives)
Merry Pranksters Ken Kesey, Lee Quarnstrom, Neal Cassady (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
Merry Pranksters Watts Acid test (courtesy of Google Archives)
Ken Babbs (photo courtesy of Ken Babbs)
Turn on tune in drop out Leary (Courtesy of Google Archives)
Mountain Girl’s Merry Prankster Acid Test diploma (courtesy of Google Archives)
October 1966, Ken Kesey outside the Warehouse, Harriet Street, South of Market, San Francisco, California (photo by Ted Streshinsky)
Ken Kesey and Mountain Girl (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
Neal Cassady (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
The Grateful Dead in San Francisco (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
Merry Pranksters first official Acid Test November 27, 1965 (courtesy of Google Archives)
Ken Kesey (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
Ace of Cups business card (courtesy of Google Archives)
The Beatles (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
Neal Cassady mugshot (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
Timothy Leary poster by Brotherhood of Eternal Love (courtesy of Google Archives)
Ken Kesey (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
Keseydelics (courtesy of Google Archives)
LSD chemist Owsley & Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia
Grateful Dead concert poster (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
Barry Goldwater (“A vote for Barry is a vote for fun!” (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
Gretchen Fetchin at La Honda circa 1965 (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
Ken Kesey’s La Honda estate (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
Haight Ashbury circa 1967 (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
Hunter S. Thompson (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
Ken Kesey mugshot (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
Ken Kesey farm in Pleasant Hill, Oregon (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
Ken Kesey graffiti mural (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
downtown San Francisco circa 1960’s (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
Merry Prankster Mountain Girl (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
Merry Prankster Paul Foster (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
Neal Cassady sorta kinda resembling Dennis Hopper (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
Merry Pranksters at Millbrook. Ken Babbs is the shirtless weirdo (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
Timothy Leary’s Millbrook estate (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
The Realist (courtesy of Google Archives)
Merry Prankster George Walker (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
Merry Pranksters poster (courtesy of Google Archives)
Merry Prankster Zonker (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
Merry Pranksters Trips Festival
Ken Kesey (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
Hunter S. Thompson the edge (courtesy of Google Archives)
LSD chemist Tim Scully (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
Jack Kerouac’s original manuscript of ‘On the Road’ (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
Owsley Stanley (courtesy of Google Archives)
The Doors psychedelic poster (courtesy of Google Archives)
Timothy Leary (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
LSD cologne (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
Thelin Psychedelic Shop (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
Albert Hofmann blotter acid LSD
Roy Sebern, Merry Prankster (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
Trips Festival advertisement (courtesy of Google Archives)
Ken Kesey circa 1957 (photo from The Eugene Guard newspaper in Eugene, OR)
Timothy Leary trippy gif (courtesy of Google Archives)
The Diggers funeral notice for the death of the hippie (October 1967, San Francisco) image courtesy of Google Archives
Hells Angels annual party (c. 1971)
Grateful Dead-trip or freak (c. 1967)
The Barn (Scotts Valley, CA) c. 1966-69
Spit in the Ocean literary journal by Ken Babbs (photo courtesy of PBA Gallery)
Wavy Gravy’s Hog Farm (photo courtesy of Google Archives)
The Grateful Dead Book (1973) Hank Harrison (image courtesy of Abebooks)
*Special thank you to Book Beat & Street Corner Music for allowing us in your stores*
Wayne Kramer probably shouldn’t be alive right now.
A normal human would’ve folded up and exploded decades ago from a pulverizing combination of “Hard Stuff,” like hard music, hard drugs, hard living and hard lessons. Thankfully, however, Wayne is here with us, alive and well enough to tell the ongoing tale of his fascinating existence.
Wayne Kramer and his Detroit rock band the MC5 changed rock music by cranking the dial to totally immersive no-holds-barred high-intensity levels of DNA-mutating volume and they’re also widely credited with inadvertently creating what was later labeled as the genre of ‘punk music’.
While the band itself disintegrated in 1972 in a cyclone of heroin, revolutionary Sinclair politics, disenchantment and becoming alienated and disconnected from each other, the MC5’s music has withstood the brutal and purifying test of time. They came, they saw, they melted faces with blistering full-body knockout attack music and helped forge Detroit’s enduring sobriquet, Detroit Rock City.
It has been said that listening to the MC5 live was like having an out-of-body experience, like exorcising daemonic barnacles and freeing your soul, like a psychedelic journey to pre-birth regression, a glorious stripping away while being thrashed to the point where you suddenly Wake Up, Fully Emerged.
I’m sitting here right now with Brother Wayne Kramer in the back room at Book Beat bookstore.
Wayne is in town from Los Angeles and bookstore owner Cary Loren, formerly of Ann Arbor arthouse band Destroy All Monsters, has kindly given us a fun space to chat.
We’re discussing Wayne’s life and memoir ‘The Hard Stuff,’ which will be published on August 14th by Da Capo Press.
Later this year, Wayne is going on a 35-city tour with his band MC50 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of MC5’s Kick Out The Jams. Their tour will culminate in an October 27th show at the newly renovated Fillmore Detroit.
Wayne is also a prominent solo recording artist and has done countless collaborations with people like David Peel, Johnny Thunders, Don Was, etc.
“Parts of my life have been written about extensively, especially my time in the MC5. Less so my time in prison and my work with Jail Guitar Doors. Just wanted to have a record from my perspective, straight from the horse’s mouth.”
“I wanted to understand myself better and chronicle the realizations. To sort out the order that things happened in and review some of the stupendously terrible things I’ve done in my life. For years, my friends have prodded me to write a book but I could never figure out how to end it, since the story isn’t finished. The arrival of my son Francis, who is turning five soon, the whole life I’ve lived up to his arrival was one life, so now I can begin the other life. If I die tomorrow, I want my son to have a record of my life straight from me not vicariously from news articles.”
“I started writing the book in 2006. Started just casually jotting down thoughts and memories in a notebook. A lot of stuff was in the front of my thoughts and therefore easily accessible. Then I got about forty 3 x 5 cards and put them on a corkboard and created a chronology of events.”
“After a while I had the shaping of what looked like an actual book on my hands, so we engaged an agent and secured a publisher. I’m a musician. Telling stories is my business and lifelong passion and it’s always a pleasure. The book was completed in November 2017.”
MC5: The Motor City 5
Born April 30th, 1948, Wayne Kramer was the founder and guitarist of rock band The Motor City Five, which was later shortened to MC5 in honor of being more in tune with the Detroit auto industry.
Wayne started the band in 1963 at Lincoln Park High School in Lincoln Park, Michigan, a Downriver suburb of Detroit.
At the time, Wayne was the band leader of The Bounty Hunters. He met Fred Smith of The Vibratones and Fred soon merged his band with Wayne’s band into The Bounty Hunters. They played venues like The Crystal Bar on Michigan Ave & Central in Southwest Detroit until changing their name to The Motor City 5 in the Fall 1964.
The MC5 consisted of:
Wayne Kramer guitar, Rob Tyner vocals, Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith guitar, Michael Davis bass, and Dennis ‘Machine Gun’ Thompson drums.
“It started off innocently enough with ‘Hey, any kids want to be in a band with me?’ Ultimately, we ended up with the MC5.”
“The MC5 started at Helen and Gregory avenues in Lincoln Park, Michigan. Tyner lived 4 blocks away, Dennis lived 10 blocks, Fred lived 10 blocks in another direction. My Mom’s house was the center for all of us and she kindly let us practice in the basement.”
“Rob Tyner and I could draw. Rob’s friend Gary Grimshaw could draw chrome, the finish on hot rod cars. So, Gary and Rob ending up designing a lot of our handbills and posters, especially the Grande Ballroom ones. Rob was indeed a gifted artist and cartoonist, not many people know that.”
“And yes, it’s true, Rob reinvented everything. He nicknamed Fred ‘Sonic’, shortened our name to the MC5, nicknamed Dennis ‘Machine Gun’, even renamed himself from Bob Derminer to Rob Tyner. He was a very creative man.”
“The MC5 used to play everywhere: school cafetoriums, dances, record hops, bars, clubs, outdoors, indoors, sideways, upside down, you name it, we were there. When you love to play music, it doesn’t matter where you play it. You just establish a good band and put your 10,000 hours in playing your asses off anywhere-anyway you can.”
“The MC5 played 400-500 performances over the lifespan of the band. I was 16-20 years old when all this happened, my formative years. At 19 or 20, you’re pretty crazy since your brain isn’t done growing. You’re basically insane until 30.”
“We all have powerful experiences and changes at that age and to be in the center of larger forces at that time like the youth culture movement, government oppression, phonetaps, the FBI building a file on us (yes, I have a copy of the file), was just overwhelming. I remember when I caught my federal coke case, the officer said to me, ‘Kramer, we got shit on you going back to the Sixties’.
“What set the MC5 apart from our contemporaries is we addressed the audiences concerns directly. Since we all shared the same concerns, we felt it our responsibility to help voice these concerns and voice them LOUDLY.”
“We were a rock band in a time when rock music came of age and we were a part of a community of young people in agreement to reject the established ideas of how life should be. The hypocrisy and corruption we saw was unbearable as a community. We were being forced to fight a war 30,000 miles away when there was no direct threat to the United States. It was illegal, it was immoral and America, which claimed to stand for equal rights, didn’t give equal rights to all citizens, only a chosen select few.”
“And even 50 years ago, we felt and knew that weed was less toxic than the government claimed. We were commenting directly on this stuff and we were the only band doing so heart to heart, face to face. You felt our music, boy, and you could never un-feel it. Hearing the MC5 live touched you deeply and forever.”
“In terms of people considering the MC5 and The Stooges as the “godfathers” of punk music, I can see where you can connect the dots. The Clash, The Damned, The Ramones, etc, when you asked all those early punk bands who they listened to and were inspired by, almost all of them say the MC5 and The Stooges. To me “punk” has always been around, we just didn’t use that expression. Beethoven, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, all those guys were punks in the sense that they had to reinvent music for their generations. It’s important to have your own sound and be original.”
“The MC5 was not frilly, not snobby, not elitist, it’s just in your face, grab you by the throat, rock and roll.”
“MC5 played opening night at the Grande, Detroit’s psychedelic ballroom, thanks to Russ Gibb. The Grande was a magical place.”
“We all lived together in the same house as a band. We lived in Detroit, then we moved to Ann Arbor to a place called the Hill Street House for a while, then we had a house in Hamburg, Michigan on Hall Road. It was not far from Hamburg Lake. Beautiful, remote spread in the middle of 10-acres of wooded land, just absolutely spectacular. We loved it. We were a bunch of maniac musicians. You could run around with no clothes on, shoot guns, smoke weed, do whatever you wanted to do, it was great.”
“Our bassist Mike Davis wrote a memoir about his life and MC5 and many stories in Mike’s book are consistent with mine, at least, the fundamental facts. I don’t blame Mike for some of the stuff that was written. I’m sure I was an absolute nightmare to be around. The bad behavior was rampant and eventually, the MC5’s shared creative vision had disintegrated into drugs. Heroin was all-pervasive in Detroit back then and we were young musicians, so everywhere we went, it was already there waiting for us, in our face, you couldn’t escape it.”
“Rob tried quitting the MC5 for 2-3 years. Every year, he’d make a declaration that he didn’t want to be in the band anymore, but he never left. Finally, he and Fred got into a fistfight, and he said he’d had enough. Our last show was New Year’s Eve 1972 at the Grande. I walked off stage mid-show and that was that. The end of an era.”
The MC5 Eat LSD with Timothy Leary at Tim’s House in California
“On March 23rd, 1969, we played a free concert in Provo Park. Timothy Leary was there, he liked our show and invited us back to his house in the Berkeley Hills.”
“He had all this liquid LSD that we poured into a big bottle of dark red wine and we drank LSD wine with him in front of a roaring fire in his living room, while his mother-in-law was there!”
“The band wanted to go out carousing. I wanted to stay with Leary and have the total LSD experience with the guru and then the funniest thing happened.”
“Machine Gun Thompson and I are sitting in front of the fire with Tim’s mother-in-law, Tim walks in with his wife Rosemary and announces “welp, we’re going to bed, you guys have a good night.” He walks away, Machine Gun and I look at each other and I’m thinking, ‘Whoaaaa. I’m tripping my brains out with Timothy Leary’s mother-in-law’. Then I say to Dennis, ‘Maybe we should go back to the hotel.’ Dennis agrees and he somehow drives us back to the hotel.”
Wayne’s Favorite Authors
“Dozens of favorites. I read a lot. They run the gamut: Philip Roth, Christopher Hitchens, Bukowski, William S. Burroughs, Hemingway, Sam Harris, Luc Sante, etc. My son is going to be five soon and he’s reading some elemental stuff already. I told him that the whole world will open up to you through reading. Plus, you can travel in time through books.”
“The MC5 was formed during our teen years when we were young and trying to break out and establish our own identity beyond our parents, which is important.”
“I had a father that abandoned our family when I was little. I was an angry little boy who grew into an even angrier young man. I thought changing my name to “Wayne Kramer” was the perfect revenge, since he would never share in my glory.”
“Later, in my 40’s, I met my father. He was a community activist in Elizabeth, Pennsylvania and he was in the hospital. We built a relationship, I mean you can’t dial it back and recover what was lost to time, but I got to have a more mature perspective on this man whom I was biologically connected to.”
“He had been a U.S. Marine in the South Pacific during WWII. He came back profoundly damaged and treated what we now called “PTSD” with alcohol, which he said kept the daemons at a distance. It didn’t stop the endless horrors, but it helped create a cloudy buffer.”
“The hole in my development as a boy, not having a model of what manhood is, being left to deal with challenges, responsibilities, dangers without a father was very difficult.”
“My Mother did a great job as a single working mom. She’s my hero to this day. I also had 2 younger sisters. My Mom raised us three kids on her own. Single working mothers are the hardest working humans on planet earth.”
Wayne Helps Iggy & The Stooges Get Signed
“I was responsible for getting The Stooges a record contract with Elektra Records. Danny Fields asked me if I knew any other group like the MC5. I said ‘No Danny, there’s nobody like the MC5. But, you should see our brother band The Psychedelic Stooges.’”
“We loved Iggy and The Stooges, all of us hung out together, got high together, listened to the same free jazz music. Before then, Iggy was a drummer in a great blues band called The Prime Movers.”
“I actually tried recruiting him into the MC5 one time but he left for a brief stay in Chicago with The Prime Movers. Iggy and I are still great friends to this day and I’m proud of how successful he is.”
Wayne Gets Arrested During the Detroit Riots
“In July 1967, we were living on Warren and Forest in Detroit by Wayne State University and we had a telescope in our upstairs window. The Riots kicked off and the cops saw the telescope and thought we were snipers.”
“Next thing I know, my doors being busted down and there’s a U.S. Army tank pointing its canon at our house! It’s in the street, right outside our front door! The cops swarmed in, slammed us down and took us to 1300 Beaubien Street, the Detroit Police HQ. They eventually let us go but it was an experience that stuck with me.”
On Being Incarcerated in America
From 1975-77, Wayne Kramer did time at Lexington Federal Prison in Lexington, KY for selling cocaine. The experience had a profound and negative impact on him.
MC5 bassist Mike Davis, Stooges roadie Hiawatha Bailey, writer William S. Burroughs, actor Peter Lorre, musicians Red Rodney, Sonny Rollins, Chet Baker, etc, all did drug time at Lexington.
“Going to prison is a traumatic experience. You are discovering for the first time what it means to not have liberty, to not be free, to be totally under the control of systems and people.”
“You never feel safe. You’re surrounded in very close quarters by dangerous people with mental health issues constantly. You have no power over your own life. The sort of helplessness and hopelessness you experience in prison is impossible to accurately communicate unless you yourself have experienced it directly.”
“The prison experience is embarrassing and shameful and I don’t know anyone whose come out better. Prison has never helped anyone, myself included. It’s a medieval concept that just lives on and on and on and on. 90% of inmates can be held accountable for breaking the social contract in their communities but imprisoning people runs against a sense of fairness, which really doesn’t exist in America.”
Jail Guitar Doors USA
In 1978, London punk band The Clash wrote a song about Wayne Kramer called ‘Jail Guitar Doors’. That song title served as inspiration for Wayne Kramer, his wife Margaret Kramer and his friend Billy Bragg in naming his non-profit Jail Guitar Doors USA in 2008.
“Jail Guitar Doors is a non-profit with a mission to help rehabilitate prison inmates by teaching them to express themselves positively through music.”
“Since my release, I’ve watched the prison population rise for over 40 years. There were 350,000 people in state and federal prisons combined back then. Today, in the United States, we have 2.3 million people in prisons.”
“This tragedy has deeply affected every single community in the country. Sending people to prison is not a deterrent. You come out worse, not better. With Jail Guitar Doors, we try to mitigate the damage by helping the individual rehab through music and change for the better.”
“Just think about it: 600,000 prisoners are released every year. Who do you want standing in line with you at the store? Someone bitter, defeated, revengeful or somebody who has hope and music?”
“Earlier today, we took some local musicians to the Ryan Reentry Center in Detroit to establish a songwriting workshop. Today we wore a song about freedom, we helped inmates there talk about childhood trauma and forgiveness. Doing the work itself is the reward.”
“I don’t ever expect to see true justice reform in my lifetime. It’s like turning the Titanic away from the iceberg. But we will continue doing what we can to help.”
Detroit to Los Angeles
“I’ve been in L.A. for 25 years, it suits my activities. I pay the rent by writing film and TV music. You have to go where your job skills are marketable.”
“Most of the year the climate is spectacular, but it’s been very hot lately. Great community in L.A., lot of friends there.”
“Jail Guitar Doors is based there. We’re on 10 prison yards in California and we have acoustic guitars in 120 prisons in America.”
“I visit Detroit often to see family and friends and play gigs and the city will always be in my heart forever.”
1963-Wayne Kramer forms The Bounty Hunters. Fred Smith merges his band The Vibratones with Wayne’s band.
1963-Gary Grimshaw moves to apartment building 633 Prentis St, Detroit. Michael Davis moves to the same building and Rob Tyner’s girlfriend lives across the hall from him. Mike meets Rob and gradually becomes the bassist for the MC5.
December 1963-The Bounty Hunters play The Crystal Bar (Michigan Ave & Central St, Detroit)
Fall 1964-The Bounty Hunters are re-named The Motor City 5
May 1965-Rob Tyner shortens the bands name to MC5
1966-MC5 move to the Warren Forest neighborhood in Detroit’s Cass Corridor near Wayne State University at apartment (659 W. Canfield)
September 1966-Plum Street (Detroit’s Haight-Ashbury psychedelic district) opens
October 7th, 1966-Russ Gibb opens the Grande Ballroom. MC5 plays opening night.
October 1966-LSD made illegal
November 20th, 1966-MC5 & Velvet Underground play ‘Carnaby Street Fun Festival’ @ Michigan State Fairgrounds, Detroit
1967-MC5 move to Detroit Artists Workshop building and live upstairs (1252 W. Forest) and The Lodge at Warren
1967-John Sinclair morphs Artists Workshop into Trans-Love Energy Collective
April 30, 1967-Trans Love produces Love-In concert on Belle Isle @ Remick Music Shell. MC5 plays for 6,000 people. The Outlaws motorcycle gang starts riot.
Summer 1967-The Stooges live at first Stooge house (1324 Forest Ct, Ann Arbor)
June 9th, 1967-MC5 blow main act Cream offstage at the Grande.
July 1967-Detroit Riots
August 1967-John Sinclair becomes manager of the MC5
Halloween 1967-The Psychedelic Stooges first show ever @ UofM Student Union
November 22nd, 1967-The Who play Southfield High School
November 24-26, 1967-The Fugs & MC5 play the Grande
January 4th, 1968-Russ Gibb finances the MC5 recordings of Looking At You and Borderline @ United Sound System studios (5840 2nd Ave, Detroit). Gary Grimshaw designs the cover. Jeep Holland’s A-Square label releases only 500 copies.
February 23rd, 1968-Jimi Hendrix, MC5 & Soft Machine play the Masonic in Detroit
March 3rd, 1968-The Stooges first play the Grande
April 11th, 1968-MC5’s first-ever show with The Stooges @ UofM Union Ballroom
May 1968-Trans-Love move from Detroit to Ann Arbor’s Hill Street House (1510 and 1520 Hill Street). MC5 join the commune.
July 1968-MC5 play free concert at the West Park bandshell in Ann Arbor
August 25th, 1968-MC5 play Lincoln Park, Chicago during riot
September 7th, 1968-JC Crawford first introduces the MC5
September 21st, 1968-Danny Fields sees MC5 live at the Grande
September 22nd, 1968-Danny Fields sees The Stooges @ the Union Ballroom, Ann Arbor
September 1968-Danny Fields gets Elektra Records to sign both bands: MC5 sign to Elektra for $20,000 and The Stooges sign for $5,000. Elektra is known as the label of The Doors.
October 30-31, 1968-MC5 record debut live album ‘Kick Out the Jams’ at the Grande Ballroom. The Stooges were the kicker act. Free show.
November 1st, 1968-John Sinclair creates White Panther Party based on idea from Pun Plamondon
November 1968-The Stooges move to The Fun House (2666 Packard rd, Ann Arbor). MC5 hang out here frequently. Nico lives here for a bit.
December 12-14, 1968-MC5 plays on bill with Velvet Underground for 3 days in Boston
December 23rd, 1968-MC5 opens for The Crazy World of Arthur Brown @ Olympia
January 4th, 1969-MC5’s Rob Tyner is on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine
February 1969-Detroit’s famous Hudson’s department store refuses to stock MC5’s albums. In response to this, MC5 runs a full-page ad entitled ‘Fuck Hudson’s’ in local magazines The Fifth Estate, Ann Arbor Argus, The Sun. As a result, Hudson’s department stores pulls all Elektra Records albums from their shelves.
March 1969-Creem Magazine debuts
March 1969-Elektra Records drops the MC5
May 1969-John Cale brings The Stooges to NYC to produce their first album
June 1969-MC5 sign to Atlantic Records and get a hefty $65,000 advance
October 18th, 1969-Led Zeppelin, MC5, Grand Funk play Olympia in Detroit
January 15th, 1970-MC5 release their 2nd album ‘Back in the USA’
May 1970-MC5 move from Hill Street House (Ann Arbor) out to Hamburg, Michigan
August 3rd, 1970-MC5 @ Mt. Clemens Pop Festival in Sportsman Park
August 7-9th, 1970-MC5 and The Stooges play Goose Lake Music Festival (200,000 people)
April 1971-White Panther Party dissolves
July 6th, 1971-MC5 release ‘High Time’ album
1972-Rob Tyner and Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith get into a fistfight
December 31, 1972-MC5’s last show ever. Grande Ballroom. Wayne Kramer is so disgusted, he leaves mid-show.
MC5’s proposed 4th album, ‘Live on Saturn’ never comes to fruition.
1975-Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith starts Sonic’s Rendezvous Band
1975-77-Wayne Kramer does time at Lexington Federal Prison. Fellow inmates include Mike Davis and Hiawatha Bailey
You have to hand it to John King. He’s a self-made businessman who built a fifty-year powerhouse of books.
He’s outlasted Borders Books, watched the rise of Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble, and survived razor-thin years of the Great Recession. Even with hordes of hipster millennials myopically glued to their smartphones and Kindles, his bookstore thrives and prospers still.
John K. King Used & Rare Books is a Detroit institution. Many people have amassed entire personal home libraries over the years just by shopping here. You can lose an entire day among literally 1,000,000+ books spread over 4 floors and 900 categories housed inside an old glove factory.
John K. King Used & Rare Books in Detroit (photo by Ryan M. Place)
Repeatedly voted one of the top bookstores in the world by numerous publications including Business Insider, CNN, and others, John King Books is a must-visit spot on the Global Bookstore Trail, that grand design connect-the-dots map of outstanding bookstores running in a serpentine pattern across the globe.
Many bibliophiles from around the world have made a pilgrimage here to Michigan’s largest bookstore, to shelves overflowing et infra with spectacular inventory ranging from: standard classics, paperbacks, hardcovers, selective esoterica, illuminated medieval manuscripts written on vellum, woodcuts on china paper, armorial bookplates, books bound in crushed Moroccan leather, old rarities sporting beautifully marbled foredges and endpapers, etc. The dust jacket was invented in 1832 and many early examples are here as well.
Let’s Go Inside
John K. King Used & Rare Books in Detroit (photo by Ryan M. Place)
You enter the parking lot on a blind curve and pull up to a bluish-grayish building with a giant faded glove painted on it, and park at a hard slant in the oddly angled driveway, which overlooks a busy expressway.
You enter the building and ascend into book heaven. That lovely characteristic “old book smell” of lignin acids breaking down in the pages of old books wafts up your nose like a curled finger of smoke in an old cartoon.
Wandering John King’s is a sort of calming, meditative experience and patrolling the old wood floors with you are a dedicated army of a dozen employees in red aprons.
John King walking through John K. King Used & Rare Books in Detroit (photo by Ryan M. Place)
I walk inside and John King greets me. “One thing you should include in your article is we’re the only radio dispatched bookstore in the country. All employees have walkie-talkies here. That, plus I’m blessed to have a great staff of people using those radios.”
“Tom Heitjan (aka: Tom Jr.) the rare book room manager, Toni Caron the office manager, and Darlene Weaver have all worked for me since the 1980’s. Deb Lee, the store manager, has been with us since the early 1990’s. Let’s head to the basement, I got something to show you. Hey George,” John nods at a customer. He knows many customers by name. And there are thousands of regular weekly customers here.
John takes me downstairs and we find Tom Jr. and Steve sifting through hundreds of boxes of books. John is wearing a green Italian army jacket and starts dusting off books with a paint brush.
Thomas W. Heitjan (aka: Tom Jr) the Rare Book Room Manager (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
“We just bought the entire collection of a book hoarder in Detroit. He died, so his heirs sold us his books, everything in his house and then at the end, they asked us if we wanted to buy his actual house along with it, so we did.”
“Everything is always busy. Very seldom can I sit down and have some free time. We did an estate in San Francisco a while back where the woman left a giant multi-million dollar mansion in the Sea Cliff neighborhood. I was called in for the books. When I got there, I found the books abandoned, neglected, covered in rat shit. So I’m up there flinging the rat shit off books, trying to find the buried treasure. Only ended up finding a box and a half of mediocre stuff. Here’s a woman worth tens of millions of dollars and she lived like a homeless person. She also drove an old Buick Century that was full of actual garbage. It was crazy.”
Tom Jr. chimes in, “We also just acquired a rare and highly coveted leaf of the Gutenberg Bible.”
John says, “Oh yeah, we gotta show that to him. Let’s go!”
John King: The Early Years
John King (photo by Ryan M. Place)
“I was born in Detroit and grew up on the Southwest side near St. Andrews Parish on McGraw. I still visit the neighborhood pretty frequently. I have a dog. A white maltese named ‘Sophie’ and I usually take her down to Clark Park or the old Train Station on my bicycle with me since she fits right in the basket. Toni has a dog, too. A shih tzu pug named ‘Charlie Dickens’ and the two dogs get along great together.”
“I’m very glad to see El Club the music venue opened near Clark Park. When I was a kid, that building used to be an old Lithuanian Club. You had to have an actual key to get inside there, since it was a private social club. You’d go in there and it was a private bar with a bunch of Lithuanians drinking. Always some fun immigrants therein.”
“I attended Fordson High School in Dearborn. It’s a really cool castle-looking building. My guidance counselor there was Elsie Freitag. Not only is she the reason I wasn’t a juvenile delinquent but she covered for me when I frequently skipped school to go sell books.”
John King (photo by Ryan M. Place)
“I used to take the bus into Downtown Detroit all the time. Since I was only a kid, I could only go into bookstores in the Sixties. Detroit had about two dozen old bookstores back then. And I thought wow I can make money doing something I love: selling books!”
“I was an opportunist. I didn’t have a corner like a drug dealer. You know, I’ll shoot you if you start selling books on my block (laughs) it wasn’t like that. I was more peripatetic selling books out of the trunk of my 54 Packard. Later, I sold them out of a 59 Cadillac hearse.”
“Back in the old days, it was romanticized having a used bookstore. But the reality is you have to be tenacious. Running a successful bookstore goes by some but not all principles of business. I had no formal business education. Had to learn everything the hard way, had to learn by doing. I made all the classic rookie mistakes and even invented some new ones.”
old store sign from John King store when it was at 214 Bagley Street (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
“Back in the 50’s and 60’s in Detroit, the golden age of Detroit used booksellers, the people who ran the bookstores were almost always very eccentric personalities. You know, Damon Runyon type characters. I found them interesting and entertaining and I learned the book trade by watching and through osmosis. There wasn’t a ‘How to Be a Used Bookseller’ book, you just had to get out there and start doing it.”
“Then I went to New York for a little bit to attend college, came back, attended Wayne State University on and off for seven years, selling books the entire time. Now I have no time for anything. I’m busy every day of the year hustling books. I should’ve stayed in school and become somebody and been retired by now.”
History of John K. King Used & Rare Books
Tom Jr. (photo by Ryan M. Place)
John’s current main building, 901 W. Lafayette Blvd., is actually his third location over the years. Tom Jr. fills in the gaps for us:
“This building was built in 1906 by an architect named Stratton. He later married Mary Chase Stratton, the Pewabic Tiles lady. Since he built this place before they met, there are no Pewabic tiles here. Up until 1929 this building was a hat factory. Then it became the Advance Glove Company.”
“When the expressway came, instead of knocking the building down, they physically moved the entire building here. In 1947 this building was put on Alabama gum wood rollers and rolled here from 250 feet down the block. Then in 1981, the glove company went bankrupt and left the building vacant until John purchased it in 1983. We officially opened here January 1st, 1984.”
John K. King’s bookstore when it was at 214 Bagley Street, Detroit
John chimes in:
“Yeah I had two other locations before this one. My very first actual store was in 1971 in Dearborn. It was located on West Warren Avenue at Miller Road across the street from the old Camelot Theater. We were there very temporarily, less than a year.”
“I was there against my will actually, meaning due to the building we were in. A sordid cast of people lived upstairs from us. Drug dealers, thieves, prostitutes, etc, a lot of really nice people. The cops were always coming in. And the very first person to come into my bookstore stole an expensive book. That’s how my bookstore career started. He stole a book on Civil War Regimental History. Him and his whole family were thieves. One of the guys, his cousin, used to get hired to work at museums just so he could steal stuff out of museums over time.”
“By the end of 1971, we had moved to the Michigan Theater building at 214 Bagley Avenue in Downtown Detroit and we were there until moving to this location in 1983.The Bagley location reminded me of the old 4th Avenue bookstores in New York City.”
John K. King’s bookstore when it was at 214 Bagley Street, Detroit
“I also still own The Big Book Store on Cass, which we’re closing soon. Opened in the 1930’s, it’s Detroit’s oldest bookstore. It’s been at its Cass location and run by Bill Foulks since 1988. Over the years, we’ve mainly used it as a warehouse for duplicate books. Some German developers approached me recently about buying the building. They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, so I sold the building. It’s nothing personal, just business.”
“We also own John King Books North in Ferndale. That store opened July 1st, 1988. Tom Jr. used to manage it one day a week for 15 years. Now, Jason Schusterbauer is the current manager. There’s maybe 60,000 books there.”
“We have so many books, we could open ten book stores if we wanted, there’s just no time.”
John King’s Rare Book Building
John’s Rare Book Annex (photo by Ryan M. Place)
Behind the main bookstore, there is a slightly smaller, prairie-style building with some added stained glass windows, which used to be an architect’s office. This building is John’s Rare Book Annex and is not open to the casual window-shopping public.
Thomas W. Heitjan, aka: Tom Jr., has been the Rare Book Room Manager here for years. Tom Jr. grew up on Detroit’s Eastside. He lived one block down from Richard ‘White Boy Rick’ Wershe on Hampshire Street. Tom Jr. has worked for John since 1985. Tom explains:
“We have about 30,000 books here. Toni Caron is our office manager and the Rare Book Annex is closed to the general public due to zoning and security issues. We would love to open it to the public, we just don’t have the ability to make it a tourist attraction.”
John’s Rare Book Annex (photo by Ryan M. Place)
“Once a year, we let the Detroit Historical Society do a public tour here. Otherwise, it’s for private collectors who are vetted and noted and display serious intent. For example, somebody flew in from New York City recently and bought $100,000 worth of books here for their own private library.”
“When we buy collections of books, we sometimes end up with collections of other things like circus posters, statues, etc. That’s how we acquired this interesting Medieval Scriptorium statue from Chicago.”
Medieval Scriptorium statue from Chicago (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
“We do a lot of estate work, at least 2-3 per week. We travel all over the country to source books. John likes the Bay Area, so we’re out there several times per year for book collections. There was one estate in Daly City where no one but us attended. We ended up finding a treasure trove of old movie books signed by movie stars. Some books had 20+ signatures throughout the book.”
Some choice books at John King’s:
leaf from the Gutenberg Bible (c. 1455 AD) photo by: Ryan M. Place
So, about that Gutenberg. John recently acquired a leaf from the Gutenberg Bible (1455 AD). This is an incredibly rare piece. Tom Jr. explains:
“The Gutenberg leaf we have features the Gospel of St. Luke where Jesus is instructing his disciples on how to cast out daemons. Beelzebub is mentioned twice. It’s incredible to actually have a page from the world’s first printed book.”
old books (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
Here is a short of list of some other goodies:
First edition Federalist Papers (1788)
First edition Book of Mormon (1830)
First Great Gatsby
Salvador Dali original drawings
First edition Treasure Island (1883)
First U.S. edition Through the Looking Glass (1871)
First edition On the Road hardcover
Books with fore-edge paintings. These images are hidden until you fan the book.
An entire section of books inscribed on their flyleafs by U.S. Presidents
Several books signed by Henry Ford
Kate Greenaway original painting
Pablo Escobar Gaviria en caricaraturas 1983-91
Pablo Escobar Gaviria en caricaraturas 1983-91 (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
“The Pablo Escobar book, yes this was drug dealer Pablo Escobar’s personal book. It features fun caricatures his friends put together from drug cartoons, his facsimile signature and then his actual signature and fingerprint. Very rare item. A copy not as good as ours, their version only has the facsimile signature, is currently for sale on Ebay in Miami for $100,000.”
Pablo Escobar Gaviria en caricaraturas 1983-91 (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
John’s Rarest Book: the one that got away
The Curtis North American Indian Set
“The one I remember most vividly is The Curtis North American Indian set. We sold that in October 2012 for $1.44 million dollars at Swann Galleries in Manhattan.”
“The set consisted of 20 folios, 722 large photographs on Japanese tissue and 20 text volumes with 1500 smaller photos. The photos were so evocative, you almost wanted to cry looking at them, realizing how beautiful they are and how these people were just wiped out. The photos were printed over a ten year period. It was particularly rare because it was a totally complete set and also, many of the photos were signed by Curtis himself. I miss it.”
“When we can, we try to shake each book to see if any stray ephemera falls out. Sometime in the late 1980’s, our employee Tom Schlientz was shaking out a book one day and some Mark Twain photos fell out. These ended up being personal unpublished photos that were taken by Twain’s friend. The photos featured Twain riding in a wagon with a little girl and a horse. They were taken sometime around the turn of the century in Hartford, Connecticut. We sold the photos.”
Famous Customers at John King Books in Detroit
John King store receipt inscribed by John K. King
John King Books is world famous. The list of well-known people who have been customers here is far too long and varied to include here. People like David Bowie, Hunter S. Thompson, Frank Zappa, Timothy Leary, David Byrne (Talking Heads), Jay Leno, Martin Sheen, Alice Cooper, Governors, Senators, the Levin brothers, Roger Smith head of GM, Kevin Barnes (Of Montreal), Sonny Elliott, Carmen Harlan, Edie Adams, Neil Giraldo, the famous British female impersonator Dame Edna, etc, hundreds of others.
Tom Jr. displaying beautiful fore-edge painting (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
Here are some anecdotes from John King:
“Charlie Watts, the drummer for the Rolling Stones, was just here with his bodyguard who stayed twenty feet from him at all times. Charlie collects jazz stuff and we sold him some great jazz books.”
“Teller the Magician sends us a Christmas card every year saying we’re his favorite bookstore in the world.”
“Former Michigan Governor John Engler got along surprisingly well with my dog. My dog was a Democrat and still didn’t bite him. Engler turns into a mannequin on television but in-person he’s shockingly fun and lively.”
“Actor and Detroit native Curtis Armstrong comes here. He once went on an estate call with me. Curtis was in Moonlighting, Risky Business, the Revenge of the Nerd series, etc.”
“Richard Gere actually shot a movie here inside our store back in 2011 called ‘The Double’.”
The Book Club of Detroit
Great books (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
“A great guy named Tom Schlientz worked for me for about a million years. He took over Charlie Boesen’s bookstore and then worked for me. He was also one of the founding members of The Book Club of Detroit back in 1957. Tom started working for me in the late 1970’s and worked for me right up until his death in 2006. Through Tom, I became a lifetime member of the Book Club of Detroit.”
The Haunting of John King’s Book Store
John King’s Bookstore is haunted (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
Many people think that John King’s Book Store is haunted. Over the years, there have been numerous reports from customers of supernatural & unexplainable phenomena including: footsteps and whisperings in empty hallways, lights turning on and off, feeling like they’re being watched, inanimate objects suddenly moving, doors and cabinets opening and closing, items disappearing and reappearing, feeling something lightly brush past them, unexplainable cold spots, etc .
“Years ago, we bought an estate of a murder-suicide victim. When we moved her books and other objects to the 4th floor, strange things started happening. Lights would go on and off randomly, we would hear bizarre noises, books would fall off the shelves by themselves. We weren’t scared, it was just irritating.”
John King’s Bookstore is haunted (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
Tom Jr. chimes in:
“The paranormal people came in a few years ago and claimed to have located one authentic ghost. They told us that back when this was a factory, a man killed himself on the 3rd floor. He fell in love with a female co-worker. She rebuffed him, so he killed himself up there. And his ghost haunts the 3rd floor.”
John King on The Future of The Book
John K. King print catalog
Many people think that the book itself is doomed by technology, that people are only selling off personal collections and not buying books these days and that online sales have eclipsed regular store sales. According to John King, none of that is true.
“The future of the book is secure. Books have lasted over 500 years and they’ll last another 500. If books were going to become obsolete, why is Amazon.com opening brick-and-mortar stores with physical books in them?”
“Right now, the Baby Boomers are croaking. Some of their subject collecting is fading. Those books that they collected so vigorously are no longer important to the next generation.”
John K. King print catalog
“It’s fluid, everything changes. Except for a few of the enduring classics, people’s tastes are fickle when it comes to books. You grow up with something and it’s in demand several decades later and then it’s gone.”
“Only a mere 10-15% of our sales are online. AbeBooks.com is our favorite online selling platform. We’re still basically a brick and mortar store and that’s where we’re most successful.”
“We discontinued our famous print catalogs about 10 years ago. However, we still have digital catalogs online. Again, we would love to do the print catalogs and could still afford to do them, except we just don’t have the time, staff or manpower to do it.”
John’s Final Thoughts
Tom Jr. and John King on the roof of John King Books with the old Train Station in the background (photo by Ryan M. Place)
“We oftentimes deal with a lot of people who have unrealistic expectations of what their books are worth on the buyer’s market. Usually, it’s some nutty person who tells them ‘Oh, your book is rare, it’s expensive’ and then we have to be the bearer of bad news and give them a reality check. My policy is to be straightforward, to the point and up front about everything right from the get-go. I don’t mess around.”
“Also, a lot of people who should come here don’t come here because they’re still scared of Detroit. Downtown Detroit is safe now, it’s not like the old days. I remember back when we were at the Michigan Theater building and we were paid by a New York City bookseller to deliver a book to a Grosse Pointe customer. His customer could’ve just come down to our store and saved the New York price markup. We have customers who travel here from Japan, France, Italy, and other countries, so locals have no excuse.”
John K. King Used & Rare Books (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
“Most people’s bookstore experiences are limited to going to Barnes & Noble. They only have maybe 10,000 books per store and it’s a confusing store. They encourage employees to be robots who have to look up on the computer every time to see where a book is located in their own store. We don’t need computers here. Each member of our staff is a knowledgeable expert with years of experience. Plus, there are no donuts or coffee here, just books. We have store maps, we’re better organized and have better prices, so come down and visit us, we’d love to see you!”
As you can tell, an entire book unto itself could be written about the history and importance of John King Books. A store that has factored into so many people’s lives over the years, it serves as a major literary conduit, a hub for all those interested in the pursuit of books.
John King thrived and prospered through one of the most economically tumultuous periods since the Great Depression, the Great Recession of 2008-2016 and he did it in the fair city of Detroit, no less! We’ve all been through some serious flak together here over the years.
John King on the roof of John King Books with downtown Detroit in background (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
In 2013, the city of Detroit experienced Chapter 9 bankruptcy, the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. Over the decades, since the 1967 Detroit Riots, 50 years ago this year, we’ve experienced massive population loss and devastation. But Detroit is on the rise. Big time. And John King is still here, riding the crest of a new wave of growth and prosperity.
Part of the reason that I personally love going to John King’s is you never know what sort of great books you’re going to find. There’s always something different and the thrill of the hunt is exciting.
It was an honor being able to sit down with John King and Tom Jr. We are grateful for the existence of John King Books and deeply indebted for having such a tremendous resource in Detroit and thankful for all they’ve done for the community over the past several decades.
If you have never visited John’s store, or if you haven’t been there in awhile, do yourself a favor and get your butt down there to buy some great books!