Kevin Pennington (KP) Interviews Brian Hassett(BH) for The Sunflower Collective.
Kevin had the chance to digitally sit down with Brian Hassett of Beat Generation and Merry Pranksters' fame. Brian attended in 1982 the largest gathering of Beats in Boulder, Colorado. He is the author of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to Jack Kerouac: The Adventure of the Boulder '82 On The Road Conference - Finding Kerouac, Kesey and The Grateful Dead Alive & Rockin' in the Rockies".
KP: Do you consider the Beat Generation a specific literary and artistic movement or do you think it’s a state of mind?
BH: Good question. I gotta say it's both. There are some who are very strict about who and what is Beat. They usually have a cut-off year. Gregory Corso was funny in that he thought anybody who came along after him in 1955 was totally out of the game.
It was a literary/artistic movement . . . but it's also a state of mind. I'm Beat. I meet late-teens / early-20's people all the time now, and some of them are Beat in how they think and live — yet they may have never read a single one of the authors. Similarly, I meet young people who are Pranksters, whether they've ever heard of Ken Kesey or not. When Kesey was asked, "How does someone become a Prankster?" he answered, "We just recognize each other."
I think that's true for both Pranksters & Beats. In fact, I'll meet someone who's got Abbie Hoffman's* spirit surging through them — and they've never heard of him.
The reason is because this stuff is resonant and eternal — it's why it's still with us today in so many ways. The founding fathers of both movements were tapping into an immortal Spirit. Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady and Ken Kesey and Jerry Garcia were channels — antenna picking up the signal, real clear — and broadcasting it back to the world.
But it was here before them — the Surrealists, Chaplin, the Jazz Vipers, the Ragtime scenes, and even Michelangelo and the gang got up to some pretty crazy shit in Florence back in the day. We're just the current choir tuning into the eternal frequency of creative, passionate, playful bodhisattvas.
KP: What is the story of how you became a Beat?
BH: Well, I just wrote a whole book about this — "The Hitchhiker's Guide to Jack Kerouac" - how I hitchhiked from Vancouver to Boulder in 1982 for the largest gathering of the Beats that ever happened. It was "follow your dreams to the living rooms of your heroes" — because I ended up getting invited back to my hero Ken Kesey's home in Oregon.
It took a book to answer this question.
KP: How does the underlying philosophy of On the Road impact you?
BH: I live "on the road" — whether traveling or not. It's about the search, the journey, discovery, curiosity ... and also work. I mean, the work of writing the book. As a writer myself, I know the work that goes into it, and what Jack went through to get that book out, all the drafts, all the stay-at-home-ness, the focus, the voice, the work.
Which also connects to the Joan Anderson (in a related conversation earlier-ed) letter you were asking about. That was the letter Neal wrote to Jack in Dec. 1950; that was the lightbulb revelation for Jack and changed his approach to writing — which was coming anyway — but that letter was the kick in the head. Write your novels like long letters to a friend — like you're sitting in a bar telling somebody a story. And then he taped together these 12-foot long strips of tracing paper he found left over in a friend's apartment and could write without stopping to change pages. But anyway — it's about the work. He had to stop chasing chicks, stop running around, stay home and get it down. I used to live too much and not get enough work done. Now that I'm a little older & wiser, I make sure there's lots of writing / work-time scheduled into my life.
On The Road is about Adventure. It's Huck Finn with cars. Reading it was proof other people before me were going through the same experiences in life — on the road — hitting it. I grew up in a small mid-western town in Canada — and the only way out if you're poor and young was The Road. And here was somebody who'd written a book about it — just as The Grateful Dead were playing the soundtrack. (see chapters 13 & 14 )
KP: You were recently a speaker at the Beat Shindig. What was that experience like?
BH: I wrote a story about it on my website. It was amazing, wonderful, creative, connective, playful, silly, informative, happy, tank-filling and spirit-reinforcing.
The Beat Museum has this perfect vibe — exactly what I'd try to have if I ever did something like that. A clubhouse, or hangout, and bookstore, and museum, and salon. It was all emanating from there and taking over North Beach. I love those collective gatherings — like what Boulder '82 was — like what you can find when a bunch of like-minded people get together — your tribe. And then go dancing with them, metaphorically and otherwise.
I got to finally meet and hang with Al Hinkle! One of those dream-come-true events. And spend lots of time with the Cassadys — who took me to Kesey's house in La Honda! It was pretty dream-like. And ruth weiss and Gerd Stern and all these cool people I'd never met — but the lasting feeling for me was from all the people you've never heard of who were just there. The power of the collective. Everything from kids to old folks. They've all got the twinkle. They all get the joke.
And that's why you should always go to one of these gatherings when they happen.
KP: Can you describe your connection to the Merry Pranksters?
BH: From the time I was a teenager, I was part of a collective of people putting on real Acid Tests in Winnipeg circa 1977-79. Long story, but we'd rent a hall or church, have multiple bands, light shows, and lots of electric kool-aid. We did them, directly inspired by everything we'd been able to learn back in the pre-digital days about the original Tests. And we pulled it off with swirling colors. Then I moved to Manhattan in 1980, and met and worked with my other hero besides Kesey, Bill Graham. Once I realized I could do that, I set out to meet Kesey in the summer of '82. Again, that's what the book is about, including how I ended up running the projector at their first-ever "Kesey & Babbs Present Cassady" show. (ch. 15) Then got invited back to his house after it was over, and we stayed in touch on and off forever after that. (ch. 29-31)
I hooked up with the new Prankster scene at (Max) Yasgur's farm in 2014 when his son Zane took The Bus out on the 50th anniversary tour of the famous '64 trip. (story about it here ) That year the Bus was a giant magnet that was pulling all these human iron shavings out of their hidden hovels all around the country — all these people who "got it" but didn't know anybody else who did. But they knew to go to The Bus. And from there, everybody met, then stayed connected ever since, and now there's Prankster "chapters" all around the country doing crazy shit, and connecting with other groups, and collaborating in festivals and one-off shows . . . there's quite a vibrant, heartening scene going on out there — all over the continent, all the time.
Over the years, I ended up becoming friends with a few of the original Bus krewe ... just spent a bunch of time with George Walker on the "Going Furthur" film tour ... and they've all still got the original spirit that put them On The Road and On The Bus in the first place.
* A 60's peacenik and political activist