Writer Robert Stone Relives Counterculture YearsAward-winning novelist Robert Stone hung out for many years with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. He recounts the group's cross-country road trips and experiences taking hallucinogenic drugs in his memoir, Prime Green.
The new documentary Magic Trip: Ken Kesey's Search for a Kool Place gathers never-before-seen footage shot during the Merry Pranksters' LSD-fueled bus trip across America in 1964. Kesey, the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, was the ringleader. The bus was driven by Neal Cassady, who was the inspiration for the main character in Jack Kerouac's novel On the Road.
On Friday's Fresh Air, we'll hear interviews with Kesey in 1989; with Tom Wolfe, who chronicled the bus trip in his best-seller The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test; and with Robert Stone, who met the bus and hung out with Kesey, Cassady and the Pranksters when they arrived in New York.
This interview with Robert Stone was originally broadcast on Jan. 3, 2007.
New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani once wrote that "[Robert] Stone emerged as one of the few novelists to capture the hallucinatory, apocalyptic madness of the late '60s, the maelstrom of youthful passion, heedless idealism and dangerous excess that characterized those years and presaged the social tumult to come."
In 1997, Stone published a memoir about those years of passion, idealism and excess called Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties. In 2007, he talked with Terry Gross about his childhood, his service in the Navy and his experiences with Ken Kesey and the group that became known as the Merry Pranksters, who were among the first people to use LSD outside a laboratory.
"California, the early '60s — that is a place I am really tempted to romance about because it seemed like a garden without snakes," he said. "For somebody coming from New York, it was so mellow, life was so easygoing. It was not expensive then. The company was first rate. It was a great place to be young, and I still feel grateful for being there."
Stone's first novel, A Hall of Mirrors, won a Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship and a William Faulkner Foundation award for best first novel. His second novel, Dog Soliders, received the 1975 National Book Award and was adapted into the film Who'll Stop the Rain. He also appeared as one of the characters in Tom Wolfe's fictional account of the '60s, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
"I expected him to somehow embody the sensibility in his novels but he didn't. ... I think a man as sentimental as he was can become embittered, and he had become embittered by the time we met, by the time we really met."
On Ken Kesey
"Kesey was a remarkable character. You didn't have to be much of a psychologist to see that this was an extraordinary individual, with an enormous amount of energy and drive and imagination and he was simply a lot of fun."
On Neal Cassady, the driver of Kesey's bus
"It never occurred to me, and I wonder if it occurred to any of us to ever feel unsafe with Neal driving. Neal was a driver of heroic proportions. I mean, it was said of him that he could steal a car, roll a joint and back the car out of the smallest possible space, all in seconds. So we always thought he was heroic as a driver. I don't think many of us had a moment's anxiety."
On dropping acid
"Taking acid was a lot of work. I remember one occasion in which I'd taken it myself. I was perfectly responsible for everything. I woke up in the morning after I'd finally got to sleep and my jaws were aching. They were just coming off, and I couldn't figure, you know, what was wrong with the lower part of my face, and then I realized I'd been smiling for 12 hours. It was work."
On his drug use
"I don't think they ever got the better of me. I mean, on a scale of yes and no, I think I would have to say no. I kept working. I kept my life together. I carried on. On the other hand, I wasted, I guess I would have to call it, wasted a lot of time and a lot of energy that I should have been writing. So to that extent, it affected my life and work. But I can't say that I thought it got the better of me. It caused me some anxiety, and, of course, it was illegal, and so there was a certain tension connected with it. It certainly was not something with a completely upside. But did it get on top of me? I would say no."