Writer Robert Stone Relives Counterculture Years Award-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.
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Writer Robert Stone Relives Counterculture Years

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Writer Robert Stone Relives Counterculture Years

Writer Robert Stone Relives Counterculture Years

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of tvworthwatching.com, in for Terry Gross.

The new documentary "Magic Trip: Ken Kesey's Search for a Kool Place" gathers never-before-seen footage shot during the LSD-fueled bus trip across America in 1964, by a group known as the Merry Pranksters. Ken 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 the Jack Kerouac novel "On the Road."

On today's Fresh Air, we'll hear interviews Terry recorded with Ken Kesey; with Tom Wolfe, who chronicled the bus trip in his early bestseller "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test"; and with Robert Stone, who spent time with Kesey, Cassady and the Pranksters when their bus rolled into New York.

The new film is directed by Alex Gibney and Alison Elwood. Gibney also directed the 2008 Oscar-winning documentary "Taxi to the Dark Side," and the 2006 Oscar-nominated documentary "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room."

"Magic Trip" uses old footage shot by Kesey and the Pranksters to document their cross-country journey. The film also uses archival audio recordings, including excerpts from Terry's interview with Kesey. This clip from the film starts with Kesey describing how he first encountered psychedelic drugs during government-sponsored drug experiments. It also includes some of Terry's interview with Kesey, and additional archival sound of a report on the government drug experiments.

(Soundbite of film, "Magic Trip: Ken Kesey's Search for a Kool Place")

Mr. KEN KESEY (Author, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"): I came out of the University of Oregon the prettiest little boy you've ever seen. I didn't smoke. I didn't drink. I went to Stanford on a Ford Foundation fellowship. And while at Stanford, I was given the opportunity to go to the Stanford Hospital and take part in the LSD experiments.

TERRY GROSS: How did you become a volunteer for these experiments?

Mr. KESEY: I, at the time, was training for the Olympics team and was...

GROSS: As a wrestler?

Mr. KESEY: Yeah, as a wrestler. I'd never been drunk on beer, you know, let alone done any drugs. But this is the American government.

Unidentified Man #1: The study of LSD continues in laboratories and hospitals throughout the United States.

Mr. KESEY: They paid us $25 a day to come down there, and then they gave us stuff.

Unidentified Man #2: What is LSD? How does it work? When did it all begin?

Unidentified Man #1: It all began in a laboratory very much like this one. In 1938, Dr. Albert Hofmann, in Switzerland, was looking for new drugs in the treatment of migraine headaches.

BIANCULLI: A clip from the new documentary "Magic Trip." In 2007, Terry spoke with writer Robert Stone about his memoir, "Prime Green." Much of the book is about his experiences with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranskters. Stone won a National Book Award for his 1974 Vietnam novel "Dog Soldiers," which was adapted into the film "Who'll Stop the Rain?"

GROSS: Robert Stone, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I'd like you to read an excerpt from your new memoir, "Prime Green," but I'd like you to set it up for us.

Mr. ROBERT STONE (Author, "Prime Green"): All right, well, the scene takes place in the summer of 1964, when Kesey and the people who had become known as the Pranksters took a International Harvester school bus across the country, the bus painted many colors and featuring runic slogans and so on.

And I was, at that time, living with my wife and kids in New York, and we were expecting the bus. And sure enough, the bus pulled up in front of our apartment house. My daughter still remembers being taken down the stairs by a man painted completely green. And we rode around the bus. We rode all over New York. We rode through Central Park, dodging tree trunks and being yelled at by cops and anybody who felt like yelling at us.

And we ended up, that evening, at a party on the Upper East Side, which was a kind of a reunion of - or a meeting of our generation - that is, Kesey's California gang - and some of the old beats, who were Cassady's friends. Cassady had driven the bus, I should say - Neal Cassady, who was the prototype for Dean Moriarty in Kerouac's "On the Road." He'd driven the bus cross-country.

At that party - well, Kerouac was there, and Ginsberg was there. It was a very difficult party because of a number of tensions, particularly - I think - Kerouac's jealousy, for lack of a better word, over Neal Cassady's having been appropriated by Kesey and the bus. So it was not altogether a happy occasion.

GROSS: Would you read that section for us now?

Mr. STONE: Yes. (Reading): There was the after-bus party where Kerouac, out of rage at health and youth and mindlessness, but mainly out of jealousy at Kesey for hijacking his beloved sidekick Cassady, despised us and wouldn't speak to Cassady, who with the trip behind him, looked about 70 years old.

A man attended who claimed to be Terry Southern but wasn't. I asked Kerouac for a cigarette and was refused. If I hadn't seen him around in the past, I would have thought this Kerouac was an imposter, too. I couldn't believe how miserable he was, how much he hated all the people who were in awe of him.

You should buy your own smokes, said drunk, angry Kerouac. He was still dramatically handsome then. The next time I saw him, he would a red-faced baby, sick and swollen. He was a published, admired writer, I thought. How can he be so unhappy? But we, the people he called surfers, were happy.

GROSS: That's Robert Stone, reading from his new memoir, "Prime Green: Remembering the '60s." You first read "On the Road" when you were in the Navy, in 1957. Your mother sent it to you. What did the book mean to you in the Navy?

Mr. STONE: My mother was - as you can imagine from her sending me that book, a very socially tolerant person. I didn't admire it as prose fiction, I have to say, even though I was still under the spell of Thomas Wolfe, and this reminded me somewhat of Thomas Wolfe. But the world that it projected, the world of the road, that great American romance of - with the horizon and the roads west and all of that, that got to me. That moved me. And when he grew lyrical about that, he had me with him.

GROSS: Now, you got out of the Navy in 1958, and then you eventually got a fellowship, a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, to Stanford University, which got you to move from New York to the West Coast.

And there you met Ken Kesey, and you were introduced to LSD and introduced to Kesey's whole crowd of people that became known as the Merry Pranksters. They were the subject of Tom Wolfe's book "Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test." How did you meet this group of people?

Mr. STONE: Well, I got into Wallace Stegner's writing class, and a lot of friends of Ken were in that class. Ed McClanahan - I think - a writer named Ed McClanahan first took me around to Perry Lane, which was a street of bungalows of the sort that Menlo Park and Palo Alto were filled with in those days, before California real estate.

It was a street where - undergoing a cultural transformation from the days of plonky(ph) red wine and sandals to psychedelia and strangeness. And the master of the revels with all that was Ken Kesey.

And 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.

And the people that I met there were a new breed for me, in a way, because even though I had read a great deal, I did not come from a milieu in which books and art was much discussed. I had gone to parochial schools in New York. They were very good for learning grammar and even for learning the Latin, but the thrust was pretty anti-intellectual.

Now, I had been in the service from the age of 17 - hardly an intellectual environment. So to get out among people who knew - really knew how to have fun and were also culturally sophisticated, it was a wonderful experience for me. I felt grateful. I felt, you know, that something really special had happened to me.

And California in the early '60s - I mean, that is a place I am really tempted to romance about because it seemed like a garden without snakes. It was - for somebody coming from New York, it was so mellow, it was - 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.

GROSS: As a writer, what was it like to be part of a group that was mythologized by Tom Wolfe's book "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test"? And were you one of the characters in the book who was mythologized?

Mr. STONE: I'm one of the characters in the book. I make a couple of appearances. One thing that impressed me about Wolfe's book was how precisely he managed to project what was pretty ineffable. I mean, it was very hard to explain to anyone what Kesey's scene was like, and what it was about.

I mean, it would have been very hard for any of us to explain to each other, you know, what on earth we were doing. And Wolfe sort of caught the range, it seemed to me, as well as anyone could who was as utterly outside it as he was.

I suppose because he had a certain sympathy for the native grain and its antics, that might have inclined him to Kesey and the gang because they were so un-New York, maybe. I think he did rather a good job. I mean, he - I think his nonfiction books are quite good.

BIANCULLI: Author Robert Stone, speaking to Terry Gross in 2007 about his experiences with the Merry Pranksters. We'll hear more from Robert Stone, and also hear from author Tom Wolfe, after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2007 interview with author Robert Stone. While discussing his memoir "Prime Green," the Vietnam veteran also talked to Terry about the time he met Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters as their magic bus arrived in New York.

GROSS: Neal Cassady, who was a friend of Kerouac's and is the inspiration for the Dean Moriarty character in "On the Road," was a part of Ken Kesey's group and usually drove the bus when people were traveling. Now, you describe Cassady as often being on amphetamines, and you say when he was on amphetamines, he never ate, he never slept, and he never shut up.

Mr. STONE: Yes, that was about the situation. Moreover, he had a parrot, called Rubiaco(ph), and when you walked into a room, this rap would immediately begin. You could never be absolutely certain whether it was Cassady or the parrot.

Many years later, my wife and I were up at Kesey's in Oregon - this is after Cassady was gone - and we woke up to see this fiendish-looking parrot walking over us. And for one, brief minute, the parrot went into this rap. It was something like: The last time I was in Denver, you'd think those cops...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: It was a little shard of Neal Cassady remaining in the world, all that was left in the universe of Neal. But, you know, I never knew him at his most beautiful. You know, he was pretty wrecked by amphetamines when I knew him. And, you know, I have to believe that, you know, the people who idealized him and saw him at his best, you know, saw someone great. But unfortunately, when I knew him, he was pretty out of it.

GROSS: When you were on Kesey's bus and Cassady was driving, did you feel safe? - I mean, knowing that chances were he was probably on amphetamines or something else, and he was supposed to be like, a really fast driver, driving fast around twisting roads and so on.

Mr. STONE: 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: So we always thought he was heroic as a driver. I don't think we -many of us - had a moment's anxiety.

GROSS: And you also write: Cassady thought it a merry prank to slip several hundred micrograms of LSD into anything anyone happened to be ingesting. Did you see that as being kind of funny and whimsical or as like, dangerous and maddening?

Mr. STONE: I saw it as an act of violence. I - you know, that was not a prank that I had much sympathy for because you never knew what anybody's reaction might be, you know, even if you knew them pretty well. Now, that was something I didn't go along with, and I didn't think it was funny.

I mean, it's - you know, it makes an amusing tale in retrospect, sort of, because it didn't turn out badly. But no, I did - I thought it was an act of violence, simply put.

GROSS: Did he pull that on you, and did you find yourself suddenly hallucinating without being mentally prepared for it?

Mr. STONE: It happened to me a couple of times, and I suspect that Neal was behind it. It was always a very tiresome prospect, if you hadn't brought it on yourself.

I mean, 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: It was work.

BIANCULLI: Robert Stone, speaking to Terry Gross in 2007. His memoir is called "Prime Green."

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