by Mark Howell
(“If you don’t go to the edge, the edge will come to you.”)
Robert Stone and his wife Janice have been married for 47 years. At their bungalow in Key West earlier this year, the night watchman sat with Bob over a cup of tea to reminisce on their remarkable life together.
He was born in 1937, in Brooklyn, the only child of Gladys, a single mom and a schoolteacher, herself the daughter of a tugboat captain and raised on Park Avenue when it was still the railway into the city. Bob grew up where Lincoln Center is now.
He dropped out of high school, long division being beyond him, in favor of reading and “goofing.” By 1956 he’d joined the Navy, in under 18 and out at 21.
After a trip to the Antarctic as something called Journalist First Class, he found himself a civilian in New York. There he met Janice, who had a day job but was a nocturnal beatnik, the archetypal beat girl who changed at dusk into the black stockings, skirt and sweater required of a night in the Village. When she got a job at the Seven Arts Gallery, the pair was introduced to the painters and poets then remaking America’s sensibility.
The couple would have two children, their daughter Deirdre and their son Ian, born just after President Kennedy was shot. But first the honeymoon, which they spent in New Orleans. It was in the deep South that Bob found his first post-sailor job on an assembly line; he was soon terminated for “attitude.” His vilest job at that time was census taker, forcing him to question people about their lives as they sat around a deathbed, for example.
It was in New Orleans that Bob Stone began work on a novel eventually published in 1967 as “A Hall of Mirrors.” It was an endless stint in the salt mines — “I really thought he would never finish it,” says Janice today — although Bob recalls the ordeal as nothing compared to the civil rights sacrifices of Viola Liuzzo or Mickey Schwerner. It was his writing that won him a fellowship to study with Wallace Stegner at Stanford University in Southern California, a life-altering opportunity that incidentally exposed him to the mind-altering powers of peyote and lysergic acid diethylamide.
In his latest book, “Prime Green” (2007), Stone recalls how he and Jan and their friends, on trips to San Francisco, would ingest a loathsome, dinosaur-colored ratatouille of peyote-cactus meat in order to enjoy John Coltrane at the Jazz Gallery and Lenny Bruce at the hungry i (sic). “On peyote there are no metaphors,” writes Stone. “The Great Lizard of the Dawn of Time” is exactly that, providing all with “a grinning rictus of terror.”
His first dose of LSD came from an atomizer spray provided by Richard Alpert Ph.D., now known as Baba Ram Dass, who got the drug from a Dr. Vic Lovell to whom a hospital orderly named Ken Kesey would one day dedicate “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Acid was everywhere at Stanford back then because the Department of Defense supplied it to the university’s Research Institute, from whence it found its way to the Palo Alto Veteran’s Hospital. What is now the work-obsessed Silicon Valley, reveals Stone, back then was a playground for Homo ludens.
On thing led to another, specifically to “the world’s greatest driver, who could roll a joint while backing a 1937 Packard onto the lip of the Grand Canyon.” This was Neal Cassady, hero of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” famed for his supernatural skills at the wheel, driving flat out through rush-hour traffic and impregnating a librarian or two as he did so.
Cassady performed what Stone calls “an uncanny reverse homage” to “On the Road” by traveling east on Eisenhower’s new Interstate system to attend the 1964 New York World’s Fair. The vehicle was “Furthur,” a day-glo painted school bus that carried Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters into all kinds of craziness. “A Vote for Barry [Goldwater] Is a Vote for Fun” went the banner on its side.
The Pranksters’ other destination in New York was the West 97th Street apartment of Bob and Janice Stone, who had moved to the city where Bob took jobs at The Daily News (“Marines Mash Cong in Mud”) and at a lesser tabloid, the National Mirror (“Skydiver Devoured by Starving Birds”). It was at the after-bus party at the apartment that Kerouac made a legendary reappearance from his alcoholic stupor to meet the hippies, afterbirth of the beats. Stone thought the King of the Beats might be an impostor, like another fellow at the party purporting to be Terry Southern who most certainly wasn’t. When Bob tried to bum a cigarette, the surly Kerouac told him, “You should buy your own smokes.”
Then it was off by bus to Millbrook, in upstate New York, to meet Timothy Leary and indulge in a multitude of drugs “unrivaled until the prison pharmacy at the New Mexico state prison fell to rioting cons.”
Of Kesey, Stone writes that he was a “libertarian shaman, fearless friend.” Elders among the Pacific coast Unitarians had taken to calling him God because of gnomic Kesey utterances like, “If you’ve got it all together, what’s that all around it?” The year following the Merry Pranksters’ trip across the nation, written up by Tom Wolfe in the Sixties’ bestseller “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” (though Wolfe did not ride on the bus), Kesey was busted twice for possession of narcotics, first in La Honda and then in San Francisco — just as Cassady had been busted, six years earlier, for selling a couple of joints to a pair of narcs and serving two years in San Quentin although already a world hero for “On the Road.”
Stone was dispatched by Esquire magazine to find Kesey, who with his wife, Faye, and the kids had fled to Mexico before his trials. Hiding out on the western coast at Manzanillo, Kesey and friends took long walks on the beaches. This was but four decades ago, yet there was not another person to be seen, let alone a house. In Manzanillo “we had ourselves an opera,” writes Stone, sometimes “a Marvel comic.”
At this point in his life and times, Neal Cassady considered it “liberating to restrict his diet to methamphetamine,” reports Stone. “He never ate, never slept, never shut up, nor did his parrot, Rubiaco.” (The parrot would outlive Cassady by 25 years, startling Bob and Janice and Kesey and Faye by spouting pure Cassady one fine morning in Oregon: “Grand theft auto! I tell them that ain’t my beef!”
During the Esquire visit, on the anniversary of Mexico’s independence, Cassady shot up a suckling pig with a hypodermic full of LSD topped off with methedrine, a memorable experience should anyone have been able to remember it. Twenty years earlier, Cassady and Kerouac had found Mexico “a garden without so much as the shadow of a snake.” But that’s not what Stone and Kesey saw. The chapter in “Prime Green” on Agent Number One, a Mexican narc who haunted the American visitors in 1964, was published in the New Yorker and extensively quoted in Solares Hill’s “Soundings.” To Stone, that agent represented the beginning of pot prohibition, the end of liberation.
Later that year, Bob and Janice headed to Paris, where they met a fellow hipster, Michael Horowitz (whose daughter is Winona Ryder), then on to London. Fame and fashion now tumble forth from “Prime Green” as the author recounts the pre-dawn call from Paul Newman (then 44) to buy the movie rights to his first book, also the visit by the Hell’s Angels to the Beatles’ headquarters on Saville Row, plus a journey to Vietnam to cover the war. By the 1970s,” he says, it was “no longer cool to be unhip.”
Throughout these adventures, Stone characterizes himself as the demure, even timid one compared to front-line Pranksters such as Ken Babbs, a Vietnam vet whose commanding voice over the bus speakers would put cops to flight, and the insanely attired George Walker. It is a characterization confirmed by his distant experience as a waiter in Calais, Maine, where the restaurateur told Stone never to work in a restaurant again because he “brought some kind of strange atmosphere to people’s dinner, a fateful tension or pessimism about dinner and life.”
Heroic or not, his place in the Sixties — a period he identifies as “the postwar withheld,” when the wheel of time became visible to all — is central. A time of magical coasts and holy mountains, it was also an era of social integration, of integrating into a new society, of integrity in the individual. There are plenty of “who knows?” in his memoir, conclusions like “We won a little and lost a lot, depending.” On the one hand, he writes, “Maybe I believed that if you worked at it right you could have all the lives you wanted at once, all the loves, all the lights and music.” On the other hand, “We couldn’t imagine it at the time, but we were on the losing side of the culture war.” Because of people like Agent Number One, “The prank was on us.”
Stone’s final conclusion is chilling to unreconstructed hipsters everywhere: “We regret nothing except our failure to prevail.”
Writing this story about Robert Stone is to write the story of my life, in more ways than one. Although he is all of seven years older than I am, our lives have almost intersected more than once.
A few years after he lived on Clark Street in Brooklyn, I lived a few blocks away on Henry Street. While the Pranksters came from California for the New York World’s Fair, I came from Wales for the same purpose. As the Stones crisscrossed the country in the mid-Sixties, a friend and I crossed the country masquerading as two of the Stones. We both worked in tabloids. And we both acquired legal prescriptions, in London, for tincture of cannabis.
This last mention snagged Stone’s acutest attention. “Did you know George Andrews?” he asked. George Andrews, whoa! He was the author of “The Book of Grass” and I helped publish his “Drugs and Magic.” We agreed that Andrews, in Stone’s words, dwelt at the core of “strangeness and criminality.” Once again, Bob Stone — as he had with Kesey, Cassady and Agent Number One in North America — zeroed in on the heart of the matter, London wise. “I’ve been very lucky,” he told me. “For every great moment, there is confusion. That is where I served.”
One other intersection in our lives is the most direct one. When my son Rafael was born in 1971, I slapped the name Cassady onto the birth certificate as his middle name, a defiant gesture in the belief that Cassady would always prevail — and I (like Rafe) regret nothing.
But the question remains, has Cassady, who died of a heart attack at the age of 41 while counting railroad ties outside of San Miguel de Allende, truly prevailed?
To date, Cassady has starred in seven Kerouac novels and one Robert Stone novel (“Dog Soldiers”), also in books by Ken Kesey, Hunter S. Thompson Tom Wolfe, Charles Bukowski and Alan Harrington, plus five biographies, six literary studies and collections of letters, four movies that include Stone’s co-scripted “Who’ll Stop the Rain” directed by Karel Reisz (with Nick Nolte, who has twice acted as Cassady) and, not least, in a Grateful Dead song.
All of the above items are still available to the public, all are big hits on Amazon.com. So, can it not be said that Cassady, despite the drugs and the madness, has prevailed?
I personally received my first copy of “On the Road” in 1960, from my English teacher at school. Bob Stone received his in 1957, from his schoolteacher mom. Stone said that he could not at the time believe that “anyone, anywhere, ever talked” like Neal Cassady in that book, but he was wrong,” and, as they say, be careful what you wish for.”
To give a taste of what Bob is talking about here, I have transcribed two Cassady quotes from a couple of sources, one a rare film moment of the Adonis of Denver, the legendary Hero of the West, tossing his eternal railroad hammer.
The first burst is about changing a fuse on the Prankster bus: “The secret of the fuse is to think of the soul and not the ego. It took the Red Chinese years to discover swallowing tadpoles by the dozen doesn’t make for effective contraceptives.” Now this from the film footage: “I washed my hair and it shrank. Natural catastrophes are happening everywhere, all forms are dead, all forms are known. Life goes where the forms are. It’s already too late, the Pentagon’s doing it deliberately as far as that goes. Enjoy it.”
Tell me, I asked Bob, something I don’t know about Cassady.
We moved to the kitchen to check if the water had boiled for our tea. It had not. “It’s like we’re at a great altitude,” he said. I said we probably were.
“I’ll tell you this,” he said. “It was a workout to listen to him. One of his passengers on the bus, Jane Burton, she said she wouldn’t have stayed on it for a single day if she hadn’t lost her purse. Neal was a kind of good-natured thug. He was not tall, he was a car thief. To do Cassady best on the screen you’d need Robin Williams as Popeye. Muscles popping, bragging out of the side of his mouth —Neal was Popeye.”
We had our tea and we came down to earth. “Everything comes to an end,” said the novelist. History’s narratives, he concluded, are already being revised to suit “our sorry times.” In Stone’s estimation, the nation has now handed over Presidential power to “a completely unqualified person who is influenced by men who have never doubted, who have no sympathetic imagination. I don’t know if we’ll ever come back from this.”
Have, then, the lives of disaffiliation and experiment conducted by him and Janice (let alone by me or my wife Jan — amounted to naught?
Ah, he replied, that’s not the point. Not the point at all.
“If you don’t go to the edge,” he explained, “the edge will come to you.”
Sunday, September 30, 2007
by Mark Howell