DATE January 3, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Writer Robert Stone talks about his new memoir, "Prime
Green: Remembering the Sixties"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Robert Stone, has written a memoir about his experiences in the '60s
called "Prime Green." Stone won a National Book Award for his 1974 novel, "Dog
Soldiers," which was adapted into the film "Who'll Stop the Rain." New York
Times book critic Michiko Kakutani wrote, "With fiction like "Dog Soldiers,"
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," unquote.
Stone's memoir has its share of passion, idealism, excess and hallucinogenics.
Part of the book is about his experiences with Ken Kesey and the group that
became known as the Merry Pranksters. They were among the first people to use
LSD outside of the laboratory conditions that the CIA first tested it in. But
Stone's memoir is also about his service in the Navy and his childhood when he
and his schizophrenic mother sometimes lived in SROs and Salvation Army
Robert Stone, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I'd like you to read an except from
your new memoir "Prime Green," but I'd like you to set it up for us.
Mr. ROBERT STONE: Right, well, this scene takes place in the summer of 1964,
when Kesey and the people who'd become known as the Pranksters are--took an
International Harvester school bus across the country, the bus painted many
colors and just featuring...(unintelligible)...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 in 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 reunion 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 across the country. And at that party, while Kerouac was there
and Ginsberg was there, it was a very difficult party because of a number of
tensions and particularly I think Kerouac's jealousy, for lack of a better
word, over Neal Cassady's having been appropriated by Kesey in 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 afterbus 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 be 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 surpers, were happy."
GROSS: That's Robert Stone reading from his new memoir, "Prime Green:
Remembering the Sixties."
So was it disappointing to you to meet Kerouac and find him so unhappy and
Mr. STONE: I had met him a couple of times before, but we hadn't had much to
talk about. He was, you know, older than I was and than my friends were, so I
hadn't really gotten to know him. I really expected, you know, far better
from him. I expected, as one always does, I think, I expected him to somehow
embody the sensibility in his novels but he didn't. He had taken leave of all
that in a way that 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
GROSS: 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: Well, it was certainly a totally alternative world, utterly
unlike any milieu that I had ever seen up close. I mean, I did come from New
York, so I knew what bohemians looked like. I knew what, quote, "beatniks"
looked like before they were called beatniks. My mother was, as you can
imagine from her sending me that book, a very socially tolerant person, but
anyway, this world seemed very far away. It also seemed pretty desirable to
me. 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 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
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 Wolf'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. A writer named Ed McClanahan first took me
around to Perry Lane, which was a street of bungalows of the sort that Menlow
Park and Palo Alto were filled with in those days before California real
estate. And it was a street undergoing a cultural transformation, from the
days of plonky 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 Latin, but the
thrust was pretty anti-intellectual. Then I had been in the service from the
age of 17, which is hardly an intellectual environment. So to get out among
people who 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.
In California, the early '60s, I mean, that is a place I am really tempted to
romance about because it seemed like a garden without snakes. 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.
GROSS: As a writer, what was it like to be part of a group that was
mythologized by Tom Wolf'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 Wolf'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 Wolf 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, but he did rather a good job. I mean, I think his nonfiction
books are quite good.
GROSS: My guest is Robert Stone. His new memoir is called "Prime Green."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Robert Stone. His new memoir is called "Prime Green:
Remembering the Sixties."
As we mentioned, you know, 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 described 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, 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
was 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 that
was something like, `The last time I was in Denver, you'd think those
cops'--there 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 so on at his best, you know, saw someone great, but, you know,
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. So
we always thought he was heroic as a driver. I don't think many of us had a
GROSS: 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
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,
you know, it makes an amusing tale in retrospect, sort of, because it didn't
turn out badly, but--no, 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. It was work.
GROSS: My guest is Robert Stone, and he's written his first nonfiction book.
It's a memoir called "Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties."
Now, you know, in the '60s you were part of this, like Utopian culture, you
know, being a part of Ken Kesey's circle, you know, experimenting with LSD and
so on, and the idea was that LSD could alter your consciousness, bring you
spiritual awaking. There were a lot of communes during this period. You were
from a very non-Utopian background. Your mother was schizophrenic. You were
raised in part in SROs and shelters. I think you were in a Catholic orphanage
for a while.
Mr. STONE: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: Then you served in the Navy, which is not exactly a commune. Was it
hard for you to get on the Utopian wavelength, coming from such a kind of
difficult and non-Utopian background.
Mr. STONE: I don't think I ever quite got on the Utopian wavelength. I saw
it there. I observed it. It dazzled me. I admired it. I came to love many
of the people who were on it, whether it was political or simply cultural. It
was a kind of sacramental presence in the life around me. But I was never
really on it. I never came to believe that life and the world were going to
change profoundly. I did think that there were changes, that we were
succeeding in making and there were. I mean, positive changes. but as for
the Utopia, as for the dreams that some people had, and I think that Ken Kesey
had, that was--I was neither temperamentally nor by background conditioned for
that, so I--while I respected it, I wasn't part of it.
GROSS: Your mother was schizophrenic, so you grew up seeing what the symptoms
of schizophrenia are like. When you started taking hallucinogenics, did you
ever feel like it was bringing on a kind of drug-induced schizophrenia,
because for some people, the experience of hallucinogenics can mimic the
experience of fear-responsive insanity or mental illness?
Mr. STONE: That was sort of the understanding that we had and, you know, of
those trips, you know, which--these were not things--not to say that we did
every single week. But we did them and some of them were great and
transcendent, and some of them were extremely frightening, and I think we
thought of them as being related to schizophrenia. One friend of mine who was
an intern in a hospital actually used to take acid when he spoke with, when he
attempted therapy with schizophrenics. He really wanted to get down with them
and see if there could be a level of communication. So that was the belief,
that was the understanding. I suppose it's true, and it makes me really
sympathize with the condition of schizophrenics more than I was able to when I
knew my mother because being crazy in that way is so much work, and people
become so frightened that the idea of millions of people suffering under all
those delusions is daunting and tragic. I'm not sure that they, you know,
that they correlate, and these days they're making a lot of distinctions
between the bipolar and schizophrenic, but I think it must resemble
schizophrenia, and if it does, at its worst, it's a very bad business.
GROSS: Robert Stone will be back in the second half of the show. His new
memoir is called "Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties."
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.
I'm Terry Gross back with Robert Stone. He won a National Book Award for his
1974 novel, "Dog Soldiers," which was adapted into the film, "Who'll Stop the
Rain." His new book, "Prime Green," is a memoir about the '60s when he was in
the circle of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, who were among the first to
use LSD outside of the conditions that the CIA intended it for.
Now you write that when you were in high school, you know, growing up poor in
New York, that drugs had a really different meaning. You write that drugs
went with the pool rooms next to the "El," zippo guns and fighting with
torn-off car antennae. What do you think accounts for the differences? Do
you think it's the type of drugs that you saw used when you were growing up
vs. the kind of hallucinogenics you started using yourself in the '60s. Do
you think it's the attitude with which the drugs were taken? What accounts
for those differences?
Mr. STONE: The attitude with which the drugs were taken I think was the most
important thing. The dope-smoking that went with gang-banging and pool rooms
was really valued and esteemed for its connection to a criminal milieu. The
graduate students and intellectuals who were smoking pot, who took it up from
the beatniks, were thinking in terms of jazz and musicians and, to some
extent, the hemp smokers of art, the decadent age that we were so interested
in. But the expectation was that it would be mellow, that it was something to
listen to music to, not only to jazz but even to Beethoven-like quartets. So
the expectation that conditioning, the associations were really different. I
mean, one had to do with violence and being crazy. One had to do with
GROSS: In spite of all the sacramental and intellectual associations that you
had when you started using drugs in the '60s, did they ever get the better of
Mr. STONE: Well, I think they--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.
GROSS: Now when you were growing up, your mother raised you by herself, but
she was on disability because of her schizophrenia. How old were you when you
comprehended that she actually had a problem and that problem had a name and
that problem was an illness?
Mr. STONE: Well, when she was losing her job as a schoolteacher, which she
gradually was losing over a period of a year, she would mention some of the
diagnoses that had been thrown around at her by the psychiatrists who were
examining her for her disability. She would throw them around with great
scorn, but I remembered them--paranoia and whatnot. I remembered these words
and I thought of them with great scorn, too, because I was really, really fond
of my mother, and one of the great fears of my childhood was that I was going
to be taken away from her and, in fact, we had the Society for the Prevention
of Cruelty to Children on our case.
GROSS: Why were they on your case?
Mr. STONE: Because my mother was manifestly strange to anybody--you know, we
were living in these furnished rooms and people in the place could see that
she was strange. They imagined the worst. I mean, at one point, I think I
had, you know, a bloody nose from a cold or something, and so there was this
bloody sheet and somebody saw it. They imagined she was beating me. I mean,
she never laid a hand on me. But all kinds of fantasies developed so we were
called upon to present ourselves to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty
to Children, so we fled. We had to leave town. We ended up going to Chicago.
But I could understand her. I used to tell my friends that she was deaf. If
my friends met her, a situation I tried to avoid, but if they met her or if
they had to do with her, there were a lot of non sequiturs, and I would
explain them away by telling my friends that she was deaf, that she couldn't
hear them right. But I got to understand what she was saying quite well,
without even thinking about it. I mean, I just got on the wavelength. I can
still hear it sometimes in people--I mean, people who are living normal lives.
I get these little cues that I remember from being a kid, and I think, `Hmm,
you know, I'm hearing that frequency.' But, you know, I grew up to it. I
understood it. When I was out of the service or when I was still in the
service and seeing her, her condition was getting more advanced and I couldn't
keep up with her. I was losing her and I finally did lose her. She was
enclosed with delusion, and I couldn't get through anymore.
GROSS: Is she still alive?
Mr. STONE: No, no. She died back in '71.
GROSS: So, you know, you were brought up by a mother who is sick, you know,
with schizophrenia, but she's a schoolteacher, so she has this interest in
books, probably, right, because she taught.
Mr. STONE: Right.
GROSS: But at the same time you're growing up in a world where books aren't
particularly valued. You know, SROs, orphanages. You said in the Catholic
school you went to, you know, a kind of questioning of literature was not what
it was about. So, can you talk a little bit about how you think and where you
think you developed a love of writing and reading?
Mr. STONE: I think largely from her because although she got things somewhat
scrambled, I think she really did love to read, and she really did not
subscribe to the general prejudices of society in general. I mean, she was
much more broadminded about a great many things than, you know, plenty of
people who were nominally sane. I remember once, long, long time ago, when I
was very small, I was on a bus with my mother. A guy got on the bus, and I
know who that guy was. He was a guy--I came to know who he was. He was a guy
they called Maurice the Prince of Bohemia. And he was one of the very few
people you saw around in the 1940s who had a beard. He had a long beard. And
I thought this was amusing, and I pointed out to my mother, `Look,' you know,
something to be effective, `what a weirdo. Look at the guy with the long
beard.' And my mother slapped my ears back. I mean, she didn't literally hit
me. She said something like, you know, `The man wants to have a beard. Let
him have a beard. It's none of your business whether he has a beard of not,'
you know. `Don't say he's ridiculous. He wants to have a beard so let him
have a beard.' And that was the way she was.
GROSS: You know, for a good part of your early adulthood, you were a part of
the Zeitgeist. You were where the action was, whether it was, you know,
traveling the world with the Navy or being part of the counterculture in the
early days of LSD experimentation, being a journalist in Vietnam, being a
screenwriter in Hollywood. What about like the past couple of decades? Have
you felt like you were part of the Zeitgeist or part of the, you know, like,
where the culture was changing? Do you know what I'm saying?
Mr. STONE: Yes, I do, and I guess I have to say no. I think the Zeitgeist
and I parted company...
Mr. STONE: ...probably sometime around the 1980s, and things became quite
different. I kept--I was doing a lot of teaching by then and I was working as
a writer in residence in different places. I ended up finally at Yale for 11
years. So I was in touch with the new generations. One of the things that
impressed me was inessentials. How little they have changed in important ways
from the preceding generations. But as far as style went and entertainments
and partying, which is so much a part of being young, the values of all that
became profoundly different from what they had been in the '60s. I mean,
poverty was honored, was revered in the '60s. I mean, people were almost
ashamed of their resources, and, you know, as we know since then, I mean
intense materialism, whether it's, you know, wearing the right watch or the
right clothes, even in deviants, I mean, a kind of deliberate elegance of
dress prevails, and this is certainly different. I mean, it's probably hard
to get me to say much good about the way things have become just as it's hard
to get any aging person, you know, to prefer the contemporary modes to the
ones they were young with.
GROSS: Well, Robert Stone, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. STONE: Well, thank you.
GROSS: Robert Stone's new memoir is called "Prime Green: Remembering the
There's a new annual award for the most ridiculous or misleading bit of
linguistic nonsense that's been perpetuated through the media. The 2006
Coming up, our linguist Geoff Nunberg has the answer. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Linguist Geoff Nunberg talks about the first annual
Johannes Goropius Becanus Award bestowed by group of linguists
TERRY GROSS, host:
The 2006 award season is drawing to a close. Our linguist, Geoff Nunberg,
gets in just under the wire with the announcement of the first annual Becky
Award bestowed by a group of linguists.
Mr. GEOFF NUNBERG: In 1569 an Antwerp physician and naturalist named
Johannes Goropius Becanus published a book arguing that the language spoken in
the Garden of Eden must have been Flemish and that all other languages could
be derived from it. According to Becanus, for example, the name Eve came from
the Flemish word "Eu-vat" or "people barrel," since all of humanity had its
origin in Eve's womb.
Not surprisingly, Becanus' theories were congenial to many of his countrymen,
but others found them pretty loopy. The philosopher Leibniz turned his name
into a verb that means `to speculate foolishly about language,' but Becanus'
spiritual descendants have flourished over the centuries. Scarcely a day goes
by that the group of linguists I post with at the Language Log Blog aren't
debunking some claim about language that's no less absurd than Becanus' work.
So we decided to create the annual Johannes Goropius Becanus Award, or Becky,
for short, awarded to the promulgator of the single most ridiculous or
misleading bit of linguistic nonsense that somebody manages to put over in the
The year 2006 was rich in contenders. Start with a character named Paul JJ
Payack, who announced last May that using a secret algorithm, he had
determined that the English language contained exactly 986,120 words, and it
would pass the million mark in the fall. It was a perfect example of what I
think of as "cowpie linguistics," but the claim was duly reported by sources
like The New York Times, Reuters and NPR.
Then there was the publicist for the British Dairy Industry who managed to get
the BBC to run a story in August that reported with all seriousness that cows
from the English West Country mooed with a distinct regional accent. If you
believe that, I've got an English bulldog who drops his H's I want to sell
And just last month the BBC reported that research had shown that British
teenagers have become so inarticulate that nearly a third of their speech
consists of just 20 simple words like `yeah' and `no.' Actually, that figure's
probably about right, but it sounds a lot less alarming when you realize that
the 20 most frequent English words account for around a third of everybody's
speech, whether you're listening to William Safire, Susan Sontag or the BBC's
own news reports.
But by a unanimous vote, this year's Becky goes to the psychiatrist Louann
Brizendine, whose best-selling book, "The Female Brain," argues that most of
the cognitive and social differences between the sexes are due to differences
in brain structure. It's a controversial thesis. The New York Times' David
Brooks hailed the book as a challenge to feminist dogma about sex differences,
and Brizendine herself has charged that her critics are angry because her
conclusions aren't `politically correct.' Actually, though, you can leave out
the `politically' part. The reviewers for the British science journal Nature
describe the book as `riddled with scientific errors,' and in newspaper
articles and posts on the Language Log blog, the University of Pennsylvania
linguist Mark Liberman has been meticulously debunking Brizendine's claims
about men and women's language.
For example, Brizendine asserts that differences between men and women's
brains make women more talkative than men and goes on to say that women on
average use 20,000 words a day whereas men use only 7,000. That factoid
conforms so neatly with gender stereotypes about chatty women and taciturn
men, that a lot of people were indignant that anybody would even spend money
to discover anything so obvious. One reporter at a San Francisco TV station
began his story about Brizendine by saying, `Here's a news flash. Women talk
more than men. Duh." Except that, `Duh, it isn't true.' It turns out that the
figures Brizendine reported had been taken from a book by a self-help guru who
had simply pulled them out of the air. And all the studies that have been
done show either that men talk slightly more than women or that the two sexes
talk about the same amount.
Or take Brizendine's claim that women on average speak twice as fast as men
do. That's another cherished bit of gender lore, but no research shows
anything of the sort, and the best evidence indicates that men on average
speak a bit faster than women do. Nor is there any scientific basis for her
claims that men think about sex every 53 seconds while women think about sex
only once a day. Or that women are more emotionally attentive because their
more sensitive hearing enables them to hear subtle tones and nuances in speech
that escape men.
In short, saying that Brizendine's claims about sex differences in language
are `not exactly scientific' gives `not exactly' a bad name. Yet the media
generally covered the book uncritically without running the claims past
linguists or neuroscientists or apparently even past their own science
writers. In fact, the book got much more media attention than has gone to any
of the serious recent research on the biology of sex differences. That work
suggests a much more complex picture of the relation between nature and
nurture, but in the lifestyle sections where these language items invariably
end up, the preference is for simple stories laced with plausible sounding
nuggets that confirm what we think we already know, that English is the
biggest language, that teenagers are inarticulate. Or in this case, that
women are congenital chatterboxes.
Four hundred and fifty years after Goropius Becanus, we're still easy marks
for engaging fables about where Eve got her language from.
GROSS: Linguist Geoff Nunberg teaches at the School of Information at
Berkeley. His recent book on political language is called "Talking Right."
One of the losses in the music world in 2006 was the mezzo-soprano Lorraine
Hunt Lieberson, who died of cancer. Coming up, Lloyd Schwartz reviews three
posthumously released live recordings.
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz reviews three
posthumously released live recordings by mezzo-soprano Lorraine
TERRY GROSS, host:
Although the beloved mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson died last summer,
her discography has continued to grow. Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz
has a review of three new releases, recorded at live concerts.
Mr. LLOYD SCHWARTZ: At a memorial tribute to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson at
Boston's Emmanuel Church, where the late singer started out as a violist in
the church orchestra before she really launched her professional singing
career, her friend and colleague, soprano Susan Larsen, talked about Hunt
Lieberson's live, almost unbearably live performances. So chokeful of ideas
and heat and intimacy and surprise, she colored words like a jazz singer. She
could start a tone from nowhere or from inside her mind or from another
planet. When I heard her sing in person, I never wanted it to end.
Three CDs have just been released of live recordings of Hunt Lieberson singing
song cycles by two of the composers she was closest to: her husband, Peter
Lieberson, and John Harbison, in whose opera "The Great Gatsby" she made her
stunning Metropolitan Opera debut. The Harbison cycle is called "North and
South," a setting of six poems by my favorite 20th century American poet,
Elizabeth Bishop. Each of the cycles' two parts ends with a love poem Bishop
never published in her lifetime, and I have a special fondness for these poems
because, as the liner note explains, I had a hand in locating and preserving
In "Breakfast Song," a waltz, Bishop is at her most autumnal, like
Shakespeare, facing the inevitability that she will die before her lover.
It's a song that gains special poignancy because of Hunt Lieberson's own
premature death. Bishop might have been more eager to publish these poems if
she could have heard Hunt Lieberson sing them.
(Soundbite of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson singing)
Mr. SCHWARTZ: The second new CD includes Peter Lieberson's "Rilke Songs"
from a 1994 concert at the Ravinia Festival with pianist Peter Serkin
providing the sensitive accompaniment. It's a setting of five of the German
poet Rilke's sonnets to Orpheus, poems that deal with more abstract ideas than
Bishop's. The nature of human existence, the possibility of transformation,
the nature of poetry itself, though the composer says they're really about
love. The last song ends, "If what is earthly forgets you, say to the silent
earth, I'm flowing. To the rushing waters speak, I am."
(Soundbite of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson singing in foreign language)
Mr. SCHWARTZ: One of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's last public appearances was
singing her husband's "Neruda Songs," a setting of five of the famous Chilean
poet's 100 love sonnets, with James Levine leading his revitalized Boston
Symphony Orchestra. I'm particularly moved by the third song in which she
repeats with greater and greater urgency the opening line, "Don't go far off,
not even for a day."
(Soundbite of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson singing in foreign language)
Mr. SCHWARTZ: Besides our memories of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, her
recordings are now what we have left, and these new ones are among her most
moving and most ravishing. I also hope that these are just the tip of the
iceberg, that more of her live, living performances will become part of a more
permanent recorded legacy.
GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix. He
reviewed three new recordings by the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, released
since her death last summer.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.