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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.

16:51

Other segments from the episode on August 12, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 12, 2011: Interview with Robert Stone; Interview with Tom Wolfe; Interview with Ken Kesey; Review of The Gary Burton Quartet's album "Common Ground"; Interview with…

Transcript

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Writer Robert Stone Relives Counterculture Years

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

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 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 ring leader. 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. 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 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.

Well, 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 moment, the parrot went into this rap. It was
something like: The last time I was in Denver, you 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's probably on amphetamines of
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. 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. And 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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Tom Wolfe: Chronicling Counterculture's 'Acid Test'

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

Another person who recounted the events documented in the new film "Magic
Trip," about the Merry Prankster bus trip across America led by Ken Kesey in
1964, is Tom Wolfe. He wrote about the trip and Kesey's LSD experiments in his
book "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test."

Wolfe pioneered what came to be known as new journalism: reporting using the
techniques of fiction, descriptive scene settings, dramatic tension and
dialogue. When Terry interviewed Tom Wolfe in 1987, she asked him about his
trademark look, the tailored white suit. He told Terry that his attire wasn't
just about style, it also affected how he would go about his work as a
journalist.

Mr. TOM WOLFE (Author, "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test"): I have discovered
that for me - now maybe it doesn't work for everybody - for me, it is much more
effective to arrive at any situation as a man from Mars than to try to fit in.

When I first started out in journalism, in magazine work, particularly, I used
to try to fit in. I remember doing a thing on stock car racing. I went down to
North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, to do a story on a stock car racer named
Junior Johnson. And I tried to fit in to the stock car scene.

I wore a green tweed suit and a blue button-down shirt and a black knit tie and
some brown suede shoes and a round Borcelino hat. I figured that was really
casual, it was the stock car races.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WOLFE: And after about five days, Junior Johnson, whom I was writing about,
came up to me. He says, I don't mean to be rude or anything, he says, but
people I've known all my life down here in Ingle Hollow, that was where he came
from, he said they keep asking me: Junior, who is that little green man
following you around?

And it was then that it dawned on me that: A, nobody for 50 miles in any
direction was wearing a suit of any color, or a tie for that matter, or a hat,
and the less said about brown suede shoes the better, I can assure you. So I
wasn't - you know, I wasn't fitting in to start with.

I was also depriving myself of the ability to ask some very obvious questions
if I thought I fit in. I was dying to know what an overhead cam was. People
were always talking about overhead cams, but if you were pretending to fit in,
you can't ask these obvious questions.

After that, I gave it up. I turned up - always in a suit and, you know, many
times a white suit and just be the village information-gatherer. And you'll be
amazed, if you're willing to strike that role.

GROSS: When you were doing the research for your book "Electric Kool-Aid Acid
Test," which is about Ken Kesey and the psychedelic acid trips, were you
dressed like that, too?

Mr. WOLFE: Oh, yes, and actually, to try to have fit into that scene would have
been fatal, perhaps literally fatal.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WOLFE: Kesey had this abiding distaste for pseudo-hippies or hipster -
there was really no such term at that time, but we'll just call them pseudo-
hipsters, you know, the journalist or the lawyer or teacher who on the weekends
puts on his jeans and smokes a little dope and plays some Coltrane records and
tries to be part of the scene.

And so he had a device called testing people's cool. And I remember once
witnessing this. It was on one of these weekends. And he said: All right, let's
everybody get nekkid(ph) - that was his word for naked - and get on our bikes
and go up Route 1. This was in California.

And they did. They took off all their clothes, they got on their motorcycles,
and they started riding up Route 1. Now, this separated the hippies from the
weekend hipsters, if you will, very rapidly. But now I didn't have to worry
because I was in my three-piece suit with a big blue corduroy necktie, and the
idea that I was going to take any of this off for anybody was crazy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WOLFE: So, you know, I was safe.

GROSS: You probably just looked like another freak to a lot of freaks.

Mr. WOLFE: Well, after about two weeks, one of Ken Kesey's group, the
Pranksters, named Doris Delay, said to me: You know, you've got on the weirdest
outfit around here. And it was the most unusual in that particular little
corner of the woods.

BIANCULLI: Tom Wolfe, speaking to Terry Gross in 1987, talking about Ken Kesey
and Company. We'll hear from Ken Kesey himself in the second half of the show.
I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
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Ken Kesey On Misconceptions Of Counterculture

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m David Bianculli in for Terry Gross.

Continuing our salute to "Magic Trip" the new documentary about Ken Kesey's
drug-fueled 1964 cross-country bus trip with a group he called the Merry
Pranksters, we now turn to Ken Kesey himself. Kesey wrote two novels that were
very popular in the 1960s, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Sometimes A
Great Notion."

At the time though, he was even better known for being one of the first people
to bring the experimental hallucinogen LSD out of the research laboratory and
into the counterculture. Kesey and his friends were among the first and most
celebrated of the West Coast hippies. In his book "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid
Test" Tom Wolfe described the escapades of Kesey and the Pranksters as they
drove around the country in their Day-Glo school bus.

Terry Gross spoke with Ken Kesey in 1989 and asked him what he thought about
Wolfe's book and how accurate it was.

Mr. KEN KESEY (Author): Oh yeah. It’s a good book. Yeah, he’s a - Wolfe’s a
genius. He did a lot of that stuff, he was only around three weeks. He picked
up that amount of dialogue and verisimilitude without tape recorder, without
taking notes to any extent. He just watches very carefully and remembers. But,
you know, he’s got his own editorial filter there. And so what he’s coming up
with is part of me, but it’s not all of me, any more than Hunter S. Thompson is
loaded all the time and shooting machine guns at John Denver. That’s the sort
of thing - interesting in the media but he’s got a lot more life to him than
that.

GROSS: What effect that the "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" have on you? For
instance, did it make the police feel more determined to try to bust you again?

Mr. KESEY: Yeah. But I haven’t been worried about the cops that much. The
effect "Kool-Aid Acid Test" is they’ll say that you’re Richard Gere and you’ve
got a great big wart on the side of your nose. And they begin to play it up in
the cameras and then pretty soon it becomes the thing that a lot of teenage
girls are in love with, and pretty soon you’re looking at it too, until you’re
cross-eyed looking at your own wart.

GROSS: Why do you use the wart as an analogy?

Mr. KESEY: Well, because I was a lot more than the Tom Wolfe depiction. And I
think this is a problem for a lot of American writers and has been for a long
time. You know, Hemingway, he really doesn’t get into trouble until he becomes
dazzled by his own image. He sees the rest of the United States looking at him
and he moves over and sits there, and he looks at himself too. And then when he
tries to go back and get inside of his own skin he can’t quite fit into it as
well as he used to; he’s gained weight.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KESEY: He can’t put his own skin back on. And when you’re writing, it’s not
a good idea to be observed too much. Unless you want to live in New York and
we’re white clothes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KESEY: If you really are interested in being a real straight old-fashion
writer, it’s better to live down in Mississippi like Faulkner and work out in
the woodshed and not be seen but once every 10 years. I think that being the
observed always turns your eye back on yourself and you become kind of blinded
by your own radiance.

GROSS: You started doing LSD through a government experiment. An experimental
program in, I think, it was in 1959. You were one of the volunteers who, you
know, volunteered to take this experimental drug and have it tested on
yourself. How did you become a volunteer for these experiments?

Mr. KESEY: One of the guys that was our neighbors, was a - he was a
psychologist and he was supposed to show up one day and just really he didn’t
have the common hair to do it and says does anybody else like to take my place?
And I, at the time, was training for the Olympics. I made it to be an alternate
in the 1960 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. They said, come in
here. We’ve just discovered this new spot of space and we want somebody to go
up there and look it over and we don’t want to do it. We want to hire you
students. And I was one of 140 or so that eventually turned out. It was CIA
sponsored. I didn’t believe it for a long time. Well, Allen Ginsberg said you
know who was paying for that was the CIA. I said all no Allen, you're just
paranoid. But he finally got all the darn records and it did turn out the CIA
was doing this. And it wasn’t being done to try to cure insane people, which
is what we thought. It was being done to try to make people insane - to weaken
people and to be able to put them under the control of interrogators. We didn’t
find this out for 20 years. And by that time the government had said okay,
stopped that experiment. All these guinea pigs that we sent up there and outer
space bring them back down and don’t ever let them go back in there again
because we don’t like the look in their eyes.

GROSS: Do you remember what your very first trip was like when you were a
volunteer in this government program? And what kind of preparation were you
given for it? Were you given any?

Mr. KESEY: None at all. Except I read a little piece in Life magazine about how
they’d given it to cats and cats were afraid of mice once they had LSD. But I
think that we’d been preparing for a long time. You know, I knew the Bible. I
knew the Bhagavad Gita. I knew the Daodejing. I had read Hermann Hesse’s
“Journey to the East,” which gave us an underpinning, spiritually, so that
these phenomena that were happening to us had something that they could relate
to. We just happened to come at a time when it was not only a lot of stuff
happening, chemically, there was a lot of new changes in music and in film.
Burroughs was just beginning to do his work in literature and there was a
movement afoot that this was just a part of.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KESEY: And it was exciting. It was wonderful.

GROSS: What was the very first trip like, though, under the experimental
conditions?

Mr. KESEY: Groovy, man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KESEY: It was groovy. We suddenly realized that there’s a lot more to this
world than we previously thought. I think, you know, because I’m asked this
question a lot. It’s been 20 years or so and people are always coming back
saying well, what you think? And I’m - the one of the things that I think came
out it is this that there’s room. We don’t all have to be the same. We don’t
have to have Baptists, coast to coast. We can throw in some Buddhists and some
Christians, and people who are just thinking it’s these strange thoughts about
the Irish leprechauns, that there is room, spiritually, for everybody in this
universe.

GROSS: You were among the first people to take LSD at of the clinical setting
and use it in a social setting. How did you first get it out?

Mr. KESEY: Of the hospital?

GROSS: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KESEY: Well, after I had gone through these drug experiments and was in
this little room in the hospital, looking out through the little window at the
people out there who were the regular nuts. They weren’t students going to
experiments. I’m looking at them through my crazed eyes, I saw that these
people have something going and there’s a truth to it that people are missing.
And that’s how I came to write “Cuckoo’s Nest.” I got a job at the nut house
and worked from midnight to eight writing that book and taking care of these
patients on this one ward and made a lot of good friends – some that I still
have. And I found that my key opened a lot of the doors to the doctor’s offices
where these drugs were being kept.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KESEY: That’s how.

GROSS: Huh. And then you have friends who were able to make it in their own
laboratories.

Mr. KESEY: Yeah. But it was never was anywhere as good as that good governance
stuff. That’s the government, the CIA always has the best stuff.

GROSS: Now you brought up “Cuckoo’s Nest.” And I was wondering when you were
working in the psychiatric ward, which is what “Cuckoo’s Nest” is based on, and
I think you sometimes went in their high on hallucinogenics. Do you think you
ended up writing “Cuckoo’s Nest” in a way projecting your experiences as a
quote “sane person high on drugs," projecting those experiences on to people
who maybe had like serious problems?

Mr. KESEY: Well, these people had had serious problem. I mean I saw people
hallucinating and people in bad shape.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KESEY: Make no mistake about it, being crazy is painful. And being crazy is
hell - whether you get it from taking a drug or whether it happens because
you’re just trying to lead the American way of life and it keeps kicking your
legs off from under you. One way or another, it’s hell on you. And it’s nothing
that's fun about it and I am certainly not recommending it. It is a lens
through which I did stuff, but it’s hard on the eyes. But I think I had a very
valid viewpoint and much closer than a lot of the doctors were having.

At that time, you know, everything was Freudian. If you were messed up it was
because of something that had happened to you when you were in the bathroom as
a kid. And was these experiences – and I don't just mean drug experiences –
there were a lot of other things that were going on that were emphasizing this.

John Coltrane's music was saying the same thing. It was saying something is
wrong and is making us a little crazy and that is making us crazy enough to
hallucinate, whether we were promoting it ourselves or it was being imposed on
us. I don’t want to argue that now. But when I would - I felt so good after
being on there all night to know that I was wearing a green uniform and - I
mean a white uniform instead of a green uniform so I could leave in the
morning and go home, otherwise there wasn’t that much difference between me and
those people they were locking up.

GROSS: Mm-hmm

Mr. KESEY: It gave me an empathy that I could never have come up with. A better
example is those first few pages of “Cuckoo’s Nest” were written on peyote. And
I don’t know any Indians. I don’t know where the Indian came from. I’ve always
felt humbled by that character. Without the character of that Indian, the book
is a melodrama. You know, it’s a straight battle between McMurphy and the big
nurse. With that Indian's consciousness to filter that through, that makes it
exceptional.

GROSS: Have you given up drugs? Or, I don’t know, maybe I shouldn’t be asking
this, but do you...

Mr. KESEY: We’re into it now, go ahead.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Do you still do them at all or?

Mr. KESEY: On religious occasions, yeah.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KESEY: I like to walk up on a mountain on Easter and get a sense of
rebirth. Some people jog. Some people meditate. You know, there’s certain
people who whip themselves on the back, there's - everybody has their own way
of trying to see past the veil and this is just the one that I happened to come
up with. My metaphor is this, is that you don’t need a huge tuning fork. We
used to think we still have a tuning fork for an eight foot long and weighed
2,000 pounds just to find middle C, but now all you need is a little bitty
tuning fork once a year maybe. But no, I don’t know anybody who really goes out
and gets ripped anymore.

GROSS: At what point did you decide to give up the kind of Pranksters life. The
story that I’ve heard is that other Pranksters went to Woodstock. You didn’t
want to go. And when they came back, they came back to a sign hung in your
driveway that just said: no.

Mr. KESEY: Well, there were 61 people when they had about to Woodstock. And
after they were gone, I went upstairs - and we live in a barn. We still live in
the same barn. We fixed up and it’s a pretty nice place. But at that time there
was still hay in the loft of the barn. And I found out one of these little
hippie warrens where they dug in with their little ratty old sleeping bags and
their copy of Zap magazine. In stock right down in a hay bale was a candle
which had burned right down to the hay before it had gone off. And I thought
hey, enlightenment is one thing but being this loose is... I mean my grandpa
wouldn't allowed them up there and my great grandpa wouldn't have, and there's
certain things that take precedence over enlightenment.

GROSS: And that's when you sent everybody home, basically.

Mr. KESEY: Yeah.

GROSS: Ken Kesey, I thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. KESEY: Okay. Take it easy.

BIANCULLI: Ken Kesey speaking with Terry Gross in 1989. He died in 2001.

There's a new documentary about his iconic bus trip using restored footage shot
by Kesey and friends. It's called "Magic Trip: Ken Kesey's Search for a Kool
Place."

Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new CD released by
vibraphonist Gary Burton.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)
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Gary Burton: A New Quartet, A Familiar Sound

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

BIANCULLI: Jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton has been mixing styles since he was a
teenaged prodigy in the early 1960s, recording with Nashville musicians like
guitarist Chet Atkins and Hank Garland. After that, Burton added rock elements
to his jazz in the late 1960s.

Critic Kevin Whitehead says that after that all these years those old
associations still leave a mark.

(Soundbite of song, "Did You Get It?")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD: The blues - "Did You Get It?" - by Antonio Sanchez, the
drummer in Gary Burton's quartet. It's on the album "Common Ground." Burton has
always counted on collaborators to pull him in various directions - not because
the vibist(ph) doesn't have his own preferences, but for the variety. Burton
also likes a tight-knit working band, and he's got one in his new quartet,
which is touring this summer and fall. Sanchez works hand in glove with bassist
Scott Colley; they'd already teamed up in the drummer's band.

(Soundbite of song, "Did You Get It?")

WHITEHEAD: By using four mallets on vibes instead of two, Gary Burton can lay
down bittersweet chords like a piano romantic. But those extra tentacles also
let him do fast octopus dances in complex rhythm, a kind of throwback to '70s
jazz-rock. Burton was there at the dawn of fusion jazz, and that influence
still lurks under the surface.

(Soundbite of song, "Did You Get It?")

WHITEHEAD: The heart of this quartet is the flinty interplay between
contrasting metallic voices: Burton's ringing aluminum vibraphone bars versus
one-time protege Julian Lage's steel-string guitar. His round hollow-body tone
is not so fusion-y, but the tunes the players bring in may involve sudden
wrinkles, knotted lines and shifting rhythms, as in fusion. This is from deep
in Julian Lage's tune "Banksy," where one episode quickly gives way to the next
or jumps back to the last - maybe to evoke the graffiti artist it's named for,
staying one foot ahead of the law.

(Soundbite of song, "Banksy")

WHITEHEAD: For Gary Burton, every new beginning confirms some eternal
constants. In a way he's not so far from where he started, blending with big-
toned country guitarists 50 years ago. "Common Ground" draws other connections
to his past; the one lyrical tune Burton wrote echoes '60s collaborator Carla
Bley, and the quartet revive a poppy Keith Jarrett song Burton played with him
way back when. One reason some things don't change much is they wear well as
they are. Update only as needed.

(Soundbite of song, "Banksy")

BIANCULLI: Kevin Whitehead is the jazz columnist for eMusic.com. He reviewed
"Common Ground" by the new Gary Burton Quartet.
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Poet Laureate Philip Levine Reads From His 'Work'

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This week, America got a new poet laureate, 83-year-old Philip Levine, an
emeritus professor of English at California State University at Fresno. Best
known for his warmhearted poems about his native Detroit, where he worked in
auto factories as a young man, Levine won a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for his book
"The Simple Truth." He also won a National Book Award for his collection "What
Work Is" in 1991, which is when Terry Gross interviewed him. She asked him to
describe one of the factories at which he tried to get work.

Mr. PHILLIP LEVINE (Poet Laureate): It's a very exotic place or it was when I
was very young. I mean there was fire. There was noise. There was, it was like
bedlam. Sometimes I remember going into a foundry once to get a job, and I was
about 17 - they wouldn't hire me, I was too young - and thinking, really, I'm
in hell.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. LEVINE: This is like hell. You know, it was so hot and it was this liquid
metal and I was terrified. I was glad they wouldn't hire me.

GROSS: I want you to read the title poem from your new collection "What Work
Is." It is there a story you'd like us to hear about the poem before we hear
the poem itself?

Mr. LEVINE: Yeah, there is. There is a curious story. I never worked at Ford
Highland Park, which I mention in the poem. But I went there once for job
during a period in the early '50s in Detroit when there was a kind of - a
slight recession so a lot of people got laid off, although Detroit was a
booming town back then. And I waited in line and it was raining and it was a
long wait. You know, you - the newspaper would advertise, you know, assemblers.
That's the lowest job you can get. And they would put hours down like 8:00 to
5:00. But you knew you had to be there early if you were going to get a job.
And so you got there at maybe 7:30. Well, they didn't open the employment
office until, say, 9:00, so you stood there for an hour and a half before
anything even opened and there were 50 people ahead of you.

But that was in a way to, you know, they wanted to test you. You know, how much
crap could you take? I mean were you willing to wait in line that long? If you
weren't, they didn't want you. And so I, as I waited I grew angrier and angrier
at myself for being this humble character. And finally, maybe about 10:30 or so
I got up to the head of the line and there was a guy sitting down - I was
standing. We each went to a different desk. We stood. They sat. And he said,
what kind of job would you like? And I don't know where this impulse came from,
but I said: I want your job.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Oh, gee.

Mr. LEVINE: And he said, okay, take off. And that was it. But I was sort of
happy that there was this thing in me that was still there that, you know,
said, you know, I don't want you and you don't want me. Let me read the poem.

"What Work Is." We stand in the rain in a long line, waiting at Ford Highland
Park. For work. You know what work is - if you're old enough to read this, you
know what work is, although you may not do it. Forget you. This is about
waiting, shifting from one foot to another. Feeling the light rain falling like
mist into your hair, blurring your vision until you think you see your own
brother ahead of you, maybe 10 places.

You rub your glasses with your fingers, and of course it's someone else's
brother, narrower across the shoulders than yours but with the same sad slouch,
the grin that does not hide the stubbornness, the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours of wasted waiting, to the knowledge that somewhere ahead a
man is waiting who will say, no, we're not hiring today, for any reason he
wants.

You love your brother. Now suddenly you can hardly stand the love flooding you
for your brother, who's not beside you or behind or ahead because he's home
trying to sleep off a miserable night shift at Cadillac so he can get up before
noon to study his German.

Works eight hours a night so he can sing Wagner, the opera you hate most, the
worst music ever invented. How long has it been since you told him you loved
him, held his wide shoulders, opened your eyes wide and said those words, and
maybe kissed his cheek? You've never done something so simple, so obvious, not
because you're too young or too dumb, not because you're jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in the presence of another man, no, just because you
don't know what work is.

BIANCULLI: Philip Levine, during a conversation with Terry Gross in 1991. This
week he was appointed the country's next poet laureate.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair.
And you can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org.
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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.

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