Counterculture Lion, Back in His Tidy Jungle
“I SUPPOSE the ’60s seemed like a big revolution, but to me it always felt a small circle of friends,” Robert Stone said recently while revisiting his old East Village neighborhood, one of that era’s epicenters. “And by the time of the Summer of Love, in the late ’60s, it was over. That was the end of it. Every kid who was on the loose turned up, and it was no longer our thing. It was a fashion.”
Mr. Stone, who is himself an emblematic ’60s figure — perhaps the only member of Ken Kesey’s famed Merry Prankster bus trip of 1964 who can still remember what happened — is 69 now, and he and Janice, his wife of 47 years, recently decided to take a break. No drink or drugs for at least a year, after which, Mr. Stone said, they will “rethink.” One bonus of the new regimen, he added, is that he now gets more work done in the evening.
The author of seven novels, including “Dog Soldiers,” “A Flag for Sunrise” and “Damascus Gate,” Mr. Stone has at last finished a long-awaited memoir of the ’60s, “Prime Green,” which comes out Tuesday. It recounts his history not only with Kesey but with such other counterculture legends as Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg; with the pioneering “acid tests” in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco (Mr. Stone’s first hit was administered by Baba Ram Dass himself); his apprenticeship at a cheesy tabloid where he wrote headlines like “Mad Dentist Yanks Girl’s Tongue,” and, later, his stints as a war correspondent in Vietnam.
But as the book makes clear, Mr. Stone’s ’60s were in large part an outgrowth of the Beat culture of the 1950s, and Mr. Stone, who grew up in S.R.O. hotels on the West Side and now lives on the Upper East Side, recently spent a couple of hours wandering around the East Village, where he lived and hung out in those days. For a while he even had a paper route there. “It was almost a different country back then: you couldn’t understand people from other parts, and they couldn’t understand you,” he said in a voice that still has echoes of an old-fashioned streetwise New York accent. “The culture wasn’t so homogeneous. When I was in the service in the ’50s, I remember, they served pizza once, and some of the guys put ice cream on it because they thought it was pie.”
First stop: 13 St. Marks Place. “That’s where we were on New Year’s Eve, 1959,” Mr. Stone said, pointing to an upstairs apartment. “My wife and I and our first child. Of course the neighborhood wasn’t fixed up then: it was really an extension of the Bowery. When my wife or I used to go shopping, we used to have a choice about what to bring upstairs first, the groceries or the kid. I always figured there was more chance of the food being stolen, so I’d give some derelict a dime and ask him to watch the baby.”
Across the street he pointed out a brownstone building with a carved sign indicating that it was the Deutsche-Amerikanische Schützen Gesellschaft, or German-American Shooting School: a relic, he said, of the days when the neighborhood was a German one. “It was the General Slocum disaster that pretty much ended that,” he said, referring to a 1904 steamship explosion in the East River that left more than 1,000 dead, many of them residents of the old German-American neighborhood that became the East Village.
Mr. Stone paused for a minute, looking around, and said: “You know, the biggest change is that all these buildings have been cleaned. It all looks so different. When I lived here, everything was a plain, somber gray. In winter especially, I really liked the grayness, the severity, of it all. The grimness.”
Other landmarks on the block include W. H. Auden’s building, farther along, at No. 77 St. Marks Place, and closer to the middle of the block the site of the Polski Dom, or Polish Home, a favorite spot for Gypsy weddings, which Andy Warhol turned into the Electric Circus nightclub of the late ’60s.
“I never really got the Warhol thing,” Mr. Stone said. “Back then the concept of bohemia wasn’t a mass phenomenon. We still thought of it as kind of a coterie thing, and we were a little snobbish. When we started doing the drugs — peyote and smoking dope — it was part of the Beat scene. Dope wasn’t being done everywhere, and we felt kind of proprietary about it. And when it started spreading in the ’60s, it was like going to a party and having it spill out the door.”
Around the corner, on East Fourth Street, was an earlier apartment of the Stones, in a building called the Garden of Eden. But the sign is gone now, and Mr. Stone was no longer sure where the entrance was.
“I used to think of this as kind of an elegant block,” he said. “But it doesn’t look that way now.” He pointed to a little playground across the street.
“That’s where the Jets used to hang out,” he said. “They didn’t call themselves that, but that’s what they were, a gang.” He smiled and added that while growing up in New York he had briefly been a junior member of a gang called the Saxons. “But we didn’t have guns,” he said. “We had rock fights in Central Park.”
In the course of the afternoon a lot of bars and clubs were invoked, a litany of classic New York watering holes: Bradley’s, the Cedar Tavern, the Lion’s Head, McSorley’s Old Ale House (where, Mr. Stone recalled, they used to lock the door on New Year’s Eve and let the remaining customers finish off the kegs free), the 55 (for a while a druggies’ haunt, where Janice Stone once saw three men overdose on methadone) and the Figaro, at Bleecker and Macdougal Streets, where Robert and Janice Stone first met.
“Every young woman in black stockings worked at the Figaro back then,” he said. “During the day Janice worked as a guidette at the RCA Building, so in the evening she’d have to take off her uniform and then put on the other uniform — the black stockings.”
There was also a bar on East Sixth Street where Mr. Stone used to buy peyote buttons imported from a cactus ranch in Texas. “It was a place run by a guy named the Baron,” he said. “He was a follower of Ayn Rand, so the only sign out front was a big dollar sign.”
Mr. Stone recalled that he would sometimes stop off at the Baron’s on his way to The Daily News, where he worked for a while, writing sports captions and occasionally covering professional wrestling. And he added, though it probably goes without saying, “The wrestling matches were pretty weird on peyote.”
Heading toward Astor Place, he discovered that one of his favorite coffee shops had been turned into a Starbucks. Stopping for a light, he said, with less sadness than surprise: “I used to have such a tremendous sense of the city and of this neighborhood, and it’s lost to me now. It’s so far away I can’t even miss it. So many places I attached myself to, and I can’t even feel it anymore. It’s beyond nostalgia, beyond reclaim.”