The San Francisco Chronicle ran a big Summer of Love 40th-anniversary reminiscence package in yesterday’s edition.
I’m working my way through all of these pieces, which seem like transcripts of interviews with all the questions stripped out, and every one of them that I’ve read has delivered the goods. Peter Coyote‘s is particularly rich. An excerpt:
I became an actor, a writer, a director, and I ran into really brilliant people, like Ronnie Davis and Peter Berg, Judy Goldhaft. And Emmett Grogan. And radical politics led us to question the form of theater itself. There was something a little distressing about being on the stage, knowing all the answers and telling the audience where it was at. And it kind of became obvious that this whole idea of the artist being the vanguard and educating everybody else was horseshit. If the audience didn’t agree with us, they wouldn’t be there. They wouldn’t be laughing at our jokes. We were articulating thoughts and feelings that were already floating in the zeitgeist. So we began to consider what it would be like to create a world in which we wouldn’t have to be employees or consumers, to create a counter-culture to the United States.
We felt that people were not going to leave their jobs and throw themselves on the front line to be lumpen proletarians of some coming Socialist wet-dream of a revolution. We thought that was a scam. We thought SDS and all those guys were way off base — even though in retrospect, by being so harsh in our judgements in them, we sacrificed a lot of good organizing. We set out to imagine a better world that people might enjoy and then consequently defend. We wanted to use our improvisatory skills to create theatrical events that no one would know was theater. So Peter Berg created the Free Store, in which not only were the goods free, but so were all the roles — manager, owner, boss. People would come in and say, “Who’s in charge here?” and we’d say, “You are.” So if you just stood there and looked stupid, there was no sense blaming the Pig or the Man or the System for your shabby little life. You’ve been offered a gift of the imagination and you dropped the ball. By the same token, if you said, “Oh, I’m in charge, great, let’s clean this place up, it’s filthy,” we’d do that. In retrospect, the Diggers were probably a four-year performance art piece designed to trigger a fundamental dialogue about power and money and class and status and who owned what in American society. I am still proud to say that I’m an anarchist. It’s a viable political, decentralized system. I don’t see much evidence that huge nationalized, centralized states, under either Communism or Capitalism, work very well for the majority of their citizens. That was basically what we were about.
I see remnants of that movement everywhere. It sort of like the nuts in Ben and Jerry’s ice cream; it’s so thoroughly mixed in, we sort of expect it. The nice thing is that eccentricity is no longer so foreign. We’ve embraced diversity in a lot of ways in this country. I do think it’s done us a tremendous service. It’s also institutionalized a lot of the thinking that was beginning to emerge in the summer of Love; non-violence, peace movement, Buddhist leaning, sort of catch phrase stuff. All of that stuff has just become part of our common, everyday diet. I’m very happy for that. I feel like I get understood better.
I’ve never been called upon to really grow. It just hasn’t been part of my job description. What I grew into being back then, I’m still pretty much that same guy. I’m still open – I try to stay open – and I still question authority. I still believe in everybody pulling together and accomplishing stuff that is too difficult to do on any individual or small collective basis. I’m still making music and still wondering about it, all wondering about the cosmos and our place in it. Never gone away.
It was certainly a lot of youthful enthusiasm and it was a wonderful, idealistic, very upbeat time in my life. It seemed like there was so much potential and possibility for good in the world and I guess it was a really wonderful, peaceful time. It was such an equalizing time where everyone was on par with each other. Unfortunately that was dashed pretty early on. I remember, for instance, thinking we all the same, all of equal value and everybody came from the same place, and assuming everyone had the same motives in mind. When in fact, living with someone like Gary Duncan, who was just incredibly chauvinistic redneck, it was sort of a shock to me to discover that people thought differently than I. I was rally naive but we were young. The way he treated his wife, the way he treated me, I thought, ‘wait a minute, we’re all equal and all on par, wanting to make the world a better place, you can’t be like that.’
The thing about weed and political action, in that era, when you sucked on a joint, you inhaled not simply some smoke, but you inhaled this whole complex of cultural attitudes, not only opposition to the war, but a liking for Madras bedspreads, an inclination to taste new and interesting foods, to feel less guilty about cutting class, to disrespect authority more because they were trying to make you a criminal for having these experiences and changes of perspective. When you made millions of young people criminals this way, on the narrow issue of whether they could put this plant’s smoke or that plant’s smoke in their bodies, you corrupted their attitudes about a whole lot in the culture.
Dr. David Smith, founder of the Haight Ashbury Free medical Clinic:
In my lectures I don’t try to romanticize drugs. I had a technical skill. I could practice medicine. Fortunately I got involved in the drug scene after I already had that skill. But I had the consciousness of a traditional physician because there was no emphasis on public health then. I was even more extreme that that; I was a laboratory scientist. I viewed human beings as not much different than laboratory rats; something to study and stick drugs in and this, that and the other thing. After I took LSD and got involved in the counterculture, the air moved and you became one with the world. Suddenly you had to help the poor. It was this consciousness transformation that happened during that time. There was certainly a dark side. But I think there was a whole lot of people who had this consciousness transformation.
In ’60, when I came out to SF, the drug of choice was alcohol and the over-riding philosophy of most people was that God is dead. That really started to change. By the time the Summer of Love happened, it was already a time when the media had picked up on it and broadcast it, and already being misunderstood as some giant free-for-all party and kids from all over the Midwest and the South were coming looking for something but not having the background whatever it was art music literature some kind of foundation to come and start taking acid. Someone gave me LSD in 1962 was when I was first introduced to it. A guy who was part of the Committee, a performing group, a comedy troupe. They were part of the North Beach scene and I was working at the Spaghetti Factory and hanging out with artists, writers. The idea of LSD was an evolution of the thought, the whole process of growth. … What I saw with the Summer of Love, I felt that there were a lot of people dropping acid and coming into this world that didn’t have quite the intellectual, artistic, spiritual understanding to put the thing all in context. They got just thrown in outer space. They got thrown into a void. A lot of people came out OK, but a lot of people didn’t.
I never thought of myself as being this star, whatever that stuff means. So it was more amusing to me than anything else. That people would call you artist on a contract, that would amuse me. Artist, what do you mean? I’m a fuck-off, not an artist. ‘Cause a lot of the guys are really good musicians and I’m not. I went to see Jefferson Airplane play and I said that looks like a lot more fun than I’m having being a model for Magnin’s. Wow, that’s much better. I knew I could sort of sing, because my mother was a singer. But it just looked like a lot more fun than what I was doing. Them calling me an artist – no I’m not Pablo Casals here – this is rock and roll.
It amused me that people were taking apart what we’d written as if it had meant anything. The fact that our generation wanted a number of thing to happen or not happen as the case my be with social political stuff, we thought it would. Not because of us but because in particular but because of the generation’s cry for it. And eventually it did. They did stop the Vietnam War, but it did take some time.
We don’t have a democracy right now. It’s a monarchy. There’s nothing about it that’s a democracy. So we’re in worse shape now than we were and the stuff we were trying to change in the ’60s. Look at it. Look at it from every standpoint and we’re in worse shape now with the possible exception of black people making headway. And God bless ’em, it’s about fucking time.
Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert. Those are the guys I look at who are telling me pretty much the truth. And they throw humor into it which makes it much more interesting to listen to. The comedians – as did Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, people like that, Richard Pryor – you listen to comedians they’re probably going to be telling you the truth, with humor thrown in. Now if I listen to them, then I’ll probably know how to approach it. Wolf Blitzer will ask questions, but he won’t get all up in that – know what I mean?
Every page has a sidebar with links to the other interviews.
Thanks to Mary Eisenhart for the tip – I’m three time zones away from my Sunday paper!