THE NINE LIVES OF PETER COYOTE by journalist Paula Pico Estrada
[Excerpts from this article were featured in the March 14, 1999 issue of Argentina's newspaper La Pagina]
"Being a citizen is a bit like being an audience member at a movie and watching the stars have sex with each other while you imagine yourself in their place. For the prize of admission, you can get so pumped full of brain candy that you forget you actually spend your days humping rubber at the Goodyear plant or bagging tampons down at the Safeway."
Most of us might find this call for attention depressingly suitable. Its author wouldn't because it doesn't fit him. After having read Sleeping Where I Fall (Counterpoint, 1998), the memoirs he published in April 1998, it becomes obvious that Peter Coyote has found the way of never being part of the audience, neither literally nor figuratively. A radical activist, a musician, a former public official, a model and a writer, until now he had been known to us through his most publicized mask, that of an actor.
In 1982, during the first half of E.T. (Steven Spielberg), we saw his threatening long silhouette lurking in the shadows. It unexpectedly turned out to be that of a compassionate scientist, that contradiction in termini. In Jagged Edge (Richard Marquand, 1985) he was the mischievous district attorney who harassed a sunny man whose wife had been murdered. Surprise, the district attorney was right. In Bitter Moon (Roman Polanski, 1992), while confined to a wheel chair, he torments a stupefied coxcomb with the tale of his marital misadventures. Against all suppositions, the evil tricks he had played on his young wife become kindergarten stuff when compared to her revenge.
Why is it that every time that Peter Coyote appears on the screen, we believe that we have discovered who the bad guy in the movie is? Sometimes we are not wrong. In Kika (Pedro Almodóvar, 1993), for instance, he was a perfidious and hilarious serial killer. But most of the roles that he has played in the more than sixty movies he worked in tend to line him up on the law abiding side. And even then his out of joint hair cut, the intelligent glim in his blue eyes and the smile that distorts his jaws turn Peter Coyote's cinematographical presence into something like that one of a crooked Gary Cooper.
The fact that Coyote represents in the screen the alternative version of the American hero corresponds with the fact that the fifteen years of his life that he describes in Sleeping Where I Fall show him as one of the agents of the counterface of the American dream. Peter Coyote, who was born in October 1941, is an active member of the generation that picked up the beat glove and, in the sixties, assumed as their task the recreation of the fundamentals of United States culture. If, from the official face of the mirror, freedom was conceived as the possibility of choosing between one product or another, for the counterculture it meant the possibility of liberating oneself from the market-driven society's economicism. If, for the system's common sense, individualism meant that personal interest is the only acceptable human motivation, for the counterculture it meant opposing to the interference of a capitalist State in the freedom and welfare of the majoritiy. If the concept of truth had become an abstract measure that could be used as a tool in any witch hunt, for the counterculture it designated the search at all costs of personal authenticity.
"It was the troupe's expectations that America should live up to her promises and play by her stated rules and we intended to provoke her until she did."
The principles to which the counterculture recoursed to were the same on which the system was built, but the fundamental assumptions that gave each paradigm its own sense were radically opposed. The capitalist system believes that man is the wolf of man; the countercultural movement believed that instincts are good by nature and they should be allowed to organize freely.
Sleeping Where I Fall describes the fifteen years that Peter Coyote and a group of the North American West Coast dedicated to search this absolute freedom, and it analizes its outcomes. It's an honest chronicle, vitalized by an ironic sense of humour, and it consists of three hundred and fifty pages full of a rich, passionate and lucid writing. The narrator's verbosity and the text's overflowing amount of material sometimes become as exhausting as the monologue of a vehement oral interlocutor. In such moments, you close the volume with a throbbing head and your mind invaded by the characters and anecdotes the book contains. But the recess doesn't last for long. As it happens when you are reading a good novel, you start missing the adventures and considerations of these people you've met through ink and paper. So you pick up the book again and walk beside Coyote along his journey.
Contradiction begins at home
"[My father] acquired lands, hounds, silk Oriental carpets, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves stuffed with books (actually read), and fine Colonial furniture and silver. His addiction to 'the best' and his costly impulse to identify himself stylistically with the English aristocracy (long before Ralph Lauren) probably contributed to his early death. The pressure of maintaining such a life without the inherited wealth that made it possible would have pulverized granite."
Peter Coyote's family was liberal and politically engaged. Ruth Fidler, his mother, was a civil rights activist in the forties and fifities; Morris Cohon, his father, the son of a carnival strongman and talented painter who emigrated from Uzbekistan to the States in the late 1890s, was a sharp critic of the goverment racist policies, but "never took it upon himself to radically alter a system that, after all, had been very good to him". As a matter of fact, Morris's gift for numbers, combined with a great capacity for hard work, had resulted in cattle ranches, a brokerage house in Wall Street, and the presidencies of the Hudson-Manhattan railway and an oil company. So this was the liberal dicotomy between thought and action that, according to Coyote, his family embodied: to predicate (and/or practice) generosity towards others on first defending one's own privileges.
This so called "liberal dicotomy" is merely the most amiable political alternative within the capitalist system, and in that sense it constituted the Cohon family in a deeper way, the same way in which it still constitutes all citizens of good will. It doesn't give us the chance to re-examine our assumptions; it introduces itself as the sole political option, given by nature.
Morris Cohon was an intelligent, energetic and violently original man; a man whose will wouldn't accept any opposition. He was an eager reader who despised Hemingway because he had fought him at a gym and "found him wanting" - but if we are to go by what Coyote tells about his father, Hemingway couldn't be blamed. Morris was capable of knocking out his young son during a boxing lesson; thwart philonazi meetings with a baseball bat; cancel a multimillion dollar deal by publicly trying to strangle his partner-to-be after the latter had made an anti-Semitic remark; or mumble "Faggots!" if the boasting of certain Hell's Angels acquainted to Peter unhinged him.
And still, in spite of his singularity, "his imagination of what a life might be had been co-opted and contained, like a fine prizefighter whose struggles enrich his manager." A first generation American who craved for an aristocratic way of life, Peter Coyote's father searched relief for his sense of displacement in the balms that the system offered. And the efforts he did in order to acquire this balms contributed, as those of many others, to strengthen that same system which caused the feeling of displacement.
The San Francisco Mime Troupe
"In the charged social climate of the sixties, many people struggling for critical social change felt that the lines betwen what was inside and outside the values of the majority culture needed to be clearly drawn. For those of us who rejected the spectre of armed revolution and what would certainly be its ghastly consequences, drawing such lines required new forms of creative expression."
In 1964, at the age of twenty three, Coyote moved from New Jersey, where he grew up, to San Francisco, in order to follow a master degree in creative writing. One year later he had given up writing poetry and was acting instead and, almost by chance, he discovered a small theatrical company, The San Francisco Mime Troupe. During a couple of years he was part of the group, whose activities included movement classes, political discussions and somehow earning a living (in his case, as a taxi driver). With the Troupe he learned to analyse social phenomena according to the marxist point of view, that is, by its political and economical causes. Thus he found the theoretical support which his intuitions needed and also the possibility, denied by his liberal upbringing, of translating that message into action. Through theatrical performing he expected to liberate others "from the thrall of the dominant culture's prefabricated visions, allowing them to live congruently with their deepest instincts and beliefs".
The company, created by Ronnie Davis, had studied thorougly the commedia dell'arte, a form of street theater born in Italy during the mid sixteenth century, and it had recovered its characters - Pantaleone, Arlechino, Il Dottore - and its techniques: mime and improvisation - in order to use them for social criticism. Among the two great French mimes of the twentieth century, Davis teacher had been Etienne Decroux. Unlike Marcel Marceau's school that, in absolute silence, created the illusion that there were things there where there were none, Decroux's art consisted in using physical reality to suggest concepts. Coyote's example is a cane, which could become a pool cue, a rifle, or a crutch. Thus they broke the identity principle, foundation of Western logic. Against the Aristotelian formulation, things could be and not be in the same sense and at the same time. The cane was simultaneously cane and rifle, cane and cue, cane and crutch. In other words, it was cane and not-cane.
Another method used by the Mime Troupe was to alter the meaning that the audience usually ascribed to conventional dramatic forms. For instance, the old kind of show where white people painted in black sang, danced and made jokes based on racial prejudices was a model that the company used as a vehicle to investigate racist issues. The military lover, a Goldoni farse, was adapted to comment on the Vietman war. This procedures aroused trouble with the authorities. In September 1966, during a tour, they were arrested in Denver, accused of "lewd conduct", and six months later, in Canada, they were accused of possessing marijuana. The cops claimed to have found a seed in the pocket of one of them. From San Francisco, actor Emmett Grogan (counterculture legend to whom Bob Dylan dedicated his album Street Legal) organized a demonstration at the Canadian consulate in New York where poets Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso participated.
Freedom from money
"If you accept without question premises of profit and private property and if you pursue those ends, even in the best of faith, then eventually the cultural mall we call America will stand before you, the product of your cumulative actions. No one will know precisely how it was built or for what purpose, and like goldfish in a bowl, we will no longer be able to imagine ourselves living outside the aquarium."
In October 1967 the Mime Troupe went on a national tour, perfoming three plays that criticized the Vietnam war. One of them, another Goldoni farse rewritten by Coyote and Peter Berg, won an OBIE. The Troupe performed at the most prestigious universities: Columbia, Brandeis, Boston, MIT, Yale and Harvard. During two weeks they performed in New York. The newspapers published enthusiastic critics. The tour had been a success: they won money and awards and received praise. But Coyote began to feel that the intellectual and political disposition that had attracted him at first was beginning to lose its edge. "After all, if the society you are criticizing gives you a medal, how effective a vehicle for social change can theater be?"
The desire, inspired by the Brechtian theory, of making the audience think about moral and social issues became illusory in the measure that theater - just like the other arts, turned into entertainment or decoration - had been absorbed by the system. As long as the audience payed for its ticket, the theatrical event wouldn't threaten the established values. Coyote had come to believe that "nothing about the theatrical event nested in the context of economic interchange could challenge the implicit forms and relationships of shop, shopkeeper, and consumer."
That was precisely the point of view sustained by the Diggers, and anarchist experiment inspired by an English social movement of the mid-seventeenth century. Emmett Grogan, a friend to Coyote since 1966, and Billy Murcott, a childhood friend of Grogan, had been the founders of the San Francisco Diggers. Murcott had realized that people had internalized capitalist beliefs so deeply as to make impossible the spouting of any personal manifestation that hadn't been approved by society. For the Diggers, freedom consisted, above all, in liberating one's own imagination from economicist assumptions. Only then one could follow one's inner impulses and live according to personal authenticity. They trusted that "if enough people began to behave in this way [...] the culture would invariably change to acommodate them and become more compassionate and more human in the process".
Aware that they themselves belonged to the market society, and therefore to avoid that their own imaginations were driven by cultural beliefs, they imposed two goals on themselves: anonimity, or freedom from fame, and freedom from money. It is true that the capitalist system can absorb almost everything... but it can't absorb the fact of doing things for free.
So they propagated personal authenticity, which led them to develop the concept of "life acting". It implied the deliberate making of a character for daily life, a character which embodied the highest personal and social aspirations of each individual. "In this way, each of us might become his or her own heroe, as well as an engine of social change." The Diggers also invented free events, events that could be lived independently from conventional social or psichological resistances. They printed posters with drawings, declarations, or poems; organized parades; celebrated parties during the solstices and equinocces; served free meals; operated free stores. The latter were also places where those who walked away from the Vietnam war could leave their uniforms and take civil clothing. The Diggers were connected with the antiwar movement, and they provided draft cards for those who rather not enter the military service.
The heart of the whole matter was to present freedom not as a message but as an actual possibility. Your life was your own and if it didn't turn up the way you imagined "there was no one or no system to blame" - as long, of course, as you imagined it off the system's edge.
A couple of illustrative anecdotes
"We made our entrance into a room full of casually but expensively dressed music-business types, the emerging counterculture aristocracy. White was the colour of the season, I believe, intended to indicate refinement and spiritual evolution - New Age Protestantism, which equated material rewards with God's love, I guess. If they were the light, we were the dark - leathers slick with oil and road dirt, edgy, armed, and not about to have our name co-opted by a bunch of Nehru-shirted aesthetes whose monthly tab for weed and cocaine equaled any of our annual incomes."
The context of this anecdote is of no major importance since there are many like it along the book. (In this case, they were trying to prevent some Los Angeles producers from using the Diggers name to organize a concert where the tickets had to be payed for.) The point is that the Diggers weren't some amiable hippies dressed up in nightgowns; they weren't "beautiful souls" that had sought refuge in San Francisco from the evil deeds of capitalism and were making a living by selling beads in Haight Street. The Diggers were a complex league which included artists, thieves, heroin addicts, social thinkers... and people who combined in themselves a bit of everything.
Their determination of living without money implied many times the need of living on people who had it or produced it. But to do so without losing prestige (even though they had allegedly given up the wish for prestige) the providers had to be "very close friends who were willing to play with us". Dennis Hopper fit in the cathegory, "a distinction he may have found dubiously beneficial", Coyote writes, and he remember that Hopper lost a wife after she found Grogan, Coyote and a Hell's Angel cooking smack in her living room.
That same Hell's Angel, Sweet William - to whose personal history Coyote dedicates one of the most touching chapters of his book - was the one who said, during one of those meetings: "Do you know what I'd do? I'd make a movie about me and a buddy just riding around. Just going around the country doing what we do, seeing what we see, you know. Showing the people what things are like". Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969) is one of the few bitter memories in Sleeping Where I Fall. Apart from excluding Coyote's friends from the Mime Troupe, who had been convocated at first, and of offering him, for his participation, a stingy salary that he rejected, the film, according to the actor, did anything but "show the people what things are like". It rather collaborated to built a soothing official image of the hippies, showing them "as if they were Franciscan monks who just happened to smoke dope and dress funny". And, with its ending, the film suggested that "the cost of living free in America is death".
In spite of all this Hopper, who Coyote describes as an honest and generous seeker for truth, emerges untarnished from the acid sea of the Digger gaze. Such is not the case of Canadian singer Leonard Cohen. During a visit to New York made by Grogan and Coyote (which among other results produced a peace-making encounter between the police and the leaders of a Puerto Rican gang), the latter had a meeting, at Paul Simon's appartment, with a financist who was supposed to donate 10,000 dollars to them. Yes, a typical Digger contradiction, admits Coyote, but the money had to come from somewhere. The thing is that the financist came in the company of Leonard Cohen and, while Coyote explained what the Diggers were, Cohen jumped up saying: "These men are lying. This is not a leaderless group at all. I am a novelist and reader of men. These men are leaders." Coyote's conclusion is that Cohen also expected to get something out of the donor and didn't want any competition.
The Free Family
"We knew that if we were to build a new culture from within the old, it would require time, patience and practice to resolve obstacles and create habitual responses that were based on community well-being rather than merely personal preference. We were in uncharted territory, and for better or for worse, the people working with you were your tribe."
In 1967 took place in San Francisco the multitudinous event called the "Human Be-In" that led the media to proclaim the arrival of the counter-culture. As a matter of fact, most of the members of the so called movement had began to leave the city. The Diggers participated in the foundation of a series of communes along the West Coast, with the hope of turning them into a supportive net. Some were abandoned farms, some had been bought through donations. Coyote describes the life at The Red House, Black Bear, Olema and Turkey Ridge. He lived in the last two; Turkey Ridge was the cattle ranch his father had in Pensylvannia, that was transformed into a Digger comune after his death.
The intention of these social experiments was "to learn how to live communaly, to expand and deepen the sense of community, and to diminish our per capita consumption of natural resources and energy." Days went by discussing economical theories, trying (sometimes successfully) to interact with local neighbours, fixing and cleaning old trucks, playing music, taking drugs and practicing free love. Some of the inconsistencies they went through were as funny as they were human. Sam, then Coyote's wife, invites Nichole to the commune so that she will become Peter's second wife. But at another time, when another woman tells her she is bisexual, she is scandalized.
Coyote, on the other hand, could spend a whole day in bed with a friend and his wife, making love to her, but doesn't think it's normal when a man from another commune turns up dressed as a woman. Even in the most organized communities (according to Coyote, none of the two of them in which he lived) "yet even the best collective life can wear thin. Some people would use anyone's toothbrush, and objecting to this might be regarded as bourgeois." One of them removed the bathroom door saying that "the fear of being observed was a neurotic vanity to be vanished".
"The idea of the Free Family", sums up Coyote, "revitalizing and reinventing the culture and the economy, was compelling and seemed the only worthwhile thing to be doing with my life. The actuality, however, was full of contradictions, embarrassments and confusions." In spite of the disappointments, this actuality lasted for seven years which included, between the stays in Olema (on the West Coast) and Turkey Ridge (East Coast), a lot of life on the road through the Free Family Caravan. The purpose of the latter was to travel from one commune to the other establishing meetings and political bonds between people who, although they were on the same search, hadn't yet met each other.
Directing the prow towards Itaca
"Hindsight offers some clarity, and now I realize that our fixation with total freedom condemned us to marginality. While we believed that we were creating 'alternatives' that the majority culture could take advantage of at a later date, we were actually scoring a line in the sand between our way of life and everyone else's."
Towards 1974 the circumstances and the group's state of mind pointed in the direction of a change. Coyote's mother had to sale Turkey Ridge, the children were growing up and their needs could no longer be satisfied by just the commune and, on top of it all, Coyote's affair with a woman of the tribe triggered a series of reactions that finally led to its dissolution. Back in 1975 he was back in San Francisco, living in a borrowed flat and performing with old friends from the Mime Troupe. He got a job in a teaching programme of the federal government, where for a salary of six hundred dollars a month (he had lived on two hundred a month for the last ten years) he taught acting at ghetto schools.
Soon after this his friend, poet Gary Snyder, received the Pulitzer award for poetry and the then governor of California, Jerry Brown, named him chairman of the recently created State Arts Council. Snyder proposed Coyote as a member, and he stayed thereafter until 1983. In 1976 his fellow members elected him as chairman. His management lasted for three years and was interrupted only because the legislation passed a law prohibiting his continuance. Under his rule, the general expenses of the Council were lowered from a 50% to a 15%, becoming the lowest in the State, and the budget assigned grew from one million to fourteen.
But what was most interesting for this thirty-something who had come back to the arena after having tried to change the rules from the outside was the chance of introducing real changes battling from the inside. He fought against the belief in art for art's sake - "the philosophy about art of a group accustomed to dominance, which mistakes its political power for revealed truth" - and he contended over introducing in the subsidy scene forms of art less promoted that the tradicional European forms. He presented artists as creators capable of combining logic and intuition for problem solving and he sent them to schools as teachers. As a consequence of the program, vandalism and absentism diminished in the schools.
At the same time, Coyote wasn't using his own artistic creativiy just to convince the conservative senators who opposed his politics. He kept on acting. In 1980, after having seen him leading with the San Francisco Magic Theater author Sam Shepard's True West, a Hollywood agent offered to represent him. Coyote accepted. And here ends the tale as told in Sleeping Where I Fall.
The rest of his adventures can be followed at his official Web site at: www.petercoyote.com. Last year he had three movie openings. One is Sphere (Barry Levinson), where he is the Goverment official in charge of a clumsy group designed by Dustin Hoffmann for dealing with extraterrestrial emergencies. In Patch Adams (Tom Shadyac), those Coyote fans who can put up with a classic Robin Williams's one man show will have the chance of watching Coyote as a terminal patient. The third film is Last Call (Christine Lucas), shot in Santiago, Chile and based on Loft Story, an original script of Jorge Durán, author of the cinematographic version of Kiss of the Spider Woman. The story is about a group of persons who are expatriated in South America, and Coyote is a dealer named Xuave. Apart from acting he is getting prepared to direct Crimes of opportunity, a script he co-wrote. He also wrote 5150, the pilot for a television series about psichiatric emergency workers.
We don't know what became of Ulysses after he returned to his motherland in the twentieth year of his wandering, but the contemporary traveler we are dealing with now has obviously not taken a rest. His journey took him from one face of the United States to the other, two regions that, for him, are symbolized by the East and the West coasts of the country. While the East side has turned to Europe for inspiration and built a materialistic culture, the West side has tended towards Asia and fed itself on the principles that Aldous Huxley reunited under the name of philosophia perennis: there is a divine spirituality inhabiting the material world; the human soul is part of that divinity; man's finality is to become conscious of the seed that lives within him.
Sleeping Where I Fall is the chronicle of a certain group of people's intent of liberating human nature, both in its personal and social aspects, so that, arranging itself according to its inherent goodness ans spirituality, could organize a better world. Among the results there were suicides, death by overdoses and wrecked lives, but also lawyers that help the poor work for free, teachers, political and ecological activists, and nurses. All of them find a place in Coyote's narrative, since the author believes that the propagation of the testimonies of each individual who has participated in the making of history has the power of creating an alternative to the great hegemonical narrative which today tries to convince us that history and the great narratives are dead.
[Special thanks to author Paula Pico Estrada for her translation of this article from its original Spanish version.]
[ The Official Peter Coyote Web Site ]