ook Review - Sleeping Where I Fall


From: Los Angeles Times, 6/4/98 by Louise Steinman:


Actor and Former Radical Peter Coyote Chronicles the '60s and Ideals He Still Upholds

Where were you in the summer of 1967? If, like actor Peter Coyote, you were on the liberated turf of San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury, you could "sing, beg, get high, cruise for sex, plot the overthrow of the government, be mad, or do what you chose." In his new memoir, "Sleeping Where I Fall" (Counterpoint), Coyote describes that global moment when "a feeling of potential charged the air like pollen . . . and ideas seemed nourishing enough to sustain life."

He also evokes darker realities: communes in which 30 people shared one bathroom; cookie jar savings raided for heroin; jealous rages in the era of free love. After a childhood spent in tepees and VW vans, his daughter (now 29 and studying for a PhD) used to dream of living in the Macy's living room display.

Known for his roles in films by directors like Steven Spielberg, Roman Polanski and Pedro Almodovar, as well as his stewardship of the California Arts Council under Gov. Jerry Brown, Coyote's tumultuous life took him from a privileged childhood as the son of an investment banker to a life of voluntary poverty as a radical "edge dweller."

"Sleeping Where I Fall" chronicles with uncommon honesty a chaotic social movement that aimed to radically reform American society, and a historical period that tempered its participants' idealism with the realities of surviving on the economic and social margins. Winnowed down from an 800-page first draft, the tales that make the final cut in Coyote's memoir are skillfully rendered, mixing hilarity and tragedy.

While he exposes the contradictions and contusions inherent in the life he and his friends chose, he lauds their efforts and offers no apology.

"The world is not as I once imagined it or hoped it would be, but then neither am I," he writes. "Neither revelation is a total disappointment."

It's tempting to compare a 1971 photograph of the strung-out communard with the urbane author now poised confidently on a velvet sofa at the Chateau Marmont. A longtime Zen Buddhist meditator (he lived at the San Francisco Zen Center from 1975 to 1985), he emanates an alert calmness.

"Inventing a culture from scratch is an exhausting process," Coyote writes, and looking closely at the man, you notice the imprints that hard living have made on the strong planes of his face. Talking with him clears up any doubt: The 28-year-old who discovered his canine moniker in a peyote vision is the same person as the 56-year-old veteran movie actor--an articulate artist with strong opinions about American society.

"Each generation judges its parents by the world they receive, not seeing how their parents' efforts might have been to the contrary. If my children were to judge my efforts by the Reagan years or the Clinton years, then I'm a sorry, losing son of a gun," Coyote says flatly. "Maybe that's one of the reasons I wrote the book--to disclaim this charnel pit of a culture, to say: 'This is everything I fought against, and I still stand against it, and I'll call it for what it is.' But there were people out there who were standing up and who were speaking for human values and the values of other species."

Various "stars" of the counterculture--Janis Joplin, Bill Graham, poet Richard Brautigan--make their appearance in his book. But Coyote is also interested in documenting the lives and contributions of those he calls "the free people"--unforgettable characters with names like Sweet William, Natural Suzanne, Samurai Bob, Moose and Gristle--who, so alive in the moment, "left no indelible mark."

Nine years in the writing, Coyote's memoir establishes the spiritual lineage of the counterculture. He credits his close friend, poet Gary Snyder, with giving him the notion of "the great underground . . . the continuum since the Paleolithic of shamans and healers and priestesses and poets and dancers and artisans who speak for the planet, for other species for interdependence. A life," he says without pausing, "that courses under and through and around empires, and that whole other materialistically oriented worldview. Gary showed me the direct relationship between that and the transcendentalists - Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman--right on through to the Beats, right on through to the hippies. I realized how little literature there was about that."

Coyote observed how East Coast culture was inherently different from West Coast culture, which is "place oriented . . . wild and hairier." East Coast writers and artists have looked toward Europe for inspiration, the West Coast toward Asia. The written record of America's cultural tradition in the 20th century has been, he says, "dominated by East Coast Ivy League aesthetes."

Coyote learned his think-on-your-feet skills performing with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a collective of uncompromising rabble-rousers (still going strong today) whose exuberant street theater provided social critiques of America's racism, labor practices, the Vietnam War. The troupe competed for audience attention with traffic, dogs, children and drunks, and its theatrical success was measured either by howls of appreciation or "blunt objects whistling toward the stage."

From the Mime Troupe evolved the even more radical Diggers. The aim of this anarchic confederation was "to liberate society from the carnivorous aspects of capitalism." The Diggers figured out that any "style" could be co-opted. What couldn't be co-opted, Coyote explains, "were acts that were antithetical to the fundamental principles of the culture. Which are fame and wealth. Power and private property."

The Diggers gave things away--bowls of stew in Golden Gate Park, sweaters and coats in their "Free Store." "Free" was their Ten Commandments rolled into one. Giving things away was seen as a "theater" in the struggle to help people bust out of middle-class conventions. The Diggers were nonhierarchical; no one was in charge.

"The FBI couldn't infiltrate us. We did everything anonymously, and we did everything for nothing, because we wanted our actions to be authentic. It's the mistake that Abbie Hoffman made. He came out, he studied with us, we taught him everything, and then he went back and wrote a book called 'Free,' and he put his name on it! He set himself up to be a leader of the counterculture, and he was undone by that. Big mistake."

What does Coyote think is the biggest difference between that era and now?

"The biggest difference," he responds thoughtfully, "was that in the '60s the feeling was, 'There's enough to go around.' What we said was, 'You don't need new stuff. If you don't have a job, you have your time. You can live in the dump. You can make it over. You can fix it.' "

The paradigm changed with the oil crunch of 1973.

"Suddenly there wasn't enough to go around. Or at least that's what everyone was trumpeting. That's what Reagan and his people rode into power on: 'There's not enough to go around, get yours. We're going to give you an object lesson that if you're not on top of the '80s, you're going to be under the '80s.' And that's what they did. And they did it very skillfully," he says grimly.

His mother, Ruth Fidler, came from a family of radical Jews: "The Trotskyites would fight with the Stalinists over the pot roasts." Born Peter Cohon, he grew up an only child in Englewood, N.J. His father, Morris Cohon, was president of a railroad, the chairman of an oil company, the director of a brokerage house. Morris, a complicated, driven man, attended MIT at age 15, played chess weekly against a grandmaster and once knocked out Ernest Hemingway at a gym.

"He was tender, and he was sensitive and incredibly sentimental," his son recalls, "but he was savage, and he lived in a pitiless universe." In his memoir, Coyote's personal struggle with his father emerges as a narrative thread, and in that relationship is echoed the contours of his generation's rebellion.

Yet, on a 1970 visit his parents made to a Marin County commune ("raw and vulgar as hunger"), where Coyote, his then-partner and his daughter were living, his father made a startling confession. They were sitting in the crowded farmhouse "where joints were rolled and passed around continuously, chased by jugs of red wine," when his father volunteered: "If I was your age again, this [he indicated the environs with a motion of his arm] is what I would be doing."

The astonished son told his father how moved he was, then, admitting his own confusion, asked for advice.

Years later, Coyote vividly remembers those last words of import from his father. The Wall Street financier's advice began: "Capitalism is dying, boy. It's dying of its own internal contradictions." His advice ended with: "Don't get crushed when it topples down. Take care of yourself and your family. If you can make a difference, do it, but there are huge forces at work here, and they have to play themselves out according to their own design, not yours. Watch yourself." Writes Coyote: "As far as I can determine, everything he prophesied has come true."

These days, Coyote feels blessed. He has close relationships with his 80-year-old mother, his daughter and his son. At his home in Mill Valley, he enjoys domestic harmony with film location manager Stefanie Pleet, his fiancee of four years. He's a board member of Baykeepers, an environmental organization that tracks pollution in San Francisco Bay. In 1997, he covered the Democratic National Convention for Mother Jones magazine

He's writing his own screenplays, which he intends to direct. Though he moves comfortably in the high-powered movie world, his best buddies are poets and writers, as well as his oldest friends from his Digger days, the people, he says, "with whom I bonded in what to me was a great struggle."

Radical change is no longer his primary goal. He's focused now on the Buddhist practice of paying attention to what he terms "one's fundamental intention." Buddhism is, in fact, what he now considers "the ideal tool" to effect social and spiritual change.

"Buddhism makes people receptive to the implications and facts of interdependence at the same time that they're working to still fear, hatred and delusion," he says.

Not since his Mime Troupe days have Coyote's politics and his art been completely in sync. He admits to missing that unity. Yet if he owns up to a discontinuity between his political beliefs and the ideology of most of the films he makes, he's also come to terms with his own authenticity within the maw of Hollywood.

"You're never going to be able to find a 'pure place' like our idea of the counterculture. I realized that, no matter what I did for a living, I would have a choice between reaching for enlightened options or reaching for less enlightened options. And if I consistently reach for the most enlightened options in any circumstance, I am doing my spiritual practice in the context of my work."

The unrepentant idealist breaks into a smile: "After all, if people were compassionate and generous, even capitalism could work."

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[ The Official Peter Coyote Web Site ]