Summer of Love: 40 Years Later

by Peter Coyote

I came out to California to get my master's in creative writing at San Francisco State and study with Robert Duncan, the great poet. Because I'd been an actor in college, I got involved with the Actors Workshop, even though (Herbert) Blau and (Jules) Irving had gone to New York to start Lincoln Center. I worked in that company awhile. It was kind of moribund. I had gone to see the San Francisco Mime Troupe and they had decorated the theater so splendidly, with newspaper clippings and photos of the company, I thought, that's what we need at the Marines Memorial theater. I busted my hump creating an 80-photograph exhibit for the lobby for opening night of "Edward II" by Brecht. I shot the photos, enlarged them, mounted them put them in the lobby. Nobody even said thank you. The next week I went to see the Mime Troupe and thought, "This is where I want to be.'' They had two of the most beautiful women I'd ever seen. Sandy Archer and Kay Hayward. To this day, still two of the most beautiful women I've ever seen. I said, that's where I want to practice my radical politics. So I joined the Mime Troupe, and they couldn't use me enough.

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 horses-. 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 judgments 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.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, I went to Washington with about 12 guys from Grinnell College and picketed the White House. We wore suits and ties and supported Kennedy's Peace Race. And Kennedy saw this and invited us into the White House. It was first time in the history of the White House. He was in Phoenix, so we met with (National Security Adviser ) McGeorge Bundy, and this made headlines all across the country. And I remember going in there thinking, Oh, if I just explained to McGeorge Bundy about Vietnam. And I looked in that guy's lizard-like eyes and realized, this guy has agendas in playing out tableaux that I never considered. And if there's one thing I know for sure, it's that he's not going to pay any attention to a kid walking the street with a sign. I realized then and there I was not going to limit my effectiveness to that. I wanted a new life. People walkin' the streets with a sign want to venture an opinion. We wanted to open the choices of how we could live our lives without being employees our consumers.

The Grateful Dead sent me and Kesey's people and a couple of Hells Angels and a couple more Diggers to London to see the Beatles and check them out, to see if they were as socially progressive as they were musically progressive. Which they weren't at the time. We set up a big apartment as a 24-hour a day crash pad in London, and hipsters came in from all over Europe to meet with us and swap ideas. You know, Bob Dylan once said it was time when you'd drive 1000 miles for a good conversation. And it was true.

I thought the Summer of Love was horses--. We thought the Summer of Love, just like Be-In, was basically a campaign by the Haight Independent Proprietors, called HIP -- it was a merchants association -- to brand the Haight-Ashbury with a national consciousness. But there are unintended consequences. The unintended consequence of the Be-In was that it was fabulous to see 35,000 together, to get a sense of the scale. But the genesis, though, was that these guys were trying to create a national consciousness so that people would buy their hash pipes and clothes and what have you. So I just wasn't interested in it. I didn't care. What happened was, the media started hammering this weird stuff going on in San Francisco. All they'd have to do is send a photograph of a couple of kids sittin' in a doorway, smokin' a cigarette, kids obviously living free, unsupervised lives, and that went out all over the AP, and kids all over the country saw that and said, "That looks OK to me. I'm down with that.'' Two things started happening: The city of San Francisco started using the Haight-Ashbury as a kind of tourist destination -- come and see what's going on here -- and at the same time they were absolving themselves of any responsibility for caring for these people. So the Diggers jumped into that chasm and said, "Oh well, we gotta feed these people. We gotta get some doctors, we gotta get some crash pads,'' to basically demonstrate that autonomous people could do anything, that the city's excuses were bulls--. We were feeding 600 people a day. We were just a bunch of ragged-ass hippies. We just began and used the free food, and the Free Frame of Reference, as ways to engender this dialogue about the stuff that's on the planet and who owns it.

Technically, there's the machinery to create a television set for every man, woman and child on the planet. If you don't have a television set it means you don't have the money. It's the money that's scarce, not the televisions. Money becomes a way of creating scarcity, creating a valve between people and the stuff that they need. And it's as true today as it ever was. So we just wanted to spread that news, and create events that would do that.

These kids came pouring in and they overwhelmed the neighborhood. And at a certain point, the core Diggers said, It's not my highest aspiration to run a soup kitchen. This thing's gotta take another turn. We have to begin to look at a viable economy. What would an alternate economy look like? We were trying to build a counterculture. In retrospect, we didn't understand that a counterculture would condemn us to marginality. Because there were a lot of people who wanted a fair break on their money and their taxes and wanted to work an eight-hour day, but they didn't really want to grow their hair long or smoke dope. America wasn't such a bad deal for them. And they would never listen to us because of our personal style, and personal habit. So today, if I were going to make a radical magazine, I'd make it look like Time. I'd never have a marijuana leaf on it. We didn't get that at the time. We thought we could build an alternative society and people would abandon the mother ship in droves. So we moved out of the Haight and created a series of land-based communes all over the place. And we tried to create independent economies between them, and learn skills. But it was a tall order to create a total culture, and we were neither psychological prepared nor skillful enough to do that. And the arrival and subsequent growth of children created inevitable pressures to kind of sunder unrealistic dreams. You had to really take care of business. And the Diggers basically had no rules. So if mom's getting up at five in the morning to breast feed, it no longer to works for Tom-Tom Eddy to be drinking red wine and playin' his drum at four in the morning.

I had a commune in Olema. I went to Black Bear (commune) a lot. We did food runs. We were interdependent. Then we go evicted from Olema, and then we went on a caravan, 30 of us went on a truck caravan across the country, visiting other communes and making a trade route, finding out what they needed, what they had in surplus, spreading that information around, making a self-conscious circuit. During that period my dad died, and I moved back East to the family farm, in Delaware Water Gap, and then a bunch of fellow commune-ites joined me. We were there until that land was sold out from under us, but by then, the group solidarity had frazzled. There were too many internal contradictions, not the least of which was the fact that we didn't have a very good vocabulary for dealing with social issues, and inter-personal issues. We were supposed to be heroes, you know, and a hero is not supposed to get jealous because somebody is f-- your old lady, or upset because somebody has left the sink a greasepit. The day-to-day, quotidian stresses and tensions -- exacerbated by having 20 people in a one family house. That wore thin.

If you look at all the political agendas of the 1960s, they basically failed. We didn't end capitalism, we didn't end imperialism, we didn't end racism. Yeah, the war ended. But if you look at the cultural agendas, they all worked. There's no place in the United States you can go today where you can't find organic food, alternative medical practices, alternative spiritual practices, women's issues and groups, environmental issues and groups. All those things got injected into the culture on a very deep level. My feeling is, and my hope is, that those things will eventually change the politics. The politics, obviously, are influenced by huge historical forces and a lot of base human impulses.

I never abandoned the principles I operated on in the '60s. I still think that smaller, localized, decentralized political institutions are more workable. I certainly think we can live more collectively, that our social system can operate more cooperatively instead of competitively, and it may just be that global warming is going to force us to do that. I would say that period changed me from a kind of bourgeois liberal white man into a human being, who is much more comfortable living like most people in the history the world have lived -- relatively tribally and cooperatively and with a sense of reverence for what's around you, an appreciation for the existence of, you know, even a caterpillar. I'm a Buddhist. I was ordained two weeks ago, but I've been practicing for 32 years.


[Published in the 5/20/07 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle]

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