“We had a far more profound effect on society than we really understood, and some of us paid for that”: An epic conversation with JANE LAPINER and DAVID SIMPSON of the San Francisco Diggers

In 2010, I drove to northern California from my home in Joshua Tree to interview as many living Diggers as would talk to me. Each conversation over those few days felt like a breakthrough—a motherlode of historical detail and insight beyond what I had gleaned from book research. And each Digger I interviewed was excited to learn that I was headed to Humboldt County to interview Jane Lapiner and David Simpson at their forest home. This couple, together since April, 1967, was beloved by other Diggers. If I was interviewing them, it meant that I was really doing my work. Instant Diggers cred.

In 2022, the Diggers are little-known. But in 1966-8, such was the Diggers’ presence and notoriety that seemingly every reporter filing a story on the Haight included the Diggers in their account. “A band of hippie do-gooders,” said Time magazine. “A true peace corps,” wrote local daily newspaper columnist (and future Rolling Stone editor) Ralph J. Gleason. The Beatles’ press officer Derek Taylor would later write, “[The Diggers] were in my opinion the core of the whole underground counterculture because they were our conscience.”

Jane Lapiner and David Simpson were in their mid-20s during the Diggers period. Jane was a single mother from New York City with a background in leftist, avant garde dance; David was a Chicago-bred lefty dropout from the University of Wisconsin, who’d been a competitive boxer in high school, shared a house with pre-stardom Steve Miller and Boz Scaggs, served in the Coast Guard and was trimming trees in the East Bay when… But hold on, I’m telling their stories, instead of letting these award-winning storytellers tell it themselves. 

What follows is a consolidation of conversations the three of us had one night and the next morning inside their farmhouse home, warmed by a wood stove and good food. I am grateful for their hospitality, and the life-example they continue to set (for example, see: “Judge Dismisses Case Against Four Septuagenarian Rainbow Ridge Activists, North Coast Journal, Dec. 15, 2020). There are some ‘60s people who went back to the land and didn’t fail. Jane and David are those people. 

David Simpson and Jane Lapiner at home, 2010. Photo by Bob Doran for North County Journal

Please note that this conversation has not been edited down for a general audience. Many incidents and personages are spoken of without context, or only in passing. My advice to the casual-but-curious reader is to simply let any unfamiliar/unexplained bits pass. Keep reading, you’ll like the next part. You’ll see why these two are so beloved.

This is the ninth interview in my series of Diggers’ oral histories; the others are accessible here. For more information on the Diggers, consult Eric Noble’s vast archive at diggers.org  

I have incurred not insignificant expenses in my Diggers research through the years. If you would like to support my work, please drop a nickel or more in my TipJar. All donations, regardless of size, are greatly appreciated. Thank you!

— Jay Babcock (babcock.jay@gmail.com), March 5, 2022

Jay Babcock: Jane, where did you grow up?

Jane Lapiner: I grew up in New York City. My mother was a schoolteacher and my father was a philatelist—a stamp dealer. They were left-wing progressives. I never found out if they were card-carrying Communists or not. Jewish. I had an older brother, who died in 1974. 

We lived in Queens,  in a neighborhood called Sunnyside, on 49th Street. From age 5 on, I was a dancer. When I was 8 years old, my mother said if you want to continue dancing, you’re gonna have to go yourself. And that was to Manhattan, to dance class every Saturday. Which, well, I would not send my eight-year-old on a subway these days, but… [laughs]  I continued with that, I went to the High School of the Performing Arts, and then to Bennington College, also for dance. 

David Simpson: Jane has a long history of dance. Extensive training, long history in dance that related to progressive causes and populist sentiments, as well as kind of a classical aesthetic—Jane’s a keen disciplinarian when it comes to directing and choreography.  She worked with a company called the New Dance Group, which was kind of leftist, populist… They believed in a theater of content, a theater that expressed the heart and will of the people. An advanced group. 

Jane: The New Dance Group was quite amazing. They came out of the Martha Graham Dance Company, which I grew up watching. They were kind of there in modern dance history. There were three people that ran it: Sophie Maslow, Jane Dudley and Bill Bales. 

How did you end up in the [San Francisco] Mime Troupe?

Jane: I came to Berkeley in 1961, with my oldest daughter and her father, who had a T.A. job at the university.  And the way I got involved with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, which was where David and I met, was through Judy Goldhaft. We were both working at Jenny Hunter’s dance studio in San Francisco, and she was teaching a mime class and I was teaching a dance class. We were taking each other’s classes, and she was already involved with Ronnie Davis and she brought me over to it.  

Jane (center) and Judy Goldhaft at dance class, probably 1967. Photo by Chuck Gould.

Judy was also over here with her first husband—

Jane: Karl. He was an artist. He was the first one to bring marbleized cloth into the scene. Judy did a piece with the Mime Troupe that I was in, and Sandy Archer, the three of us. It was a piece that was really kind of ahead of its time, about the exploitation of women in fashion. And Karl designed these marbleized hip-hugger bellbottoms. So Judy and I knew each other before we knew [future husbands] Peter [Berg] and David. 

So I joined the Mime Troupe. I was more a dance mistress — I taught them— than being a performer in the shows. Judy danced with me in quite a few pieces before the Summer of Love, which was kind of the pinnacle of our time in the Mime Troupe, and then afterwards too. 

David and I are two big city people. David was born in Chicago, but they moved very quickly to Atlanta, Georgia, where he lived until he was 7. And then they moved back to Chicago. His mother was a housewife, and his father was a shoe salesman. He had one brother, like me. 

David, how did you get to the Bay Area?

David: I was at the University of Wisconsin, which was a great place. I went through a transformation there. In the late ‘50s/early ‘60s it was seething with the spirit of something new, very progressive. A lot of very bohemian people and experimentally schooled. I was majoring in history. A guy named Martin Sklar was there, he’d started a magazine called Studies on the Left, which went for a number of years, it was a leading radical paper.  

I got involved in the Civil Rights movement early on. And, they had an ROTC requirement at Wisconsin. It was a no-credit course, but you had to take four semesters to graduate. I did the first semester and barely passed. But then somewhere in my time at the University of Wisconsin, they made it voluntary. I thought, Oh great, I don’t have to worry about that anymore. So when it came just about time to graduate, I’d completed all my degree requirements… Turned out that because when I had started it was mandatory, I was grandfathered in, I had to do four semesters, and I only had one semester complete. Now, in order for me to graduate, not only did they want me to complete that before they gave me a degree, but it had to be—

Jane: One semester at a time.

David: Three consecutive semesters. They wanted me to go to school for three more semesters. And I was 22, 23 years old at the time, and I was not about to go back to school. 

Jane: Well, not for that.

David: So I finished the semester, but y’know, I basically dropped out. Which made me very eligible for the draft. I had a little leeway because of the summer, but I knew sometime in the fall I’d get a draft notice. This was the summer of ’63.

At that point, a  friend, Harvey Kornspan, and I each rented a studio apartment across from each other in a house. I had a job at the University bookstore, and I was also a bartender. But our major source of income was we were running a Saturday night crap game for the gambling crowd in Madison, such as it was. We did alright, but meanwhile, in the middle of the summer, two brash 18-year-old rock musicians from Texas moved in downstairs and started playing a lot of loud rock n roll music. At the time I wasn’t too fond of their music, but anyways, both of us befriended them. Harvey was closer to them than I was. They were Steve Miller and Boz Scaggs. So. This plays out later in San Francisco.

Because I could not graduate from the University of Wisconsin, and even if I had, I was extremely eligible for the draft, I was trying to figure out what to do. A friend of mine told me about a Coast Guard Reserve program in Madison. They actually had a Coast Guard unit in Madison, because of the three Big Lakes there. I applied and was accepted into the Coast Guard Reserve and was ordered to report to the Alameda estuary in the San Francisco Bay for my basic training. I was really glad to join the Coast Guard because, in principle, it didn’t have a wartime function. It had a peacetime function. It was not entirely an entity concerned with war. So that was pleasant to me. This was 1963, 1964 — it was a bit too early to worry about being shipped to Vietnam. 

So that’s how I got to San Francisco. I took basically a long, six-week fishing trip to get there. I was an ardent fisherman. Meanwhile, sometime in that winter, Harvey moved to San Francisco too, and had an apartment in a nondescript neighborhood. Sacramento Street. And he wrote back to Steve Miller, Hey there’s a music scene here you should see. You gotta come out. And Steve Miller came out and he started a band right away, right there. Then Harvey, the next step, was to convince Boz Scaggs to come back from Sweden where he was living, largely as an expatriate. Probably a draft-dodger. He did. Somehow they both avoided the draft. Harvey became their first business manager. He had the distinction of negotiating the first record contract for any of the big San Francisco rock bands, with Capitol Records. I wish it hadn’t been. I wish it had been the Dead, or Jefferson Airplane, but they all did well. Steve Miller was not a sympathetic character. Although there was a time when things were so happy, and so high, that Steve Miller became a nice guy—temporarily. 

Anyways, I came to San Francisco with the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard believed in basic training. And after 15 weeks of being cooped on an island, and not seeing a female, we got liberty. A couple of the guys I went to boot camp with were from the Bay Area and they took to me the Berkeley campus. It was late January. It was a blustery day but it was sunny and in the 60s: exquisite day for winter. There were a lot of scantily dressed beautiful young women. And I decided that I should get my degree. So I went back to school. I got out of the Coast Guard. I actually was sent to Alaska on the Bering Sea patrol. All of my buddies from boot camp, they were all signed to a training run to Hawaii. It was kind of an easy assignment.  But I had somehow offended the athletic director at Government Island, the Coast Guard athletic director, who was a big guy. I used to be a boxer. What little spare time I had, I worked out at the gym, and he had really wanted me to be on the boxing team. When I was graduating from boot camp, he said, We really want you on the team, Simpson. I can’t make you of course but I’d really be disappointed if you don’t do it. And I said, You know I’m in the Coast Guard, I’m in a reserve program, I’m out pretty quick. Next thing I know I was the only one in my company who got orders to go to the Bering Sea patrol in the middle of winter. But it turned out really well even though it was a stern experience. A colossal experience, being in the North Pacific in the middle of winter. 

So I wandered into Berkeley just as the Free Speech Movement was starting. Late summer, early fall of ’64. It was very, very impactful because I had been involved in the Civil Rights movement in Wisconsin, I was active in somewhat radical politics, and counted amongst my friends a lot of people who were also active. And then all of a sudden, here was the Free Speech Movement, which was… It was basically us, who were perceived in this instance as having our rights betrayed. I made a number of friends then, with whom I’m still friendly—mostly graduate students in the political science department. The Free Speech Movement was almost synonymous with the beginning of the movement against the war in Vietnam. I remember in the spring of ’65, when the Free Speech Movement had not yet become quiescent, Norman Mailer made a speech on the Berkeley campus about Vietnam. It was one of the first anti-Vietnam speeches I had heard. We were all aware of it. 

The Free Speech Movement had a big impact on me. I was trying to be a scholar. I was trying to finish college. I was into my studies at that time. For once in my life I was trying to be a serious student. I wrote a couple extensive papers and even gave half a thought to going to graduate school. It was quickly dispelled after I spent a little time around the English department at Berkeley. There’s no combination of human beings capable of more pettiness and backbiting than at an English department at a major American university, at least in those days. 

Instead of becoming a graduate student I got a job as a treeclimber for a tree-trimming outfit in the East Bay, and spent a few months climbing trees, which was great. And then I would climb down out of the trees and raid the Berkeley campus for company. 

Jane: Chicks.

David: Somewhere in there I’d gone back to Chicago on a long trip. On my way back to the Bay Area, I was driving this beat-up old car that regularly overheated, especially in the summertime in the flat, hot Iowa cornfields. I remember getting into central Nebraska, and the land started to…roll. It wasn’t flat anymore. I stopped and I walked up a hill. There was a live oak tree on a hill and I walked up to it and sat under it, caressed by the cool breezes. And I realized that I was not a Midwesterner anymore. I was not going back to the Midwest. I had no desire to. 

So when I got back to the Bay Area it was knowing that that’s where I belonged. And shortly after that I got an offer to audition for a show for the San Francisco Mime Troupe. It was called A Minstrel Show

How did you get that offer?

David: I had a roommate at the time, an old Coast Guard buddy, who was a deputy district attorney in Contra Costa County, and later became a well-regarded judge in the Bay Area, Dick Hodge. He had a girlfriend named Jeanie Milligan, she was a photographer and did a lot of work with and for the Mime Troupe. So she heard about this show and she said, Go audition. And I did, and I got the job.

Did you have any acting experience?

David: No, not really. Not any more than anybody else.

You were sympathetic to the Troupe’s—

David: Yeah for sure, it was a radical theater company. The group impressed me even more. Fascinating group of people. 

Had you seen them perform before you auditioned?

David: I don’t remember. If I had seen them perform, it was the show that I was in. I was replacing Peter Coyote. He was dropping out, to become the director. Cuz Ronnie Davis was putting together a new show, and he didn’t want to direct the show anymore. So he asked Peter if he’d do that, and I was hired to fill the spot that Peter abandoned, had left in order to be the director. It’s called “A Minstrel Show: Civil Rights in a Cracker Barrel.” It was co-authored by R.G. Davis and Saul Landau, who was a fairly well known leftist intellectual, who I knew from Wisconsin. He was one of the New Studies on the Left people. This big Left family is quite interesting I think. The genealogy. If one would do a family tree, it would be very interesting. People used to identify this particular phenomenon as “Jewish Geography,” just how interconnected we all were. 

You’re Jewish?

David: I was born Jewish, yeah. I’m still, culturally, I am. So, anyway I was in that show rather briefly. For a while I was doing publicity for the Mime Troupe, which was a lot of fun. It gave me a pretext to go out on the street. If there were any performers around the office, I’d grab them and say, Hey wanna do something fun? We’re going down to North Beach, doing publicity for whatever shows we’re doing. Really we just used it as an excuse to do outrageous things in the streets. Some of them were quite funny, some of them were silly. We were going out and doing what now are called street actions. We were doing our own informal street theater.

Jane: We went out in costumes.

David: We’d make up a little scenario. But the relationship between our pieces and the publicity intention were a little stretched. 

Jane: Sometimes David would write press releases. ‘Wonderful, fabulous show—everybody must see” and underneath it’d be, “— David Simpson.” [laughter]

David: It’s true. These publicity gigs were interesting, because we had just started talking about the theater of the street. In the abstract it was actually—San Francisco at the time was so glorious, you could go out and just have a laugh… The first several months that Jane and I were together, we’d just take acid and go out in the city and do stuff, engage with people at outrageous levels. People would be there, ready to do it. Absolutely positive spirits. A gay old time, you know? 

Jane: Things you could never get away with now. You’d be arrested so quickly.

David: I did a thing once. It was just before Jane and I got together. I was living in an apartment on Shrader Street right around the corner from Haight, and there was a café, coffee shop, kind of the prototypical, it wasn’t quite a modern coffee shop, but it was kind of like it. Poetry reading. It was called the I/Thou Café. I used to go there to get my cigarettes. I smoked Camels, and I went up to the machine and put my quarter in, that’s about what they cost then, and I pulled the thing and nothing happened. I kept pulling it and pulling it, put another quarter in, nothing happened. So I went to the guy behind the counter, said Hey I put 50 cents in this machine, I haven’t gotten anything out, can you help me out? He said, Hey I’m sorry I’ve got nothing to do with it. We got a guy who comes once a week and services it, takes the money, puts in the new, they run it, they pay us a little money to keep it in here, I have nothing to do with it. You have nothing to do with it? You’re sure? That’s right, nothing to do with it. So I went home, I went right around the corner and I got a tire iron that Dick Hodge, the deputy D. A. had given me. It was evidence in some case. Some heist. I took the tire iron, and I went back to the store and I unplugged the thing—it had lights on it—and I dragged it out into the street. Right in to Haight Street. Middle of the day. Just destroyed it with the tire iron. Actually I didn’t destroy it, I just pried it open, took a package of cigarettes and walked out, leaving it shattered and broken on the sidewalk. And the guy behind the counter was like [makes face], and I said, Remember, you don’t have anything to do with it. 

That was the kind of thing you did. You always felt pissed off at machines that didn’t work. 

Were you on acid when you did that?

David: I don’t think so. Anyway, Haight Street was just sheer fun. Until the Summer of Love. 

When did you guys meet each other?

David: We kind of walked around each other for a year. And this might not have been the night, but… Well, there had been a certain feeling amongst some of the Mime Troupe performers that Ronnie and his partner at the time, Sandy Archer, who was a brilliant performer, were becoming too commercial. Which was a joke. There was no way Ronnie Davis was gonna become too commercial. Any purveyor of commercial idea would be treated with abrupt, absolute rudeness by Ronnie Davis. But anyway, I was sitting near them. There were four desks in the Mime Troupe office. Sandy Archer’s, Ronnie Davis’s, Bob Slattery who was the business manager, had also been the interlocutor in the Minstrel Show. And me, publicity manager. Emmett Grogan came in and said, Say, I opened this beer and I don’t really want it, you want to drink it? I said, Sure. I drank the beer and about 10-15 minutes later, all of a sudden I’m hearing Ronnie and Sandy and Bob talking. Everything’s kind of crystallized. All I hear is: Five hundred dollars, and not a penny less! No no, if we don’t get five hundred and fifty, I’m not going to do the show! And they were yelling back and forth, and I’m sitting there, sinking deep into some kind of trance, not knowing what’s happening to me. So I get up, I walked out aside, I ran into another Mime Troupe person, Paula, who I thought was a hanger-on, a straight chick with an office job who kind of wanted to be around artists. I said, Paula are you heading home? I need a ride. And she said, Yeah sure. She’s about 4 foot 10. She got into this huge car, she could barely see over the wheel, she’s popping her gum. I say Paula, something strange is going on. I’m feeling… weird. I can see colors that I never see, and my fingers… And she says, Well does it feel good? I say, Not bad. She says, Well dig it, boobie! 

Jane: That wasn’t your first acid trip, was it…?

David: No, not by a long shot. But it was my first surprise acid trip. 

Jane: Maybe your only surprise acid trip. [laughter]

David: Maybe. So I got home. And I think that was the night of the party.  We had a party, a big party at Shrader Street. And, Jane showed up. And we had a scene in the hallway. Talk about street theater. There was a buddy of mine, a poet, and he and I did constant, ongoing comedy routines, to see who could make Jane laugh the longest. And I won. Two weeks later we moved into a new apartment together, on Belvedere.

Jane: How sexist was that! That was mid-April, 1967, because two weeks later, David had had plans to move into an apartment with some old friends of his on May 1, on the corner of Belvedere and Haight Street.

David: They’d lived in Berkeley and they wanted to be part of the scene.

Jane: She was pregnant, about to have a baby. I had Gabby, who was 4 and a half, something like that. And she also had two young boys. And, my apartment was such a crashpad. Even though, I never felt afraid or anything, it didn’t seem quite right to have my little 4 ½-year-old daughter waking up every morning with different people sleeping on her floor. And so I moved in with David. 

David: That was the start. She used me mercilessly. [laughter] But I must say, we had a great time. 

Jane, how long had you been living in that communal setting?

Jane: This condensed time… It was probably only a couple of months at most. I remember I painted the room pink and purple for Gabby, and I had these beautiful photos that this man had taken of street kids. It was probably a couple of months, I don’t remember. Me and Gabby and another woman named Charlotte Todd. 

How did it become a crashpad?

Jane: Word got out. I don’t know exactly, except that it was one of the Digger places. Somebody would tell somebody, Oh you need a place to stay, go to such-and-such-an-address, and they would just come. I didn’t invite them, and I didn’t necessarily put the word out. But they just would be there when I woke up in the morning. 

The door was always unlocked, that kind of thing?

Jane: The door was always unlocked. Isn’t that weird? The door was always unlocked — in San Francisco! In a big city! That’s amazing. People came to sleep. That’s pretty outrageous, really. Strangers came, and no problem, ever.

Jane rolls up her sleeves, probably 1967. Photo by Chuck Gould.

Judy was also saying something like this, that outrageous things happened at Diggers event but somehow no one was ever injured. That it was blessed.

Jane: It was, it was. We were waking up every morning with 8 or 10 or 12 people sleeping on our floor. It was just a known crashpad. These people didn’t have any place to sleep, y’know? But it was amazing, because one didn’t feel danger at all. It really didn’t feel dangerous, at that point, to have people who I didn’t know waking up on my floor. One time we woke up with [rooster sound]. Kent [Minault] and some other people were slaughtering chickens in our back room.

David: We had a phone on Clayton Street, where we lived in the basement apartment. My friends Vincent and Linda were in the apartment above us. Janis Joplin and Jim Gurley lived above us, but Linda and Vincent moved to L.A., to do theater. They abandoned their apartment. I don’t know why we got into this arrangement, but we had the phone in their apartment, and when they left, nobody informed the phone company. All I know is the bill was in a name I had chosen, and word got out that there was a free phone on Clayton Street. The last phone bill I got was for like $2,800. [chuckles] 

It was all part of a tremendous sense of openness that we all had.  We were providing food on an incredible scale, you know. A pot of soup or stew every night, a huge pot in a milk container.

Jane: It was an amazing institution. It went on every day. Free soup in the park. For what? A year, or two years, something like that.

David:  For three years, there were free meals every night in the park. [The event kept going after] We stopped making them! Anybody I knew had stopped making them long ago. It was the idea, the ideas were good enough and the basic concept that everything was free — if somebody wanted to take responsibility for it, we’d say, Go for it. In [late] ’67 we weren’t doing the food scene anymore, other people were. And there was the Free Clinic…

It’s such a blur, man, what followed what, what came first. A lot of the Diggers effort in early 1967 was to dissuade, to push back against the tide of the Summer of Love. Because it was clear that a disaster was brewing, and that these guys like the Haight Independent Proprietors, and Timothy Leary was a pain in the ass, and you can quote me on that. ‘Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out” sounded great, and it was stirring on a certain level, but “and come to San Francisco”—that was the next, unsaid phrase—was extremely dangerous. It was a revolutionary time, kids were ready to run away from home at the drop of a hat. And all of a sudden we gave them a place to go: San Francisco. 

So we predicted, rightly so, and we weren’t alone in it of course, that tens if not indeed hundreds of thousands of young people were going to come here. They’d heard Timothy Leary saying Turn On, Tune In and Drop Out. And Allen Ginsberg and Lenore Kandel, and Gary Snyder, all people who knew better, saying Come to San Francisco, you know? San Francisco was not ready. It couldn’t have been ready. It didn’t want to be ready for an influx of that level. And there was going to be problems. There was going to be huge housing problems, there was going to be food problems, food shortages, there was going to be young people who didn’t know how to take care of themselves, many from small towns who knew nothing about a big city, suddenly thrown upon the untender mercies of San Francisco, which you know, for all its beauty and repute, was a big dirty American city, complete with its own nasty, well I wouldn’t say nasty police force, but a lot of tough cops. Very traditionalist police force. And its share of predators, predatory people, its share of ghettos and dysfunctional neighborhoods. It was a dangerous thing to do and we stood against it.  

I remember being in a meeting with the Haight Independent Proprietors and Emmett. It was clear what was happening. All we could do was make them feel as badly as possible. And then we mounted the “1% Free” campaign. That was a direct response to the Haight Independent Proprietors’ “Summer of Love” deal. We said, Okay you guys want to summon all these people here, who you’re obviously gonna profit from, so who’s going to provide anything resembling an infrastructure to support these people? Who’s gonna tell them where the VD clinic is? Who’s gonna tell them when they come down with some infectious disease how to deal with it? 

So we created the image of “1% Free.” It was Peter Berg’s idea, I’m sure, the image was—the slightly menacing Tong guys. That picture was taken right after the San Francisco earthquake. All the opium dens were destroyed, so these guys were just trying to stay cool, waiting for the next fix. So we said, If you guys want to do this and profit from it, we want a share of the profits, 1% of your gross revenues, free to utilize to provide some of the infrastructure you’re not. And of course by that time there was this loose-knit, always changing unwritten map of crashpads. Then there was the free store. And the free meals in the park was the signature effort of the Diggers.

Okay. Backing up. You and Jane got together in April 1967…

David: That gives you a sense of how compressed things are. It sounds like there’s years and years of experiences…

Jane: Those two or three years were so compressed—

David: We weren’t even together for the Human Be-In! 

Jane: That’s right, we weren’t. 

David: Where were you all my life? [laughter]

David, you joined the Mime Troupe in—

David: Early ’66. Maybe it was even ’65. I can’t remember now. Inkspot was the name of the role. The Minstrel Show, there was some really interesting aspects of it: We’re all in blackface, six minstrels in blackface, in sky-blue spangled tuxedoes. And, during the intermission, we played a recording of the Black Muslim song, A White Man’s Heaven Is a Black Man’s Hell. And we the minstrels were expected to go out into the audience and grab the fairest, blondest chick there and bring her onstage and dance with her. The whiter the better, y’know? And there was kind of a hidden context because we never could afford, the Mime Troupe could never afford housing, so if you didn’t want to sleep on the dressing room floor, you tried to make your selection functional. Which, sometimes you did and sometimes you didn’t. 

Jane: At the curtain call, they took off their white gloves, and showed who was black and who was white.

David: We put up our hands. Three blacks and three whites.

Jane: They wore blackface, thoroughly. 

David: The Minstrel Show, it was hilarious.

Jane: It was a really brilliant show. It was amazing. I remember sitting in the audience, hoping nobody asked me to dance! [laughter]  

David: Hustling for chicks. That was an example of how with the Mime Troupe…. That was to illustrate how thin the line was between what was on stage and what was in the world.  

You met Peter Berg inside the Mime Troupe? He was doing Center Man and Search and Seizure.

David: Right. He was working on both those shows. But you know, Peter was a mystery to me at the time, because I couldn’t understand what the fuck he was writing about. Peter was always a brilliant guy, and he had a poetic flair that was totally original. We used to call him Computer Head. This was before personal computers. I thought of him as a far-out guy. It wasn’t until we started doing street theater together, and doing Diggers things on the streets, that our relationship kicked in. His writing was interesting, but for me it didn’t catch fire until it started moving into the planet, when he wrote Planet Edge. The evolution from the Mime Troupe through the Diggers through what we called the Free Family and ultimately into bioregionalism is a really interesting trajectory… What was the glue, what was the core that flowed through them? It’s interesting to speculate, how the rationale for one merged into the reality of the other. 

Jane: Judy and I had a relationship, so that kind of pulled you and Peter together. 

David: Once I was together with Jane, I think Judy and Jane’s relationship was a major force. But you know, at that time, we were doing stuff together. We started doing stuff, and some of the stuff we did with the Diggers—talk about theatre! We talked about “life acting” and the things we did were…they were greatly melodramatic and vainglorious. One time I asked Bill Fritsch what moved him. What mobilized you, what really was at the core that moved you. And he said, ‘Vainglory.’ [chuckles] And he was, man. He lived it out. 

How about Emmett?

David: Well, Emmett was a Mime Troupe actor, but I never saw him in a show. But he was there. Cocky Irish street kid, from New York.

Jane: I think Billy [Murcott] and Emmett must have known each other from New York.

David: Yeah they knew each other from New York City. I think it was the Bronx. 

Jane: I guess I met them before you. Charlotte Todd and Gabby and I took over an apartment that Peter Coyote had been in. I don’t remember where he went. And I knew Emmett and Billy then.

David: We knew a lot of people before we knew each other. [laughter]

Jane: I guess they all of a sudden came up with this, I don’t remember exactly, they wrote something about being anonymous, about the Diggers and everyone was a Digger.

David: The original Digger Papers were street sheets. There was one called “take a cop to dinner, cop a take”—that might have been the first one. 

Jane: Yeah, that might have been it.

David: But all of a sudden Emmett and Billy started coming up with these papers. Mysterious. We knew they were doing it, and it was nothing like a comprehensive philosophy of course, thank God, cuz that would have been totally unwanted at the time. But all of these little pieces of paper, these little flashes of arrogant wisdom, popped up in the city under the name The Diggers, Signed, the Diggers. And the philosophy ultimately emerged from some of those papers.

Jane: And that was Billy and Emmett! And they would deny that they had written them. Emmett’s concept was anonymity. Everybody was anonymous—

David: There were no leaders. Billy Fritsch used to say, All my heroes are alive. 

[shuffling papers] A lot of these Communication Company papers I just don’t remember at all. 

Jane: Anything that was signed ‘The Diggers’ I think was probably Emmett’s. [reading] “Suckers buy what lovers get free.” [chuckles]

David: And there was a lot of derivative stuff, especially when the Communication Company got started. It’s a little hard for me to know what is Emmett and Billy, and what is Chester, or whoever.  [Laughs] I’m assuming that a good many of these are Claude and Chester. I wasn’t active with the press during the heart of the Communication Company, I wasn’t really active with the Communication Company until we got the Gestetners. See, Chester and Claude came in after the fact, and they didn’t have the information. They were not the purveyors of the Diggers perspective, so a lot of the stuff, I wouldn’t say was dictated to them, but other people suggested, and they transcribed, or they put it on paper.  I hung out a fair amount with Claude and Chester. We did some funny things together.

Who were these guys?

David: Chester Anderson, bless his soul, was a writer and character around San Francisco. I don’t remember much about his past. Chester was partners with Claude Hayward. Claude Hayward was a junior editor at Ramparts magazine. 

Jane: He was very smart. 

David: Chester and Hayward went to this company called Gestetner, which was a state-of-the-art glorified mimeograph machine. You got a stencil cutter with it. You didn’t have to but you wanted it. A stencil cutter with it they would cut some very detailed intricate stuff, far more than mimeograph machines ever—

Jane: And you could layer colors. 

David: Gestetner was a big German firm, very corporate outfit. And they bought one, they put a down payment on one. Whatever credibility they had, Claude had a real job and Chester had some repute, I don’t know what. 

He’d been writing science fiction paperback books.

David: He had some creds. And then they started doing these street sheets. Communications Company. They rapidly formed a partnership with the Diggers, doing the Digger Papers, an inseparable partnership after a while. And, never made a payment on the machines. And Gestetner wanted them back. Word got out that Gestetner was looking for them. And then they fell into our hands. The San Francisco Mime Troupe was at a loft, was it 925 Howard Street, a couple blocks below San Francisco and just off Fifth. It was a big loft. The Mime Troupe had its offices and then they had a studio, and then there was another set of offices next to it that SDS used until they went underground. And they’d just gone underground when we got the Gestetner machines. So we moved into their offices, never making a deal for rent of course.

Jane: “We” was you, I believe. [laughter]

David: It was me. I set ‘em up, and then Emmett and Billy and Peter, everybody started coming by and we started printing up these… We improved the quality of the graphics. Freeman and I did a daily thing called the Free News. Not a daily thing, but as often as we had a good idea. And we’d run around town… [chuckles] A speedfreak friend of ours, a total speedfreak artist—the guy who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. Tall, redheaded guy. [His name was Ama.] Anyway, he painted these, we made 20 of these plywood newsboxes and we put them along the major news. There would be all these [dull mainstream newspaper] boxes and then this very funky, beautiful box. Unfortunately they got stolen really rapidly. 

David creating Free News in the Willard Street basement, probably 1968. Photo by Chuck Gould.
One side of one edition of the Free News. For more, see diggers.org

Jane: Too bad we don’t still have one of those.

David: We’d stay up all night printing something and then we’d run out and stick it—actually, that came a little later, after the machines had been moved to Willard Street, which we called the Psychedelic Whorehouse. We’d run out and fill these little boxes with these radical little sheets, some of them were quite funny. Somebody gave us a picture of Rudolph Nureyev with an erection. I don’t know where they got it. Immediately there was a thousand of them floating around, with some inscription under it. 

What happened to Chester and Claude’s machine?

David: Well we had it for several months at the SDS office. We printed the Free Newses, not the free small one-page thing, we printed a couple of these beautiful compilations of these. Like this piece here was done by a woman named Pam Parker, a socialite. She came into the office and she had this thing already done. She’d put it together. And she said, Here’s my poem. Will it make the grade?

I did a thing with Claude once. A New York Times reporter had called Ramparts and asked if they would help introduce him to a few people in the scene. They wanted to find out what was happening in the hippie scene, wanted to report on it. They turned him over to Claude Hayward, who obviously knew the scene, and Claude asked me if I’d help put him on. Let’s put him on. Not give him an inkling of what’s going on. So I was waiting outside the Ramparts office down on Broadway with a headband on, with a stuffed bird hanging from the headband, swinging in front of my face like this, with my ancient sawed off ten-gauge shotgun. I had this shotgun, somebody had given me. Now, today if you stood on Broadway with a shotgun and an Indian headband, you’d probably get shot. Somebody would scream and yell. All of a sudden, there’d be police. In those days, it just didn’t happen that way. So I was standing there waiting while the guy came out of the office with Claude, they were laughing, he was a nice middle-aged Jewish guy. I liked him. And he’s coming out of the office, they’re laughing, schmoozing together, and all of a sudden, he sees me, and he goes stark quiet. Claude goes Um Jim, or whatever his name was, This is Bird. He comes up, says, Uh hello Bird. I didn’t say anything. And then we got into the car. I was the driver. And we got into the car and he kept trying to question me. I just kept looking at him hostilely. Shades on too. Just kept looking at him. Finally we got him to an apartment, I don’t remember if it was Claude or Helene’s. It was a big apartment on the other side of the Panhandle, away from the Haight. We had a series of things set up. A woman named Cassandra, who was in and out of the scene. A good, nice lady, kind of a buxom blonde woman. There was a little coffee nook. We were sitting on pillows, talking. I wasn’t talking at all. And Cassandra started moaning Oh my baby, they took my baby. And she comes crawling across the room, bone naked. They took my baby, I want my baby. She was really into it. We didn’t say anything. We just went on with the conversation. [laughter] 

Somehow or other, we broke from character. The thing he wrote, I wish had never been written. Cuz he was pissed off when he figured out we were putting him on. I recently saw that article again. 

I mean, we actually believed, I guess… Some people believed that we could make a difference, that we could really provide this infrastructure. And, y’know, we tried. More or less we were trying to promulgate a spirit of self-reliance—that is, reliance on self and friends and family— outside the system. There was a sense that we were really building something, but by the end of the summer of ’67, it was clear that it was just overwhelming. Too many people.

What about the police presence?

David: The police presence got bigger and bigger. Y’know the publicity, the media really—as everybody knows—they exploit phenomena. They helped spread the word about the Summer of Love, this incredible scene that was happening in Haight-Ashbury, which attracted a lot of people. The more people that were attracted to it, the less authentic the community became. 

The Haight-Ashbury was kind of a natural evolution of factors—LSD; the new music (which of course was related to LSD); there was the radical spirit of the time, which had started earlier in the Civil Rights Movement, and the Berkeley student rebellion, the antiwar movement; and there were cheap rents. The Haight-Ashbury was one of the neighborhoods where rents were notoriously cheap. There wasn’t a strong resident population with a traditional way of life. 

I moved to San Francisco when I got the job with the Mime Troupe. I was living in the Berkeley hills. Some friends of mine had an empty room in an apartment on Shrader Street that they rented me for 35 bucks a month. It was a beautiful apartment. We had a great time. People weren’t talking about the “Haight-Ashbury” then, this was in early ’66. They just weren’t talking about it. It wasn’t something you said. There was a neighborhood called Haight-Ashbury but nobody was talking about it with these new connotations, the concept of a very important place, or of a special reverence. It was just a neighborhood. 

And you’d go walk down the streets and you’d see people with long hair and this kind of crazy gleam in their eyes and a smile. It was extremely comforting. Every once in a while you’d get this jolt—hey, this is a new deal here. Something’s happening here. This is a neighborhood that’s answering some need or desire deep inside me, you know? It’s being manifested in the streets of this place. We were aware that something significant was happening, and the Diggers were in existence by then. 

And then, slowly but surely, more people came. I don’t know how exactly the publicity mechanism got stoked up, but it certainly did.

Ginsberg was really into the Diggers.

David: Ginsberg was, yeah. He was…with it. 

Jane: One thing about the Free Store that was really fun was that the young kids in the neighborhood would steal. They just couldn’t get the concept that it was free. Peter would stand up in the balcony and see ‘em do it.

David: Peter [Berg] arranged a number of events under the banner of the Diggers, at which there were kind of far-out symbolic stuff that sometimes worked, and sometimes didn’t. The Invisible Circus, you know about that, but there were all kinds of events. There was a Halloween party at Waller Street, Halloween of ’66, that was wild, one of the wildest parties up to… In the basement of this church.

Jane: Oh I remember you went as a priest. I didn’t know you then—

David: I went dressed up as a priest. Had a little cross, priest’s hassock all the way down to the street. Had a little cross on that said Support your local Jesus. Because everybody’s running around saying—at the time, conservative people were walking around or had bumper stickers that said Support your local police. I walked out of this All Hallow’s—what’s the name of the church? I walked out of the church and four cops grabbed me. Pretty late at night. And they dragged me around the corner and they slammed me up against the wall. I was literally off my feet. One of them was holding me by my throat. And he’s saying, You think you’re real funny, don’t ya, you think you’re real funny? He says, Support your local Jesus, huh? Well, we’re watching you, motherfucker. You’re just lucky we’re not gonna kill you tonight.  Something like that, and then they dropped me. I was a little shaken, but that—

Jane: You sure that was a Halloween party? For some reason I associate it with that but it was actually a lot later, because it was Christmas, I was having my first Christmas, having been separated from my husband, who was also Jewish and in all my life I hadn’t had a Christmas tree. I’d always wanted one, and Emmett gave it to me, having probably stolen it from a local—

David: Appropriated.

Jane: [laughing]—from the local Christmas tree farm…

David: Everybody was stealing things and passing them on, as if the burden of guilt passed on. Freed you, you know? As long as you’re not stealing for yourself. There was a Robin Hood ethic, no doubt about that. Oh God, so many events. Going up to Diamond Heights, huge building projects in Diamond Heights. They were filling the hills there with crap. The construction sites were totally unguarded and unlocked and we’d go there at night, load up our trucks with… 

Jane:  Kent was the ringleader of that.

David: Kent was the most famous because he had a big truck at the time. We’d load it up, pile it to the gills with plywood, 2x4s, and we’d run it out to Lou Gottlieb’s place, Morningstar Ranch in southern Sonoma, which is one of the first communes in the Bay Area. That’s how all of those houses were built. 

And Emmett was kind of famous because one of the things he specialized in was he’d be driving around the city and he’d see a meat truck parked in front of a grocery store. A guy’d go out with a carcass or something, Emmett would pull back his pickup up to it. Jump in, grab a box or two of meat or a carcass and throw it in the back and zip away. He actually got caught for that. I still to this day don’t know why they let him go. They didn’t file charges. 

Jane: Mysteries… You know, an interesting thing happened with the ‘free.’ We came out of the Haight-Ashbury and I was up here teaching classes for free. People didn’t trust it. It couldn’t’ve been good if it was free! They wanted you to charge. It was a really interesting revelation, to me.

What do you remember about the Invisible Circus event?

David: Orgiastic event. What I saw—

Jane: This was before you and I were together too, David.

David: People trying to expunge their demons, their church demons. Get past their knee-jerk reverence for the Church. I didn’t have that, of course.

Did either of you put together anything for the event?

Jane: I didn’t. Did you, David?

David: No. I went to a couple of the organizational meetings, I helped put together a couple of the lectures. I didn’t feel strongly about the Invisible Circus. I loved the concept of the Invisible Circus— it was supposed to bring to light to the parishioners, the average run-of-the-mill, middle class parishioners of the Church what was going on behind the scenes. What was going on underground. 

So, that was a trick. If Cecil Williams had known beforehand what we were going to do there, he never would have tolerated it. We knew that. We didn’t know people were going to be screwing on the altar. But we weren’t surprised. I wasn’t. 

The thing about that event, it wasn’t… I didn’t think it was a lot of fun. I came away from it feeling that it was breaking down a lot of barriers. It was challenging a lot of taboos. I don’t remember having a lot of fun there. 

“Invisible Circus” event promotional broadsheet, February 1967

One thing about the Diggers—they weren’t traditional activists.

Jane: Social workers, some people.

David: Anarchist life-actors.

I mean, in terms of training: actors, poets, dancers, artists, bikers. They weren’t SDS people. They came from a different angle. But they did actions. The number of poets associated with the Diggers is ridiculous. Richard Brautigan

David: Gregory Corso. Gregory we knew quite well. Who else? Freewheelin of course, was a dear friend. Brautigan was problematic. I mean, he wasn’t problematic, he was just an odd guy. He was part of the Family! 

Jane: All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

David: I love that poem. I remember the first time he read it. He read that, aloud, in a garden party we had at Willard Street. Perfect. We did a thing at Willard Street where he—

Jane: The seed thing?

David: He wrote a series of poems and had them put on vegetable packages, printed up. ‘Please plant this seed.’ And they were real vegetable seeds. And we had a ritual planting of the seeds. 

Richard was a little older. Always struck me as being a little lonely. He did have girlfriends from time to time.

Jane: Well, he sure had a lonely death.

David: He definitely had a different sensibility. It wasn’t a completely modern sensibility. 

There’s some speculation that he was gay.

David: He may have been. It makes sense. 

Chester was gay, right?

David: Supposedly. 

Jane: Yeah. You know that was just a little bit before people came out of the closet.

David: It was tricky, because we were so macho. Ridiculously macho. But then…

Jane: In retrospect, I have to say that was one of the negative things about the Diggers.

David: A guy named Irving Rosenthal showed up in San Francisco. In fact, Vinnie Rinaldi met them in New York, and they came for a visit in the Haight-Ashbury, and Vinnie introduced them to me. Irving swears that I was responsible for getting them to move to San Francisco. I have no recollection of that at all. But, they picked up and moved the whole commune, a gay commune called Kaliflower, to San Francisco. They were very dedicated to producing books with beautiful graphics. 

Jane: Didn’t Diane di Prima have something to do with them? There’s another poet.

David: Diane was close. 

Jane: I guess she did come in a little later.

Do you remember giving up the Diggers name?

David: There wasn’t ever a formal decision like that. There couldn’t have been, because there wasn’t ever anything like a meeting.

Jane: Even ‘the Diggers’ was always very amorphous.

David: But after ’68—

Jane: People started to just—

David: After the Summer of Love, the impossibility of providing services to the numbers of people who needed them in San Francisco became very clear. And we had to start defining our area of concern—our reach—much more closely. The concept of the Free Family emerged. It wasn’t quite a name like the Diggers. But rather than seeing ourselves as providing services to all of the tired and needy and hungry of Haight-Ashbury, we began to see to circumscribe the numbers of people who we felt responsible to. I would say by mid-’68, the Free Family was probably composed of maybe 250 people, with a lot of melt and change in the margins. People’d come and go, but there was a core of about 250 people. We would do things for them, as it were. So the Digger vision, or the Digger concept… Other people kept the free meals going til ’69 or ’70. Three and a half years. But none of our people were doing that anymore. We were all doing other things. 

Somebody gave the Diggers a whole bakery. They called us up and said, I don’t know, maybe Kent, I don’t know how they got the number, but they called us up and said hey I’m a baker going out of business in Oakland and the bank is coming tomorrow morning to repossess all my equipment. You want it? I’ve heard about you guys, I like what you’re doing and I’ll give you this whole thing. I’ll help you dismantle it and everything. So we showed up 10 o’clock that night with a fleet of trucks, dismantled his whole bakery. Several ovens, sinks, kneading tables, the whole works, big mixers, and we hauled it out to Olomapli.

Jane: And that was Paula McCoy and her husband, Don. They had a commune there which was more like… It wasn’t like a normal commune where people pitched in together. It was more like Don and Paula supported all these people.

David: These WASP-y young kids. 

Jane: Gave ‘em, you know, chewing gum money… [laughs] It was a little weird.

David: Beautiful blonde sterile children, post-adolescent children. In their late teens, early 20s.

Jane: But they did let us keep the bakery equipment there.

David: Not keep it there, we set up there. We poured a pad, right by their swimming pool. You can see that from the 101 by the way, if you know what you’re looking for. 

Jane: It’s now a state park.

David: Olompali State Park. Anyway, we set up the ovens, y’know. Nina [Blasenheim]’s father, who was a pipefitter in New York City, a boilermaker, came out and helped us do the plumbing. Groups of us would come out.  We went around to the warehouse section, and hustled grains and flour and whatever—busted bags, broken sacks, stuff like that. And the guys there really liked us, they liked our spirit. I don’t know why. And they used to give us a lot of shit. So we’d get flour, and all of the other materials we needed, and sometimes we’d buy it but we didn’t usually have to, and then I’d take 6 or 8 kids from the neighborhood, black kids, from our neighborhood, out to Olompali. The kids would run free over the hills. 

Jane: They couldn’t believe it. Some of them, it was the first time they’d been out of Oakland. Most of them.

David: And we worked all day long, naked, by the poolside, baking bread, jumping in the water whenever it got too hot. It was pretty hot there. 

Jane: It was a Carousel oven. And we baked bread in coffee tins. 

David: Coffee cans. And we’d bring back about 250 loaves of bread every week, and then we’d distribute them to our Free Family and to the people in our neighborhood. 

David Simpson, baking bread outdoors at Olompali, 1967. Photograph by Noelle Barton via diggers.org

Jane: And the neighborhood was the Fillmore, actually. It was the house we’d inherited from the Steve Miller Band, which was on Pierce Street, which at the time was more low-rent.

David: [Paula McCoy] and Emmett were together. And Emmett seems to have succeeded in getting her strung out. She ended up killing herself. Throwing herself off a roof of a hotel. … She was wealthy.

Before that, the Diggers had been baking bread, right?

Jane: No.

David: No, that was it.

What about this ‘familia’ recipe I was showing you?

Jane: Yeah that just blew me away to see it, it looked so familiar, and I—

David: You heard about the whale meat? The University of California Marine Lab at Bodega Bay…. I don’t remember why or how this California Grey Whale died, but they’d cut it up and frozen it, and told us we could have as much whale meat as we wanted. So for a while we were always eating whale meat til we all got absolutely sick of eating it.

Jane: And of course we had no idea how to cure it. 

David: It was red meat but it was grayish red. It wasn’t very good.

Jane: Tough, really tough, because we didn’t know what we were doing.

David: Then we had a run with chicken wings. Emmett got connected to a chicken processing plant in South San Francisco, where they had chicken wings that they didn’t use, so we had an endless supply…

What do you remember about the “End of the War” event?

David: We decided that rather than do an anti-war protest, we’d celebrate the end of the war.

That was a big thing, to not protest but to—

David: Affirm. To celebrate. To manifest the alternative rather than, you know, whine about it or try to demand that we be given it. We just TOOK it.

That’s a big shift in thinking about how to do stuff.

Jane: Yeah.

David: Gear shift.

Where did that come from?

David: Good question. Being pro-active, they now call it. That might be one of the primary lessons of the Diggers is to just do it. If you’ve got an idea of what the right thing is to do, just do it. Don’t demand it of the authorities—you can do that too, but don’t let it… 

We were celebrating the end of the war. We were acting it out. 

But the event—

David: Yeah, we organized that event, it was at the Straight Theater. I was involved in that event, I don’t remember the details too much. I printed the announcement.

Jane: I don’t remember that one that well. There was the one where Bodies got busted.

David: One of the events we had, I don’t remember what the title of it was, it was also at the Straight Theater, but it was basically Freeman, who was Linn at the time, and Vinnie… they’d just come from New York and they had gotten a job. A guy named Leonard Wolf. He was a professor at San Francisco State. Looked very professorial. He wore dark tweed sportscoats with patches on his sleeve and smoked a pipe and the whole works. He was a bit of an asshole. He ran a halfway house for runaways.

Jane: That Freeman and Vinnie worked at.

David: It was called Huckleberry House. It was for runaways. Kids who had run away from school, run away from home, to be in the Haight Ashbury. This was a place where they could decompress, get straight ahead, maybe convince them to talk to their parents and maybe start reconciling with their old lives, and he hired Freeman and Vinnie and Roselee, and it worked out fine until he found out that they were all fucking each other. He couldn’t handle it. Before then, they convinced him: Let’s have a conference, at the Straight Theater, this came out of a conversation between Freeman and Peter Berg. I was there. I don’t remember the details, but all I know is, Let’s call it a dialogue on the issue of runaways, and make it a celebration of having run away. [laughs] Which we did. In other words, it was a trick on Leonard. I’m telling ya, there was a lot of tricks. 

Jane: The Free Puppets were there.

David: Jane had choreographed a dance with some of the Mime Troupe dance performers that she worked with. It was a very beautiful dance, it was not obscene at all.

Jane: Bodies was a very carefully choreographed dance, it wasn’t just thrown together, by any means. And when it came time to costume it, we decided to do it naked. One costume didn’t work, and so. There were five people in it. What I actually always wanted to do and nowadays I probably could do it, but I wanted them actually to each have a different color skin. But I wanted it to look like skin. Red, blue. I wanted it to look like actual skin, not skin painted red or something. We never figured that out so we didn’t bother with that. 

David: So it was done naked. 

Judy said that both of you arrived at the idea of doing it naked simultaneously, without talking to one another.

Jane: Yeah. It just sort of came to us that it needed to be that way. And it was really, the dance started out… the dancers holding hands in a circle, and swaying. And it was John Robb’s job to decide when the audience had settled down enough and gotten past the fact that there were naked bodies to start the dance. And he would break out of the circle and then start doing the choreography. And at this Straight Theater event, the cops came. And it was a most amazing experience. Somebody said the cops were there, and the lighting man turned out all the lights in the theater for about 10 seconds, at which time the entire audience, it was a big audience, SWARMED onto the stage and the dancers were out on the street with their clothes on. 

But as a group, you know, they KNEW to protect the dancers. Hundreds of people—

David: It was incredible.

Jane: They just swarmed onto the stage, and so the lights came up and the dancers were just gone. And this guy Leonard Wolf… The police are saying, Who’s in charge here, who’s in charge? And Leonard Wolf wanted to get arrested! “I am, I am!” And I was running down after him, tugging his sleeve—

David: Be quiet, you don’t have to do this—

Jane: But that experience, of hundreds of people acting as one, was really astonishing. It was really astonishing. Nobody didn’t know what to do.

Jane: I taught dance classes at the Straight Theater.

Was the dance class a Diggers activity?

Jane: Welllll… It was just what I was doing, but was very much influenced, so it was free, yeah. Everything was free. So it was a Digger thing, in a way. But you know, because everything was so amorphous, it wasn’t like a Digger “event.” It was free, and it was like the food in the park was free.

There’s a scene in Nowsreal of a dance class.

Jane: Yeah, that’s me teaching dance class. That’s me. You see me sit down, with a cigarette. And Judy’s in that class. I think Aaron’s in that, Gabby might be in it… Little girl.

Jane leads a dance (or yoga?) class. Image from Nowsreal

Are you one of the bellydancers in Nowsreal?

Jane: I didn’t participate much in the bellydancing. Judy was more involved in that. I remember we were going to bellydance on a flatbed truck and I’d made a costume for Gabby and I’d made a costume for me, and something happened that day, we had some trauma, and Gabby and I didn’t get there. We’re not on it. It was taken down to the financial district. 

What do you remember about Lenore Kandel? She was a bit older.

David: Yes, she was. Not that much, but she was. Lenore was like a quiet, goddess type. She deferred to Bill a lot. Her husband. She wrote The Love Book about him. Sweet William is Bill Fritsch. Bill Fritsch became Sweet William after he joined the Angels. 

Poet Lenore Kandel with her husband Bill Fritsch. Photographer unknown.

He joined while they were together, not before?

David: Oh yeah. She wasn’t happy about it, but she went. 

Lenore and Bill Fritsch have this reputation, in the literature, of being—

David: Well Lenore was like an Earth Mother type, you know. But she was always like a Jewish big sister. She was quite down-to-earth in her own right, and she was quite ethereal, and spiritual, at the same time. An interesting combination. Bill was, you know, Peter Berg called him a Luciferian Jew, you know.

Jane: You know he had been a juvenile delinquent. 

David: He served time in a prison in New York for bank robbery. He robbed a bank when he was 18.

Jane: He grew up in a neighborhood right near me, in Astoria.

David: Bill was a dedicated Digger, but he moved over towards the Hells Angels, cuz, what did he say? I can’t remember how he put it. He said, These guys are real

More “real” than the Diggers?

David: Well, I don’t know. What they were was kind of hard-time, working class guys.  

What was the nature of the relationship with the Hells Angels?

David: Well it’s hard to say exactly where it started. The Hells Angels were around. They’re working class guys. One of the things about the Diggers that’s kinda unique is some of us were college boys, but not hardly all of us. There was a lot of, people had grown up, y’know, in working class and lower middle class lives—

Jane: Like Emmett. And Billy.

David: The people that we hung out with, had the most fun with, were not the sons and daughters of the middle class. So there was a natural link in that respect with the Hell’s Angels because that’s what they were. They started showing up at events, and they were made to feel welcome. There wasn’t that much trouble, at the beginning. My favorite was Pete Knell, who a lot of people talk about. He was captain of the Angels at the time. He was a hard guy, but he was enormously fair.

Pete Knell, president of the San Francisco Hells Angels. Circa 1968. Photo by Chuck Gould.

Jane: Well he took a liking to you and me. 

David: Yeah, he liked us. He did a thing once, at this so-called wedding at Olema. We were walking towards the cabins—buildings—down this muddy road. I had this fancy suit on. This was for that wedding.

Jane: I think Peter Berg gave you that suit too. 

David: Berg did, yeah. It was a three-piece Western-style suit. And Jane had a long velvet gown on.

Jane: Pin-striped suit. 

David: And we were looking for Billy Batman. And Pete and his wife Gloria met up with us and took us under their wing. And a poet named Casey, very tall, ungainly guy, said something to me. We were standing in a little circle of people, and he said, ‘Like your suit, man.’ Kind of like just a little facetious. A little off. Didn’t bother me much, just said, Thank you. And about three minutes later, he said it again. ‘I really like that suit, man.’ It was a slight annoyance. And Pete says, ‘Gloria, come on Gloria, And he grabs Gloria with his left hand he starts spinning away. Gloria’s standing here facing this way, Pete’s here facing that way, Casey’s here facing that way, and here were Jane and I. Anyway, he grabs Gloria, spins away from Casey, and I heard a crack. Almost before I saw it, his hand went back. Like that. And I’ve never seen—I mean, how much power you can generate. It was obviously a practiced move. And I heard a crack and the next thing I knew Casey was coming up off his hands and knees, on the other side of the ditch we were standing next to. He had to do an entire somersault to do it. Pete had knocked him heels over head, with a little clack, and he was coming up, like…unconscious. I’ve never seen such precision…

Pete Knell was a good guy. He invited me to put together a bike once, which was as big an honor as Pete can pay you. He helped me put together a bike, a chopped Harley. 

There were a few events where the Angels played large presences. There’s a famous picture of Phyllis riding on top of Hairy Henry Hanks’ chopper, in her fairie outfit. Chocolate George died and we had a funeral for Chocolate George which was quite impressive. The Hells Angels came from all over. There was a line going down California Street that was endless. The funeral of Chocolate George was a big event! That was one of the events where we fully realized that there’s this odd partnership going on. This odd relationship. 

Jane: There seemed to be this distinction between the San Francisco Hell’s Angels and the Oakland Hells Angels, who are…

David: The Oakland Hells Angels were gangsters. They were extortionists and dope peddlers. And, I don’t remember if it was Pete Knell, or Sweet William, said to me once, “The difference between Oakland Hells Angels and the San Francisco Hells Angels is they sell their violence. We give ours away for free.” [laughs] Isn’t that a great saying? 

If it hadn’t been for Bill Fritsch, there wouldn’t have been Easy Rider. I remember sitting in front of the Geary Temple—this is an interesting memory—and a big black like a limousine comes pulling up. A business type guy gets out of the back seat, walks around, opens the door, and slowly out comes this black, leather-clad leg. And then the guy walks out and he’s all in leather. It was Dennis Hopper. He was trying so hard to be cool, he could almost not talk. He said, Hey you know where Emmett Grogan is? I want to talk to Emmett Grogan. So forced. I took an immediate dislike to him. Years later, I think Coyote helped convince Dennis Hopper to pony up some cash and they gave it to Bill, and Bill lost it. [laughs] Might have been $30,000. It was at least ten. 

Do you remember Kirby Doyle?

David: Kirby was a great guy. I loved him.

Jane: He was crazy, though.

David: He was crazy. By the time I knew him, he was pretty nuts. I just liked him. He was very likeable. But his craziness got to be a factor, it was hard to be with him. 

There were a lot of people who were part of the scene who were like from the Beat era, from a slightly different era… He was ahead of me a bit. I remember at Olema. Sweet William was visiting, and he and Kirby Doyle… Kirby was like a dog chewing up a bone, he was chewing at something about Sweet William, and Sweet William, he forced him, they had a fight. I remember, it was like two behemoths, literally fighting. Sweet William was trying to contain his, to keep it…He was trying not to hurt him.  He was trying to contain him. Kirby made him, dragged him into the situation. Kirby was nuts by then. 

Jane: He must have been schizophrenic and we didn’t know it at the time. 

David: Also he had had a relatively new relationship with a woman named Tracy. Later called Tracy California. She really tried, man. They had a baby together. He had a son, who was part of our scene too. Shannon Doyle. A good kid. A hard time, trying to be brought up by a crazy father like Kirby, totally self-involved. Kirby had not survived the Beat Era intact. 

How about Arthur Lisch?

David: Arthur was a good friend. A sweet, annoying character. Very smart guy though. 

Jane: Talk about your experience handing out his leaflets.

David: We were living in Belvedere Street just off Haight. This is the time when traffic was bumper-to-bumper on Haight Street. I said to Jane, Jane I’m going down to the grocery store to get a quart of milk. Walk out of the house, first thing I run into is Arthur. Hey Dave! Help me distribute a few of these leaflets. He’s got a bunch of leaflets inviting “middle-class brothers—come to Glide Church [more likely All Saints] —learn what’s going on—Let’s unite, bring our spirits together, we can change the world…  Something like that. I said, Oh why not. A little action before I go home for dinner. 

So I ended up on Masonic and Haight. Traffic is bumper to bumper, I was standing just off the sidewalk, handing out leaflets, I’d go up to the passenger doors. I was doing it for no more than three minutes. All of a sudden I realize I’m handing a leaflet to a policeman, in a police car. He said, Hey stay on the sidewalk. To me. I can’t get off the sidewalk. Or, I can hand out a leaflet and then I have to go back. Something. I said Okay, and then I don’t even think about it anymore, I’m going out passing out more leaflets, and I turn around and notice a cop car back on Masonic, across the street, they’re watching me. Same car, they’d gone around the block. Sure enough they come at me. Didn’t we tell you to stay on the corner? I say Yeah… You’re under arrest. Just like that, they busted me for being a public nuisance. Never did have dinner that night. Never got the milk home.

And then, a week before then, or after, I don’t know which one… I was standing on Haight Street. The cops were getting so bad. The cops were coming in numbers. The cops were walking in fours. Not just pairs of cops—fours, as if there was some terrible violence was going on. Of which there wasn’t. Not yet, anyways. There never was much violence on Haight Street. But, kitty-corner from my house, just across the street from Van Owen, and I’m watching the cops. They just broke up a little drumming scene, and the cops broke it up in their usual nasty fashion. And I’m leaning against the parking meter and cops walk by me and all of a sudden one of ‘em, a short squat Italian guy says, Hey move along. I started and then I said, Wait a minute! Why??? YOU’RE UNDER ARREST. Jane was across the street. Just right across the street from my house! Jane’s standing on the stoop, saw this whole thing. You can’t do that! You want to go too, lady? No thanks. You don’t both get arrested, or there’s nobody to organize bail. So they arrested me. I got busted twice in one week. 

Jane: He decided to defend himself, and the friend that we told you who became a judge, a lawyer, he coached David. It was amazing. We have some literature about that. “HIPPIE DEFENDS SELF” was one of the—

David: The headline in the Chronicle. 

Above: press coverage of David’s 1967 court appearances. For more clips, see HIPPIE DEFENDS SELF: The July 1967 trial of David Simpson of the Diggers

Jane: At first the judge was like, [like speaking to a child] “Now Mr. Simpson,” he’d lean forward, like David was an idiot. Pretty quickly he learned that there was an intelligence there. And in fact David pretty much won the case. Except it ended up in a hung jury because of one little old lady. What they did was, they put the wrong man in court. It was not the arresting officer! And you could tell. When David questioned him, he’d kind of be trying to remember the answers…

David: Everybody knew he was lying.

Jane: Everybody in the court, except this one little old lady couldn’t believe that a…

David: We heard later on that she said, If I believed a policeman lied, my whole world would fall apart. [laughter]

Jane: So it ended up becoming a hung jury. The courtroom was jammed with the most outrageous looking hippies, to be in the court. I remember this guy Gandalf came with a big stick…

David: Too much to remember. You heard about the famous trip in ’67? Emmett and Peter Berg and Bill Fritsch bombed into this big SDS meeting and called them chickenshit motherfuckers, cocksuckers was a favorite word. Abbie Hoffman showed up in San Francisco shortly, sitting at the feet of the Diggers trying to learn. Looking for ideas.

Jane: So Billy was still doing stuff, then, because he…

David: He was, quietly.

Jane: He was always quiet. He was kind of shyer. 

David: Always shyer. He was like Emmett’s sidekick, but he had a lot of depth too. 

Jane: I loved Billy. I can’t say exactly why. I just really connected with him. 

David: Very quiet. He had an endearing smile. 

Jane: He was very loving.

David: He was one of the few of us who knew how to keep his mouth shut. Billy one time gave me 300 hits of LSD. I was going to Chicago for something else, it was summertime, and he gave me 300 hits of LSD to take to Chicago. It was a completely unstated business transaction. I didn’t say what I was going to do with them; he didn’t say what he wanted back for it. I ended up giving them all away at a beach party on Lake Michigan, in Hyde Park, that I’m sure changed a lot of people’s lives. 300 hits of good, strong San Francisco LSD. 

Jane: Owsley, no doubt.

Did you guys know Owsley?

David: I met him, I knew the guy, I knew what he looked like, had a few brief jocular encounters with him, just on the street.

It was an all-night blast. I was quite proud of that. Billy would’ve been delighted to get some money in return. I still owe him. 

I did a thing. It wasn’t exactly because of the SDS thing, but… In February of ’68, leading up to the Chicago convention, there was a radical convention for new politics. National Convention for New Politics, that was preparatory for the Democratic National Convention. It was all the radical political groups in America: the black activists, the old left, the new left, gathered together to try to develop a common perspective that was an alternative to the Democratic Party. It was really an interesting effort. I heard about it and I decided somebody from San Francisco should go. And since I couldn’t think of anybody else, somebody was me. I was up at Harvey Kornspan’s apartment when I heard about it. Marty Balin was there, and I said, Listen I want to go to Chicago, somebody from San Francisco should—as if there was something to represent, as if there was an entity called San Francisco. [Jane laughs] We were stupid and arrogant, which is probably why we were somewhat effective. Anyway I asked Marty Balin if he’d bankroll me on a flight to Chicago. He said, Yeah I’ll pay one-way. So I went and got a ticket, and that night I was on an airplane. Just before I left, I took a strong hit of LSD. Being on an airplane, on acid, was a trip. As the plane was taking off, everybody’s politely sipping their drink, I think they served drinks before the plane took off in those days, and then all of a sudden we’re screaming down the runway, 70 tons of metal propelled by God knows how many gallons of jet fuel burning at incredible temperatures, and everybody’s sitting around, casually. [hums] I wanted to scream, AREN’T YOU AWARE OF WHAT’S HAPPENING? LOOK AT THIS THING! SEVENTY TONS OF METAL SCREAMING DOWN THE GODDAMN RUNWAY! WE’RE GONNA FLY INTO THE AIR! AND YOU’RE JUST SITTING THERE, BITING YOUR NAILS, THINKING ABOUT YOUR DATE TOMORROW NIGHT! Whatever. So. And I never did come down. [laughter]

I got to Chicago, took a cab to the Palmer House Hotel, which was the biggest hotel in Chicago, in the world at that time, and went to the Grand Ballroom where there were 3,000 people. I walked to the front of the hall. Somebody I knew was moderating this whole thing. His name was Gary Weissman. He had been the president of the student body at the University of Wisconsin, was a friend of mine. I went up to him, I hadn’t seen him in five years at least, I went to him and said [whispers] Gary, I’ve got something I want to say. ‘Is it relevant?’ Yeah! It’s really important. He thought about it. Y’know, I can make a point of personal preference or something like that, some point of order, parliamentary procedure that he alone knew about, because he knew that shit. I’ll getcha on the center mic there. There was a mic down from the podium, there was a raised stage and down below it there was a microphone on the floor level. So he did this procedure, I got to the microphone. I had two things with me. I had brought that same tire iron that I had busted up the cigarette machine, a tool that had been used in a crime, and a flute. I brought it on the airplane.

Jane: You could bring a shotgun on the airplane in those days!

David: So I gave a speech, off the top of my head. Because this is really what I saw. I had been there for half an hour or so. I could really see what was happening. There was a splinter between the whites and the blacks, and it wasn’t about to be resolved. It wasn’t a splinter exactly. Wasn’t a schism. Cuz the whites were saying, Oh we don’t know what to do. We don’t know what to do. Tell us. We’ll do anything you say because you have the real beef. We don’t have any beef. We don’t have any real stake in it. We’re just here to serve your interests. There was something really chickenshit about it. So I started a classic Digger thing which is calling them all a bunch of stupid cocksuckers, asskissers, saying You don’t have a life of your own. And the white guys all started standing up, HEY GET HIM OUT OF HERE! GET HIM OUT DOWN! And the black guys are like, NO NO NO, LET HIM SPEAK, MAN. WE WANNA HEAR WHAT’S HE SAYING. And then I turned around and I said, You guys get your nuts off making white people feel small? You wanna get your cock sucked? Is that all that’s in it for you? No principles here? You’re not thinking about your communities, your children… GET OFF THE STAGE! GET THAT MOTHERFUCKER OFF THE STAGE! And I said, just total fantasy, I said, ‘I come from a place where something different is happening. We’re building the new world, in the carcass of the old. And, you know, there’s two ways we can go here: this is a weapon—and I hold up the tire iron—and this is a musical instrument. Which is it gonna be?’ Something like that. At which point, Simon Casady, who was the chairman of the California Democratic Party, big grey-haired guy, grabbed me around the throat. [laughter] And started gagging [and pulling] me. GET HIM OFF! HELP ME GET HIM OFF HERE! And then he carried me off. [laughter] Now why did I do that?

Sept 22-28, 1967 Berkeley Barb
Chicago Tribune, Sept. 5, 1967

Jane: How did you get home?

David: I hooked up with some guys. I had a lot of old Lefties come up to me afterwards and say, [whispers] W-w-what were you talking about? You said something, can you explain, what did you mean when you said this. [laughter] They were parsing my impromptu rant. I knew I didn’t have a ride home. Somebody told me they were from San Francisco, and I said How are you getting home. And they said Well we’re driving, we got three guys in a car. And I got a ride home. It was another one of those three-day trips across the continent. And these guys were weird characters. They all turned out to be, I’m convinced that at least two of them were FBI or some undercover… They were just weird people. It wasn’t fun on the way back.

But I often ask myself, why’d you do that? 

Jane: There’s also the trip to New Mexico to go to the Santa Domingo pueblo corn dance. 

David: Which has really had a lasting effect on my life. 

How did you get invited to it?

David: There was a guy named Larry Bird, who was a Santa Domingo, who Emmett had befriended somewhere, and we all knew a little bit. He’d been around the Haight, a very quiet guy. Turned out to be a performer. He played the Indian flute, I don’t remember exactly the details. But when he was a kid he went to, they wouldn’t let them be schooled in their own communities, they took em away and made them learn English and so on.

 He was allowed to dance in some of their dances. This was a big one, the Corn Dance, which was basically a rain dance, seeking spiritual help to bring rain, to finish off their corn. It was quite colossal. It had a lasting effect on me because it was seeing a whole community all doing one sacred thing — and it’s a party too

Jane: We started out from San Francisco with two trucks. It was David and me and Judy and Peter, Lenore and Bill, Gabby our oldest daughter and Aron, Judy and Peter’s son. They were about 8. 

David: This was in August of 1967. Bill Fritsch had an older truck. Phil—I can’t remember his last name, he was a radical steelworker with a long Communist history—always carried a big pistol.

Jane: Shortly after leaving, I think on the first day, but enough out of San Francisco to be gone, one truck broke down.

David: Bill’s truck broke down. We all ended up in one truck. Then on the way down we ran into this one woman called Crazy Sara, who was one of us, we ran into her in New Mexico. And then we ran into Cassandra. Cassandra had a goat. 

Jane: And she joined us. [laughs]

David: Crazy Sara, we heard about her. She was in jail in Flagstaff. Lenore, our diplomat, went back and got her right out of jail. At one point we left Jane at a gas station bathroom.

Jane: They only noticed that I was gone because of Gabby, who was asleep when we left. [laughs]

David: Oh yeah, I have a wife, right…

Jane: The policeman took me and stopped them and brought me to them, going out of town.

David: On the way back from Santo Domingo, Peter Berg had hit somebody up for money and had like a thousand dollars. We went to pawn shops in Las Vegas and we each bought a rifle. We were arming ourselves for the revolution. [laughter] 

Jane: We had four stakes and some kind of a cover on top of the pickup truck so a lot of us were in the back and three people in the front. I remember Lenore and I, we never spoke about it, but we knew that we were psychically keeping this cover up so that it wouldn’t fall on everybody. That was a pretty amazing trip, going and coming in that one. And it was a small pickup, it wasn’t like some of these big ones nowadays. 

David: I was just thinking. In a way we were just tricksters, you know? We were pulling tricks. We had some inklings about what we were doing, but nothing like a comprehensive, collective idea. We were following instincts. We burned our bridges behind us. In some senses—

Jane: Followed our nose…

David: It’s like the sacking of Troy, you know. And the Attes, the demons that followed us after that, destroyed a lot of people. We talk about this in the blithest way, but we had a profound effect on…on…without, I don’t know whether we meant to, but we had a far more profound effect on society than we really understood, and to a certain degree, we paid for that. Some people paid for that more than others. A lot of people were destroyed, you know? A lot of people lost their sanity and never recovered it.

Jane: But you know a lot of that was… I think a lot of that was a commercialization of an idea. Pre-Summer of Love… I grew up in New York and it was the first time that I hung out in the streets. I mean, you’d walk down the street and your friends are all there, and you’d hang out. I had never done that before. Everybody knew everybody else, up and down the eight blocks, ten blocks whatever it was. As the Summer of Love approached, and it became a news item, eventually Haight Street, which is now again a two-way street, became a one-way street because there was so many tourists driving down Haight Street, two miles an hour, total traffic jam, rolling up their windows when you walked by, taking pictures of us with our laundry, going to the laundromat. It was the first time, probably the only time, in my life that I taught dance within walking distance of where I lived. So I would carry my drum to dance class, photos being taken. It became the commercialization of an idea, which often happens, and then more people came. At the time it was psychedelics, it was marijuana and LSD. LSD did do some people harm, I have to admit that. Then it became speed. I think a lot of it was the commercialization of a good idea. 

How important was LSD?

Jane: [laughing] I think it was pretty important. I mean, you talk about ‘contact high.’ You would go to an event, and even if you hadn’t taken LSD, you were just totally swept up in the brotherhood, you know? The Oneness of it. I think LSD really opened up a lot of minds. It did destroy some, I admit that. 

Was it important for you?

Jane: Probably, yeah. Yeah. It certainly—

David: Uh, yeah. It blew out the stops. People hold onto things. When the abyss is yawning beneath them, they try to hold onto stuff. LSD made it impossible to hold on. You went down through the wringer and out the other side, and the world was never gonna be quite the same. You’d patch it together but it was never gonna be quite the same. 

Jane: I think to a certain extent we were lucky because we were somehow able to take a LOT of LSD and [laughs] come out the other end intact. I definitely think it was life-altering, for me. 

David: But I can’t regret the experiences. They were so powerful. 

Jane: It really opened you up to whatever was happening.

David: Peter was kind of anti-pot. 

Jane: He used to sing a song, “This old man/he smokes pot/whether he needs it or not.”

How did your families respond to what you were doing with your lives?

Jane: That’s a really good question. My parents came to visit me when I lived in that apartment that was a crash pad. I don’t think anybody crashed those particular nights. But my parents were kind of open-minded on principle. But I took a walk down Haight Street with them and every freak on the street said hello to me. Hi Jane! And they were gone the next day. They just couldn’t take it.

David: Haight Street was hard to handle.

Jane: And they just left. I mean, my parents were world travelers, so they were used to seeing unusual things, but when it was their daughter, it was a little hard to take. What about your parents? They never…

David: They never showed up. 

Jane: [starts reading from flyer] “Kerista needs your help! On Thursday 20 people from the Kerista House at Inverness were arrested and are being held on bond for possession of marijuana. They need bail money and legal advice. If you can help in any way, please contact the Phoenix, 1377 Haight Ashbury, or…861-7284, Jane Lapiner.” No memory. At all. [laughs] I have no idea.  

David: There were so many things. The Grateful Dead had that house, people walked in and out all day. Sometimes you could go there with a guitar, play with one of them. Sometimes Jerry Garcia would be sitting around playing his guitar and you could sit down there. Taj Mahal for that matter. Taj Mahal is an important musician in American music. Great talent. So was Jerry Garcia. 

What a scene you guys had!

David: That was kind of the thing of the Haight-Ashbury: the first recognition was so exciting. We kind of slowly became aware that when you looked around, half the people who were looking at ya had a certain look in their eyes, and they had long hair, and they were smiling broadly. 

Another thing about the Haight-Ashbury: it was a doomed concept. We saw the Haight as our turf. We were a little bit like a street gang. But another way of looking at it was we really did try to take responsibility for the fact that there was this neighborhood of people who were culturally linked. It was impossible of course, but I think there was a certain nobility in our efforts, or at least a certain humanity in our efforts. The effort to try to be responsible to a community and a place.

We were trying to promulgate a spirit—a way of being. And we really succeeded. We gave it away. When you give it away, you don’t know where it’s gonna go. Human social accomplishment is a strange deal, isn’t it? If you hold on to it too tightly, you strangle it; if you let it go, freely, it morphs into something that to you might not be in the spirit. 

I had an old pickup truck and I had stenciled on the side “Free City Redistribution Service.” One day I was driving around. Jane had a treasured reboso—a Mexican shawl—handcrafted in the Andes that her precious brother had just brought back from Peru which I’d just picked up from the cleaners. I stopped this truck called Free City Redistribution Service for no more than two minutes to do something, and when I ran back, it was gone. It had been redistributed.

When Abbie Hoffman came, that’s what he was responding to, right?

David: Well he was responding to the street theater aspect. I remember he came to our office where we had the Gestetners—by the way, notice the difference between the Communications Company stuff and what we did later—it was more sophisticated, more graphic, we used the capacity of the Gestetners more, what they were capable of—I just remember Abbie Hoffman sitting on the floor, in the office, the old SDS office, looking up at us with reverence in his face. Kind of drinking from the fount. And then he took it back and did his own version of it, became quite a public figure. I never had a great deal of respect for him until I learned what he had done incognito while he was being sought after by the federal government and had become an environmental activist. I thought that was far out. That was important, commendable. Before then he seemed like just a mildly unoriginal… But, y’know, I have my own small-mindedness, in spades. 

Emmett wanted to be anonymous.

David: No leaders. He said, you can use my name anytime you want. 

Did the anonymity work out well for the Diggers?

David: Well, it had its point at the time cuz you know, it’s anti-careerist. We were not doing these things to build a career. We were trying to build a sustainable culture, although we didn’t use the word ‘sustainable,’ but that’s what we were working for. 

Jane: [reading] “Diggersareniggers.” One word.

David: That’s another thing Bill Fritsch said. Talking about ethnicity, he said, “Who are we? I’ll tell you who we are. We’re whiteniggerhippieJewwopkikebastards.”

Jane: Tie-dying and batiking… was an old East Indian tradition or art form. Luna, I guess she must have gone to India and brought it back, the tie-dying. She just brought it to us. It really was the start of the tie-dying fad, that was the beginning of it. And Judy did a lot of it. Big banners…

David: Another thing about the Diggers is that, as you can tell, the Diggers, on a certain level, were quite sexist. On the one hand, we revered our women. Truly. Jane and Judy and Lenore and a whole number of other women were incredibly powerful. The real thing, whatever that is. On the other hand, it was rare that women were spokespeople for our concepts and our ideas, and it was rare that women were credited, when anybody was credited individually.

Jane: Right. It was like, the little missus. 

David: So yeah, there was a certain sexism involved in that, for better or worse. We were not free of that stuff.  It was sexist on the one hand, but it was also… Lenore followed Bill through hell and back. And didn’t complain until it was too late. And yet, she was such a powerful woman, and one respected her far beyond what would be today described as feminist women who were actively conscious of the role of women, and so forth. It’s hard for me to get Lenore into focus in that respect, because Bill dragged her through shit, and she went through it, you know? As a Hells Angel. And put up with it, up to a certain point. But she always maintained this incredible dignity. 

Did you guys know the Pranksters much?

David: The Dead family really had a long, strong relationship with Kesey and the Pranksters. More than the Diggers. The Diggers tended to look at the Pranksters as apolitical pranksters, not to be taken too seriously. Not social tricksters of the level of the games we were playing. But we shared an affection for audacity.

Who were Bill and Ann Lyndon? They did Free City Puppets?

David: The Mime Troupe would utilize their skills. Bill was a small guy, but—

Jane: He was in Bodies, actually. He was in the second run of Bodies. First it was Joe Lomudo. But then Bill took his role over. Bill was small but he was very wiry and strong.

David: Strong and fiery. He and Ann, they’d do this Punch and Judy show. Punch and Judy, the medium, the traditional Punch and Judy is very violent. Punch is always beating up Judy. And that’s what happened in real life. They were one of those characters whose art resembled their life so completely that you couldn’t draw the line—where was the membrane between them. Bill was always jumping on Ann, pummeling her. [Jane chuckles] In Aspen, they went to visit Chuck, and they’d be walking down the street in Aspen and they’d break into a frenzied argument, and he’d jump onto her. 

Ann and Bill Lyndon of Free City Puppets perform for the kids, probably 1968
. Photo by Chuck Gould.

Jane: Emmett LOVED the fact that David had been a boxer. In Ringolevio, David was “Golden Gloves Davey.” 

David: People were always trying to set up a match in the Mime Troupe loft between Emmett and I. We were gonna box, and… 

Jane: Oh, really? I never heard that.

David: Emmett was not eager. Anyway, joking, I was going to write a sequel to Ringolevio about a 33-year-old boy from Scarsdale who was still living at his parents’ home, called Bring Your Yo-Yo. The opposite.

Jane: I have to say, I never read Ringolevio. One of these days I’m going to sit down and read all these books, but somehow I have a hard time reading books that involve something that I went through, or that I know.  

He spoke at the Dialectics of Liberation Conference in London, but there’s two different stores about what he actually said.

Jane: He might not have spoken. He was just kind of a rabble-rouser.

David: Emmett was not a public speaker.  I can imagine him speaking, but just not at any length… 

Jane: Emmett made things up too. [laughs]  

What happened to you guys and Emmett?

David: The last time he played any significant role in anything we had to do with was Altamont. Emmett was one of those responsible for developing Altamont. I don’t remember the details. All I remember is, their security fell apart. And at the last minute, he called us up. “Us” being… See, in the winter of ‘68—Well here’s one more evolution. In 1968… Nowsreal was made exactly a year too late. By the Fall Equinox of 1967, the bloom to a certain degree was off the rose. 1968 was a hard year. It was hard for the counterculture to keep its celebratory sense. Martin Luther King died. Bobby Kennedy died. At the Chicago convention, the police riot happened. The police were never a more powerful force. There was many more hard drugs. Heroin became a bigger and bigger factor. 

We were still living in the city, in the old Steve Miller mansion down in the Fillmore. We gave that up under duress. It’s a long story. Then what I call the diaspora began—the moving outward. ‘Back to the land’ had always been a strong current in the ‘60s cultural revolution. Not the political revolution, the cultural revolution. People talked about going back to the land, living more authentic lives, being in touch with Nature, growing your own food, all of those things that still sound right. 

I really did feel that we were being pursued by our dark shadows that we had helped unleash—the darker side of the celebratory aspect of the ‘60s was becoming rapidly dominant. We moved out of San Francisco, we moved out of the Miller house, under difficult circumstances. I didn’t think much of it but then, not long after, Berkeley became insufferable to us, for a lot of reasons. Once you’ve lived in Berkeley, leave Berkeley and go on to, certainly something like San Francisco, going back to Berkeley was kind of like going back to a backwater. There was still political foment, but it paled beneath the cultural experience that we had had in San Francisco. And of course you know about the schism between the radical politicos and the cultural guys. Whatever. We needed to get out, so we went to stay, for a short time, in Olema. 

So it was the summer of ’68, we were driving up and the rear end of our little Hillman Huskie station wagon ground up as we were passing through the San Andreano Valley in northwestern Marin. We were stuck alongside the road for hours. And Peter Coyote drives by on his motorcycle, on his chopped Harley. We hadn’t seen him for months—NOBODY had seen him for months! He’d become temporarily reclusive, partially because of his hepatitis. And when he emerged, he started calling himself Peter Coyote. Up to that point he’d been Peter Cohon. He said, I’ve just rented this place out in Olema, this farmhouse and a couple barns, a 300 and some acre ranch. There’s a couple cowboys who run cows out there but I’ve got all the buildings rented. Come on out. You’re welcome to stay as long as you want to. Jane and I had decided to spend the winter there, since she was pregnant with Sierra. We were interested in having a little bit of privacy. It’s funny, being part of a family, it was very hard to be a nuclear family, because we were all very collective, and we harped on and on [Jane laughs] about cooperation and collectivity, don’t be uptight, but we still were struggling to have a little privacy too, to have this baby, to gather together the family, whatever… Be a family.

Well, Emmett called us at the Red House. We were building in a sleeping loft, we had a work party planned. And Emmett called Ron Thelin, and said, Can you get together all the people. Our people. Emmett was already distant from our people. But can you get people together and come out and help with the security at Altamont. And Ron said, Hey, you know, we got a work party planned for David and Jane’s house. We can’t do it. And uh…I’m sure there’s a lot more to it than that. The security ended up being the Hells Angels. And the Grim Reaper followed that. 

Emmett Grogan, from sometime in the ’70s. Photographer unknown. Courtesy Max Grogan.

Jane: David always talks about the picture of —

David: Mick Jagger. There’s a photograph of Mick Jagger. This black guy who tried to get onto the stage is being murdered by the Hell’s Angels in front of everybody, and Mick Jagger’s in kind of this fey… I don’t know what. It was not attractive. [coughs] [Jane laughs] So we didn’t go to Altamont, thank God. People that we know that went to Altamont did not have any fun at all. 

Freewheelin Frank was an Angel who ran with the Diggers.

David: He was just a prince of a man. 

Jane: He was a poet, and a psychic. 

David: He was a psychic, he really was. Freewheelin had moved to San Francisco when he was 18 years old to be a big-time biker. And after he dropped out of the Hells Angels, which is hard to do, he came back to Alderpoint. 

Jane: It’s rare to drop out of the Hells Angels. He used to visit us. We lived in this place called Benbo, which is just south of Garberville. 

David: We were caretaking an estate.

Jane: And when he first came back up here, he started visiting us there.

David: Freewheelin used to come down out of the hills, it’d be a beautiful spring day ,and he’d fall back onto the grass and say ‘Ahhhhh, the sun! The grass! Ahhh!’ [laughter] He started to grow marijuana, like everyone else, years and years ago, and he got busted. And he was so angry that he committed arson in the hills of Alderpoint in October, which is when it’s really dry. You don’t want to do that. You’re risking burning the whole country up. 

Jane: He ended up going to Folsom.

David: He did three and a half years for arson.

Jane: While he was there, he took up painting. He exercised. Somehow the people in jail left him alone because they knew who he was.

David: They respected him as an Angel. 

Jane: He took up painting. When we visited him, he gave us a couple of his paintings. Ron Thelin had this vision of taking Alcatraz and taking down the stone and the steel and reconfiguring it into Saint Francis. So there’d be the Statue of Liberty on the east coast and St. Francis on the West. And something about a third eye, which was a tunnel, which would hit at the right time, on the vernal equinox—

David: The sun would go through the third eye and light up the—

Jane: And he had Freewheelin paint this vision for him, from two or three different views.  Freewheelin’ was an amazing man. I like to tell the story. Years ago, he handed David this…

David: An envelope, a cloth envelope. Homemade cloth envelope, filled with books and pages and…

Jane: It was almost like a pillowcase, stuff with papers, poems he had written…

David: —filled with snatches of poetry.

Jane: Anagrams.

David: And he asked me if I could make a book out of it. At first I was totally intimidated but slowly but surely an idea emerged—

Jane: This was in the early ‘70s.

David: I edited out of this morass about 32 pieces, that were more like epigrams. They were poems, short poems. Terse. Each was something significant, stated in his original fashion. I wanted to make ragged-edge pages, and I asked Frank to do calligraphy. And I had an envelope, a beautiful envelope, I put ‘em all in the envelope, 30 of them, they just fit, with a card that went in front. The card said, For those who wish to make some return to Freewheelin’, please use the stamped, self-addressed envelope. The envelope was the cover. This very beautiful stationery, with a stamp on it, that said ‘Rural America’ and had a bull in the middle of a pasture, with his head back, obviously balling. And then in the upper lefthand corner, it said “Return” and then “Freewheelin Frank, Alderpoint, California,” so it was like Return to Rural America. Frank had come back. It was really quite beautiful. 

Freewheelin Frank performs one of his poems at the Band’s “Last Waltz” concert, 1976.

Jane: David could not finance publishing it. All he needed was about 500 bucks.

David: 500 bucks would have done it, I could have printed a thousand copies. I went to Richard Brautigan, and he strung me along. Richard was by that time a kind of sad character. He strung me along, he played like he was going to give me something, and then just didn’t. And we’d been good friends. And then I went to Michael McClure, who wrote the book, Freewheelin Frank, Secretary of the Angels together. And McClure whined. He was just…creepy. He whined. I think he just didn’t like it. 

Jane: But Michael remained a friend of Freewheelin’s ‘til his death. And so did we. On his deathbed, basically. The man who was taking care of Freewheelin’ took us up there. In his last days he had cancer. He lived alone, in a tiny trailer at the very end of  a road with a little waterfall. And this friend of his drove the 4-5 miles everyday to chop him firewood, to give him his medicine. He was still mobile. And to bring people to visit him. 

David: About a week before he died, we went there.

Jane: This is like 30 years after this event with Michael McClure. Around 30 years later.

David: At least.

Jane: And of course, on our way up to see Frank, we were thinking about all the memories of him. But not talking about it. Just thinking about it.

David: Didn’t say a thing.

Jane: We spent several hours with Frank, it was a wonderful visit. And… All of a sudden, in the middle of conversation, he says he wasn’t really feeling very well then. He was in a bad place. And he was talking about Michael McClure, and the fact that Michael hadn’t given David the money to do that. He was making excuses for Michael. It was like he was psychic. We didn’t say anything to Frank about it! But he—

David: It was just in the air.

Jane: He was psychic, he was.

David: He was.

Jane: He was amazing.

David: He was a lovely guy. He was dangerous. Not to us…

[pauses] Going back to this trickster business I was talking about — of finding ourselves inevitably in the role of tricksters, sometimes willingly and sometimes not. And even willingly, we might not have known everything we were doing, but we made ourselves available to be used. There’s an old Coyote story. Coyote turned tricks, but he could not do anything that the Great Spirit did not want him to do. One of the stories goes, the Great Spirit comes down and says, Coyote you’ve done so many good things in the world. I’m going to take you up to heaven. Coyote says Oh great! And Coyote climbs the ladder, there’s a beautiful light coming down through the clouds, and he’s climbing the ladder, and just as he’s about to get to the very top and stick his head through and see Paradise, the Great Spirit says, Y’know, I’ve changed my mind. You didn’t do any of those things for the right reasons. He pulls the string and Coyote falls back to the earth, flat on his back. 

So we were used. Whatever we accomplished… Anyway…

5 thoughts on ““We had a far more profound effect on society than we really understood, and some of us paid for that”: An epic conversation with JANE LAPINER and DAVID SIMPSON of the San Francisco Diggers

  1. Good stuff! Really interesting…
    BTW, in the Freewheelin’ Frank section: ‘Alter Point’ is probably Alderpoint, a rural area in Humboldt near Blocksburg & Bridgeville… aka “Murder Mountain” lol


  2. thank you.. the ending with Franks stories, i feel like ive been left dangling off a cliff. he really was a saint of a fellow


  3. Powerful no-longer-secret history, JayBab — fine archeological dig. These Digger stories tell us more about the movement and its time than the repetition of the same iconic names, as wonderful as many were.


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