Thanks everybody for the kind words and donations. As you may have noticed, I’ve used some of the funds to upgrade this site with WordPress; all ads have been removed, and the site now has a simpler address: diggersdocs.org
Meanwhile, I’ve been working on two major-ish projects.
The first is another in the Oral Histories series, this one a never-before-published long conversation with Nina Blasenheim and the late Freeman (Linn) House that I recorded at their home in 2010. I hope to have it for you before this year’s holiday season gets underway.
The second project is a bit different. I am working with close family members of the late Arthur Lisch (pictured above) to get a better understanding of who he was, how he came to be involved in the Diggers, what he did during that period, and what he did later. Arthur was a fascinating cat who played a major role in the Diggers story; although he is certainly present in contemporaneous media accounts and some scene/period histories, much of his specific work, ideas and impact has perhaps been overshadowed by other Digger voices. In an effort to set the record straight(er), I’m excited to share what I’ve been finding with everyone here soon… again, hopefully before mid-December.
There’s a few other things on the boil but I’m not yet sure if they’ll amount to much. We shall see.
Thanks again for reading. If you’d like to help cover the costs of this effort, donations of any amount at all are appreciated. Click here to get that happening.
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 competitiveboxer 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.
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.
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!
Today Vicki Pollack is known as the legendary founder and director emeritus of the San Francisco Bay Area-based Children’s Book Project, the non-profit organization that has provided over 2.9 million “gently used” books to local kids since 1992. But in late 1967, Vicki was a directionless, 25-year-old college graduate and Civil Rights activist who’d left her welfare worker job in New York City to move to the Bay Area in pursuit of something more.
She found it in February, 1968, when she walked into an extraordinary old Victorian house on Willard Street in San Francisco. Some Diggers were living there, plotting to expand the audacious social liberation work they had spontaneously begun in the Haight-Ashbury district just 17 months prior. Now they were setting their sights on the whole of San Francisco.
Actor Peter Coyote and the late Emmett Grogan are the usual names associated with the Diggers, as they wrote books chronicling their participation in that era; Grogan’s Ringolevio is the most notorious. But there were many others, like Vicki, who participated in the various Digger initiatives of the time, and whose stories — and unique perspective and insights — have never been told at length, or in any detail, in public.
With that in mind, it gives me a great deal of pleasure to share this interview with Vicki, constructed from two conversations I had with her in San Francisco in 2010. There has been some editing for clarity, but for the most part, this has not been edited down for a general audience, and many incidents and personages are spoken of without context, or only in passing. As always, my advice to the casual-but-curious reader is to simply let these unfamiliar/unexplained bits pass. Keep reading, you’ll like the next part.
This presentation has been prepared in extensive consultation with Vicki. Any errors of transcript are mine, and notice of any corrections of fact would be greatly appreciated. This is the fifth interview in my series of Diggers’ oral histories; the others are accessible here. For more infromation on the Diggers, consult Eric Noble’s vast archive at diggers.org
Please note: I have incurred not insignificant expenses in my Diggers research through the years. If you would like to support my work, please donate via PayPal. All donations, regardless of size, are greatly appreciated. Thank you!
Vicki Pollack: I was born in 1942. I grew up in Virginia, which I loved, and then we moved to Maryland, which was much more rural than it is now. My mother was a housewife and my father worked as a lawyer for the National Labor Relations Board. I have two brothers and a sister. I’m the oldest. I was a typical ‘50s kid, except that I was Jewish in a school where people were prejudiced. Otherwise all my goals were the usual teenage girl goals: get good grades, be popular. I would love to have been a cheerleader.
My family lived in a community that was basically a housing co-op. During World War II, there had been a food co-op in the area, and after the war, the members decided they were going to do a communal housing co-op. There was a golf course that was up for grabs, so they bought it. The community, which was called Bannockburn, wasn’t just Jewish. At the point that we lived there, it was probably 50/50. Every family there knew each other. They had meetings, they built a community swimming pool, they had this clubhouse. [See this fantastic 1986 Washington Post article for more about Bannockburn’s history.] I lived there from the time that I was 9 til I went to college. The people in Bannockburn were radicals. My parents were Democrats, but they were never big radicals. My mother gave some money to help the Spanish Civil War. That was all.
Nothing really seemed different about me growing up except that I was Jewish and I was living near areas that were very prejudiced against Jews. I did care a little bit about others, but I always thought I’d be a typical ’50s-style housewife, a mother. There was nothing growing up that would indicate that I was going to go in a totally different direction.
Where did things start changing for you?
Interestingly, Bannockburn was surrounded by areas where Jews weren’t allowed to live. The whole region was segregated. And in 1960, right before I went off to college, students and activists from Howard University started picketing the segregated Glen Echo Amusement Park, which was so close by we could hear the rollercoaster from our house. The whole Bannockburn community took part in the picketing and in supporting the demonstrators. It was part of the Civil Rights movement that was in progress then. It was dramatic: there were Black activists, there were American Nazi Party members, there were police.
I started that fall at the University of Wisconsin and came home for Christmas vacation, and got further involved in civil rights activism. There were plans to start doing anti-segregation sit-ins in Baltimore, which I wanted to participate in. I went to the workshop ahead of the sit-ins that was held in a small meeting room in a local church. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught the workshop.
At that point, he was just a person — he wasn’t Martin Luther King, Jr. yet.
When I started being on picket lines, at 18 years old, it was very exciting. I would participate in them all the time. But sometime later, when I was back at the University of Wisconsin, I found myself at a picket line and all of a sudden I realized I didn’t know what this picket line is for. I looked at myself and said, You better step back and think about what you’re doing: You’re picketing not for a cause but because being on a picket line is exciting…
I ended up graduating from Berkeley with a degree in English. While I was there, I’d been hanging out with one of my best friends who I grew up with, who was living in the Haight-Ashbury. It wasn’t yet the “Haight-Ashbury” but it was starting. The summer before the end of my senior year I’d gotten engaged to a guy in Washington. We broke up, and I moved to New York. I was a welfare worker there, and got involved in an activist group called the Real Great Society — there were amazing people at these meetings. Linn House, who later changed his first name to Freeman, was there. Abbie Hoffman was there.
But still, I didn’t really like New York that much. I thought there’s got to be more to life than this, there just has to be. And then one spring day, this guy comes in and he said, Come with me, you’ve got see the music and dancing going on at St. Mark’s Church. We got there. I smoked weed, and I just went out of my head, dancing. That St. Mark’s Church event made me realize I had to get back out to San Francisco. I broke up with my New York boyfriend, because he didn’t want to go, and came back to Berkeley in ’67, and got work in North Beach clubs. One day, around Valentine’s Day, 1968, I was walking down Haight Street and I bumped into Linn, who I hadn’t seen for two or three months, and he said, Oh we want you to work with us. [laughs] He and David Simpson, who I knew, were producing the Free City News and they needed help. He sent me to this really big, absolute stunningly beautiful communal Victorian house on Willard Street that had a whole extra lot for a yard. And that’s when I started meeting everybody.
To me, it was a magical world. I’d experienced some of it in New York and some of it in Berkeley and I’d experienced some of it in San Francisco. I was there at Death of the Hippie. But I’d just showed up at that event; at that time I didn’t yet know guys like Ron Thelin and Jay Thelin from The Psychedelic Shop, who were part of organizing the event. Frankly, when I’d got to the Haight in late ‘67, I was pretty disappointed because it looked grimy to me. But when I got to Willard Street, I met the people that I wanted to know my entire life. They were me. Linn was living there. Ron Thelin was sleeping in the living room. The Free City News was being produced in the basement. I got there, and I thought, Oh this is my home. This is where I belong. I said, I don’t care if you’re filled up, I belong here. I moved into the house and I became the dishwasher because I didn’t want to cook. We made dinner every night for maybe 40 people. It was unbelievably exciting. I’d lived on a kibbutz in Israel for a little while in 1966 and thought, If I’m going to do something like this, I’m going to do it in my own country. I wanted to see what was possible. And now, here I was, doing it.
We did everything together. Nobody had regular jobs. We were sharing money. And we were partly living on welfare — I would get this welfare check for $45 every two weeks and buy my cigarettes and toiletries and give the rest to the house. We’d be living without money — and it was okay. We were sharing, especially the women more than the men.
The people that had got the house were Rose Lee Patron and Patty Davis. There were four or five women, and a man named Tom Dury. You don’t think of them so much as the Diggers, because Black Bear Ranch started soon afterwards and they went to live there, and then they went on and did other things with their lives. They were such remarkable women. They made sure the rent got paid. You always hear about Emmett Grogan, but do you hear about Nina Blasenheim? Nina was the person who made the food happen. She was very capable. And so beautiful. She’s not in very many of the pictures, but everyone wanted to marry Nina.
By 1968, the Diggers had evolved into talking — and being — the “Free City” Collective, or “Free Family.” There was the Free City News. They were planning a Free City Summer Solstice celebration, a Free City Convention. What were these “Free City” concepts?
When I got there, everything was already in process, and I had to figure out what it all meant. “Free” this, “free” that. They were going to the food market to get the food that would be prepared for free meals in the park, they were starting the first Free City Convention… There was so much going on, and everybody took part in different things. People just did what they wanted to do. For example, for a while we’d go every single day to the City Hall steps and read poetry, and pass out leaflets.
You have to understand how crazy we were. Ron Thelin and Ama got arrested for wearing those scarves, pretending to be Billy the Kid or something.
For the big Summer Solstice event, I helped with some of the advertising. Somehow I managed to get up really early, get a truck, and I got somebody to drive me around. I got helium tanks, and then I put way up in the sky bunches of balloons at each site. Up on Twin Peaks, and all over, there were balloons that I had put up, advertising the solstice—because the concept was we were supposed to be going into Eternity on the Solstice. Somewhere you’ll see it in one of the Free City News pages, it shows the different parks, the schedule.
And so on the day, we went to each one of these parks, singing and playing and Ann and Bill Lindyn would do their Punch and Judy show… Just having a wonderful time. That symbolized how much fun those days were.
I was one of the bellydancers on this big bellydancing flatbed truck that was going through the Financial District at lunch hour. Lenore Kandel and Judy Goldhaft and Jane Lapiner were really good trained dancers. They led free dance classes at the Straight Theater. They were good dancers, and they had dancer friends, and some of them were on that truck. I was not one of the stars there, but I went out on this truck. I could not believe that people were actually going to work. I thought, What are you doing? How could you be going to work? It’s the Summer Solstice! Here, come, join us! We had so much fun.
Someone had got a cable car, and Bill Lindyn and I were on that, it went all over… I think it was before the actual day. It was just amazing, it drove around all the parks, people would get on and off. People singing.
We did a free bakery. We were doing masses of bread baked in big coffee cans. I organized that at one point, made sure the flour was there. There was this big ranch down in Sonoma—maybe Novato—called Olompali, owned by Don McCoy, that had become a commune, and somehow we got involved with them. They had ovens. We went there and bake bread and swim nude, basically. Immense parties. And then we’d bring the bread loaves back to the city and distribute them for free.
You see burning of money in Nowsreal. Was that a common thing?
Not really. Back then, it was just the freedom—Oh, let’s burn the money. It was just like a symbol. But… You should do it. Try to burn a dollar. It’s an interesting thing to do.
The Diggers were a pretty amazing heavy duty group of people. ‘Heavy’ was a compliment. Other people would be like ‘Oh you guys are so heavy’ —they were more like ‘We’re light, airy-fairy’ kind of stuff. You have to understand: People like Emmett and Bill Fritsch were so impressive. Peter Berg was probably one of the smartest people on the planet. And Freeman [House] was one of the most remarkable men I ever met. To me, he was pure, just…good. I am probably the most impressed with him. Just incredibly impressive, charismatic people. So they could get a lot from people. They started going down to L.A. for money.
And Willard House was the center. It was like the hangout. Everybody came there. You never had to leave if you didn’t want to, and you got to meet everybody. All the poets came there. Janine Pommy Vega and Kirby Doyle and Lenore Kandel were frequent visitors. Artists lived there: Billy Batman, Bryden Bullington. Hells Angels came there. It’s where I met Peter Coyote and Sam, and Peter Berg, and Bill Fritsch [aka Sweet William Tumbleweed]. And Tony Serra. Frank Oppenheimer came to talk to us before he created the Exploratorium! All the musicians. People like [Grateful Dead co-manager] Danny Rifkin. Whenever we wanted to go to a show, any one of us could go to a show for free. When they did Carousel Ballroom, we had free tickets. So whenever we wanted to go down there and see anybody, we could go.
The women did a lot of the stuff. It was very sexist—the men were all talking and planning, but the women were handling it. Handling a house with 40 people. Making sure there was food. Making sure there was laundry. And eventually there were many, many kids involved. Little kids. I guess the most wonderful thing was coming out of my room in the morning in this beautiful house and seeing so many people I loved to talk to and work with and travel with and play with. Vinnie, Gail, Cathy, John Glazer, Rosie, Ron, Holly, Phyllis, Emmett, Nina.
[Reading from a text she wrote in 1983] “My memories of Willard Street are so joyful. Learning how to tie-dye. I never liked doing it, I only did it once, but I loved to see the color of the tie dyes hanging everywhere. Learning how to clean squid. Eating whale meat on chocolate chip bread. Going on a motorcycle ride with Pete [Knell] of the Hells Angels…”
I’m going to throw some names out there of people who are gone, or who I haven’t been able to interview. You knew Richard Brautigan…?
A little bit. We did do things together. I put on an event with him in North Beach when he needed help. I really liked him. I loved his poetry. A lot of what went on at that point, was poetry.
How about Lew Welch?
I just liked him as a poet. He wouldn’t’ve known me, but I knew him. One time I want out to Olompali, I went out there and there was going to be a big party. I have no idea who I went with, but Lew Welch was there, and Magda his wife, and I was sitting at the table and whoever else I’d gone out there with. They were telling me about Magda’s straight son. You know who that was? Huey Lewis, who would become Huey Lewis of Huey Lewis and the News. [laughs] And at this party someone had spread white powder out on the table and we were all licking at it, all evening long. When people came the next day for this huge party, we were absolutely totally out of our heads, psychotic. I was flashing in and out of consciousness. People were three feet tall, going in circles. And Bill Fritsch, for some reason, anchored me enough that I came back to some extent. We didn’t know what we had taken. I had taken LSD before, but this was something else… [laughs]
Was LSD a big deal for you?
I took acid here and there. LSD wasn’t that important. It was never really big for me. It just wasn’t. I had already dropped out! I’d already done everything I needed to do, without it. I really didn’t like it.
A funny thing is when I came back from that party, my timing was absolutely perfect. I’d be thinking, Oh I want to go to Ashbury Street, and somebody would come in a car and be there to take me.
Bill Fritsch was an amazing man. Bill was in and out of Willard Street all the time. And Lenore Kandel was on the periphery. I was so much in awe of Lenore that I couldn’t even talk around her. The first time I ever saw Lenore, she was reading poetry, and she was reading Word Alchemy. I was just floored, it was so beautiful, the poetry. It was the first time I think I ever enjoyed poetry in my life. [See Endnote]
And then I met her—and I’m still like this around writers—and I shut up, I’m in such awe, I put them on a pedestal. I never got over it really until she was old. When she got old and I went and helped her shop and everything, then I got over it, I saw her as a person. And Bill, Bill was just…Bill was Bill. I wasn’t involved, though. I just thought he was the most handsome, sexy man I’d ever seen in my life.
I went to her place where we prepared for this huge seder at David Simpson and Jane Lapiner’s. People cooked for it. Lenore made things like I’d never seen before. I just remember this huge table, filled with food, and we thought at one point it was gonna turn into an orgy, but it didn’t. [laughs] Allen Ginsberg was there. It was quite the event, amazing.
He was so beautiful. I still dream about him. By the time I got there, he was already more distant. But, right before he died, we spent time together. He stayed at my house. We weren’t lovers — we were good, good friends. I don’t even know what to say about him. He was a beautiful man.
How about Billy Murcott?
I didn’t really know Bill Murcott. The person who knows is Phyllis. I’m really good with dates, but she’s really good with subjective memory. She’ll go, Oh it was Endless Time. Because to her, it was.
I never knew how people were connected to each other, because nobody talked very much about their past. All I knew is I could tell the people that belonged and the people that didn’t, it was pretty obvious. People did not talk about their past. You lived from that moment, so the things that today, looking back, things you would think people would have known about each other at the time, they didn’t.
[Reminiscing] There was so much going on. I was involved in something in Berkeley called the Six Day School. For me to get there, I had to hitchhike into the city, and get over there by the entrance to Golden Gate Park, where they picked you up. And they took you on a bus all the way out to Glen Ellen, which is where Jack London lived. It was far. First time I ever learned about nutrition, about how to to can and preserve foods, about psychic games. Everything was free. They would give these classes, and then they would take you back and drop you off. I think I went twice.
Who were these people?
I didn’t know — and I went, anyway! We were living free, and living without money. Here’s a story I love because it just shows how absolutely crazy we all were. I had this one little welfare check and every month I would buy my cigarettes and some Tampax and whatever I needed and then give the rest of the money to the house, and then I would literally live the rest of the month without money. Now, this friend of mine and I decided that we were going to go to New Mexico together. She had a scene—it was her, her boyfriend and her little two-year-old son and a dog. And she said, Come with me, I’ll pay. We barely knew each other, and I had no money, but I was so into the whole idea of Free, that I went.
And I had incredibly mystical experiences for the first time in my life on that trip. I saw people before I met them. We went to all these ruins in New Mexico, and I would feel what was going on, the history of the place. One day we got to this ruin and I said, You know Sarah I don’t feel anything here at all, this is strange. She said, Read the plaque. Nothing had happened there. All these kinds of experiences were happening and I was reading Herman Hesse’s Demian and it was the first time I learned that psychic stuff could be real. I’d been raised by a father who was very scientific, who didn’t think any psychic stuff existed.
It continued when I got back to San Francisco. It got so that I could call somebody psychically from across the city and have them come over and they’d say, What are you doing to me? [laughs] I went to Big Sur and I met a woman who said, I just fell off a cliff and a doctor was at the bottom.
Woodstock was so beautiful. The setting was so beautiful. My younger brother had gone early. He’d gotten food and camping stuff. I only went to Woodstock because I had a sister that was 16, and our mother had told her she couldn’t go unless I went with her. I was 27 at this point. We were up in the country with the family, and they dropped us off, 11 miles from the site. I loved Woodstock because I did nothing but sit there with my mouth open, listening to the music — I wasn’t a Digger, I didn’t help Wavy Gravy, I wasn’t helpful.
So, Altamont. Pete [Knell] didn’t go. Phyllis and I went down on the bus with the Hells Angels. There was this guy Moose, who we dropped acid with. We got down there at night, and remembering Woodstock, I was telling people, Oh just wait till the morning, you’ll be so surprised, it’s going to be so beautiful. Well, it wasn’t. It was California at its worst. Absolutely dry. Yellow. No water. I don’t know how much of it was intensified because I was on acid, but I just remember it being so ugly. They made you wait all day long for the music. It just went on and on and on. People were throwing bottles at each other. I think one of the things that got me out of there was I had to go to the bathroom and there weren’t any toilet facilities. I didn’t even hear [the Stones]. I hitchhiked out, because I couldn’t go back to the Angels’ bus by then. I knew that there was no way I could go back down there.
Afterwards when I came back, Pete said to me, You know you better stay away from the Angels for a while. I said Okay, fine with me.
Why didn’t Pete go?
A lot of people didn’t go. I never knew all the background of what went on.
Bill Fritsch was there…
Yeah. And Lenore was there.
What happened with Lenore in the ’70s? Was there some kind of accident?
Lenore was in a motorcycle accident. Bill was driving. I think what happened was her neck was broken but because she was with the Angels, they took her to General Hospital and then she went home and never really did anything with it. And I know, because I took her to doctors, to the chiropractor. Her whole back was crumbling. She was in really bad pain that seemed to get worse as she got older.
What do you think happened to Emmett? Was it a suicide, or…?
I was living with Peter Coyote’s lady Eileen at the time. Emmett would call her and get me on the phone and somehow he started to see I wasn’t just this dippy-dippy crazy person. So then he came to stay with us. We got to know each other. We weren’t lovers, we were just close.
I don’t know if he was killed. But I’ll tell you what makes me wonder. Months before he died, he stayed at my house, and we got really close. He was very paranoid. He kept thinking that people—government people—were after him, and he didn’t want me to tell anybody that he was there. And I didn’t.
Did you guys talk about the Diggers much?
Well no, because it was still so recent. He was telling me about his son, and his wife. He gave me his manuscript for Final Score.
When he died… Well, you can say, Oh it’s all drugs, he was crazy… But I don’t know. We’ll never know what happened. He was so convinced that they were after him. You can say that was paranoia but at the same time, who knows. He seemed pretty rational to me.
What happened to the Diggers? Why did it end when it did?
I don’t know why it didn’t continue. I think it doesn’t really matter. Some people got into drugs. A lot of people moved out to the country. A lot of people coupled off. People’s lives went on. But what stayed for almost all of us were the connections between us. I was meeting these wonderful people who are still my friends. Sister friends. People like Nina. It’s way beyond friendship.
But generally, people went on and did other great things, other good things. I really had hope in the ’70s, when the government was hiring artists to work with the poor, things like that, that’s when I really believed the change was coming. I’d studied socialism in college and I was thinking, Well gee, we’re in the synthesis period.
You know Richard Brautigan’s poem, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace? I really believed that, the idea that computers would come in and do all the work. The social problem then would be what are you going to do with all the leisure time. [laughs] Of course this is not what actually ended up happening; instead, computers have made it so a few people make a fortune and everyone else becomes poorer. But back then, ideas like this were in the air. Even somebody like Goldwater was saying everybody should have a guaranteed income. It could have happened.
How did your family back east respond to what you were doing in San Francisco?
I would go home and talk to my parents and my friends, and they just thought we were being totally unrealistic. I truly believed—and I don’t know if this had to do with dope or what—that we were going into the Age of Aquarius and we were going to change the world.
There was a paper that I wrote at the time called “Living at Willard State in 1968.” I intended to send it to friends who lived in New York, telling them about what we did and why they should either send money, or come be with us. It was a very logical paper. I never sent it and I never showed it to anybody, until much later. I was trying to figure out what people were talking about at this house. The way I saw it was that if you get a bunch of people together, living communally, and if everybody picks a job, you’re gonna get everything covered because everybody has different interests. And that general idea could be expanded further outwards. That’s the thing I got to. To me, it was all just some kind of an experiment… But at the same time, we were doing it.
People at home would tell me, This isn’t going to work. But I really believed it was going to work, that we could make a difference. I look back at it now, I go… Why did I think that? I guess it’s youth. The optimism of a 25-year-old is so unrealistic. Even though the Vietnam War and everything was going on, it was much brighter then, in that way, than it is now. When I look back, I see all that hope. And then I look around and see how sad the world is now. It’s just unbelievable.
I have friends today that say, Oh yeah I experienced the Sixties, I dropped acid, and all these things. And then I reply, But you were working a full-time job, or being a housewife — you weren’t experiencing what I was experiencing. When I got to Willard Street in February ’68, it was like I had entered a Technicolor movie. I couldn’t believe how beautiful everything was. What I was involved in at Willard Street was being with the women, doing the day-to-day operations, and more importantly, finding ourselves. And I think almost all of us did find out who we were, and what we were supposed to do with our lives.
By August 1968, some people from Willard Street were moving out to Black Bear. I eventually went to live with the Hells Angels, but these people from Willard Street have been my best friends ever since. Later on, when our children came, Joanie Batman and I did a free school. And that’s really what I learned about myself from that time, that I liked teaching and being with kids.
The San Francisco Diggers were meant to be loose, free and vaguely anonymous — or pseudonymous — but perhaps inevitably, some people’s names got out. Usually they were the ones who spoke to a reporter.
And there were a lot of reporters in the Haight-Ashbury during the Diggers’ heyday of 1966-8. Such was the Diggers’ presence and notoriety that seemingly every reporter filing a story on the Haight — even, memorably, a typically dyspeptic Joan Didion, for the Saturday Evening Post—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. “A cross between the Mad Bomber and Johnny Appleseed,” said future Yippie Paul Krassner in The Realist, “a combination of Lenny Bruce and Malcolm X, the illegitimate offspring resulting from the seduction of Mary Worth by an acidic anarchist.” Didion wrote, “In the official District mythology, [the Diggers] are supposed to be a group of anonymous good guys with no thought in their collective head but to lend a helping hand.”
Who were these guys? Actor Peter Coyote and the late Emmett Grogan are the usual names associated with the Diggers (and their later incarnation, sometimes called the Free Family collective), as they wrote books chronicling their participation in that era; Grogan’s Ringolevio (1972) is the most notorious. But there were many others who participated in the various wildly audacious Digger initiatives of the time.
Kent Minault’s involvement in the Diggers wasn’t a secret. He and four other Diggers, including Grogan, were identified by name in a photograph that ran on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle in 1966 — well, kind of, as Kent gave his first name as Pierre to the Chronicle. Later, Kent appeared in Ringolevio as “Slim Minnaux,” and was featured heavily in Coyote’s 1998 memoir, Sleeping Where I Fall. When David Hollander and I interviewed Kent at his Los Angeles home in 2006 for a documentary film, it was the first time he had spoken on the record about his time with the Diggers. He had a lot to say — and, as a veteran stage actor, a wonderfully theatrical way of saying it. Details, color, context, insight: it’s all here in Kent’s vivid storytelling.
The following text is a combination of that initial 2006 interview and a follow-up interview I conducted with Kent and fellow Digger Harvey Kornspan in May, 2011. It has not been edited down for a general audience, and many incidents and personages are spoken of without context, or only in passing. There are, inevitably, a few digressions. My advice to the casual-but-curious reader is to simply let these unfamiliar/unexplained bits pass. Keep reading, there’s a good chance you’ll like the next part. (For more about the Diggers, consult the vast archive that has been maintained for decades by historian Eric Noble at diggers.org)
This presentation has been prepared in extensive consultation with Kent. Any errors of transcript are mine, and notice of any corrections of fact would be greatly appreciated.
Please note that in 2017, Kent presented a fantastic one-man performance, “Diggerly Do’s,” in San Francisco, detailing the early months of his Diggers experience. His script drew from the transcripts of our conversations. You can see a video of one of the performances here.
This is the third in a series of interviews with Diggers that I am presenting online for the first time. The others were Phyllis Willner and Chuck Gould. More to come.
If you would like to support my work, please donate via PayPal. All donations, regardless of size, are greatly appreciated. Thank you!
Kent Minault: I’m an old man. [laughing] My memory may be destroying things. We must acknowledge this at the outset. Because I read the stuff that other people have written and things that they say in the interviews and I go, I’m not sure I remember it that way.
Jay Babcock: How did you become involved with the Diggers?
I came to San Francisco in ’65. I had been an actor in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. There were two rides, one going back east and one going out west. And I said, Ah, I’ll take the one going west. And so I ended up in Berkeley. I knew that there was a sofa, or a floor at least, that I could sleep on in Berkeley. I stayed in Berkeley for a while and I got a job as a traffic surveyor, cuz they needed to figure out where to build the BART. So it was kind of a pork barrel job, but the money wasn’t bad and I did that and I cast about because I knew I wanted to be an actor but I had no idea how to do it. So I got into some bad plays in San Francisco and was disgruntled and thrown out of the companies.
Then I was working on a paper for my college degree, which was belated, and I was typing away in this little cottage that I subsequently rented and there came a knock on the door. And this guy was there who I’d been in a little singing group with in college. I hadn’t seen him in years. He said, I heard you were in town. Listen we need some actors over at the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Do you think you’d have time? And I had seen the Mime Troupe a couple of nights before and I thought they were just amazing. They were intimidating to me—I thought I would never be good enough to be in a company like that.
So I went over and I did my Shakespeare monologue, my Biff Loman, and [SF Mime Troupe director] Ronnie Davis sat there, squinting at me, with the smoke from his last quarter inch Camel cigarette, and he looked at me and thought about me for a minute, and then he said, Okay, stick around. And he went back in the office for coffee. I had no idea what I was supposed to do. There were people hanging around, playing guitars, smoking and talking to each other, so I wandered around and got to meet people. It turned out that you could do stuff there on a Monday night, do little workshops. So I was a Mime Troupe actor, and within a year I was in the Minstrel Show.
So that was kind of my conservatory. But it was out of that that the Diggers really started. The Diggers was originally a performance of a kind. It was a piece of theater.
What was intimidating about what the Mime Troupe was doing?
Well, its physicality. They could sing, they could dance, they could act, they were funny. They created these amazing pictures. It was sharper and more disciplined then any theater I’d ever seen before. And y’know, I was sort of the big actor on campus in my college days, but when I saw that, all of that meant nothing because the skill level was really high. They were really good.
Who was the friend who knocked on your cottage door?
Ken Whiterow was his name. He was a stage manager at that time. I think he quickly left and began doing something else. And as I got involved with the Mime Troupe, I was in correspondence with my college buddy Brooks Bucher—he and I had been roommates in the University of Rochester. When I came out and got involved in the Mime Troupe, I had been passing letters back and forth with him. And he came west later on. And he sort of took over what Ken Whiterow had been doing, started doing stage managing and stuff at the Mime Troupe. He was never interested in being an actor.
Brooks and I had an odd relationship. He was my best friend, really, for quite a few years. But we had a relationship whereby we could dare each other to do things. And when we were in the university together, we dared each other to go to Europe, to work our way to Europe. We couldn’t get a ticket—which was fine, because we really didn’t have the money anyway. We had to get a job on a boat. So, in the middle of my senior year, we left the university, we went to New York City, we slept on a friend’s floor, we walked around to boats and just asked them if we could work on the boat and go to Europe. And people just laughed at us. They thought that was the stupidest thing in the world. Nobody did that. Maybe 20, 40 years ago they did it, but not now. But we persisted and someone said, You know so long as you’re talking to American or English boats, it is indeed a waste of time. But try the Scandinavians and the Italians. So we narrowed down our search a little bit and indeed after three weeks we found a job on a Norwegian freighter, and we went to Europe. So we did the thing.
And so our relationship was characterized by those things. While we were in New York doing that, he said, Let’s climb to the top of the Brooklyn Bridge—at midnight. And if you go to the Brooklyn Bridge, those cables go right up to those towers, and they have two little cables along the side so you can actually walk right up those. So we went at midnight and walked up to the Brooklyn Bridge, said Okay, let’s go, and we walked up to the top and took a few photographs to prove that we’d done it. That was the kind of thing we did.
So then when I was involved in the Mime Troupe, he came out, because this was clearly the thing to do. It was my little moment to lead the relationship, and dare him to get involved with this radical theater company. So he came out, and you know, had no acting experience, and wasn’t really interested in being an actor, but he could do lots of other things.
Let me give you a little background on Brooks. He came from a little town in New York called Painted Post, a little rural New York state town. I think he had been adopted because his father Jerry was actually his stepfather. He was the kind of guy who would wear broad lapel checked blazers and loud ties and things like that and shake your hand real firmly. I only met him a couple times. Brooks in college… I thought Brooks was just the coolest guy, because he had a great walk. His shoulders were utterly relaxed. He was a great looking man. And he was on the football team. He had football shoulders, a football build. He was on the Rochester football team, played a little bit. He also had a real uncanny sense of how to hustle something well. He got ROTC to pay for his education for three years and then dropped out. And somehow, they were appalled at him, at his lack of patriotism, and he just paid for the last year of his education on his own, and so got three years of free education. Totally pissed off ROTC but at least at that time there was nothing they could do about it. He didn’t see any reason why one shouldn’t do that, [because] they would pay for his education and then immediately consign him to DEATH. So he figured if they’re gonna play me that way, I’m gonna play them. So he thought that way.
He had that “special light that shone on him” quality, where you can do things like that and he was perfectly happy with it. Though some people might find it morally questionable, he never would. He had women climbing in his dormitory window at night, stuff like that. He was very attractive to women.
I think his romantic interest at the time flamed out and then he came out west. I assured him that there was plenty of romance and adventure in San Francisco. When I came to San Francisco in ‘65, I happened to move into the Haight-Ashbury, but it wasn’t because there was anything about the Haight-Ashbury, it was just a place where you could get a cheap room. The “Haight-Ashbury” had not started yet. But, by the time he came out a year later, it had. I think it was early ‘66 or something, we got this place together over in Noe Valley.
Brooks was no actor, and didn’t want to be an actor, but he thought the Mime Troupe was pretty interesting. So he became a stage manager, in charge of props and moving stuff around and when the truck would go to the park, he would be there with it, and so on. Brooks was a smart guy but I think he was really there for the adventure, he was just looking for a way to be a part of it all. Brooks and [the Mime Troupe’s] Emmett [Grogan] were just the kind of people who would get along with each other. They both had that cocky confidence. They had a similar walk and everything—it was like a relaxed swagger.
The Diggers began because this young black guy was killed by the police, and the next day, Emmett had done something where he’d gotten free food out there [in the park]. Because Emmett could speak a little Italian, and all the produce wholesalers were these old Italian guys. Unless they were Chinese. In any case, he went down there and got free food out of them, and that’s how it started. Now, Peter Coyote and I and a lot of the other people who became involved with the Diggers weren’t around at that time because we were on tour with the Mime Troupe. The Mime Troupe had gotten a lot of attention and some of us had got arrested. I remember when we came back to the airport, it was like the big media heroes. When we got off the airplane, news crews came up and shoved microphones in our faces. And we were being interviewed and everything like that.
And I remember Brooks is standing off to the side, looking around impatiently, waiting for us to be done. He was there to pick me up cuz we had a place together up on Noe Street. He took me back to the place. I said, Touring is exhausting man, I’m just gonna sleep for a week. He said, Well no, not exactly. You can’t. You’ve gotta go get the free food. And I said, What free food? He said, For the Diggers. And I said, What’s the Diggers? And he said, you’ll find out. But you gotta get up at 5:30 in the morning. I said no man, I’m not getting up at 5:30 in the morning, I’ve been getting three hours of sleep a night for the past two months, I can’t do that. He said, Just this once, then you can go back to sleep. And because of our characteristic relationship, he sort of had some right to insist. So I go Oh, okay. So he said, Here’s the keys to the yellow Volkswagen box. Brooks had bought this yellow Volkswagen bus—well, it wasn’t a bus, because it didn’t have the windows, it was like a panel van. A big tin box. It was a yellow box on wheels. It was like a camper van but it had no windows, so it wasn’t a camper. This was called the “Yellow Excess.” And a lot of our early adventures happened in this Volkswagen bus. I remember we spraypainted on the side, ‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.’ Anyways, it didn’t have the quote from Blake painted on it yet but probably would within a few weeks of this. So he said, Here’s the keys. Now you gotta get up at 5:30, so set your alarm clock.
My room just had a pallet on the floor, and an orange crate for the night table. And it was cold—it’s San Francisco, right? So the thing rang, 5:30, I got up, and I said, Now what am I doing? How do I get the free food? He said, Go to the produce market. I said, Well where is that. He said, It’s down on Army Street. I said, Well do you have an address? He said, Don’t worry, just go down Army Street, you’ll see. It’s 5:30 in the morning and I was disoriented and confused, and he just shoved the keys into my hand and pushed me out the door.
It was still dark. I staggered down, started up the bus, which slowly coughed into life, and I drove down the hill, and I found Army Street, and I went along Army Street, towards the 101 freeway. And sure enough pretty soon there was a sign, one of those green marker signs, that says San Francisco Produce Terminal and it’s got an arrow, and you had to follow the arrow and then there’s a U-turn and then you go around and pretty soon I’m in this new area I’d never been in before. I come out into this large open area and there’s a parking lot in the middle, and these big industrial tin siding buildings down two sides, and it’s the San Francisco Produce Terminal. It’s got a big sign there in the middle, and I’m unmistakably there.
I drove the Volkswagen up to this thing. Trucks are pulling up, guys with hand dolleys are loading in cases of food, they’re all busy about their day’s work. I walk into this place, look around, nobody’s paying the slightest attention to me, so I walk around and look at a guy and I say, Um hi, I’m from the Diggers and um we’re giving away free food to poor people up in the City. Could you spare anything? The guy looks at me, he said Nope! And walks away. So I went, This is ridiculous, what has Brooks got me into, this is just going to be an exercise in futility. When can I go back to sleep? So I pull the truck out, I decide to try again for the next one. So I pull up to the next place and this is Chinese. So there’s these Chinese people running around, same thing, and so I walk up to the guy and say the same thing. Sounds pretty good, and especially if I say ‘poor people,’ that’ll work. So I say, Hi, I’m from the Diggers and we’re giving away free food to poor people up in the City. Could you spare anything? The guy says, No, not today. He walks away. I go back to the truck again, and then suddenly someone whistles. I turn around and this guy says, he points to something on the ground, and he motions. Like, Take that. There’s a case of artichokes. So I said, Oh! Thank you! But his back is already turned, and he’s already doing his work. So I pick up the case of artichokes, I almost feel guilty, like somebody’s gonna catch me, but I put in the van. Okay, at least I got a case of artichokes.
So I go to the next place. Now things are starting to work. People are giving me things. Here’s a case of tomatoes. Here’s a little bit of lettuce, carrots, parsnips, rutabegas — vegetables that I actually seldom eat. But I’m getting them, and the truck is gradually filling up. I come to the end of the thing and there’s a place that has chicken! And they give me three boxes of chicken wings, packed in this heavy cardboard with a little ice in it. So I take the chicken and then I cross over to the other side of the terminal, and I continue, and indeed some places say No, nothing, and other places say Yeah, take that. And by the time I’m done, the truck is [buckling] on its springs with the weight of all the food I’ve got. I’ve absolutely packed it. And I go out of the terminal and I’m unsure whether I’ll actually make it back up the hill with this thing.
Now it’s daylight. I’m feeling pretty good! I actually went and got free food without the slightest idea of what I was doing. I drove back up, and Brooks was there, walking down out of the house with a cup of coffee in his hand, and he said, Ah! You got the food, good! You can go to sleep now. But come up to the Panhandle Park at like Oak and Ashbury or something like that, and we’ll have the free food there, you gotta see this. I said, So this is the Diggers? And he said, Yeah I’ll tell you all about it later.
So I go up and I fall asleep for another four hours, and Brooks goes somewhere with the truck. I wake up and I make my way over to the Panhandle park, and I’m standing around and here’s six or seven people standing in line with wooden bowls in their hands, waiting. I look around. I look up the street. And there’s a couple of people coming down the street and my god, they have bowls in their hands too. People are gathering. They know about this place! Pretty soon I hear a shout. Here comes Brooks, up the street, it’s like it’s a stagecoach, someone’s driving the yellow van and he’s hanging out the door, waving. The van pulls up, the double doors open, and there’s one of those big old-fashioned industrial milk pails. It’s about 15 gallons of stuff. Two people carry it. So he comes over and he and I muscle the thing out of the van and we take it over and plunk it on the ground. And there’s one of those soup ladles, and he ladles out chicken soup, made from all the vegetables and the chicken that I’d gotten from the produce market. And somebody’s got a loaf of bread. And they start giving away food to these people.
Carrying the milkcan of stew to the Diggers’ daily free food event in the Panhandle.
Scenes from the Diggers’ daily free food event in the Panhandle. Photos by Gene Anthony.
I said, What is this? And he then explained the history of the thing, of how Emmett had decided to respond to the murder of this black kid by giving away free food in the park. And, just because of the kind of time it was, the logic of that was apparent to me immediately. Somehow, that connected. I think it’s an important connection because there was always a rapport between the black radical community and what we were doing. Y’know, they kind of did their thing separately, there was a Black People’s Free Store down in the Filmore. We were always connected with them and did things with them. And the Minstrel Show was a black-white thing. We always did things together. I remember one time, for a rehearsal for the Minstrel Show, we had done this thing… Well, first some background. Some of the Diggers had gotten these Gestetner machines. It was an early form of duplication. This was basically the propaganda organ of the Diggers. We put out broadsides, which were basically a piece of paper that was handed around the street. One of the broadsides was about this thing which we just saw, where traffic was congesting on Haight Street. Haight Street was becoming a tourist mecca. People would sit in their cars going five miles an hour down the street, leaning out, taking pictures of all the hippies gathered on the street, as if they were some kind of anthropological exhibit. We didn’t like that. We thought that there was a better way to have our public life, a better way to have the street there.
And so…this broadside had been put out by somebody, promising that the Diggers were gonna show up on a Sunday afternoon and clear all the traffic off the street.
So we were in this rehearsal in the morning, I think it was like noon or one o’clock, we got out of our Minstrel Show rehearsal, and I remember Willie B. Hart and Jason Alexander were there with us, and then there was Peter Berg, and me, and I don’t know if Peter wrote the broadside or not, but I remember he felt enormously responsible, because it was like we had promised the people that this was gonna happen. And then we went up there. Peter had this old Volvo, so maybe we all drove up in his car. But we got out of his car, parked it somewhere and we walked out on the street, and it was just so intimidating because from Broadway all the way up to Stanyan, it was just packed with traffic, and the sidewalks were packed with all these people. There must have been tens of thousands of people on the street that day. Oh my god, what are we gonna do. We told the people we were gonna clear the traffic off the street, how could we possibly do this?
So we walked up, I think we were at Haight and Masonic, between Masonic and Ashbury, and there were so many people on the sidewalk that you couldn’t walk that fast on the sidewalk, but we made it that far and we were in consternation about how to proceed because we didn’t really have a plan of action at all.
Now, there was this song that we used as a warm-up in rehearsal in the Mime Troupe, which was a wordless round, very kind of stately. I remember always thinking that calm, stately music was a great way of organizing people, and during the Digger adventure, sometimes I would use classical music to offset the mad psychedelic frenzy of the music that was popular at the time. And this had this feeling. It was very ancient, almost medieval sounding. And I said, Let’s sing that. And the guys looked at me like I was nuts. Sing that? How’s that gonna compete with all of this psychedelic frenzy around us? I said, Well let’s just start doing it. So I started, and I remember I got Jason, Jason would agree to anything, so we started singing it as a duet, and it’s a five-part thing, and when you get the harmonies going, it’s kind of resonant, but it’s slow and stately. And we started singing this thing very quietly. And so we formed a group on the street and as people passed us on the sidewalk, they went, Whoa what’s this, what’s happening here? So they would start, and we would turn, and we would, just in pantomime, teach them the thing. We just simply proceeded to sing it ourselves, but got them to sing it along with us. And then Peter and everybody started singing it as well.
So there was a group of us on the sidewalk, and we filled the sidewalk, and when the sidewalk filled up, in order to get around, people had to go between the parked cars, or even walk streetside of the parked cars, out almost in the traffic. So there’s a little cluster of people on our side of the street, and over on the other side of the street, people noticed that something was happening. So they stopped and looked to see what that was. So then there got to be a cluster on the other side of the street. So we beckoned them, Hey come on over and join us. So people dodged through the slowly moving traffic and came to our side of the street and the cluster was bigger and bigger, until actually the cluster amoeba-like joined the cluster on the other side and so there were people moving across the street so much, that we’d actually in fact blocked the traffic. And, since the traffic was one-way, the street gradually cleared.
Then the police showed up, and they barricaded off the street so the traffic had to go up to the side streets. We had inadvertently just occupied a block of the street. We hadn’t cleared the traffic off all of Haight Street, but we’d cleared the traffic off one block! So then we looked around and suddenly the street was just filled with people, and they were all celebrating and happy. I remember looking over and there was some group had a long staff and on it was a big circle with some mystic symbol, and they had a live white rabbit with them. And I didn’t know what they were doing but they seemed to have their own thing, and they were intoning something of their own, because at this time, whatever songs had spread, millions of songs had filled the street.
I remember thinking in the back of my mind like a strategist, well if we’re clearing all the traffic off of the street, how do we get past the police? We have to take over another block, but the police have set up a line of sawhorses to contain us. And they had paddy wagons and all that stuff, almost like they were ready for a riot. And everything was so joyful and so wonderful in a way, that it clearly wasn’t a riot. But I didn’t know how to get past the police. I was really helpless to do anything. These people with the mystic symbol and the rabbit, they went up to the police and they started doing some religious ceremony of some kind, singing to them or something, with the symbol, holding the rabbit high in the air, they were doing this thing, I couldn’t hear what it was—something—and the police just looked at them, picked up the sawhorses, threw them on the back of the paddywagon and split.
And we moved across Ashbury, down toward the South, we started advancing, and the cars went off down the side streets, and we took over another block, so now we had between like Masonic and Clayton, two blocks of Haight Street, was completely cleared, filled with cheering people, and then the same thing happened at Masonic, and we went on further south and further south. Now the police were all the way down by Buena Vista Park, clearing traffic, and we went all the way down to Buena Vista Park, we looked back. Let’s go up to Stanyan, which wasn’t that difficult cuz since it was a one-way street, the traffic had sort of cleared itself. So we did, we walked all the way several times between Stanyan and Broadrick. We’d done it! We’d cleared the traffic off Haight Street.
I remember walking around and seeing Arthur Lisch. Arthur had found himself a box of colored chalk, and he was going around the street, creating a new environment, a vision of the future, this is what the street is gonna be. He would draw out a garden, with the carrots and the celery and the peas and the corn, and he would draw out a meditation center, and here’s where a little brook could run, and here’s where a park and a playground for children would be, the solar energy collectors, and all. He just drew it in chalk all over the street. That’s what the street is gonna be. So he just created that vision of it and people started doing that.
I remember we just walked back and forth and said, Well, we did it, and it was 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Jane Lapiner had a place on one of those streets off of Haight, south of Masonic, and we all went over there. And I think we heard later on that the police did sweeps of the street and clubbed people and arrested people and stuff. But I think after that, a permit for a Haight-Ashbury street fair was applied for and granted. So that was sort of the first Haight-Ashbury street fair. And I think they’re still happening today.
Do you remember what you sang?
Yes. It goes like this. [sings]. So that’s five of those and if you do it alternately than anything harmonizes and you’ve got a five-part round. It was something that somebody brought into the Mime Troupe and it was used as a vocal warm-up.
Can you talk about the street event in which you got arrested?
A lot of that was dedicated to confronting the issue of traffic on Haight Street. Now, we had this thing called The Free Frame of Reference. It was basically made out of four yellow 2 x 4s bolted together at the corner and they were about maybe ten feet long or something. Just enormous. It was just a big square. We called it the Free Frame of Reference. And so whatever was inside the Frame of Reference was, allegedly, free. And so, people would look at this thing and go, …Okay? So what is that? Clearly, unmistakably it was just a big square made out of 2 x 4s. It was nothing, you know? But then it was a frame, also, so you could put it around something and then look at it.
Did it actually say ‘free frame of reference’ on there?
I don’t think so, but I don’t really know. There probably is a picture of the damn thing somewhere but I don’t know.
Now, in that picture, which has us all jumping around on the steps of City Hall, there’s a guy with a beard—Robert LaMorticella, who was a master puppet maker. And he made these puppets that were about eight feet tall, and they’re all made out of the kind of dowling you use to hang your clothes on in the closet. There’s a big long piece of doweling, basically across, and the cross member would be the shoulders of the character, and then he would make this big papier-mache head on top and then there would be a piece of clothing that would come down in sleeves, and the sleeves were just hanging cloth. At the end of the sleeves on two pieces of plaster lathe, were the hands. So the basic art of the puppet was a head and two hands. He had these puppets which were originally made for Robert Scheer’s campaign when he was running for political office. His opponent was a guy named Jeffrey Cohelan , and at the time, Scheer was represented as a forceful guy who could make gestures like this [fist into hand]. He could go like that. And Jeffrey Cohelan was represented as a kind of dithering, insubstantial person who would go like this [makes motion of sad hands].
We had these two puppets. And you could put different kinds of costuming on them to make them different things, so we just immediately adapted them to whatever characters we wanted. I can’t remember exactly what we were doing with them but I remember I had the forceful Robert Scheer puppet.
So we were all on Haight Street, with the Free Frame of Reference. It was getting to be dusk. We were in and out of the Free Frame of Reference. So we would go into the Free Frame of Reference and act through it, then we would go around outside it and act outside of it. What I noticed was that the puppets were so huge that you could take a puppet and you could incline it down so that a person driving a car along the street would suddenly have this head looming down into their windshield. That actually seemed more fun than doing anything with the Free Frame of Reference. So we actually began intimidating the traffic with the puppets, and shaking our fists into their windshield!
We continued doing this, and then, the police came and arrested us. They collapsed the Free Frame of Reference, took it apart, made it into four two by fours. They took the puppets and stuff and they threw all this in the paddy wagon, and took us off to Park Street Station. So there we were, late at night, sitting in Park Street Station on this bench, and we just watched the life of the police department for a while. Police would come in, chat with each other, one cop would look at the other and say, Who are those guys, what’d they do? They said, They were giving a puppet show on the street corner. Puppet show? You arrested them for doing a puppet show?!? He said, Look at the puppets! They’re eight feet tall! Oh okay, well then. Because the puppets were so big, that meant that we must deserve to be arrested. [chuckles] So we just watched all this.
Who was in jail?
Brooks, me, Emmett, Peter Berg, and I think Roberto as well was there, cuz Roberto didn’t let those puppets out of his sight. So there were five of us. I guess we spent the night in jail, I can’t really remember. But the next day I remember out attorney was Richard Wertheimer, an amazing man. He had some disability where he was in a wheelchair all the time. He just had this quiet, loving attitude. He talked to us and said, Well I know the assistant D.A. so let’s go talk to him. There was a court date. We were arraigned and brought into court. I remember Dick took us into this guy, the assistant district attorney for San Francisco, his name was Artie Schaffer. He looked at us and he said, You guys. Okay. It’s clearly freedom of expression issue. We’re gonna get this thrown out of court, I want you guys to know. Now get out there and make revolution or I’m gonna bust your asses. These guys were old Lefties from the ‘30s that had gone into the Establishment and so there was a deep kinship between us. And this was the first time I really noticed that there could be something like that, that we could have a real kinship of purpose with people who are inside the Establishment and had positions like assistant district attorney and stuff. It was a very interesting thing.
So then what happened in court was really of no interest at all. The judge was told by the assistant district attorney that they were dropping the case. He was a little miffed at having the court’s time wasted and stuff like that but he couldn’t do anything. It was one of those miracles. We didn’t know what would happen to us. Strictly speaking, we were blocking the sidewalk. We were intimidating the cars. I didn’t know if they had witnesses or anything. Could we spend time in jail for this? We had no idea.
So we were absolutely delighted about the way things were turning out. It was almost like the world was saying, Just keep doing that. Even the assistant district attorney of San Francisco was telling us to go out and make revolution. To do what we were doing. We were doing just the right thing. It wasn’t a bunch of dropouts who got it, these were like major people in the society, who saw what we were doing and saying, Yeah, do that! This was important because as we were going along with this thing, a person might have some self-doubts, like, Is this just completely insane? We were used to protest. Clearly the Vietnam War gave a legitimacy to doing something different besides what was going on in society, but of course once you start actually doing something, you might question its value. A free store — is this just a dump? Sometimes you’d go in the free store and it would look great, you could see how somebody could walk in there and find a Harris tweed and have their mind blown. But other days you’d go in there and it just looked like chaos. And then a third day you’d go in there and something equally beautiful and amazing would be happening. So you walked around with this question in your mind. Clearly we were onto something, but where was it going, where could it lead? Everything we did had no plan at all.
And so doing something like that Free Frame of Reference puppet show, which was totally an improvisation without a structure, what were we really doing? And I myself was distracted from whatever play Emmett had in mind, cuz Emmett had this idea of the Free Frame of Reference and we’d do a play with it, and this would really be something that would change people’s minds. And maybe it did! I don’t know, I was distracted by shaking my fist at the windshields of the cars, and that’s what happened to me. Again, without it being planned, things happened. Would they be positive, would they be negative? I was never sure. I’ll tell you another story in a minute because it really brought the thing home, because when you don’t have a plan and you don’t know what you’re doing, you could actually do something really stupid. It’s possible.
So we were at this point with Artie Schaffer telling us to go make revolution, we were at the point of absolute exuberance, because it was almost like the stamp of approval. Yeah, that’s right, what we think up on the spur of the moment, is PURE GENIUS! So that creates the feeling that’s expressed in that picture. The outrageous thumbing your nose at the Establishment and my expression of…the King Kong of revolutionary exuberance. You could see in Emmett’s stance and everything, almost a criminality, is being expressed in the picture. All of those things were just sort of there. Here we are, we’re at large, free to offend again. And we will.
There was another event that came up… All of these things really had to do with taking over public space, and the space that was most available for us to take over was of course Haight Street. There was an event. We had started meeting the Hell’s Angels and talking to them. We found that the Hell’s Angels were incredibly sympathetic to what we were doing, and of course the ‘free love’ and everything like that we were doing was very conducive to their rapport. But they liked us, and seemed to be willing to give up a little bit of their violent demeanor in order to be around the hippies and enjoy the opportunities that our culture created for them.
There was this guy named Chocolate George, a Hell’s Angel, and, during one of these events, our friend Phyllis [Willner], got together in this magnificent white gown and Chocolate George drove her down Haight Street, STANDING, on the back of this motorcycle. Spectacular piece of theater. Just looked stunning. So Chocolate George drove down Haight Street with Phyllis like this, and when the police saw that—there’s certain things that push the buttons of policemen and that would be one of them. I guess the technical thing is, Don’t stand up on motorcycles, that’s illegal. But, she did, and so Chocolate George was arrested. I don’t know if Phyllis was or not, I don’t think so. But a couple of the Hell’s Angels, Chocolate George and Harry the Horse, were arrested. And that made me angry. The Hell’s Angels had this kind of more outlaw, more criminal image than we did. But this event, this was our event. This was our celebration. And yet they went and arrested the Hell’s Angels. They were arresting the thing most obviously offensive to that middle class sensibility. Let’s get those Hell’s Angels! Yeah, that’s it.
The news spread around the street. It was getting to be dusk on Haight Street. People all over the street. I remember feeling so incensed. I did this stupid thing, out of a B movie, but I was seized with anger about this, and I got up on to a roof of a car that was parked on the street, and I said THEY’VE JUST ARRESTED CHOCOLATE GEORGE AND HARRY THE HORSE! TWO OF OUR BROTHERS! LET’S GO DOWN THERE AND GET THEM OUT! And I got down off the street, off the car, and I started walking up Stanyan Street towards Park Street Station. And after I walked a block I turned around and by God, there were a bunch of people with me. I couldn’t believe it. It was again one of those things, Oh shit. I might be doing the dumbest possible thing in the world. I might be leading a whole bunch of unarmed people up against the San Francisco Police Department. But, I was already in movement so I kept on going.
And people moved through the dimming light up towards the stadium there and Park Street Station which was in the shadow of it. Park Street Station was right up against the stadium, and the stadium had these huge walls, so you could kind of…corner them. So actually, without quite thinking about it, this enormous group of people, must’ve been close to a thousand people, suddenly moved up to the station, and SURROUNDED it. We had them surrounded.
So now, this is the point where it’s good to have a plan, and we didn’t. So what happens when a thing like that occurs? The policemen were looking out the windows, Oh my god! Y’know? They were indeed surrounded. You could see the look on their faces. They didn’t know what the hell to do. I remember [poet] Michael McClure, coming and talking to me and he said, What are we gonna do here? And I was like, Uh I don’t know. I had no idea. But I saw that a bunch of the women were handing out candles. Somewhere they’d gotten candles and they were lighting the candles and so this candlelight spread out all down the line of this surrounding bunch of hippies. And goddammit, they started singing Silent Night.
And it was actually the perfect thing to do, cuz it has all these peaceful words and this peaceful sound to it. So suddenly they were surrounded by peace. And the event completely turned different. So then somebody went in there, it was either [poet Richard] Brautigan or McClure, somebody like that, and these guys were a little older, you gotta remember I was like 23 or 24 years old at the time, and these guys were in their mid-30s. They were already established writers with reputations and stuff like that, so they were more comfortable walking in and talking to the police and presenting the image of a mature person. They indeed said that we thought it was wrong to have arrested these guys, that they were part of a peaceful activity and they were in no way a threat to public order. And the police said, Well in fact it is illegal to stand up on a motorcycle, and maybe Harry the Horse had been drinking on the street, or something like that, but we established that the legal representation that we had enjoyed would be available to them as well.
So they did indeed have to spend the night in jail, but we also let the Hell’s Angels know that we were good hosts, and would be able to take care of them to the best of our ability. So we weren’t able to go down there and attack the police station and spring them out, which had of course been my initial impulse, frenzied fool that I was, but nonetheless, the event turned out well. So again, it’s just another example of how some insane impulse was made sane by just the social environment that we were a part of. And, violence and insanity were avoided by just the inspiration of somebody, I don’t know who, to light candles and start singing Silent Night. It was absolute genius to do so.
The Angels and the Diggers became close…
Lots of close personal relationships started happening. I remember later on Peter Coyote was over there, and he bought himself a motorcycle. Billy Fritsch [aka Sweet William Tumbleweed] bought a motorcycle. These guys helped them paint the tank. That’s what you had to do, you had to paint the tank, that was your personal statement. I never got into that, but I did visit with them, I was over at Pete Knell’s house a few times.
What are your memories of Emmett Grogan?
Emmett was an actor, and he was in the Mime Troupe with us. The whole thing started out of Mime Troupe activity. I remember Emmett being in Olive Pits and creating these characters.
One of the most interesting things that we created was a little play called Search & Seizure. This was the brainchild of Peter Berg. The idea was to do the play in little clubs and things. It was a police line-up play. The characters were four policemen and four people who’d been busted for different drugs. I remember I was a cop, and we all used our real names. There was somebody busted on downers, somebody who was busted on speed, somebody who was busted for grass, finally somebody was busted for LSD. The police were able to break down each person, but not the acidhead. The acidhead I believe was played by John Robb, a phenomenal actor. The acidhead, in this characteristic way, by changing the frame of reference, turned the police around and was not broken by them. The play came on completely opposed to the usual style of Mime Troupe plays. It was a piece of gritty realism, in which we actually created a realistic police line-up type of environment. I remember we did this at The Matrix. At the time there was a band playing there, Country Joe and the Fish, and so we shared the backstage with them. We would do our play and then they would do the second set. And I remember coming back there and them going, Jesus you’re supposed to scare the shit out of them, not us! So the play was this terrifying little jolt. Emmett played one of the police officers. And his forceful personality and his New York speech rhythms created a really terrifying character. In terms of being an actor, that was really one of the best things I’d seen him do. He was the one that created the jolt of adrenaline in the play, and he could really do that.
He had come into the Mime Troupe. His face was amazing. If he’d really wanted to be an actor, and maybe he did later on, because he came down here to Hollywood, I think somehow later on toward the end of his life there he was actually seized with the Hollywood thing… Anyway, his face was crooked, I think that his nose had been broken at some point. And he had this jawline and these goggly eyes, and he had a way of looking out of the side of his eyes.
And I remember when he walked, his hands faced straight back. It gave him this hunched swagger. If you look at Ringolevio, there’s a picture of him walking across one of those New York streets with the look of a guy whose jacket isn’t warm enough against the cold. And he favored military fatigues and things like that.
It’s a working class face. And he’d been in Italy, so he could speak Italian, and that was what gave him the cache to talk to those guys at the produce market and make the original foray into the free food thing. Something that I wouldn’t’ve thought to do. Once it had already been established that one could do it, even a guy like me who was half-asleep could blunder through it and get the free food. But Emmett actually went down there, and talked to them in some way… To have been a fly on the wall at that time, to hear that conversation, would have been incredible.
Who was Billy Murcott?
He seemed like almost the sidekick? Emmett would be the guy with the personality and the force. But it’s interesting, because Billy wasn’t the comic sidekick so much—he really was the brains. Billy had this gift of language, and I think he gave the gift of that kind of Digger poetry to Emmett. And together somehow there was a symbiotic relationship. When you read some of those Digger broadsides, the way they use language is very interesting. It has an inheritance from beatnik poetry, and indeed Emmett was pretty close to Gregory Corso. And he brought Gregory in, and Gregory hung out with us a lot.
DH: Emmett called Gregory his favorite poet.
Right. There’s a quality of incantation in the language. And what the Digger language would do would be to break up sentences and re-arrange words in a manner that was sort of like Beat poetry but also psychedelic, so it was like: “Take a cop to dinner. Cop a take.” And so he would take words like that and re-arrange them and create a different meaning of it. What was that? Take a cop to dinner. It was about bribery and corruption. Copping a take. Suddenly reversing it would make the language hip and streetwise. So street language had this almost coded or incantatory quality to it. They were able to write it down, on one of those broadsides, so that, passed out, it would really have an effect. It would create this thing where people were all communicating on the same level.
“Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” Some people say the Diggers popularized that slogan…
Yeah, I think they may have. I guess if you asked me off the top of my head I would say Emmett made it up, but it could have had an earlier literary reference. The language trips, that is really what Emmett and Billy [Murcott] brought to it. You have to look past Emmett and see Billy as the source for inspiration.
Speaking of inspirations. There’s a Com/Co broadside that advertises a screening of the film Miracle in Milanat the Free Store.
I believe Arthur Lisch brought it to us. It was a movie that in some way was about what we were interested in that this guy [Italian Neorealist filmmaker Vittorio] De Sica had made, and yeah, we showed it. It was a movie about an essentially free activity. It showed what a free frame of reference would look like in actual practice. I think at some point in the movie the squatter village is oppressed by the authorities. At the end they fly off to heaven or something, an absurd ending, which by its very absurdity makes the point. Even that, the absurdity of the ending, helped, because again, it’s that kind of beatnik thinking, whereby taking something in a completely different direction, the mind goes where you want it to go. And that was a lot of what we were trying to do.
Arthur was very interesting. I don’t recall Arthur ever having really long hair. He came in from churches. He would always relate things to churches, and felt that churches should be doing things, so he had a spiritual component to the way he thought. He would always do interesting things. He would frequently be at our events dressed in a coat and tie, and would do things like sweep up. He would take care of the janitorial work and make sure that everything was clean and well-organized. He would basically take on that role of representing a clean, well-organized vision. It could be free, and clean, and well-organized! WHY NOT? He would think that.
Do you have any memories of the Invisible Circus event at the Glide Church?
The thing I do remember about it and was interesting politically, and this is really about Emmett, was that Emmett really saw something that…I don’t know… If you could, like, bottle this insight, and let everybody’s who’s politically active just drink it, it would make such a huge difference. He saw that it was all one thing, that we’re not separate political movements. He was really interested in making connections with everybody who needed to be liberated—that felt the need to be liberated. And that’s why he felt this kinship with the Black Power movement. There was a time when he went, and I remember him saying this to me, he said, We need to get together with the fags. He put it just like that. The fags, man, that’s where it’s at. Let’s go meet the fags. They’re down in the Tenderloin. And that’s what really brought us to the Glide Church. The Tenderloin has a big gay population. And he wanted to be closer to the gay thing. He felt that that was a real source of kinship—that they got something that we needed to be involved with, and that they needed to get what we were involved with. He really led that. That’s one of those things that would never have occurred to me, that he saw immediately. Gay culture had been part of a demimonde, an underground culture, and he wanted to share and participate in bringing that up above ground, making it part of the big dialogue. Of course, later on, that happened. But he was talking about that in 1966! That’s what’s interesting.
The gay population is a big part of the ministry of Glide Church. So I think that’s really what brought us there. Conceptually, again, we just didn’t have the framework for properly dealing with that or making the political connections. But that’s an interesting part of the Digger thing. As I look back on it, sometimes I think we made big mistakes. One of the mistakes we made was we were against voting. We had a big campaign: “Vote for Me.” So you’re your own representative. Okay well, I can see the logic of that, but being against voting? That’s stupid. We shouldn’t’ve been against voting, we should’ve figured a way into that.
The point was that the democracy was supposed to be participatory, and in order for that to happen, you had to de-ghettoize life. You had to break down walls that separated people into little groups: the blacks, the gays, the peaceniks, the hippies. You had to say, The hell with that. And so that was one reason why we had that big ‘Death of Hippie’ thing. We couldn’t be ‘the hippies,’ because that was a bag they put us in. We never invented that word anyway. So one of the things politically that I think the Glide event was supposed to do was to un-bag everybody. To get people in there together.
And in a way, the Tenderloin was more representative of that than the Haight-Ashbury. The Haight-Ashbury at that time was still kind of a white neighborhood. You look at the footage and yeah there’s some black people around, but the black people in San Francisco thought of it as a white place. And it was. The Tenderloin, however, that was GENUINELY multi-ethnic and multi-sexual, multi-EVERYTHING. So that was really the melting pot of San Francisco. And so if you wanted to have a political or social or artistic activity that broke down those walls then going into the Tenderloin was the way to do it. And I think the Invisible Circus, it actually did that in its outrageous way. I have no way of evaluating the consequences of it. I just don’t remember. It’ll be very interesting for me to read Cecil Williams’ book and see what the reverend thinks of that, because yes, we damn near wrecked his church, I think.
Above: Kent discusses his sizeable contribution to the Invisible Church event.
DH: Cecil Williams saw it a moment of affirmation for him… He insisted on the “fuck the church” graffiti in the bathroom wall be kept up.
I always thought Cecil Williams was such a cool guy. The forces that he brought into that church made it what it became. And, you know, a lot of things that we did continued there. They started a huge free food thing. So yes, Cecil Williams was definitely a kindred spirit there. The idea of “fucking” the Church I think was sort of part of a different kind of spirituality that was coming out of what we were doing. As Diggers I don’t think we really addressed that very much but there were later on many of those people went into various spiritual things. When we went on into the ’70s, people went into things that seemed really wacko to me but the thirst for a spiritual discipline or spiritual life definitely came out of that stuff.
You guys were thinking politically and economically, but you guys were actors, not activists.
The essential vision of the Diggers is economic: We’re gonna do economic activity without money. And that was sort of the point of it. So it started out with the free food. And then, we set up the first free Haight-Ashbury medical clinic — it wasn’t done under proper Establishment auspices, and subsequently I think they set up what they would call the ‘real’ one, but we had doctors there that were actually giving, prescribing medicine, treating people. Then we set up the free store.
Ronnie Davis connected us with a politically active tradition. Later on, the Mime Troupe became a blatantly Marxist company, although at the time we were there… I mean there were Marxists in the company, and SDS had a little office right next to the Mime Troupe’s studio and they had a mimeograph machine that churned out their broadsides. So we were in conversation with people in SDS, student radicals, Marxists, anti-war people who favored the idea of a possibly violent revolution that would overthrow the government. We would talk about that, think about it, but… I remember there was this British guy, Ray Davis, who would hang around with the Mime Troupe. And in the Mime Troupe we would have these big meetings sometimes where we would discuss very big things, and I remember he got up one night during the meeting and he said, ‘I think we should all agree that capitalism is the worst system ever invented by man, nature or circumstance.’ And the entire room burst into laughter. That was kind of the relationship that our circle had towards Marxist communism at that time, that it seemed something that was so filled with pronunciamentos like that was ludicrous. It would have been difficult during the ‘60s for us to say, We’re Marxists, or, We’re communists. It’s not that the ideas of a cooperative or a planned economy were somehow bad or anything, it’s just that it was a style of thinking that would just make us laugh. And Ray was part of a slightly older generation more conditioned by the ‘30s and so while he thought that was such an important idea, that if we could all agree to it, it would make us all so much more powerful… Nah. The thinking had moved beyond that. It just couldn’t be there.
At some point the two Peters [Berg and Coyote] and Emmett and I and a few other people were basically saying, We’re not gonna do another play with the Mime Troupe. We’re gonna go out in the streets and we’re gonna do Diggerly-dos because THAT’S what theater really should do. We don’t want to put on a play and then have people go home afterwards — we want to actually CHANGE the public reality that people are in. So at that point we were like — we took over City Hall! And did shit like that, read poems on the steps.
There was definitely a separation between the radical political thinking and what we were doing. I don’t know how healthy that was. Because I look back now on the antiwar movement and everything that was going on and it seems to me, when you look at it from the point of view of political history and you see, take ’68, the assassinations—Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King—all these people that got assassinated at that time, you think, King started talking about Vietnam. A few months later they killed him. And the same thing with Robert Kennedy. He was talking about peace in Vietnam and linking the antiwar movement to the civil rights movement. And it seemed to me that everybody who started talking about making connections between those two things got killed pretty soon after. That’s what they were afraid of, for it all to come together. Cuz all the pieces were there. And so if you were running the government and wanting to keep everything as it was, having all that come together as one thing, that was the threat for you.
Peter Berg talked about the importance of LSD as a catalyst, and a dividing line with the past.
Yeah, I think so too. And that was the point of that play Search & Seizure, is the final guy [played by John Robb], who is on LSD, he couldn’t be broken down because his point of view had changed. He had a new frame of reference for his life and his thinking. And that’s what we were all looking to do, was to let our lives incorporate a new frame of reference. Calling it a frame of reference is a little weird because a frame is a square box with defined borders and that’s exactly what we didn’t have. We didn’t know what limits we could have. Coming out of the Digger period, many of us left San Francisco, we went and we started a commune up in Ron Thelin’s house, and the women took over and said Okay now it’s time to make babies. So the next thing after that was really becoming a family, and having our own children, and raising our own children and seeing what that would do. Of course, the thing that it didn’t do was make us go back and become squares again. It actually forced us to bring up our children in a different way.
What was your family background?
My family background is quite normal. I’m an east coast boy. I was born in Brooklyn. My family moved around a bit when I was in my infancy: Virginia, upstate New York, Bingington, places like that. When I was 7, in 1950, we moved to a suburb in Boston and that’s when my parents really felt at home. My father’s an immigrant coming over from France when he was 17. He had a constitutional terror of poverty. He had been poor in France as a kid, and then he had been poor as a young man in the depression and he had worked his way out of that. He got here in 1929 and immediately the stock market crashed. He managed to wash dishes and get a mechanical engineering degree at Ohio State University where he met my mother, and then graduated from university with this great degree in the middle of the Depression, where he didn’t really have any employment options, and spent a few years that were fairly depressing for him. He was teaching French at the University of Chicago which is not what he wanted to do. He wanted the roar of the factory, he wanted to engineer shit. Then he got tuberculosis, he thought my mother would leave him just because he was a total wreck. But then, they came out of that and as the armament industry started gearing up, really getting ready for World War II… the armaments industry knew what was coming, so ’37-‘38-’39, somewhere in there, he got a call, and he got brought into a company called at that time Sperry-Rand, which was a big defense contractor, and so he was well employed from there on in. But he would go from a variety of companies — he was a very smart man — became plant manager and stuff like that. I was sent away to a prep school, Principia in St. Louis, and given a nice education by prosperous middle class parents.
During the ‘60s, when I was in San Francisco, having dropped out of society and become an actor… I remember, they saw me perform with the Mime Troupe in Detroit, and I remember they were really angry about that. They just thought that was an awful thing for me to be doing, to be doing theater, like that. My mother tried to be understanding and my father sat off resentfully by himself.
My younger brother Paul, who’s now an attorney, visited me at that time and I remember he expressed a traditional middle class horror at the way I was living. At the time he was terrified of the draft and he was hoping I would save him because of my ‘superior wisdom’ about that.
How were you avoiding the draft?
I used my acting skills. It was appallingly easy.
You’re often mentioned in the Grogan and Coyote books in association with the Digger trucks…
Yes! One of the things that happened to me was I became Pierre Le Truck. During the Diggers stuff, trucks became very important because the Diggers were always moving stuff around. There was a point during this time that I had no car, y’know. When we opened the free store, somebody came by and said, Here’s a free car. It was an old Studebaker Lark. So I got in it, started it up and it worked. Okay, I’ll take the free car for a while. I think it wasn’t a day before I piled the thing up. I wrecked the car and I walked away from it. To whom was it registered? I have no idea! Free cars, this wasn’t gonna work. Free stuff was great but free cars was an administrative hassle that we couldn’t handle. I was moving stuff around, we were borrowing trucks from people… It was clear that we needed trucks.
There was a guy named Jonathan Glazer — Jonathan and Sara, I remember they were close to us but I don’t quite remember what the source of the connection was— Jonathan had an old ’51 Chevy pick-up that he wasn’t using, there was something wrong with it, it didn’t work. And so I think Billy Fritsch went and talked to him and said You gotta give the truck to Kent. There’s something about Billy, when he used a certain tone of voice, you just had to do what he said. So they give me the pink slip, but the truck is on the street. I could have the truck—but I had to fix it. I had no idea how to fix anything. I had studied anthropology in college, how did know how to fix a truck?
Billy said, Well you gotta get the repair manual. How do I get a repair manual? He says, Listen. Talk to [poet/Digger] Lenore [Kandel]. And she said, Go to the Reference Desk at the library! They’ll not only show you the thing, they’ll photocopy the pages for you and give them to you. See, Lenore did charts, she was an astrologer. When you’re into astrology, you have to get a thing called an ephemeris. If you were a really professional astrologer, you have to have all these books that show the position of the stars at various times to do your chart from where the stars were at your birth. She didn’t have them herself, so she went to the library. She knew how to use the reference desk. So she said, you could do the same thing for auto mechanics. Aha! The library was very cooperative. I ended up with this bunch of papers. Somehow we got the truck towed to a place. I had a friend who ran a garage nearby, and would help the Diggers with various things. So he showed me what to do. And I remember my friend J.P. Pickens had a hot Sears credit card. So we did this act of criminality. We went to Sears with this credit card, and I bought all these tools—the wrenches and the sockets and everything that you needed to fix the truck, outside of the machinist work. We were constantly fixing up Chevy pickup trucks. Everybody had to have a Chevy truck. They were all not working cuz they were 15 years old at the time. We became obsessed with machinery. We learned how to fix more and more components of the engine. And I would get more pages out of the library and I would build myself a little book. And that’s what made me Pierre Le Truck.
How well did you know Lenore and Bill Fritsch?
We’d go over and visit them in their place in North Beach. They had a North Beach apartment. They straddled the era between the hippies and the beatniks, so they knew a lot of the kind of older people. Like I was at that time in my early 20s, 23, 24, 25. And they were in their 30s, and they knew Brautigan and everything. These were all interesting people to us because they’d been kind of doing this for ten years before we’d even showed up. So it was always fun to go over there because she would have all those books from the City Lights bookstore on her shelf and she knew Ferlinghetti as a writer. She was one of them. She’d published the Love Book by that time so she was also, had achieved celebrity and notoriety as well with these kind of racy psychedelic poems. They were always very gracious. It was great to be there. They were almost, I don’t know, not the parent figures but something like that—they were the older, wiser people.
That day at the free store when someone had said, ‘Here’s a free car’? The old Studebaker Lark. I got it and we drove it that night over to visit Bill and Lenore at their place in North Beach. We sat around smoking dope and talking for a while. It got to be late, so Nina [Blasenheim] said, Eh let’s go home. So we said we’re going home. At that time, the intersections were not regulated like they are today. A lot of intersections in North Beach had no stop signs either way. So we were going through an intersection and we ran into the side of this poor old man’s pickup truck, with the Studebaker. Basically totaled it. I talked to the guy and everything and I was going to stay there and make sure he was okay and let the cops come and whatever. I didn’t know what was going to happen but I was gonna stay there. Nina went into a liquor store and called Bill and Lenore.
After about 15 minutes — I think somebody had called the police and everything but you know, the police take years to come — so we were standing around there with this guy and the side bed of the pickup truck had been stove in and the front end of the Studebaker was all crumpled up, water running out of it. And Billy came, walking up the street. He said, Hey man, you guys okay? Huh, yeah. We’re fine. He looked at the situation and he said, So what cha doing? Ah, well we’re just waiting for the police to come. He said, Uh I wouldn’t do that, actually. [laughs] I said, Really? He said No man, you see the situation, a free car and all that shit? You gotta walk away. I said, But the guy’s truck is wrecked. He said Yeah man but you can’t do anything about that. Just walk away. Let’s go, c’mon. So I just fetched a breath and we walked back to his house and they drove us home and we never saw the free car again. We did just walk away from that, and leave that poor guy with his wrecked truck.
You were saying the Diggers were always moving stuff around.
Yeah. Well, the food was one thing. But then we were starting to go out to the country too. This is probably a story from later on, in the ‘67 part. Brooks was living on Webster Street in the Filmore in a corner storefront that he rented. It was common in the SF area to have a storefront where the doors would not open on one street or the other, but onto the corner. That’s the way his place was. So he had a little bed in back. The hookers in the Filmore would come down and chat with him at night if there was a lull in business. He had some job working for a guy who had a chain of toy stores, five-and-dime-type stores around town. And the guy had entrusted Brooks with a big Avis rent-a-truck with a electric liftgate on the back.
So, the thing about everybody moving to the country was, they needed to BUILD. We were in touch with people up at Lou Gottlieb’s Morningstar Ranch, and there was a guy there that to this day I really admire, a guy named Calvino Filipas. He must have been about 60 at the time, but he was hanging out with us. He was an old Italian anarchist who would hand you a book by [Errico] Malatesta or one of these guys, full of anarchist principles, and say, Read that! It’s about just what you guys are doing!
He was up there, and he was talking to Lou Gottlieb and the people who lived on this place, all of whom were just looped on acid all the time. He was talking to them about … He’d say, The thing you need to do is organic farming. And to do organic farming, you must prepare the soil. So they’d go dig for mussels in Tomales Bay, and bring back the mussels and eat them, and then they had these shells. So he was out there, he would have sledgehammers, and we would stand on a concrete pad and we’d CRUSH the shells and shovel the crushings into the compost pit. He was preparing the soil because, [he’s say] We’ve got to be self-sufficient, we can’t rely on the pigs to feed us! He actually had a solid rap. If you go to the farmer’s market today, that whole thing that Calvino was talking about then is now happening.
Above: A contemporary look at the Morningstar Commune.
So these people were living in tents and Calvino was talking about how they need to have lumber to build the basic structures to house these people. Calvino had this idea of building this movement. I don’t think he was quite aware that these people did not have mental or emotional resources to build shit…but we weren’t aware of that either! We were persuaded by his thing. So alright Calvino, we’ll get you the lumber. It’ll be here sometime next week. He went, Alright.
We went back. Brooks knew he was gonna get this big truck from his boss. So the plan was we would take my little truck, the Chevy pickup that I fixed with the reference book, and we would go out to Diamond Heights, where they were building this housing development. They were building a new suburb on this beautiful hill. It was all like corporate housing and stuff, so it wasn’t so much stealing stuff from individual people who were building their homes. So we loaded up on essentially plywood and 2 x 4s. We used the little truck. We didn’t take the big truck up there because we didn’t want to queer his relationship with the guy. The big rig truck could easily be traced, anyway.
Oh, you used the big truck to take the stuff to Morningstar.
That was the idea. We were loading up his storefront, and then eventually we would take a big load up to Morningstar. That was our plan. So, we’d go and boost some stuff from Diamond Heights, then we’d load it up in the store, then we’d go home. And then the next night we’d do a little more. And a little more. So four, five nights we did this. One night, the cops pulled right up in front of the place and they come in. They say, What’s going on here. I say Well we’re just loading in some lumber. Where’d it come from? It came from blah blah, and Brooks had some thing where Calvino’s son or somebody was supposed to say well we brought this from his uncle’s place over in the East Bay—he invented some story. The cop said, I see. Call him up. Alright! Get the phone. We call up Calvino, pass the phone to the cop. Ring ring ring. No answer. Cop says, Okay, well… If we hear that lumber is missing from somewhere we know where to come. Oh yeah, okay, well…we’ll be here! They leave.
So. Um. I’m not telling the story right because this happened in two parts. I think it was like the next night, or two nights later, and we’re loading the lumber ON to the huge truck. Now the cops pull up and their headlights are shining in the door. And they come in. And I think this is where they asked us to call, where we ended up calling. So we were totally in suspense. We didn’t know if they knew that this lumber had been boosted from Diamond Heights. They could have been informed of that but evidently they weren’t. So this was a really close call.
But we did manage to get all the lumber, load it onto the truck, and then we got up in the morning and drove up to Morningstar Ranch, Sebastapol. I think it had been fairly wet weather so we drove it through this kind of mushy … And we said, Hi, where’s Calvino? Oh he’s not here. I see, well this lumber is part of the building for you guys’ houses. Groovy, man! Far out. Put it there, I don’t know, wherever. Far out! You know, people were walking around naked, tripping. And so, nobody even helped us unload it. But we unloaded all of this lumber, got rid of it, and then the goddamned truck was stuck in the mud! So we had to call a tow truck—and pay for it! To get the truck unstuck and get it back out of there. Nobody lifted a finger, they were just, they had no idea what was going on. Wherever Calvino had gone, we didn’t know. It was one of those things where it was like, WHAT THE FUCK are we doing? The risk we took to get what must’ve been thousands of dollars worth of lumber.
There were so many different episodes. This is just one. We would go out on runs with other people, with other trucks, and we preferred rainy, foggy nights, naturally. Nina would always be a little bit worried, you know, cuz we just had this lovely little boudoir there with our little bit of hashish in the pipe next to the bed—it was just so lovely. But then I’d go out at one o’clock in the morning. Imagine her feelings: maybe I wouldn’t come back or she’d get a call, I’M IN JAIL! By all rights, we should have been caught many times. Somehow, we just weren’t.
The pickup truck was really meant for light service. It was a half-ton pickup. But I was carrying around a lot of heavy shit in it, and it was too much for the springs, so I wanted overload springs. There was a guy named Don McCoy. Don McCoy was kind of a millionaire and his wife Paula had come from money. They were married but separated. Paula was a willowy beauty, stunning woman. Blonde and real lanky. Beautiful woman. I guess when they were separated Don set her up with a beautiful Victorian in the Haight. She was one of those well-born girls that liked to hang out with hairy guys like us. Romance and adventure, artistic and political something, who knows. Don, her husband, I guess he’d married money with her, but he’d also taken something and made something of it, because he had a houseboat-building business in Sausalito. He was part of the Sausalito houseboat renaissance, and so he made a chunk off of that. And then in ’67 or ’68 or something like that, he got hit with the free vision and everything and rejected the capitalist lifestyle but he had a whole bunch of money.
One of the things he did, he gave us his Shell credit card. This was not a hot card. This was a real credit card. And I went to this Shell station, run by these two black guys, I think it was like at Masonic in the Panhandle. Don McCoy’s fortune paid to have those put overload springs put on. He’d given us the card, and we passed it around. We put gas on it. I said, This is just for gas, right? And people said, he didn’t specify anything like that. So later on there was a huge contention between Paula’s parents and Don, because essentially Don was giving away the fortune that they felt that the children were entitled to ultimately so they sued him and I don’t know what the fuck happened. But his fate was not happy because he had this place called Olompali Ranch, and we would go up there and have nude baking parties and shit. People would be fucking in the woods, baking Digger bread to take back down to All Saints, and Don owned this very luxurious place, but ultimately I think one of the kids drowned in the swimming pool. His fate was not happy.
To be rich, to be rich on that level, and then to get SEIZED with the vision, like what do you do? It must be very difficult. I think that he and other members of the family must have suffered for that. Poverty can certainly fuck you up, I know people that have been fucked up by that, but wealth can also really do you. You can really get fucked up by money. Don McCoy’s tragedy is not necessarily part of your story, but he did spring for us in this extremely open-handed way, with no complaint.
Paula McCoy’s place was on the same block as where the Dead had a house. What was the relationship between the Diggers and the Grateful Dead?
A lot of these groups were around the neighborhood and if we had an event in the park frequently there was a rock band who was glad to play. I think many times they played for free. They were making money, they had concert tours and recording contracts and everything, and so as money started to move through the culture, rock n roll was really one of the legitimate ways it could start moving. The other way of course was drugs, which was not legitimate. Those were the two kinds of people who had big concentrations of money: rock bands, drug dealers.
Did you know [LSD manufacturer and Grateful Dead associate] Owsley?
Not really. As a Digger, I was the guy in charge of operations. People like Billy and Emmett and Coyote, they would come down here to Hollywood, they would talk to movie stars, people like that. I didn’t really get into that. I was Pierre La Truck—I fixed things. I did a lot of the moving and hauling and physical work, and things like that. I never met Owsley.
And I didn’t really have a close rapport with the rock groups either. I started noticing that I didn’t like the social environment that was created by rock n roll. It tended to be frantic and egoistic. I remember once when we doing the free food… You know, it had to rotate, so nobody had the burden of doing it all the time. It was like you got a call—We’d like to use your apartment for the free food. So somebody’s apartment would be devastated for a day because there’d be this shit all over the kitchen. The stove would be fired up, the kitchen would be unbearably hot, the women would be in there sweating away.
Anyway, at one point, I was living with Peter [Berg] and Judy [Goldhaft], right across from the free store on Cole and Carl, and I remember there was a point where we didn’t do the free food in the park anymore, we just distributed it as groceries. People were coming to the front of the house to get the groceries. A case of tomatoes would be put on the sidewalk, a case of artichokes, a case of carrots. So they’re just there in boxes and people would come and get stuff and that was the free food. The truck pulled up, the food was put out there, people were elbowing each other out of the way and it started to be this feeding frenzy. I thought, that’s not it! Don’t do that. That’s not a way to distribute the free food. Something’s sick and wrong here about this. And I remember I said, Try music. And I went up and put my stereo in the window, right above it. And I put on these Italian trumpet concertos—again it was something stately and measured and dignified—and I said like, listen to that. And I played the music. And pretty soon people started going After you. No go ahead, that’s okay. Oh there’s only one left? You have it. People started to behave like that because the music tended to create a different reality.
I remember watching that magnificent documentary Gimme Shelter. Gimme Shelter has Diggers in it, y’know. I remember seeing a picture of Billy Fristch in it. Because Billy started working with the Angels. He became an Angel. And, that concert was set up by Emmett. When you watch the movie, it’s like what’s being expressed in the music and the performance is an angry, cocky, egotistical projection. I remember watching it and people start shoving and pushing each other in the audience and Mick Jagger’s going, What’s the matter, people? Hey why can’t you be loving and groovy? Then he’d go back to the kind of thing he did in his performance, which is cocky and angry and confrontational. And so the qualities of the performance were being reflected in the activities of the audience. Coming out of the stuff we had done where we were Diggers, where we were basically arranging theater events, I mean that seemed so abundantly clear.
I remember one event on Haight Street, and this involved the Grateful Dead, I think. We had set up a street fair. Maybe it was a year after we had cleared all that traffic off the street. There was a street fair. And again Arthur Lisch had his colored chalk. We were setting up things. I was walking up and down the street. There was a string quartet playing music, and then there was somebody else playing one of those bamboo flutes, and here was a person selling these extremely imaginative color candles. So there’s all these hippie artists. People were selling clothing, artifacts, sandals, wall hangings, art and posters and things like that. And everybody was wandering around and it was this wonderful environment, where you could smell the pot and the incense, and it was filled with love, and it was the best kind of Haight-Ashbury event that you could imagine.
And then I looked up and right by the Straight Theater, this big U-Haul truck backed across the street. It was filled with these enormous amplifiers. And the Grateful Dead were on the truck. And as soon as the truck was in place… CHONG! This giant chord resounded down the street. And everybody stopped what they were doing and sat down and they watched. And so all of that interaction just stopped, and they were watching one hugely amped activity. And the music was very nice, the Grateful Dead were terrific musicians, but really the life of the place just stopped with that. And I thought, Eh I think I’ll go home. Cuz it was suddenly an event for people who were fans. And what had been going on before was an event for participants.
[thinking back to earlier in the conversation] Pardon me though, because I did come to Hollywood once with Coyote, but this was much earlier. Coyote had been a member of the Diggers for like a week or a few days when there was a guy in Hollywood called Zev Putterman who was a friend of Peter’s dad, or who at least knew Peter’s dad, and he produced a show, called the Les Crane show, which was a talk show. And Les Crane had this idea of putting on a guy called Bart Lytton. Bart Lytton ran a company called Lytton Savings and Loan. Litton was a colorful, articulate, handsome, silver-haired capitalist representing the Establishment. And Les Crane knew that Peter was this articulate guy, or maybe Peter had appeared on TV or y’know, he was an actor and doing the Mime Troupe stuff and all that. So, he wanted to get Peter down to L.A. on one of these debate things with the Les Crane show, with Peter Cohon versus Bart Lytton. But Peter has only been in the Diggers for a fuckin’ week! So Coyote said Kent, you gotta come with me on this, I’ll get you on the show. So we came down and were admitted into a studio. I remember walking in with Peter, and this guy Zev Putterman ‘Hey Peter, howyadoin? Hows your dad? Great to see you” and Zev was there and it was almost like he was saying So if you want to work in Hollywood, we can find you an agent and stuff. I was totally being pared off. People who were to the manor born were admitted and I was being asked to read a magazine. Peter wanted me to be with him on the show. And he told them, Listen, Kent knows so much about this, and the guy said, You know, we can’t. The lighting has already been set up. Sorry. So I was left to heckle from the audience. But it was a brilliant idea, because Peter was actually FAN-TASTIC at that kind of thing. And much better than I would have been, really. He has an unbelievable gift for that. He invented things during the conversation like “the equal-opportunity shaft,” stuff like that. Burt Lytton was giving all this liberal stuff about how organizations like his, they were the real things that were bringing people out of poverty and building the American dream, and the hippies were really a misguided… ‘not that I have anything against you personally, I’m sure you’re nice people but let’s face it…’ He would have to give the Establishment argument like that. Peter was fantastic, he totally threw a loop around his arguments and tripped them up and showed where the Establishment was actually creating poverty, the War was shifting money away from… He totally had the guy, he was running circles around him. It was a great show, it was very interesting. Questioning the very way that money works, to divide people into classes and stuff like that. He was terrific, just fantastic.
And we went to see the L. A. Diggers, they were a little bit different. They had none of the criminal glamour of our group. They were very much well meaning people who wanted to give food to poor people and ‘help.’ They were very nice.
Emmett was really interested in doing that because Woodstock had happened, y’know? Woodstock had happened back east. The idea for Altamont was that we would have a Woodstock for ourselves here on the West Coast. I’m not close to the event. I wasn’t there. So I don’t really know what happened. But I think it’s really part of the whole story of Haight-Ashbury. It’s a story with a beginning middle and an end. It’s a story with an arc to it, because at the end of 1968, if you stood and you looked down Haight Street you saw Beirut. Plywood boarded up all the windows. It was a smashed and wrecked place.
And if you looked at it before late ‘67 or early ‘68, you saw a place that was bustling with life. People moving through it—It was really a river, because it was a river that was going somewhere else. People that came to the Haight were ultimately on their way to another thing. Y’know, it’s the old story, you look at the letters of the young kids that came through at that time, and in my early 20s, I was already one of the older guys, cuz it was a place really where a lot of teenagers came through, they would write home to their parents: I’ve met these really beautiful people. And those beautiful people would go somewhere else, and do something. And that was what it was really about.
There was another event I remember, at Winterland. We were starting to see these guys—big burly muscular guys, they all wore white turtleneck sweaters and sportcoats and they had cars with phones in them. We thought of them as the Mafia. I don’t know what they were but they were walking around, riding around, and right at that time, Superspade was killed, and we had other people that we knew who were drug dealers and they had to get out of the city.
I remember someone said, Get Kent, he’s always got a truck. I had to drive somebody out of town because they were in fear for their lives. So what had happened was that the drug traffic which had been this free-form thing was being taken over by organized crime. The sources of money were being grabbed, and controlled, by various people who were interested in those things. And people who were gonna stand in the way were gonna lose their lives. That’s what happened to the Haight-Ashbury. I think the story of Altamont is part of that story. I can’t tell you any details because I wasn’t there. The best I can do is try and put it into context. That’s what was happening in late ‘68 and early ‘69.
What exhausted itself was the hippie thing in the Haight-Ashbury. The Digger thing did not exhaust itself. Leaving town to have babies was a fresh lease of life for it. You might actually say it brought a real stability and power to what we were doing. We really didn’t call it the Diggers anymore, we called it Free Family, but it was the same thing, really. “Diggers” was an urban, quasi-criminal thing that was really about short-term theatrical effect. I mean, you could say we started the free medical clinic in the Haight-Ashbury and stuff like that, but really, that was David Smith, he was really the one that gave it staying power. We created theater that could have the potential for that but we didn’t have any of the skills necessary to really make a free medical clinic stay there for years. But when we moved to the country and started having kids, then it was different because people started talking about buying land. Black Bear. [David] Simpson’s place, Nina and Freeman [House]’s place up in Petrolia—those are examples.
What happened to Brooks?
Brooks seemed to me to be the most emotionally healthy guy—he was completely spontaneous, he was totally in touch with his body, he was adventurous, kind, resourceful. He wasn’t a big intellectual but he respected intellectualism, would read a few books like James Joyce and shit, just to keep up his end of the conversation. He had real intelligence and a great, great personal energy.
But as the time we had together went on, he would start to do things with drugs that were in fact a little odd. And then our lives went in different directions. I went on the road with the Minstrel Show and in ’68 I came back and then… In 1969, Nina and I were looking for the place to have the baby. We wanted to find Brooks because Brooks was kind of part of it for us. But Brooks had gone off, and we hadn’t seen him for a year or something. I heard that he’d been seen running naked on the highway up in Marin County around Bolinas. He was in Bolinas a lot. People in Bolinas knew him. Somebody said he was up in Mount Shasta. And I went there and found him, walking along the road with a 60-pound square honey tin on his shoulder. He said he was living with some other woman somewhere in a lean-to on the mountain. He had just gone totally out into the woods, to live in the woods. That was the last I saw Brooks for about 10 years.
So somewhere around ’79, I was living in San Francisco. I was working for the city, I had a job working for the arts commission, and also, I was starting to act in plays around town, and I got a telephone call from Brooks. I told him my address and said meet me there later on, because I had to do something with work. When I came back home, he was sitting on my front stoop. And he was emaciated. He looked like a concentration camp survivor and he had a big scar on his forehead and his glasses were like coke bottle bottom glasses. He had obviously injured his face in some way. Mentally he was absolutely shattered. He needed money. I had a very low income job but I did have money, so I helped him out. He tried to tell me stories of what had happened. He’d been in Canada, he’d been with some kind of commune, maybe Moonies or something like that, he had been with some very religious people and some adventure where he’d hopped a freight and been thrown off the train and hurt himself. I got the impression also that he had had drug experiences of some kind.
So I helped him out, and he was in and out of my life for two or three years there, around ’78-79-80. He would go to a psychiatric place down on Army Street — I remember talking to his doctor — he would take lithium. I would tell the doctor, Brooks says stuff like Rockefeller has a bank account with a million dollars for him. And he said, Don’t humor him in that—if you think it’s bullshit, you should go, Brooks, that’s bullshit. Okay, thanks, that’s good advice. I would start doing that and Brooks would correct his story, say Ah I was just joking. But he was constantly veering off into outrageous delusions.
He was crazy in what seemed to me at the time the best sense of the word. He was completely impervious to social conditioning. Later on I got news that he’d gone back to upstate New York, where he’d come from originally, and where his mother still lived, in Painted Post. The final word I got was that he’d escaped from a mental institution in upstate New York. It was cold weather when he escaped. And that he had drowned in a lake in the middle of the night.
It’s such a sad fucking story. The thing that Brooks and I both liked and were interested in, and I must confess I still like it today, it was glorious adventure. Romance and adventure. That’s what we wanted to do. We wanted to do really interesting, far-out things and get laid. And, y’know, have interesting relationships with the women that we got laid with. The Diggers and the Mime Troupe were interesting, especially to Brooks, not for any reason of political ideology like you’d get from interviewing Berg or Coyote, but because it was really exciting and sexy and fun. Now of course those things were interesting to those guys, too. Those were the kind of things that we were pursuing at the Noe House. We had various relationships with women. I remember there was one woman we both wanted to fuck, and I remember we were there, we were talking about who’s gonna take her up to their room, because both of our rooms were on the second floor, and I remember we both turned to her and said, Well how about it? What do you think? And she was totally intimidated by that, just by the frankness of it: Well, you decide. We’re obviously at an impasse, neither of us are gonna give up, so what do you wanna do?
The Diggers were meant to be loose, free and vaguely anonymous — or pseudonymous — but perhaps inevitably, some people’s names got out. Usually they were the ones who spoke to a reporter.
And there were a lot of reporters in the Haight-Ashbury during the Diggers’ heyday of 1966-8. Such was the Diggers’ presence and notoriety that seemingly every reporter filing a story on the Haight — even, memorably, a typically dyspeptic Joan Didion, for the Saturday Evening Post—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. “A cross between the Mad Bomber and Johnny Appleseed,” said future Yippie Paul Krassner in The Realist, “a combination of Lenny Bruce and Malcolm X, the illegitimate offspring resulting from the seduction of Mary Worth by an acidic anarchist.” Didion wrote, “In the official District mythology, [the Diggers] are supposed to be a group of anonymous good guys with no thought in their collective head but to lend a helping hand.”
Who were these guys? Actor Peter Coyote and the late Emmett Grogan are the usual names associated with the Diggers (and their later incarnation, sometimes called the Free Family collective), as they wrote books chronicling their participation in that era; Grogan’s Ringolevio (1972) is the most notorious. But there were many others who remained anonymous while participating in the various wildly audacious Digger initiatives of the time. (A vast archive about the Diggers is maintained by Eric Noble at diggers.org)
One of them is a man named Chuck Gould. Prior to interviewing Chuck in 2010 at his home in Petrolia, California, I didn’t know much about him, other than his name was the photographer credit for the bulk of the rather striking black-and-white photographs featured in Coyote’s memoir, Sleeping Where I Fall (1998). In conversation I found Chuck’s avuncular outspokenness, street lawyerly bluntness, and Buddhist bottom-lineness to be as striking, refreshing and vivid as his photographic portraiture. No mythologizing here; just facts, laughs and tough reckonings.
The following text is for the most part how the conversation flowed that morning; it has not been edited down for a general audience, and many incidents and personages are spoken of without context, or only in passing. There are, inevitably, a few digressions. As usual, my advice to the casual-but-curious reader is to simply let these unfamiliar/unexplained bits pass. Keep reading, there’s a good chance you’ll like the next part.
This presentation has been prepared in extensive consultation with Chuck in the last few weeks. Any errors of transcript are mine, and notice of any corrections of fact would be greatly appreciated.
This is the second in a series of interviews with Diggers that I am presenting online for the first time. The first was with Phyllis Willner. More to come.
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Jay Babcock: So both you and Phyllis Willner spent time at Millbrook in 1966 prior to arriving, independently of each other, later that year in San Francisco and getting involved with the Diggers. How did you get to Millbrook?
Chuck Gould: I got to Millbrook through a loose extended family called the Group Image. The Group Image was a multimedia light show/rock n roll/kookarooka thing. We had a loft on Second Avenue and Fifth Street in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. There was a big neon purple sign that flashed “Show Biz” on and off onto the street, and it was where we kept instruments, equipment, art materials and stuff like that, and where people crashed. Freeman [House] was publishing a magazine called InnerSpace with Martin Carey, who was doing a lot of the artwork for it. It was a small world even in those days, even in New York. So Freeman and I met each other. He would come to the loft to get out of the cold and write.
I went with the Group Image to Millbrook because [Timothy] Leary was doing a movie—I don’t know what the movie was about but it was all kinda crap. A bullshit “advent garde” movie. And Leary was bullshit also, I might add. Trust me, I lived with him long enough to know that he was. He was basically an opportunist. He had no real social conscience or progressive political position or any of that stuff. He was simply in it for the fame. And the women. Regrettably he drank a lot and it was rumored that he couldn’t get it up. Alcohol: not good.
So, we went up there to do this movie. ’65-6. A lot of people were up there. A lot of people would come up there—Michael Bowen (from whom I first heard the term “far-out”) from San Francisco, poets would come up there, Indian gurus would be up there, weirdos and whackjobs and all these pretentious self-styled hipsters. This was the Hitchcock estate. Peggy Hitchcock was a very wealthy woman, or her family was wealthy. That’s where I met Phyllis. I remember her sitting in a wheelchair; her face painted black and white and looking “witchy.” She left after the filming and party was over and I stayed because I had gotten involved with Leary’s secretary, who was 10 years older than me. She was very lovely. After that time in Millbrook I came to California.
Where did you grow up?
On Long Island, outside of New York, and I went to college in Boston. My father and mother were first-generation Americans. He was an importer of fine arts and antiques, and also sold a line of silver-plated ware. My mother was an educated housewife. Four children. We lived in Brooklyn initially and then in Great Neck. I’m the second oldest. Jewish, very Reform. I went to Boston University and was Pre-Med. I have a bachelor’s in Zoology, which means nothing in the bigger view of things except now when I castrate my bull calves I know how to clamp off the bleeders.
When I was in school in Boston I started taking acid, smoking pot, going to socialist meetings and the bottom kind of dropped out. I had always considered myself as politically left, enjoyed jazz, read Marx and poetry and so I began to trade one delusion for another, which we all do. I came to San Francisco by way of Aspen, Colorado where I’d had some history ski bumming, earlier. I arrived around Thanksgiving of 1966. I never looked back. I knew I was home and intuitively “recognized” everyone on the street. Home.
What were you doing with Group Image in New York?
Well, I wasn’t a musician, but I worked a lot doing the light shows while others designed posters and played rock concerts. There was lots of groups like this around.
I remember there was the Seattle Lightworks, they used to travel around and do light shows, and they would come and stay with us. The Grateful Dead would come to New York and play in an abandoned bandshell in Tompkins Square. Richie Havens would open and then the Dead would play. The Grateful Dead would come up to our loft to hang out. I remember Bobby Weir wearing eagle feathers in his hair. I was knocked out by them. Ed Sanders had his Peace Eye Bookstore right there. There was all kinds of alternative stuff going on right there in that neighborhood. The Fugs, Tuli Kupferberg, all those guys were around. I just recently saw Ed Sanders up in Millbrook, with Martin and Susan [Carey], who are good friends. It was all very crazy because Martin and Susan were good friends of Freeman’s. I didn’t know that. I met Freeman and I met Martin and Susan independently, and then Freeman came to San Francisco — was brought to San Francisco, supposedly. There were some rather pompous people around the Diggers in those days who thought that they were really doing earth-shattering things. Anyway, I said to him, “Hey man, we know each other” [from New York]. Of course he remembered and we became good friends.
How did you get to San Francisco?
Well, I had heard about what was going on in California. If you were at all attuned to what was going on in the alternative universe, so to speak, then you knew that San Francisco was one of the epicenters. I went around Thanksgiving of 1966, and lived briefly in an apartment somewhere in the Haight-Ashbury with some people I knew from Colorado.
One day, I’m walking down the street in the Haight-Ashbury and here comes Phyllis Willner, wiggling up the street. Wow, blah blah blah. She said, “Come on I’ll take you someplace,” and we went to one of the communal houses that the Diggers were doing and I got immediately involved in what was happening. It seemed to me that the things that the Diggers were attempting and the predicates that were behind these activities were something that I related to, and were very far-out and seemed to make a lot of sense. And: it was all great, great, great fun. And of course you’re dropping through the rabbit hole at that point in time—you have to understand, this was, for me anyway (I can’t speak for anybody else), in those days the rush of freedom—being out of school, being in your twenties, at the peak of your game physically and all that stuff, taking heavy-duty psychedelic drugs that were opening up this vast cavern, this abyss, of extraordinary insights and imagination, this was all happening at the same time. TOTALLY free. Invincible! No more school or parents. No societal restraints. Gone, that was all gone. I could do whatever I wanted. Endless mananas. In your twenties, you have endless mananas. Tomorrow is tomorrow is tomorrow. And so I got involved with what was going on with the Diggers, although no one wanted to be pigeonholed or characterized in any way.
The only communal house I ever lived in, other than Forest Knolls [in the ’70s], was Willard Street. I lived in my own places. I always managed to find a way to live, or had a girlfriend that I lived with, or lived on the street, or slept in the park. I really didn’t care. As it was, I never had a permanent room at Willard Street. I lived in the coal bin in the basement, where we did Free News. I lived in that coal bin with Ron Thelin on and off.
There are other connections going back to New York. Martin Carey, this guy that I told you about, was Abbie [Hoffman]’s very, very best friend. They grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts together. There’s this famous picture of Freeman marrying Abbie and Anita, and I think Marty is sitting somewhere in the back of that Times photograph in Central Park. It was during this period of time that I met Freeman and all this stuff was going on in New York’s Lower East Side or the so-called “West Village.” We would hang out at Abbie’s St. Mark’s Street pad. It was a psychedelic circus of lefties, street people, artists etc. Martin Carey did some amazing artwork for Digger publications. When Abbie was on the lam [1974-80], after the cocaine bust and all that shit, which, I’d lost track of all these people, I knew Jerry Rubin in New York in the early 1980’s when he’d turned into a faux businessman and was doing his networking thing, I used to go to his parties and stuff like that, but… Marty would go and meet Abbie in airports and bus stations, he’d put on a crazy hat and a beard with a nose, just ridiculous, and he’d go and they’d pass each other in the room and he’d hand him an envelope and then keep going. It was money so Abbie could keep running. They wouldn’t stop and talk. It was hard for them. They loved each other a lot.
So, late 1966, you fell in with the Diggers. Who were you impressed by?
Well, I was of course impressed by Bill Fritsch [aka Sweet William or Tumbleweed]. I’d never met anybody like him before. Emmett [Grogan] was an enigma who would disappear a lot. Peter Berg and Peter Cohon [aka Coyote] and some others seemed to be from another planet. And being around rock musicians, poets, Black Panthers [see video clip below] and Hell’s Angels was damn exciting and turned my head around to a different way of seeing reality.
Above: A clip from the documentary feature film Revolution, directed by Jack O’Connell, shot in 1967. In this scene, shot inside the Black People’s Free Store at 1099 McAllister Street in the Fillmore district, an unidentified speaker (possibly Roy Ballard), talks about what a Digger is, what the free store means for the black community and what’s going on in the Haight-Ashbury. The gentleman’s monologue begins around 6:08 and lasts for 95 seconds. Disregard what follows his speech.
Who was Bill Fritsch before the Angels?
He was William Fritsch, a Jewish former New York longshoreman long before the Diggers and Angels. He was Lenore [Kandel]’s boyfriend. He was a well-known member of the bohemian/beat/art community in North Beach, a lot of which centered around the the Committee theater group, Caffe Trieste and places like that. And Ferlinghetti’s bookstore. All that group from the ‘50s that he and Lenore had run with. He and Lenore had moved into Gregory Corso’s apartment on Chestnut Street. Gregory lived there with Belle and Belle’s daughter Sasha. They there together for a number of years and so when Gregory moved on, Bill and Lenore moved into that apartment. They lived there, and that was a center of activity. People got their ears pierced, got high, shit like that.
Bill was quite a fascination to a lot of us. Here was a man who was incredibly charismatic and handsome, vital, virile guy with this amazing poet wife. They actually were married, and remained married until she died. They just never got divorced, for whatever reason. Medical insurance? Who knows what they were doing. They were estranged at the end. Sad.
So I was very impressed with Bill, because he was so different. Drove a motorcycle. Shot dope. What did I know about this kind of stuff?
Who else impressed me? None of them ‘impressed’ me really, to speak of.
Okay: impressed, enamored, whatever… Who were the people who were doing Diggers stuff that made you want to get involved with them?
That’s just what kind of happened. You fell into it. You’re living in a house and people say tomorrow we’re gonna go to the produce market [to procure ingredients for the daily Free Food event in the Park] and blahblahblah. I said, I’m coming with you. That kind of thing started to happen. Food preparation. Street theater. Those kinds of activities. Other events. This is a long time ago, I mean… Peter [Coyote], who’s still a good friend of mine, wrote a book about the time, and the first thing I said to him upon reading it was, How do you remember this stuff? Come on man. Get serious. Everybody was stoned all of the time anyway. I can’t even remember all this shit. He says Oh, I kept a journal. [laughs] To which I said, Oh. Okay. Cuz there’s all this contention about Peter’s book as to what was true and what wasn’t true; memory is a funny thing.
What about Emmett Grogan? Were you impressed by him?
Emmett was an impressive guy. Emmett was an enigma, Emmett was elusive, Emmett kind of ran in a number of different circles. It was very clear that Emmett was very committed to Emmett, and that what Emmett was doing was very, very interesting and important and vital, but that he always appeared, in my opinion, to have a hidden agenda. And part of Emmett’s agenda was, in my opinion, hyping up the notoriety that came as a result of just being Emmett Grogan and having been in the Artist Liberation Front Council or whatever it was that people were involved in, in the early days in the Haight and the advent of the radical new progressive politics of “Free.” I leave the precise articulations of this “New think” to those of us who are more versed than I am.
Yeah, this kind of stuff. Emmett was someone who, early on, had gotten into hard drugs and that kind of made for a bit of a separation between him and other people. Emmett was very secretive. He didn’t like to be photographed. He even told me not to take photos of him and I didn’t. Emmett was paranoid. He was sure, and he may well have been right, that he was on somebody’s enemies list—you know, using the old Nixon term, “enemies list.” He was very charismatic and he was a lot of fun to be around, when he was fun to be around. I mean, I remember going with Phyllis… Emmett had broken his arm, I don’t know when this was. He had broken his arm and Phyllis and I were taking him to the hospital. Must have been to S.F. General, because where else would hippies go but to General. Emmett checks in, they want to know his name. No one had ID in those days—if you did, it was phony ID, completely made up. So he says his name is Roger Payne. Because he has a broken arm. He spells it out P-A-Y-N-E. They put us in an examination room, the nurse goes out, and he immediately starts to rifle the drawers. He’s looking for needles and the syringes, which he finds and he puts in his pocket. And as he puts them in his pocket, the nurse comes back in the room and he turns around and you hear this rustling. She pats his pocket, she says What’s that? And he says, Potato chips! And the three of us run out of the room in different directions and disappear into the night. This was life with Emmett.
It was that kind of thing. It was crazy. I remember once being with Emmett and Ron Thelin. Ron had a white Chevy panel truck, closed panel truck. What we were doing, why I was there, I have no idea. We drive it along and we pull up to a light and there in front of us is a butcher truck, stopped, the doors are open, the guy is hauling a quarter of a cow into the butcher shop and the back of the truck is open and hanging with meat. Immediately Emmett sees the opportunity to steal meat. We pull over, and he says to me, Go get some meat. Me, right? I run over to the truck, I jump into the truck, I unhook—it’s hanging on a hook—a thing of meat, run back and throw it in the back of the panel truck just as this guy comes out of the shop he was delivering to. He yells, “Hey,” we slam the doors and we drive away and we take the meat to Paula’s house. Paula McCoy, where he was living. Well, he may have been living with her—I never knew what the nature of their relationship was… Emmett was into star stuff. He liked that whole hippie royalty notoriety—this is my take on him now; again, this is strictly my perception, who knows what was going on?—but he liked that stuff. He liked going to Hollywood, he liked hanging out with Dennis Hopper, that kind of crap.
Well, he was hustling for money for the Diggers, right?
Whatever he was hustling—he was hustling. You got a sense it was contrived. Hidden agendas. Okay, so he then proceeded to butcher this meat right in Paula’s kitchen. Now, I also remember that around time, a kind of poignant but predictive thing happened. There was a family meeting at Pierce Street, which was one of the houses we had—David [Simpson] and Jane [Lapiner] were living there in the attic, I think Freeman was living there too. The Pierce Street house had been where a seder had taken place that turned into kind of a debauchery scene like most of these things did. The meeting was about what to do next. Bear in mind, the whole “Digger thing” was maybe two years. What happened after that, the so-called “Free Family” and all that other stuff leading up to us sitting here that went on afterwards, also incorporated all of the nuances of Digger craziness and the paradigms of Free and all of that stuff, but it wasn’t being done by an organization that characterized itself loosely being the Diggers… The “Who’s in charge? You’re in charge” period, that was kind of over.
And part of the reason it was over is that by 1968, people were moving, families were coalescing, people were hooking up with women, children were starting to being born, things were changing. The Haight-Ashbury were filling up with people who had no ethical or spiritual or philosophical or intellectual goal or direction whatsoever. They were there because they had heard some music that appealed to them, they’d smoked a joint and decided to drop out and come to the Haight-Ashbury. And it turned into something that… Well. I never considered myself to be a “hippie.” I don’t think any of us did. The whole concept was kind of weird. “Hippie”: What is that? We were there because we wanted to kick off a revolution. That is what I wanted to do. I had come from a very bourgeois middle class background. I had seen a lot of things, I had kind of dropped the stuff away, and now a lot of things that I had thought about when I was younger coalesced into more cogent ideas that now had some semblance of a new radical political-economic-social paradigm.
So what we were doing really appealed to me, you know? In those days going to construction sites with Kent Minault and stealing construction material was perfectly okay. Today, I say to myself, Well it’s stealing. You can call it whatever you want. You can call it redistribution of wealth, you can give it all kinds of fancy names, but hey, guess what? You’re stealing. This all came back to haunt us [in the ’70s] when our children started shoplifting. You get a phone call, your five-year-old little girl has been shoplifting, she’s been caught. Then we’d go, Oh my god, of course she’s shoplifting. She learned this from us. So, when children get born, things change. Your perceptions of everything shifts toward the center a bit. But I digress.
So, there was this meeting that took place. This would’ve been maybe 1968. I remember Bill was there. I remember that because I asked him to take me someplace on his bike afterwards and he did. Scared the shit out of me. Emmett was there. Emmett had started not to be around a lot, by now. He would go to New York, he would go to London, he was deeply into a heroin habit I think by then. He had a bike and he’d become very elusive, paranoid. He was living I believe with Joanie and Billy, the Batpeople, on Roosevelt Street, in the top apartment of the building that Pete Knell had rented. Pete was the president of the Angels in San Francisco. [Freewheelin] Frank Reynolds lived there also. I have photographs of him in that apartment, of Frank in that apartment. In that house, whatever it was. It’s all gone now. Upscale housing. Highest and best use they call it.
Emmett had made a suggestion. The meeting was about “what’s next…?” The suggestion that Emmett made, and there was this rivalry, I’m probably gonna get in trouble for saying this, but so what, there was a rivalry between Peter Berg and Emmett. That’s the fact. People can say I’m crazy, I don’t care what they say, I’m telling you there was a rivalry between them. It was a power thing. Who’s the smartest, the fastest, who can come up with the most out-there, relevant ideas. It wasn’t just about hanging out… we had a mission. A passion. Every piece of “Free News” that got published had a very specific message, you know, as to what it meant, and what it was supposed to be, and what its intended message was. Obviously it wasn’t news about what the mayor had done that morning. It was about doing your “own thing.” So, Emmett’s idea for the next shot was to do a free butcher shop. I don’t know what he was really thinking about, but this apparently was just an extension of the free store/free free free mentality. And I remember that this was knocked down at this meeting, and it seemed in my mind to create some bad feeling. That now it was not a “do your own thing” thing, it was people kind of lining up in different camps and there being people who wanted the appearance of being leaders and people who weren’t interested in being overtly leaders. To a large degree I think that was, in my mind, the last formal Digger function that took place, that meeting. Now, whatever we continued to do… the “liberation” of City Hall, etc. — that all seemed, to me, to have a different flavor or feel. But I remember that being the sense a lot of us had. Death of Hippie. Death of Digger.
I always perceived a bit of an egotistical power struggle that went on between some of these guys. It was irrelevant to me. It was something that I didn’t want to know anything about. It wasn’t nice, as far as I was concerned. After all, It was antithetical to what we were supposed to be doing. To who we were. And things like that come up all of the time. That stuff just comes up in people. Human nature?
The other people I remember from that time… Kent [Minault] was so much fun to run and do shit with, it was just always hysterical to be with Kent. Vinnie [Rinaldi] was another friend whose lifestyle and often inverted thinking influenced me greatly. Brooks [Butcher] was a sad case. I didn’t know him that well, but he was a sad case. Obviously, I was close friends with Freeman and David and Jane and the Bergs and all of these people. We were all around and we lived with each other, on top of each other, whatever. And Phyllis, Julie [Boone] and Natural Suzanne [aka Siena Riffia]—she was no longer with Emmett by now, that was over, and lots of other people. Our extended family eventually began to morph into almost a biological family.
What about Bill Murcott?
Oh yeah. I loved Billy Murcott. Still do. He left San Francisco and went back east. I think I got to know him better years later. He was really the main architect of the politics of “Free” I think. Mostly in retrospect. His social, economic and political insights were profound and right on. Why he left and went back to New York is still not clear to me but I think it had something to do with his sense that things were swinging away from the early vision. Maybe. Just my take. Ya gotta ask him. Not that he’ll talk about it a lot.
Siena [aka Natural Suzanne] says Emmett worshipped Billy.
Yes. They were friends from New York, and I don’t know if they came out together and all that stuff, because remember, I arrived let’s say end of ’66/beginning of ’67, this was rolling by then. So I walked into the middle of something that was already happening. I don’t know about Phyllis’s connection to those guys from before, I have no idea. I know she was in some way connected to Nina, or maybe to Julie? Julie Boone.. Julie was really central to all this. She was a very close friend of Nina and Phyllis’s. And my lady friend. I adored her but didn’t treat her right. Too much male macho stuff. One of my regrets.
Who were Bill and Ann Lindyn?
Bill and Ann were Mime Troupe folks who developed a medieval style or Dell’arte, Punch and Judy show. They created a moveable theater, the Free City Puppets, and would pop up around town and preform puppet shows, the content of which embodied progressive and Digger thinking. And it was hilarious. The kids really loved it and got what they were getting at. Destiny [Gould] and I lived with them off and on and played in the shows with them. I remember being cast as the puppet called “The Judge.” A hated character whose only lines were: “guilty, guilty, guilty. Death!” Then the audience would boo me and throw shit at me. I was so happy!
I didn’t like Brautigan. I never considered him to be a hippie or anything. I thought he was a bad poet. That’s all I know about Richard Brautigan. I didn’t care for his style. I thought it was bullshit with the hats and scarves. I thought he was something of a weird guy and using us.
What can I tell you about Kirby? I guess I really met Kirby through the poets, or through Billy Batman, who was a painter, not a poet. Again, Batman is one of the guys who go back to this scene in North Beach in the late ‘50s. I met Kirby in the City, he was very much into amphetamines. He was kind of a wild flamboyant guy. He eventually ended up living in Forest Knolls with his girlfriend and they had a child together whose name was California. Kirby died in Yerba Buena hospital, I went up to see him right before he died. Kirby was a wild guy. An out-of-control kind of guy. He was not involved, per se, in any of what was going on. He did some things that were published in the Digger Papers. Kirby was influential in the way that all the poets were, as Gregory was, and Lenore, and Lew Welch, but then Lew disappeared. Suicide. Gary [Snyder] was in and out. And Diane di Prima of course. We spent a lot of time at her house. I remember being at her house on Oak Street, right on top of the Panhandle. She, and Alan Marlowe, There was a whole poetry scene there, and we would go there and eat. And take acid on the full moon. We’d eat anywhere we could.
I think that Kirby’s and the poets’ influence or role was one of idea incubation. Oh, they would come to City Hall steps and read poetry. But you wouldn’t catch them going out on food runs. Or doing any of those other things—these shots, these bits. They weren’t really involved in stuff like that. Lenore was, in the beginning. But then Lenore kind of withdrew. When Bill got involved with the [Hell’s Angels] club, Lenore withdrew to a large degree from a lot of these activities, although their house on Chestnut Street was still a center—but only while Bill was prospecting the club. Then they kind of disappeared from the scene, which was really sad—a lot of people felt badly about that, that we’d lost Bill to the Angels. We saw that was not gonna be such a good thing for him. Which it was not.
How much of a connection is there between Altamont, the Hell’s Angels and the Diggers?
I don’t think there was any direct connection between Altamont and the Diggers. I know Emmett was there… but Altamont was something that unfortunately, I think, was a turning point historically, at least in terms of the American public’s perception of what was going on with the alternative community—that it was violent, drug-ridden, all of that stuff. I did not go to Altamont. I remember being in an apartment, it may have been the Bergs’ apartment, the morning that it went down and hearing about these things. I don’t know if Emmett and those guys were there, maybe they were. I know Billy [Fritsch] was there, because he was in the club by then. You see him in the films of that so called concert.
Anyway, Altamont was nothing that would have had any direct relationship to what we were doing. I mean, theoretically, and at its most pristine incarnation, the Digger vision, if you could even characterize it as such a thing, was really an attempt to evolve alternative social, political and economic paradigms. Which ultimately led to a sense that we were anarchists because there wasn’t any extant system that we could relate to. Ultimately that level of anarchy really puts you in free-fall in many ways, including emotionally. It leads to no good. You can understand the connection. It’s like too much of a good thing. Like drugs or sex.
You think it was bound to fail because of that?
No, I never said it was bound to fail, and I don’t think it was intended to succeed, or not succeed. It wasn’t that kind of thing. It was meant to be kind of an ‘Invisible Circus’ kind of thing.
Did you attend that?
Yes. I remember mostly that there were a lot of bizarre and grotesque and wonderful things going on—people having sex in the church, all this other stuff, a lot of crazy shit was going on. You know, you go there, you take acid, you drink wine, you smoke weed, the music, the lights… Who can remember this stuff, right? Who can remember?
Anyway. I don’t want to sound like I’m slandering anybody. The truth is, people talk a lot about all these things that were done, like the food trip or free stores but the real work or “do” of it got done by people other than the people who may have come up with the ideas. Kinda weird but it reflected a growing hierarchy which again was antithetical to so-called fundamental Digger thinking. You know: Who is in charge? You. No one.
Did you know Chester Anderson?
Didn’t know him that well, didn’t know the Communication Company that well. Knew Claude [Haywood] and H’lane, but not well either. They were not directly involved with us. They didn’t live with us. Chester was an inspiration for me. His early writing was kinda profound.
How important was LSD?
In my opinion, it was huge. It was almost everything. There’s a lot of people who denied it for a long time because to acknowledge it would be kind of demeaning. But for me, myself? Those experiences were the experiences that broke the old mold, destroyed old conditions and then there was just a universe of endless possibilities. And in that context, one was able to see what was missing, what was beautiful, what wasn’t beautiful, and begin to, in this totally new world, where anything goes, one was able to begin to develop reasonable new paradigms.
The other stimulant, in addition to acid and other drugs and our social experiments was the configuration of the universe at the moment in time, which included not just the configuration of the stars, but also the war, and the Kennedy assassinations that had been taking place. And all of the stuff going on. The nascent woman’s movement. The gay liberation. The African-American unrest that was beginning to be really well articulated with all the people that were involved in that movement. All of those things going on—and the one magic ingredient: YOUTH. Youth was huge. This is the kind of thing that never would have happened in a population of 50-year-olds. This had to happen with people under 30. I mean, there was the classic slogan: Never trust anybody over 30. Who said that? Abbie Hoffman? [It was actually a student activist named Jack Weinberg.] Then he turned 30. [laughs] Now what are you gonna do?
Youth, alternative lifestyle and drugs were gigantic. It’s not the only thing that mattered—obviously we were surrounded by fantastically talented artists and poets and musicians. I just think that there are times when there is a confluence of events and social and celestial influences that lead to these extraordinary changes, and this was one of them. To many people, the changes that took place, they’re not even aware of them. I mean, for me, these changes [definitely] took place, right? For my parents, the changes didn’t take place. But I maintain that if one looks around our world today, you will see everywhere the influence of those times. You will see those ideas being articulated and made manifest all around us, be it the women’s movement or progressive black politics or even environmental issues, which certainly sprung out of back-to-the-landers.
Back-to-the-lander came about as a result, in my opinion, of psychedelic drugs, which made it almost impossible to live in the cities. I used to say that a time came when the dogshit started to glow on the street for me. The moment I said, Oh the dogshits are glowing, it was time to get out of the city. I used that as my own personal thing. And we left the city. Peter Coyote had moved to Olema to recover from hepatitis. He was staying there with two Grateful Dead groupies whose name were Spider and Slade, and they had rented this dump ranch at this beautiful place in Olema. West Marin. Kind of close to Bolinas, Point Reyes Station, Marin, the San Geronimo Valley. It’s all right in that same part of the world. He and I lived there, and then the groupies left, and he stayed, and a lot of people coalesced there. A lot of people coalesced around Ron Thelin’s house, which was in Forest Knolls, which is where you will find Marsha Thelin and her family to this day. Going to visit her is a sure enough time machine.
So yes, LSD was very important, youth was hugely important, this particular moment in time was important—of course everything is always predicated on those kinds of things, I believe.
The Digger thing was kind of unique in that we didn’t consider ourselves to be “hippies,” at all. In fact, it was, to me, an affront. We considered ourselves to be social, political and economic anarchists. We could see that we were “leaders,” if you will, by example. Because there wasn’t anybody who said, “This is what we do today.” It was just leading by example in the community. A lot of the things that we tried to instill in other people never happened. A huge but informative disappointment. It was a very short-lived run — a couple of extraordinary years. I mean, it wasn’t officially anything. You know all the clichés: people coming into free stores and saying, Who’s in charge, and being told they were, and people stealing stuff in free stores. But if you looked closely you could see the seeds of change like diamonds in the sand.
The Diggers had friends in the Grateful Dead. What do you remember about that connection?
I went to New York on a couple different drug deals to raise money for what we were doing. I took the draft text of the Diggers Papers to the Realist office, and had been given by [Grateful Dead co-manager] Danny Rifkin a shoebox full of STP, whatever that was, to sell in New York, where I had some contacts. You want the details? I haven’t got any details for you. I remember going to the Realist office, I remember having the STP, I know it came from Danny, through the Dead. Danny was one of the few in the Dead family that we had anything really tight with. Jerry [Garcia] was a good guy. Pigpen was a good guy. The rest of them were into show business, money and all that. Well, that’s what I saw. But I was a snob of sorts, I guess. Too judgmental.
The Grateful Dead lived across the street from one of the houses we lived in, from Paula McCoy on Ashbury Street. Paula had been married to a guy whose name was Don McCoy who had actually brought a guru over from India, and he was living in Olompali.
Danny had rented the house across the street, and needed roommates. The roommates showed up in the form of the Warlocks. And they moved in. That’s how I met them. I don’t know what Danny’s connection [to the Diggers] would have been prior to that. Maybe through Artists Liberation, I don’t know. That’s kind of how I met Danny: on the street, playing softball. Some people that lived on the street didn’t like this, but we played anyway. I remember that house. That house had the original gas jets still in the wall. Without the globes on the things, still in the wall. So that’s how we met Danny: getting high on the stoops. In those years in our community everyone knew everyone.
The Dead was one of the bands that we could count on to be supportive of our activities and come and play for us if necessary. The Jefferson Airplane? Not a fuckin’ prayer. Those people were living on the other side of the park. I can show you the house they lived in, with long columns on it. They were living in a different world. And there were some bands that would play with us and some that wouldn’t. Janis [Joplin] was very much a player until she got to be really a superstar. Albert Grossman and people like that hung around at Paula McCoy’s house; those guys were always around because of the rock scene.
The rock scene I think was very appealing to people like Emmett and so forth because there was a lot of money and flash and notoriety and that kind of stuff.
I barely knew him. I had taken plenty of his product, but I didn’t really personally know him. I knew who he was, in the way I knew Allen Cohen from the Oracle and guys like that. People were just around. It was a relatively small community… until 1968 or so when suddenly there were tour buses on the street, and it got weird, you know? It became, What’s going on here? Because remember, what you see on Haight Street today is bizarre. None of this was here. None of it. That was a bank. This was a delicatessen, this was a shoe store. It was a neighborhood. That’s what it was. It was a western extension of the Fillmore. That’s what it was. That’s what the Haight-Ashbury really is. There was no such place. The term ‘Haight-Ashbury,’ like the term ‘hippie,’ was coined by [San Francisco columnist] Herb Caen. He actually made those terms up….
It was very transformative times. I can only speak for myself and for the people I was close to. We were transformed. Peter [Berg] and Judy [Goldhaft] said to me a couple months ago, we were having dinner, and they said something about, ‘the Diggers ruined us.’ And I knew exactly what they meant. They meant, it’s a slippery slope. Our lives and thinking were changed forever.
Look, I went on, because I had to raise my daughter, I went on and I got a job, working for a guy who was drilling gas wells in West Virginia. Now, I’m in the oil business, he’s paying me $3 an hour. I’m raising a child as a single parent. Well then, my life went on from there. But certain things don’t change. Your perceptions become transformed and altered. Things changed forever. You can’t go back. There’s no going back. The forms may change, if you know what I mean by ‘the forms.’ My form is very different from David [Simpson] and Jane [Lapiner]’s forms. But David is one of my closest friends in the world. And yet our forms are completely different. But the substrate of our thought processes are “Digger times”-inspired.
But it is this underlying perception of “how things are”—”paradigm” is the right word, that’s what it means—that was to a very large degree shaped by our experiences on the street. The way in which these things happened. I maintain that we became who we were not just because of the moment in time, although I think that’s always true, but because of drugs and our youth and because of our shared experiences. [When] you go to the San Francisco produce market to get food to give away, right, and you meet the working guys on the dock there, and you SEE what kind of good guys they really are, and then you see the kind of SURPLUS there is in America, and how cavalierly it’s treated…. This kind of thing. Then you also see the fact that the people that you’re trying to help, not just by giving them a meal, but also by transmitting this wisdom, and they just don’t get it. Or they don’t want to get it. This changes who you are. All these things lead you to a common experience with other people similarly situated and it become almost a cult. There are things known just to us [Diggers], by virtue of our shared experiences. ‘Cult’ is too strong a word, but you understand what I mean. You become a very, very tight, extended family. It becomes almost genetic. Our kids get it. Born that way. Go figure.
Emmett didn’t stay in the family. He had to deal with the post-Diggers fallout/comedown all on his own. He was obviously in pain. There’s an interview in the early ’70s where he says, ‘We showed them how to do it and they didn’t want it. So fuck them.’
This was painful. Cleaning up after a big event in the park, filling bags full of garbage because the people who came to the event didn’t bother to pick up their own cigarette shit? What is this? Don’t you guys get it?!? Hello? They didn’t get it. A lot of them didn’t get it. Many people did. But a lot didn’t. The appearance was, a lot didn’t get it. So I mean I shared Emmett’s feeling of angst and disappointment about these things. But it did help clarify, inform and ultimately substantiate our Diggerly instincts. But it hurt.
Emmett was a very complicated person. He was a strange guy. After Siena, I don’t remember Emmett being in a relationship with a woman per se. Not that I was aware of. Well, Paula I think. Emmett never lived with us. He always had his own place. Junkies are tricky people to love.
Everybody felt a certain amount of pathos about him because he kind of got away from us. Whether he got away because of something we did, or he got away because he’d lost faith in what was happening, or he got away because he got too deep into drugs, or whatever it was, we kinda lost him the way we lost Billy Fritsch. I personally felt badly. I missed having Fritsch around. It was exciting being around the Angels up until a point in time when it kind of turned on us. And that really was an event, a very specific event where the Angels had made a conscious decision that this was it. In Olema. Like love between a way young girl and an older guy: it has to end at some point. That was the end of the relationship.
That was sort of the terrible bookend to the beautiful beginning, to that Diggers-led march to the police station to free…
Chocolate George. Exactly. The Angels liked us. The Black Panthers liked us. Kathleen Cleaver once fed me lunch with somebody else because we were involved in the Black Man’s Free Store, which was being put together. Those people liked us. I enjoyed being around Black Panthers, to the degree that we were; much less so around them than we were around Angels. I liked being around the Angels, it was dangerous, exciting. Who am I? Middle-class Jewish kid from Great Neck, hanging around with these guys?!? Killers. Criminals. But they were wonderful. We loved them. Admired them. These guys, you know they would have machine guns and Nazi flags on their walls as art. [laughs] I have pictures of that stuff, I can show you pictures of the insides of Pete Knell’s apartment. I learned about respect, loyalty and bravery from them.
I had to be careful of what I photographed. Like I knew Emmett didn’t want to be photographed. He didn’t want it. So I didn’t take pictures of him. You had to ask first. Respect.
How do you square that with, as you put it, his quest for notoriety?
Whether he really was paranoid or whether it was true, he had this thing that we were all on FBI lists and so forth. We were a danger to the establishment. I’ll tell you a story. I was living in Aspen, Colorado, where David and Jane and everybody used to come and live with us—outside of Aspen, Colorado in a place called Conundrum Creek, WAY in left field, man. Fucking way deep left field. One day there’s a knock on the door. Out there nobody knocks on your door unless it’s a squirrel. It’s not a neighborhood. And there’s two guys outside, wearing suits. They introduce themselves and flash their IDs, we’re the FBI, would I mind looking at some photographs and tell them if I recognized anybody. I said certainly. I knew immediately who they were looking for. I go through the pictures, I go right past Anna’s photograph, keep on going. She had been a Weatherperson, and had been implicated in the bombing of some bank in San Francisco. And I went right past her picture and said, Nope, don’t recognize anybody! Well thank you very much, they said They were doing their job, they checked it off, now they were going to lunch. Bureaucrats, that’s who they really are. That’s the FBI—people think they’re cops? They’re really bureaucrats. But dangerous depending on where you stand. Emmett liked the idea of being an outlaw. It appealed to his sense of theater and to his ego. He was a conflicted guy.
This harassment and surveillance was constantly going on. There would be cars that would slide around in front of the houses we were living in, with two guys in the front, and a little antenna on the back. Who do you think they were?
There was all this paranoia about subversives in America and all this stuff. These were strange times. It was hard to live in those times, and believe in anything except ourselves because our culture obviously was a sham. Right? We had learned that from our own activities, and from drugs, and from other things. Our political systems, even the radical political systems that many people had espoused—the Marxists, the Trotskyites, all the other fancy guys who were out there—that was all proven to be mostly untenable nonsense.
It was a paranoid time. Y’know? Our heroes being killed. The Kennedy brothers: heroes, killed. Martin Luther King: hero, killed. All these guys. What the fuck is going on here? When they killed Martin Luther King, I then became sure that there was CLEARLY a conspiracy and to this day I think there was, to kill these people. I don’t doubt it for a fucking minute. I don’t doubt it for a minute and I think it was an inside conspiracy or ruling class struggle that did involve Hoover, and all of those stories that have come up again and again, I believe they’re true.
Anyway, be that as it may, our family was a mechanism that helped insulate you from the outside. And as the Digger thing progressed and then went on, this Free Family notion became permanent. I mean, my best friends today are still those same people that I ran with in my twenties.The same people. David and Jane, Freeman and Peter and the Bergs and Nina and Vinnie and Kent and our children. Our children all got raised together. I always say they were “snot bonded.” It’s actually morphed into a biological family of friends, a tribe. It’s wonderful and amazing.
The Diggers weren’t conventional activists, pleading their case in protests and such.
We weren’t talking, we were doing. The Do was the thing. Life acting, Berg called it. And it was. And it changed you. Practice. Like working on music or meditation.
And when it was talk, it was beautiful talk—because it’s poets and playwrights and theater actors talking.
Yeah. Well I’ll tell you that I certainly was not one of the real talented, verbose people. But you had people like Freeman: incredibly articulate. You have Peter Berg: incredibly brilliant. David Simpson and Kent Minault, Emmett, Lenore and Claude… all these people—articulate, charismatic, perceptive people. I think that talk/think was an influence on what happened. Unfortunately, we wanted to see a complete revolution, if you will, a transformation, and of course that may have just been our youthful naivete. Who knows what it was. But it was fantastic and beautiful and true and nothing was ever the same after those times.
They were wonderful, wonderful, magical times. It was incredible fun. It was incredibly empowering. I would submit to you, from my point of view again, I was really “born” during that time. I became the person to a large degree that I am now. I came out of a shell that I was in. I was raised in a very close-knit middle class American Jewish family in an affluent community. I had never been around a lot of the things… Billy Fritsch had been a longshoreman; what did I know about stuff like that?
How did your family back home understand what you were doing?
Had no clue. Had absolutely no clue. In fact by then I didn’t feel alienated from them but they weren’t really dealing with me anymore. I was supposed to have gone to medical school, blah blah blah. I’d dropped out and disappeared off the face of the earth. For me the realization of that alienation took place when I made a collect phone call home and my father refused the charges. That to me was the A-HA! moment. [laughs] Things have changed. You’ve arrived, you’re on your own now, son. Congratulations, you’ve grown up. That was a biggie. And a little scary at first. Change is scary, right.
How did you avoid the draft?
Not easily. I had a mild case of polio when I was a little boy and I’m deaf in my right ear as a result. I was called to an induction center in Denver, Colorado. I was in Aspen at that moment. They called me and I went to this awful place swarming with soon to be in body bags kids like me and I got a 1-Y deferral because of the deafness in my ear, which stood for one-year deferral, literally. And I was told that in May of the next year they were changing the rules because they needed the men and anybody who could hear in one ear would be inducted. The army guy said to me, “We’ll see you next year.” And I said to myself, You ain’t seeing me ever again, preparing to do whatever I had to do. I wasn’t going to Vietnam, that’s for sure. And, I never heard from them again. Don’t know why. Don’t care why. “Why” gets you the boobie prize; what so is what’s real.
Diggers did events but not protests, not demonstrations per se.
By 1967 or 8, I was realizing that all of these anti-war demonstrations were counterproductive because the media, and the government, would use those events to create a picture of what was going on that was not true. Sound bites. Selective editing of footage. That kind of thing. I also thought that what people were demanding were irrelevancies anyway. That a lot of it was the old stuff.
We were trying to empower people with their innate own power. Although we might not have articulated it precisely that way, but I mean, you go down the street on the back of a Hell’s Angel motorcycle, throwing dimes at people, handfuls of dimes in the air: this has an impact on people. It does, you know it does. You can get up and have a rally against money but probably everything you hear will be the wrong message. ‘Well, they’ve got too much money, we want some of their money.” This would be the message. Our message would be, We don’t want any of that shit at all. No one should have any money anyway! It’s the wrong medium of exchange. But free money? That had power. That said everything you needed to know about money in a corrupt society.
So our thing was a very different than what the mainstream lefty community was dealing with. It didn’t put us at odds with mostly everyone else. For instance. The Yippie thing that Hoffman and Jerry Rubin were doing was laughed at by the Diggers because it seemed to be so inappropriate and so silly and such a pandering to fame and the national press and so forth. And it was inherently inside the very system they were supposedly against. A contradiction. Now, there may have been some Digger ego involved—there’s always ego involved—I’ve been studying Buddhism for ten years and you just don’t get away from the ego… There may have been some ego involved. Them/Us. But we weren’t really trying to influence anybody, it wasn’t that way, although, yes, there may have been some people that were into that sort of thing. Ego.
Diggers burned money in public. That is so intense.
It was a thing. People were always burning their draft cards, burning five-dollar bills. Burning draft cards was powerful also because it was an absolute Fuck You to the authority. And this was done in public, with news cameras running, by people who could have cared less. This was ASTOUNDING to people who were not as far-out and changed as we were, as far gone as we were. To see someone having that level of audacity! The government issued you that card? How can you burn it? People would look at them like, You must be kidding.
We did lots of things like that. Playing movies on the walls of buildings in the Haight-Ashbury. Free stores. Unheard of! These were huge events. Transformative. I can tell you stories about Kent Minault and I going and stealing concrete to build a free bakery, and getting back to the Red House in Forest Knolls and discovering that in the dark we had stolen 50-pound bags of sand. Oh! Offloading the sand, and going back at dawn and stealing the concrete! Those stories we can tell you, they’re endless. But what was really going on there, you know? What was behind all this stuff? What was this “free” thing? What was this notion that everything was intrinsically free? That began to kind of have inherent problems as events progressed. When you live communally, you very quickly see those things. You get somebody who has a totally inappropriate notion with respect to ‘free’ and thinks that your kid and your wife and your truck or bed, well it’s all free. Well excuse me but that’s not exactly what we meant. And then you have these problems with people who don’t get it, or who get it imperfectly, that kind of thing. It created a subtle tension.
I now feel that the people most influenced by Diggers activities were ourselves and to a lesser degree the people that were around us. I mean, I know we influenced people who we didn’t know, but I don’t know who they were, where they went and what happened to them. It’s a pebbles thrown into a pond kinda effect.
Free food: there’s something incredibly powerful about feeding other people. Both the person feeding and the person being fed. The Giver, The Receiver and The Gift. There is this extraordinary union that takes place—especially when the food is free, and there’s no consideration being offered or asked for, or anything like that. It is simply a gratuitous feeding of one’s self, if you will, where it begins to really break down the distinction between self and other. Thou Art That. Hindu expression.
Even between family and non-family…
Right. All those distinctions start to fade away and THAT was really what we were looking for. I mean, it’s kind of a Buddhist concept: no self and other distinctions. No duality. If you wanna talk about duality, then self and other is an articulation of duality. And those things start to break down just by virtue of what you’re doing. You don’t necessarily know that it’s a Buddhist concept, or it’s called ‘duality’ or whatever it’s called, but suddenly you’re in this new world. The light is kind of pink, and the music… Something sweet happens. Its real freedom. It’s transformative, and as I find with seated meditation, sometimes you sit and meditate and nothing happens. But later, something happens, and you go, Oh I attribute that to this. This realization I’m having, or insight, I know is related to my sitting. Those kinds of things are similar to Diggerly Do’s.
I’m glad I did it. It was really the best of times. Period. The worst of times was all outside. And because, once again, it was the outside times that helped instigate, stimulate and formulate what happened. You can’t point to any one thing in my opinion and say, This is why it happened. It was all of these brilliant people. It was the influence of the artists and the poets that were so near and dear and who articulated what was going on. It was the evolution from beatniks to hippies to back-to-landers to environmentalists to who knows what happens next.
It was just us being part of the whole wave of the times, of history, of the new dialectic perhaps that leads us to the next present moment. And the next present moment. And, the next present moment after that. The Diggers were a vehicle. An ideal, if you will. No one knew where it would lead us but we were all-in and all aboard.