An entire age ago, in his book The New Journalism, Tom Wolfe reported in his unique, sometimes long-winded style; “I wrote The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and waited for the novels that I was sure would come pouring out of the psychedelic experience. But they never came forth. I learned later that publishers had been waiting, too. They had been practically crying for novels by the new writers who must be out there somewhere, the new writers who would do the big novels of the hippie life or campus life or radical movements or the war in Vietnam or dope or sex or black militancy or encounter groups or the whole whirlpool all at once. They waited, and all they got was the Prince of Alienation… sailing off to Lonesome Island on his Tarot Boat with his back turned and his Timeless Cape on, reeking of camphor balls.”
Well at last the Prince has returned from Lonesome Island to tell the story of those of us who were ridiculed, harassed, beaten, even murdered because we refused to go along with the fashion, the hypocrisy and worse of middle-America during the phony war on poverty at home and the real war in Vietnam.
In “Sleeping Where I Fall,” published by Counterpoint last year, Peter Coyote has presented the most honest and best-written account I've read yet of the great crusade for peace with justice and the massive social experiment of the Sixties and Seventies. Reading like a novel, it rings truer because its actually Coyote's very personal memoir of a fifteen-year “trip” beginning with the San Francisco Mime Troupe about 1965 and continuing on with the Diggers, Hell's Angels, the Grateful Dead and assorted hippies, radicals, healers, outlaws and others. He also chronicles the collectives, communes and communities in which we tried to create, in a sometimes crazy manner (i.e., through the use of mind-altering drugs), a saner life than what “straight” society offered at the time.
“Olema was always as raw and vulgar as hunger,” he wrote about one commune near San Francisco in which he was “head man.” And about officialdom's scrutiny of another commune, he wrote, “Had inspectors applied the same diligence to fraudulent and wasteful military expenditures than they did to our living arrangements, the national deficit would not exist.”
With an abundance of time and spirit, but always broke in the currency of the realm, Coyote's “tribe” became adept at recycling. “We could create wealth by redefining it in a game that was not stacked against us,” he wrote. Even Coyote's father, a New York stock broker, on a visit to the commune in Olema, understood and admired the brave new world the hippies there were trying create. “Capitalism is dying, boy. It's dying of it's own internal contradictions,” said father to startled son. But the old man thought the “revolution” would take 50 years and not five as the hippies estimated. “So keep your head down and hang in for the long haul… because… The sons of bitches running things don't give a shit about their children or their grandchildren, and they certainly don't give a shit about you,” admonished father to son.
But more than a memoir, Coyote's book might be considered a history of that era if his names, places, dates and facts can be trusted. And I'm sure they can. For instance, a friend verified one shocker for me that Coyote presented. I never knew that Bill Graham, the impresario of rock, was a survivor of Auschwitz.
Coyote himself verifies what I already knew about the source of the word “hippie.” It's old Beatnik for “hip” or “hipster,” to know or to be enlightened. But this I didn't know. “Time magazine coined the word ‘hippie’ to describe the new pilgrims, juvenilizing the word ‘hipster’ and trivializing in the same stroke those seeking alternatives to Time's official reality.”
Though I knew of Peter Coyote as an actor (he's performed in more than 50 films including E.T. and Outrageous Fortune), none of the roles he's played have stuck in my memory. But as a writer, he may be more skilled. I like not only his way with words but his choice of words such as “zaftig,” a Yiddish word he used to describe a pleasantly voluptuous woman with whom he was once infatuated. And more than once he describes honest individuals as “authentic,” a word I've long associated with the psychedelic experience in particular and the reason I'm an unreconstructed hippie to this day though I stopped using drugs in 1972.
But Coyote is more than an actor and writer. Much more important to me, he is an articulate spokesperson for our generation, many of whom haven't given up our dream of humanizing humankind. Coyote helps validate us much as Abbie Hoffman did in his last speech. “In the Sixties, apartheid was driven out of America. We didn't end racism, but we ended legal segregation. We ended the idea that you can send a million soldiers ten thousand miles away to fight a war the people don't support. We ended the idea that women are second-class citizens. Now it doesn't matter who sits in the Oval Office. Even George Bush has to talk about child care, the environment… We were young, we were reckless, we were arrogant, silly, headstrong. And we were right. I regret nothing,” said Hoffman just before he died.
Like Hoffman, Coyote was a leader in the Sixties who, through his book, makes his mark now as an elder statesman in the ongoing struggle for tolerance and understanding between mainstream America and the still-active though less flamboyant counterculture. There's a whole new generation of hippie kids active in such organizations as Earth First. They're tree-huggers, not school-bombers.
Like Hoffman, Coyote was heavy into drugs, perhaps heavier even than Hoffman. He's very candid about his needle tracks. from shooting heroin. Though studies show heroin is less addictive and less dangerous than tobacco or alcohol, it’s still hard to defend. Marijuana though, while perhaps not a harmless drug, should not be cause for imprisonment, as a rapidly growing number of voters are at last beginning to understand. Voters are also getting hip that while pot use may lead to harder drugs, the gate swings both ways. Many people are using marijuana to withdraw from hard drug and worse — alcohol.
Coyote is also honest about his flirtation with violence; his ownership of guns and friendships with Hell's Angels. But despite this and some of the movie roles he's played, he's a Libra who definitely embodies those positive traits of harmony, diplomacy, idealism, romance, and refinement. And he did turn down an offer to join the Hell's Angels because of his repugnance of “senseless violence.” And with obvious pain, Coyote writes about the agony and the ecstasy and more agony of his materially wealthy but emotionally impoverished childhood that carried over into one dysfunctional hippie family after another.
I was only half-way through the book when I began to write this. And I don't ever recall writing a book review other than in my school days. This is how powerfully Coyote's book has grabbed me and has made me want to turn other readers on to it. We hippies and radicals have had bad press for so long, it's about time our story has been told with some intelligence and integrity. “Sleeping Where I Fall” would make a great movie.
Coyote writes about the funeral cortege for “Hippie, Son of Media” down Haight Street in San Francisco, Oct. 10, 1967, less than a week after LSD was outlawed. Although he doesn't reveal it in his book, Coyote must know the coffin was empty. Just like Joe Hill, Hippie lives.