From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]

Overview: who were (are) the Diggers?

The Digger Archives is an ongoing Web project to preserve and present
the history of the anarchist guerilla street theater group that
challenged the emerging Counterculture of the Sixties and whose
actions and ideals inspired (and continue to inspire) a generation (of
all ages) to create models of Free Association.

The Diggers were one of the legendary groups in San Francisco’s Haight-
Ashbury, one of the world-wide epicenters of the Sixties
Counterculture which fundamentally changed American and world culture.
Shrouded in a mystique of anonymity, the Diggers took their name from
the original English Diggers (1649-50) who had promulgated a vision of
society free from private property, and all forms of buying and
selling. The San Francisco Diggers evolved out of two Radical
traditions that thrived in the SF Bay Area in the mid-1960s: the
bohemian/underground art/theater scene, and the New Left/civil rights/
peace movement.

The Diggers combined street theater, anarcho-direct action, and art
happenings in their social agenda of creating a Free City. Their most
famous activities revolved around distributing Free Food every day in
the Park, and distributing “surplus energy” at a series of Free Stores
(where everything was free for the taking.) The Diggers coined various
slogans that worked their way into the counterculture and even into
the larger society – “Do your own thing” and “Today is the first day
of the rest of your life” being the most recognizable. The Diggers, at
the nexus of the emerging underground, were the progenitors of many
new (or newly discovered) ideas such as baking whole wheat bread (made
famous through the popular Free Digger Bread that was baked in one-
and two-pound coffee cans at the Free Bakery); the first Free Medical
Clinic, which inspired the founding of the Haight-Ashbury Free Medical
Clinic; tye-dyed clothing; and, communal celebrations of natural
planetary events, such as the Solstices and Equinoxes.

First and foremost, the Diggers were actors (in Trip Without A Ticket,
the term “life actors” was used.) Their stage was the streets and
parks of the Haight-Ashbury, and later the whole city of San
Francisco. The Diggers had evolved out of the radicalizing maelstrom
that was the San Francisco Mime Troupe which R.G. Davis, the actor,
writer, director and founder of the Troupe had created over the
previous decade. The Diggers represented a natural evolution in the
course of the Troupe’s history, as they had first moved from an indoor
milieu into the parks of the City, giving Free performances on stages
thrown up the day of the show. The Digger energy took the action off
the constructed platform and jumped right into the most happening
stage yet – the streets of the Haight where a new youth culture was
recreating itself, at least temporarily, out of the glaring eye of
news reporters. The Diggers, as actors, created a series of street
events that marked the evolution of the hippie phenomenon from a
homegrown face-to-face community to the mass-media circus that
splashed its face across the world’s front pages and TV screens: the
Death of Money Parade, Intersection Game, Invisible Circus, Death of
Hippie/Birth of Free.

The Diggers broadcast these events, as well as their editorial
comments of the day, pronouncements to the larger Hip Community,
manifestos and miscellaneous communications, through broadsides and
leaflets distributed by hand on Haight Street. These Web pages are my
attempt to present the story of the digger movement as it developed in
the mid-to-late sixties and early seventies (and evolved in various
directions even to the present). I have been collecting this Archive
for thirty years, and see the Web as a way to display the materials
and make them available both for researchers and for all diggers past
and present who want to preserve and participate in this history.


Emmett Grogan (c. 1943-1978) was a founder of the Diggers in the
Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, California who inspired
Abbie Hoffman to undertake a similar venture on the Lower East Side of
New York City during the mid-1960s. The Diggers were a hippie group
that scrounged for and provided food and other services. They took
their name from the Diggers of 17th Century England who were a radical
movement opposed to feudalism, the Church of England and the British
Crown. The Diggers of the 1960s can be compared with the present-day
Food Not Bombs who feed homeless youth.

Grogan’s penchant for personal myth making and distrust of the
mainstream media resulted in few details of his life being reliably
recorded. His 1972 autobiography, Ringolevio (A life played for
keeps), is filled with embellishments and large portions of his pre-
Digger life appear to be outright fabrications. This flexibility with
the truth was part of Grogan’s larger social and political agenda and
was meant to further Digger ideals. Grogan was also the author of
Final Score, a fictional crime novel.

Grogan shunned media attention, and became increasing suspicious of
those who sought after it. In Ringolevio Grogan discusses the 1967
Human Be-In, taking shots at counterculture luminaries Timothy Leary,
Jerry Rubin, and especially Abbie Hoffman.

The original Diggers were peasants who had banded together to fight
the Enclosure Movement in Cromwell’s England. The King had confiscated
the common grazing land to raise his own sheep to supply wool for his
new mills. The people tried to take them back, arguing that no one had
a right to appropriate private property for themselves, and the King
sent Cromwell and his soldiers against them. They were nicknamed “The
Diggers” because as the sun rose on them every morning, they were seen
burying the dead of the last night’s battle. The San Francisco Diggers
were initially assembled around the visionary acuity of Billy Murcott,
a mysterious childhood friend of Emmett’s who believed that people had
internalized material values and cultural premises about the sanctity
of private property and capital so completely as to have become
addicted to wealth and status. It was an enchantment so deep, an
identity with jobs so absolute as to have eradicated all contact with
inner wildness and personal expression not condoned by society.

Free,as the Diggers understood it, in its broadest context, was the
antidote to such addictions. For most people the word free means
simply, “without limits”. Harnessed to the notion of enterprise,
however, it has become the dominant engine of the culture. The
perception that the vanquishing of limits was not only possible, but a
necessary and valuable adjunct to succesful living was so integral to
American life as to remain unquestioned. In fact, personal freedom, as
it was colloquially understood, had lots of limits: it limited
aspirations (to adult adjustment, for instance), created continual
cultural upheavals, ignored interdependence, violated the integrity of
the family and community, exhausted biological niches and strip-mined
common courtesy and civility from public life. In reaction to job-
identity and the pursuit of material wealth, the Diggers sought the
freedom of authenticity – the response to one’s own or other inspiring
imaginings and visions of the world as opposed to those which evolved
around the culture of capital; the freedom of new forms – new ways of
living and interacting together which were not predicated on the
premises of capital and markets – imagining a culture you would prefer
and making it real by acting out. Since we were all products of this
culture, and could not always be immediately certain whether or not
one’s ideas were truly inner-directed or not, we expanded the idea of
freedom to include anonymity (freedom from fame) as well as eschewing
payment for what we did, supposing that if one acted for personal
recognition or wealth it was not really free at all.

Freedom, from our point of view, meant personal liberation. Our hope
was that if we were skillful enough in creating concrete examples of
existance as free people, that the example would be infectious and
produce real, self-directed (as opposed to coerced) social change.
People who were actually enjoying a mode of existence that they
imagined as best for them would be loath to surrender and more
probably, would defend it. If that were to happen en masse, it might
produce real social change. From our perspective, ideological analysis
was often one more means to forestall the time and courage necessary
to actually manifest an alternative. Furthermore, all ideological
solutions, left and right, all undervalued the individual, and were
quick to sacrifice them to the expediencies of their particular mental
empires. We used to joke amongst ourselves that the Diggers would be
“put up against the wall” not by the CIA or FBI, but by peers on the
Left who would sacrifice anyone that created an impediment to their
being in charge. Our disagreement with such folk and their policies
put the burden on us to imagine modes of existence and manifest them
as if the revolution were over and we had won. Our courage would be to
create them in the present. Skill for these tasks was measured by
ability not only to survive outside the dominant economic and social
paradigm, but in one’s ability to employ the techniques of theater to
transmit this survival information to others. The question was “how?”
I remember clearly the first day I went to the Panhandle with Emmett
to see the Free Food. Hearty, steaming stew was being ladled out of
large steel milk cans. Each portion was accompanied by loaves of bread
that resembled mushrooms because they had been baked in one pound
coffee cans, and as they rose over the edge of the tin, they spread
into a cap-like shape. The morning stung your cheeks with damp fog,
sharp with the smell of eucalyptus. Emmett and I stood just off to the
side watching the line that led the people waiting with their
ubiquitous tin cups, through a large square which had been constructed
out of six foot long two by fours painted bright yellow. This was The
Free Frame of Reference. In order to receive a meal, people stepped
through it, and once on the other side, they were issued a tiny yellow
replica about two inches square, attached to a cord for wearing. They
were encouraged to bring this up to their eyes like a monocle and view
any piece of reality through ‘a free frame of reference’. It was a
simple piece of mental technology which allowed people to reconstruct
(or deconstruct) their world-view at their own pace and direction.

Emmett asked me if I’d like something to eat, and I said “No, I’ll
leave it for people who need it.” He looked at me sharply and said,
“That’s not the point” and pried open a door in my mind. The point was
to do something that you wanted to do, for your own reasons. If you
wanted to live in a world with free food, create it and participate in
it. Feeding people was not an act of charity but an act of
responsibility to a personal vision.

In John Nierhardt’s wonderful book, Black Elk Speaks, he recounts that
the whole village acted out the dream of the young Black Elk, assuming
roles and costumes and moving according to his directions. This
realization of a dream in the flesh, is precisely what the Diggers
were trying to accomplish. The implications of this last point were
lost on people like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin both of whom came
West to investigate what we were up to. Abbie went home and published
a book (for sale) called Free, which catalogued every free service in
the city of New York which supported really needy people. He plastered
his own picture over it thereby announcing himself as a “leader” of
the free counter-culture.

Abby was and remained a close friend, but one with whom I and the
Diggers as a group had pronounced disagreements. One morning he woke
up Peter Berg, pounding on his door and shouting in his New England
twang, “Petah, Petah, I bet you think I stole everything from ya,
doncha?” This was indisputably true. Berg opened the door, looked at
him dyspeptically for a moment, then responded sleepily, “No, Abbie. I
feel like I gave a good tool to an idiot.” While he was a wonderful
human being, he failed to understand (wilfully or not) the deepest
implications of what he was about, and tended to live his life as if
it were a media event, concentrating undue attention and energy to
“revolutionizing” the masses through the media.

Relationships between us were severed over the debacle at the
Democratic Convention in Chicago. Abbie and the group which later
became identified as the Chicago Seven were inviting kids from all
over the country to Chicago to participate in a mass rally to protest
the policies of the Democratic party. Flyers promoting the event
advertised entertainment, camp-grounds and facilities that the
organizers knew did not exist. However they felt that the creation of
a media event which would “raise conciousness” was critically
important and had to be brought about by any means necessary. (Where
have we heard that before?) Diggers were furious at the deception.
Peter Berg accused Abbie of using people as “extras in a piece of
police theater.” We felt that Abbie and company were platforming their
political ambitions on the cracked skulls and smashed kidneys of the
nameless “masses” that they had assembled, and derided it as politics-
as-usual in hip drag, as manipulative as the government’s media-
management of the war, and we wanted no part of it. We rejected the
arguments that such media events could change the “conciousness of the
country”, an oft-repeated, meaningless, unprovable assertion anyway,
and urged instead that young people be educated to work in their own
communities; taught to research tax rolls and registrys to find the
owners of slum buildings and organize for improvements. They needed to
learn to use the tools of libraries and local institutions, to
organize and make changes in their own communities, where they were
not strangers and could not be invisibly victimized. The problem with
what we suggested was that no one could take credit for being the
leader of such decentralized activities, and so it was useless for
those with grand ambitions for personal recognition.

I never discovered whether or not it was true, but one night Abbie
confided to me that they had had a tape prepared to broadcast from the
roof of the Democratic Party headquarters. The plan was to alert the
mob that he was being held prisoner inside and exhort them to storm
the building. One can only imagine the carnage that would have ensued
had that ploy ever come to pass. Having registered my critique, it
must also be said, that even after his flight from undercover
policeman, and all during his long and solitary years of being on the
run, Abbie remained a committed activist – working within local
communities, agitating (at great personal risk) and organizing people
to defend themselves against environmental depredations. He never
abandoned his intentions for change, and certainly has my respect for
that. He always had my love.

San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district was a working class,
pleasantly inter-racial neighborhood of old Victorian homes bordering
the Park and near enough to the University of California Medical
Center to offer cheap housing to med students. At this time, in 1966,
the Haight was being inundated with young people from all over the
country who came seeking liberation or hope for a life of personal
empowerment. On one level the City of San Francisco was capitalizing
on the phenomena: local media was full of articles about the Haight-
Ashbury and the Psychedelic Shop, the San Francisco Mime Troupe was on
the cover of a Chamber of Commerce Brochure (despite the fact that the
City had arrested the company and tried to prevent their performing in
the Park.) The counter-culture was the. “new thing.”

Tourist busses began rolling down Haight Street, and middle class
people from far away places began walking around Haight Street,
spending their out-of- state dollars in the city, photographing us
like they were on some exotic trek and we were Masai people.The
tourism diminished relatively quickly when locals responded by spray
painting the lenses of the cameras and windows of the tourist busses.

The police were rousting street people in a very heavy-handed manner.
The same folk which were the magnet for the tourist dollars, were
being used as fodder for ‘police services’. They were being warned by
the authorities to stay away at the same time that the media used them
as leads for feature stories about San Francisco. This hypocrisy
angered some people to the point of action.** The Digger free food,
free medical clinics, free crash pads, and Free Store were responses
to this hypocrisy, but they were also the expressions of a political
world view that was far less benign than most people believed. People
who never probe beneath the surface thought that we were running a
funky Salvation Army for the unfortunate and chose to applaud us as
“hip” charity workers. They did not understand that we were actually
social safe-crackers, sand-papering our nervous systems and searching
for the right combinations that would spring the doors and let
everyone out of the box.

As this committed Digger street-life clarified itself, it became more
and more difficult to remain within the theatrically limited context
of the Mime Troupe. Life outside the theater was too much more
challenging and amusing, and I bid a bitter-sweet good-bye to Ronnie
and the company

Emmett’s personal relationship to these formulations of “anonymous”
and “free” was always ambiguous and complex. His notion of anonymity
was to give his name away and have others use it as their own nom de
plume. So many people claimed it for so many purposes that eventually
some reporters would assert that there was no Emmett Grogan and that
the name was a fiction created by the Diggers to confound the straight
world. While Emmett’s largesse was one way of demonstrating lack of
attachment to his name, it also made the name ubiquitous, and
incidentally made Emmett himself famous among cognoscenti.

Life with Grogan was a daily exercise in such contradictions, a daily
refinement of one’s understanding of “truth.” You could never be sure
precisely where and how the hair had been split. If, for instance, he
came into a room late for a meeting, he might apologize by telling a
story about being attacked by street toughs, waiting to take revenge
on him for some earlier intervention in their affairs. The subtext of
such a story was always that everyone knew who he was and had some
strong opinion about him. Usually we listened to these stories,
without believing or disbelieving them, enjoying the drama of life
with Emmett as payment enough. However, if someone was pushed to
incredulity by a particularly outrageous claim and were to challenge
him, Emmett might remove his dark glasses with the air of a smug
magician and demonstrate his blackened eye and wounds. The wounds were
definitely real, but was the story? If it was true, was it completely
or partially true? One never knew and never found out.

“Never let them catch you in a lie,” he said to me once at the
beginning of a three month “run” one summer at New York’s infamous
Chelsea Hotel. This remark alerted me to Emmett’s awareness of his own
self-dramatizing, and the extent to which he used his sense of
“theater” as an asset in his work. And what was that work?

The work was to “act-out” the life of your own hero; to live your life
as you wanted to and refuse to be defeated by the myriad excuses that
most people offered for their not being able to do that. Since this
life was engendered in the imagination, imagination was one of the
primary tools available for actualizing it. After I had known him for
some years, and we had truly become brothers, Emmett and I spent a
summer in Manhattan. I think the year was 1969. We entered the city in
search of adventurous possibilities, and the way we worked was
instructive of the way in which many things happened.

Janis Joplin had been an old and good friend of ours, sometime lover,
sometime dope-partner, always steady pal. When we arrived, she was in
New York at the Chelsea Hotel, on tour with her band. After they left
to continue the tour, Emmett and I stayed on, using their rooms,
pretending to be “managers”. Eventually that ruse wore thin, and we
were forced to move from room to room, jimmying the flimsy locks to
find an empty room and confounding the Hotel management which sent the
bills on to god-knows-what befuddled band accountant. Somehow the
bills got paid I imagine because we spent hours on the phone each day,
calling people we had never met, but who might prove to be resources
for our quest.

Anyone who has ever tried to pitch stock cold over the phone can
understand our daily routine. You have a name and a phone number,
perhaps you got it at a party, or from a friend of a friend. You have
just enough of a thread to make a call legitimate and to keep the
other party on the phone long enough for you to begin a pitch. Once
engaged, you have only imagination and skill to keep them engaged –
stock in trade for improvisatory actors. We became expert in trading
political visions, personal friends – anyone of whom intimate
knowledge could be turned to bring the party we wanted to meet – into
our purview. By the end of the summer we had New York wired: unlimited
mobility and access to rooms we wanted to enter – from Park Avenue
mansions of the Hitchcocks, and celebrities like Baby Jane Holzer to
shooting galleries on the lower East Side; recording studios, to rock-
star’s living-rooms; drinks with Jimmy Breslin to joints with Puerto
Rican gang leaders. Each personal “score” enhanced our cultural impact
at the next meeting by offerring information or stories which in turn
enhanced our prestige, and, of course made the next round of
introductions and access that much easier. It was not social climbing,
but social spread, the recombination and intermarriages of previously
separated “networks” of people as a means of “creating the condition
we described” in our imaginations. (The quote is Peter Berg’s phrase
for organizing public events in a manner which made their “message”
absolutely clear and incontrovertible, even if they were only
described by the media.)

One fine example of our summer’s work was brokering a peace-meeting
between several New York detectives and Puerto Rican gang leaders from
the Lower East Side. There had been numerous territorial and drug
feuds disturbing the peace that hot summer, and Emmett and I used our
status as outsiders to create a neutral turf where the antagonists
could meet and talk. Albert Grossman, the avuncular Ben Franklin look-
alike manager for Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin, arranged for us to use
the penthouse boardroom of the CBS building, after hours. Albert liked
to help us in our scams. He had given us the run of his office, and
his assistant, Myra Freedman, was generous with her time and extremely
useful to us, taking messages and allowing us to turn their office
into our command central.

Albert was a complicated character and Dylan’s relationship to him was
obviously complex. I discovered that and a small key to Dylan’s poetic
literalness in a strange way. Albert smoked cigarettes in a curious
manner. He would insert the filter between his fourth and fifth
finger, then curl his hand loosely into a fist. He’d place his lips
over the circle formed by his thumb and first finger and inhale, as
one did with hashish cigarettes; the air rushing across his palm
dragging smoke from the cigarette with it. One day in his office, he
was smoking in this manner, and Dylan’s ironic voice was crooning over
the loudspeakers:

Mona tried to tell me, to stay away from the train line,
She said that all the railroad men, drink my blood like wine.
I said, “Oh, I didn’t know that, then again, there’s only one I’ve
And he just smoked my eye-lids and punched my cigarette.”

It did not require the brains of a rocket scientist to hear these
words and see Albert with the cigarette protruding out of his fist, to
know who the song was about, or what having your eye-lids “smoked”
meant. Whatever the charges and counter-charges between him and Dylan,
their relationship was intense, and perhaps Albert found it something
of a respite to deal with Emmett and myself and to arrange for our
meeting to be held in the CBS boardroom.

Emmett and I reveled in the confusion and shock apparent on the faces
of the police and the gang-leaders as they were escorted into the room
by the doorman, who had actually unlocked the front door of the
immense skyscraper for them. There, at the head of the huge, empty,
hardwood table with seating for twenty, were Emmett and I, in blue-
jeans, long-hair, earrings, and leathers, waiting for them like it was
our living room. It was a classic Digger ploy — hard politics with
style. It was our art, and we were becoming very good at it.

Another event might suggest the flavor of that summer. We had been
given Paul Simon’s apartment to use for a meeting. Emmett had told me
that David Padwa, a very wealthy stock broker, wanted to “give us ten
grand” and asked me to “pick it up”. He had to go out, and Danny
Rifkin and I would stay and meet David. On the way out of the
apartment with Emmett, Paul Simon walked into a large rocking horse
made of a wooden horse from an old carousel. He said, “God I hate that
damn thing” and he limped out, with Emmett right behind him. About
three hours later, Emmett stormed in. “Hurry up, the truck’s
downstairs. Gimme a hand,” he said, barely concealing his delight at
some piece of mischief he’d calculated, and incidentally changing the
subject so that Danny and I could not point out to him that David had
never intended to give the Diggers anything at all and had treated us
like a species of worm when we had mentioned it. Classic Emmett. He
had guessed that David might give us money, and rather than risk his
own status with David by asking, had arranged for Danny and I to do
it. Emmett had arranged a truck to come for the hated carousel horse,
and we piled into and drove north to Woodstock, New York, and
deposited it in the early morning hours on Bob Dylan’s (Simon’s bete
noir in those years) front porch as an anonymous gift to his children.

In December of 1990, twenty-plus years later, I saw Paul Simon eating
in a New York restaurant and had the waiter slip him a note which
read, “Didn’t you ever wonder what happened to the rocking horse?” I
saw him read it and laugh and look around for the sender. Seeing me
waiting for his reaction, he asked me over. He confessed that he had
known that we had taken it, but never knew where it had gone. It was
delicious letting the other shoe drop after mid-air suspension of 21

All artists desire an audience, and much as we would criticize and
change our culture, we want, at the same time, to be accepted and
rewarded by it. Emmett was no different, and it is this contradiction,
of simultaneously spurning and yearning an audience, which became the
crucifix on which he finally impaled himself. It does not require too
much of a stretch of the imagination to see in a crucifix the rough
outline of a syringe, and it is that ambivalent symbol of healing and
death that symbolizes the dark-side of Emmett’s “truth” – his
addiction to heroin and the sale of his personal autonomy to that
black deity.

The strain of inventing a culture from scratch is exhausting.
Everything comes up for review. No limit or taboo is sacred,
especially when the investigation is coupled to belief in a high and
noble mission. If our imaginations knew no limits, why should our
bodies? Drugs became tools in the quest for imaginative and physical

As edge dwellers, we were proud of being tougher, more experimental
and truthful, and less compromised than many of our peers who seemed
more interested in easy assimilations, dope-and-long-hair-at-the-
office or the marketing possibilities of the counter-culture, than in
real social alternatives. If their Hallmark Card philosophies were
fueled by acid, grass, and hashish, we had all of the above, plus
heroin and amphetamine–champions of the blues life, invincible allies
of Charlie Parker, Billie Holliday, foot soldiers in ‘Nam, and
countless others who had faced the beast at close quarters and, in the
process, consumed themselves in the flames they tried to signal

Hindsight has taught me that there is a ravenous, invisible twin
haunting each of us. Despite each “good work” and selfless sacrifice
for noble causes, without unremitting vigilance, tiny indulgences
betray these high aims and deflect nourishment to this gluttonous
companion. Unfortunately, not even hindsight frees one of the
consequences of such indulgence.

Emmett stuck me with a needle twice. The first time he pierced my ear.
“It’ll change you,” he said. We were in Sweet William’s kitchen, not
too long before he became a Hell’s Angel. Lenore Kandel, William’s
olive-skinned poet- lover, a true incarnation of a Hindu temple
goddess with a thick shiny braid, inscrutable smile and fertile erotic
imagination, hummed contentedly while she sat stringing beads for the
glittering curtains that festooned every window in the house. Sweet
William’s presence created a ceremony, his grave, Mayan-Jewish face
with high cheekbones and dark eyes bore solemn witness as Emmett
pierced my ear. Emmett was right. It did change me. The hole is still
there. It drew me deeper into our confederation and a little farther
from the pasty grip of civilian life. The second time was in the
living room of a famous Hollywood movie-star and bad boy, in a forest
of Pop-Art paintings. This time the needle was a syringe, loaded with
heroin. “It’ll change ya,” he said, and it changed a lot. The star’s
wife walked in, took one look at her husband sitting in a shooting
circle of freaks and left him for good; I began the process of ruining
a heretofore healthy body; Sweet William started down a path which
took a hard turn at a soured dope deal that later left him half
paralyzed with a bullet in his head. Emmett’s road petered out “at the
end of the line” of the Coney Island subway April Fools Day 1978–some
twelve years later, where his body was found, dead of an overdose.
Even in death he was charismatic. The detective who found his body
said, “I took one look and said to myself, ‘This is somebody.'”

The Sixties turned into the Seventies and the hard-life changed a lot
of things. A lot of friends died: Tracy, Marcus, Bill Lyndon, Billy
Batman, Pete Knell, and Paula McCoy. The list is longer than I have
the heart to type. Brooks wound up in a state hospital after blinding
himself on an acid trip he never returned from; Moose is lost
somewhere in the FBI secret witness program after turning in his
brother Hell’s Angels on numerous charges; Freewheelin’ Frank did 9
years at Folsom for being a Hell’s Angel and driving a truck for the
wrong kid. Kathleen was forced to go underground and disappeared in
Europe with her two infants for 17 years, because her boyfriend blew
up a radio tower.

Faced with these cautionary episodes, a lot of people got well.
Phyllis went to school and become a nurse and a college professor;
Natural Suzanne became a lawyer with the high marks at Boalt Law
School. She is a public defender today who feels that except for a
square millimeter of luck, she might well be where her clients are.
Nina, Freeman, David and Jane moved upstate to the Mattole river and
today look after their watershed, breeding wild salmon and attempting
to slow the excesses of the logging industry. Peter Berg writes and
breaks new ground as a bioregional thinker just as he always did as a
Mime Troupe director and Digger. Somewhere in these transformations,
Emmett got lost. I went to see him once, shortly after the publication
of Ringolevio when he was riding high, married to a beautiful French
Canadian actress and living in a luxurious apartment in Brooklyn
Heights. He was proud of having returned to Brooklyn wealthy and
famous – “so near and yet so far,” was how he put it.

I admit to envy of him then. I was without money, living on a commune
on my family farm in Pennsylvania, attending to details surrounding
the death of my father. Our group was doing hard, no-nonsense, farm
labor for ourselves as well as taking over the chores for a crippled
neighbor. I was still “chipping” street drugs and the occasional
bottle of Demerol I had extracted as tribute from a local physician
who liked to fish our old, well-stocked lake. Most of my energy was
absorbed by a splintering relationship with my daughter’s mother, the
tensions of communal life and group survival. What was left was
dedicated to learning enough about nuclear power to prevent a plant
from being erected in our community. I couldn’t help feeling that it
was our collective life that had paid for Emmett’s laundered sheets,
elegant rooms, well stocked refrigerator and bar. Proud as I was of
his success, like others in our family, I was sore about the
egocentric tone of his book Ringolevio and agreed with Kent Minault’s
assessment: “Oh yeah, Emmett sauntered and we all walked!”

Consequently, on one visit, when I saw that Emmett’s eyes were
“pinned” and knew that he’d been using heroin again, I took the excuse
to blow up. Louise smiled beside him in bed, secretly pleased, I
think, that someone was telling him what she could not. I told him
that I didn’t care if he wanted to die, but if he did, why did he want
to die such a boring death? If he wanted to go out, why didn’t he take
on the nuclear power cartel as his suicide mission and die for
something? I explained everything that I had learned about it to date
(and once again the Mime Troupe penchant for research had stood me in
good stead), told him he was a boring motherfucker and left, too
cloaked in self-righteousness to admit to the degree to which jealousy
had informed my anger.

From that time on, our relationship changed, and Emmett began to
relate to me as if I were a necessary audience. He was proud to tell
me later that our bedroom confrontation had produced a new book,
called Final Score, a nuclear thriller which he felt would outline
implicit perils of the system. He had begun writing songs (The Band
even recorded two) and was excited that Etta James might record one.
Consequently, he had been spending a lot of time with Robby Robertson
and the Band and was going with them to “The Last Waltz,” The Band’s
farewell concert at San Francisco’s legendary Winterland auditorium on
Thanksgiving 1976. I declined his invitation to join them because by
this time I was already bored with rock and roll’s self-congratulatory
pretensions. Emmett was angry at me about this and called back two
days later to announce that he had gotten Michael McClure,
FreeWheelin’ Frank, Sweet Willie Tumbleweed, Lawrence Ferlinghetti,
Lenore Kandel, and Kirby Doyle –all San Francisco Poets and
“family”– to come. “Is that good enough you Jew bastard?” he
inquired, knowing that I no longer had an excuse for not being there.
Despite all these activities and interests, nothing much was really
sustaining Emmett. The “play” had changed with the decade and the
perfect role he’d crafted for himself was slightly anachronistic. His
inability to make something grand happen again was taking a toll of
his confidence. He was trapped by the glamor of his persona and needed
time to disappear; to take beginner’s steps in new directions beyond
the glare of public attention, but he seemed preoccupied with
maintaining his identity and status. He developed curious mannerisms,
particularly an overused, knowing wink, suggesting that something he
had said had a deeper, hipper side that one would have missed without
his warning. It was as if he sensed that his act was getting
threadbare and instead of nourishing it, resorted to tricks to suggest
that it was the audience’s perceptions, not his own performance which
was faulty.

The last time I saw him, I kept a rendezvous at a Malibu beach house
and no one answered repeated knocks and yells. I prowled around, and
saw Emmett passed out in bed. I broke in through a window, checked the
pulse at his throat and, satisfied that he was living, shook the place
down, as only a druggie can, and found enough drugs and traces to open
a small pharmacy. I woke him and we had a corrosive fight, and
finally, as a strategy for getting me off his back, Emmett confessed
to a suicide attempt the previous day. I didn’t believe it (despite
the fact that daily use of heroin is really only suicide on a time
payment plan) but I was stunned nonetheless because, even as a ploy,
Emmett was asking me to feel sorry for him and that was so
uncharacteristic it frightened me for him.

Because I lived four hundred miles away, I called a trusted brother
who lived close enough to monitor him a bit. Duvall Lewis was a
brilliant young black man who had served as staff on the California
State Arts Council while I was Chairman and member there from
1975-1983. A tall, and charming hipster with an insatiable curiousity,
a political wizard and fixer, Duvall was fearless and never missed the
joke. I thought he and Emmett would like each other and they did and
began hanging out together.

Duvall called one day, and through his laughter described a hundred-
mile- an-hour car race through Topanga Canyon where Emmett chased down
a famous “liberal” cinematographer and forced him to sign a release
for his book, Final Score. The man had optioned the book and then
ignored Emmett’s entreaties for an unconscionable length of time, so
Emmett took matters into his own hands. When Duvall called with the
news of Emmett’s death, his call was just one in a long series that
crisscrossed the country, stitching friends and the news together. Not
so many years after this, Duvall himself was dead by his own hand, in
despair at being completely frozen out of the Reagan era’s material
feeding frenzy. Their two lives, and two deaths, haunt me as
unnervingly similar, and I can never think of either of them without
knowing exactly what Allen Ginsberg meant when he opened his epic poem
Howl with the line, “I have seen the best minds of my generation
destroyed by madness.”

Emmett told you what he thought. He was stand up. He was a man,
extreme and contradictory, quarrelsome and kind, charismatic and self-
destructive, who willed himself to be a hero, to be better than he
felt he was when he became conscious.

For most people it might have been enough to have been a living
legend, to have Bob Dylan dedicate an album to you; to be an icon to
thousands of people that included Puerto Rican gang leaders,
presidents of recording companies, professional thieves, wealthy
restauranteurs, movie stars, socialites, Black Panthers, Hells Angels
and the Diggers themselves, but Emmett was chasing his own self-
perfection, and while the struggle killed him, I cannot help but
admire the morality of his premise, and the brutally high standards he
established for himself. Emmett was a guidon, carried into battle, an
emblem behind which people rallied their imaginations. He proved with
his existence that each of us could act out the life of our highest
fantasies. This was his goal and his compassionate legacy and I will
not minimize it or let myself off the hook of his example, despite his
inconsistencies and flaws.

Let me return to the early days, when that example was still
untarnished, and its lustre summoned so many from safe havens and
comfortable futures, into the chaotic, unpredictable moment of life in
the streets.


* This is a deliberate reference to a book called We Are the People
Our Parents Warned Us About by Nicholas Von Hoffman. Von Hoffman came
to the Haight-Ashbury, using his teen-age son as a beard, and traveled
through the underground behind a smoke-screen of good-will and
“wanting to understand.” Besides misunderstanding most of what he saw,
including a good-natured romp between me and my friend, Roberto La
Morticella, which he misread as “mindless violence,” Von Hoffman’s
articles about the demi-monde and its use of drugs, named names,
places and dates. A number of people were subsequently raided and
arrested because of information which he printed. I was told years
later by a well-placed source, that the specificity of these articles
and the betrayal of confidential sources engendered something of a
crisis and series of heated discussions with him about journalistic
ethics among his peers at the Washington Post where he was employed at
the time.

** I cannot resist observing how people who act on their beliefs are
currently labeled activists, as if the norm were to have ideas and
beliefs and do nothing about them. Adding the “ists” to the verb,
lumps such people along with communists, socialists, feminists,
environmentalists, etc. all of whom we are supposed to assume
represent a tiny minority of extremists. In such a way the integrity
of the community is broken up into tiny, impotent, single-agenda
fragments. When I was young, we called people who did not act on their
beliefs, hypocrites. Who and what is served by this change in

Peter Coyote
Last modification: May 8, 1996

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