Sections Above and Below This Page:

Home
Up

The Free-Fall Chronicles:
Playing For Keeps

One day while I was rehearsing at the Mime Troupe, a lithe, freckled man with flinty, Irish features walked in to observe. He had an arresting gait with a leonine head thrust aggressively forward as if it were impatient with the body behind it. His eyes were a cool, unflappable blue, his face a mask, suggesting abundant anger and determination. Emmett Grogan had come to audition. We struck up a conversation that carried us through the afternoon and a long walk back to our respective flats, which, it turned out, were on opposite corners of the same intersection of Fell and Steiner streets. He was a galvanizing story teller and an immediate new friend who subsequently changed my life in more profound ways then anyone I had ever met before, or have allowed to since. If all of us are life-actors to some degree, Emmett was determined to be a life-star. He carried with him the spot-lit absorption of a born actor. Men and women attended when he entered and moved through the room with the detached concentration of a shark. He had a developed sense of drama in his posture, his cupped cigarette, his smoky, hooded eyes. His being declared him a man on the wrong side of the law; a man with a past; a man who would not be deterred.

This was Emmett Grogan an impatient and hungry young artist, born in Brooklyn and condemned to a life sentence at hard labor with his soul to answer an essential question: What does one do when your culture itself is the enemy? When Emmett, and the rest of my generation was growing up during the 1940's and 50's, the Nation's industrial triumph in World War II seemed to fulfill Calvinistic promises of rewards on earth for the righteous. The country was swimming in wealth at that time, and people could not be blamed for seeing such wealth as the tangible evidence of unassailably true beliefs and practices. Had there ever been a people who had changed the face of the earth so extraordinarily before: scoured such grand canals; erected such cities and monuments; moved great distances at such speed, worn tuxedos, smoked cigarettes, and drank martinis so elegantly?

Officially, America was a land in love with itself, and its buoyant optimism and muscular self-confidence aroused the lusts and envy of the entire world. We were stylish and above all practical people who worshipped science and its rational certainties which told us how to raise children and cook a roast, build rockets and farm for millions. Science held Death at bay, and offered the comfort that the universe was finally and ultimately explainable. This world-view was so obviously true to so many people, that any dissent, physical or spiritual was defined as irrationality, literally and pejoratively, a form of madness. Cultural propaganda machinery was in full swing: Rock Hudson and Doris Day were advertising America's consumer heaven to the rest of the world in sexless romps. "Ozzie and Harriet" and "Leave it to Beaver" offered bland television fantasies of family life, intimidating real children from mentioning their personal griefs lest they be considered freaks.Still, the surface was far from seamless, the wealth wasn’t shared equitably, and for many the myths were obliterated by the grinding poverty of their daily existence. In real homes, many people drank, fought bitterly, abused their children, had ulcers, and worked themselves into early graves. Young people were pressured to enter college, and "make good" like the “succesful” parents who were dying in front of them.

Korea was the first shock to our post-World War II euphoria, interrupting the nation's vacuuming of global resources, with the costs of imperialistic responsibility. Precipitated under suspicious circumstances, Korea was a bloody hell where troops mutinied and floundered with useless weapons in a struggle between foreign neighbors which they and the American people never fully understood.

The New York Daily News featured articles about teen-aged gang-wars, urban snipers, and the spreading blight of heroin in New York's ghettos. The debacle of Korea and its attendant dissents was soon wallpapered over by government persecution of "Reds" during the McCarthy period's anti-communist witch-hunts. Referred to today as an unfortunate incident in America's past (very recent past one might add) it is useful to remember that the policy of hunting down and punishing people with dissident political views was perpetrated and relentlessly pursued at the highest levels of American political and corporate life, fueled by the media and all the appartus of the industrial state.

This divorce between official fictions and reality demanded articulation and voice. That voice was to be found in the unquenchable underground which leaked its "treacherous" wisdom to the seekers through the unofficial channels of the streets. The first introduction to that underground for many, was the Civil Rights Movement.

It is unquestionably true that the moral high ground of the late Fifties and Sixties was won by the dedication, sacrifice and personal courage of African- Americans. Their refusal to sit hungry at the groaning table, deprived of basic rights and dignities, their refusal to be overlooked and their willingness to pay for that with their lives, forced America to tip its hand and reveal its shameful racist secrets to the world and the rest of its own citizens. Millions watched transfixed as the official mythology of freedom and justice for all was shredded by German Shepherds set on defenseless men and women, or blown away by fire hoses turned on the innocent. We watched in horror as members of our own race kicked, spit, punched and violated black men and women for the effrontery of expecting that they might sit at a lunch counter and be served shitty food which would not even have been there had their labors and taxes, like everyone else’s not paid for the highways, trucks, and corporate farms. The television drove this old reality like a wooden stake into America's heartland, and for millions of people, young and old, of every race, the shoe finally dropped. What was for many a daily secret had been elevated to the status of a national problem commanding discussion.

People of all ages and colors flocked to this struggle fueled by idealism, simple decency, and perhaps the desire to live in a country that honored its promises. The music of this struggle of everyday people, was folk-music, literally, music of, by, and for common people.

Through the freshness and authenticity of folk music, millions of young people became aware of the voices and traditions of numberless, heretofore invisible souls: black sharecroppers; Appalachian minstrels; Scotch-Irish dirt Farmers; New England fisherman, barge hands and Okie poets. Young people were entranced by the pithiness and vigor of the songs, the consumate skill of the musicians, and in their quest to imitate it, began to seek the authenticity of the experiences that produced it. This route led them directly away from the official reality of schools and parents; away from the permissive looney bin of the suburbs, towards the 'free' territories where the young gathered and began to create the counter-culture. In drifting into these open territories they came in contact with elders, more experienced bohemians who had lived there longer and passed on something of the traditions which they had inherited from their own mentors, not the least of which was the body-awakening use of marijuana. The energy released by these two mass movements - one social and one musical was the psychic equivalent of the great land rushes of the preceding century. An extraordinary social pressure in too small a container blew out the cork and expanded like foam, seeking freedom for new articulation and expression. Considered in this manner, the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamlin was not a myth at all. Music literally led a generation off the asphalt into the trackless realms where one could escape one's personal history and predicted future; to live, in Bob Dylan's words, "like a complete unknown, with no direction home, like a rolling stone."

America's much-touted production of material wealth was not bandaging a lot of people where they were wounded. The forward march of capitalism was killing the nation's gentlest seers and grinding their tenderest hopes and most compassionate aspirations under the heel of economic Darwinism. Some adult voices appeared to be calling the shots truthfully, but they all seemed to be precisely the people that our parents warned us against:* the voices of black people, rock and roll, jazz, folk-music, hot-rods, blues-life and the Beats. To people trying to escape from the net of propaganda and material dominion, the enemy was not Communism, but a culture based on the unimpeded demands of capital that rolled over personal eccentricities and predilections, obliterated personal power and authority the way Hitler rolled over Poland. Youth were trying to feed their spirits in a milieu whose values and goals were so sublimated to material ends as to be indivisible from them. What does one do when your culture itself is the enemy? Emmett created his identity as his answer to that question.

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 met,
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 years.

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 transcendence.

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 through.

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.

Notes

* 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 terminology?

 

[Peter Coyote]
Last modification: May 8, 1996
The Free-Fall Chronicles is a "loose" memoir of the '60's by Peter Coyote, actor and one of the earliest members of the Diggers. It is a "loose" memoir because every third or fourth chapter is about another member of the community. The book traces the experiences, the lessons and the costs of the pursuit of absolute freedom, and ponders the utility of limits. This first chapter is about Emmett Grogan.
 
 

Creative Commons License

The Digger Archives at www.diggers.org is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.  
Cite As:
The Digger Archives (www.diggers.org) / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0