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Home Free Home: A History of Two Open-Door California Communes

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Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23
Chapter 24
Chapter 25

Chapter 1

Once upon a time, a big mouth incarnated as Lou Gottlieb, alias Lucky Louie Love Divine, a born entertainer with a heart as soft as mashed potatoes. Tall, frizzy-bearded, with a nose like a Babylonian patriarch, Lou was always center stage for the seven years he lived at Morning Star Ranch as its last human owner. Friends and admirers gathered around him while he devoted himself to the piano and to his dream of making his debut as a concert pianist when he reached fifty. His studio, converted from an egg storage shed, was just big enough for his concert grand piano, a desk, a mattress and a woman. Mozart sonatas and Chopin nocturnes floated across the flower-strewn meadows and filtered into the redwood groves during his practice sessions. Bad health and what he referred to as a 'crisis of pessimism' had forced him to retire from a successful career as the bass player and jokester of the Limeliters, a folk-singing group that enjoyed enormous popularity in the early 'sixties.

LOU: "About 1960 the Limeliters started to get lucky and did pretty well. We worked incredibly hard. It was nothing to play one night in Miami Beach and the next night in Seattle. Our gross came out to about a million dollars a year. We were singing for Coca-Cola, and we made a TV show called 'Hootenanny' that paid handsomely. The record royalties were good. Travel expenses were nothing in those days and there were just the three of us in the group, Glenn Yarborough, Alex Hassilev and myself plus a road manager. So it was a very profitable thing."

One day in 1962, Bud Reynolds, husband of folk-singer Malvina Reynolds, phoned Lou saying he knew of thirty acres of land for sale sixty miles north of San Francisco. It was in redwood and apple country and would make a fine investment and tax shelter. Oddly enough, Lou had just been reading an ad for the identical property when Bud called. It was a coincidence he couldn't ignore.

LOU: "Bud and I went up there, looked the place over, met the owner John Beecher and I said, 'This is it!' I had the cash and put a down payment on it right then and there. Beecher, a well-known poet, wanted out because he was in tough financial trouble. I thought of subdividing the place, and had a plot map drawn up that divided the property into seven parcels with a road going through -- the one that's there, more or less. The surveying company named it 'Gottlieb Lane.' That was the source of considerable amusement. I once asked a friend if he wanted to buy into the place. 'Man, are you crazy?' he replied. 'I wouldn't live on Gottlieb Lane! Number Seven Gottlieb Lane?'

"But it was a good idea from the point of view of a guy who had never been in the redwood forest at all. I was going to build nice houses and sell them for about a hundred grand apiece and let it be known that Charlie Schultz lived just around the corner and stuff like that -- to make it a kind of prestige deal. But I hardly ever had the time to go up in the four years that followed. The Upper House was rented and Bud oversaw the thing for me. He and Malvina used to spend weekends in the Lower House and Bud got rid of the thirty head of sheep that were there. Also there were thousands of hens laying eggs in tiny coops -- a sort of egg ranch."

By 1963 the on-the-road pace began to tell and Lou's health deteriorated. After a near-fatal plane crash in Colorado, he left the Limeliters and took some time off to be with his wife Dolly and their two children. Also he was introduced to LSD by a lady yoga teacher in Los Angeles.

LOU: "I took five of those 25-Gamma Sandoz pills and nothing happened. It was like a speed trip. I remember we walked along the beach for a couple of miles with me non- stop rapping. I even bored myself! Then about two months later I came back down to Los Angeles and took about 425 micrograms with a very dear and revered friend. The only thing I remember about it were the famous words of Archangel Gabriel: 'Fear not, Mary.' They kept coming to mind. The next day I had a meeting with some people about a record and -- blam! -- I was still flying! It was a marvelous trip. My friend also gave me a book called Who Am I? by the Indian sage Ramana Maharshi which started me systematically meditating. I began to meditate every day at 10 A.M. no matter what I was doing and I used the 'Who Am I' mantra. There was no doubt that I made some kind of small advance. So by the time 1966 rolled around I had had a few other LSD trips, having acquired some of that 'blue juice' they used to sell.

"As far as marijuana went, I started smoking it in 1941 or late '39. There was a ten-year period when I laid off -- when I was a member of the Communist Party. They didn't dig it, but when the revelations started coming out about what it had been really like in Russia under Stalin, I was enormously disillusioned. That was in 1955, after Stalin's death, and the Communist Party group to which I belonged met and we all voted to dissolve that same night. But one thing was for sure. During that period I made a real, systematic effort to master Dialectical Materialism -- in other words, to have a positive belief in the non-existence of God. But I defy anyone to follow that line of thinking straight through and remain optimistic. Dialectical Materialism ends in pessimism. It's a limitation of the human spirit.

"In 1964 and '65 I was in bad shape. Nothing seemed to work and I was physically uncomfortable. One day an ex- classmate called up who was working as a music critic for The San Francisco Chronicle and said that he needed someone to take over reviewing concerts. So I went to work for the newspaper and that was the last thing I did that was straight- oriented. One day the Chronicle sent me to review Roslyn Tureck, the pianist, and she played so beautifully that I wrote a review that was absolutely incomprehensible to anybody. The editor said, 'Why, this is incomprehensible!' and I said, 'Well, it's either that or you just need a new guy. In fact, you need a new guy anyway.' So that was the end of that. I worked for only three weeks but during that time I met Ramon, Stewart Brand and Ben Jacopetti around the Trips Festival. I remember interviewing them on afternoon in Stewart's apartment. Stewart was talking about having a 'back-forty' in the country and I told him, 'Well, I have one. Let's go take a look at it.' But I never thought about communes until I talked with Ramon."

BILL WHEELER: "Dark latin eyes, chiseled features, thick black hair and a sturdy, compact body, Ramon Sender was a respected avant-garde composer in San Francisco. With Morton Subotnick he co-founded of The San Francisco Tape Music Center. They produced monthly concerts of new music, and ran a studio for the synthesis of electronically generated compositions."

RAMON: "One memorable piece was "The Tropical Fish Opera." I brought a bowl of tropical fish as a score to a concert and four of us, Morton Subotnick, Pauline Oliveros, Loren Rush and myself, proceeded to block out certain areas on the glass sides of the tank -- a staccato area, a low-pitch area and so on. We sat down and played the fish as notes from the four sides of the tank, thus producing four simultaneous versions from different dimensions. This tickled the audience enormously. Later we developed a type of Music Theater that combined liquid, slide and film projections with taped sounds and live instruments. Perhaps my most successful piece from that era is "Desert Ambulance" for solo accordion, tape and projections. It's still performed somewhere every year or so.

"Then, in 1965, the Rockefeller Foundation gave us fifteen thousand dollars with the promise of one hundred and fifty thousand more if we would associate ourselves with a college. Up until that time we had run the center on peanuts, odd commercial recording jobs and a yearly refinancing of my house. However, by the time the grant money arrived, I had begun to experiment seriously with psychedelics. I had taken a peyote trip in 1963 with Steve Reich during which I had relived my life backwards to the point of conception. Also I had an intense encounter with my mother's spirit. She had been executed by the Spanish fascists when I was two years old and had become a forgotten person throughout my growing- up years.

"By 1965, I had become restless with the Tape Music Center format and wanted to expand out into performances of the ancient mysteries. I wanted to sacrifice a cow onstage to Mithras -- something to alert people to where their hamburgers came from. But that would have finished our chances for the larger grant. Also, instead of affiliating with a college, I felt we should give up our individual households and start living together, thus cutting our expenses. I think the men in the group might have gone for it, but we were all living with women who could never have lived under the same roof. Pursuing this idea of ceremonial representations, I phoned Stewart Brand, a young photographer just back from New Mexico who was putting on a show called America Needs Indians. It consisted of simultaneous projections of Native Americans and modern Americans, fast correlations of an Indian hogan with a MacDonald's restaurant, or a chieftain with a Fuller Brush salesman. Then one day Stewart called up and said, 'Ken Kesey's in town and wants to do a Trips Festival. Do you want in?' It sounded ceremonial enough, so I dropped out of the Tape Music Center to help put it together, during which time I met Lou at a press conference. We discovered we shared some mutual interests in music, eastern religions and living in the country."

Gina Stillman, Ramon's living partner, was a live-wire sister with curly hair framing a beaming face. From a well-to- do California family, she had been ostracized by them when she began living with him in Berkeley.

GINA: "One day in January, 1966, Ramon came home with a surprised smile on his face. He had been interviewed by Lou Gottlieb, and afterwards Lou had turned him on to a pipeful of grass at Stewart's apartment. They had liked each other very much, and Ramon had talked about his community experiences at the Society of Brothers, a Christian group where he lived in the mid-fifties. The loving, cohesive feeling of community living still attracted him, although he couldn't handle the Brothers' rigid, moralistic attitudes. A week or so alter, Ramon asked me, 'What would you think of living in a commune?' I remember that I threw a temper tantrum and told him I could never live that way. I was not at all attracted to the idea. He definitely was thinking about it, although he didn't have anything specifically planned in regard to Lou's land."

Through Ramon, Ben and Rain Jacopetti also became involved in the Trips Festival. A couple in their late twenties with a five-year-old son, they had founded Open Theater in Berkeley, an avant-garde endeavor similar to Ramon's effort with the Tape Music Center.

BEN: "We had a non-profit-status organization, the Berkeley Experimental Arts Foundation, and decided we needed a permanent building. That was a big mistake because it cost us thousands of dollars and ended up in a lot of bullshit. We ended up having to worry about a sizable institution. Before we did the Trips Festival, I had totally dropped out of the theater because I was so wasted that I couldn't make it anymore. I became a Yellow Cab driver -- a Macrobiotic Yellow Cab driver riding around the East Bay with sixteen or seventeen drunks in a row as fares, each one different, each one with his trip to lay on you. For the whole shift from ten-thirty at night until seven-thirty in the morning, all I had to eat was a jar of roasted rice. That was it! I couldn't drink anything because I had drunk my liquids quota for the day. And also I was smoking dope. I was so burnt out by the time the Trips Festival came along that I hardly knew what it was like. The Open Theater part of it was an absolute, total bomb because it had been conceived as cabaret theater. All of a sudden there were 5000 freaks that wanted The Grateful Dead! What could I do with 5000 freaks that wanted it up the ass?"

RAIN: "No! You had the perfect act! If you had done Revelations, they would have torn us apart and everyone would have gotten off!"

BEN: "Bill Graham said no, didn't he? He decided to bring on The Loading Zone instead, a Berkeley rock group." RAIN: "We chose to let him say no. At that point, I was every bit as strong as Bill Graham if I had wanted to be. I took a look at that second night and said if someone opened a dance hall with a lot of rock music, he could make a lot of money. I can remember sitting with Graham in some restaurant, and he said he had just arranged to have the Fillmore and was going to close the deal that day. I looked up and said, 'Well, if that's what you want to do...' I had a lot of respect for him because he was giving people exactly what they wanted. The Trips Festival was exactly what they wanted, and all he wanted out of it was money and power. But if you don't get money and power out of doing that kind of job, there's nothing else to get."

BEN: "Then there was the night after the Trips Festival when we all gathered together to split up the money. Everyone said how much they wanted. Graham said he thought he should get eight hundred, and Ramon and Stewart and I conferred and said no, we though he should get $900 because he did such a great job. He was really pleased. There was a very good feeling throughout. He had all the money and all the receipts, and when he counted it all up, he was $900 short! He counted it all over again -- still $900 short. This frantic look came over his face, and Stewart said, 'Sit down, Bill, just take it easy. Sit down and it'll all work itself out.' Graham stared wild-eyed at us and ran out of the house. We all sat there looking at each other going 'Um, um, um,' and in about five minutes he ran back with a paper bag and a big smile. It was a paper bag full of money! He had been taking in money so fast that he had just stuck it in a paper bag and thrown it in the back of his car and forgotten it!"

RAMON: "The Trips Festival energies totally blew me away, and I went to the desert with Katy the Dog for a six-week cool-out. It was there, in a cave, that I heard the sun speak to me, saying "Ramon, you're a fool but I love you.' The sun! God wasn't invisible after all, but beaming down his vivifying light into my life! What a wonderful awakening! So I entered a reality where everything was real -- there was no longer this duality between spirit and matter. The word 'enlightenment' for me meant the pouring of sunlight into my eyes to merge with the inner subcellular light that runs the body. My goal became to merge these two lights through prolonged meditation on the sun. If I succeeded, my body would then be capable of living on light. It would no longer be necessary to breathe, although it might still be fun to do so, or eat and so on."

GINA: "In March, after the Trips Festival and Ramon's trip to the desert, we drove up to Sonoma County with Lou, Stewart and Lois Brand and Katy the Dog. There were six of us, and Lou had brought along some of his friend Buck Wheat's incredible hashish cookies. So we arrived at the ranch considerably loaded, and were entranced by the beauty of the place. We walked around, and it was like the Garden of Eden. It was early springtime, everything very green, with all the flowers coming out, and no one there except us. It seemed so untouched. And of course we loved it. But even after that experience we didn't have any plans or ideas for being there or living there for any extended period of time."

RAMON: "I said to Stewart, 'The sun is God!' He looked at me very mysteriously but didn't seem to want to talk about it. I, on the other hand, talked to everyone. I felt I had been given complete freedom to be just a foolish as necessary."

GINA: "I was a high school teacher, and when my Easter vacation came in April, Ramon and I decided we wanted to go somewhere in nature where we could be alone and play Adam and Eve. So we went up to Mt. Tamalpais across the bay, and found what we thought was a very secluded spot in the woods, took off our clothes and began running around. In five minutes a forest ranger was there, telling us to put our clothes back on. And I said to Ramon, 'Let's go up to Lou's land. I bet we could be alone here, and no one would bother us.' So Ramon phoned Lou, and we drove up to the ranch and had a wonderful week there together, just wonderful. The apple blossoms were just beginning and they ere exquisite. Ramon had a LSD experience in a beautiful redwood grove during which he felt that two angels had communicated with him. He decided he had to stay, that he couldn't go back to the city with me. I was distressed, but I understood. I wanted to stay too, but I had the responsibility of my teaching job. So I went back and visited him every weekend."

RAMON: "Lou's ranch seemed an ideal place to continue my sun yoga, and the spirits in the redwood groves welcomed me. I settled down to four-hour daily sessions of gazing at the sun through the redwood foliage in the semi- shade, always careful not to do anything physically harmful. "When those two angels appeared -- perhaps I should call them 'spirit guides' -- they told me I was freed of all karmic residues that might hinder me on my path, something that encouraged me greatly. A psychic reader later affirmed this was true, and that I was in my first incarnation as a human being. So I was at that point 'free' -- 'Mukti' in the Hindu sense -- liberated, but I had not yet achieved a state of permanence nor a knowledge I could share with others. I had not yet completed the course."

While finishing up her teaching duties that spring and waiting to rejoin Ramon, Gina stayed with Ben and Rain Jacopetti in Berkeley. Occasionally Ramon joined her there.

RAMON: "At the Jacopetti's, I had a vision of the Divine Mother which made me realize I only had to call upon Her to receive her help. So it was She who led me to Lou's ranch -- it was really Her land, after all, having been dedicated to Her by John Beecher, the previous owner, as we would learn only much later."


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