The first real-life shaman I met was a kid my age named James Wilson, who became an activist for peace while in high school. Jim was inspired by music and had filled his bedroom with Jimi Hendrix posters long before he discovered psychedelics. He liked the new styles that were coming out and his biggest influence and role model soon became Fred Hampton, who was still alive when Jim made his transformation, but sadly was assassinated by the Chicago police some months later. Fred had recently been named Chairman of the Black Panther Party after ending the gang wars in Chicago, and was steering the organization towards non-violence when Jim suddenly began looking like a Black Panther. Jim went on a mission to single-handedly heal our school’s considerable racial divides and largely accomplished the mission by becoming Senior Class President (the first black in our school’s history to achieve this honor), and by organizing education and harmonization ceremonies. Back then, nobody realized Jim was doing magic. We didn’t know he was a natural shaman. Later he would transform into the Great Chef Ra and it would become obvious.
In 1969, Jim and I both ended up at Woodstock, and he was the first person I knew who I ran into. He was standing at the gates, watching people stream in with a huge glowing smile. I’d never seen Jim so happy. We all felt the vibes of arriving in New Jerusalem. And, of course, we’d get to study some of the grandmasters of our culture up close, like Wavy Gravy, Abbie Hoffman and Paul Krassner. The Pranksters arrived with the magic bus, but not with Kesey, who was certainly my biggest role model at the time. Kesey was hiding out in Mexico as he wished to avoid the fate of Timothy Leary, who’d been railroaded into a lengthy prison sentence for possession of a few seeds of cannabis on the floor of his vehicle. At Woodstock, I came into contact with Wavy’s style, as he seemed to have a handle on the type of magic I wanted to manifest. He’d been studying improvisation under Viola Spolin. Wavy, like Jim, understood the importance of costumes in ceremonies.
A couple years after Woodstock, I got introduced to Jasper Grootveld of Amsterdam and became utterly fascinated, especially since Jasper had started the Happenings, of which I was a great student (and especially since John Cage did his biggest Happenings in my humble town of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois). John Cage was into monster displays of energy and media, similar to the Pranksters, while Jasper dressed like an African medicine man and used zero technology in his rituals. Jasper claimed his ceremonies were self-promotional, but they often carried a political message. Most of the time he railed against the tobacco companies and encouraged cannabis consumption as a more healthy alternative. He’d been a journalist briefly and sent by his editor to interview a New Age cult leader who claimed to be god. While Grootveld was interrogating him, the cult leader asked, “what do you believe in?” This stumped Grootveld for a minute, and finally he came up with, “I believe in Sinterklaas [Santa Claus].”
Many decades later, I’d discover Santa is really the Scythian father god that inspired Zoroastrianism, which in turn influenced Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It replaced the pagan pantheons with a dialectical balance between two divine forces, one creator, one destroyer. In earlier times, Santa had a scary sidekick who punished the wicked. In Holland, this devil figure morphed into an African toddler named Zwarte Piet (Black Peter), while in America the sidekick morphed into magic elves. But in the earliest Scythian versions, the sidekick role may have started as a large bird. The Scythians were famous for domesticating birds and animals.
Grootveld began promoting “Klaas is coming!,” while dressed as Zwarte Piet and wearing blackface. Gradually, this ceremony took on his anti-tobacco message. When he began holding public exorcisms at a small statue erected by the Dutch tobacco industry, teens from all over Amsterdam began attending. Eventually, this would manifest the Dutch Provo movement, certainly one of the most enlightened emanations of our time.
I also learned a lot about magic from Ina May and Stephen Gaskin, who I knew about from Sunday Morning Services in Golden Gate Park back in the late sixties. Stephen had studied most of the major spiritual texts from the East, and could translate difficult concepts into easy-to-understand English. Both had interesting upbringings as their fathers were Masons of the 33rd degree. At age twelve, Stephen was inducted in DeMolay, but would soon reject Masonry for a synthesis of various cultures centered on non-violence. He was a former Marine, however, and believed unruly teens sometimes required a trip to the woodshed to straighten out their path. Ina May inspired the global midwife movement, sharing long forgotten insights on the importance of telepathic vibrations, some of which had been learned after helping deliver home births while tripping.
While I never met John Griggs, founder of the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, I now believe he may have been the nearest thing to a true hippie avatar, and like many avatars, he had died young, at the zenith of his creative powers, certainly a tragic loss for the world. John’s heart was immense. James put me on the path of political action, the Pranksters put me on the path of fun, Stephen put me on the path of philosophy, but Griggs put me on the path of unconditional love. It’s strange how some of the most important figures in the history of the counterculture remain unknown and uncelebrated, and John Griggs would be the prime example.
Which is why I think it’s so incredible that I discovered yet another aspiring hippie messiah: Father Yod, founder of the Source Family. Who knows, I may have even run into some of them at a Rainbow Gathering over the last 20 years, but had no idea the manifestations of this hippie saint and his flock. Yod was doing improvisational ritual theater pretty much non-stop and he mixed up many spiritual styles, similar to what I was doing for 25 years in my own humble fashion, organizing ceremonies like the original Cannabis Cups and Whee! festivals. You can watch the amazing documentary on the Source Family on Netflix. Once when the family needed funds, he successfully robbed a few banks, crimes that were not uncovered until after his death.
The biggest problem with attempts to forge a hippie religion was the tremendous pressure put on the leaders. The more spiritual the group became, the more pressure. Many commune founders went off the deep end with egomania or they began taking advantage of people because they had too much power over their flocks. Or the communes went on a ‘kill the guru” phase like what happened to Stephen.
My ceremonies are always improvisational, and everyone is equal, although some are naturally more creatively talented, we can all crank the ceremonial vibes (or try to bring those vibes down).
One day Father Yod began telling his flock he was God. Soon, he woke up, called the family together, and said, “I lied. I am not God. We are all God.” Then he decided to take flight on a hand-glider with no training, crashed and was carried into the house. Although the injuries did not seem life-threatening, he passed over to the beyond nine hours later. There is an important parable in this story.
The greatest thing about Ra is even though he never lost his counterculture flamboyance, he always retained his humility, and refused to surround himself with sycophants like Old Carlo and so many other self-styled counterculture gurus.
It was only late in the quest that I uncovered an important insight: the true avatars reveal themselves through their creative powers, which is when I decided Bob Marley was the true hippie avatar, as well as Bob Dylan and John Lennon.
Moral of the story: Don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters. I can’t really recommend LSD or any other synthetics as I have seen the devastation they caused to a few, and because you never know what is really in pills or powders. I advise people to stick with plants in their most natural forms and remember, very often the less you do, the higher you get.