In search of the true hippie avatar

Jim Wilson (wearing beret).

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.

Wavy, Abbie and Paul at Woodstock.

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.

Jasper Grootveld.

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.

Ina May & Stephen Gaskin.

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.

John Griggs.

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.

Me & My Meditations

As an infant, I was trained to get on my knees every night by the side of my bed, clasp my palms together with fingers extended upward and say the same prayer every night. Only I always had a queasy feeling about that prayer….”if I should die before I wake.” Why even bring up that concept? Something just didn’t feel right. I mean, don’t you get what you ask for?

Can you imagine if millions of kids went to bed every night in that same position across the world saying: “Now I lay me down for the night, I pray my friends will never fight, a day will come we’ll all live in peace, and all these negative energies will finally cease.”

How long would it take to manifest world peace if we got something like that going in a major way I wonder? I doubt many of the religious institutions will pick up on this idea, however, much less spread it to their congregations.

I was in the 6th or 7th grade when my older brother finally clued me into the fact our Lutheran upbringing was basically a Santa Claus story. I was absolutely furious. “Why the hell didn’t you tell me sooner?” I snarled. I felt like I’d been walking around acting a fool believing some white-haired dude lived in heaven and was watching over me? It shattered not only my religious faith, but also my faith in my parents to tell me the truth, although my mom was real sheepish about the whole fiasco when I confronted her and said she’d only pretended to go along to please my dad’s parents who’d grown up in south-eastern Kansas. They went to their graves believing in that white-haired dude in the clouds.

I didn’t deal much with religion or spirituality for a long time after that and was basically a punk for many years with no moral foundation. It wasn’t until I was sitting on the hill on Yasgur’s Farm that I finally got zapped. Probably Wavy Gravy helped that process since he was the main emcee and what a wonderful job he did.

But the 1970s was a terrible time for my generation, at least those of us that choose to fight against the establishment. We were herded off on a trail to nowhere, and gradually watched our entire scene diminish and fade away. But it didn’t fade away. Around 1990, I went to my first National Rainbow Family Gathering, and plugged back into that spirit I’d felt at Woodstock in 1969.

I went to a lot of gatherings after that and even organized many on my own, only I called mine the World Hemp Expo Extravaganjas (WHEE!). I had started the concept with the clinical “World Hemp Expo,” but Ken Babbs told me it would be a million times better with another “e” on the end so it sounded like fun. The fun vibe was my main trail at the time and always had been. Babbs and Wavy were both Pranksters, although Wavy just dropped in for a brief time before starting his own group, the Hog Farm.

When Abby from Daily Beast interviewed me, I started talking about the people I’ve known and studied under, a list that includes John Cage, Julian Beck, Jasper Grootveld, Ken Kesey, and Wavy Gravy. This is basically the whos-who of Improvisational Ritual Theater, the art form they pioneered and I struggle to keep alive even though most people don’t know it exists and a some people even claim I’m a fraud mouthing a bunch of mumbo-jumbo and have no art at all? Abby had never heard of Wavy Gravy, but I think she did recognize John Cage. Maybe not. Her interview has yet to appear, which makes me think the bosses on high killed her story on 420.

Anyway, after I started going to gatherings, I’d usually be the first one up on peace meditation day, often a Sunday, or in the case of the National, always on July 4th. There’d be silence throughout the camp that morning until noon. I’d be the one who got up before dawn, however, in order to be the first at the peace pole, so I could sit there for hours, burning incense, taking a few hits of pot every hour or so, but focused on one thought, please bring an end to violence and the suffering it creates, and keep that thought until the OM broke out at noon, followed by a big drum circle and dance.

I know both John Lennon and George Harrison approached meditation the same way. When they discovered it, they’d chant for hours until both lost their vocal cords and had to stop.

Does this meditation have any positive effect? Well, it always leaves me feeling cleansed and energized. I’m always very sad to leave the natural world after living in a forest as an environmental monk for a few weeks. And I look and act like a road dog for a few days before I morph back into my Babylon identity.

Whatever happened to experimental theater?

 

In the 1960s, the idea of joining an experimental theater troupe was a noble concept pioneered by The Living Theater on the east coast and the San Francisco Mime Troupe out west.

I studied theater as an undergraduate but was mostly initially obsessed with Anton Chekhov. I had a theory most productions were badly directed and failed to appreciate Chekhov’s sense of humor, as well as his ability to poke fun at distinctly Russian personalities. Since American directors had little contact with those Russian personalities, Chevhov’s plays became drawn-out with long, pregnant pauses and bombastic emotions, instead of the light comedy the author had intended.

However, I did become fascinated with the saga of The Living Theater, and would soon learn about Jasper Grootveld and the Provo Movement in Amsterdam. Julian Beck and Judith Malina had drawn the audience into the play, and loved nothing better than ending a performance with the entire audience stripping naked and then maybe going out into the street to perform an ritualistic OM circle around the local draft board. But The Living Theater was quickly hounded out of the country and forced into exile in Italy. They were considered that dangerous. Grootveld, meanwhile, had a much different fate. Today, we know him as the founder of “the happenings,” and he’s considered a performance artist. But his performances were intended to provoke his audience into action, which is exactly what happened. Dressed as an African shaman, Grootveld threw a flaming hoop over a statue in Spui Square during certain special evenings. Marijuana is legal for adult use in The Netherlands as a result of these ceremonies, and that, my friends, is real magic in action.

Boy, did my mind get blown when I finally met up with Andre Gregory’s Manhattan Theater Project during their visit to the University of Illinois around 1972. Their version of Alice in Wonderland (see photo above) was the greatest adaptation of that novel ever achieved. The company also produced a version of Chekhov’s Seagull unlike any other production I’d ever experienced, and one that solidified my belief Chekhov was misinterpreted. Gregory is a Harvard grad, by the way, from the Adams House, once home to head jocks, but later a center of student activism. Gregory learned a lot from Jerzy Grotowski, who re-invented experimental theater through the use of extended improvisations combined with intense yoga and mudra exercises designed to open up all seven chakras to full power. Gregory and Grotowski were really in a class by themselves at the time, both masters of what I call Improvisational Ritual Theater.

Another part of this tradition that gets frequently ignored is Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, who were pursuing very similar art at the time. The Acid Tests were a deeply spiritual endeavor, as well as an artistic statement and Kesey was a pioneer in performance art as well as master shaman and magician. The Pranksters, however, were surfing the fun vibe, while Grotowski, unfortunately, seemed completely humorless, which was probably his tragic flaw. I think you can understand the similarities and differences by just realizing one was based in Poland a few miles from Auschwitz, while the other was based out of Haight-Ashbury.

It’s strange how this tradition has largely disappeared from the planet. I keep the flame alive, however, when I get together with the Temple Dragon Crew. We manifest ceremony, ritual and improv energy for days, and frequently take that ball of energy to a big stage and show it off, like we did recently at the Munchie Cup in Aspen, Colorado, last August. We’ll be back next May.