03/28/2013 05:57 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Dig This: Ephemeral Art From an Ephemeral Revolution


Back in the murky pre-history of San Francisco's fabled Haight-Ashbury, even before the fabled "Summer of Love" in 1967, let alone the ever-ongoing evolving tourisic version of it, were the Diggers. Not the "Digger Indians" or Paiutes -- although those Native Americans were close by and of course there first -- but the "tribe" of young idealistic and artistic activists who stirred up all sorts of aesthetic, humanistic and political mischief in the mid-1960s. They have been called something of a link between the beatniks and the hippies, whatever that might entail. Led by Emmett Grogan, Peter Berg, Peter Coyote and a few others, they specialized in "street theater" -- some had roots in the still-thriving San Francisco Mime Troupe -- they took their name from the 17-century "Diggers" who were both strongly Protestant and fiercely non-commercial. Thus these "community anarchists" specialized in providing free food, clothing, shelter, music, guerrilla theater and the like, and announced their activities via many posters, broadsides, and other works of intentionally-ephemeral art.

Fortunately, somebody saved much of what they printed and posted (when "posting" meant, stuck to a wall or lamp-post), and much ended up preserved in UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library. Many of those "pieces" are collected in a new book titled Notes from a Revolution: Com/CO, The Diggers, and the Haight, edited by David Hollander and Kristine McKenna, with an introduction by Coyote, an essay by Naomi Wolf, and a conversation with Claude Hayward by Kristine McKenna. Some of those are (relatively) fairly big names in the worlds of writing, which indicates how this small band of brothers -- almost all male, it should be said -- are seen as important in the history of the counterculture and beyond. But this is not really a book of words, but of images. And it is a thing of strange historical beauty.

The story of the Diggers has been told in great detail elsewhere, including by Coyote in his lauded 1998 autobiographical work Sleeping Where I Fall, in the late Grogan's book Ringolevio: A Life Played for Keeps, and in "Digger archives." In this new book, we get the many bizarre, lovely, outrageous, baffling, eyebrow-raising announcements and such that showed up all over San Francisco for a time. Many if not most are obscure and credited to obscure people, but then there are some by eventually famed figures such as author Richard Brautigan, who was a semi-, or honorary, Digger himself before he became world-famed. What one senses from leafing through these provocative, funny, baffling, even (self-ID'd) "disgusting" pieces is a real sense of possibility. It didn't last, and the Diggers warned it probably wouldn't as the Haight was overrun with kids and opportunists by late in the year. But that story's been told countless times. The Digger Free Store at Carl and Cole streets is the site of a new fancy Mexican-inspired restaurant. Nothing much else in the Haight is the same either, other than some property-value-fueled debates about what to do about "the kids."

Most of the what is collected here dates from 1967, especially the first half of that year before the "summer of love" and when, according to many who were there, something historic and wonderful was going on -- a true sense of shared purpose in creating some version of a cooperative, alternative, and yes, psychedelic community. "Through performances, actions, artworks and media, the Diggers sought to model a new kind of society that was in stark contrast to the existing order, which they regarded as materialistic and corrupt," writes Naomi Wolf, who was there as a young kid at the time. Enabled by a couple of printing presses, they put out a baffling array of posters, the meaning of some of them lost to local history, and some being timeless. How much of what these visionaries and madmen had a lasting impact is debated, but there is no doubt that something remains, or struggles to survive, in American culture from the seeds they planted. "There are so many lessons here," Wolf concludes. "Can one sum them up? Feed people; care for people; make it fun; communicate; play; believe you can do it; believe, above all, that you have the right to do it."

As a sort of postscript, another new book should be mentioned for 60s completists. Scholars of the era readily know who Owsley "Bear" Stanley was -- the famed LSD chemist, genius Grateful Dead soundman, and much more. Rhoney Gissen Stanley, his longtime girlfriend, then wife and mother of his child, then lifelong friend, has just penned her memoir of her time with him from the 1960s on in My LSD Family.

Owsley was a key 1960s figure, who some would say "turned on" a generation more so than even Tim Leary, but his own life has long been shrouded in mystery. Here's a firsthand recollection, as "intimate" as is likely to be penned. Reading it, alas, is sort of a curative for anybody who might still romanticize the man, and even the times. The Washington Post obituary for Owsley -- he died in an auto accident two years ago in Australia, where he had moved in order to avoid a looming climatic apocalypse he just knew was coming -- contained this: "Mr. Stanley always had been a controlling personality - when he rented a house for the Grateful Dead in 1965, he refused to allow 'poisonous' vegetables inside, and everyone subsisted on meat for months. That stubbornness helped contribute to his break with the band in the mid-1970s."

Gissen Stanley's book amplifies that impression in spades. Owsley practically forces acid on anybody he thinks is not enlightened enough, "doses" people without their knowledge, and treats his multiple girlfriends in a manner that can only, nowadays, be called abusive, even borderline violent at times. Maye it was the raw meat smoothies, but when Gissen Stanley decides, after years of emotional and financial dependence on Owsley, to pursue scientific education, her recollection is a textbook case of emotional abuse and escape. "I won't have to ask Bear for money. It was so public asking Bear for money...He would meet me onstage during a show, peel out hundred-dollar bills, and make me dance for them."

From this retelling, Rhoney's insecurity makes her an easy mark for men with what was then called "power-tripping' personalities. As a very bright young woman, she nonetheless comes off here as desperate for attention and approval. Owsley gets fame and fortune as the undisputed king of underground chemists, tells virtually everybody -- even Tim Leary! -- that they don't take enough of his LSD to be truly enlightened, sets up a landmark sound system for the Grateful Dead, gets busted, goes to prison, comes back, and eventually vanishes down under. Here are firsthand backstage accounts of the Monterey Pop Festival, Woodstock, Altamont, and much more -- none of which sound like much fun, even via helicopter -- with various Beatles, Stones, San Francisco musicians, of course, and other famed counterculture figures popping in and out. Rhoney is no 60s casualty -- she becomes an orthodontist. Their son Starfinder ("Starf") becomes a veterinarian. True survivors, one could say. They stay loyal to Owsley to the end, in a moving sort of way.

But her book, written with Tom Davis, a former Saturday Night Live writer and comedian, is itself a sort of riddle -- is it intended to read like an extended SNL spoof on the 60s, or is it wholly serious? Only the author knows. "Ever since the bust, the owl was acting weird," she writes about their pet bird. Indeed. In any event, back then, there was a lot of debate about whether one was truly "On The Bus" or off it, and over four decades later, some people are still trying to figure out whatever that meant.