The story of an old friend, commissioned for a special issue of “Common Ground” celebrating the California Bay Area’s progressive history and heroes.
He came from the East and never looked back. Well, maybe once or twice. But California rang him like a bell.
Growing up in Jersey, in the arms of a big Jewish family, he learned the art of disputation from old commie uncles. On Martha’s Vineyard, folk songs from Tom Rush. In New York the fierce discipline of modern jazz from Buddy Jones, Charlie Parker’s roommate.
At Grinnell, a small college in the Midwest, it was history, literature, theatre, the Humanities … He liked the heft and hope of that last word.
He wanted to be a writer.
He came to San Francisco to study poetry with Robert Duncan, and was soon seduced into the Mime Troupe, which took on the task of waking up America.
There was a war on. There was work to do.
Peter had a several gifts—movie star looks, a Henry Fonda voice, and a ready laugh. Plus the ability to laugh at himself. Fame was fun, even by the spoonful. (Those who say it isn’t, lie.)
Bill Graham was a familiar soul. So was Janis Joplin. The Sixties were a soul-opening time. Some burst into blossom, some into flame. Some just burst.
Emmett Grogan was a familiar soul. The Diggers took theatre straight to the people. Liberation was the play. The audience were now the actors. The streets were the stage.
Between the acts the Diggers fed the flower children. Break a leg.
Enlightenment came in bits and pieces, like sunlight through tall trees. Drugs, music, lovers, teachers. Teachers, always teachers. Savants and Shamans from more ancient tribes (the Modoc, the Ohlone, the Beats) shared a Potlatch of the spirit.
The times they were a-changing.
He changed his name from Cohon to Coyote, in honor of the trickster god he met the first time he ate peyote. Trust your luck. Save the planet.
Caravans of hippies criss-crossed the country,
from Olema in Marin, to Black Bear in the Sasquatch country, to Libre in the Colorado Sangres. They called themselves the Free Family.
But California always called him back. The Bay Area for him was where World met Spirit, like the cliffs shaped by the sea. As everlasting as clouds.
The Haight was a garden at first, then a zoo.
Drugs lofted you into the arms of the Angels,
then dropped you into the maw of Hell. Falling can feel a lot like flying, at first. The trick is to land on your feet. Then raise your arms to catch your friends and lovers.
Jerry Brown was just weird enough to appoint him to the California Arts Council. There he gathered bouquets of wildflower artists who had never been picked before; but the experience changed him as well. He learned to turn adversaries into colleagues and then into friends. They elected him Chairman but never bought him a car.
Peter learned to keep the old VW running.
When a few lucky breaks led to Hollywood, he grabbed the brass ring but held it at arm’s length. He worked with the stars but always went home to Mill Valley and the stern instruction of the redwoods.
He rewrote the ending of E.T.
Zen was a door into a quieter room, more spacious still. Compassion changes everything: diets as well as hearts, understandings as well as ambitions; you learn to shut up and listen. Meditation is work. Stillness is learning.
There was always work to do.
Motorcycles to fix, protest songs needing new verses, lame trucks cared for like lame friends, a wrench to polish like a chalice. A Buddhist robe to sew, but still with a secular Jew inside, always forgiving but never accepting the half-truths and easy lies of the American dream.
Free Leonard Peltier. Stop the Keystone pipeline. Save the family farm.
Imagine, if you will, a Zen lay priest with a love for long guns, for soft chants and loud engines, for bluegrass and bebop, for camomile tea and Cuban cigars, who numbers Hells Angels in hospital and Weathermen in prison among his dearly beloveds.
We met at that same small college fifty years ago. I went East, Peter went West, but we were both riding on the same wild sweet wind, so we never lost touch. Change was in the air. There was work to do.
So Coyote’s busy writing books, wrenching on his old Dodge, sitting za-zen, making films and narrating documentaries, and speaking out on things that matter like wildlife, old growth, political prisoners, healthy food, human rights (not just equal but abundant) for all; still learning new guitar licks, tightening up his poems, fitting World and Spirit together as best he can. Reminding people of the beautiful creature that’s within them, and listening to others. Always listening.
Peter does good work.
(Thanks for your interest in my work. If you enjoyed this little piece, please give a dollar to a homeless person.)