Interviews with Philomene Long
> The Queen of Bohemia: Interview with Mary Sands
> Route 66 Magazine: Interview with Jordi Pujol Nadal
The Queen of Bohemia:
Interview with Philomene Long
by Mary Sands
MS: Philomene, thanks for doing this interview. This issue of Jack Magazine's Renaissance section looks at the Beat/Bohemian history of literature and art in southern California. You've been a part of the Venice Beats, and other Los Angeles-related Bohemia for a long time. I want to later talk about two new books that you have out as well as what else you're doing these days, but first I'm interested in the physical scene as it was out here in southern California back when you first arrived here. Tell us about the colors, the light. What were your first impressions--more so tactical ones than mood or spiritual impressions? I read that you "found beauty even in the shabby, water stained apartment that leaks from the ceiling, picking through life's dustbin, searching for scraps of sublime" (LA Weekly: Krout-Hawegawa). Was your introduction to Venice West totally an urban one, or did it go into the natural surroundings?
PL: Only artists and criminals in those days. Venice West was a city of outsiders. It was (and still is) a last stop-off at the edge of America. The Venice sky is tactile. You can hold its light in your palms. Often pale yellow to golden, depending on the time of day--and always the blue omnipresence of the sea. Ocean and outlaws. Its setting is a perfect balance for poetry. Beauty and danger. Agony and rapture.
MS: How have these physical surroundings changed in the last 40+ years?
PL: It's not as quiet. I suppose that 40+ years ago the criminals kept Venice quiet. And the artists at work. People used to be afraid to come here. But back then people's doors were open. Just walk in. Sit on the floor. Pads furnished out of the alley. Clothes from Salvation Army. Everyone knew everyone. That's impossible now. Seems the whole world passes beneath my window. 40+ years later the sky and sea are much the same. The gulls do fine with or without us. The pelicans left for a while, but they returned. There are more dolphins now and they seem to leap higher. More dolphins, more humans, less cockroaches.
MS: According to our guest editor Hammond Guthrie, the quality of the water in the Venice canals putrefied shortly after their construction. An analogy of putrefied water and development vs. the artsy scene just came to mind.
PL: May I substitute the word "artsy" with artist? Interesting analogy. Are you thinking that a pure artist's life requires a degree of the putrid? I've often pondered that very question but have not yet answered it. But Hammond Guthrie is correct. I once asked a canal resident what the ducks ate. He said he wasn't sure but gave me a putrid list that included (I may be imagining this) the tips of the tails of deceased mice. He added he that did know one thing: he wouldn't eat one of those ducks!
MS: Out of curiosity, did you ever know anyone from the family of the man who built the canals?
PL: Didn't know the people. Just their houses. Abbot Kinney himself lived in the now blue-painted house at the corner of Park Avenue and Speedway. Thornton Avenue was named after one of his sons. Paloma Avenue was named, I believe, because of the preposterous number of pigeons on this street.
MS: Related to the physical landscape question, what about the spiritual and inspirational ones? What was it like to escape into a counterculture (from a convent, no less) and find yourself amid likeminded people?
PL: Likeminded people in search of beatitude. I not only descended from a convent atop a mountain overlooking Los Angeles, I descended from an upper-middle-class environment where I had been raised to be a lady. I have the royal gene. My ancestors were Irish royalty. So, yes, it was entering another cloister, and a self-imposed exile.
MS: Did you embrace Buddhism or another religion and throw out your "old" religion, hang onto everything or nothing--what kinds of spirituality have inspired your life?
PL: Zen Buddhism is my practice. But I do hang onto the heart of my "old" religion. The pulse of the Beat Generation came from the heart of Catholicism: "Be-at." Kerouac first cracked it open with his vision that came from the Beatitudes. The first Beatitude is: "Blessed are the poor in spirit." The last: "Blessed are you, when men shall revile you and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely. Rejoice, and be exceedingly glad for so persecuted were the prophets that were before you." Jack Kerouac could identify with that last one.
MS: Do you think that the same kind of avenues of expression and spirituality found in the sixties is still around today--if not, what is different?
PL: There is a silent Buddhist revolution in America today that began to spread with the Beat Generation. Some of it is in a diluted form, some more penetrating: from the World Champion Los Angeles Lakers whose coach is called "the Zen master" and has his players practice Zen before playing basketball, to the Catholic Church's resuscitation of its contemplative tradition, much with the use of Buddhist practices.
MS: What other artists were on the set at this time?
PL: John Thomas, of course, and Stuart Perkoff, Tony Scibella, Frank Rios.
MS: I've read much about Stuart Perkoff and your husband John Thomas.
PL: As for Stuart Perkoff--Jack Foley, who has recently published California Rebels, Beats & Radicals, has asked me to describe my relationship with Stuart. I believe it is for a new book he is writing that has a focus on Southern California poets. Jack liked this sentence, so I'll give it to you:
The first landmark taken from us was time.
Something took hold of Stuart and me and set us down in the country of what he called from nowhere to nowhere. We were in some sense mated. (Not as husband or wife. I would never be anybody's wife, never--until John Thomas.) What Stuart and I were to become together as yet has no name.
Stuart Perkoff and John Thomas are closest to me in the poem. Regarding John Thomas--we have been married for 18 years, married, as he says: "in the book of sleep." We live together as poet-semi-hermits overlooking the Venice Boardwalk and Pacific at about sea gull level. I sent you that article ("A Woman in Her Room") written by Flako Henig for the German Newspaper "Frankfurter Rundschau" so you can get the picture: "It's like a cave. I lie here. He there. We are only a meter distance from each other and we read and write together. We are so together we are the essence of one person."
MS: Did the writers, painters, and beached Beats socialize freely with one another?
PL: "Socialize freely" is to speak in understatement. Most passionate, most intimate--as I said--at the source of the poem. Add to that mysticism, drugs, and a whole lot of sex and death.
MS: And who were the literary and artistic mentors that helped develop your spiritual and poet wavelength?
PL: Spiritual influences: Saint Therese of Lisieux and Thomas Merton. Spiritual mentor: Taizan Maezumi, Roshi. I studied and practiced Zen with him for 21 years until his death in 1995. Early literary influences would be Edgar Allen Poe and Emily Dickinson. (An odd coupling.) When I was a teenager my mother said she heard Poe in the rhythms of my poems even before I had read him. So it would be Poe for the ear and Dickinson for the eye. I often wear black like his raven or white like she herself did. Later literary influences would Spanish and Asian poetry. To me the combination of the two equals Irish.
MS: I'm wondering about Kenneth Rexroth, maybe, or Alan Watts.
PL: Excuse me, Mary, but my mind wanders when you mention Kenneth Rexroth. My husband John Thomas was one of his pallbearers. Rexroth's funeral was in a little Catholic church in Santa Barbara. The priest who offered the Mass was a latter-day friend of Rexroth and there was also a group of four or five women dressed in Hindu robes who sang Indian chants. Rexroth was buried in a cemetery on a bluff above a nude beach. I don't know why, but every time I hear his name I think of his gravesite overlooking that nude beach.
MS: Why hasn't there been another Jack Kerouac or Allen Ginsberg? Or do you think that there has, but the person (or people) hasn't been recognized?
PL: I suppose my answer to your question would be (and you tell me if I am being purely prejudiced): the Venice West poets. Jack Foley recently asked me the same question for his KPFA radio program in Berkeley. He pointed out that Anne Charter's recent thick book on Beat writers has not one mention of a Venice West poet, although, as he said that: "one would know very well that this is first-class poetry." He asked me why this was. I couldn't answer. He answered the question himself: "I know! The weather's too good. They couldn't be intelligent."
MS: Back to the LA scene, and southern California. "Beatness" can be an abstract thing. It's loosely tied with people like Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs--but often excludes many other important figures who were traveling around the country and world, practicing their forms of avant-garde art.
PL: That is a recent development. Perhaps when Beat became popular the media consultants couldn't picture the American public holding more than three names in mind at a time.
MS: Beatness seems to have always been on the move, but there are some spots that get settled in and become known for being "Beat places"--such as Paris, Tangiers, San Francisco, New York.
PL: Yes. Beat is an attitude without a country.
MS: What was it, and is it, about Los Angeles and the Venice Beats that's unique?
PL: We share a Muse. With the others it was more intellectual, social. With Venice West poets the Muse penetrates the act of writing the poem.
MS: On that idea, how did the Venice Beats mix in with, say, the Berkeley or Bolinas (or any other locales') poetry scenes? Was there an underlying fabric that everyone felt stitched to, or did people in Venice and LA (as other places) feel like a separate patchwork? Or a little of both?
PL: The underlying fabric was, is, beatitude.
MS: Like Joanne Kyger of the SF scene, it seems that you are adored by many people.
PL: I do experience many people loving me but I don't know why. John Thomas says that if I did they wouldn't anymore.
MS: I hope I'm not asking the predictable question by saying: what is it like to be a "woman Beat"?
PL: I share two childhood heroes with Jack Kerouac: Saint Therese and Huckleberry Finn. At age eight I smoked a corn cob pipe, went barefoot, wore patches on my pants knees, was always running away, sailing an imaginary raft down the Mississippi of my mind. I was a strong-armed Huckleberry. So if I went up to a group of boys to play and they said "No girls allowed" I would say, "If you don't let me play I am going to beat you up." After I beat up each one they would let me play. I did that repeatedly because in the 1940s and 50s boys were always saying: "No girls allowed." Many (not all) men of the Beat Generation tried to make it so that only they could play. That kind--I think I scared them. Did they sense I could beat them up?
MS: Not having been old enough (or having lived in California during the sixties), and wanting to gear this discussion also to younger people who want to get a picture and realistic, not mythical feel, of what southern California was like back in the day, can you give me some vivid examples of moments that you remember perfectly. Elucidate these moments, and I think it will be liberating, perhaps, and hopeful.
PL: This picture is realistic for younger people. Early summer evening. 1968. Windward Ave. Smoke-filled room. One ratty couch. Milton Bratton with jazz man blowing sax. In the back room Jamie C. Jamison and Jana Perkoff (Stuart Perkoff is in jail at the time--four years for dealing) are turning on. I don't. Never did much. Jana makes hand motions as if performing some ancient ritual. Someone walks into the back room and says: "The cops have surrounded the house. They are at all the windows." We sit immobile till 4 AM. Cops go away. I had magic in those days. Cars going a hundred miles an hour would bounce off of me. (John Thomas says from across the room: "I saw one just now!")
4:01 AM. I walk alone down Speedway alley. Four or five of those criminals I mentioned before were behind me, saying out loud what they're going to do to me. I begin to walk in a highly repulsive manner and imagine green goop coming out of my pores. Imaginary snot-green goop fills the alley. They become repulsed simply by my walking and thinking of snot-green goop coming out of me and filling the ally. They disperse. I go home to 25 Park Avenue. Fall asleep. I am awakened by the feeling of someone staring at me through the window. I arise as a ghost, dressed in white, with my arms stretched before me. At the window I see Bingo's face. Bingo is a speed freak who sleeps outside. For some reason she had just wanted to watch me sleep. She slithers away into the Venice night.
They are all dead now from drug-related causes except for Jamie C. Jameson, who is, after four years in Chino Prison for dealing, spending her life rehabilitating younger people from drugs. Jana Perkoff died from an overdose. Milton Braton was torched because of a drug deal (not his) gone awry. He ended his life by pulling the plug on himself--the pain was so intense. Bingo was murdered, beaten until her head swelled up to the size of a basketball, by someone enraged and on drugs. I loved them.
Liberating, hopeful would be: Venice West poet Frank T. Rios, born a throwaway, becomes a small-time crook, then "hangs up the gun for the poem." Heroin addict for forty years. Now clean for thirteen. Like Jamie he helps in rehabilitating young narcotics addicts--and writes finer poems drug-free.
MS: Also, if you can draw parallels of your personal experience in, and knowledge of, poetry, Venice West, etc., from the early Bohemia of the late 1950s to today, please do.
PL: I'll let Frank Rios draw that parallel of me in the late 50's inside a cloister atop a mountain overlooking Los Angeles and Venice. Frankie, who went to prison for Stuart in the late fifties, says: "When I was doing time for Stuart. Philomene was doing time for all of us."
MS: The reason I thought of my last question was because my first glimpse at Venice was in a movie about the Doors--where Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek were sitting on the beach talking about the lyrics to Jim's new song "Moonlight Drive"--and they decided to form a band. To me, this was the beautiful epitome of California. Two young men on an expanse of beach under the sun, creating something great and spontaneous. I was young when I saw that scene, and dreamed of going 2,000 miles just to embrace it all. Eventually I did move out here, but really I have not yet gone to Venice Beach. Can you believe it? My friends say it's not the same now, has been commercialized too much. I don't want my little fantasy to be ruined. Do you agree that Venice Beach just isn't the same? Of course, it's different than it used to be, but are there any treasures left; if so, what?
PL: Then, Mary, you will be happy to know that Jim Morrison used to sleep of the roof of our building, the Ellison. Don't come on a weekend. But come mid-week at sunset. Yes. Venice is different than it used to be. But yes, there are treasures left. Some eyes remember that the gulls here used to fly lower. Once, in 1959, a gull got caught inside the Venice West Café. Tony Scibella just opened his arms and it flew into them. He walked it to the door and it flew free. And this spring, when Tony was back from Denver for the ceremony over our poems being engraved in stone, the gulls flew lower as we walked down the Boardwalk (Tony and Frankie, John and I)--down to shoulder level, right in front of us. Damn if my sister Pegarty Long (a phenomenal photographer, never misses a thing) didn't drop her camera or something--the image being that stunning, I suppose. So it must remain in the mind only--that image--the gulls weaving in and out of the crowd ahead of us--almost as if clearing a path as we floated down the boardwalk. So--50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s--as we always know and yet forget: it's all happening NOW, and " the Great Illumination shines from our own fingertips."
Here is my poem engraved in stone on the wall at the foot of Westminster Avenue. It is beside a poem by your inspiration, Jim Morrison.
Stained with the blood of poets
City which lies
Beneath the breasts of birds
Guarded by cats
Behind every corner
The Muse, Angel of Surprise
Poems out of pavement cracks
MS: Here's a strange question, but you are a poet, so maybe this will be fun (and hopefully not too limiting). Thinking back on the years, what word or phrase would you describe for each decade (50's thru 90's and the beginning of the 00's) that you've been in southern California.
PL: To answer your strange question I choose words which have the sound of the sea in them. 50's: Intensity. 60's: Ecstasy. 70's: Helpless. 80's: Abyss. 90's: Disney. 00's: Question.
MS: Now, forget that we like to divide time into ten-year spans; what word or phrase would
you describe it all?
MS: What else is new in your life?
PL: I could mention three films in process: Mary Kerr's video on the Venice West Poets: "Swinging in the Shadows". Simon Elliot is producing a theatrical release film of my autobiographical Memoirs of a Nun on Fire for Channel Four in London. And I will be acting the leading role as poet/vampire in independent filmmaker Pegarty Long's surreal horror-fantasy called: "The Irish Vampire Goes West."
MS: Last I heard, you were teaching at UCLA Extension Writer's Program. What courses have you taught recently?
PL: At UCLA: "The Writer's Sketchbook" and "Autobiography Into Art." At Beyond Baroque: "Beat Writing".
MS: You probably give your students a lot, and I'm curious about your teaching method.
PL: Here's the description from the catalogue for my class of Beat Writing at Beyond Baroque:
"…techniques pioneered by the San Francisco Renaissance, the New York School, and Venice West including William Burrough's cut-ups, the wild scribbling of Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg's economy of breath. "Beat writing" Philomene says, "is a distinctly American literary form inspired by the rhythms of jazz and the controlled accident of Zen. I will start you off in this process. I will not promise I can stop it!"
MS: I know that Beyond Baroque is still happening, and the scene is definitely not dead.
PL: Beyond Baroque is happening and very much alive. Bursting, actually. Its director, Fred Dewey, is opening it up further: America, Europe. He has begun publishing a "Beyond Baroque Books'imprint" as well.
MS: What's alive these days?
PL: Too much of "Looking for love in all the wrong places" as the country-western song goes.
MS: I have read much of your great relationship with John Thomas, and your personal life often comes through in your poetry. If you care to elaborate on that, all ears are yours.
PL: My great relationship with John Thomas--I do care to elaborate. This may seem to violate some fundamental reality, but it's all true. Right now I'm reading 1,500 years of Classical Chinese Literature Volume One (an 1,176 page book) and cannot see anything like it. Nor do I expect to in the next 1,000 years in Volume Two. Nor do I expect to in the next 2,500 years of Chinese literature--or any of the world's literature for that matter. And I elaborate further with a poem I wrote to John: "Reason / is cruel, / nuance, the terrible facts are the greatest liars. / Memory, you will recall: / not true. The oldest stories / have been found to have no history, and / what happens in between / logic erases. / Even the end of the world, / as the beginning - / a false poem - / will leave only you, my love. / No night, / no moon, / only you."
MS: Outside of your personal life, what's going on?
PL: The last time I spoke with Allen Ginsberg he said to me: "Prepare for death." I am taking his suggestion.
MS: You have a new two book set of poems that includes Queen Of Bohemia and Cold Eye
Burning at 3:00 AM, which came out in May of this year (2001).
PL: Lummox Press publisher R.D. Armstrong titled the two-book set Queen of Bohemia because in the first poem I was ashamed about having been called "Queen of Bohemia" and complaining about it--that first Beatitude about being "poor in spirit." But no one tacked on "and it will be easy." Somewhere it does mention "the pearl of great price." Anyhow, at that moment I was asking the question you were asking in regard to the Venice Canals: Does a life in art require the putrid? Does it? In the end they did have to, or said they had to, kill those ducks. Said they were diseased. I forget how they killed them. Gunshot or poison. I hope it was fast.
When I wrote the first poems (the "Cold Ellison" poems) I was feeling the great price of picking through life's dustbin, searching for scraps of the sublime. But the Queen of Bohemia books have both the picking for and the finding of the sublime. Ah! Sublimity! And I prefer to see myself picking with back straight, wearing black velvet and long white gloves.
> See the article as published in Jack's Magazine
PHILOMENE LONG -- INTERVIEW FOR RUTA 66
By Jordi Pujol Nadal
JORDI: The hippy movement is commonly associated with San Francisco but Los Angeles also had a vibrant scene in the mid 60S with Venice and its beat coffeehouses, the Sunset Trip and its seminal rock clubs such as The Whisky-a-Go-Go and the Troubadour. What was the Venice beat scene about in comparison to San Francisco?
PHILOMENE: The San Francisco Beat scene was more political. The Venice Beat generation were Anarchists. San Francisco was involved in publishing as well as promoting. The Venice Beats upheld the dream of salvation through creativity, wrote poems for the act of writing itself, had no mind for publishing; were determined to stay underground. The Venice West Beat scene was the subculture beneath the subculture. It was about as deep underground as one can get - lives of "dedicated poverty" to "dig" (50s hipster term) to the roots of things.
Venice West Poets:
Stuart Perkoff: To eat the earth in search of vision.
John Thomas: This is the last frontier, boy: think twice before you start and never say I didn't warn you.
Philomene Long: We open a door. There is no road. We take it.
JORDI: What did the Venice Beat poets bring to the Los Angeles cultural life in general and the rock circles in particular?
PHILOMENE: Venice Beat poet John Thomas wrote: "The first thing. To do violence to your myths." Venice Beat poet Stuart Z. Perkoff wrote on the wall of my Venice overlooking the Pacific: "All love is Holy. All life is beyond what we might feebly construct. To sum up--Yes!"
In the 60s this dismantling of old myths and love and yes was in the Venice air. You could breathe it -- the new Bohemia. Jim Morrison breathed in and out some of it. (Actually he used to sleep on the roof of the building in which I am now speaking—The Ellison. His girlfriend Pamela lived here.) Jim Morrison and Ray Mazurek first spoke about forming "The Doors" on the beach sands of Venice.
JORDI: A lot has been written about the end of the hippy period. What facts, in your opinion, marked the end of it?
PHILOMENE: Some facts that ended it: the economy, the exhaustion, the pain.
The economy. The oil crises. People no longer could live on two days a week of work. They had to go to a real job in the real world and abide by the real world's rules, which often did not allow for long hair and free speech. Before that-- the movement became commercialized, in fashion (Certain death for any movement.)
The exhaustion. They needed rest from beating their heads against "The Establishment" and having their heads beaten by the LAPD for doing it. Many now are hopefully resting in peace after dying from a drug overdose. (It became an epidemic — all the dying from over doses.)
The pain. Free love may have been natural to some, but not all. There is a little creature (I forget its name), that has an apparatus in its tiny penis that will clean out the semen of any other little creature that has been copulating with his woman before him. If some little creature feels that intensely about such things, imagine the feelings of some larger mammals-humans. Free love came at an enormous cost of pain.
JORDI: What was the impact that drugs had on Los Angeles in the early 70s?
PHILOMENE: In the early 70s it seemed the whole of Los Angeles was stoned. It was a mass realization of the words of a Jim Morrison's song: "Step on [through] to the other side." Drugs opened doors to new perceptions. The impact on Los Angeles? The LAPD (Los Angeles Police Department), at that time, were a hyper reality- a hallucination of sorts. They had been recruited from the South of the United States to subdue the counterculture— beat it back underground. They were very conservative and very overweight. Because of the later the Hippies called them "The Pigs." Just for having long hair or the image of a flower on your car, you could be stopped by a cop. Drugs were the stated reason. Counterculture was the unstated reason.
There were two America's in the late 60s and early 70s. America was in a revolution; a cultural Civil War. (Later it was found that President Nixon had actually been making plans for a real one.) Vietnam and mind altering drugs were the cause. The Hippy thinking was —if they ("The Establishment"), tell us marijuana is bad, and we know (at least we thought we knew), it was not, what else were they telling us was bad that is good? And what were they telling us was good that was bad?
One thing that turned out to be good, that we had been told in so many ways was bad, was sex. Drugs were central on the battlefield of the sexual revolution. It was "Make love. Not War." The elementary premise being that if your hands are busy making love you do not have them idle to create hate.
The war, the drugs, all the making love formed a holy or unholy trinity (depending how you chose to perceive it), of: "Sex, drugs and rock and roll!" It was not just freeing the mind; it was freeing body. It was infusing the light of democracy into our flesh. It was "Come on, Baby, light my Fire!"
JORDI: And how this affected (and changed?) the city's art and musical scenes?
PHILOMENE: Suddenly, everybody was an artist. That door opened—nothing could stop it. People painted everything that did not move. They painted their own bodies. Many perceived themselves as Picassos when stoned, but the next morning their work looked more like a chicken had been scratching, and one not named Picasso. The downside: there was a lot of bad art in those days.
The effect of drugs on the muscic scene? It was circular. To begin with — if there is a beginning here — stoned bands played stone songs to stoned audiences; audiences which then motivated bands to write more stoned songs to play to even more stoned audiences propelling them to greater stoned heights encouraging them to become more and more stoned.
Some of the songs alluded to drugs as in a secret code for a secret society. Some more directly. For there was sober reasoning behind being stoned as well. Bob Dylan sang it: "Well, they'll stone you when you're trying to be so good." (And the counterculture was trying to be so good.) "They'll stone you just like they said they would." (And eventually they said they would by killing students at Kent State.) "But I would not feel so all alone. Everybody must get stoned!"
The band, The Grateful Dead, even named themselves after the condition of this blessed oblivion. My friend, performance artist Laura Farabough's, husband (a Michael....? Was it?), managed the Troubadour back then, so I was there a lot for free and have many stories. The downside: I cannot remember them.
JORDI: Anyway, subcultures never die. And some of the key elements of the hippy philosophy were still much followed in the early 70s: free sex, communal living, social awareness...
PHILOMENE: Yes. Subcultures never die, they just go underground. And they do not grow old. They are forever young. It is their nature. Only the outer skin -- when it becomes fashion, commercialized, institutionalized, does it grow old and die.
The Beat generation and the Hippy counterculture were born under the threat of an atomic bomb. Few thought they would reach adulthood. So the thinking became- 'who needs to prepare for adulthood when you probably won't have one — why not just remain a child'. In the early 70s the emphasis was on free love, not free sex. There is a difference. It was about being naked.
Recall the image in the movie "Woodstock" of naked Hippies bathing in the pond. Imagine naked people today in that same pond. So many naked people today don't really look naked. When they have their clothes off they still look like they have something on - many layers of elaboration until they are perfect.
Recall the image of a naked Yoko Ono and a naked John Lennon on the front and back cover of their record album ["Two Virgins"] recorded after they had spent their first night making love together. In the album Yoko repeats: "We become naked. We become naked. We become naked."
There was the phrase stated by Timothy Leary: "Tune in, turn on, drop out." Actually he believed it was more to 'drop in' to another world; another way of being, but "drop out" sounded better. It was really both: to drop out of "The Establishment" and drop in to another way of living free of its rules. Many did this by joining a commune in search of a society of peace and freedom. Many communes were based on Eastern mysticism which had been introduced to the West by the Beat generation.
In one of those Los Angeles mystical communes, (the Integral Yoga Institute of Indian Swami Satchidananda), they tried to live this ideal of peace and freedom. I recall people spending hours gazing into each other's eyes just loving each other. One day another visiting religious leader arrived with his six packs of beer and suggestions about sex and the next week most were drunk with beer, sex, and mysticism. This was the early 70s of innocence and orgies and an orgiastic innocence. Carole King had been a Yoga teacher there. I'm not sure, but I believe during this period she wrote, "Will you still love me tomorrow?"
The downside of communes: We are a flawed species. Hippies brought to them the poisons (Buddha's term) of our human nature and when allowed to be natural and free, humans were not always peaceful nor did they always allow for another's freedom.
In the communes I saw in Los Angeles and San Francisco, there would be a character who used the situation to invent a power structure around himself. Every commune had at least one of them. The ideal formula of a commune was an ideal formula for a Charlie Manson. Bob Dylan: "Girls in a whirl pool looking for a new fool. Don't follow leaders and watch the parking meters."
The upside of the communes based on Eastern mysticism is that after the confusion and scandals caused by the mix of Eastern Patriarchal hierarchy and American individuality and freedom, Buddhism and Yoga became a silent revolution in our country its influence effecting, among other things, rock star Madonna, and poet / singer Leonard Cohen. (Leonard Cohen actually became a Zen monk, practicing in the mountains above Los Angeles for 30 years.)
Of the Venice Beat poets, the only Zen Buddhists were myself and my late husband John Thomas-- a huge, calm, enormous man whom Charles Bukowski observed "sat in his chair like a Buddha." "I don't get high, I get wide," John would say.
Later, many others in the subculture found they could "catch the vigorous horse of the mind" (Zen saying) -- opening mind, opening body by simply sitting still without the drugs, drink or debauchery. Even Bukowski, with all his drinking and womanizing, at the end of his life was practicing Buddhism.
For she's touched your perfect body with her mind.
Regarding social awareness-- it was real. It was contagious. A large population of the middle class had come to identify with the oppressed. And from this identification a motivation to change America, actually, not so much change — but to take our country back -- return it to its original ideal of liberty and justice for all, and all being equal (race, gender, etc.). The streets were filled with the force of it. And the counter culture managed to make it a fun time with "Happenings" and "Be—ins."
The world will never be the same after the early 70s in America. I recall thinking at that time: "We are not watching history in the making. We are making history!"
JORDI: Could you tell me a bit more about that cultural difference between free love and free sex?
PHILOMENE: You would think I was an authority (or that I thought I was an authority) on free love the way I am talking. I am not. And although I espoused it during the early 70s... well, I am fumbling through fragments of memory and from another cultural time.
I do know this: in the subculture in the early 70s orgies were the norm. They might seem a bit abnormal now, in 2006, but back then, well, even the kitty cats were getting stoned. I must stress that, to me, regarding what I think to be free love and free sex is a matter of emphasis. It is more often not one or the other, but an overlapping. And of course there was always the possibility, while practicing free love, of falling in love, which becomes far more powerful than any amount of free love or free sex no matter what the definition.
To me free sex would be seeing the other as body parts. And to look at them... well, to me it looks like cars copulating. Mechanical. Anonymous flesh. With free love it was both mind and body. There would be a person there.
In the late 60s and early 70s free love connoted multiple sexual partners separately or simultaneously. The orgies would range from personal to impersonal. People would get into orgies with their friends and loved ones, but there were also places where there would be both the known and the anonymous.
I believe (and this is just my observation) that (in the late 60s, early 70s) it began with more with free love but eventually became in the late 70s (I do not know precisely when, it was gradual) free sex. That is my observation from what I see inadvertently on television (inadvertently, because I try to avoid it). It seems that what began as a culture of free love, became a culture of free sex. I don't see people there anymore. Just body parts. I hope it is fine with them.
In the end, many of my generation found that the freest love was the most personal. It was mind, body and heart; a free love that was not sex one time with multiple partners but many times with one-most personal, most free, over and over always as if for the first time opening mind, opening body, opening heart. Just because it may be naïve, doesn't mean it is not true:
John Lennon: "Love is the answer" and "Love is all you need. Love is all you need. Love is all you need. Love is all you need..."
JORDI: The key elements of the hippy way of thinking and living (free sex/love, communal living, social awareness, drugs...), didn't disappear with the death of the environment and were still followed in the early 70s.
PHILOMENE: The hippy way of living was going strong in Venice into 1974. It began to fade a little from 1974 to 1978. Around 1979 Venice became a prize for real estate developers. Venetians fought long and hard (still do) to maintain it as a haven for artists and free spirits, but it has now become (now being so expensive) a movie star heaven.
JORDI: It looks like this return to what was the hippy philosophy wasn't that genuine and true. I mean, some of the people that lived according to these ideas were early yuppies or richer people.
PHILOMENE: YES. And Venice presently is precisely that.
JORDI: This also seems to be true in the artistic community I'm writing about, the singer-songwriters and the musical community in Laurel Canyon. They all took drugs, made orgies, got involved in social activities and dressed like hippies.
PHILOMENE: Yes. Laurel Canyon became a haven for musicians, artists, actors... And there were drugs and orgies, social activities and they dressed like hippies. Joni Mitchell was there in early 70s. I believe she left in mid 70s.
JORDI: But they weren't hippies for sure. What do you think about this? Can I say that Los Angeles had, in the early 70s, a kind of a neo-hippy scene?
PHILOMENE: I cannot label them. But ruminating--- they were more upscale. What happens when the money rolls in? They were definitely leading the lifestyle... but when the money comes... hmmmm.
But I do not like to fall into a "we" verses "them" thinking. In this case, an if you are rich you are bad and if poor you are good attitude. Once when I was walking down the Speedway ally smiling, a man smiled at my smile and said, "Hi." I thought, "That man looks like Eric Clapton. But then a lot of people look like Eric Clapton." Well, it was Eric Clapton. He had just moved in next door. For years my view was the Pacific Ocean and his living room. He is a most beautiful rich singer-song writer person.
A label is like a fashion statement. As any movement evolves, it changes. Sometimes it retains its original spark. Sometimes it does not. Sometimes it can become its opposite. Sometimes when I hear Johnny Rotten sing "I am an Antichrist!" I think that is what Christ would be singing if He returned and started up a rock and roll band.
Doing violence to one's myths includes doing violence to the myths one has created for others because they will be inevitably corrupted. Christ had said, "For those who have ears, let them hear." He knew not everyone, possibly only a few were going to get it. I would like to add that Love (with a capital "L") was a one word motto for hippies. Love for all living things. And there was the "peace sign." It was visually identical to the victory sign (to raise and splay the first two fingers). Only this sign was for peace. Peace for all living things.
I came upon a child of God
He was walking along the road
And I asked him, where are you going
And this he told me
I'm going on down to Yasgur's farm
I'm going to join a rock and roll band
And I'm going to camp out on the land
And try to get my soul free.
I know this "child of God." His name is David Hatch. Even as a grown man he has the look of a newborn. He had been hitchhiking carrying his guitar, along Scenic Route I, the road to Woodstock. A car pulled over. He walked up, opened the back door and jumped in. The driver introduced the passenger as Joni Mitchell. She turned around, put her hands on top of the back of her seat and placed her chin on top of her fingers. Her gaze was so intense and penetrating David had to look away. But her demeanor was very friendly. He had never heard Joni Mitchell's name before so the introduction meant nothing to him. She asked him where he was going, what he was doing? As David answered the questions he felt engulfed by her eyes. In the car on the way to Woodstock her eyes were shinning. Her pupils were the size of quarters from some strong drug she had taken.
He did not know at that time (and should not have known or else it would not have been there), what she saw in his face was to become the face of a generation in a song she wrote which you might say would be an Anthem for the City of Woodstock for those few days.
Here Joni Mitchell's vision:
We are stardust.
We are golden.
And we've got to get ourselves
back to the garden.
Myths must be destroyed to make them new again — to get back to that garden — which is a myth, yes, and at the same time not a myth. It is a state of being. Naked. Utter freedom.
JORDI: It's the last question. I've started feeling bad for asking you too many things...
PHILOMENE: Last question? Then I will ask myself one. "Philomene, do you have anything to say to the present generation?"
PHILOMENE: Yes. I do have one thing to say. Actually it is my late husband John Thomas' words, but I join my voice with his:
I tell you, don't get hung up on anything, but stand above, pass on, and be free.
JORDI: I will.
© Jordi Pujol Nadal - Philomene Long 2006
Ruta 66 (Route 66) Magazine
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