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.