Free Love and Enterprise

Peace and wow will get you an image to sell to tourists, but not fed

I commend Oglesby. It has to be difficult to muster outrage for that sort of thing, given that San Francisco is the company town for co-optation of social protest for commercial gain.

The offending ads are for the Sony PlayStation Portable, a more complex competitor to the iPod, made by Apple Corp., another offender in applying profane commercial gloss to the militant past. Apple, as you may recall, plastered San Francisco four years ago with billboards depicting anti-status quo icons Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. The company supposedly wished us to "think different" by purchasing electronic gewgaws.

And counterculture marketing perfected by Bill Graham, by former Esprit de Corp owners Susie and Doug Tompkins, by their legions of San Francisco peers, now infects merchandising worldwide.

Surely, there's somebody out there who's kept it real.

As it happens, the core, original gangsters of San Francisco's hippie counterculture took extraordinary measures to keep from selling out. Members of the Digger movement, which organized the Golden Gate Park Be-Ins that gained national media attention in 1967, actually took steps to keep it real, according to a recent documentary film, Commune, directed by Jonathan Berman.

Many of the Diggers left the co-opted, commercialized, and corrupted San Francisco scene not long after they launched their movement, then struggled mightily to live according to an anti-materialist and anarchist creed. The film, recently featured at this year's edition of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, chronicles perhaps the most authentic remnant of the 1960s anti-authoritarian ferment that still receives top billing in S.F.'s tour guides. The film documents how members of the 1960s Haight Ashbury Diggers left San Francisco in the 1970s after nationwide media hype, commercialism, heroin, thievery, and psychosis supplanted the Summer of Love.

Described as "street level acid anarchists" by Ken Hoffman in his book Counter Culture Through the Ages, the Diggers organized the Golden Gate Park Be-Ins, published Haight-Ashbury's underground newspaper The Oracle, announced their nonbelief in hoarding possessions by establishing a free store, and gave away free meals in Golden Gate Park.

These weren't the most famous of the 1960s hippie protagonists, the ones who cashed out, such as the Dead, Joplin, Leary, etc. But they were the soul of the San Francisco movement.

According to Hoffman, the Be-In announcement said "a new nation has grown inside the robot flesh of the old," and "the love generation of Haight Ashbury will join together ... to ... celebrate and prophesy the epoch of liberation, love, peace, compassion, and unity of mankind."

After the local ferment soured, Diggers fanned into a diaspora, the most notable of which coalesced onto an isolated plot of land in the Siskiyou Mountains called Black Bear Ranch. Commune describes how the founders scraped money together from donors such as the Doors, the Monkees, and filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni, inviting pioneers who wished to live a communal, "free" life on "free land," escaping the corruption and hypocrisy of commercial society.

The experiment endures. A few years ago an attorney drew up a trust keeping the land in the commune's hands in perpetuity, and residents persist there, living in an adaptation of the original vision.

I have personal recollections of the commune's inhabitants from its founding years, gleaned from my status as the preschool-age son of a sympathetic Methodist pastor in Etna, the town nearest the commune. We once arrived home to find a dozen or so unannounced people bathing, eating, and loitering in our house. They were on a trip into town for, among other things, the feel of soapy warm water on their skin.

"It was like immigrants coming to the East Coast 200 years ago. They had no idea what it would be like going to that ranch. I delivered food there when the snow was crotch deep," Dad recalls. "I had a lot of people there I liked. But what was most reprehensible for me was they were supposed to be so egalitarian, [but] a few people were carrying so much of the weight. They had people who were organized, and others who liked to smoke dope, and pretend they were farming."

Just as many, however, were committed, generous idealists.

Dad recalls storing for a year or so an electric typewriter -- useless at electricity-free Black Bear -- belonging to famous Beat poet Diane di Prima. It seemed like a nice prize until she came to fetch it after her commune stint.

I contacted di Prima, now a San Francisco author, to confirm my father's recollections, which she did.

Also, I wondered if she might share any thoughts about what Black Bear Ranch and the Diggers meant, and whether those years still animate her life, and how a core segment of this city's most famous iconoclastic movement managed to keep it real, without getting co-opted, commercialized, and thrown into question entirely.

Do you have any philosophical insights to share about that period? I asked.

"I'm not going to talk about all that shit. I write books about it," she explained, thus giving voice better than I ever could to San Francisco countercultural tradition, in which sometimes you have to pay to play, and authenticity may be just a state of mind.

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