Stewart Brand doesn’t get out much. Not in public, at least. When I tell him that I’m surprised to see his name on the lineup for the California Historical Society’s 50th Anniversary of the Trips Festival, celebrating a landmark 1966 event which he co-founded, his dry response is trademark Brand: “I am lazy,” he quips, “it’s true.”
“Lazy” is hardly the adjective for Brand in the years since the Trips Festival — a seminal convergence of performance art, psychedelic drugs, live readings by Ken Kesey and the San Francisco debut of the newly-christened Grateful Dead held at the Longshoreman’s Hall over three nights in 1966. Brand famously launched and edited the Whole Earth Catalog, codifying the back-to-the-land movement; he cofounded the WELL, a pioneering online bulletin board system prefiguring the internet as we know it today; and he created the Long Now Foundation, the effort to expand civilization’s thinking beyond the immediate future. (Somewhat controversially, with the Global Business Network, he also advises some of the world’s largest corporations.) In the Bay Area and beyond, Brand has been in the sidelines — if not the spotlight — of movements in science, technology and culture.
Long regarded as the genesis of the Haight-Ashbury era in San Francisco, the Trips Festival was a seed that grew in every direction. Bill Graham, one of its organizers, would go on to transform the rock concert promotions industry. Stanley Owsley, who ran sound and supplied LSD for the festival, would go on to build the template for large-scale live sound. Anna Halprin’s Dancers Workshop, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the Open Theater and the San Francisco Tape Music Center would become pillars in the avant-garde arts community. Nearly everyone involved in the festival, which stands as one of the largest-scale acid tests before LSD was outlawed nine months later, went on to change the cultural landscape.
“I think people were very aware that they were making history,” says Anthea Hartig, executive director of the California Historical Society, which presents three days of anniversary events this week. “They were simultaneously reimagining what it meant to dance, to be, to play music. It was an incredible blurring of lines.”
From his houseboat in Sausalito, Brand spoke with KQED about the festival, its legacy, and the ways it changed his own approach to the world.
You rarely appear in public these days. What made you agree to appear at this event?
It’s local. It’s easy. It’s probably some interesting people. And it is actually 50 years ago that we did the Trips Festival. It seemed important at the time, and in some ways it seems important still. All of that made it easy and attractive.
You’re someone who often thinks about, and talks about, the future. This going to be thinking and talking about the past — 50 years ago. How does it feel to look back?
Well, the Long Now Foundation, where I am President and have been mainly occupied for the last 20 years — we are focused on continuity. The Trips Festival was a continuity event. It was kind of a transitional event from one period of art in the Bay Area to another period. A lot of what it was expressing then is, I think, still very present — certainly in Burning Man, and in certain relationships that artists have to each other, and, increasingly, that engineers have to each other in the Bay Area. The interaction of engineers and artists, there was a certain amount of it at the Trips Festival and there’s certainly a lot more now. It’s part of the Bay Area’s ongoing contribution to culture and society.
You mentioned Burning Man. What other things grew out of the ideology at the Trips Festival?
I think one of the main things is the idea of no spectators. The idea that an audience shows up to a certain kind of event expecting to do something, not just to see something. Raves came on through that. People came to the Trips Festival in outfits, and stoned, and prepared to dance. There was not much seating in Longshoreman’s Hall. There was a great big floor with scaffolding in the middle, where Ken Kesey and Ken Babbs and I were dangling. That floor was always filled with people doing stuff. It was at its best when the Grateful Dead, newly named the Grateful Dead, were playing. That’s why we did a reprise Sunday night of their amazing show on Saturday night.
Did you go on to be a fan of the Grateful Dead?
Friends with [them]. I went to several of their concerts and got to know the band pretty well. Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and the Grateful Dead were tightly bound along with Wavy Gravy and the Hog Farm. That was a cadre that I rode with for a while.
I’m interested in the ways in which the festival laid the groundwork for the WELL, which, like the festival, seemed to be a great experiment in connecting people. The Trips Festival was also a giant LSD experiment, with people being able to see connections that weren’t readily apparent to most people. Was it the ability to see those connections that laid the groundwork for the idea of the WELL?
I am not sure that there is a psychedelic connection or not. The psychedelic thing mainly was a signifier that one was part of a certain cohort, of a certain body of people who were of a certain age, who got to know each other. It was social in that sense. As a drug, I think it’s probably not as social as Ecstasy, or MDMA — which I haven’t tried, but its reputation is highly social. The formula I was working on with public events and with the WELL is that you collect a bunch of interesting in the same place at the same time, and then turn up the flame — such that they mix more rapidly, and their budding emotion is more intense. It’s just the basic formula of how you make a good party. I’m not a party animal. But maybe because of that, if there is going to be a party that I am involved in, I want to make sure it’s overwhelming.
You yourself didn’t have any grand revelations while on LSD, visualizing the whole schematic of the internet before your eyes or anything like that?
No, the grand revelation I had with LSD was that seeing the Earth from space would change everything. That was actually shortly after a Trips Festival, so I imagine there’s that connection. It was spring of 1966, and we had been in space for 10 years, and nobody had taken a photograph of the Earth, not the Russians or Soviets as they were then, nor us. I saw that button: “Why Haven’t We Seen a Photograph of the Whole Earth Yet?” That was purely a low-dosage LSD afternoon in North Beach.
How do you feel about the idea of the “hippie-to-tech pipeline”? Biopics of Steve Jobs, for example, that focus on his mind expansion and how it turned into his technological ideas later. Is that characterization of early tech correct in your estimate?
Stuff that happens to somebody in their twenties is going to be formative, no matter what. For lots of people it’s travel. They work in the Peace Corps and that’s who they are. Their first amazing job establishes their sense of what’s possible. And psychedelic drugs were new, so they were unique to us. They were indeed potent, and led to revelations and occasions. Maybe more occasions than revelations. In any case, they were definitely formative in the case of Steve Jobs. The couple of times that he and I talked, we would reminisce about acid trips.
You say it brought more occasions than revelations. What do you mean by that?
The occasions that… From ’66 on, LSD was illegal and marijuana was illegal. I never actually bought dope in my life; it was always given to me. There was a lot of sort of handing around of this contraband. So it was necessarily underground, and necessarily a kind of trust connection. A lot of people got started in business being young entrepreneurial drug dealers who went on to great things later on in other businesses. There was this medium of exchange that we were all engaged in. I think it was consequential.
As far as specific snapshots go, when you think of the Trips Festival today, what memories come immediately to mind?
I guess my favorite moment is the one that I designed, in which I hired an Olympic-level gymnast named Dan Millman. I think it was in the peak of weirdness on Saturday. We dragged a trampoline that I borrowed from San Francisco State College out into the middle space in Longshoreman’s Hall and set up a series of linked strobes around it. And then suddenly, from the balcony, he comes diving through the air in a ski mask, lands on the trampoline and proceeds to go up and up and up doing Olympic-level triple somersaults and multiple twists and whatnot. All with the flash-flash-flash of the strobe lights, and with people standing around wondering if what they were seeing was there in the world or there in their mind, and they were sort of checking with each other: “Do you see what I see?”
He did a beautiful performance, which can’t have been easy with a strobe light and a ski mask on. He did enough of those to blow your mind. Then he snuck off into the crowd and we removed the trampoline and that was that. I paid him $50, I think.
Getting people together and turning up the flame.
Yeah, and that was turning up the flame. People were doing it for each other in various ways. The Grateful Dead, it was one of their earliest big audiences. They developed that capability of feeding off the juice in the audience with the kind of heterodyne effect. They went back and forth, and it got pretty ecstatic in there.
When you see those photos and videos, do you recognize the Stewart Brand that’s in them?
Yeah, if anything, there’s too much continuity in me. I’m still in the Bay Area after all these years, still know a lot of the same people. I’m engaged in various forms of scientific but still somewhat artistic endeavors with other people, doing those same things. To me I just see a guy with more hair.
You have changed in some ways, though. Specifically, in your book Whole Earth Discipline, you advocate not only for a back-to-the-city approach, but for nuclear power and GMOs. Some people saw this as a flip-flop or a betrayal; others even accused you of corporate propaganda for clients of your Global Business Network. What was your reaction to those accusations?
Annoyance. It’s so damn lazy when you disagree with something to claim that person must be a shill for some other thing that you disapprove of. That particular book is, I think, one of my two best books. It was treated as such in England. It got reviewed everywhere, and very favorably, and got fabulous blurbs from all the heavyweights. In this country it didn’t get reviewed basically anywhere. Not even the San Francisco Chronicle or the New York Times or any of the places you might expect to see a former National Book Award Winner’s new groundbreaking book to be reviewed. There was kind of a boycott, a shunning that occurred. In one way, I suppose one can be flattered: “Well, this is far-out enough that people are actually shunning it.” In another, I’m just annoyed that not enough people are reading it to know if it’s worth shunning or not.
When you think about the Trips Festival and the community of people around it, and then where you are now and specifically with that book, is it uncomfortable to engage with the counterculture community again?
God, no. Sorry, I’m a hippie. You know, Steve Jobs probably said he was a hippie. He was a master of the universe, but he was also a hippie and still went barefoot when he could. That’s my tribe. I’m still in it.
Even though some of your ideas run counter to what that movement has long held dear?
Look, the Whole Earth Catalog was a counter-counterculture phenomenon. One of the hippie characteristics was a very powerful romantic engagement, a personal subjective engagement with the world, which kind of eschewed the engineering/technological/scientific approach to things. As a result, you had communes that could not function because they couldn’t finish the dome and make it leak-proof, and they couldn’t make the garden actually grow food. And so the Whole Earth Catalog, in a way that accessed tools, was pure Buckminster Fuller. Tools are more important than anything else in terms of enabling things. I had no politics in there; very little art, actually. It was an enlightenment publication in a romantic period. Being counter-countercultural is my mode, I guess.
Stewart Brand appears Friday, Jan. 22, at The 1960s Revisited: A 50th Anniversary Celebration at Obscura Digital in San Francisco, presented by the California Historical Society. Details here.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.