After 50 years, Peter Coyote still hasn’t changed his opinion on the Summer of Love.
“It was crap,” the 75-year-old Coyote says. “Who cares?”
Coyote’s talked a lot about the ’60s this past year — in case you hadn’t heard, it’s the Summer of Love’s 50th anniversary — and to hear Coyote tell it, the experience has been miserable. Cable news channels and other organizations have “dragged” Coyote “out of the old hippie diorama to talk,” and they rarely discuss the revolutionary ideas he helped germinate with the radical theater group the Diggers. Instead, “all they wanted was the fashions, the rock and roll posters, and the music,” he says.
“I went to the deYoung show, which I narrated, and it was an embarrassment,” Coyote adds. “There were a lot of people who were putting their lives on the line to make change, and you would think everyone was just going to rock and roll shows and wearing bellbottom pants.”
But at least one project this year focuses on what was “really important” to Coyote in the 1960s: Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War. The 18-hour long documentary series, which Coyote narrates, examines in detail the history of the conflict, its causes, and its impact on both Americans and the Vietnamese. And when Coyote looks back at his work with the Diggers, fighting the causes of the Vietnam War was at the heart of it.
“It wasn’t trying to be ‘radical,'” Coyote says today. “It was trying to get people to understand that the core organizing principle of American culture was profit and private property, and that led directly to the war in Vietnam.”
Confronting the War
In 1961, Coyote — then a student at Grinnell College — joined 11 other classmates on a trip to Washington D.C., where they held a three-day hunger strike against the continued testing of nuclear weapons. The protest caught the attention of then-President John F. Kennedy, who invited the group to visit the White House — the first time a picketing group received such an invitation from a president, according to Coyote.
At the time, Kennedy was in Arizona, so they met with McGeorge Bundy, a special advisor to the president.
“We had gone to Washington thinking we had brought information from the field to the White House. We were going to tell them what young people were thinking,” Coyote said. “I’m sitting in front of Bundy, and I realize that we are nothing to him. We are a problem for his president, and we needed to be solved.”
Coyote adds, “I realized the only way I was going to get this guy’s attention was to come back with an army. Two years later, I thought the counterculture was going to be that army.”
After graduating from Grinnell, Coyote moved to San Francisco to study under the poet Robert Duncan at San Francisco State University. But he didn’t stay in school for long, as the counterculture and his acting with the guerilla theater group the San Francisco Mime Troupe became his focus.
No longer a student, Coyote was called in for a military service exam in order to be drafted for Vietnam. He had applied for conscientious objector status, and even offered to be a medic, but those appeals were rejected. It looked like Coyote was going to war.
Except that by then, Coyote was an experienced actor.
“I actually pretended I was completely sane,” Coyote says. “I insisted that I would do whatever they wanted — rape, looting, killing — but I would keep what I caught.”
His performance convinced the military service examiners that he was unfit for duty, and so Coyote went back to theater in the park instead of war in a far-off land. Today, Coyote says he would’ve fought for his country, but only if it was the one being invaded.
“We invaded Vietnam. People forget that,” Coyote said.
During the late ’60s, Coyote traveled all over the nation causing a ruckus with the San Francisco Mime Troupe’s brand of free, outdoor “guerilla theater.” In 1967, still using the last name Cohon (he adopted the name Coyote after peyote trip), he co-wrote and starred in a short play called Olive Pits, based on a 16th-century commedia that Coyote updated to reflect the Vietnam War and other current events. The play was a hit, receiving rave reviews and winning the troupe its first OBIE Award from the Village Voice.
But Coyote became dissatisfied with theater, even with the guerrilla theater the San Francisco Mime Troupe staged.
“It felt too safe to be on a stage where you can control everything,“ Coyote said.
Coyote and six others splintered off and formed the Diggers, an anarchist collective determined to incite change through theater. But instead of staging plays, the Diggers hosted events with subliminal messages. For example, they gave away free food, but in order to be fed, one had to walk through a large yellow square called “Free Frame of Reference.”
“It was like a ceremony. You stepped through it and imagined yourself in a world with free food,” Coyote said.
The point of the Free Frame of Reference and later, the Free Store, was to show others what the world could be like if everything was free. Such experiments saw the Diggers not only rebelling against capitalism, but the political tactics of the established left wing.
“We challenged ourselves and others to imagine a world that we’d like to live in, and then make it real,” Coyote said. “We felt that if people had a life that they liked, they might be willing to defend it. They were not going to throw themselves on the barricades because they read Mao’s little red book.”
The Diggers evolved into the Free Family, which established a series of communes that reached from Northern California to the Pacific Northwest, and throughout the Southwest. Coyote says he loved those days, even though they subsisted on little — he averaged about $2,500 a year, and much of the commune’s funds came from welfare. But everyone seemed to do their part in terms of chores and other responsibilities, the entertainment came from board games and being with each other, and the group learned it didn’t need much to be happy. For Coyote, it was “a wonderful life.”
“It was the perfect confluence of living the life your art described,” Coyote said. “If I didn’t need health insurance, I would still be living on a commune.”
But it couldn’t last, especially after commune members began having children. Coyote says that those with families came to resent the free spirits who wanted to hang around getting high all day. And when conflicts arose, those in the commune didn’t have the tools to resolve them. In the end, members began separating themselves from the rest of the group.
“What we learned is that we are the problem. We grew up in this culture, with bad habits, impulses, egoism, selfishness and everything else. We could pretend we didn’t but it wasn’t actually true,” Coyote said. “We were so intent on building a new world, we didn’t concentrate as fully as we should’ve on building our lives.”
In 1978, Coyote returned to theater, which led to a successful acting career — he’s since been in over 70 films, including blockbusters like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Erin Brockovich.
He also began a fruitful career in voice work, which has led him to become the go-to voice for documentarians such as Alex Gibney and Ken Burns. Burns and Coyote started worked together in 1992 on the documentary The West, which Burns produced. Coyote has gone on to narrate nine of Burns’ documentaries.
The Vietnam War, Burns’ newest series, is already being hailed as his best yet. Coyote narrated all 18 hours of the documentary, and he says that while working on it, “there was a lot of re-living.”
“I was amazed how passionately my memories and feelings about the war came up,” Coyote said.
He also had a major discovery from the series: that the North Vietnamese weren’t the good guys Coyote assumed they were back when he was protesting the war.
“People had all these romantic ideas about the VietCong and the Viet Minh. Well, those guys were just as bad as our guys,” Coyote said. “They were murdering civilians over ideological disputes, and burying them alive because they didn’t want to waste bullets.”
Even though Coyote can admit that he was wrong in some ways, he remains angry that the work of the counterculture was later portrayed in the media as a failure. He blames Reagan-era conservatives for shutting down surpluses and doing all they could to ensure that a left-wing counterculture never saw prominence again.
“It’s true that the free lifestyle is unsustainable, but it doesn’t mean you have to give up your values. Most of our kids became nurses, healers, doctors, and environmentalists, and I’m really proud of them,” Coyote says.
To see more stories and photographs from KQED’s series about the impact of the Vietnam War on the Bay Area and other communities in California, visit kqed.org/vietnamwar.