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Peter Coyote

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Peter Coyote is an author, actor, director, screenwriter, and activist. Coyote is also a narrator for his own films and for a plethora of other events including the 2002 Winter Olympics and various Historic films. He graduated from Grinnell College with a Bachelor's degree in English Literature and attended California State University for a Master's degree in Creative Writing.


McKiernan Interviews
Interview with: Peter Coyote
Interviewed by: Stephen McKiernan
Transcriber: Benjamin Mehdi So
Date of interview: 22 July 2010

(Start of Interview)

SM: First question I want to ask is, you were still, you are recognized as one of the most well-known counterculture leaders in the late (19)60s and (19)70s. And I have several questions linked to that. Why did the counterculture and the activist boomers linked to the multiple movements of the time not succeed in changing society for the better? One of the things that even I recognized when I was a college student is that many of the boomers thought they were going to change the world for the better they were going to end war, bring peace, end racism, sexism, homophobia, all the isms that were just going to make the world a better place to live and save the environment and actually truly make a difference in the world to. I do not think they did that. What is your thoughts on the counterculture?

PC: Well, first of all, let-

SM: Please speak up to-

PC: Let us dismiss the idea that I was anyone's leader. I was part of an anarchic gang that did not recognize leaders, tried to be authentic, and we tried to follow our own counsel. So, I can speak as that I cannot really speak as elite. But the counterculture aspirations they talk about, were simply part of a long line of American reform. I mean, there has been reforming as long as there has been America. And while it is true, that the counterculture failed, and all of its political goals, it succeeded in every single one of its cultural goals. And by that, I mean, we did not end war, we did not end racism, we did not end imperialism, and capitalism, that, fair enough. I can also say that there is no place in America, you cannot go today and buy organic food, find a women’s movement finding in for metal movement, find alternative medical movements, find alternative spiritual practices, yoga, Siddhanta, [inaudible] Buddhism, you name it. So those were all direct outgrowth of the six that we succeeded in that so far beyond our wildest dreams. That was changes have become ubiquitous and invisible. And it is my belief, actually the culture, Trumps politics, that in the long run the way people live every day, Trump their ideas about political system? So, I do not, I do not chalk this all up as a failure by any means. Now, your question was, why did we fail? Well, failed for a number of reasons. One is that the idea of a counterculture in itself is a failure. It condemns you to mark formation. And we as being members of counterculture, we missed the opportunity to organize and gage relationship with a lot of people who did not want their kids around long hair and drugs and free sex, and all sorts of wholesale experiment. They just wanted a fair deal out of the economy out of this. And we missed those people. So today, if I were going to create a radical magazine, you know, I would never have I would never have a marijuana leaf or anything countercultural on it at all, I would make it look this like time in life. So that is one reason we fail. The other reason we fail is that we brought all of the problems of growing up in the (19)50s with us, just because we thought that we were against a lot of the mistakes that are fake that our parents made did not mean that we are absolved from the consequences. In other words, if you think that your parents were sexually repressive, and you decide that the cure to that problem is sexual license and absolute freedom. Well, you have created a whole bunch of problems. Have not really ever really solved any just shifted from the left and the right. And thirdly, because we were concentrating on great revolutionary goals, we were not concentrating so much on kind of interpersonal dialogue and requirements that are needed to live together. So, we did not have very developed vocabularies of interpersonal relationship. You know, if I wake up in the morning, and I like to wash my face in a clean sink, and you do not care if it is a greasy pit where you wash your hands after you have just dismantled an engine, there is no revolutionary philosophy I can, I can write, as a cause for authority as to why you should clean the sink. So things like that. And then finally, the emergence of children created pressure, all of our ideas that were not fully thought out, or were not, you know, humanly sound and the communal system per se, fell apart. But that is not to say that we traded in our values for our beliefs. We are still connected as family. My daughter and her children share friends that she grew up with, are now mothers, very self-consciously a part of that world and its history. So we look this like everybody else today with that thing. That means we can all work, but do not the culture and myriad places do not buy, what we do with our lives is immediately translated by other people. So that is the long answer. But I think it is a pretty complete answer.

SM: Yeah, I have asked a lot of people that I have interviewed, particularly in the last half of people I have interviewed to define the term counterculture, a lot of people have come up with different terms. But what-what most of them have said, it is more than just being different from the mainstream. My basically, what my question is, is counterculture culture, more than being different from the mainstream, having long hair, wearing bell bottoms and colorful clothes, taking drugs, living in communes, having sex with multiple partners, of course, the pill played a part of that, where religion went to new spirituality, and where one does not have to go to church and a feeling of more meditation than before. Are those all the definitions and what the counterculture was? Or is it much more?

PC: Well, they are not definitions, their descriptions. I think the short thing to answer was, for those of us who felt that the system of the United States and capitalism was crumbling over internal contradiction, we were going to try to create a parallel structure and parallel institutions that would offer people refuge, I guess the thing fell apart. So do that we had to do a lot of experiments. We did not know how to live. We did not know what rules were worth following and what were not. I mean, a law is in agreement with a stop sign up on the street corner. But if people do not honor it, it is not a law. So, we began looking at everything that created a system that we did not like the system based on profit and private property, enhanced by racism, turning the planet and some fodder for profit. We did not like it. So we began to try to invent one from whole cloth and you make a lot of mistakes when you reinvent the wheel.

SM: Around that time in the (19)70s, when you were out there in California with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, which I saw, and I thought they were great. I lived in the Bay Area from (19)76 to (19)83. So I know about Golden Gate Park and I missed San Francisco so bad. I may end up moving back up there one day, but one of the things about that particular time while I was in graduate school, there were several books that came out and I-I want to know what books may have influenced you. The two books that I am referring to that were very popular in college campuses around (19)69 to (19)73 was Charles Reich's Greening of America. And the making of a counterculture by Theodore Roszac. And I want to know if you have ever read either one of those two?

PC: No, I never read either one of those two books that the books that I read that really kind of turned me around. One was called life against death by Norman O. Brown. One was the entire Don Juan series by Carlos Castaneda. The other was called the Three Pillars of Zen by Philip Kapleau. And what was Alan Watts Famous?

SM: Well, he did a book called Zen. Yeah, I have that.

PC: Those were the books that most influenced me.

SM: Did you read any of the beat writings to from the mid (19)50s on?

PC: Lots of it. when I was in college, my bible was a book called New American poetry 1945 to 1960, edited by Donald Allen, published by Grove Press, and me and my friends just ate that book up. And one of the reasons I came to San Francisco was to study poetry with Robert Duncan, University of San Francisco's creative writing department.

SM: What is what role did the beats play in shaping the or being the precursors of the of the (19)60s? I say this because there is a question that I will be asking you later, you do not have to answer it now is, when did the (19)60s begin? And I have only had two people that told me that they felt the (19)60s began with the beats, your thoughts on how important the beat writers were. And of course, Ginsburg goes through the entire era from the-the whole period, he goes right up to the very end, where some of the other ones have passed on, very early. But what role did they play in shaping the attitudes of not only maybe many members of the counterculture, but many members in the new left, and the activist students of the (19)60s and (19)70s?

PC: Well, you know, when the when the Beats were coming up, I was a young man, I was 12, 13 years old. And it was I was starting to get interested to then folk music. And folk music was one of the vehicles that kind of took you off the bourbon sidewalk and into the kind of trackless wilderness of Bohemia. You started hearing music that sounded more authentic voices, stories, histories that were more authentic. And when you got out there, like Greenwich Village and Washington Square Park, and the place where music was being made. You also met older, Bohemians, and Beatnik. And you got turned on to literature. So, these guys were the first kind of formative adult, other than jazz musicians I would ever meet, who were kind of guides and intellectual mentors. So they were very, very important. And, I mean, preeminent among them, for me is Gary Snyder. Yes, who was not only remained one of my closest friends to this day, but also kind of informal Zen teacher and a mentor and a whole number of ways. Same for Michael McClure. Same Lou Welt was my roommate, Gregory Corso was a later roommate. Wow. Ellen Ginsburg was a friend. So these guys were, you know, sort of the first. First representatives of wisdom that I ran into.

SM: Do-do you, a word that is very important. Oftentimes, when you talk about people and what they do, and the perceptions that other people have of them, the perception that I have always felt is they were truly genuine. It was not a putt on. It was, it was a real engine just to make publicity. That was who they were it would you agree with that?

PC: Oh, without a doubt. I mean, anybody who would guess that this was all a canard for publicity, is really reflecting their own shabbiness of character. These people were making trenching and deep and the observed critiques of the culture, which was beginning to be corporatized and standardized. And there was there was a lot to criticize.

SM: One of the things I always ask of each guest is, how did you become who you are? I read your whole background. I know your whole biography. I have read the book. And-

PC: You read on book you read the story of how I became Peter Coyote.

SM: But I mean in in your own voice. [chuckles] The basic question I am asking is, what were the greatest influences in your life in your life’s path that if you were to look at from the day you were born till today, are there two or three or four major happenings that really shaped you with respect to who you are?

PC: Well, yeah, one of which was being raised by a black woman, from the time I was two until I was about 13. And she and her friend’s kind of took over our house, my mother had a nervous breakdown, she was unable to care for me. My father was away working. And this very brilliant young woman just kind of took over the household in a very beneficent way, gave me safety and structure and by traveling with her friend, and I got a whole look at a nonwhite world. Saved me from being a white man, I mean I am Caucasian, but I am not a white [inaudible] men. And so that was a huge introduction to kind of, you know, the life of people who were invisible to disenfranchise, I witnessed, you know, 100s of little insults and things that I would never have seen if she had not been like, my mother, and I was not so observant of watching the way people treated her. So that was a huge and formative influence. We are still close day. I am writing a book about her. I talk to her all the time.

SM: Oh, when that is coming out?

PC: I do not know. I am still writing. Okay. So there was that the second one was meeting the world of jazz musician, through a bass player named Buddy Jones, who was Charlie Parker's roommate for three years in Kansas City. And buddy with became a close friend of my dad, and he brought all of these great musicians to our house to play up in the country, out calm and do Sims and Irby green and Bob Dorough and just lots of them. And buddy became and I met these people and saw them when I was about eight or nine years old. And they were the first adults I have ever seen who loved what they did. I knew right then that that is what I want. I did not have the talent to become a jazz musician, which is what I would do if I had any ability to do that. There is nothing else I would rather do. But running around with Buddy, and he took me to hear Billy holidays last concert in (19)92. He introduced me to Miles Davis when I was in, wow. traveled around took me to it. I spent all of my birthdays at the half note, a club in New York on Spring Street. From the Time I was about 12 to 18 when I left home. And, you know, I heard everybody heard Charlie Mingus John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, not only that, heard him with a guy who knew how to listen. That was a huge introduction into the life of an artist. And then, there were a lot of political people in my family. A lot of communists and socialists and left wingers. My dad used to play chess with Leo Huberman and Paul Sweezy, the editors of the Monthly Review. My mother's cousin, Irving Adler was the first man fired in the New York City public school system for being a communist. My mother was the secretary of the Englewood Urban League. And so I grew up in this rich broth of political debate and dialogue. My dad was a capitalist. And so some combination of sort of growing up under the tutelage of black people and hearing learning white political theory. I would say were the two formative and also something about the community of outsiders, which is what jazz musicians were in those days. That kind of formed my whole worldview.

SM: That is interesting. I am a big jazz fan. My brother in law just passed away and he was a jazz performer in the Bay Area for quite a few years before he moved back East. They played with a group called they actually performed at Henry's at the top in San Francisco, which was they were Casey and Angel and Craig was the drummer and the whole mess of the jazz guys came out to San Francisco in (19)73, (19)74. And then they many of them are still out there, Ray Lockley, King Koi whole group of them.

PC: Well, I used to be a drummer, I studied drums with Cozy Cole- Was a great jazz drummer in the (19)40s (19)50s, Big Band drummer.

SM: You know, they always you know, what they always say yeah, Peter about jazz musicians, is they-they grew beyond rock they had the experience of rock, a lot of them did. And then they went on to the next phase, which was jazz, which was improvisation and really the ability to be creative and to be your own person. And I am, it is-

PC: Oh, I mean, these guys were there before there was rock. Mm hmm. You know, I mean, they began, you know, these guys were out there in the (19)30s and (19)40s. They these were just world class artists. And, you know, data they are not they do not owe their genesis to rock and roll, right? I am so tired of the self-importance of rock and roll like a cute.

SM: Yeah, one of the things in San Francisco Mime Troupe is historic. And you were one of the not only directed it, but one of the leaders of the group. One of the questions I want to ask is about the whole issue of guerrilla theater, how important I do not know a whole lot about it. But when I was in college guerrilla theater was very important on college campuses, because out of nowhere, she would see these people come into the student union. And they would talk and do these little skits about the Vietnam War or civil rights, or, you know, what was happening in the world. And they come you never knew they were coming, and then they just leave. And I did not know how much how important the San Francisco Mime Troupe may have been in being the inspiration for these things on college campuses of Do you know?

PC: I think they were; I think the word guerrilla theater was coined in the San Francisco mime Troupe. And, you know, we, what can I say we were revolutionary Theatre Company. And we were trying to invent modes of performance and places to perform that were appropriate to what we were talking about.

SM: What-what was the actual goal was it to inspire people to think, beyond their everyday lives to make changes, or, you know-

PC: I have changed my thinking about that. But when we were younger, I think that we were following as re-found edict that the artist is the antenna of the race. That leads to a kind of arrogance. In other words, we thought we knew what was going on, it was our job to tell everybody else. But if you look at that for even five minutes, that that does not hold up. The truth is that everybody knew what was going on. They sense that it comes up on the planet itself. And the artists are the ones who can articulate. But if the audience has done not know what was going on, they would not find what you did funny or amusing or entertaining. They would not understand it. So, what they appreciate why they clap, and holler is because you are articulating something they feel but they cannot put words. So, you know, but I think our job was to try to explain issues clearly. Break them down into kind of bytes of understanding so that they would be they can be analyzed clearly. And hopefully that that would lead people to action.

SM: Do you think that the-the so-called status quo in San Francisco there is- remember reading there your book or some of the information I saw on the web that the artist liberation from that was very important around the time San Francisco Minecraft was trying to perform, or being prevented from performing at various locations that it was a threat to the status quo? And that was why there was such resistance.

PC: Oh, I suppose so. I mean, everything. I mean, I had to laugh. Years later, when I read about how paranoid Richard Nixon was about the counterculture. You know, we could not have overthrown a-a frosty free. Our intention was that, and I guess paranoid people take that, seriously. Yeah, we were, we were fighting the status quo. And they resisted with what they had available. The police-

SM: What I really liked about the mime troop and the gorilla theater in the Bay Area that she talked about and were part of is the fact that people could see it, and he did not have to have money. And in living in the Bay Area and going to theater there. I know how expensive it is and to be able to have artists who understand the people and that a lot of people do not have the money to go see these very expensive plays or, or entertainment acts. It was really way ahead of its time.

PC: Yeah, well, I mean, that was part and parcel of going to where the people were right. And it was also something essentially honest because if-if people do not like you, they are not going to pay.

SM: Right. Quick question now Grinnell College is a very prestigious school. I am a- my whole career has been in higher ed. And I am curious as to how you picked it.

PC: I did not pick it. I, I sort of was told by my guidance counselor that I was going to go there. I had already been in jail for trying to bring a lot of marijuana across the border. And you know, I thought I was going to go to Harvard or reed or one of these photos. And she said, no-no-no, I think I think you will go to Grinnell, and it turned out to have been an inspired choice for me. I did really well.

SM: You were President of Student Government. Yeah. And then what is really impressive is the experience you had in Washington where that organizing those massive protests that was, I think you had and just mailing out all the literature about it and think you had about 25,000 people there. Could you talk a little bit about this first mass demonstration and President Kennedy's response, and you are meeting the President? And I believe it was some forget the guy's name, McGeorge Bundy.

PC: Yeah, it was getting a little ahead. So, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, we thought the, we thought the world was going to end. And a bunch of us thought that banning college and class was counterproductive. And so, we organized a group of 12 people to go to Washington to do a three-day hunger strike and protest the resumption of nuclear testing and support Kennedy's geese rate. And we were pretty skillful about that. And so we got there, and Kennedy was in Phoenix. But he saw us on the sidewalk, supporting his peace race, and he gave instructions that we were to be invited in. And it was the first time in the history of the White House that any picketers had ever been invited in White Mountain, and that made national headlines. So because of that, we mimeograph those headlines, we duplicated those headlines. And we sent them around to every college in the United States. And it was after that, that the first student demonstration in Washington took place in February, I think of (19)63. So, they were different events. And I cannot, I cannot fully say that we created that. But I can say that we were certainly a part of it. And it was certainly a big kick off to the student movement.

SM: What was it like being on a college campus between 1960 and (19)64? This was kind of before all the-the anti-war movement was started in the (19)66, (19)67 was a kind of dead at Grinnell except for these activities you were involved in?

PC: Well, no there was a lot of stuff going on. And but you know, you have to distinguish sort of between before November 1963, and after November because once Kennedy was killed, suddenly there was a whole new whole new climate feeling. Things got really serious. But there was lots of political ferment. I cannot say it was dull. No, we were doing lots of political stuff. And there were student convention, you know, political conventions. Matter of fact, in sort of protest of the war at Bucknell college students’ convention. Kennedy was president Then and I actually got the convention to not nominate him. Going to nominate Hubert Humphrey, good at politic, and the dean of the college, put his foot down and intervene. Not going to be the only college in the United States that insult the sitting president. So that was sort of a political lesson right there about how much power it has.

SM: Do you remember exactly where you were? When you heard John Kennedy was assassinated? Could you explain?

PC: Yeah I do. I was going to lunch in one and the women's dorm at Grinnell at the name of the dorm but and a woman came running out to come here, listen. And I went in and started listening to the radio with her. And we heard about it.

SM: Were you like a lot of the people just watch TV that whole weekend? Yeah. You see how it is all shot? Yep. So many people did. Thanks. I want to, I asked a couple of people. Can you remember the two announcers that were present? One was NBC and one was CBS and they both passed on. Do you remember who?

PC: I mean, I have I have all that on tape. I do not. I do not remember who they were. But I remember their tan suit for you know, yep, I was serious at all. Look, and they were smoking. Interesting.

SM: What I am getting back to you lived in a commune for a while in the Bay Area, you had a specific community were involved in what were the pluses of living in the commune? And what were the negatives? And I guess that is the question.

PC: Well, the pluses of living in a commune were-were and remain that. It was cheaper, that you had many more people to divide up the rent. So you needed to make less money. And it was also fun. That was like being in a big, like in a dorm with all your friends.

SM: What was a typical day like, I would like to do that. Were you responsible each week of preparing certain number of meals, what duties you had been able to stay there?

PC: Well, nothing really, people kind of did what they wanted. It was not too later that that things have to get a little more organized when children came along. But at that time, we just needed a place to crash and sleep.

SM: You went on the road with a show called the minstrel show civil rights and cracker.

PC: Civil Rights in a cracker-cracker barrel.

SM: What was the message of the play? Why did people react negatively? And why was it banned is several colleges.

PC: Well, we were arrested, it was closed, because it was basically it was basically a look at race relations from a black revolutionary perspective. And it was also very funny and very battle logical and race was a very charged issue, and they could we made it easy for them to, you know, get distracted by talking about the-the dirty jokes and the foul language. But the real reason people were upset was because of the kind of political point of view basically came right out of Malcolm X's book.

SM: I mean, the autobiography of Malcolm X. Yeah. Look, college, you know, did the students book you and then they were told that you had you could not arrive, or you could not show up or what?

PC: Well, it depends where you are talking about in many places that happened. That happened in Canada where we were arrested. Some students turned to us in for laughing in the-the bathroom, they assumed we were on drugs. And we were not, and the police came, and they say, they searched our luggage, and they found some old marijuana seed, in the sock in the base of somebody's shoe, one of our technical guys. And they arrested him and the school canceled the show, and we held a big rally. And we pointed out that we have been hired by the students up this pool. And in the middle of that rally, they came in and pull the plug on the microphone and arrested two of the faculty members who were sitting on stage supporting us, I guess, because they had beards. We overlooked the six-foot six-inch, one eyed black guy and a six foot long stocking cap sitting next to them. We had to run away and get out of there and because we needed to make money to get on to the next gig and we were arrested and there was a long story. its told pretty clearly in my book. Yeah, and-

SM: Yeah, well what is, what is amazing thing is that being an administrator has worked on college campuses for over 30 years. Even in recent years there has been people where universities have done that, not to your groups like u but for speakers. And a whole battle over freedom of speech and the rights of students to bring a speaker still goes on and on. So what does the word digger mean?

PC: Well, the diggers were a seventeenth century group started by English pamphlets here called Gerard when family w y m f t l n e y. And they were a protest for when the it 18, I think it was Oliver Cromwell. Yeah, no, that was Cromwell was seventeenth century.

SM: Please speak up.

PC: I am trying to remember when Oliver Cromwell, what century he was. I said seventeenth century but yeah, he was just he was seventeenth century. Anyway. So what happened was the king of England took over the common where people graze their sheep. And King wanted to raise his own sheep or his woolen mill, his new woolen mill. So, they took the people's land and the people fought back on this guy [inaudible]. And they were the first people to take a position against private property. And they were called the diggers, because every morning they were seen bearing burying their dead. So we named ourselves after them. And the diggers were our kind of anarchist alternative to, you know, young communists and socialists, we-we did not want to be, you know, artists performing plays about heroic bus drivers and elevator operators. We wanted to live in a culture where we could be authentic. And we did not want to be subjugated from you know, centralized ideology. So, we created this movement. And when we did everything without money, we did everything anonymously, figuring that if you were not getting either rich or famous from it, you probably meant it.

SM: Yeah, it was. It was free medical care; I think in the summer (19)67. Because the Summer of Love, very historic event in Golden Gate Park and actually in the whole San Francisco area was, was big. And I know you had the free medical care and free housing free food for the runaways.

PC: Yeah, we fed about 600 people a day in the in the park. Wow. And we had lots of people at our free medical-medical clinic. It was pretty interesting time.

SM: Now the, in your own words, the Summer of Love, Scott McKenzie, that song that came out? Are you going to you know that one out? Are you going to San Francisco. I mean, a lot of people did not go out to San Francisco when they heard that song. Or it was an inspiration. But can you define what, whose idea was the summer of love? And then the second this in the 68th? the summer solstice, it was kind of a follow up the second year. Well, whose ideas were they in? What were they?

PC: The first idea like the be in, and you know, the Summer of Love, these were kind of ideas of what were called the hip merchant, but the hate independent propriety. And they were always trying to put this lovey-lovey spin on things. You know, that everybody, okay, and meanwhile, cops were coming in and kicking the shit out of the kids, in their doorways, and we were just not buying. So it was sort of their idea. And then the diggers came in. And we-we put up a bunch of we did the summer solstice. And our purpose was to, you know, create events that had a bigger frame, where the sun itself was the frame. He became quite famous for putting on events where kind of, you know, there was no violence. Nobody got hurt. When in fact, I think be in was turned out to be a great and surprising thing. And I think they were probably righter than we were that there was but the learned by seeing how many of us there were. But there was a lot of tension between the diggers and the-the Haight Ashbury merchants, because we felt that they were, they just wanted to, you know, change the facade on the office storefront, they had 88 inches of powder. And that was what they wanted to maintain, and they fell, you know, hash pipe. We did not think that was particularly relevant.

SM: Yeah, one of the things about that particular period is this, he talked about the Summer of Love the summer solstice, and all the things that the kind of the diggers did, there was no violence. It was all about more love and peace. But then-

PC: No-no it was not about love, it was just about if you create a frame where people are equal. For instance, this is what we warned them about our outcome, we told them what was going to happen at Alcamo. It cannot, it cannot come into a free community, and put up a stage and say, these guys are more important than those guys does not work. So, when they first came to us, the Grateful Dead wanted Peterburgs. And I to design a show for the Rolling Stones. And we said, you know, sorry, the Rolling Stones are not the occasion for a show, we will put up six stages in Golden Gate Park, and they can have one of them. And we will create an event that will celebrate, you know, something more important than local, celebrity. So what we did was we created these planetary events like the solstice or the equinox, which are not manmade, they are events under which everyone is equal. And within that frame, you can do whatever you want, and you are just expressing yourself authentically. It is not creating a hierarchical status, where the guys on stage are the most important than the guys who get closest to the state are most important. And you are basically replicating the status hierarchies of the society.

SM: That is very well put, because if you go on to the web, you see the Grateful Dead performing at one of your free events, well, on the streets, and it was very organized, and people were just walking by. And-

PC: it was before the record companies came in and started spreading around all this money they were just the guys in the neighborhood. So yes, of course they played.

SM: One of the things we need to talk about the real bit beyond what we are talking about here about the antiwar movement is that the antiwar movement at that particular time was pretty peaceful until we got into the latter part of the (19)60s, early (19)70s When SDS went toward the weathermen. And then why other people had problems with the Black Panther Party thinking they were violent as well, and the Young Bloods and the Latina communities, especially in Philadelphia, and in Newark, your thoughts on just that whole concept of, you know, Malcolm X, we have had a lot of, in my interviews, a lot of people had different feelings toward him, because of his words, by any means necessary, and so you can interpret any way you want. But some people think it is more well, by any means necessary means violence. I am not so sure if he meant that because I saw him in a debate with Buckley over in England, and I do not think he meant that. But your thoughts on when the movement went violent?

PC: Well, wait a minute. The movement? I mean, antiwar. Yeah, that that statement has so much push it. I do not know where America has been a violent country since its inception.

SM: Hold on a second. Let me change. Go Right ahead, I am back.

PC: It was founded in genocide. Let us just start with the eradication of 2 million indigenous people. Bounty still being paid in 1920 on that spoke about the 500 million buffalo that were wiped out. Let us talk about slavery as entry after Britain as made it illegal. Let us talk about let us talk about exploitation and enslavement all over the Third World. So then, when a cup a bunch of college kids who are morally outraged that we invade a third world country, and conscript them to go kill people who are not harming them are ignored long enough that they begin to fight back, you call that violence. We live in a climate of violence. And nobody talked about, you know, the 5000 lynchings that were going on of black people. But when Malcolm X stands up and says, by any means necessary, suddenly the niggers are getting violent. I mean, it is just insulting. It is insulting. White people can hang niggers from a tree. But let a black man pick up a gun. And the whole white world goes crazy. A black president is speaking. And you have got white guys walking around outside his speech, carrying guns, fully loaded weapon. And nobody is doing anything. Can you imagine what would have happened if it was a white president, and black guys were out there carrying their guns. So, if the movement got violent, it is because they got tired of having to shift kicked out of them being ignored, having murders created in their name and not being listened to. But they existed in and were trained by a climate of violence. So, to pretend if there is anybody in America, whose wealth is not based on violence, even if that violence is invisible, backed up by cop with truncheons, backed up with soldiers in the Third World, backed up with soldiers all over the world siphoning wealth off for America to pretend that we are not participating in the violence is an act of self-delusion and hypocrisy.

SM: Very good response. Thank you. When you look at the period of the boomers have been alive, and of course, the period boomers are defined as people born between 1946 and 1964. And I preface this by saying that many of the people I have interviewed 1/3 were born before 1946. Yeah, and many other people from (19)40 to (19)46. Have a, have an attitude that we are really boomers ourselves. And Richie Havens told me that, but in your own words, could you describe the years the boomers have been alive, based on what it means to be? Excuse me? Just these years, what they mean to you as a person? The years that the boomers have been alive from (19)46 to 2010. The first period is between 1946 in 1960, what did it mean, to be alive in that time?

PC: I mean, it is my entire life, but my life me. I do not know, it is everything. It is not a very good question.

SM: Well, the question I am trying to get at as I am breaking down periods of what, what, what it was like to be alive during these periods of time?

PC: You know, 1940 to (19)46, I was a little boy 1946, to about 1953. I was pre-adolescent. Starting at my adolescence, I started to become political started to listen to different music. But I mean, I just do not know how to. I just do not know how to grab that question. Yeah, it is just life, life is always just life, but it is always the same, but it always has the same elements that are recycled. [inaudible] percent 10 perfect free. Falling in love the first time, you know, having children getting married, growing old, dying. Political mischief. I mean, I just do not know how to answer your question.

SM: Yeah, I think that was what he was getting at. And the question is the difference between the (19)50s, the (19)60s, the (19)70s, and the (19)80s. As a generation what they-

PC: I do not pay up? Yeah. Really? looking at it from the outside.

SM: How do you respond to the critics that say that a lot of American problems today go right back to the (19)60s and (19)70s. And-

PC: They are too stupid to respond. Why and, you know, those people thought Bill Clinton was eight. Like trying to have a debate with a moron. What America's problems do not have anything to do with free market capitalism. They do not have anything to do with the post Roosevelt. Betrayal of labor. They do not have anything to do with the communist witch hunt. They do not have anything to do with the Treaty of Detroit and the disenfranchisement of working people is- are too stupid to pay up.

SM: I know that (19)94 when Newt Gingrich, when the Republicans came to power, he made some pretty strong statements against the (19)60s generation. And I know that George-George Will has oftentimes in his writings really likes to take jabs at the end whenever you can. And there is he could not read any of his books. And now I have an essay in there about it. George Will-

PC: Oh, he is another one is another niche for the CIA. These guys are unprincipled opportunists. They are people who are in the lifeboat beating at the people in the water with the oars. Why listen to them?

SM: Now, it is the other point of view. So I just get responses.

PC: Other point of view, there are 500 points of view. They pretend they are the other point of view, what they are is a center, right pro corporate capitalist point of view. I understand it to my bone marrow, I do not need to listen to them.

SM: when did the (19)60s begin in your-your viewpoint?

PC: I would say around (19) 56. Maybe. I would say like the middle of the decade.

SM: And when do you when did it end?

PC: Well, for me, it ended about (19)77. Maybe.

SM: Is there what was the watershed moment?

PC: Well, for me, it was losing the lamb that my come in was on my father died. The land was easy for debt. The you know, we could not we could not keep it up. And so suddenly, for the first time in a long time I was I was living alone is the nuclear family.

SM: I mentioned that the boomer generation is defined by educators and because I am from higher education, and they always have to look at generations. Whether it be the boomer generation, Generation X, the millennials. Tom Brokaw called the World War II generation, the greatest generation, but and this is kind of a general question. But the way I want to ask it is based on the people that you knew worked with, in many different capacities, the boomer generation, what are your thoughts on this generation in terms of maybe some qualities you think were some of their strengths and maybe some of their weaknesses?

PC: I do not pay any attention to this term, right? I think it is meaningless, But I would say that the strength of this group were that they grew up in a kind of economic security well of wealth after World War II, and it afforded them a kind of platform, and security in which to be experimental and buy things out. They grew up at a time where the adolescent culture was just emerging and becoming its own independent event. That gave them a kind of autonomy and freedom. Culture had not been reduced to quite a homogenized math as it is today. Rebellion has not been quite so effectively coopted. I would say the weaknesses were that, like, sort of all young people you think you are smarter than you are. You think that you know everything, and you think they are going to live forever? And you do not take care of your bodies. Those are their weakness.

SM: The term generation gap was very common in the (19)60s and (19)70s, between parents and their children. Did you have a generation gap with your parents?

PC: Oh, yeah, I really did. You know, in most cultures in the world, there is no such thing as adolescence. That kids when they become at puberty, they are taken out of the house of their parents. The girls are raised by the aunt. And the boys are raised by their uncle. And they do that because they have got real critical life skills they need to trim, and they cannot run the risk of, you know, Oedipal tension, stopping the kids from learning this stuff. So a young boy becomes the lowest status guy in the men's group, he gets this tools. And all of his imitative group energy, as an adolescent is focused on the adult, figures out who he wants to be like, who we want to imitate the who he does not. But in the kind of post war boom. Adolescents had their own spending money, they had their freedom, they had no responsibility, they were sort of kept out of the job market. So, they did not compete with returning soldiers and adults and unions. And they developed their own kind of culture. And it turned out to be a huge motive force and a capitalist economy. They had lots of disposable income. So huge that it, it determined the shape of the entire culture. So, it is sort of run today by people between 14 and 30 least run in terms of peaking their disposable income and their money and trying to get them to buy your product. The early new phenomenon.

SM: I interviewed a Vietnam veteran a couple of weeks ago, a well-known Vietnam veteran. And when I asked him this question about the generation gap between him and his parents, he immediately said, people talk too much about the differences between fam between moms and dads and their kids. But he felt very strongly that the generation gap within the boomer generation was between those who went to war, and served in Vietnam and those who protested, but mostly those who avoided the draft. So he was saying that the generation gap was really within the generation itself, your thoughts on that?

PC: Well, he is entitled to his opinion. And you know, if you felt it was immoral, if you felt that America had invaded another country, without provocation or cause, and you felt that it was a moral to go to their country, and so people, you would not call that just because somebody is in the armed forces. And just because they are following order, does not really make it service. And it does not exempt them from moral judgement. I was shot in the United States, I was beaten in the United States. So, I was also taking care of soldiers and we were passing out, only draft guards, the people on the free store and leave their uniforms and disappear out of the street. So I have a lot of respect for the military. And I got a lot of respect for people who served. But, you know, from my point of view, it was and remains an immoral war, we killed 3 million people trying to, we defoliated, the Plain of Jars in Cambodia. And we sent home young men with ghosts, and post-traumatic stress syndrome, and wounds that have lasted them the rest of their life. And they did it for them, you know, the Cold War ambitions of a bunch of old men. So let us not put more of a spin on it. then there is

SM: What do you feel established religion waned in the eyes of many boomers in the (19)60s and early (19)70s. And why was spirituality so important? To these same people, but in different ways.

PC: That established religion has become a handmaiden of the state. And it had separated itself from through spirituality. People had a hunger that they were seeking to satisfy.

SM: You in things I have read Zen Buddhism is very important to you.

PC: Yes, I have been I am an ordained Buddhist, and training now to be a teacher. I have been a Zen Buddhist for 38 years and I take this thing seriously. And, you know, less of religion than it is a way of living your life and practicing your life practicing kindness, compassion. I have never reached the bottom and unlike Judaism or policy ism or Islam, or always good to their own members and not so good everyone else who does not does not leave anybody out that like that.

SM: You feel in these 38 years, like it is really made you a more gives you peace of mind, meditation, I have a couple nephews are really in the meditation, they said that they cannot meditate they be well, they would be sick. So, they-they make sure they have an hour of meditation each day and they try to think about nothing except just to meditate the Zen, this has really changed your life in so many ways.

PC: First of all, that is not the way that we understand. You know, I probably be killing people, if I was not Buddhist. What being a Buddhist is, is basically studying the self? And, as great teacher Logan said, study the self, by forgetting I just I cannot think of another way to express fully what being human is by taking some time every day, and sitting still and checking in the- what is happening in my body and my mind. We are not trying to stop. We are just trying to detach from them enough, even, but not be jerked around by the mind is a gland using thought. When you meditate enough, it will go down on its own, but try to stop your thought of fanatic. So most people are afraid to build a very radical practice. But when you do that, it puts you in touch with what is really going on with your life. And your life is not so separate from the rest of creation.

SM: There is two examples that I think that most of the boomer generation saw, particularly in the late (19)60s and early (19)70s. One was on college campuses, and the other was just in the news, the Beatles and how they be changed so much. And when they went to, I guess, forget the person that they went to over in India, then the Allen Ginsberg traveling through a lot of college campuses, and she came to three campuses in my area, Ohio State, and he just chanted the entire two hours he was in the room and one heck of an experience it was a spiritual happening is what it was.

PC: Yeah. Well, he was he was introducing people to spirituality.

SM: One, one question supporting them asked everyone is-

PC: I am starting to get tired.

SM: Okay, yeah. What? I have about 20 more minutes, is that okay?

PC: Let me just look at my calendar. Well, let us see how quickly we can get I have an appointment at one o'clock. Let us see how fast we can get through this.

SM: Okay, you are- one of the questions. The advanced everyone, that group of our students took a trip to Washington, DC in the mid (19)90s. We went to see Senator Edmund Muskie. And the students came up with this question after seeing films on the (19)60s and particularly in 1968. They said the question they wanted to ask the senator was based on all the protests that were happening in Chicago in (19)68. And the question went like this, due to all the divisions that were happening in America at that time between those who supported the war and those who were against the war, those who supported the troops and those who did not, between black and white, male and female, gay and straight, and then they also brought up the-the riots that were happening in the cities. Do you feel that the boomer generation is going to go to its grave, like the Civil War generation did not truly healing due to the tremendous divisions that took place at the time that they were young? And a lot of these issues and they thought he was going to answer based on the crisis in Chicago in 1968, but he did not answer that-that way. But I want to get your response to this whole issue of healing. If you think this is an issue?

PC: Well, there has been a fracture in American life No, there have been those people who want unfettered access and liberty to do whatever they want to have been those who think that the government should be a mediating influence for Berna [inaudible]. And that fracture has been in America since the founding fathers. It exists today between, you know, are conservatives and liberals are big boulders, and so they represent points of view, but they are never going to go away. So, I am not sure that America has any more fractures than it ever was. I mean, they started a civil war, to protect slavery. How fractured was that? So, you know, I think that we call unresolved arguments fractured. But that was assuming that it was hold. It was never hold. America was created by millions of indentured servants came over here, and owed their employers, seven years of their labor. You know, there is a, there is a guy named doubt, wrote a book called The Twisted Dream, which marked the history of America. And it is eye opening to read. Because, you know, if you were paid somebody stick it over here, you had his labor, seven years, to build your barns and your mills and your greeneries and your dams, and amass you all this wealth. And when it came to vote, who are you going to vote for? So, I do not think that anything that involves human beings is ever old. I think human beings are always fractured and independent, even when they ascribe to some great overarching political philosophy, just looked at religion, look at the way religion fragmented in the face of the Enlightenment, and suddenly had, you know, Calvinism and Methodism and press theory and they are just all reflections of different points of view on any given issue. And that is what human beings do. That is what the world is. So, I do not know, it is worse now than it ever was. I do not know.

SM: Senator muskie did not even respond about the (19)60s in 1968. His responses that we have not healed since the Civil War due to race, the issue of race and then he said, he actually died six months later, he was not well, and we were lucky to have the meeting. And he said he had just gotten out of the hospital, and he had seen the Ken Burns series, how we lost 430,000 people almost lost the entire generation of men. Back then, particularly in the south, so he says the issue of race, and he did not even talk about (19)68.

PC: Yeah, well, I think race is the big one. I agree with him on that. You know, I think a lot of what you are seeing today is the kind of panic of previously privileged white men realize that they are being submerged under a kind of new lotto tide and they are freaked out about it, because I am sure they imagine all these people of color plotting some hideous revenge on them for their persistency.

SM: What does the Vietnam Memorial mean to you because it has played – it has certainly played a role in healing men in the Vietnam vets and their families and lost loved ones. But when Jan Scruggs wrote the book to heal a nation not only was his goal when not only was the walls’ goal to heal the veterans but to play a part, even a small part and healing the nation from this terrible war. Your thoughts? Have you been to the wall?

PC: Yeah, so indescribably sad. It is so beautiful. You know, I am one of those people that thinks that the way you support the group is not the sentiment of a stupid war. And my heart goes out to each and every one of those people who serve both the survivors, those that fell, you know, nobody survives a war. The way they went in, they come back scarred, they come back having seen extremes of human behavior, they come back having done things that nobody should ever have to do. And for those of us who can see it, beforehand, we are out there on the streets shouting and screaming and people think it is about politics. But it is about the soldiers I mean, you look at Afghanistan and Iraq today, what is it? One half of 1 percent of the people are making these blood sacrifices, so the rest of us can shop. It is fucking hideous. It is obscene. See, you know, and people think you want to get the troops out of there, you are against the group. I want these kids to come home with their arms and legs and their brains and their, you know, passion and their generosity and their hopefulness. They do not even know why they are there. Yeah. So, you know, healed we did not make the wars. But people that resist the wars. Yeah, we are one side of a fracture, I suppose. But do not blame me.

SM: In your in your view. and I am getting a lot of different opinions on this. Why did we lose the Vietnam War and, and wha- and George Bush, the first said in 1989, the Vietnam syndrome is over? Which is this war still with us as a nation, in mind and spirit?

PC: Well, I think, you know, I think the Korean War, morphed into the Vietnamese War which morphed into the Iraq War, which morphed into the Afghanistan war, they were all in the service of an empire They were all in the service of bracketing or protecting wealth to bring home for the mother country. So, I do not know that Vietnam is still an issue except among those who fought in it. But the underlying issue of empire and policies which you know, bombed the wealth of other people, they are still, they are still operating. And I think the reason we lost the I think the reason we lost the, or, because we had someplace else to go, most people had nowhere else. So they would never quit. And that is why we are not going to beat the Afghans. They have no place else to go, where they live. And they will fight and they will die there forever. And eventually, the body count will get high enough that Americans will say.

SM: that we. Yeah, this is a two-part question. It can be sure. What can we learn from the (19)60s in the (19)70s? And secondly, what is the responsibility of the artist? And what role should they all artists play in times of crisis? And I, I prefaced the second question, part of the question, based on the fact that in recent years, entertainers had been attacked, as you know, your entertainer should keep your mouth shut and just entertain. And as if entertainers do not are not a part of the American citizenry. That guess the first part, what do we learn from the (19)60s and (19)70s?

PC: Well, let me just let me talk about it is the height of hypocrisy. You know, there are huge industries which are dedicated to everything that entertainers do. They are a magazine devoted to who their fucking where they shop, how they decorate their home, everything, except should they open their mouth about a political opinion? They are herded back onto the ranch. Now, why do you think the simplest answer to that would be is because their real function is as marketing brands. And when they venture an opinion, they divide the consumer base. You know, if they say Democrat, you are going to lose the Republic. If you say Republicans, you are going to lose the Democrats. And so everybody is using and harnessing the charisma of celebrities to sell ship. But God forbid that the celebrity should harness their own courage to talk about something that so, you know, that, that the two edged sword if I have the charisma to sell, or to be exploited by other people, I should certainly have the ability to exploit it and use it myself. So, there is that and what was the other part.

SM: Of just what-what did we learn overall from the (19)60s in the (19)70s? Nothing. Okay. You made replicating.

PC: The same mistakes in 2010 that we that we made in the (19)70s.

SM: You made reference that you have a problem with the term the boomer generation, and I am telling you I have a problem.

PC: With it-it just does not describe anything to me.

SM: Well, I am finding from the majority of the people I have interviewed that they do not like, they do not like generations being labeled.

PC: That well, we did not make it up. It is going to with some media term, right? We did not call ourselves hippies either.

SM: One of the qualities of the counterculture is that money is not important, or at least I. And in a lot of the in the question is, and again, another criticism of the boomer generation, not so much the counterculture, but the boomer generation is that, well, some of the wealthiest people are now our boomers who had were idealists, and now have gone on to make a lot of money. So, they are no different than any other generation. How, how credible is the fact that that is one of the qualities of the counterculture is that money was not important.

PC: Well, it is hard to live in America without-without money. So, but it just stuff, it was not important. It just was not going to be our organizing.

SM: I-I-I know you are tired. And are there? I have other questions here. But I will ask you. Are there any questions? I did not ask you that I thought I was going to that you thought it was going to. The last question I have is what do you think the lasting legacy will be the-the best history books are often written 50 years after an event 50 years after World War II, the best books came out. But I think good books are coming out every year on any every topic, but it is the thought that what do you think? The historians the sociologists, the writers will say once the last Boomer has passed away, what do you what do you think they will say about this generation that that was that grew up after World War II?

PC: Something stupid. Something stupid, you can count on it. I mean, I do not know what they will say, I do not care what they say I am, I collect my letters, along with Barry Snyder, along with Michael McClure, along with a bunch of people, I give them to the University of California, hopefully to give original sources a future historian, you know, so that my generation and my time is not defined by other people. Not an original observation to say that history is written by the winners. So, we have tried to create a body of literature and stuff that would at least describe the world the way we saw it the way it felt. That is all I do.

SM: You have any final thoughts you want to say on anything? On the boomer generation?

PC: Yeah, I do not know. I mean, you have asked really good questions. I do not mean to be cranky with I am sorry.

SM: Well, no, Peter, that was exactly because you have a passion. I can hear it in your voice.

PC: And I guess what I feel is that one of the reasons I became a Buddhist is because the endless debate and discussion does not seem to lead any does not seem to lead to wisdom does not seem to lead to anything but opinions. Borrow. And I would rather day make a sandwich for a hungry person. And debate hunger. I would rather take in an orphan and wash them and debate federal policy about orphan just where I have come to in my life.

SM: And you notice I have not asked one question about your years in Hollywood and all your movies. So I appreciate that. Because you a
re much more your every year of what is the word, I want to use your if you lose quite a life, that ss all I have to say. Well, thanks and-and I will keep I will keep you updated on where I am at. interviewing 200 people. I will be transcribing all the interviews. Wow. I am doing it myself between September and April and then you will get a copy of the I guess I will send it to your assistant. You will have a chance to read it and make sure it is okay get the approval to printed I am going to need two pictures of you for the top of it.

PC: Let me give you, my email.

SM: Okay hold on one second let me write this down. Okay.

PC: It is Peter at W D like David

SM: [inaudible] You said Peter at WD light.

PC: W, D be like David. Okay. Yep, P like Peter R like Richard. Oh, D like It stands for Wild Dogs Production. Okay. So that is my email. If you send me an email I can email you back a photo or something.

SM: Very good. Well, thank you very much Peter.

PC: Thank you very much.

SM: You have a great day. Thanks a lot. Night.

(End of Interview)

Date of Interview



Stephen McKiernan


Coyote, Peter

Biographical Text

Peter Coyote is an author, actor, director, screenwriter, and activist. Coyote is also a narrator for his own films and for a plethora of other events including the 2002 Winter Olympics and various Historic films. He graduated from Grinnell College with a Bachelor's degree in English Literature and attended California State University for a Master's degree in Creative Writing.





Digital Publisher

Binghamton University Libraries

Digital Format


Material Type


Interview Format


Subject LCSH

Motion picture producers and directors;
Political activists--United States;
Coyote, Peter--Interviews

Rights Statement

This audio file and digital image may only be used for educational purposes. Please cite as: McKiernan Interviews, Special Collections, Binghamton University Libraries, Binghamton University, State University of New York. For usage beyond fair use please contact the Binghamton University Libraries Special Collections for more information.


The New American Poetry 1945-60; Folk music; Beats generation; Bohemian; Jazz music; Rock music; Guerilla theater; Baby boom generation; Counterculture; Richard Nixon; Civil Rights; Diggers.




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