Sleeping Where I Fall
by Peter Coyote
Counterpoint, Washington, DC
367 pages, $37.95
reviewed by Alex Waterhouse-Hayward
In 1967 I was living with friends on Stanyan Street in San Francisco. In spite of our long hair and peace buttons, nobody would have called us hippies. The Porsche in the driveway was proof of that. For laughs we went to the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park to try some Digger stew. A tall, wiry man with a sardonic smile served us.
In 1987 I photographed a suave and elegant actor at Brother's Restaurant in Gastown. It was being used as a movie set. This April, while I was taking his picture in a room of the Alexis Hotel in Seattle, the same suave and elegant actor told me, "I wanted to write our own history. I didn't want to leave it to the George Wills, the William Bennetts, and the William Safires and the right-wing pundits of America to define my generation. These are the people who have turned America into a banana republic."
It was only then that I realized that Peter Coyote, in Seattle to read from Sleeping Where I Fall, his memoirs of "living in free fall" in the '60s and '70s, had been that young man in San Francisco.
Now fifty-six, Peter Coyote broke into Hollywood when he was about forty (his films include E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, Jagged Edge, Bitter Moon, and Sphere). From his late teens until his thirties he was a member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the Diggers, and the Free Family. He lived with the Hell's Angels, travelled with the Grateful Dead, had a fling with Janis Joplin (and many, many other women), founded a commune and lived in two more. Along the way he was unsuccessfully pursued by Mounties at the University of Calgary, unloaded Paul Simon's wooden horse on Bob Dylan's front porch in Woodstock, built a working "putt" from a 1969 Harley-Davidson flh with the help of San Francisco Hell's Angel president and buddy Peter Knell, sold feather earrings made from the plumage of roadkill birds, and indulged in enough drugs that it comes as a shock to me, after reading this scary but very funny book, that he still looks so good. Of Emmett Grogan, the main protagonist of the Diggers, he writes, "Emmett stuck me with a needle twice. The first time he pierced my ear. 'It'll change you,' he said. . . . The second time was in the living room of a famous bad-boy Hollywood movie star." (My guess is Dennis Hopper, a friend of Coyote's.) "This time the needle was a syringe, loaded with heroin. 'It'll change you,' Emmett said, and it did. It changed a lot."
He was born Peter Cohon, but his first experience with peyote ("it tastes like the green moss at the bottom of a pond") introduced him to the animal he soon identified with. "I felt I had been transformed into a small wolf and spent the greater part of the night dog-trotting effortlessly through the Iowa cornfields, following scents and colours, marveling at these newly heightened powers. At one point I stopped to look down and was amazed to see little dog tracks in the furrowed ground where my footprints should have been."
What makes this an uncommon Hollywood biography (it isn't one at all) troubling is that readers who are parents may despair that their rebellious teenage offspring may have many more years before settling down. What makes Sleeping Where I Fall memorable is the realization that, in spite of appearances, the suave gentleman is no different today than he was back in the Summer of Love. Of the dissolution of his commune at Turkey Ridge in 1974, Coyote remarks,
That day we were reborn from our undifferentiated bondedness into singularity, separated from our comfortable illusions with the same contractions and pains, terror and disorientation that accompany a rudely delivered infant. Though it was a birth into a new, perhaps more mature reality, it was mournful as a death. It was a death -- of a fond and cherished dream. With the dream gone, what remained were four adults who knew too much about one another, standing emotionally naked in the midst of a desolate cinderblock chamber stinking of grease, gasoline, and cold concrete. The only reason to fix the trucks now was to escape from one another.
Having run out of Peter Coyote movies to see, Alex Waterhouse-Hayward is now rescreening Cross Creek (1983), in which Mary Steenburgen, playing Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, is helped by a sympathetic Peter Coyote to vanquish writer's block in the Florida backwoods.
Copyright © 1997 Duthie Books Ltd.
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