Hello and goodbye to Peter Coyote

07/23/2015

To call Peter Coyote a hippie would be neither fair nor accurate, though he spent a lot of time in the great unwashed American counterculture and helped to shape its members. “I don’t like the word or the concept of hippie,” Coyote told a packed house in a hot second-floor auditorium at Commonweal last Sunday afternoon in Bolinas. 

He said the term and the idea were used to “infantilize” the rag-tail army of dissenters and protesters who joined communes and turned to alternative institutions and ways of life. “We failed at almost everything. We didn’t end racism, imperialism or private property, but culturally we succeeded,” he said. “The movements we started for slow, organic and local are still around today.”

If you can call that a message—it sounded like one —then it was the sort of message the audience, mostly veterans of the ’60s and ’70s, wanted to hear. There is and was no one better to convey it than Coyote, an author and actor, the narrator for Ken Burns documentaries and a member of the San Francisco Mime Troup and the Diggers. He recently moved to Sonoma County because Marin had become too expensive, too crowded and too busy, and too much of an outpost of the yuppie empire, he said. 

Near the end of his interview with Steve Heilig, an environmentalist, a health care ethicist and another veteran of the ’60s, Coyote told a story about traffic in Marin that touched enough of a nerve to bring down the house. A woman in a Mercedes, after nearly driving into Coyote’s car, had told him, “Get on your side of the road.” He replied, “There’s only one side of the road.” Then he got out of his car and walked away. When the woman asked him where he was going, he told her, “You’ve gotten me too upset to drive.” 

The audience probably didn’t need to be told what he said next: “Old timers know to pull over when someone is coming from the other direction. Newcomers never do.” To the audience, he added, “I still have issues with anger.” Indeed, he does. But now he knows that he does. Long ago, he didn’t.

The conversation between Heilig and Coyote felt in part like a therapy session acted out in public, with Coyote peeling away the many layers of his self until it seemed as though he had undressed emotionally and psychologically. He talked about his father, who hurt him mentally and physically, his mother, who told him he was a loser, his life on a commune in Olema and his close encounters with free love that he described as “a great thing until your own wife doesn’t come home.” Part stand-up comedian, though he sat the whole time, Coyote made fun of himself as much as anyone else. 

“I’m a Jew with an animal name,” he observed, adding: “Coyotes are the Jews of the animal world.” (He then made a plea for the protection and survival of coyotes as a species.) When he switched from English to Yiddish his accent was superb. About Vietnam he was resolute. “We invaded their country,” he said. On Robin Williams he was compassionate and yet unsentimental. “His imagination failed him,” Coyote explained. On Zen Buddhism he was fiercely proud: “Zen Buddhists concentrate on the right here and the right now,” he said. 

For two hours, Coyote offered a lesson in how to be present, how to listen and how to turn an interview into a meditation. After his time on stage with Heilig, he signed copies of his new book, “The Rainman’s Third Cure,” a memoir in which he traces his life from boyhood to the present day and that makes for vivid reading. 

Still, there’s nothing like seeing and hearing Coyote in person. A born performer, a great mimic and an elder in the tribe of ’60s veterans, he knows how to hold himself, how to hold an audience and how to let go and bring listeners along with him. 

“I’m not a great actor,” he said, though he “loved the bedlam of the film set.” It wasn’t bedlam at Commonweal, but Coyote seemed to love the occasion anyway, perhaps because it enabled him to say hello and goodbye to the community that had sustained him for half a century and that he’d infused with his passion, his humor and his empathy.

 

Jonah Raskin is the author of 14 books, including “Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine in California,” as well as biographies of Allen Ginsberg, Jack London and Abbie Hoffman. A performance poet, he taught literature and law at Sonoma State University for 30 years. He lives in Santa Rosa.