“Pilgrims & Profiteers on a Cross-Country Crusade”
September 10, 1970
ON THE ROAD, Middle America — Thursday afternoon, Chan, who was from “the caravan of love,” went slightly berserk and tried to stick a knife into David Peel, after a shouting match on top of Captain Bad Vibe’s Cadillac limousine in Yellow Springs, Ohio.
A few hours later, while the other caravan members sat in a solemn circle and the cameras rolled, Chan stood out and introduced himself with Jimmy Stewart’s self-deprecation as “the guy who almost stabbed David Peel today.” Dozens of caravaneers laughed and applauded affectionately: not many of them liked David, he was too … New York … bad vibes. He didn’t belong in this movie. Only Bonnie Jean and Wavy Gravy of the Hog Farm had anything good to say about David.
Friday evening at the free rock concert given by the caravan, two (different) Hog Farmers were overheard plotting to stick a dose of acid into David and hinder him harmless. If it turned out to freak him out of his mind, well, the Hog Farm was a specialist in handling bad trips, wasn’t it?
The knife attempt and its aftermath was one of the few experiences that threatened to puncture the collective placidity of the caravan, the holy San Francisco ethos: get high on whatever happens, neutralize people on bad trips with benign acceptance, drown with sweet Wavy Gravy. Even the mountain men of the “STP family” who threatened to tear up the hippie caravan, hippies and all, the way they claimed to tear up bears with their hands, failed to pierce the serenity.
The STP family came down from the mountains with bear traps, knives, and various parts of bears hanging from them. Some of the men apparently liked to slash women as well as bears. One STP girl is said to have wandered into the caravan’s medical trailer on the night of the Boulder, Colorado concert, asking for treatment from knife slashes across her vagina. Nothing unusual for the STP family, and she left shortly to rejoin her old man and his knife later that night.
Meanwhile, outside in the night, one of the mountain men with a heavy paint habit (eating as well as sniffing) staggered around sniffing and eating some gold paint. Gold paint smeared his lips.
“Oh wow, look at his lips — they’re glowing,” one girl from the caravan murmured, “far out.” That’s the caravan for you.
The David Peel incident and its curious aftermath may be cut from the finished version of the movie being made of the caravan’s trip or perhaps made light of. It was typical, but it was there. See if you can get high off of it.
The caravan: a hand-picked group of 150 freaks, rock musicians, Hog Farmers, bus trippers, groupies, dealers, beautiful people, and media manipulators, which by now completed a three-week trip across America in 20 buses, Winnebago trailers, and U-hauls. As they traveled, giving free rock concerts and living their communal life style, a swarm of cameramen followed along, recording their spontaneity minutely.
The whole journey-movie is a strange combination of pilgrimage and public relations stunt. Each aspect is a somewhat legitimate front for the other, as things often are in the mirrored worlds called “country-culture” and “hip capitalism.” The people making the pilgrimage believe they are using the hip capitalists for their own ends: making a dynamite, consciousness-raising movie that will turn on straight America with its energy and love, you know the line. The people financing the movie, a very large Hollywood studio, want to make another “Woodstock,” in other words another $50 million on an investment of just $1 million. The underground media call this “ripping off our culture and selling it at a huge profit without returning anything to the community” and “pandering our visions and dreams for cash.”
Most of the filming is being done by a large French camera crew, which speaks little or no English. The crew is directed by Francois Reichenbach, who won an Academy Award for his documentary “Rubinstein.” Francois and his men seem to have had little direct experience with American drug-rock culture before this movie. (They had no real experience with drugs until the night in Albuquerque when a studio man slipped some acid into their drinks and they ended up shooting miles of footage of the starry sky, and Francois was heard saying, “Quiet please, God is speaking to me.”) Francois’ vision of America seems to be created from a lot of 1967 Haight-Ashbury snapshots and some picture postcards of “Hair.” He came with a pre-conceived movie of America and he’d often go to great lengths to get it on film: in Kearney, Nebraska, Francois had Joni Mitchell (flown in from L.A. to casually drop in and sit around the camp fire and sing for the cameras) go through countless choruses of “Get Together” while he constantly exhorted the people around the camp fire to sing louder and with more feeling, all the whole asking a girl with an attractively tanned bare midriff to move closer to Joni so the camera would catch some skin.
Then there was the concert at Antioch when a 30-foot diameter peace symbol strung with Christmas tree bulbs was hoisted up on a tower behind the stage as a background for the rock groups, and lit it up during big numbers. Peace love and music, you know.
In addition to Francois’ film crew, there is a two-man UCLA camera crew to make a film of the filming itself. Many of the people on the buses had their own cameras to film — almost in self-defense — the movie-making. People hardly outnumbered cameras on this tour, inspiring a fantasy of a perfect situation in which everyone is given an all-seeing all-hearing camera-sound machine to carry around and film everyone else. At that critical mass level of media technology, the unnatural will be absolutely natural, all filming will in effect cancel itself out, and we will be back to being again.
Reichenbach will edit his footage and turn a negative over that Hollywood studio for first release rights and possible release next spring. The identity of the studio has become a big issue to people inside and outside the caravan. I shall call it “Warner Brothers.” I was asked not to mention a name in this article, but the name has grown from open secret to openly debated issue. (The Antioch radicals were able to chant “Fuck Warner Brothers” at the caravan without my giving them the name.) I should confess that the studio paid0 for my flight out to and back from the caravan for the week I spent with them and may fly me to England with the caravan after they reach the East Coast, so keeps your eyes open for corruption in these lines.
Nobody on the caravan has been paid an official salary by the studio for participation in the movie but, in return for signing releases, all expenses, food, medical supplies, every necessity, and several luxuries are picked up by the studio. In addition, caravan members were promised all-expense-paid trips to England and the Isle of Wight Festival if they stuck with the movie all the way across country.
Two studio accountants followed the caravan across country in a huge station wagon. Mornings they would leave their motel, drive to the campsite, and sit in the rear of their wagon with an adding machine and a cashbox, ministering to a long line of picturesque hippies each with a fistful of receipts. One caravan member bought some cocaine for himself and some friends and handed the accountant a slip of paper with the purchase price and the words “coke for everyone” written on it. The figure was tapped out on the adding machine and paid.
Because of the “Woodstock movie rip-off,” well publicized in the underground press, Warner Brothers has become the Dow Chemical of the media, and getting money from Warner Brothers to make them a profitable movie is considered as bad as doing drug commercials for Dow. But some elements of the alternate culture believe media institutions like Warner Brothers can be captured from within by a combination of acid and manipulation.
A strange conjunction of this sort presided over the birth of the caravan movie. The story goes that some months ago a very high-level studio executive was introduced to the Hog Farm by mutual friends in the netherworld between the media capitalists and hip underground. The Hog Farm, it is said, introduced the studio executive to acid and they all took several trips together. Subsequently, he moved to the West Coast. Out there the idea for some kind of cross-country caravan had been floating around for a long time, and through the intersection of several different webs of people and influence the magic caravan became a reality backed by a rumored $1 million budget.
Since the Merry Pranksters’ original cross-country bus trip — and Tom Wolfe’s book — a whole bus trip life style has grown up in the West. Scores of communes, freak and rock groups have made the painted shell of a renovated bus the interface between their group consciousness and the public world of thruway America.
A whole series of legends have grown around certain bus trips, each new legend building upon the concepts of the earlier ones. No one wants merely to repeat Kesey’s trip (which of course was also a movie): once a game has been well played out, you’ve got to think up a new version or re-play it on a more complex level, parody it, parody yourself, make a film of the filming, get into complex hoaxes, put-ons, and games with those outside the bus, make it a missionary trip, a communal trip, a freak-the-straights trip. A mystique grows up around certain roles on bus trips: drivers, pranksters, omnicompetent mechanical geniuses, holy men, mad men, and lovers.
Andy, a veteran bus tripper — an omnicompetent driver, Magic Christian film-maker of a bus tripper — told a group of us about the great new fantasy of the bus tripping world. He and Kesey were talking, he said, of the ultimate bus trip, a “great bus race,” a cross-country supergame with a $10,000 prize to the winner. Only the winner won’t be necessarily be the bus that gets there first. The winner will be the bus which is most skillful, most holy, most clever, which most/successfully makes the whole bus race their movie.
This bus trip sensibility is reached by people who have dissolved their irony in acid. They see the world as webs of games, but have gone beyond staring at the webs in mute stunned appreciation or despair. They have graduated from tripping over everything, to a recognition that action and creativity still have meaning — in the process of creating new and more intricately beautiful games of their own to play.
Unfortunately, on this particular bus trip even the most sophisticated and genuinely holy people along seem to have trapped themselves into playing a very defensive game usually spoken as “how we’ve really co-opted them even though everyone thinks they’ve co-opted us.”
If there were no Warner Brothers money involved, if the caravan people were making the movie themselves, the movie could be exactly what they wanted. As with most bus trips, they could allow a pattern to emerge and edit the footage accordingly. But to shape a movie that someone else, someone different, will edit, they have to try to shape the total footage so completely as it is filmed, that it will be impossible for a director-editor to impose any different pattern on it. What this means is they have spent a lot of time fending off the pre-conceived movie the cameras want to get out of them. It means they have to stick to their script — even if it’s a counter-script — rather than experiment and improvise.
Over-reacting, maybe to guilt over the Hollywood financing, many of the caravan went overboard persuading themselves and others that the movie game was a holy crusade with the consciousness of the ’70s at stake. Time and time again I would have people on the caravan assure me that “we’ve won; it’s our movie now,” or “we’ve put them through some heavy changes, and we’ve co-opted them,” or “this is no rip-off. We’ve ripped them off more than they’re know until it’s too late.”
The caravaneers best equipped to play the game were the Hog Farmers. They’ve lived together, they’re used to being themselves in front of cameras, they’re both picturesque and holy, and they’ve got a good line. They seemed to be the stylistic conscience of the caravan. They respond approvingly with a murmured “far out” to whatever — however hostile — is said to them. They are incredibly competent at being nice. Their idea of politics is staying high as possible all the time (which means playing high as possible sometimes) and bringing other people up with their energy.
The Hog Farm has been spending most of is time lately at mass political actions and rock festivals, playing the same role at each, cooling out bad vibes, calming down crowds that are divided or explosive, soothing people on bad trips, playing that role so often they seem to be more like a sedative than a hallucinogen. There is an all-encompassing jello-like homogeneity to their collective consciousness, a bland harmlessness to their public stunts. (One of the most revealing Hog Farm stunts at the caravan concert stops is to bring a huge six-foot-wide bowl of jello up to the stage steaming from some dry ice chunks inside and ask someone to jump in. Join the jello, what fun if we were all suspended in the same flavor jello — that’s the Hog Farm message.)
Wavy Gravy (formerly Hugh Romney), the Farm’s leader, has been on an Earth People’s Park kick, and at every concert he gives a little talk about it. He becomes a country preacher talking about the rustic pleasures of life in heaven. When he talks about these reservations for hippies, Wavy is an incredibly charming evangelist. His public charm lies in his playing the clown so amiably and gracefully you want to protect him. Up close, his power lies in his refusal to ever use an incredible reserve of personal charisma on you. Somehow you make up for this by voluntarily putting yourself in his power as if he had actively exercised it.
When the STP family threatened to rip up the concert in Boulder, Wavy and the Farm cooled things off by asking everyone to focus their energy on saving the life of a well-liked biker who was hanging between life and death at that moment. Everyone joined hands, joined in the Farm’s communal hyperventilation, and forgot about tearing up and being torn. Wavy knows how to deal with energy.
But the greatest source of energy within the caravan was the caravan’s “house band,” a large group which plays some of the best rock’n’roll I have ever heard. The group hadn’t played together before they all joined the caravan, and they’ve only a tentative name now — Stone Ground — but they’re good and powerful in that chilling West Texas style, and so genuinely theatrical in their performance that footage of their performances may turn out to have stolen the movie away from everyone. The only reason they may not have it to themselves is that the studio insisted on flying out big rock stars (many on their own label) to appear with the caravan, and they can’t permit them to be upstaged by unknowns.
The journey was not supposed to have stars, but it has been plagued with a star syndrome. The film will undoubtedly open with a striking shot of the caravan heading across the Golden Gate Bridge, led by a long flowing-haired youth riding a huge Harley chopper. The chopper was later stored away in a U-Haul truck for future dramatic entrances and exits, but the chopper rider had become an instant star. He played the role of caravan leader and spokesman, announcing travel plans, giving little pep talks around the campfire, and straightening out problems. Cameras began following him religiously. He became the first to fuck before the cameras and his partner became a leading lady in the process.
For the early part of the trip, some of the beautiful people employed several strategies to attract the attention of the cameras. A number of girls started out sleeping with the French cameramen. One girl complained afterward, “I’d wake up in the morning and he’d tell me to get him some coffee and that’s about all I’d get out of it.”
Then there were costume changes, up to five a day for one girl. Francois seemed to like bare midriffs, long white flowing dresses, and total nudity. Any new costume would guarantee at least a perfunctory pan from one or more camera. After a while a game of positioning began to develop. The trick was to figure out where significant events would take place (or which scenes fit into the camera crew’s pre-conceived movie) or to anticipate which events the camera crew wanted to happen and create the “private moments” Francois wanted on film. One of the early rushes shows a huge Indian, Warshow Mike, working beneath a bus in a pool of sweat. The camera shifts away and focuses on a group of colorfully dressed caravan people grinning right into the lens, ignoring the struggle underneath the bus.
In New Mexico at a birthday party for Bonnie Jean, Wavy Gravy’s wife, a huge cake with burning joints for candles was brought in to her. Everyone sang “Happy Birthday,” and then Francois asked them to do a retake. Instead of singing “Happy Birthday” again, they all turned on Francois, and sang for him the Beatles’ “Act Naturally”: “I hope they’re gonna put me in the movies … all I gotta do is act naturally.” It was a turning point.
A new, more sophisticated game in which the caravaneers muted the competition for the camera’s attention and began thinking up imaginative ways to parody or put on the camera crew. Some people, for instance, began carrying Instamatics all the time. Whenever they found the camera crews following too closely, they’d wheel and start snapping them at the camera. Consciously over-acting in front of the cameras, pointing and calling attention to the cameras, putting on the camera crew became the new game. Cute games, cute jokes. Certainly not politics. “Politics” was the second dirtiest concept in the caravan’s consciousness. Politics to the caravan people meant rhetoric, violence, bullshit, ego, bad trips, and worst of all, bad vibes, the dirtiest concept of them all. Despite the fact that many of the people in the buses had been involved in San Francisco radical politics, there was no hint of politics in the decorations of any of the buses. “If we put anything political on these buses every cop in the state will stop us and we’ll never make it across country, the movie will never be made,” I was told. Only three of the buses were painted at all, and those looked like careful imitations of Electric Kool-Aid era psychedelia, less striking that the designs on two out of three packages of facial tissues.
Caravan people repeatedly insisted that “what we’re doing now is the real politics, not bullshit masturbatory rhetoric. We’re out doing something: this movie is going to be more political, change more heads than any speech-making about rip-offs. We’re not making this movie to sell to freaks, we don’t want freaks to pay money for vicarious thrills. We want the straight people, the Kiwanis club members, all the people in Middle America to see it and dig our life style. That’s why it’s got to be a good vibes movie, not a movie about confrontation.” That’s what Chan told the radicals at Antioch before he tried to stab David Peel.
That incident was the climax of a long process which began when Tom Forcade, deputy minister of the White Panther Party, joined the caravan in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Forcade drove up in a huge olive Cadilliac limousine painted to look like a general’s staff car. A platform-stage as large as a limousine itself had been mounted on the car’s roof. On the rear of the stage were two huge 550-watt speakers he had obtained from a Minuteman missile base (they are apparently made to be heard five miles over the road of a Minuteman bursting out of its silo). Next to them was a four-feet, transparent plastic sphere, which carried luggage and served as a base for a bubble machine at concerts. A large curtained bed was nailed onto the middle of the stage (it fell off someplace in Colorado). Forcade arrived dressed in the uniform of a World War I general (later he would change into a shabby Roman Catholic priest’s outfit). It was formidable theatre and the caravan regulars didn’t know what to make of it.
Forcade was there for several reasons. His closest friend, Mike Foreman, was acting as troubleshooter for the studio on the caravan movie and Foreman had influence of the shape of the movie. Forcade was there on vacation from White Panther organizing and from managing the Underground Press Syndicate office in New York. But he was also there to try and make the movie more political — not by “injecting” politics into it but by getting the caravan people to display their implicit politics as openly as they did their tie-dyed t-shirts. In retrospect Forcade’s decision to join the caravan and try to shale them up begins to look like the decision Kesey’s hero Mac Murphy makes at the opening of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” to leave the prison work farm and enter the psycho ward because the farming has been dull and tiring, and ward life looks interesting.
Forcade paid his way the whole trip and took nothing from Warner Brothers. He is a rare and mysterious figure on the left — at times he seems like a shadowy outlaw on inexplicable missions. Other times he is an above-ground spokesman and writer for the underground press and the White Panthers. Recently he went public and showed up at the hearings of the President’s commission on obscenity, walked up to the chairman, and threw a whipped-cream pie in his face.
Forcade is a close friend of the imprisoned White Panther poet-revolutionary John Sinclair, and receives each week one of the three letters allows Sinclair to send out. Forcade recently moved to New York with the UPS office and has organized the Free Range tribe of the White Panthers in the city.
Still other times Forcade appears as a trouble-shooter/trouble-maker in the world of rock festivals and cultural revolutionaries. He has handled every aspect of the intricate rock festival scene, from financing to stage building, from putting on (Winter’s End) to ripping off (Randall’s Island).
Forcade is one of the few people in the left who has enough skills and intelligence to outwit the hip capitalists at their own media games, and enough sense of purpose to avoid getting lost for its own sake. He knows about the half-hidden webs which connect the underground with the above-ground — he’s part of some of them — but he knows which side he’s on.
Last year Forcade was part of the group led by Abbie Hoffman which manipulated the Woodstock promoters into thinking it would be in their own best interest to contribute $10,000 to the movement. Forcade at first thought it would be nice if the caravan or its promoters were to decide that some money out of the hundreds of thousands of dollars being spent on the trip might be given to movement groups. Realizing that conditions were different from the Woodstock action — the promoters here were not nervous and desperate — he hoped to reach the 150 caravan people, and through them maybe with the help of Foreman persuade the studio to contribute to movement groups. He thought $50,000 would be reasonable.
But both Foreman and the leaders of the caravan didn’t want any of it. Soon after he arrived, Forcade had a long face-to-face session with Tom Donahue, the unofficial wagonmaster of the caravan, in Donahue’s comfortably appointed Winnebago house trailer. Donahue is a huge Winnebago of a man himself, 350-plus pounds, one of the founders and first disc jockeys of San Francisco’s “underground” radio scene.
Donahue is a strange combination of Falstaff and Big Brother and perhaps Kesey’s Big Nurse. Reclining on a bed in the Winnebago, surrounded and served by several women, he seems to ingest large quantities of drugs, indulges his other appetites, and spends much of the trip immobile and spaced-out. Nevertheless, big brother-like, he seems to know everything that goes on the caravan, a spider sensitive to every filament in his web, Big Nurse in the psycho ward of “Cuckoo’s Nest.” He has very powerful eyes, more powerful it seems at first than Wavy Gravy’s, although Wavy seldom opens his wide and reveals what’s there. As co-producer he has considerable influence in shaping the caravan trip.
When he and Forcade first met, Donahue was snorting mescaline and told Forcade he wasn’t interested in his kind of politics. Forcade played a brief power game with Donahue, attempting to inject heavy paranoia into his trip — disruption, the Mafia, outside money, a hidden web controlling the caravan without Donahue’s knowledge. Donahue had to swallow hard but managed to digest it all.
Eventually Donahue offered Forcade the chance to make political speeches at some of the free concerts the caravan was to give. Forcade saw this as a trap. What it would be to isolate him as a “bad vibes, political person” on an ego trip, delaying the music for thousands of people for the sake of bullshit rhetoric. It would make politics seem like something alien to the people and the music, some bad medicine injected into a healthy body. In addition, anyone editing the movie could make any political speaker looked ridiculous with judicious inter-cutting.
Forcade told me later that he didn’t want to “do politics” for the caravan but rather wanted the caravan people to start expressing — and the movie to reflect — the politics already in them.
“Francois is just trying to make a movie which just shows one side of youth culture. He just wants the tribal customs, the nude swimming, the drugs, peace, and love. He doesn’t realize that all of that is part of a much larger culture, which includes the movement against the war, against the draft, in support of the VC, political prisoners like John Sinclair and Bobby Seale. He doesn’t realize it or he doesn’t want it to show up, but it’s there. Most of these people have been into politics like that before, why are they hiding it? I’m here to remind them that they can’t just sneak across the country trying to look as harmless as possible. They’ve got to face that themselves if they really want to make it their movie.”
When I joined the caravan in Kearney, Nebraska, there was tension between Forcade’s car and the other buses. He had failed to break through the serene imperturbability of the Wavy Gravy sensibility. Many caravan people were getting tired of traveling, tired of cameras, and looking forward only to passing through the rest of America as quickly as possible and claiming their all-expense-paid trip to England. (There were rumors that someone — was it Warner Brothers? was it Tom Donahue — was preparing an “England list,” which was to provide tickets for only three-quarters of the caravan members; some people expressed reluctance to get out of line and find themselves missing from the list.) Traveling through America in an insulated tube — studio advance men would go into a town and cool everything with the police and citizens, “difficult” confrontations were carefully avoided, no politics on the outside of the bus — very little of America was getting through to the caravan.
At this point Forcade decided he had no choice but to unleash his ultimate weapon: David Peel. On the way to a fateful rendezvous with Peel at the Omaha airport, we happened to wander into a small Nebraska town, little more than a clearing in a vast cornfield that seemed as tall as the town’s highest roof. A huge whirlwind of a leaf blight — the local AM agriculture report called it the worst leaf blight in the history of corn — was sweeping toward all that August corn. Department of Agriculture experts predicted that 90 per cent of this year’s crop might be destroyed. Stopping in town to eat, you could feel the town and the surrounding corn crouch and shrink before the approach of the incredible cancerous energy of the 1000-mile wide leaf blight.
About the time we finished eating in the one-street town’s only café, someone rushed in and yelled something about a chase — escape, something like that — and the five or six farmers and townsmen sitting in the café leaped up, rushed out, jumped into their pickup trucks, and roared away. As we walked outside back to the limousine, three police cars roared up and stopped 100 feet away. They jumped out, talked to the man who has rushed into the café, screeched off past us after the others.
We decided to follow them since Andy had been filming our trip since Kearney as we played some little Magic Christian games along the way, and a chase was always good footage. (Andy and Mike Foreman, who was also traveling in the limousine, had been talking about doing a real Magic Christian movie with a genuine M.C. games of their own. The one they were playing most those two days was a pie-throwing game. With cameras and megaphone and scene clapper they would approach a waitress at a Stuckey’s and tell her they were making a movie of pies being thrown in people’s faces. Would she allow them to film a pie being thrown in her face by an actor if they paid her for it? “Oh, I’d do it for free just so I could be in a movie,” she told us. After it had been done they paid her $3 anyway. It’s nice to find people who will be corrupt for free, but if you don’t pay them to do it, the thrill is gone from the corrupting. The cashier at the same Stuckey’s didn’t like the whole thing. He refused to pick up three $50 bills laid on his cash register by Mike Foreman, not because he didn’t want a pie in his face, but because he didn’t like the whole movie intruding on his world. All of us liked him in a certain way.)
We followed the police out of town to a dirt road through the cornfields and came to a point where some state troopers were parked across the road. We decided to cool it with the megaphone and scene clapper until we asked one of the pick-up truck men what was going on. He told us that a “mental case” had escaped from a state mental hospital, had been spotted in town and had been seen running down this road, and had leaped into the head-high cornfield when he saw his pursuers behind him. Some of the men had gone out chasing through the corn, but most stood around, occasionally staring off into the field, but looking as if they expected nothing would happen.
One of the state troopers quietly asked us to leave to clear the road, and we made a roaring lumbering turn and passed by the local police and the men in the pick-up trucks, all of whom looked at us with no more than moderate interest. It was clear that with the insane leaf blight already loose in the corn just one county south, and with this madman loose in the corn right here, we were just not crazy enough. Mere freaks, heads, and yippies are not very crazy any more, not much of a threat to Big Nurse. We needed David Peel.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 18, 2005