Friday, May 13, 2011
The Folksinger Who Hosted a Commune
The idea of communes "working," flourishing, succeeding is always brought up, but this is beside the point in the case of the communes now existing in America. What is essential is to expose ourselves to a life of voluntary poverty, or life for minimal cost, and a life of sharing...because this is what it is, alone, that makes the commune endeavor an important thing in America.
Elia Katz, quoted by Lou Gottlieb
It's a lucky child that has a chance to be reared in an intentional community
Lou Gottlieb was born to immigrant parents in 1923, Jewish name, Catholic upbringing. (During his second LSD experience, he huddled in a closet and chanted Luke 1:31, "Fear not, Mary," mantra-like in Latin.) He played piano, oboe, and bass fiddle, and started college at 16. During the War, the Army Band, stationed at the Army War College, was shipped overseas. The College still wanted a band, and Gottlieb played bass in the replacement band. After the War, Gottlieb finished his education, played in jazz bands and a folk group, the Gateway Singers. He received a PhD in musicology in 1958, transposing fifteenth century masses into modern notation for his dissertation.
Post-doc, Lou continued to gig, and made a serious attempt at stand-up comedy, becoming friends with Lenny Bruce and Don Adams. He arranged tunes for the Kingston Trio, and enlisted vocalists Alex Hasselev and Glenn Yarbrough to help record a demo of his arrangements. Gottlieb, Hasselev, and Yarbrough began to tour as the Limeliters, and formed the nucleus of the ABC television folk hour, Hootenanny, with Lou arranging, playing bass, and wisecracking with the audience.
In 1962, the Limeliters took a break after walking away from a plane crash. Lou bought thirty-two acres of meadow orchard and redwoods, a former chicken ranch just north of the San Francisco Bay, with the idea of subdividing it. At the same time he was investigating yoga, Indian religion, and psychedelics. Lou and friends, Ramon Sender and Stewart Brand would visit the property to horse around. Lou moved his piano into a converted chicken shed, meaning to commit a program of classical music to memory.
In 1966 the San Francisco Diggers, accepting the responsibility for feeding the tide of young visitors to Haight Street, asked Lou if they could tend the orchard and start a garden. Somebody put up a sign inviting hippies to visit the "Digger Farm," and Lou Gottlieb's Morningstar Ranch became ground zero for the hippie commune movement. Between then and 1972, something like fifteen hundred people passed through Morningstar, some for a day, some years. Lou attended seven hippie births, and thought he had been an obstetrician or midwife in a former life.
Lou came to see "open land" as a necessity and way of ameliorating the human condition. Social wealth and automation were making some people "technologically unemployable," and some people were simply "impossibles," people whose need for leisure is more demanding than their fear of starvation. There need to be places where anybody may go, outlaw places where the impossibles are free to take their chances being impossible. Late in life, Lou said -- only half facetiously -- that this is the idea for which he should receive a Nobel Prize.
Culture shock and, we must surmise, a certain hippie fecklessness alienated Morningstar's neighbors. Over the commune's half-dozen years, petitioners and Sonoma County officials angled to evict visitors. At one point, Lou deeded the property to God. He paid $15, 000 in fines and did fifteen days in jail for contempt. Finally the county bulldozed the hippie shacks, the Morningstar adventure having cost Lou something like seven hundred thousand 2011 dollars.
The Limeliters re-formed, and Lou continued to make periodic attempts at working up a classical performance. He also continued to propose that society set aside remote sites where anybody could squat.
Lou died in 1996, diabetes having masked a malignancy until two or three weeks before the end. He faced imminent death with grace and humor.