Peter Coyote: Sixties’ Survivor With Memories Worth Sharing
by Suzanne Gordon
Millions of Americas who listen to radio ads for Apple or watch public TV have heard—if not heard of—Peter Coyote. His is the smooth-as-bourbon voice selling us on the Ipad and narrating Ken Burns documentaries, like “The Dust Bowl” and “The Roosevelts.”
Many of us in his own generational cohort (Coyote is 73) still remember his on-camera roles in Hollywood films like Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.” or European ones like “A Man in Love,” in which he shared top billing with Greta Scacchi and Jamie Lee Curtis or Roman Polanski’s Bitter Moon.
In The Bay Area, the Marin-based actor and Academy Award winning voice-over artist has a colorful history of cultural and political activism. He was an early member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Later in the 1960s, he joined the Diggers, an “alternative community” which offered free food, clothes, music, and medical care to newly arrived residents of The Haight.
During Jerry Brown’s first incarnation as governor, Coyote became an unlikely member of the California State Arts Council—and then its controversial chairman. In the decades since then, he has continued to lend his name, voice, and energy to a variety of progressive political causes both nationally and in California. He also found time to become a devout student of Zen Buddhism, leading to his ordination as a priest in 2011.
Adding to this already long and impressive Left Coast resume, Coyote has, in recent years, become an accomplished autobiographer. As a genre, Sixties’ memoirs is a big one but I’m generally not a fan. Remembering one’s glory days–as recalled by assorted alumni of the Black Panther Party, Weather Underground, SDS, the women’s movement, et al,–is not my idea of good senior citizen reading.
However, Coyote’s two over-lapping accounts of his own life and times are well worth checking out. Sleeping Where I Fall, just reissued in a third edition, provides a lively, insightful, and reflective rendering of the Northern California counter-culture and rural commune scene back in its heyday. In Coyote’s just-published, The Rainman’s Third Cure, we learn more about his troubled upbringing, amid east coast wealth, before he escaped to Grinnell College in Iowa and then the Francisco street theatre scene.
The author’s latest title is lifted from Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile,” which included this likely ode to overdoing things, pharmaceutically, back in the day:
“Now, the Rainman gave me two cures,
Then he said, “Jump right in.’
The one was Texas Medicine
The other was just Railroad Gin.
And like a fool I mixed them
And it strangled up my mind,
And now people just get uglier
And I have no sense of time.”
Coyote’s own jump right into the personal and political craziness of the Sixties was pretty big. In one chilling scene in Sleeping Where I Fall, Emmett Grogan, a charismatic founder of the Diggers, casually takes a syringe and injects heroine in Coyote’s vein promising: “This is gonna change you.” It certainly did. The author became a heroine addict and long-term sufferer from Hepatitis C.
Rainman’s Third Cure recounts his successful struggle to get off drugs, reshape his life, and come to terms with the difficult childhood briefly described in his first book, but explored more deeply in his second. Coyote (nee Cohon) grew up in Englewood, New Jersey in the 1950s, part of an exodus-to-the-suburbs by more affluent second generation Easter European Jews who grew up in New York City. His father Morris was a brash, bigger-than-life Wall Street investor who built the family’s fortune on his relentless energy and charisma. Unfortunately, he was also a bullying alpha male, who ended up leaving his family deeply in debt when he died suddenly after a down-turn in the market.
As Coyote describes him, his father’s “gaze communicated a restless, barely sublimated irritation, as if its subject had already claimed more attention than it deserved. When he was angry, his regard could sting like a paper cut. His eyes moved in small calculating arcs like a blade, expressing an unmistakable intention to dominate what they measured.”
Morris Cohon terrified his young son and helped drive his wife into a severe depression from which she barely recovered. When Coyote was only two-and-a half, his mother, Ruth, had a breakdown following the birth of his sister. She was essentially lost to her family for several years. “Her weight plummeted to ninety pounds and she was lobotomized by depression. She disappeared from my sight and consciousness.”
Luckily for the author, relatives hired a young African-American woman, Susie Howard, to take care of Peter and his sister, Muffet. Although she was only a teenager, she took over the household, becoming “a surrogate mother, a stabilizing force in my daily life, so critical to the stability and functioning of our home that her absence was inconceivable.”
Susie Howard became the first in a series of surrogate parent figures he describes in the book. When he was 34, he stayed with poet Gary Snyder at the latter’s home in the Sierras. As he observed the power of Snyder’s Buddhist practice, he realized that all his experiences with drugs only ended in a return to his “habitual self…sapped strength and energy and finally …what does one do with such experiences? After you ‘return’ a gap remains between the drug-induced insights and the moment-to-moment demands and stressors of daily life.”
The rest of Rainman’s Third Cure follows Coyote’s return to the “straight world.” If he failed to kick heroine, he knew he might end up like friends who died from an over dose. As a single parent at the time, he was afraid his daughter, after such a drug-related death, would be lost to California’s foster care system. With the help of Buddhist practice, Coyote learned that there was a “third cure.” This one helped him navigate his serendipitous career as a Hollywood actor, in the U.S. and Europe; a related stint modeling clothes for the well-known Italian designer Nino Cerutti, who became another surrogate father to him, and finally his ordination as a Buddhist priest.
The Rainman’ s Third Cure ends with a deeper look at Buddhist practice and philosophy. While it makes for interesting spiritual reading, the most poignant summing up of lessons learned from his life can be found in Sleeping Where I Fall. As a grown man, Coyote takes his eight-year old son Nick back to see the overgrown ranch in Olema where he and other refuges from The Haight lived communally for a spell.
With the boy at his side, he reflects on the tangled personal lives, failed political schemes, and chaotic social experiments of his own generation. But he also pays tribute to what Sixties’ protestors were able to accomplish in their resistance to the Vietnam War and subsequent campaigns for social, environmental and economic justice. What these two books highlight is that spirituality and political commitment are not mutually exclusive choices. What Coyote’s life story teaches us is that making peace with one’s inner demons can even lead to a deeper and richer engagement with efforts to change the world.