Home Free Home A HISTORY OF TWO OPEN-DOOR CALIFORNIA COMMUNES MORNING STAR RANCH and WHEELER'S (AHIMSA) RANCH
Ramon Sender Barayon, Gay Leslie, Near Morningstar, Bill Wheeler and many others
_ 1986 by Ramon Sender Barayon
CHAPTER 1 BEGINNINGS
BILL WHEELER: "Dark latin eyes, chiseled features, thick black hair and a sturdy, compact body, Ramon Sender was a respected avant-garde composer in San Francisco. With Morton Subotnick he co-founded of The San Francisco Tape Music Center. They produced monthly concerts of new music, and ran a studio for the synthesis of electronically generated compositions."
RAMON: "One memorable piece was "The Tropical Fish Opera." I brought a bowl of tropical fish as a score to a concert and four of us, Morton Subotnick, Pauline Oliveros, Loren Rush and myself, proceeded to block out certain areas on the glass sides of the tank -- a staccato area, a low-pitch area and so on. We sat down and played the fish as notes from the four sides of the tank, thus producing four simultaneous versions from different dimensions. This tickled the audience enormously. Later we developed a type of Music Theater that combined liquid, slide and film projections with taped sounds and live instruments. Perhaps my most successful piece from that era is "Desert Ambulance" for solo accordion, tape and projections. It's still performed somewhere every year or so.
"Then, in 1965, the Rockefeller Foundation gave us fifteen thousand dollars with the promise of one hundred and fifty thousand more if we would associate ourselves with a college. Up until that time we had run the center on peanuts, odd commercial recording jobs and a yearly refinancing of my house. However, by the time the grant money arrived, I had begun to experiment seriously with psychedelics. I had taken a peyote trip in 1963 with Steve Reich during which I had relived my life backwards to the point of conception. Also I had an intense encounter with my mother's spirit. She had been executed by the Spanish fascists when I was two years old and had become a forgotten person throughout my growing- up years.
"By 1965, I had become restless with the Tape Music Center format and wanted to expand out into performances of the ancient mysteries. I wanted to sacrifice a cow onstage to Mithras -- something to alert people to where their hamburgers came from. But that would have finished our chances for the larger grant. Also, instead of affiliating with a college, I felt we should give up our individual households and start living together, thus cutting our expenses. I think the men in the group might have gone for it, but we were all living with women who could never have lived under the same roof. Pursuing this idea of ceremonial representations, I phoned Stewart Brand, a young photographer just back from New Mexico who was putting on a show called America Needs Indians. It consisted of simultaneous projections of Native Americans and modern Americans, fast correlations of an Indian hogan with a MacDonald's restaurant, or a chieftain with a Fuller Brush salesman. Then one day Stewart called up and said, 'Ken Kesey's in town and wants to do a Trips Festival. Do you want in?' It sounded ceremonial enough, so I dropped out of the Tape Music Center to help put it together, during which time I met Lou at a press conference. We discovered we shared some mutual interests in music, eastern religions and living in the country."
Gina Stillman, Ramon's living partner, was a live-wire sister with curly hair framing a beaming face. From a well-to- do California family, she had been ostracized by them when she began living with him in Berkeley.
GINA: "One day in January, 1966, Ramon came home with a surprised smile on his face. He had been interviewed by Lou Gottlieb, and afterwards Lou had turned him on to a pipeful of grass at Stewart's apartment. They had liked each other very much, and Ramon had talked about his community experiences at the Society of Brothers, a Christian group where he lived in the mid-fifties. The loving, cohesive feeling of community living still attracted him, although he couldn't handle the Brothers' rigid, moralistic attitudes. A week or so alter, Ramon asked me, 'What would you think of living in a commune?' I remember that I threw a temper tantrum and told him I could never live that way. I was not at all attracted to the idea. He definitely was thinking about it, although he didn't have anything specifically planned in regard to Lou's land."
Through Ramon, Ben and Rain Jacopetti also became involved in the Trips Festival. A couple in their late twenties with a five-year-old son, they had founded Open Theater in Berkeley, an avant-garde endeavor similar to Ramon's effort with the Tape Music Center. BEN: "We had a non-profit-status organization, the Berkeley Experimental Arts Foundation, and decided we needed a permanent building. That was a big mistake because it cost us thousands of dollars and ended up in a lot of bullshit. We ended up having to worry about a sizable institution. Before we did the Trips Festival, I had totally dropped out of the theater because I was so wasted that I couldn't make it anymore. I became a Yellow Cab driver -- a Macrobiotic Yellow Cab driver riding around the East Bay with sixteen or seventeen drunks in a row as fares, each one different, each one with his trip to lay on you. For the whole shift from ten-thirty at night until seven-thirty in the morning, all I had to eat was a jar of roasted rice. That was it! I couldn't drink anything because I had drunk my liquids quota for the day. And also I was smoking dope. I was so burnt out by the time the Trips Festival came along that I hardly knew what it was like. The Open Theater part of it was an absolute, total bomb because it had been conceived as cabaret theater. All of a sudden there were 5000 freaks that wanted The Grateful Dead! What could I do with 5000 freaks that wanted it up the ass?"
RAIN: "No! You had the perfect act! If you had done Revelations, they would have torn us apart and everyone would have gotten off!" BEN: "Bill Graham said no, didn't he? He decided to bring on The Loading Zone instead, a Berkeley rock group." RAIN: "We chose to let him say no. At that point, I was every bit as strong as Bill Graham if I had wanted to be. I took a look at that second night and said if someone opened a dance hall with a lot of rock music, he could make a lot of money. I can remember sitting with Graham in some restaurant, and he said he had just arranged to have the Fillmore and was going to close the deal that day. I looked up and said, 'Well, if that's what you want to do...' I had a lot of respect for him because he was giving people exactly what they wanted. The Trips Festival was exactly what they wanted, and all he wanted out of it was money and power. But if you don't get money and power out of doing that kind of job, there's nothing else to get."
BEN: "Then there was the night after the Trips Festival when we all gathered together to split up the money. Everyone said how much they wanted. Graham said he thought he should get eight hundred, and Ramon and Stewart and I conferred and said no, we though he should get $900 because he did such a great job. He was really pleased. There was a very good feeling throughout. He had all the money and all the receipts, and when he counted it all up, he was $900 short! He counted it all over again -- still $900 short. This frantic look came over his face, and Stewart said, 'Sit down, Bill, just take it easy. Sit down and it'll all work itself out.' Graham stared wild-eyed at us and ran out of the house. We all sat there looking at each other going 'Um, um, um,' and in about five minutes he ran back with a paper bag and a big smile. It was a paper bag full of money! He had been taking in money so fast that he had just stuck it in a paper bag and thrown it in the back of his car and forgotten it!"
RAMON: "The Trips Festival energies totally blew me away, and I went to the desert with Katy the Dog for a six-week cool-out. It was there, in a cave, that I heard the sun speak to me, saying "Ramon, you're a fool but I love you.' The sun! God wasn't invisible after all, but beaming down his vivifying light into my life! What a wonderful awakening! So I entered a reality where everything was real -- there was no longer this duality between spirit and matter. The word 'enlightenment' for me meant the pouring of sunlight into my eyes to merge with the inner subcellular light that runs the body. My goal became to merge these two lights through prolonged meditation on the sun. If I succeeded, my body would then be capable of living on light. It would no longer be necessary to breathe, although it might still be fun to do so, or eat and so on."
GINA: "In March, after the Trips Festival and Ramon's trip to the desert, we drove up to Sonoma County with Lou, Stewart and Lois Brand and Katy the Dog. There were six of us, and Lou had brought along some of his friend Buck Wheat's incredible hashish cookies. So we arrived at the ranch considerably loaded, and were entranced by the beauty of the place. We walked around, and it was like the Garden of Eden. It was early springtime, everything very green, with all the flowers coming out, and no one there except us. It seemed so untouched. And of course we loved it. But even after that experience we didn't have any plans or ideas for being there or living there for any extended period of time."
RAMON: "I said to Stewart, 'The sun is God!' He looked at me very mysteriously but didn't seem to want to talk about it. I, on the other hand, talked to everyone. I felt I had been given complete freedom to be just a foolish as necessary."
GINA: "I was a high school teacher, and when my Easter vacation came in April, Ramon and I decided we wanted to go somewhere in nature where we could be alone and play Adam and Eve. So we went up to Mt. Tamalpais across the bay, and found what we thought was a very secluded spot in the woods, took off our clothes and began running around. In five minutes a forest ranger was there, telling us to put our clothes back on. And I said to Ramon, 'Let's go up to Lou's land. I bet we could be alone here, and no one would bother us.' So Ramon phoned Lou, and we drove up to the ranch and had a wonderful week there together, just wonderful. The apple blossoms were just beginning and they ere exquisite. Ramon had a LSD experience in a beautiful redwood grove during which he felt that two angels had communicated with him. He decided he had to stay, that he couldn't go back to the city with me. I was distressed, but I understood. I wanted to stay too, but I had the responsibility of my teaching job. So I went back and visited him every weekend."
RAMON: "Lou's ranch seemed an ideal place to continue my sun yoga, and the spirits in the redwood groves welcomed me. I settled down to four-hour daily sessions of gazing at the sun through the redwood foliage in the semi- shade, always careful not to do anything physically harmful. "When those two angels appeared -- perhaps I should call them 'spirit guides' -- they told me I was freed of all karmic residues that might hinder me on my path, something that encouraged me greatly. A psychic reader later affirmed this was true, and that I was in my first incarnation as a human being. So I was at that point 'free' -- 'Mukti' in the Hindu sense -- liberated, but I had not yet achieved a state of permanence nor a knowledge I could share with others. I had not yet completed the course." While finishing up her teaching duties that spring and waiting to rejoin Ramon, Gina stayed with Ben and Rain Jacopetti in Berkeley. Occasionally Ramon joined her there.
RAMON: "At the Jacopetti's, I had a vision of the Divine Mother which made me realize I only had to call upon Her to receive her help. So it was She who led me to Lou's ranch -- it was really Her land, after all, having been dedicated to Her by John Beecher, the previous owner, as we would learn only much later."
Chapter 2 First Arrivals
RAIN: "The Trips Festival was such a new experience for all of us! We had always been really poor, and our minds were blown by having been connected to something that was making money. But the rock music trip really wasn't for us. Ben said, 'I gotta go off somewhere and do some Zen.' So later that spring, I packed my old treadle sewing machine and a lot of brown rice into a truck and we lit out for Lou's land to be with Ramon and Gina."
Suffering from a similar overload, Lou had the old egg storage shed at the ranch renovated to accommodate him and his grand piano. He arrived that June to join the growing community.
LOU: "I was exhausted. My health had failed. My body was in bad shape and I had a crisis of pessimism. It was real exhaustion plus God-thirst."
GINA: "Nobody was planning anything. I felt all along that 'someone' knew, but it wasn't us. The people who came fit in. There was plenty of room and there was no reason to tell anyone to leave. As it was, a group of very talented people showed up -- artists -- people who liked to spend a lot of time in thought and contemplation. Somehow the land itself encouraged meditation, peace and happiness."
One of those artists was poet-painter-calligrapher and composer Wilder Bentley.
WILDER: "I went on the road in September of '63. I had the vision that rent was what was keeping me from self- realization and, since I had been searching for economic security and never finding it, I said obviously there is no such thing as 'enough.' Therefore I decided to pursue my art relentlessly and just accept wherever I sank in terms of the world's status orientation. So of course I sank straight to the side of the road, to where the wild animals have been pushed by cars and private property. It's all that's left of the Commons. I crossed fences in the evening and got out early in the morning and painted pictures that I sold in the cities for money. Other than to sell something, I never went into cities, but did everything on public land. I lived on beaches and in the woods for two years.
"I saw myself as having taken sides in a struggle that was going on all over the world between those people who could pay to have their right to occupy land defended by cops and those who couldn't. In other words, when you pay taxes, you're hiring an armed force that permits you to run anybody off your land. This threat is implicit in American land ownership, and this is the means by which you are drawn into commercial employment. The necessity to pay to use land makes you sell your work. This in turn draws you into a servile conformity, and no art is ever produced out of that state of mind.
"The whole world looks different from the side of the road. Only then can you see what's wrong with the social structure, because otherwise you get into your 'niche' and only perceive the totality by what you do to hang on to your 'niche.' But finally in 1966 I became tired of doing the fugitive American-Indian-in-the-woods number.' I began to think about getting once more into the mainstream of American life. At this juncture, I was visiting someone who said 'One of the Limeliters owns some land and we know somebody who knows him and we're all going up there on Tuesday. Want to come along?' So I said 'Sure', and got into the back of his truck and went to the ranch in mid-June. There were seven or so people living there. I moved onto the back porch of the Lower House where I spent my time lettering books. While I was working one day, a dormouse came up, put its hand on my toe and looked up at me."
Bruce Baillie, one of America's most respected avant- garde filmmakers, set up a small editing studio in a detached room behind the Lower House kitchen. A shy, quiet man, he worked diligently all that summer making a series of short films.
RAIN: "Bruce had this dog named Mama Dog. He was the only other person besides myself to use the kitchen. He'd come in to fix meals for her. He was so sweet to her! She was so old that he had to help her up and down." . . .