Book Review -
Sleeping Where I Fall
Author: Mitchell J. Shields
July 5, 1998
About halfway through his engaging if occasionally
frustrating memoir of life in the 1960s, actor and writer Peter
Coyote relates a brief but telling anecdote about a friend named
Marty who had been living for a while in a commune in Northern
Marty, a large, muscular fellow with a surfeit of body hair and
a broken nose, showed up one day at Coyote's place in San
Francisco with a fistful of money and a directive from the women
in his group to get a vasectomy. His medical mission - which
made a certain amount of sense considering that, as Coyote
recalls, Marty "was copulating his brains out" as part of his
communal experience - raised fewer eyebrows than did his attire:
a demure dress and a scarf tied like a babushka to cover his
The meaning of Coyote's story is found not in the fact that his
friend was brave enough, or outrageous enough, to wear a dress.
As anyone who's been to San Francisco (or Houston, for that
matter) in the last few decades knows, men wearing dresses
aren't exactly a unique phenomenon.
No, the point of Coyote's tale is that Marty had no idea he was
being outrageous. He didn't wear what he did to shock or startle
or make a statement. He was completely guileless, so deep into
trying out a different way of living that he'd forgotten it was
And that, Coyote wants his readers to know, is something that is
too frequently left out of the deluge of books written about the
'60s: how sweetly seductive the call to experiment with new
modes of living was for many people of that era and how deeply
intense was their commitment.
In Coyote's view, remembrances of the 1960s tend too often to be
either nostalgic romances that dismiss the passions of the time
as the indulgences of youth or denunciations of the David
Horowitz variety that apologize for a revolutionary past and
trace the nation's current ills to the decade's
What Coyote tries to do in Sleeping Where I Fall is walk a third
path, to admit to errors but not deny the importance of those
who attempted to expand society's boundaries, to chronicle in a
straightforward way both the human potential discovered and the
human cost of that discovery.
Coyote is a good choice to do just that. Though he's best-known
today as an actor - his resume includes roles in movies ranging
from the recent Sphere to E.T. to Pedro Almovodar's Kika and, it
seems, the voice-over narration of every other nature
documentary out there - he came to celebrity late.
Born Peter Cohon, the son of a successful East Coast investment
banker, his first passions were for literature and the stage,
and in 1964, after graduating from a Midwestern college, he
moved to San Francisco to study creative writing and acting.
Before long he'd given up his professorial pipe and tweeds for
long hair, leathers and a life that brought him in contact with
the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the Hell's Angels, the Grateful
Dead and, most important, the Diggers, a short-lived community
of anarchists whose main contribution to the counterculture was
the notion of living free. An open-ended idea, the latter
included everything from giving up individual identity (Emmett
Grogan, one of the founders of the Diggers, allowed anyone
The contradictions inherent in this were obvious: No matter how
many times Grogan handed his name out, it was still his to give,
and at some point somebody, somewhere, had paid in time or money
for what was "free" in the free stores.
But consistency didn't particularly matter to the Diggers. What
mattered was getting people to question the very foundations of
the life they led, to assume that nothing was a given, that
everything was open.
One of the disappointments of Sleeping Where I Fall is that
Coyote doesn't explore this concept more fully. He shows its
impact, especially among those with whom he moves back to the
earth in various California communes, but he doesn't really
explore its meaning. But then again, considering how slippery
the idea is and how he tends to wander into somewhat
hoary-sounding rhetoric when he tries to wrestle with it,
perhaps it's best that Coyote focuses more on the people he knew
than on the philosophies that drove them.
Aided by journals he kept at the time, follow-up interviews and
what is apparently a prodigiously detailed memory (despite
frequent indulgence in drugs of the day), Coyote paints a number
of memorable portraits - so many, in fact, that by book's end
they begin to jumble together, the members of one commune
blending into the members of the next. (This is not, as it
happens, a problem with the essay that sparked this book,
Carla's Story, which deservedly won a Pushcart Prize for
nonfiction in 1994and can be found by anyone who's interested at
Still, these individual tales are bound up by Coyote's own
passage, which eventually brings him back home (where his
friends trash his father's estate), then on to chair the
California Arts Council and finally, starting in his late 30s,
to success as a movie actor.
Perhaps because of the same chameleonlike quality that makes him
a good performer, Coyote was able to move easily among a number
of different groups, and he kept his eyes open wherever he was.
Despite a slow start and a few lapses here and there, Sleeping
Where I Fall tells what he saw with skill, honesty and, perhaps
most remarkably, a passion only slightly diminished by the years
that have passed since he first toyed with the thought that the
world could be changed for the better. That we haven't toyed
with the thought more, Coyote suggests, is our loss.
Coyote Web Site ]