Ringolevio: A Life Played for Keeps

by Emmett Grogan

Published July 1990


ne day in 1965 I was rehearsing a play at the San Francisco Mime Troupe studio in our made-over industrial building on Harrison Street. A lithe, freckled man with flinty, Irish features walked in to observe. He had an arresting gait with a leoline head thrust aggressively forward as if it were impatient with the body behind it. His eyes were a cool, unflappable blue, and his face was as still as a mask suggesting abundant anger and determination. Emmett Grogan had come to audition.

We struck up a conversation that carried us through the afternoon and a long walk to our respective flats, which, it turned out, were on opposite corners of the street. He was a galvanizing story teller and an immediate new friend who subsequently changed my life in more profound ways that anyone I had ever met before, or have allowed to since.

If all of us are "life-actors," more or less consciously creating an identity by our intentions and daily behavior, Emmett was determined to be a "life-star." He carried with him the spot-lit absorption of an actor. Men and women attended when he entered and moved through the room with the detached concentration of a shark, because he had a developed sense of drama in his posture, his cupped cigarette, his smoky, hooded eyes. His being declared him a man on the wrong side of the law; a man with a past; a man who would not be deterred.

This was Emmett Grogan, the self created by young Eugene Grogan in a life sentence of hard labor with his soul. Though time and observation have modified my early perception, they have never totally obliterated it.

To understand the necessity and purpose of Emmett's alter-ego, it is necessary to remember the environment in which he became conscious: the mid-Forties and early Fifties in America. Korea had been the first shock to national post-World War II euphoria, interrupting the nation's chow-down of global resources, status and prestige, with the messy business of "making the world safe for democracy." Precipitated under suspicious circumstances, Korea was a bloody hell where troops mutinied and floundered with useless weapons in a struggle between foreign neighbors which they never fully understood.

An overlooked by-product of this war was the growth of the Hell's Angels, formed after World War II. Initially comprised of disillusioned vets, their gang life of blood loyalties, squad-and-platoon-sized intimacy and organization was an early intimation of the coming war with the status-quo. The New York Daily News featured articles about teen-aged gang-wars, urban snipers, and the spreading blight of heroin in New York's ghettos, and the debacle of Korea was soon successfully covered up by the McCarthy period anti-communist witch-hunts.

The cultural propaganda machinery was in full swing. Rock Hudson and Doris day were advertising America's consumer heaven to the rest of the world in sexless romps. "Ozzie and Harriet" and "Leave it to Beaver" offered bland television fantasies of family life, intimidating kids from mentioning their personal griefs, lest they be considered freaks. In real homes, people drank, fought bitterly, abused their children, had ulcers and worked themselves into early graves. Young people were pressured to study meaningless subject matter to enter college, to graduate and "make good" like the parents who were dying in front of them.

This divorce between reality and official fiction demanded articulation and voice, and that voice was the unquenchable Youth Underground which leaked its "treacherous" information through street wisdom. It's no accident that Kenny Wisdom is the name Emmett chose for the protagonist of Ringolevio's first half, the undirected self which existed before young Eugene's willed Emmett into existence.

America;'s much-touted production of material wealth was not bandaging a lot of people where they were wounded. The forward march of capitalism was killing the nation's gentlest seers and grinding the most tender hopes and aspirations under the heel of economic Darwinism. There were some adult voices calling the shots truthfully, however, but they all seemed to be precisely the people that our parents warned us against*- the voices of rock and roll, jazz, folk music, hot-rods, blues-life and the Beats.

The young's enemy was not Communism but a culture based on the unimpeded demands of capital that rolled over personal eccentricities and predilections, personal power and authority the way Hitler rolled over Poland. We were trying to thrive in a culture whose values and goals were so sublimated to material ends as to be indivisible from them. In such as case, what do you do when the culture itself is the enemy? Eugene created Emmett as his answer to that question.

Emmett quickly became bored with the Mime Troupe and what he considered the "safety" of the stage. With his almost invisible companion, Billy Murcott, the one he called "the genius," Emmett began improvising activities on the streets which laid the groundwork for the Diggers, a group whose action-oriented philosophy and politics were based on autonomy, personal authenticity and freedom. The name itself was an homage to Gerard Winstanley, the millenarian heretic religious leader of seventeenth-century England who believed in the universal right of man to cultivate wastelands and common lands without paying tariffs to owners of the manors they adjoined. Winstanley's followers were nicknamed the Diggers because they dug and planted on these lands, only to be beaten and dispersed by vigilantes roused by local landowners.

The San Francisco Diggers began producing free food every day in the Golden Gate Park Panhandle. A simple act if you considered it as "charity." But when those who had come to eat were asked to step through a large yellow picture frame called "The Free Frame of Reference" and then given smaller ones to wear around their necks and view the world through, the larger implications of this simple act became apparent. The food was there, the kids were there, why not feed them? Without ideology, or cant. Just have food there and see what happened. It was a challenging, interesting thing to do, a precedent-setting thing to do. Consider the implications, the organizing, the effort, to make this possible: if you could feed two or three or five hundred people a day, for free, what else could you do? And why not? This simple expression of personal power, based on wanting to do something and refusing to be deterred; demonstrating the depth of that desire by performing it not only without recompense but anonymously so that one could not be paid in prestige either, set the stage for the coming year's catalog of celebratory, culture-shocking, mind-bending events which sprung from the Diggers, many of which are chronicled in the pages that follow.

Emmett's personal relationship to these formulations was always ambiguous and complex. His notion of anonymity was to give his name away, so that countless people would claim it for countless purposes. (Eventually,, some reporters would assert that there was no Emmett Groan, that the name was a fiction created by the Diggers to confound the straight world.) While it was a way of demonstrating lack of attachment, it also made him ubiquitous, an instant legend.

Life with Groan was a daily exercise in such contradictions, a daily refinement of one's understanding of "truth." One could never be sure exactly where the hair had been split and how. If, for instance, he came into a room late for a meeting, he might apologize with a story about being attacked by street toughs, taking revenge on him for some earlier intervention in their affairs. Usually people listened to these stories, without believing or disbelieving them, enjoying the drama of life with Emmett. If one were pushed to incredulity by a particularly outrageous claim and were to challenge him, he might remove his glasses with the air of a smug magician and demonstrate his blackened eye and wounds. The wounds were definitely real, but was the story? If it was true, was it completely or partially true? One never knew and never found out.

"Never let them catch you in a lie," he said to me once at the beginning of a three-month "run" one summer at New York's infamous Chelsea Hotel. This remark alerted me to Emmett's awareness of his own self-dramatizing, and the extent to which he used his sense of "theater" as an asset in his work. And what was that work?

That summer, we camped illicitly in the Chelsea, pretending to be "managers," in the rooms vacated by Janis Joplin and her band after they had left on tour. We would move from room to room, picking the flimsy locks, confounding the Hotel management who sent the bills on to god-knows-what befuddled band accountant. We spent hours on the phone each day, calling people we had never met, but who might be resources - anyone of whom intimate knowledge could be turned to our advantage - inventing pretexts to bring them into our purview. By the end of the summer we had New York wired; unlimited mobility and access to room we wanted to be in; cultural impact; and enhanced prestige. (Of course, this last is a contradiction, but we were contradictory people, and, after all, human.)

One high point of the summer's work was brokering a peace meeting between the New York Police and Puerto Rican gang leaders from the Lower East Side. We'd arranged to have use of the penthouse boardroom of the CBS building after hours. We reveled in the confusion and shock on the faces of the police and the gang-leaders as they were escorted by the doorman, who had unlocked the huge skyscraper, into the executive meeting room. There, at the head of the huge, empty, hardwood table with seating for twenty, were Emmett and I, in blue-jeans, long-hair and earrings, waiting for them like it was our living room. That was a classic Digger play - hard politics with style. It was Emmett's art, and he was good at it.

All artists desire an audience, and much as we would criticize and change our culture, we want, at the same time, to be accepted and rewarded by it. Emmett was no different, and it is this contradiction, of simultaneously spurning and yearning an audience, which became the crucifix on which he finally impaled himself. It does not require too much of a stretch of the imagination to see in a crucifix the outline of a syringe, and it is to that ambivalent symbol of healing and death that I must turn for the dark-side of Emmett's "truth."

The Diggers knew what was wrong with the culture and believed that if we created enough examples of "free-life" by actually acting them out on the streets, without the safety-net of a stage, then people would have alternatives to society's skimpy menu of life choices. But the strain of inventing a culture is exhausting. Everything comes up for review. No limit or taboo is sacred, especially when the investigation is coupled to belief in a high and noble mission. If our souls know no limits, why should our bodies? Drugs became the fuel for imaginative and physical transcendence.

As edge dwellers, we were proud of being tougher, more experimental, truthful, and less compromised than our peers who seemed more interested in dope-and-long-hair-at-the-office than in real social alternatives. If their Hallmark Card philosophy were fueled by acid, grass and hashish, we had heroin and amphetamine - champions of the blues life; invincible allies of Charlie Parker, Billie Holliday, foot soldiers in 'Nam, and countless other heroes who had fought the beast up close and turned themselves into the flames they tried to signal through. Hindsight has taught me that there is an invisible ravenous twin haunting each of us. Despite each "good work" and selfless sacrifice in the name of commonly held beliefs, without unremitting vigilance, tiny, daily, indulgences betray these high aims and feed our gluttonous companion.

Emmett struck me with a needle twice. The first time he pierced my ear. "It'll change you," he said. We were in Sweet William's kitchen, not too long before he became a Hell's Angel. Poet Lenore Kandel, William's olive-skinned lover with a thick shiny braid, smiled contentedly while she sat stringing beads for the glittering curtains that festooned every window in the house . Sweet William was attending the ceremony, his grave, Mayan-Jewish face with high cheekbones and dark eyes bearing solemn witness. Emmett pierced by ear and he was right. It did change me. It drew me a little deeper into our confederation, a little farther outside the pasty grip of convention.

The second time was in the living room of a Hollywood movie star, in a forest of Pop Art paintings. This time the needle was a syringe, loaded with heroin. "It'll change ya," he said, and it changed a lot. The star's wife walked in, took one look at her husband sitting in a circle of freaks shooting up, and left him for good; I began the process of ruining a heretofore healthy body; Sweet William started down a path which took a hard turn at a soured dope deal that left him half paralyzed with a bullet in his head; and Emmett's road petered out "at the end of the line" of the Coney Island subway April Fools Day 1978 - some twelve years later, where his body was found, dead of an overdose.

The Sixties turned into the Seventies and the hard-life changed a lot of things. A lot of friends died, all I believe, mentioned in this book. Tracy, Marcus, Bill Lindyn, Billy Batman, Pete Knell, and wonderful Paula, thrown off a hotel roof in Terra Linda. The list is longer than I have the heart to type. Brooks wound up in a state hospital after blinding himself on an acid trip he never returned from; Moose is lost somewhere in the FBI secret witness program; Freewheelin' Frank did nine years at Folsom; Kathleen had to go underground and disappeared in Europe for 17 years.

Faced with these cautionary episodes, a lot of people got well. Phyllis went to school and became a nurse and a college professor; Natural Suzanne became a lawyer and will be a judge of international treaties with indigenous people; Nina, Freeman, David and Jane moved upstate to the Mattole River and today look after the wild salmon and fight the excesses of the logging industry. Peter Berg, whom Grogan called the Hun in Ringolevio, writes and breads new ground as a bioregional thinker just as he did as a Mime Troupe director and Digger.

Somewhere in these transformations, Emmett got lost. I went to see him once, shortly after the publication of Ringolevio when he was riding high, married to a beautiful French-Canadian actress and living in a luxurious apartment in Brooklyn Heights. He was proud of having returned "so near and yet so far," as he put it.

I admit to envy of him then. I was still without money, living on a commune in Pennsylvania doing no-nonsense farm labor for ourselves and a crippled neighbor, and attending to some details surrounding my father's estate. Most of my energy was going into survival and what was left was dedicated to learning enough about nuclear power to prevent a plant from being erected in our community.

I couldn't help feeling that it was my life that had paid for the laundered sheets, elegant rooms, well-stocked refrigerator and bar. Proud as I was of a brother's success, like others in our family, I was sore about the egocentric tone of Ringolevio and agreed with one friend's assessment when he said, "Oh, yeah, Emmett sauntered and we all walked."

Consequently, when I saw that Emmett's eyes were "pinned" and knew that he'd been using heroin again, I had an excuse to blow up and read him the riot act, while Louise smiled, secretly pleased, I think, that someone was telling him what she could not. I told him that I didn't care if he wanted to die, but why did he want to die such a boring, low-class death? If he wanted to go out, why didn't he take on the nuclear power cartel as his suicide mission and die for something? I explained everything that I had learned about it to date, told him he was a boring motherf----- and left so that we could both lick our wounds.

From that time on, our relationship changed, and Emmett began to relate to me as if I were a necessary audience. He was proud to tell me that our bedroom confrontation had produced a new book, called Final Score, a nuclear thriller which he felt would outline the perils of the whole system. I declined his invitation to join him at "The Last Waltz," The Band's all-night farewell concert at San Francisco's legendary Winterland Auditorium on Thanksgiving 1976, because I was bored with rock and roll's self-congratulatory flack. Emmett called back two days later to announce that he had gotten Michael McClure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Lenore Kandel and Kirby Doyle - all San Francisco poets and "family" - to come. "Is that good enough, you Jew Bastard?" he laughed, knowing that I would then be there. He had begun writing songs - the Band even recorded two - and was excited that Etta James might record one.

Despite all these activities and interests, by this time nothing much was really sustaining Emmett. The "play" had changed, the perfect role he'd crafted was slightly anachronistic and his inability to make something grand happen was taking toll of his confidence. I felt that he was trapped by the glamor of this persona and needed time to disappear, to take beginner's steps in new directions, beyond the glare of public attention, but he seemed preoccupied with maintaining his identity and status. He developed curious mannerisms, particularly a constant, knowing wink, suggesting that everything had a deeper, hipper side that I would have missed without his warning. It was as if he sensed that his act was getting thin and, instead of nourishing it, resorted to a trick to suggest that it was the audience's perceptions which were faulty.

The last time I saw him, I kept a rendezvous at a Malibu beach house and no one answered the door. I prowled around, broke in and found Emmett passed out in bed. I checked his pulse and, satisfied that he was living, shook the place down before I woke him and found enough drugs and traces to open a small pharmacy. We had a knock-down fight and finally, as a strategy for getting me off his back, he confessed to a suicide attempt the previous day. I didn't believe it at all, but I was stunned nonetheless, because, even as a strategy, Emmett was asking me to feel sorry for him. That was so uncharacteristic it frightened me.

Because I lived four hundred miles away, I called a trusted friend who lived close enough to monitor him a bit. Duvall Lewis was a brilliant black man who had served as staff on the California State Arts Council while I was Chairman there. A tall and charming hipster and political can-do wizard, Duvall was fearless and never missed the joke. I thought he and Emmett would like each other. They did, and began to hang out together, sharing the same sense of adventure. Duvall called one day, and though his laughter described a hundred-mile-an-hour car race through Topanga Canyon where Emmett chased down a famous cinematographer and forced him to sign a release for his book, the man had optioned and ignored for an unconscionable length of time.

When Duvall called with the news of Emmett's death, his call was just one in a long series that crisscrossed the country, stitching friends and the news together. Not so many years after this, Duvall himself was dead by his own hand, in despair at being completely frozen out of the Reagan era's material feeding frenzy. Their two lives, and two deaths, continue to haunt me as unnervingly similar.

There is no way that I can tell you who Emmett was; neither will this book. It's like him: part fact, part fiction, a lot of anger and humor, a lot of clear-eyed calls, and some poppycock. Emmett told you what he thought. He was stand-up. he was a man, extreme and contradictory, quarrelsome and kind, charismatic and self-destructive, who willed himself to be a hero.

For most people it might have been enough to have been a living legend, an icon to thousands of people that included Puerto Rican gang leaders, presidents of record companies, professional thieves, wealthy restauranteurs, movie stars, socialites, Black Panthers, Hell's Angels, and the Diggers themselves.

So read Ringolevio in that light. Don't believe everything you read, but don't be too quick to doubt either. Whether or not he actually did everything he claimed in exactly the way he claimed is immaterial. As Emmett disclaims in his Author's note, "This book is true." But that doesn't mean it all happened. Emmett was a guidon carried into battle, an emblem behind which people rallied their imaginations.

Emmettdid enough, rest assured. He proved with his existence that each of us could act out the life of our highest fantasies. This was his goad and his compassionate legacy. Don't minimize it or let yourself off the hook of his example by quibbling over details. Think about what you read, but more important, as Emmett would have said, "Dig yourself!"


*This phrase consciously mimics the title of a book about the Haight-Ashbury, called We Are the People Our Parents Warned Us Against, by Nicholas Von Hoffman, a reporter that Emmett distrusted on sight and refused to speak to. He came to the Haight with his teen-aged son as a beard, and in the naivete of the times, counter-culture people, many on the wrong side of the law, gave him free access and spoke frankly with him. Some of his articles for the Washington Post were reprinted locally. In them, Von Hoffman named names, places and dates, which created havoc in the community and caused a number of arrests in its wake, provoking, I'm told, a crisis dialogue about ethics among Post staff members.


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