The last time I spoke to author Gordon Kennedy, his book Children of the Sun was out of print.
To date, it remains the authoritative text on the California Nature Boys and the transference of alternative culture from Germany to the deserts and shores of California during the early 20th century.
Recently, Kennedy’s book was reissued. It is available here. I sat down with the author/researcher to continue what has so far been one of the most popular interviews at the Eden’s Island Blog.
Brian Chidester, 06/24/2015
Brian Chidester: The last interview we did was in 2010. Update me on where your research has gone since that time, if you don’t mind?
Gordon Kennedy: Since 2010 I have been paying closer attention to many of the finer details of the discussions and conversations I had with the old folks I interviewed during the past 35 years, since nearly all of them are now deceased. I’m also hoping that their legacies and histories don’t become fictionalized and distorted by all of the new “authorities” out there in the social media.
BC: And by “old folks,” you mean the pre-hippies, like Eden Ahbez and Gypsy Boots, right? I know the internet can be frustrating for us researchers at times.
GK: Yes, some of the old photos and tape interviews I did with those 20th century nature folks, but I’m also looking much closer now at both European and American pre-history and realizing that indigenous people come in all colors, and most of us seem to have some biological requirement from our own heritage to connect with nature on a deeper spiritual level, so no wonder these subcultures emerge. Just within my lifetime the earth’s population has gone from 2 billion to 7 billion, so it’s just not as easy as it used to be to connect with that wild child inside each of us, but it’s still easier than most of us think.
BC: In our last conversation we talked a lot about the conditions that would make a person drop out in the late 19th century, or first half of the 20th. Maybe this time we should talk about what life was actually like for the Nature Boys in Ahbez’s time?
GK: Well, those desert canyons near Palm Springs were inhabited by the Cahuilla Indians for around 10,000 years and the caves in Tahquitz Canyon were still occupied by the indigenous people as late as 1880, which is remarkable.
BC: The late 19th century is when Europeans and Americans start inhabiting that region?
GK: Yes, and Bill Pester arrived in 1906 in Palm Springs [ed. originally called Agua Caliente] when it was just a small village with a handful of settlers and Indians. There were horse and foot trails through all of these canyons and they all had ample flowing water coming off the snowy ridges of San Jacinto, over 10,000 feet above the desert.
BC: We should remind readers that William Pester was a German immigrant and one of the first documented pre-hippies to live in California. They were called naturmenschen in Germany.
GK: Right, and Pester fell in love with the ancient Cahuilla Indian territory even writing about how few flying insects there are on the desert side of this mountain and one could hardly find anything comparable in the coastal mountains of California or any tropical habitat overseas if you want to go native.
BC: Were there spiritual types that lived there prior to Pester?
GK: Always. The Tram Canyon was named after Pedro Chino, the last Cahuilla shaman, who died in 1939. Indians from all over California came to his memorial and he was the last medicine man the tribe ever had, reputed to be quite old when he passed. In the wild grapevines to the south of the tram road lies the oasis that was formerly an Indian healing sanctuary in the mid-19th century and included some large caves where ceremonies were performed. When folks asked Pedro where his power came from, he pointed up to the mountains in Chino Canyon. The Nature Boys said the same thing and were making pilgrimages back to the canyons even in old age.
BC: Is it still there?
GK: The cave is now buried under either brush or rocks, but about 60 years after that period in the 19th century, Bill Pester lived in Chino Canyon during the summer months and had a palm log cabin he erected near the natural hot pools there in the grapevines. The side canyon upstream has a few caves too and there’s a cave near Chino Creek which flows strong year-round. Pester’s time there was over 40 years before they built the tram and the land there is checkerboarded either Agua Caliente Indian Reservation or private property. It’s a magnificent place and it takes about two hours to reach there walking from Palm Springs, but the old Indian trail is now unused because of the paved road.
GK: Palm Springs mayor Frank Bogert showed me his photos of Pester’s cabin up in Chino Canyon, very close to the hot pool. In the 1970s this section of land was owned by Culver Nichols and I knew Culver and a few of his caretakers like Frank Mallat and Joshua Rainbow… but the Vines are now closed to the public.
BC: Is it true that Pester and/or the California Nature Boys lived for a while in nearby Palm Canyon?
GK: Yes. Pester had a palm log cabin up there and was a resident for at least six years until the Indians built the Trading Post. Palm Canyon flows from Pinon Flat, up near the Palms, to Pines Highway, about fifteen miles down to the trading post on the Indian Reservation. It has many beautiful pools, waterfalls, a few hot springs, and even some lovely water grottos with indoor waterfalls. Some of the largest stands of native Washingtonia palms in the world are found just above where Pester had his cabin. During drought years, however, Palm Canyon dries up in the summer and is not suitable for habitation for the hot portion of the year, which is why Pester spent his summers in Chino Canyon or elsewhere.
BC: Was Pester kind of a lone wolf in the early years? Or when did others like him start showing up?
GK: During the period around 1918, Pester’s camp in Palm Canyon included many bearded, long-haired Nature Boys, some of whom were also German immigrants. This upset the local authorities in Palm Springs, though the Indians never bothered him until later in the 1920s, when they were building the new Trading Post. Some of these Nature Boys were probably trying to avoid World War 1. I would imagine that after the big stock market crash of 1929 more American youths were drawn to this type of existence.
BC: And I assume all of this was off-the-grid then, right? I mean, what were the conditions of these canyons like then?
GK: Completely feral, post-Neolithic. Murray Canyon was one of these palm-lined streams, with lovely pools and the famed Seven Sisters waterfalls, which are like giant birdbaths in the middle of the desert. Andreas flows year-round, even during drought. But of all the desert canyons, it was the first valley of Tahquitz that was most habitable and easiest to access from downtown Palm Springs, little more than a 40-minute walk. It’s also the most human-friendly one to live in, with eight caves named during the hippie period: Tree Cave, Rock of Ages, Eagles Nest, Grunge Cave, Slant Cave [ed. featured on Huell Howser], Sun Cave, Cliff Cave, and Recliner Cave. With beautiful weather, nice creeks with deep pools, giant boulders, indigenous lore, very few flying insects, and plenty of rock shelters, this was the best human feral habitat in the western USA.
BC: What happened to Tahquitz after the Nature Boys departed?
GK: The first valley of Tahquitz stayed pristine up until about 1967, but after the Palm Springs Pop Festival, it became horribly trashed up and stayed that way until the Indians closed it then re-opened it to the public in 1998. The Riverside County Search and Rescue had names on their topo maps for all the hippie camps and they knew the residents by name. In the ’70s there was a foot path from Palm Springs to Idyllwild called “The Hippie Trail” by the Search and Rescue, and it meandered over all seven waterfalls through about 15 miles of creek and desert… from the cactus to the pine forests.
BC: What made it such an alluring place to begin with?
GK: It was the Shangri-la of the 1937 film Lost Horizon where no one hardly grew old. You need very little in the way of clothes in Tahquitz. The nearby urban foraging is fantastic; carob, tangerines, dates, figs, grapefruit, prickly pear cactus… always easy to get in town. No place else in California could you find a set-up like that with caves, flowing water and food.
BC: Would you say the region was a hotbed for bohemians? Or were the Nature Boys a rarity?
GK: The Nature Boys were indeed a rarity, but the entire area, including Joshua Tree, has always attracted folks into unconventional thinking. The city of Palm Springs is far more expensive than many of the surrounding desert towns, but Palm Springs is also the only spot that has lots of water and caves that are perfectly suited for humans. Joshua Tree has very little flowing water, though it has always been home to artists and musicians who want affordable housing. 90% of the 38+ million people in California live within one hour of the ocean, so this is the “other” California where only 10% live.
BC: Have you actually been to the old spots where the Nature Boys might’ve hung out and slept outdoors at night?
GK: Many times because I was a resident too in the 1970s. The actual spot where Pester’s cabin was located is called “Hermit’s Bench”; it’s on the USGS topo maps and is the confluence of Palm Canyon and west fork of Palm Canyon. If you follow the west fork upstream past Gooseberry Spring to the top of the ridge you will find the Pacific Crest Trail and Fobes Saddle. Drop down the other side and you are at the Fobes Ranch, former residence of Dr. Timothy Leary and the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, who lived there in 1968 and 1969. So Bill Pester’s palm log cabin was six miles from Timothy Leary’s tipi at Fobes Ranch. There’s 50 years of history that linked the naturmenschen of Pester’s day to the Nature Boys of Ahbez’s time, to the hippies and the brotherhood.
BC: The numbers had boomed by then.
GK: Yes, 76 million people were young in that era and backpacking became really popular in 1968. The brotherhood were responsible for attracting a lot of interest on that mountain. Many of the Los Angeles radio stations and underground newspapers were describing the desert canyons as some kind of a spiritual mecca when the Palm Springs Pop Festival was announced for Easter of 1969. It brought an estimated 25,000 people to the two shows and virtually shut the city down with the National Guard and police from three counties brought in to herd the hippies out of Tahquitz and downtown Palm Springs. That was the beginning of the hippie occupation.
BC: They kept coming, I guess.
GK: It was quite a remarkable time in the canyon. In January and February 1969 two storms had dropped over 80 inches of rain, one of the wettest years of the 20th century, so the pools and waterfalls were all at maximum flow. The canyon may have never looked so good even hundreds of years before, so all those folks there during the summer of Woodstock  were witnessing a spectacular moment.
BC: Who were some of the notables of that period? Were any Nature Boys still out there then?
GK: There was a poet named Ray Morningstar who lived under Rock of Ages in the early 1970s with just a few rugs and bedding. He was our grandfathers’ generation… a Nature Boy who was the unofficial greeter of the canyon. He preached the gospel of nature and was the last of the old Nature Boys to call Tahquitz his home.
BC: That’s the first I’ve heard him mentioned.
GK: Ray welcomed everyone to his cave in the early 1970s… during the peak of hippie occupation… then he just disappeared one day and nobody knew where he went. There were also many videos and photos of Jim Morrison of the Doors hiking and swimming in Tahquitz Creek below the falls in 1969, and his history with the canyon may have reached back farther than that. One can’t help but wonder about the lyrics to the Doors song “Moonlight Drive/Horse Latitudes,” where he sings: “Children of the caves will let the secret fires glow.” Author Jerry Hopkins published biographies on both Jim Morrison and Gypsy Boots, two Tahquitz veterans.
BC: You told me once that you moved there in the ’70s, right?
GK: I lived in Tahquitz as a teenager for 15 months, from September 1975 until December ’76, and became very well-acquainted with all of the canyons, caves, waterfalls, trails, and people connected with the place. I hauled hundreds of pounds of trash out of the canyon the day visitors had left, mostly glass and cans. My first farm, a feral farm, was at 4200 feet in a side canyon off the 4th valley of Tahquitz Creek, where I tapped a spring and grew watermelons, radish, tomatoes, carrots, and lots of other vegetables. None of the animals bothered anything and I slept in caves and prepared food in caves about 100 yards from my farm. Doug Batchelor was one of my neighbors and he lived down the creek in another cave. His mom Ruth dated Elvis and wrote a few songs for the king. A baby was born in a cave upstream from mine and there were young folks all over America doing radical things in nature during the ’70s. Hitchhiking was also easy and safe then.
BC: Turning back to research: there was a recent article by a harp historian named Gregg Miner that disputes whether Bill Pester ever knew Eden Ahbez or any of the Nature Boys. How do you respond to this?
GK: Well, Ahbez’s brother-in law Al Jacobson told me personally, and Al’s sister Pearl [Rowe] also said it in written articles, that Eden had walked across America several times. This story has been told by a few other people who knew Eden. But from the time Eden became more settled in California, in the early 1940s, his time was spent in Southern California and he never would have had the time to’ve walked across the country during this period of his life. So that means that the only time he would have done a cross-country walk was during the 1930s, and it’s unlikely that he would have stopped at the Arizona/California border and turned back to head east. He walked into California too, right through the Coachella Valley towards the Pacific Ocean, and who could say how many times he did this?
BC: That period is so tough to find evidence on.
GK: Very true, but I interviewed Maya Sexauer in September of 1998 about her father Hermann, who operated Santa Barbara’s first natural foods store, which began in 1934. Eden was one of their customers, as was Gypsy Boots, Paul Bragg, and Gayelord Hauser. Hermann traded merchandise and books with John and Vera Richter, who owned the first raw foods restaurants in Los Angeles [ed. called the Eutropheons]. Maya told me that a female friend of her’s named Helen Wheeler had a $50 car her parents had given her and she gave Ahbez rides to the Krishnamurti talks in Ojai sometime between 1934 and 1938. So this places Eden in California earlier than 1940. Maya said both she and her father knew him and he was the poet who wrote “Nature Boy,” though this was before the song had been recorded by Nat [Cole].
BC: I have a hand-written note of Ahbez’s that has him in Iowa in 1938. But he may have already been “on-the-road,” as it were, by then. He was seen picking fruit in Miami in the 1930s too.
GK: Who knows what route he took, but I’m sure there’s more information on Eden’s life in the 1930s. We just need to dig deeper. We do know that Ahbez lived in Dr. Richter’s backyard in Silver Lake and there are even photos of him and Anna on page 135 of Life magazine, dated May 10, 1948, preparing a raw foods meal on Richter’s land.
BC: I had a hunch that was taken at the Richters’ place and not beneath the HOLLYWOOD sign.
GK: Yeah, he bounced around to his personal safety zones, which included the handful of natural food stores still around in those days—important landmarks for the Nature Boys. Bill Pester was also well-known by the Richters and had even written about John Richter’s proposed raw food colony in Panama.
BC: I never knew that.
GK: Pester wasn’t just a Nature Boy, he was THEE Nature Boy. Postcards of him were all over the country and probably overseas too. Pester was one of the most photographed people in the desert and even had contact with actor Rudolph Valentino and novelist Zane Grey, and he made frequent trips to Palm Springs all through the 1930s to connect with friends and get food. How could Ahbez have lived with the Richters off and on for several years and not known about Pester? Pester was one of their customers and may have stayed there too. Pester was also the only Nature Boy whose name appears on the U.S. census [ed. 1920] as an actual resident of one of the Indian Canyons, and his name was along-side local Indian names, which is quite amazing.
BC: Was there a connection between John and Vera Richter and the desert regions?
GK: The raw restaurants operated by the Richters began in 1917, around the same time news about the desert canyons and the natural life was being spread by Pester. So the Nature Boy trail to Tahquitz began at the Eutropheons’ front door. According to Eden’s manager Jack Patton, the Eutropheon was ‘the torch where they lit their lamp.’
BC: I’ve heard Pester called the first Nature Boy online. Not sure how valid the source is though.
GK: Pester was very well-known and even went up to Yosemite, down to Mexico, and off to Hawaii. If the song “Nature Boy” is actually autobiographical, then when did Ahbez wander over land and sea? Maybe never. But plenty of other Nature Boys did travel over sea, namely Pester and Maximilian [Sikinger]. A few people told me that Paul Bragg considered himself a bit of an old Nature Boy, but they could never conceive of a connection between Eden Ahbez and Paul Bragg. Guess again, because they did know each other. [See photo below.]
BC: Did any of the Nature Boys talk about Pester when you interviewed them for Children of the Sun?
GK: Gypsy Boots told me that there were a lot of Nature Boy types by the 1930s because of the Great Depression… dozens of names lost to history. So the handful of them that were left by the 1990s were just the ones who survived or didn’t paddle back into conventionalism. Bob Wallace remembered Pester, but more just his reputation and not someone of close contact. Eden’s brother-in-law told me he had an entire attic full of Eden’s memorabilia and Jack Patton showed me in person an old business card with Eden’s name on it. He also had a large collection of artifacts about Eden from the 1940s, but all of it appears to have vanished. It wouldn’t matter if we located a photo of Eden with Pester anyway, because critics would still say it’s no proof that Pester had any connection to the song.
BC: I know you knew Gypsy Boots, Bob Wallace, and Buddy Rose pretty well. Did they ever talk about how they met Ahbez?
GK: Boots told me he met Eden on Venice Beach, but in his book he said they met at the Eutropheon, and they both seemed to recognize one another immediately. He said Eden kissed him on the cheek. They also travelled and lived together for many years in the 1940s, and Boots being a native of San Francisco, knew a lot about foraging figs, olives, avocados, and wild greens. He had also worked on a lot of farms so he knew where to find the best food. Bob never mentioned where he met Boots, but it was probably Tahquitz Canyon or the Eutropheon. Eden was also good friends with Boots’ father Max and cousin Charlie, and they were all really great folks.
BC: What about Buddy?
GK: Buddy never mentioned where he met Eden, but just that he had a Christ-like aura and they were both from New York. He said that the Nature Boys mostly came together in Los Angeles, then they travelled to the desert particularly in winter when it was cold.
BC: How did you meet Buddy?
GK: I knew him when he lived in Santa Cruz late in the 1990s and his apartment was only a few blocks from Ann Marie Maxwell’s pad. She had been Neal Cassidy’s beat girlfriend and told me a lot about the overlap between the Beat Generation period and the early hippies, particularly at Ken Kesey’s ranch in La Honda in 1963. She did not know Buddy, but she knew Boots and said he was frequently appearing all up and down the coast at events, concerts, and festivals, and was always accepted by everyone because he was so different than most men his age at that time.
BC: What was Buddy like when you knew him?
GK: Buddy was the most flexible, swift walking 95 year old I have ever met, racing around Santa Cruz like a wild animal. For years he did gardening in Palm Desert, then walked or hitchhiked back up Highway 74 to his residence. Farmers I knew would stop to give him a lift and he’d say ‘I’m going up to 3000 feet,’ and that’s where he would get out. If he didn’t catch a ride he walked the distance. He had a pet chicken that kept the rattlesnakes away and Eden visited sometimes. Buddy wanted me to take him back to the desert even in his mid-nineties.
BC: It’s interesting to hear about them staying in contact as old men, because their camaraderie, at least from the lack of pictures of them hanging together after the 1940s, seems to’ve dissipated following Ahbez’s “Nature Boy” and into the 1950s.
GK: The 1950s were a time of prosperity in America and that meant materialism… a stark shift away from the rationing and deprivation of the war era ’40s. Also during the 1940s patriotism was running high in American culture, so as war resisters, the Nature Boys hung together for solidarity. This type of existence had less appeal by the ’50s. Eden had married Anna in ’48; Boots married Lois in ’53. Their responsibilities to their families were now a higher priority. Eden’s success didn’t help matters and he was not going to drag the whole group along with his family to the desert. Now he had his own jeep at last and he brought Anna and [his son] Zoma with him. Also John and Vera’s raw restaurant ended around 1948, so that left no familiar focal point to light their torch. But when Boots opened his Health Hut in 1958 there are photos of Ahbez and plenty of celebrities who came by to hang out, so this was the new meeting spot.
BC: I’ve spoken to a number of Ahbez’s later friends who said that he didn’t get along with Gypsy Boots after a while. A few people told me Ahbez thought Gypsy was a phoney.
GK: Gypsy was very active and exposed to the public all through the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, while Eden was barely visible and still depressed from losing Anna and Zoma, his only family. During lectures, Boots would frequently talk about his caveman days with Ahbez and the Nature Boys. But the point he always emphasized was that he was already living this existence long before he met Eden and probably before Eden was living that lifestyle. In the ’60s, Eden would often still appear at Boots’ birthday parties, but less so by the ’70s.
BC: Did Gypsy ever talk about a rift?
GK: Yes he did, saying that Eden had bailed out on him. Boots told me that the last time he saw Eden was at the Kingsley Garden, a raw foods restaurant on 3rd Street in Los Angeles, dining with his brother-in-law Al Jacobsen. This was about 1988 or so. He surprised them and they whined at each other like three angry brothers, then began chatting about old friends and business.
BC: So typical.
GK: After this Boots posed with Al several times for magazines around L.A. as two veterans of the health scene, and Boots told me Al once lived in a pitiful apartment back in the 1940s and he promised Boots that someday he was going to make a million dollars, and that is certainly what he did with his company Garden of Eatin, inspired by Eden Ahbez, and as payback to Boots for getting all the girls. So, yes, enough ego battles and melodrama to inspire a movie, but these issues surfaced near the last decades of their lives and that was why it was Eden’s later friends who talked about it, because in the early days they bonded more. Both of them had also spent over three decades in or around Los Angeles by then, the 1980s, living with insane competition, traffic, air pollution, and that’s a long way from the caves of the San Jacinto Mountains.
GK: No never, and most young folks today have no idea of what the world was like before the Beatles showed up in 1964… how rigid things were. When I interviewed Ahbez’s manager Jack Patton in 1992, he was so far out of touch with Eden that he felt Eden might have even passed away, though he hadn’t.
BC: So was Gypsy a phoney?
GK: The only people who called him phoney were the ones who were jealous of his success. Someday the twenty-five old Steve Allen episodes with Boots as a guest will appear on video and then you will see why Boots received more fan mail than Elvis Presley on that show.
BC: He had a loveable personality for one so radical.
GK: In 1961 most of the audience had crew cuts and flat top haircuts and were dining on cheeseburgers, french fries, and soda pop. People had bomb shelters in their backyards and American cars averaged nine miles per gallon. Out of nowhere comes this wild man with an acme juicer under one arm, reciting poetry and carrying a large sack of coconuts, bananas, and oranges. Sometimes the audience was roaring so loud you could barely hear Steve Allen talking. Boots’ hair was past his shoulders and he wore a beard, and this was three years before the Beatles or the 1960s, as we remember it. In the forward to Boots’ book, Allen said, “Run right down to Gypsy’s place, get a belt of raw carrot juice, and shake the hand of a man with the kind of pep and good cheer that most of us wish we had.”
BC: And yet he’s hardly known outside of Southern California, really.
GK: Except for during the 1960s when he was on the Steve Allen Show, with 25 million viewers, which was national, and they had reruns for years. Once upon a time, up in Tahquitz Canyon, Boots was standing on a boulder, naked, drying off after a swim in the creek, when some socialite rode by on a horse. She complained to the officials in town and Boots was arrested the next time he went to Palm Springs. But mayor Frank Bogert quickly arranged to have him set free, and when Frank spoke, people listened. This Republican mayor had a soft spot for the Nature Boys who sometimes performed music at the nicest resort hotels in the desert; he believed their connection to Palm Springs culture was important.
BC: Gypsy was also not so camera-shy, like Ahbez was. He made himself very available to the media.
GK: I saw some remarkable footage of Boots throwing the football behind his back about sixty yards, way back in the 1950s, with very long hair. He also practiced yoga with Lou Nova, the yogi-boxer who shook up Joe Louis a bit with his cosmic punch. On his 50th birthday Boots ran barefoot from the Palm Springs aerial tram station down to the Desert House of Health… in 118 degree temperatures for over ten miles. He was invited to the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967 by the radio station KRLA and was warmly received by all the attendees and managed to stay high without ingesting any of the Owsley Acid that was passed around by the handful. He was never into dope, alcohol, or stimulants. A lot of the heavies within the health-guru community in America—people like Paul Bragg, Adelle Davis, Bernard Jensen, Dr. H.E. Kirschner, Jack LaLanne—all had tremendous admiration and respect for Gypsy Boots. Though unschooled and unlettered, he always excelled at entertaining the audience with humor and displays of strength and fitness. Patricia Bragg called me when Boots died and chatted for about an hour, recalling his long career with all the other folks she knew.
BC: Why didn’t he become better known?
GK: Mismanagement, ego, and historical amnesia from the public. After the ’60s ended, many disillusioned people began to shift to a more natural lifestyle, so some did pay more attention to the man who had been doing it for a half century before them. He was always very popular with young people and, with more focus, better management, and less ego, Boots would have become the biggest health guru in America. But it wasn’t meant to be.
BC: Did he contribute a lot to your research?
GK: I had the materials for Children of the Sun even in the 1980s, but I still lacked the historical details and important photos that Gypsy provided me with. It would have been impossible to write a book like that without his assistance and there would have been no point in publishing something without the content he provided me. So he was without exception the most important person from the old era to the flower power generation. He was the only health teacher I ever met who didn’t take himself so seriously that he couldn’t appreciate a great laugh from people, even if it was directed towards him. And he had a fabulous sense of humor. When I first showed him Children of the Sun he asked me why he wasn’t on the cover? He never read books, but he read the L.A. Times every day, just to see if he was mentioned anywhere.
GK: I think I’ll remember him best from Ravi Shankar’s masterful performance in the Monterey Pop Festival movie… Boots with his eyes closed and meditating. He saw all these cultural waves come and go, but he told me he wasn’t too impressed with the beats or hippies. Probably because he’d seen better things in his youth.
BC: What’s his legacy?
GK: On August 10, 2004, the Los Angeles Times published a Gypsy Boots obituary notice which covered nearly half of an entire page, including a photo of him swinging from a tree at Lake Arrowhead. If this is a final tribute to someone’s life worth then he beat out thousands of college professors, judges, clergymen, actors, and politicians who barely earned a few paragraphs for their life accomplishments. The day before he passed in 2004, a friend and I went to visit him in a facility in Camarillo and there was an endless procession of well-wishers and fans from his past coming and going all day. I was really honored to have known him, but even more honored to have been his friend.
BC: On the other hand, he seems to’ve taken credit, at least in some circles, for the inspiration behind “Nature Boy.” Do you think Gypsy believed that himself?
GK: I’ve actually wondered sometimes if Eden Ahbez was a “bootist.”
GK: While staying in the Grunge Cave in Tahquitz Canyon, back in the early 1940s, they frequently made music together and recited poetry. “Nature Boy” went through so many changes before it was recorded that they had sung at least a few versions of it up there and also at some fancy resorts in Palm Springs. Part of Boots possibly felt that he must have co-created the songs they sung up there in the caves, and Eden’s success really fired Boots up. Who would have believed that a song being rehearsed in a cave would have become such a massive international hit? So improbable.
BC: Do you think the song describes him?
GK: Boots was hardly shy or sad of eye, so he didn’t fit the profile of what the lyrics described. But he always wanted people to know that his own lifestyle in California was an organic Nature Boy existence before he ever met or knew Eden. It wouldn’t surprise me if Eden was even a little blown away by Boots’ native California confidence, probably thinking to himself when he first laid eyes on him, ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore.’
BC: Right. Nice.
GK: Nobody had ever patented the concept of a Nature Boy, so Boots laying claim to that title probably upset Eden, because Boots’ ego commanded a lot of media attention. He stepped into the hippie blueprint and that eclipsed Eden’s song and perhaps created the rift.
BC: You also knew Bob Wallace, another California Nature Boy that we mentioned before. What were his later years like?
GK: He lived up in 3 Rivers California in the Sierra Foothills and seemed to have a fairly large family network, unlike most of the other Nature Boys. Also, that’s a nice area to live in even today, so he must have had a pretty good life.
BC: He later went by the name Forrest Nanney, right?
GK: Yes, and he always dressed in white and was hard to derail from his spiritual narrative when he appeared at Boots’ birthday parties every year in August. But when the BBC came knocking on my door about Eden Ahbez [ed. for a radio documentary in 2010], I linked them up with Bob and his comments were very clear and articulate. It’s fortunate we have that on tape and archived into some historical context.
BC: I agree. I spoke to Wallace a year before he died too. He said he and Ahbez made music together and played live in coffeehouses in Venice and Topanga Canyon in the 1950s.
GK: Yes, the same old artist habitats as now.
BC: Gypsy also recorded an album in the mid-’60s, though it’s pretty campy. This is kind of a broad question, but I wonder if you have any opinion on why psychedelia took so long to coalesce between “Nature Boy” in 1948 and the hippie explosion of 1967-71 in California, London, and elsewhere? Were there just too few counter-culture figures in the 1950s to constitute a scene?
GK: You really have to look closely at what was happening within both mainstream and alternative cultures from 1948 to 1966, and why America was not ready in the 1940s. Television, for one, was becoming very commonplace, so nearly every household had one by the early ’50s. Rock ‘n’ roll exploded for about two and a half years, then died a temporary death near the end of the ’50s. McCarthyism and the communist scare covered the era from roughly 1950 till 1956, and a Republican administration under Eisenhower dominated most of the decade from 1953 until ’61. For the Sixties to’ve happened like it did, there had to have been a 1950s.
BC: And yet psychedelia does seem to’ve been hovering in the air from Ahbez’s time and maybe even before.
GK: Yeah, keep in mind that Aldous Huxley published The Doors of Perception in 1954, then Gordon Wasson’s article in Life magazine [05/13/57] about hunting mushrooms in Mexico hit the public. In 1959, Look magazine did a story on Cary Grant in Palm Springs where he described why he was taking acid with his therapist every weekend after hypnotism and yoga had failed. Then on January 24, 1961, John Newland, while hosting the popular television show One Step Beyond, ingested psilocybin mushrooms on the air in front of 25 million viewers. So that’s part of what set the stage for the following years.
BC: So much of the ’50s set the stage and it’s a shame that it’s unrecognized for the radical era it often was too.
GK: Everyone who came of age in the ’60s had grown up during the ’50s watching science fiction movies of every category. Some cheesy, some brilliant, others frightening, but nearly all of them with musical soundtracks that evoked something eerie, weird, otherworldly, and abstract. That type of music along with the early surf stuff by the Ventures and Dick Dale formed part of the prototype for what later became known as psychedelic music.
BC: The youthquake, as it were, kind of began then.
GK: Young people came alive during the Kennedy administration, but when King John was shot dead, the Beatles filled the void just over two months later on the Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964. That summer, A Hard Days Night hit theaters and it wasn’t just the young girls that were screaming. Pretty soon every folkie traded in his acoustic guitar for an electric one and the surf bands started growing out their hair and acting and sounding more British.
BC: We’re kind of getting off-subject here, but who do you see as the first psychedelic band?
GK: That was a key moment in hippie history. The Yardbirds, I’d say, were the ones who really mastered amplified blues, feedback, improvisation, and were the DNA of psychedelia. They formed in 1963 and, when they played in L.A. in 1965 and ’66 at clubs like the Hullabaloo and the Avalon Pavilion, the audience of mostly male musicians were witness to performances that have never been forgotten, even half a century later. While your little sister might’ve been screaming for the Beatles over at Dodger Stadium, the Yardbirds were obviously where the future of music was going. The next year when Jimi Hendrix hit the airwaves, hardcore Yardbirds fans thought he sounded like Motown meets the Yardbirds. By late 1968 [several members of] the Yardbirds changed their name to Led Zeppelin and the rest is history. Even punk music came out of flower-power when ex-folkie Sean Bonniwell dressed his 1966 band in black and created hit songs with sophisticated lyrics, fuzz guitar, and an image that was counter-culture within the counter-culture. His L.A. group, the Music Machine, were copied by the Doors, Iron Butterfly, Alice Cooper, the Ramones, and dozens of other acts, but, like the Yardbirds, the members had never taken acid at the time when they began. Sean told me that in a letter. Many musicologists frequently site Bonniwell as one of the creators of psychedelic-punk. So, no, psychedelic drugs had little to do with the inception of psychedelic music and that’s important.
BC: Back to Ahbez and the Nature Boys…
GK: Well, the Nature Boys in the 1940s and 1950s had a very ’60s psychedelic look to their appearance. People keep asking me if they were into jimson weed enemas, peyote tea, or some kind of alkaloids that helped them with their alienation from the Truman administration. The answer has always been no. I’ve never even heard them having caffeinated tea or a soda pop, let alone drugs.
BC: Why do you think this difference in diet and use of substance matters?
GK: Because most baby boomers were overprivileged and wanted instant gratification through drugs, while the Nature Boys took the organic approach that was popularized by health teachers like the Richters, Dr. [St. Louis A.] Estes, Arnold Ehret, and Benedict Lust. It matters, because true, deep meditation can only be achieved in a body that is clean and free of inebriants and stimulants, and that’s why the Nature Boys avoided hanging out with the hobos and beatniks. I had a friend named Bill Quinn, born in 1920, who dropped out of Harvard during WW2 to hitchhike around the country and avoid military service. He was the most educated man I have ever met and he was in thick with the beats in San Francisco, even mentioned in Allen Ginsberg’s famous poem Howl and later was the third party in the founding of Esalen Institute, after Michael Murphy and Dick Price. Anyway, Quinn had a very long and close personal friendship with Krishnamurti, the un-guru philosopher who spoke more like a psychologist than a missionary from India, and Bill edited many of the books the Krishnamurti Foundation published under the name William Quinn. When Krishnamurti was on his deathbed, in 1986, he called for Bill. They were that close. Bill was also personal friends with Aldous and Laura Huxley, and the Huxleys and Alan Watts were all very early fans of Krishnamurti.
BC: Did Quinn ever associate the Nature Boys with all this?
GK: Bill and I had a mutual friend named Tynne K. Miettinen, who was a 90-year-old Nature Girl, originally from Finland, and one of John Richter’s pupils too. She was very much into natural living and raw foods. She once handed Bill some wild weeds for a snack, which startled him. I asked him if he had met many people like Tynne before in his travels or associations with the beats and folks at Esalen, and he said he’d never met anyone even remotely like her. So that’s how big the gap was between the beats and the Nature Boys and Girls.
BC: What did Krishnamurti say about the emerging drug culture in the ’60s?
GK: Bill recalled the day when Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, aka Ram Dass, appeared at Esalen, circa 1964. Despite similar age and Catholic backgrounds in Massachusetts and ties with Harvard, Bill said he strongly despised Leary. After questioning him as to why, I learned it was actually because Leary’s mantra of “Turn on, tune in, drop out” was really just a street version of what Krishnamurti had been encouraging since the 1920s. But, unlike Leary, he said the use of drugs by aspiring holy men in India was always a dead end and would likewise become the same fate with American youths.
BC: And you said earlier that Ahbez attended lectures by Krishnamurti.
GK: Yes. He and a lot of other folks of similar ilk would travel to Ojai in the spring to hear him talk. Krishnamurti had been picked to be the next messiah by Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater, but he dissolved the Order of the Star in 1928 and lived a modest existence for the rest of his life by lecturing all over the world about the nature of mind, human relationships, and how humans are conditioned to behave. He didn’t want followers and there’s no such thing as a devotee of Krishnamurti. Leary and Alpert published their poetic adaptation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead in 1964, which many hippies considered the Bible of the era, and this manual was a model for unlearning and de-conditioning the mind for human liberation and ego death… a very ’60s pastime. It was dedicated to Aldous Huxley and Leary’s inner circle of intellectual drop-outs were all influenced by Krishnamurti’s teachings.
BC: It’s interesting how you are able to parse the later reduction from the earlier iterations.
GK: Yeah, well, Buddy Rose remembered Ojai where Krishnamurti lived and Eden went to the talks he gave. It wouldn’t surprise me if Krishnamurti’s annual talks were the third most frequented point of convergence for Nature Boys, after the Eutropheon and Tahquitz Canyon. Krishnamurti had given talks in Ojai since the 1920s, and his ideas resonated well with these Western seekers living feral in the wilds of California.
BC: So, again, why 1967 and not 1947?
GK: Probably for the same reason that it all later died out by around 1973. When a threshold of people begin to raise consciousness together, then all consciousness is affected, and that ’60s moment could only maintain its peak for about seven years, from 1965 to 1972. It wasn’t all about dope or music, but that definitely was a catalyst, and the prospect of free love was what made so many guys want to join the army of drop-outs and embrace flower power. Very few girls would have been attracted to a guy with that hippie appearance in the late 1940s or ’50s…. and by 1981 when Reagan took power in the White House, that same image was outdated and the butt of jokes. But in the late 1960s, every hippie chick wanted a guy who looked like Eden Ahbez. The girls were just not there in the 1940s or ’50s. They showed up and were screaming for the Beatles in 1964, then millions of young guys joined the tribe as imitators.
BC: Why are the Nature Boys still important?
GK: Because they redefined masculinity.
BC: What else?
GK: At a time when America had just dropped two atomic bombs on Japan and most of the nation was celebrating the end of America’s biggest war, a tribe of German and Jewish-American kids had united together and were diving into pools under giant waterfalls in the desert, climbing avocado trees, hitchhiking through the mountains and deserts without a gun or a sleeping bag, living in caves, composing music, practicing yoga, playing flutes and, unlike the beats or hippies, doing it without pot, tobacco, acid, qualudes, alcohol, television, methadrine, coffee, or money from mom and dad. In nature you have a harsh plant like poison oak and virtually right there within the same eco-system the antidote: mugwort. Same goes for the American empire. It would take something as big and mighty as a culture like the USA to spawn a minor subculture like the Nature Boys. The young German immigrants who planted the seeds for much of this felt the same about the German empire of 1890s, up through both world wars, when they left home to begin their new lives in America, spreading the gospel of nature.
BC: And yet most people today… people who espouse the lifestyle the Nature Boys did 75 years ago… still don’t know the roots of this subculture.
GK: No, and the new age crowd particularly tries to pretend that it’s all some universal collective truth that emerged spontaneously and had nothing to do with white European males or German immigrants. These days there’s a yoga studio on every street corner in America, but when the first yogis arrived in the states near 1900, only Benedict Lust and Bernarr MacFadden would give them a voice in their widely-read health publications. Everyone else thought yoga was weird or cultish. In 2014, organic product sales totaled $39.1 billion, growing 11.3% in one year. So I guess Gypsy Boots and Adelle Davis were ahead of their time back in the 1950s for promoting organic foods. Hopefully in time the bookstores and universities will realize that it was really the Nature Boys more than the beats that set the stage for the environmental and youth movements in America during the 1960s, and also left a better example for kids to embrace for the future if they want to explore alternative lifestyles. In today’s world it’s still possible to re-connect with nature, so that’s the best positive step we can take to honor the legacy of the Nature Boys and mitigate the current wave of machismo, political corruption, superficiality, gangster music, guns, pollution, dope, and conspiracy theories. I’m getting ready to celebrate Gypsy Boots 100th birthday this August 19th, but for now I think I’ll take John Muir’s advice: “Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”
BC: Always amazing, Gordon.
All photos and captions provided by Gordon Kennedy, copyright 2015.