Pilgrimage of Change
“…you get the cosmic badge of honor pinned on you…when you can dance on totally nothing.”
with Elizabeth Gips
Born half-paralyzed in 1922, and dictating poetry four years later Elizabeth Gips had interviewed most of the people in the two volumes of Mavericks of the Mind long before we even got started Her infamous radio show Changes, which has now aired in northern California far over twenty years, has inspired countless individuals to explore new realms of heightened awareness. She is well known for her lively interviews with virtually everyone who is anyone in the alternative cultural matrix. Her recently published book Scrapbook of a Haight-Ashbury Pilgrim is an important historical document, a timeless epic adventure that overflows with contagious enthusiasm inspired during the peak of San Francisco js citywide hallucinogenic experience during the late sixties.
Needless to say, Elizabeth has been through a lot of changes herself: She discovered her power to arouse the emotions in others in 1939, when she got out of high school a year early because her English teacher threw an ink bottle at her in frustration. She then attended Mills College, discovered beat poetry, and marijuana, and had a number of experiences “falling in love with the wrong boys. ” In 1964 her son turned her on to the peyote cactus, and she metamorphosed into an “errant hippie, ” wandering around the U.S. trailing after charismatic commune-founder Stephen Gaskin. She landed on “the Farm” in Tennessee (the well-known commune at which, according to Gaskin, a young Al Gore spent some time). In 1971 Elizabeth left the Farm and started doing radio at her son ‘s station, KDNA in St. Louis. She began her Santa Cruz radio show, Changes, in 1975 and soon started writing articles and reviews for many alternative magazines.
At the age of seventy-one, Elizabeth, now a grandmother; is still very much at the forefront of cultural evolution. She still loves doing radio, is working on several new books, has apparently fallen in love with the “right man, ” and says that she no longer seeks “enlightenment. ” We interviewed her in her cozy home in Santa Cruz on June 10, 1994. Her house is decorated with compelling psychedelic art and exotic religious artifacts from around the world. Youthful optimism and vibrant enthusiasm stream from Elizabeth ‘s spirit. She is filled with curiosity, and her eyes and heart both seem wide open. A passion-filled fireball of energy, Elizabeth gets very excited when she’s talking, and laughs a lot. Sometimes like a fountain, other times like a volcano, she is just bursting with life, spewing forth a stream of amazing adventures stories and rainbow revelations, reminding us of those feel-good times in our lives when laughing, loving, and learning all danced hand in hand.
Elizabeth: Do you want to know all my names?
David & Rebecca: Okay.
Elizabeth: Isis, Tara, Sisyphus….(laughter)
Rebecca: Who’s Sisyphus?
Elizabeth: He was the guy who had to push a big stone up a hill indefinitely and every day and every night it would tumble down. I did a picture a few years back which shows Sisyphus sitting up on the top of the hill like Rodin’s thinker. There’s a large crowd of people down at the bottom and he’s saying something like, “I got wise, there’s hundreds of people who want to push this stone up the hill, I don’t have to do it any more!”
David:: How did your experiences in Haight Ashbury during the sixties influence who you are today?
Elizabeth: There’s a film called St. Simon the Skylight. In the end Simon is in a rock club and the devil is tempting him. He says to the devil, “I think I’d like to go back and stand on my pillar again for the rest of my life,” and she says, (the devil’s a woman) “it’s too late, someone else is doing it.” Well, someone else is doing the Haight Ashbury trip, and I’m hardly enough of that person anymore, except in my book.
I’m sure that it freed me to a great extent from the American need of identification through stuff – money and business power etc.. I went through a long period of poverty, although I didn’t experience it as poverty, I just didn’t have money. So that made the new acquisition of some stuff very joyful – I’m really enjoying having things around again.(laughter) But it was a dramatic shift in values.
Rebecca: What were you doing before?
Elizabeth: I was a big business woman. I had 52 employees. My jewelry business did just under half a million in the last year before I left. Then I opened a store on Haight street.
David & Rebecca: (Knowing laughter)
Elizabeth: Well, I bought a mansion on Ashbury and that was the significant thing because I took acid shortly after that. And I walked out of everything – my marriage and my business and my whole way of life. I took all of my clothes and jewelry and threw them into the middle of the floor and said, “everybody dig in – I’m gone.”
Rebecca: Could you describe the quality of that time, and what were your hopes and dreams of what would come out of the sixties?
Elizabeth: A word that I use a lot in my book is `spirit.’ It’s as though for the first time, a whole bunch of people took part in the mystical experience, and there was that camaraderie of shared experience beyond the realm of the American standard. If you wanted to merchandise the American standard experience, experiencing Godhead was not it.(laughter)
Rebecca: So the fact that the experience was shared and not just personal made a big difference?
Elizabeth: I think so. You are here doing an interview to share more of what I am and more of what you are and that sharing of experience is how evolution happens.
Rebecca: Many people feel that during the `80’s, the last vestiges of the sixties idealism got swept away. Do you think that’s true or did some lasting influence come out of that time?
Elizabeth: I think that there are more young people aware today than there ever have been in the history of the world and that the best part of the rave generation is proof of it. Hundreds and thousands of people all over the world between 18 and 25 are sharing a spiritual experience with tribal overload and huge sensory input. There was a continuity of spirit that got bigger and bigger, and even though many people became yuppies (it’s okay to be yuppie and be comfortable, but we didn’t know that in the Haight Ashbury) I don’t think that they have entirely forgotten who they are.
But in that time we really thought that in five years everything would be changed. We thought we would find better ways of communicating, which we have, that marijuana would be legal and that people would be nicer to each other – that’s the bottom line.
Rebecca: Do you think people are nicer to each other?
Elizabeth: (pause) I think there are more people working on how to be nicer to each other.
David:: What relevance do you think this period will have on the future?
Elizabeth: It was the first time that a significant number of people assumed that evolution could be consciously directed. I think that’s what the future holds as we travel around in the mystery – the idea that we can mold a world that’s better for everyone. I know it’s simplistic, but I think that’s one of the things that came out of the Haight Ashbury period. And I’m not sure that it isn’t happening under our very noses, but we forget and let the media play on our negative feelings which we’ve still certainly got plenty of.
David:: How would you say psychedelics influenced your perspective on life?
Elizabeth: Holy Mackerel Andy! Well, I was an atheist and now I’m nothing. Boy, that’s a big change! (laughter) I just had the experience! You can’t talk about it, c’mon!
Rebecca: Well, if we met you before the experience and then met you afterwards, what differences might we notice?
Elizabeth: Well, let’s talk about the similarities. You’d see the same bounciness and intelligence and creativity and insecurities. But right after I began taking psychedelics I was kind of messianic – I wanted everyone to get on board because otherwise maybe it was all just a dream and it never really happened. My hair was long and I painted my face and I wore elk skin dresses – it was kind of romantic but too outrageous for society. It became too much trouble to stay in that place.
Rebecca: Do you think that if you hadn’t taken psychedelics you would have still arrived where you are now, through a gradual process of natural selection?
Elizabeth: They switched me to a whole other quantum level. If electrons jump from one ring to another I made a jump, and things are not the same. I’m a human chauvinist in a way because I think there’s something very special about the human brain. If I can take a tiny pill and 45 minutes later I’ve died to my personality and am in contact with realities that are seemingly infinitely unfolding, then it seems that the human brain has some special place in the whole drama of the universe.
David:: Was there any link between your taking psychedelics and getting involved in broadcast media?
Elizabeth: I followed Stephen Gaskin and I only lasted about seven months down on the farm in Tennessee.