A Return to ‘Earth’
Alicia Bay Laurel has made her landmark ‘70s counterculture guide into a musical
By Bliss Bowen
When Random House published Alicia Bay Laurel’s hand-illustrated book “Living on the Earth” in paperback in 1971, it sold over 350,000 copies and became the first paperback on The New York Times bestseller list.
That marked a genuine cultural moment.
Subtitled “Celebrations, Storm Warnings, Formulas, Recipes, Rumors and Country Dances Harvested by Alicia Bay Laurel,” “Living on the Earth” was a how-to guide for off-the-grid living during a fraught time when America was wrestling with cultural norms, political upheaval and environmental consciousness.
Born in 1949 in Hollywood to an artist mother and surgeon father, Laurel has self-identified as a musician, writer and artist since childhood, and was self-funding and -promoting before DIY even entered industry vernacular.
Since writing “Living on the Earth” while living on Wheeler Ranch commune in Sonoma County, she has released seven albums, written and illustrated several books, exhibited her drawings, worked as an underwater photographer and yoga teacher, and operated a wedding business in Maui for 11 years.
Now based in Phoenix, she just returned from her 10th tour of Japan, where people are living with consequences of the Fukushima disaster.
This Saturday, she offers a solo “autobiographical story show” about how “Living on the Earth” came into being “and what happened afterwards,” illustrated with songs she composed while writing the book.
Los Angeles was more freewheeling when you were growing up; where did you live, and did you start performing then?
I grew up in Hancock Park, in a Spanish-style mansion my grandparents built in the pre-crash housing bubble of 1926. When I was growing up in the 1950s, the GI bill was enabling real estate developers to build the first housing tracts in the Valley. Certainly many bohemians lived in Los Angeles in the ’50s and ’60s (I met them through my artist mother). The first time we all got a look at each other was KPFK’s initial Renaissance Pleasure Faire fundraiser in 1963 (I was 14, and came in costume, playing a lute-shaped guitar). Art Kunkin’s LA Free Press began there; I later worked for him doing graphic layout at the Freep when I turned 17. I did not make music in Los Angeles then; I enrolled in San Francisco State University and played for tips in coffeehouses in that city. I did spend a few months living in Venice Beach in 1967, which was then a slum that artists had begun to populate. My studio apartment on Dudley Court, half a block from the beach, cost me $50 per month.
What inspired you to write “Living on the Earth”? Did you feel like you were tapping into the counterculture zeitgeist?
I was 19 years old when I began writing, designing and illustrating “Living on the Earth,” in a spiral drawing pad with a Rapidograph drafting pen, at a commune in Sonoma County, where I had just begun living after accidently discovering it while hitchhiking. I created it as a service to the community, which mainly consisted of young people from large cities, as was I. Everyone knew something useful for living without electricity, running water, telephones and automobiles, but no one knew everything, so I asked everyone to tell me what they knew that everyone else should know. I had not intended to write a book for publication. That was a surprise when it happened.
What basic principles did you want to convey to readers, and how would you adapt them today for urban or suburban dwellers?
Actually, living in a city confers a smaller carbon footprint to a household, because merchandise does not have to be transported so far, and more people can inhabit less area of the earth, allowing for more land to remain wild. City dwellers are growing food organically on roofs and balconies, insulating their homes to save on electricity, and making their own solar power. They are also creating urban food gardens in vacant lots in “food deserts,” that is, in poor neighborhoods where fresh fruits and vegetables are unavailable.
What do you recall about learning open tunings and improvisation from your cousin’s then-husband, John Fahey?
I was 15 years old and had been playing folk guitar for three years, preceded by five years of classical piano lessons. After my cousin Janet Lebow married John Fahey, I began listening to his recordings, and I liked them very much. One night my mother had a big family party at our house. Jan was there with her new husband, who was clearly bored to death. I told him I’d been listening to his records and really liked them. This did not impress him. I said that I would like to learn to play in his style. Under any other circumstances, he would have ignored me, but that night he was stuck at a social event he didn’t want to attend, and from which there was no escape. So he followed me into another room, and showed me how to tune my guitar into drop D tuning, and into G tuning, how to play alternating thumb bass, and how to make scales of thirds and sixths going up the neck. After that, I practiced these skills daily, continued to expand my understanding of open tunings through experimentation, and began composing songs.
You’ve lived a free-spirited life — yet you’re also a creative entrepreneur, running an independent business. How do you navigate tension between business demands and creative needs?
When “Living on the Earth” was first published in 1970 by the Bookworks in Berkeley, I was 21 and had no business experience at all. I kept hoping that someone would come along to help me with the business part of my work. I did eventually have a literary agent, an accountant, even an attorney at times, but, basically, I had no idea how to run a business. It was through 11 years of owning and running a wedding business on Maui that I learned about inventory, insurance, bookkeeping, advertising, promotion and so forth. The busines-sperson I had been waiting for turned out to be me. I spend a fairly large amount of time organizing my events and projects at a desk, but my passion for my creative projects gets me through those mundane tasks.
You were just at Iwaishima Island in Japan, where local fishermen and residents have actively resisted installation of a nuclear power plant. How has the Fukushima disaster affected popular opinion there regarding nuclear power and the environment?
The combined earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster wreaked havoc upon the lives of all people in Japan. Their air, water and food are contaminated with radiation; they all know it, but they try not to talk about it. Especially in the northeast of Japan, dear friends and family members are perishing from cancer and other radiation-related illnesses. The government has made a secrecy law forbidding journalists in Japan to write or broadcast about the ongoing (five-plus years) disaster at Fukushima Daiichi. The people want all of the nuclear power plants closed. Tokyo Electric Power Company borrowed money from several banks to try (unsuccessfully) to clean up the mess, and the banks insist the nuclear power plants continue to operate so that these loans can be repaid. The technicians that successfully entombed the reactor at Chernobyl offered to entomb Fukushima Daiichi, but TEPCO and the Japanese government refused their help. Meanwhile, Fukushima Daiichi pollutes the air and oceans shared by the rest of the world. Billions of gallons of irradiated water have poured into the Pacific Ocean. It is a tragedy and travesty of immense proportions.
Alicia Bay Laurel presents “Living on the Earth: The Musical” at 4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 5, at Beyond Baroque, 681 N. Venice Blvd., Venice. $20. Call (310) 822-3006 or visit aliciabaylaurel.com.