Demise of the Whole Earth Catalog: The Night They Couldn’t Give It Away

Original Publication: The Village Voice, June 24, 1971

San Francisco, California  —  Stewart Brand, editor of the “Whole Earth Catalog,” offered $20,000 at his Demise Party to anyone or any good cause, and he couldn’t give it away.

The $20,000, in a neat stack of $100 bills, was Brand’s farewell gesture at what had to be the West Coast’s counter-culture event of the year, an indoor psychedelic country fair held at the cavernous San Francisco Exploratorium inside the Palace of Fine Arts – complete with belly dancers, trampoline acts, a volleyball game, Tibetan temple music, and huge balloons filled with nitrous oxide for a few eager sniffers.

Earlier this year Brand announced that the  “Whole Earth Catalog,” a thick compendium of resources, tools, and hip advice – which became a best seller to the counter culture – was stopping. “I think the notion of stopping is an important one for our society to learn.  Besides, it’s embarrassing to have grossed nearly $1 million on a non-profit venture.”

True to the spirit of Whole Earth, the invitation for the Demise Party read, “You could come as a tool.” Brand – barefoot, dressed in monk’s robes, which some guests interpreted as his “God trip” – first made the offer of money around 10 p.m., Saturday night, to about 1000 people drawn from early San Francisco hip society (that would be anyone around before the 1967 Summer of Love), those who contributed in some way to the making of the catalog, and various hirsute hangers-on who appeared poverty-stricken.

Brand’s offer, that the group as a whole had to reach a consensus on what to do with the money that night, and could not give it back to him, outraged some, stunned others, and seemed to make no apparent difference to about half the party, who were content to ignore the offer and continue playing volleyball, jousting with foam rubber swords, or exploring the scientific exhibits inside the vast hall.

“I think it’s disgusting; just like the Magic Christian, you have to eat shit for it,” said one guest.

“Hey, is this process art?” said another.

“It’s like a mystical experience,” said Paul Krassner, “but then, I have a low threshold for mystical experiences.”

Scott Beach, director of “The Committee,” a spontaneous satirical revue, and someone not unused to street theatre, began as master of ceremonies. “I’ve got $20,000 in my pocket, and I have to get rid of it: I don’t like to play Daddy.”

People started walking up to take the mike on the improvised stage to give their ideas of what to do with the money.

It started out conventionally enough: “Let’s give it to Ruchell Magee, for his defense fund.” “Why should we? He wants his own lawyer.”

Next someone wanted the money to go to the cholera epidemic in India. “Wow, man, how many people would that help? They need millions.”

“Let’s help fight high-rise buildings in San Francisco.”

“Give it to the Indians.”

Then the suggestions began to get a little more down-home.

“I come from Morningstar Ranch. We need $250 for a new pump or else we’ll all get hepatitis this winter.”

“San Francisco is a very high scene, but it could be higher if we could just get some bread for some artists’ tools.”

“We put on revolutionary street theatre and we’re from New York and our bus just broke down. We need $2500 for a new bus.”

“How about a Good Faith Loan Company. You ask for loans by mail and everyone has to show good faith to pay them back.”

“I have some land, a resort with a hot springs. We could buy some more acres. It’s a very holy part of New Mexico.”

One boy took the mike and didn’t ask for money, but merely for help for his commune in Vermont.  He was yelled off the state. 

All this time Stewart Brand was very carefully writing down the suggestions on a blackboard, saying little.  It was known people who had worked with him at the “Whole Earth Catalog” had criticized him in the past for being too tight with his money.  Tonight he was showing them what their own feelings toward money were – a education worth much more, perhaps, than $20,000. 

“Free People’s Radio.”

“Flush it down the toilet!”

“Get the Jews out of Miami!”

“Let’s get a helicopter and spray grass seeds all over the state.”

“Free all political prisoners.”

“Free the Indianapolis 500!”

“Why don’t you take your money and go home,” said one enraged guest to Stewart Brand.  “Whoever had this idea, it’s really crummy.”

“You can’t dodge it: it’s yours now,” replied Brand, obviously amused at being berated for his generosity.

Then Fred Moore, who gave his occupation as Human Being, came to the stage and did the old Yippie trick of burning a dollar bill: “Money is a tool, a corruption. It’s the old style.”

Stewart smiled, “We are being tempted.”

“Let’s declare our independence from this national trashcan. We’re not God. Who are we to play Queen for a day?”

“Let’s take a break,” said Scott Beach. It was close to midnight.

A half hour later the deliberations resumed. Stewart suggested each speaker hang on to the packet of bills.  It was his only tactical error of the long night.

The second speaker, Michael Kay, “wanted to make something happen,” and promptly started passing out $100 bills to the crowd, which, in a rising tide of hope and guilt, surged forward to accept the money.  Soon $5000 were gone.  Someone said the fellow who needed the new bus – confirming what most Californians believe about New Yorkers – pocketed at least a few thousand.  Another straight looking chap coolly peeled 500 dollar bills off a stack, handing the rest back and split.  A few minutes later those in the crowd who held $100 bills in their hands and hadn’t left immediately, just stared at them in disbelief and began coming forward, guiltily handing back the money they had taken.

Two young men got up, identified themselves, and told why they were going to take the money and run:

“I’m walking out of here with $200 because my carpentry tools were stolen and I’m gonna buy tools for our family.” Asked if he would consider the $200 a loan, he said, “I don’t know anyone around here. I’m just a friend of S. Clay Wilson (“ZAP Comix” cartoonist); I wouldn’t know where to send it.

Another fellow got up and asked permission to keep $100 to buy 20 “Whole Earth Catalogs” to distribute to ghetto schools. Nobody objected except a pony-tailed youth next to him who said, “Hey man, I think that is really untogether.” 

It was about 2 a.m., and Scott Beach had to leave. Paul Krassner took over as emcee. 

Arguments became more and more garbled, and people got tired and left. At 3 a.m. there were about 200 people, some asleep on the baseball cushions rented from Candlestick Park for the party. (These cushions’ll get our vibrations and the baseball freaks will be better for it.”)

“We’re a group,” said one girl. “Let’s have a gong bong or something, to feel closer.”

So the remaining crowd joined hands in an enormous circle, squatted down, and began to breath in and out in a Wavy Gravy-gong-bong, a kind of breathy chant. That over, someone suggested they consult the I Ching.  Immediately, two books of the Ching flew to the stage, Krassner, whose threshold for mystical books appears lower than that for straight political tactics, read the I Ching with good-natured contempt. Still, no solutions, more suggestions. 

Five main alternatives began to emerge: Indians, some sort of communications network, an ecology business.

“Organic food is really expensive. We could start a goat farm in Oregon,” a whole Earth free school, or a trust fund.y

Tw camps were forming: those who wanted the money to go to the Black Mesa Indian Project in Arizona to help the Indians in their lawsuit against Peabody Mining Company for strip mining on sacred burial grounds, and those who wanted some sort of communications network.  There was endless talk of foundations and trust funds in the best establishment tradition.

Then came the left-field zinger. Robert Greenway, a former Peace Corps official and co-author of “The Raspberry Exercises,” came forth with a polished speech.  “Why not enshrine the money in a plastic bag (non biodegradable) and come back next year? You’d have a full year to spend thinking about what to do and get out of the same old “strict structures.” Trust funds are a drag.  “Bug people’s heads about that 20,000 for 10 years if need be.  It’s a lot more fun to dance around it.”

The crowd was silent.  Enshrinement? Walk away from it? Krassner’s rejoinder was: It’s like you’re in the middle of fucking and your true love walks into the room.” 

Then it became spenders vs. savers.  Krassner stepped down as emcee and Ron Bevert, known to all as “hassler” from his days as foreman of Ken Kesey’s Electric Koolaid gang, took over.

About 4 a.m. the first vote of the night was taken between the “Spending Trip” and the “Saving Trip.” Unbelievably, it was a tie, 44-44, with those asleep not voting.  Fred Moore who had earlier burned a dollar, gave an argument against voting at all. He began to circulate a petition saying people were more important than money.

Now the reporters and photographers began jumping on the stage to get into the act, mostly to throw their weight in one direction or another so they could go home and get some sleep.  But it was back to the hassling.  By this time the gentle commune people were no longer participating in the commotion.  A few actors, who generally started hogging the mike, began to take over – persistence was beginning to pay off.  Those with previous political experience dominated.  A whiney-voiced, underground-radio man asked for his communications network for the 30th time.

It was getting light – the Exploratorium had to be cleaned by dawn. The rules of the game stipulated the group had to reach a consensus by morning. 

At 6:30 am the idea of a committee to study the problem began to gain credence, just as if they were in a meeting at the White House. Ideas were forgotten in the general weariness.  No one reminded anyone this was supposed to the love generation. There was $15,000 nobody really wanted anymore, but didn’t want anyone else to have either.  Stewart threw off his monk’s robes and fell asleep on some nearby cushions.

So the remaining hard-core group of 20 formed a committee of four to supervise the money and come back in a month to decide “what to do with all that bread.” But who should take it home? Who should get the money? How about Fred Moore, Human Being, who burned his dollar bill and said money was a corruption?  Somehow, if the wheeler dealers couldn’t trust each other, they could trust him, even though few people, including Stewart, had ever seen Moore before the party.  Fred Moore signed a receipt, neatly folded his petition into his hip pocket, Stewart gave him the $15,000 to take home – less $200 that disappeared in the final count.  Fred was scared to go home to Palo Alto with all that money.  He had come to the party with two dollars, burned one, and on the way up got a ticket for going too slow.  What if the cops stopped him again and found $14,800?  He knew having money presents problems, but, like a true American, he accepted the risk.

And so Stewart Brand, wild experimentalist, who had presided over the love generation’s first psychedelic “Trips Festival” in San Francisco in 1966, presided over a piece of all-night educational theatre which proved his readers haven’t learned much about the “Whole Earth’s Catalogs” function: “ . . . the user should know better what is worth getting, and where and how to do the getting.”

This article is typed from the original material.  Please excuse any errors that have escaped final proofreading.

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