As some of my old friends are aware, I converted my family to Mormonism when I was ten years old, in 1960. I’ll explain the how and why of that some other time, but for the current story, it is sufficient to know that, in 1966, at the age of 15–16, I was still an active and believing (or, at least, non-questioning) Mormon, attending high school in Whittier, California.
Around that time, I started listening to KPFK, the Pacifica station in Southern California, inadvertently taking the first steps on the road to perdition. At first, it was just Les Claypool’s folk music show on Friday evenings. Next, I started listening to Elliot Mintz’s Looking In, which was call-in show aimed at teens, discussing such topics as the war in Vietnam, peace demonstrations, pot smoking, pop music, etc. (Mintz latter became a Hollywood publicist, representing clients such John and Yoko, and, more recently, Paris Hilton. If you have seen the documentary The U.S. vs. John Lennon, he is the strange-looking man with slicked-back blond hair, unnaturally orange skin, and hyper-white teeth; back then, however, he was just another Jewish hippie boy.) After Looking In, at 11PM, there was something called Radio Free Oz. It is difficult to describe exactly what Radio Free Oz was or what effect in had on this naïve teenager in the suburbs. There was a fellow named Peter Bergman with a deep voice, and slow, mellow speech, who sounded like the guru of all gurus, reciting the iChing, talking about Hopi prophecies and the Amsterdam Provos, and other obscure political and philosophical topics, interspersed with selections from some of the more far out rock and folk music of the day. I remember particularly a reading of Immanuel Velikovsky’s Worlds in Collision (a piece of complete bunk, by the way), that was utterly entrancing. Eventually, Bergman and his friends began performing little skits on the show, giving birth to the The Firesign Theatre.
A listing from the KPFK Folio (the station’s program guide) for one installment said the following:
THE WAY OF THE FOOL: This final Path is the Scintillating Intelligence because it is the essence of that curtain which is placed close to the order of the disposition, and this is a special dignity given to it that it might be able to stand before the Face of the Cause of Causes.
Heady if baffling words for a teenager from Whittier with artistic aspirations.
How did all of this affect my Mormonism? Did exposure to all of these very un-Mormon subjects and ideas undermine my faith? I suppose they did, ultimately, but there was a more immediate and concrete effect. High school–aged Mormons were (and, I suppose, still are) expected attend an hour of religious instruction (called “Seminary”) every morning before school. There, one learned about the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the life and prophecies of Joseph Smith, and church doctrine in general. One was also reminded that one was among the chosen people, “The Saints,” and therefore set apart from the gentile teens with whom one attended school. I have never been a morning person, but I endured this, mostly uncomplaining, through my freshman and sophomore years, but in my junior year, when I started listening to Oz, a conflict arose: I could stay up until midnight, secretly listening to RFO and other strangeness on KPFK, or I could get up at 6AM to attend seminary before school. I could not do both for long, and, in the end, Oz (and, perhaps, elemental sloth) won out over religion.
Other un-Mormon activities followed rapidly: Going to Hollywood to see bands perform in clubs on the Sunset Strip, reading the LA Free Press and San Francisco Oracle, attending the love-ins in Griffith and Elysian Parks, hanging out on Fairfax Avenue and, finally, dancing with Vito Paulekas’s troop of freaks. But Oz was a crucial factor, in that it first caused me to reject a demand that the church made upon me, and I found that I was able to do so without guilt, anxiety, or apprehension for my spiritual future.
Firesign Theatre influenced me immensely and hastened my cosmic questioning of the Universe. I grew up Mormon- in Lakewood- and a more unlikely beginning could not be imagined. Peter was, as I found out later, was a man who studied under a Zen master, whose eyes could pierce into your soul and an immensely funny man, even if he tended to be distant and only affectionate in bursts. He was always honest. Sometimes to the point of being brutal. He was brilliant. And he was welcoming to those less gifted than he was. Firesign was like unto a Spirit Guide to me, like those animals in the desert that would guide one to enlightenment. I have a sense of loss and gratitude these days. Today I am clean and sober nearly 30 years, I love my family and I hold Peter and TFT close to my heart. Your story reminded me a bit of mine so I thought I would share. I wish you a peaceful journey.
Discovered your blog while googling for info on Edwin Corle. I very much appreciated your post on him and his work. Also saw your post on your Mormon Church experience. I joined the church three years ago at age 55 and find I’m quite happy with that decision. I realized pretty quick, though, that perhaps I am positive about being one precisely because I wasn’t raised in the faith, and certainly not in the 1950’s. I’m glad you found a way of life that keeps you happy.