Although most well known as a talented and respected character actor in innumerable films, from big-budget Hollywood blockbusters (such as Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Jagged Edge) to funky independent and foreign films (Roman Polanski's Bitter Moon, Pedro Almodovar's Kika) to TV movies, Peter Coyote's long, circuitous route to popular success was initially inundated with an appreciation and love of music. The young Peter Cohon grew up in a New York City house in which his father, Morris, was an avid jazz lover. The household was often filled with musicians over for impromptu jam sessions, and Peter began studying drums at the age of 12 with legendary big band drummer Cozy Cole. He was also a prodigious collector of jazz LPs and blues 78s, accumulating some 1,200 items by the time he left for Grinnell College in Iowa circa 1962. Peter Cohon began informally playing guitar in 1960 and writing songs two years later when he was stopped in his tracks by the debut album of a young troubadour by the name of Bob Dylan. Only a few years later, the re-christened Peter Coyote would be traveling in the same general circles as and keeping company with Dylan and fellow top rock stars (not to mention writers, poets, actors, and every other manner of creative person) of the day as a member of the experimental anarchic street troupe the Diggers.
Coyote's move to San Francisco for graduate school in 1964 put him at the right cultural place at the right time. He began performing with the guerilla theater group, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, whose manager was a young Bill Graham, who in turn went on to become the premier rock music promoter of the '60s and '70s. Before long, though, Coyote fell in with the Diggers, the cutting-edge sociopolitical purveyors of the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. The group gradually became legendary within the underground community for their progressive philosophy of living, and as part of the countercultural community of the city, Coyote was surrounded by some of the most innovative music of the era. The Diggers routinely organized events that included free public music performances by the likes of friends such as the Grateful Dead and Big Brother & the Holding Company (whose lead singer, Janis Joplin, was a good friend and "sometime lover, sometime dope partner" of Coyote's, according to his memoir, Sleeping Where I Fall), such as the Death of Money parade that culminated in the first large-scale free rock concert in any city park. Such was their relationship with the San Francisco rock bands that Coyote and fellow Digger Emmett Grogan, always the schemers, once in 1968 got away with pretending to be "managers" of Big Brother and stayed on in their rooms at the Chelsea Hotel long after the band had left (and at the band's expense).
In the winter of 1968-1969, Coyote was part of the Grateful Dead/Merry Prankster entourage rounded up by writer Ken Kesey that took a trip to England to seek out the Beatles on a cultural mission to determine if they were as socially progressive as their music. The group did manage to meet all the Beatles except Paul McCartney. In the Diggers' travels throughout America, Coyote hobnobbed with other music stars of the '60s from Bob Dylan to Paul Simon to David Crosby, even a ten-year-old Huey Lewis, stepson of one of Coyote's friends and a frequent visitor to his Olema commune, poet Lew Welch.
As the times began to shift, so did the Digger collective, which gradually became known as the Free Family, and from 1966 to 1975, they set up a series of communes in California to work on the development of their free ideals. Music was a huge part of the social organization of the commune, and Coyote's guitar and original songs were ever-present aspects of Free Family communal life, a "passionate hobby," as he would later call it. The various communes were ground zero for impromptu jam sessions with any instrument and musician that happened to be lying around, and those sessions served as the primary entertainment. Before he died of a drug overdose, the Olema commune even acted as hideout from the rock & roll lifestyle for Michael Bloomfield, who would head up from the city to play the commune's old upright piano all night long, occasionally bringing along Paul Butterfield to add his harp. Music was a matter of pride for the musicians, and good players would travel from commune to commune, or house to house, to play and learn and teach new songs.
By 1975, most of the communes were coming apart, and Coyote readapted himself to straight culture. Through a recommendation from friend Gary Snyder, California governor Jerry Brown named Coyote to the California Arts Council that year. The next year he was named its chairman. As head of the Council from 1976 to 1983, Coyote acted as an advocate for and funder of all sorts of arts programs and grants throughout the state, including music endeavors such as opera, symphony, and ballet. His acting career then took center stage. In 1988, however, after numerous requests from old friends and fellow Diggers, Coyote gathered some old and new musician friends and finally recorded 19 of his songs -- largely composed between 1967 and 1975 while living on communes and in his truck -- on a cassette. According to Digger philosophy, he named the tape Free Store and kept his name off the first edition, 200 of which he mailed out at his own expense as Christmas gifts to old confidants. So many subsequent requests came in, however, that he made the tape available for purchase by the public (through www.petercoyote.com), with any money left after mailing expenses going to an organization that aids indigent jazz musicians.