Jul 12, 2009

The Anonymous Artists of America

Yesterday, I visited a commune called the Anonymous Artists of America.  It was a fascinating experience that I won't detail here and now.  But in visiting this extraordinary place and in the week I've been at Libre, a commune across the valley, I believe that the history of these places and people must be considered.  Below is an excerpt from a grant I recently wrote, in hopes of funding research of the AAA and the Huerfano Valley.   In the meantime, I'm slowly piecing the stories together.


As Stanford students in the mid-Sixties, the AAA (or “the Triple A,” as they are often called) were exposed to both sanctioned and informal LSD experiments amidst a community of provocative artists and thinkers. Tinkering with emergent video and music technologies, the AAA formed a rock band that aimed to expand consciousness through immersive music experiences, a regimen of psychedelic drugs, and a collectively spontaneous presence in the world. This very intentional commitment to consciousness expansion and to an art-driven lifestyle eventually led the AAA to southern Colorado where they joined an emerging culture of young artist refugees who were homesteading in the Huerfano Valley. The AAA created linkages between the major sites, people, and ideas of the counterculture but are seemingly under-documented and all but forgotten, and ironically anonymous.



The story of the AAA is fantastic. Their endeavor to be a band was jump-started by several gifts: the first was a full set of instruments financed by one of the artists, Lars Kampman, which was followed by Owsley Stanley’s gift of 100,000 micrograms of (then legal) LSD. They were also given the second music synthesizer in the US by Don Buchla, its inventor, which took a year to build out at the highly influential Tape Music Center in San Francisco. The AAA were one of the first psychedelic bands at a time when rock and roll was redefined through massive advances in amplification technology and by music labels, like Capital Records who commissioned LSD fueled projects. The AAA frequently opened for the Grateful Dead and headlined at Ken Kesey’s notorious Acid Test Graduation. Their performances went on for hours and weren’t especially 

good, involving costumes and a topless bassist, handmade instruments and spontaneous improvisations that mixed with strobe lights and film projections, turning the show into a multi-sensory immersive experience.  


The AAA disintegrated in the mid-80s after their charismatic ringleader, Lars Kampman, died of AIDS. Prior, the collective bought a bus and toured the country making music and mayhem, eventually landing in Colorado where they built homes on several parcels of rural land. Their music crashed into the small towns of Walsenburg and Chama as well as Denver, creating soundscapes for the commune movement that magnetized hoards of youth into the Rocky Mountains. Although the band is now defunct, the AAA still collectively own some 400 acres in Colorado’s Huerfano Valley, situated near Libre, a thriving 40-year old commune. Several people continue to live on the AAA land, old friends come to visit, but the homes and people are aging and the land may one day be in jeopardy. 


The group wove together the likes of Stewart Brand, Nina Simone, Bruce Conner, Alan Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, Hell’s Angels, Santana, the San Francisco Diggers and the Mime Troupe. They helped to evolve radical music and art-making practices and were certainly at the center of a major cultural shift. Therefore, I want to analyze how the AAA’s alternative forms of art-making were instrumental in linking people coast to coast and from cities to countryside, ushering in a new set of social, political, and artistic norms.


I’m interested in how the story of the AAA might trace the evolution of an experiential art practice -- one that merged music, visual arts, fashion, and performance, that drew inspiration from Happenings, the Dadaists, and street theater -- that was not so much about making objects, but making experiences. I want to know more about the group’s mundanely spectacular corroboration of a counterculture, and also what experiences or dynamics may have allowed for such authentic self-expression – what was happening at Stanford that fed this vanguard of wildly experimental, yet thoroughly educated youth? I’m curious about the phenomenon that then occurred in Colorado’s Huerfano Valley and how this place, called orphan in Spanish, lured artists from both coasts to experiment with communal living. What about the Huerfano, that until the mid- Sixties was primarily a community of Spanish farmers and cowboys, fostered communal land ownership and a diverse assortment of hand-made homes? How were encounters with the vast southwestern landscape part of a consciousness-expanding program? How is failure a type of generative experience that, over time, transforms into agency? Through a thorough investigation of the AAA we may see evidence of how and why transcendental experiences lead to a more interesting and engaged world. 

23 comments:

  1. Here's a link to Lars' memoirs:
    http://montana-riverboats.com/Robopages/index.php?page=Sixties/Lars-Story.htm

    ...written shortly before he died.
    There're a few misc AAA pics there too, if
    you poke around a bit.

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    1. http://pittendrigh.org/index.php?page=junk/EndlessJunk/Sixties/Lars-Story.htm

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  2. that's my dad right in the middle of that first picture

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  3. My sister and I are working on a documentary on the AAA. Contact me if you are interested. laurel at bellastellababy dot com

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  4. Hi AAA fans friends and family
    I was once a member of the AAA in 67 living with the group in Navato would like to contact anyone who knows where they are now I was One of the Drummers "Richard" was the solo drummer
    sorry to hear about Lars he was a great singer and could make clothes from hell! say hi to Charlie , Sandy Adreine, Len, Tony Tesa Good,Norman Ellie MAYA and off course Trixi !!
    This was the band when I was a member if I left anyone out well...that's what osleys does to ya heh heh. My email is Melibokus1@aol.com for anyone who has the time Thanx, Frankie "J" Salazar

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  5. I'm the fellow in the lower left corner of the picture of the AAA band, next to Dave Ackerman. I played trombone, sang harmonies and occasionally played guitar with the AAA for about a year and a half, both in the Huerfano Valley and in Denver. I've kept up with many of these folks over the years, and can give you at least some information on what happened to at least some of them. Your history of the area, and of the AAA is pretty good, but skips over some events and changes that we went through, and I'd be happy to help perhaps fill in some details and stories and share some observations that I think are interesting. You can get my email address from my website.

    If you haven't read it, Roberta Perkinis (of Libre) wrote an excellent book not long ago on the history of this period in the Valley called simply "Huerefano". I recommend it!

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  6. I've had some pictures of the AAA up for some years, including Lars's memoirs, which you can get to at http://aaa.fmp.com. You may find them interesting.

    Frankie, I didn't know you, but may have met you in Berkeley in the late 60s when the AAA lived in the Napa Valley. FYI,

    Lars passed away in the 80s, as you know.

    Also passed on are Richard and Len Frazier

    Adrienne and her brother ran a bakery in Santa Fe for a long time. Don't know where she is, now.

    Trixie and Norman live in Denver. Trixie still plays music, to the best of my knowledge. Norman was into real estate and had, according to Little Dawn, rent houses in Denver or Boulder.

    Tony and Len split up in the late 70s. Tony moved back to the LA area and was working as a prison guard. Taeza Goode got married and had twins and lived on the west coast. Ellie and Norman split up, and Ellie, to the best of my knowledge, is still living on the AAA land with Douglas, her hubby. Maya grew up to be an artist of some sort, I believe, and had left the scene altogether when I had news of her.

    This is all news from perhaps 5 to 10 years ago. The person I'm most in touch with from this scene is Chip, who lives in Denver, and who played guitar with the AAA in the early 70s, during the time when the Jim Pepper, the incredible Kaw saxophone player, worked with us for a while.

    Laurel, I never knew you, You have an older sister, yes, who was born when your dad lived at at the AAA. I can't remember her name. Say hi to your dad for me :-)

    Yes, I can tell you stories about the AAA ...... ;-)

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  7. Credit where Credit is due .... Sandy Pittendrigh is apparently responsible for the Triple-A stuff at montana-riverboats.com (although I couldn't find it when I visited the site). Sandy's apparently into fly-fishing these days. He and I corresponded for some time several years ago and he set up the site at aaa.fmp.com on my server, using what appears to be a previous incarnation of the software at the montana-riverboats.com website. Sandy, his wife Nadine, and daughter Nadia lived at the Triple-A in Colorado in the early 70s and spent a harrowing first winter there in a tipi - walls with an R-value of about one! The community wood supply ran out mid-winter and people were forced to take the Triple-A's 4-wheel drive truck up onto the ridge-top BLM land to collect wood, through deep snow and in what seemed like perpetual winter wind.

    The Triple-A community that stayed in the Huerfano Valley after the band moved to Denver was much involved with the Native American Church at the time, as were many people in the alternative communities in the valley. John Pedro, a genial gentleman from the Arapaho nation, used to visit the valley frequently and was something of a guide and mentor to many of the young transplants who practiced the ways of the Native American Church.

    The Triple-A band itself moved to Denver and went in other directions. From a psychedelic variety show, it evolved into a pretty darn good R & B band, playing standards by the likes of Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, James Brown and the other popular black R&B artists, plus some of Norman and Trixie's highly inventive original songs. We played colleges, ski areas, and had a regular weekly gig at a bar called Orley's in the middle of a rail yard. The bar was between tracks, and every now and then a train would come by and drown out the music.

    Lars actually left the Triple-A well before he passed away from AIDS, and was living back in the Huerfano Valley when he died. There was a lot of coming and going of friends and family between "The Valley" and Denver, but after the move, the community of people who had followed music were distinct from the people who had stayed on the land in the Huerfano Valley, and several of the musical group still live in the Boulder/Denver area, including vocalist Jack, and guitarist Chip who still get together and play on a regular basis in various constellations with other local musicians.

    The Huerfano valley and the Huerefano River are named after Huerfano Butte, which is out on the flatlands near Walsenburg. It stands alone, an orphan mountain on the plains, an ancient volcanic plug. Hence the name for the valley of the Huerfano River which flows near the Butte, which is depicted on the poster for Elaine Baker's play of the same name.

    The Huerfano Valley is an interesting place. Like many mountain areas in the US, big swaths of history passed it by, and in many ways it's still much the way it was when it was part of Mexico. All the landed families which have been there for generations have names like Vargas, Viapondo, Archuleta and the like. When the war with Mexico happened in the 1840s the areas further south saw heavy fighting and many civilian casualties. Today there's still hostility between the Hispanic and Anglo communities around places like Taos.

    Not so in the Huerfano Valley. It just changed nationalities and life in the community went on. In the 70's, the "newcomers" eventually integrated into the local community, becoming teachers in the Gardner public school and opening up a public clinic there, learning the history of the area and developing many friendships with long-time local residents. The area was and is poor. I lot of the young people who grew up there left for Denver and other places where they could make a living. We who were young psychedelic refugees - artists, musicians, dreamers from elsewhere - filled a spot in the spectrum of generations in the valley and found friends and good neighbors.

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  8. Just one additional note on "communes." The term "commune" was coined by the mass media for communities of "hippies" (another mass media creation). While there were many different dynamics among people who lived in the communities in The Valley, I can think of only one which was explicitly and self-consciously a "commune", and that was a bunch called the Red Rockers who lived just south of Libre on the western slope of Greenhorn Mountain. The Red Rockers lived all together in a big 60 ft geodesic dome and had a plethora of caucuses and endless political meetings - a Gay Caucus, a Women's Caucus, etc. They, alone of all the communities in the Huerfano Valley, described themselves as a "commune". Other communities were more fluid and flexible. The Triple-A was, and possibly still is a legal Corporation, and we all got stock. I still have my share! Decisions affecting community welfare - water system, community gardens, placement of dwellings, were dealt with by the community, but there was nothing like mandatory surrender of personal property and assets as a requirement to live there, nor was there a pooling and community ownership of the means of production. In this, we were fundamentally not unlike many other communities of like-minded people all over the world, then and now.

    It was much more a matter of, if you came there and belonged there, you really couldn't bring yourself to leave. If you didn't belong there, you couldn't bear to stay. Tony Frazier said it very well once - we were all there together at that particular juncture of time and space because we _had_ to be.

    It may also be worth noting that the Triple-A land was in a narrow valley on the northeast-facing slope of Mt. Blanca, and we had colder winters and shorter summers than just about anywhere in The Valley. The people who have lived there for these many years love it, but it's not a valley conducive to agriculture, and is these days pretty much a residential community. A group did settle there in the 90s, I think, which set up greenhouses and ran a regional business in potted plants, but by and large it was a tough place to survive, economically and nutritionally, without having some sort of outside connection. Much moreso even than the rest of the Huerfano Valley.

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  9. There is of course much more that could be said and, for the historical record, should be written. In the late 70s Lars lived in New York CIty, on the uptown west side, and had a career as an actor. He built a beautiful little house on the land and lived there when he was first sick with AIDS. His house became a retreat for artists. Eventually Lars was too ill to be alone and he finally died at the home of old friends in San Diego, CA. A wonderful memorial celebration was held at the AAA. Lars' creativity and generosity were extraordinary; so many people remember him with love. -- Sandy (Carrot)

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  10. On January 18th, our friend Dawn Jones, known to us as Little Dawn, passed away at her home in Texas. Dawn was part of the Triple-A community for many years and was not only a talented artist and very original songwriter, but also instrumental in keeping many of us who lived in the Huerfano valley in touch with one another in the years since we scattered from there across the country and around the world.

    Sandy Pittendrigh has set up a memorial website for her at http://www.littledawn.org where scans of some of her photography and artwork can be seen. We'll have some of her music available there soon as well.

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  11. My name is Tania and I am the oldest daughter of Sara Jo, who was married to David Ackerman when we lived on the land. My little sister, Annie was born in the valley with the mid wife Mrs. Vargas. My mother died in Nederland in 2004, she was living with Norman and Little Dawn had just recently moved on. These long friendships have inspired me and I am in the process of working on a documentary film about AAA and would love to hear your stories. I have a bunch of footage shot by Barry Kessler during various visits and have Porfy's party as well as many recordings that my dad made. I also have a 45 of Paula's Dog and numerous photos from when our family lived on the land. contact me at tjxplode@gmail.com

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  12. Redwing Shoes !!!

    http://www.youtube.com/user/66film4tania#p/a/u/0/kz7l4RGHIGs

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  13. Some AAA band footage at 21:30

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KJupNCB52LA&feature=related

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  14. Tania is doing it! See http://www.facebook.com/pages/Anonymous-Artists-of-America-aka-The-Triple-A-Stories-Memories/173542689374259 and http://www.indiegogo.com/Anonymous-Artists-of-America

    Go, Tania!!!

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  15. I just found this blog - holy cow - it took me back. I lived at Drop City for a year or so after the founders had moved up to Libre. Used to drive to Walsenburg on weekends to listen to the AAA band play. Loved it, lived for it. Can hear Redwing Shoes playing still. So wish I had a recording or two to listen to.

    Lindsey I specifically remember you.

    Tall Susie M

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  16. I have a 45 with Paula's Dog and the Huerfano valley song.
    Niels

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  17. I knew Lars slightly in the New York period (about 1974 or 1975, I'm pretty sure) when he had the Wild Mushrooms restaurant here in the Village. My boyfriend knew him fairly well, and his other best friend was very close with Lars--that was Frank Bayer, who worked at the Vivian Beaumont Theater before going to the Mark Taper Forum in LA for about 30 years, until his death in 2010. William told me about Lars and had himself thought he'd try to live in such a place, went out there, said he met up with Lars there, but did a sort of theatrical flourish which lasted no more than a few days, and bought a motorcycle and drove it back to New York, changing the subject rather. He also told me about Lars's restaurant, and I'd go there sometimes, telling nobody. I knew who Lars was instantly, although I'd never seen a photo. We just looked in silence, and I went back a few times, never introducing myself. I found him extraordinarily attractive. Frank told me about his death sometime in the early 90s, I believe, after William had also died. I saw Lars once more about 1980 at the 72nd St. and B'way subway, he remembered me, it seems. And William's early messages about the 'living off the land' and 'growing your own food' influenced me more than it had him, although I did rather an urban version of it, with veggies grown on my roof here.

    I just discovered this site yesterday, and am very moved. I've also read some of Lars's memoirs and will continue to. Thanks also for the link to Tania's Facebook, where I found photos of Lars that pre-date my meeting him by probably 7 or 8 years--several are extraordinary, with his theatrical big face reminding me somewhat of Nureyev's. I've picked up the joy of what so many of you are expressing about that time together, and I see how much more profound it was than I even knew. I imagine Lars was something of an underground legend, as well as some of the rest of the others (and some of the rest of you.) I also found the 1970 Ebony article, that was marvelous. It was Lars who turned me into a gardener too, it now seems: I did the roof garden for some 10 years. I had also written about his particular boyish looks in the large final book of my 'cine-musique trilogy', which is called 'Illegal Dances of New York City', and just did a blogpost on him on my site for the book.

    This has meant a lot to me already, and I wish the best for Tania's movie, and for all. To find Lars's memoirs is simply wonderul. I can't answer on Tania's site, but I definitely DO LIKE all of it, and reading about the others too. I can't, because I haven't yet been able to bring myself to do Facebook and/or Twitter. To think he's been gone almost 30 years--and I knew him in a different grouping here. I'm not expressing myself terribly well, as some of this is very emotional for me, and I also miss the ones Lars and I both knew so well. But I appreciate this sort of renaissance that Lindsay and Tania are doing. Something has not died from that glorious time, which I experienced as a teen only here. I begin to feel that something is opening again, even back in 2009, Pynchon wrote 'Inherent Vice' about his own love for the period, albeit a more cityish one. I hadn't even known about AAA, this is a divine discovery. Thank you.

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  18. My name is Philip Sedlak and I knew the Anonymous Artists of America at Stanford in the spring of 1966, when they came regularly to the back terrace of Tresidder Union, usually Lars, Carrie and her sister, and perhaps some other people I can’t remember. Lars was a very giving, generous, sweet guy, who was apparently bankrolling part of the operation. He was wonderful with little kids. I remember how well he treated a friend’s child, Michael. I remember that Carrie and her sister had both gone to Radcliffe – some friends told me that they enjoyed taking milk baths. It was certainly true that AAA did not have much musical talent and a lot of my other friends commented on this, as they would have been called what is now known as an “art” band, good performance, bad music. I am not surprised that the bassist sometimes went topless, as Carrie was a bassist and was sometimes almost topless at Stanford. AAA were friends with Beth Jensky, nee Hildreth, and artist and an illustrator, and Sybill Selldorff, also an illustrator, and her partner of the time, Michael Moore, who became an established Bay Area artist, whose work made it to the Whitney and the MOMA collections. Michael later moved to Connecticut where he worked with Karlheinz Stockhausen. Also in the group were Sara Garcia, one of Jerry Garcia’s wives, and her husband, Michael Katz, a student of Philip Zimbardo, a social psychologist and designer of the Stanford Prison Project. Michael got his Ph. D. and said he was going to Stanford Medical School to become a plastic surgeon.

    Palo Alto was in turmoil, and AAA started coming around soon after the major anti-war demonstration in San Francisco in October 1965. Music was everywhere, and the Fillmore was booming. Joan Baez and Jerry Garcia and Country Joe and the Fish were often around the campus, sometimes giving free concerts. AAA tried to attract attention to themselves, but no one paid much attention. Stanford had a bad case of Berkeley and San Francisco envy, but within a couple of years Stanford had its own chapters of the Yuppies. The Resistance against the Vietnam War started at Stanford. Staid Stanford next to staid Palo Alto. Staid Joan Baez from Palo Alto High School. Dropping acid at Paly and Gunn High School. Etc. But why Stanford for the AAA? Because that’s where Lars, Carrie and her sister were. And people either liked them or tolerated them.

    AAA was more “for” than “against” anything. “For” innovation, difference. And to counter its Berkeley envy, Stanford had to be “further out.”

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  20. Hi AAA family, friends and fans, My name is Bruce Alexander and I lived at AAA for six months (April-Nov) in 1971. I lived in my green VW camper and was a friend to Richard, whom I had met from Garrapata Canyon in Big Sur. I spent three years traveling around the western US and working as a merchant marine shipping up to Alaska, also working in ski areas in wintertime. I knew from mutual friends that Richard was at AAA so after skiing in Utah I dropped in on him and it was ok with the AAA that I stay around. I was not a musician but at the time everyone was trying to build permanent structures and I lent my meager talents to building a barn, which Adrienne was putting a great deal of energy into. As Lindsay has mentioned, John Pedro was an Arapaho from Oklahoma, and Richard and I spent a great deal of time with him; learning peyote chants and Native American Church ritual. Richard and I and
    Adrienne and Tushe (and I can't remember, maybe Lars) made a trip to the peyote fields of Texas and on the way back to Colorado stopped at the home of Trixie's father in Houston. In Nov. of 1971 I moved back to my home in NYC which was when Lars moved there too. I kept in touch with him while he worked at the Wild Mushroom on 9th Ave. but eventually I shipped out again and lost touch with him. I also ran into other friends and family of AAA put that was oh so long ago. It has been wonderful to find this web page and rekindle memories of those fantastic people and the time I spent with them. Thank you all!

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  21. They lived in Newtown CT for a short time !
    I hired them to play shows locally.

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