One Joint With Roger Steffens of The Family Acid
Seven rooms in photographer and archivist Roger Steffens’ Echo Park home (including a few that don’t appear on the house’s blueprints) house a wildly vast collection of reggae, Rastafarian, and Bob Marley-related memorabilia—the largest such archive in the world. Steffens’ work in photography has also struck a chord, and the images have recently found new life; his photographs (of which he’s shot, he estimates, over half a million) appear on the Instagram @thefamilyacid, run by his daughter, Kate. On view there are over five decades of slide photography, including plenty of Steffens’ signature double-exposed images. As is to be expected of a person so entrenched in the Rastafarian way, Steffens appreciates good herb. As he said during our interview, “If you know somebody likes to smoke, you know a whole bunch of things about them right away. They’re not uptight people.” An interesting turn of head for someone who voted for Barry Goldwater…
Alyssa Shapiro: How would you describe your worldview?
Roger Steffens: My worldview has been colored by an early acid trip, and by my almost daily use of herb for the past 51 years. I was a conservative Catholic; I went to 15 years of Catholic schools, and I was the New Jersey state oratory champion in the American Legion National Oratory Contest in 1960. I worked on William F. Buckley’s mayoral campaign in New York in 1965 when I was working at the New York Times, and voted for Goldwater in my first presidential election. And then I took acid [laughs].
AS: How old were you?
RS: Let’s see, I was 24. I’d never been a smoker of any kind until that point. In fact it was almost a year and a half later that I smoked my first joint, and that was in Vietnam. I did that because there was no frontline. And I was stationed in Saigon and guys were being killed sitting in sidewalk cafes. There was a Vietcong woman they called Saigon Sally who would ride on the back of a motorcycle and toss grenades into cafes. So, you were under constant tension, 24/7, and a lot of guys relieved that by getting drunk, and I thought that was really stupid: if you’re drunk, you’re drunk. But if you’re stoned and somebody starts shooting at you, you can straighten out pretty fast.
RS: So I had to teach myself to smoke. I got these Parklanes out to show you. These were sold pretty openly in Saigon. A penny a joint. And it was Commie weed. And it was, to this day, probably the best weed I’ve ever smoked.
AS: How did you go from being conservative to deciding to take acid? That feels like a pretty big leap.
RS: I steered clear of it until ’66 when there were cover stories in LIFE magazine with Henry Luce and Clare Boothe Luce dropping acid in their mansion, and basically promoting it as a psychological tool. Everybody around me was dropping acid. There were two guys I was sharing an apartment with who had gotten a huge supply of acid directly from Sandoz in Switzerland, and it was like a five-pound pile on the dining room table, and they were filling gelatin caps by hand. These guys didn’t sleep for seven or eight days, they were just completely wired. But they were having so much fun! So I said, well, alright, gimme some, let me see what happens. I stayed up all night long with a wild poet named Bob Watt, a Milwaukee exterminator, insincere zen master, who wrote bad poetry so that you could compare yours to his and feel much better about your own work. We dropped and had the most incredible, epiphanic experience. And at the end of it, we went down at dawn to the edge of Lake Michigan in Milwaukee, and we both saw a hundred Vietnamese peasants planting rice in Lake Michigan with their conical hats. I guess that was a little bit of prophecy going on, because a year later I was in Vietnam watching that.
AS: Do you believe you have an ability to see ahead in your life?
RS: I think there is a leak between dimensions, and I think time is an illusion. It’s all pretty much there, but you drop the needle, and that’s the point of power, which is now. I’ve experienced it enough in my life to know that there’s more than what we see. Psychedelic drugs can open those paths, and help you realize the interconnectedness of everything. Herb encourages that as well. I got to know Bob Marley, and one of the first things he said to me was, “Herb is not just for jollification, it is for head-ucation, and you must not misuse it.” And all those great anthems that we hear people all over the world today singing were composed by Bob under the direct inspiration of what he called Jah holy herb. I think it can be harmful to certain people who have psychological impairment. I don’t think it’s right for everybody, and I certainly don’t think LSD is right for everybody, but I’ve done over 100 trips and I’ve never had a bad trip. But I stopped because I got to the same point and couldn’t get any further, if you understand what I mean.
AS: I do.
RS: I’ve been reading The Best Minds of My Generation, the collected teachings of Allen Ginsburg recently, and he talked about how they were doing this in the ‘50s and ‘40s, the beats. And trying to find out what’s beyond, what’s beneath, and that the beats were actors of love! They weren’t thugs, they weren’t degenerates, they were finding with their experiments what Ginsburg or Burroughs calls “skinless light.” The mescaline and acid and mushrooms were all means to an end for them. I agree with that.
AS: How do you compare America now to America around the Vietnam War? Do you think that—because for a privileged portion of my generation, there’s been this ignorance, this idea that America has these really terrible sides to it that are now coming to the forefront, and the veil has been lifted. But do you think it has gotten worse in recent years? Or do you think that everyone’s just becoming aware?
RS: It’s worse than I’ve ever seen it, and I lived through Vietnam and the demonstrations and all of that. We’re on the verge of civil war because of all the dis-information, and people’s inability to tell fact from fiction, or inability to try to learn. We’re in a terribly perilous state now, between climate change and the internet filled with lies, and the people in power who promote that division. Our kids are in their 30s and neither wants children.
AS: I get that. How do you feel about not having grandchildren?
RS: I’d love to have grandchildren. You know, so… There’s so much stuff that I’d like to leave to them. But, you know, my kids live simply and small. Your generation isn’t into things the way we were.
AS: I think it’s because we move around so much and so you can’t collect things the same way.
RS: And you can’t afford to own a house.
AS: Do you find a lot of meaning in your things?
RS: Well, there’s seven rooms devoted to the history of Jamaican music in the house that you’re sitting in right now. And it is destined to become a museum in Jamaica. And now, how do you autograph a download? I’ve got autographed Bob Marley records, those are icons to some people. I got Haile Selassie’s autograph—he’s god to a significant number of people around the world. That’s an icon. Now everything’s ones and zeros.
AS: If you could wish one thing for our world, what would it be?
RS: To wake up! And live, as Bob sang. To be become more human, more sympathetic, empathetic. Yeah. It’s that simple, isn’t it? There’s nothing complex about it. Love is the answer. Everyone’s been singing that forever. The majority doesn’t seem to want to believe in that. It’s terribly sad. But you can’t give up, you gotta fight.
That’s what I love reggae, because the reggae is a movement of Jah people, a movement in which everyone must be positive and constructive in every way. In speech and language, they say, “I and I,” because “you” means we’re separate, but we’re not. We’re all physical manifestations of the one true and living god—Rastas call him Jah. So when they say, “I and I,” they mean “you and I,” they mean “god and I,” they mean “god IN I,” and they won’t use “you,” they won’t use anything that has to do with separation. They don’t go to university; they go to iniversity. It’s not universal truth; it’s an iniversal truth. They don’t go to libraries because lies lie buried in the library; they go to the truebrary. It’s very well thought out—
AS: Because the words that we speak have power.
RS: Talk about word-sound power. That was the name of Peter Tosh’s band. You conceive the word, you speak it, that’s the sound, and if it’s spoken from a pure motivation, from a pure heart, it will live forever. The power of creation comes from a true word. I like that way of thinking.