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From an early age Peter Simon has delighted in documenting the world around him. During his college years in Boston, Simon photographed many a student protest and the burgeoning counterculture scene. Tired of city life, he moved to a Vermont commune in the early 1970s. Then came his spiritual quest, seeking out gurus and studying with Ram Dass, photographing all the while. A fascination with reggae and Jamaican culture led him to Bob Marley and other reggae stars. Simon followed the Grateful Dead on assignment for Rolling Stone, and, at the "No Nukes" concert in Madison Square Garden, captured images of rock stars James Taylor, Carly Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, and many others. In the 1980s, he covered the "Amazin" New York Mets' 1986 bid for the World Series and, in search of a simpler life, settled permanently on Martha's Vineyard.
Accompanying these vivid images of an era is a nostalgic, autobiographical amble through Simon's eventful life, a text full of wit and angst. In this astonishing record of the far-ranging experiences of his generation, Peter Simon has captured many of the major figures and events -- both in the mainstream and counterculture -- of the past forty years.
I and Eye includes introductory essays by Peter's sister Carly Simon, who knows him as well as anyone does; David Silver, author, television personality, and music producer; Stephen Davis, who collaborated with Simon on Reggae Bloodlines and is the author of several books on music; and Richard North Patterson, Vineyard friend and bestselling novelist.
My brother, Peter, in his early years, with enormous gusto, was interested in only a few topics, but boy was he interested -- photography, waves, highways, baseball, and putting out our family newspaper. I'm talking about when he was eleven, twelve, and thirteen. This was before music changed all our lives in the mid-sixties.
The newspaper was called The Quaker Muffet Press. He would ask all members of our extended family to submit articles, mostly of a personal nature, about our home and family life. We were encouraged to write character sketches or make up crossword puzzles. Almost anything, in fact everything, was appreciated initially by Peter, and most often by his friends and family. Because of Peter's imposed deadline, he was avoided and feared. Nobody loves a deadline demanded, fairly randomly, by a twelve-year-old behaving as if he were William Randolph Hearst. But, once the tall order was accomplished and then delivered, Peter would assemble the articles and type them out with one finger. He polished off the process with an original photography on the cover and a binding consisting of one large staple. Inside, there was a table of contents, and editor's comment, the articles, games, and puzzles. The focal point was a photographic essay -- the cover story -- including Polaroids and full-page eight by tens, processed by the publisher in black and white. The feature article usually would focus upon one member of the household as she or he wished to be viewed, that is if she or he would consent to a proper interview. If we did not agree to such an audience with our demanding boy publisher, he would simply writer it himself, unauthorized and scandalous. "Carly was seen in the attic trying on Joey's pale yellow prom dress. Chocolate pudding stain. Too bad." Yes, there would be flailing of the hands and wrists. Retribution consisted of not watching The Twilight Zone with Peter for a week. That being said, it was still a great time sitting around the kitchen table communally reading the finished edition out loud. I felt proud to be part of such a daffy and intelligent crew, one that might make the Round Table look square.
In addition to immediate family members, some contributors to The Quake whom you may meet as characters who people Peter's engrossing life story, include my boyfriend of many years, Nick Delbanco, who wrote poetry from Greece, and Joey's boyfriend, Bob Morton. Bob was one of the chief supporting players for The Quaker Muffet Press. He was erudite. He drew New Yorker-like cartoons with hilarious Thurber-esque captions. Some of his stories involved the personification of my dog, Laurie Brown, who took on many identities but was most often seen as a Moorish slave transplanted to England. Her shadow was the very catalyst of a plot to overthrow Arthurian knights in whatever capacity they needed overthrowing. The rest of us, in a less elaborate way, would prattle on about any old subject, eventually wearing thin all the material of our household affairs. "Andrew Simon nearly severs a finger in a garlic press mishap." A headline I wrote toward the end of the second year, "Cheerios all used -- need to go grocery shopping," was an indicator that the writing staff clearly needed a vacation. We were grasping at straws. But Peter was game; as long as the article was turned in he gave you credit and he published you. I don't remember if he was quite the impresario any earlier than this, but if he wasn't, he was then! This skill at getting the reluctant contributor to "cough it up" would propel him all the way into the next millennium. Peter is relentless. Knowing deep down inside that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, he squeaks well into the night.
Another project in which I was more of a hub was the "operas" that Peter, a childhood friend, and I would write and record on the Simon family tape recorder. Peter operated the machinery as well as improvising many of the arias. We were dauntingly adventurous, and I was probably at the height of my talent as a fifteen year old with nothing to lose. The productions were spontaneous, startlingly musical, and redolent of hyper-hormone humor and scatological bad taste -- naughty kid stuff. Characters sang from toilet seats everywhere: Rome, Turin, Pittsburgh. An early hippie-borne principle was given voice in another aria, "I Have a Problem," which went: "I have a problem, yes I have a problem. I like to look at kaleidoscopes, but they don't like to look back at me."
Listening to the tapes recently, I was absolutely positive nothing had ever been so much fun. Again, Peter was the chief organizer. He had the idea to do it "NOW" and so we did. The same was true of card games, softball games, and watching Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It's always important to have a motivator in every group. Certainly it wasn't me. I was morosely trying to get through adolescence by lighting up cigarettes behind my locked bedroom door and watching out the window for Bobby Elliot to walk by on his way home from some preppy girl's cool embrace. He would be looking down and smoking as he passed under my window. I could still be sitting there had it not been for Peter's insatiable quest for my participating in his next big scheme.
As Peter got older and wiser, he went to Boston University and then moved to a commune: Tree Frog Farm. As a great-looking, curly-haired, roach-smoking, privileged kid with a Nikon, he heralded the no-nonsense approach to bring it all back home to the earth, but with the best that modern technology could afford: a Sony tape recorder and a color TV. He was dropping out, but her was hooked up. Some of the best chapters in this book describe those years. What at time it was, too. Peter has told the tale with more honest insight than I could have imagined. He is without defensiveness and he laughs at himself when criticized, just as he also enjoys a big fat compliment. Peter has always been such an exuberant lover that at times he has made the beloved feel uneasy. He is good natured about receiving a "no," but it doesn't mean he doesn't continue to try.
So, as a young photographer, a lover of women, the weed, and "the way," he took his pleas, his beliefs, and his yearnings and gave them direction and energy. He took them to the street, backstage, the farm, and the foyer. Also to the bedroom, and to the bedrooms of his fellow men and women. He wanted and he expected a response. The story of his life is a great way to focus on what it was like to be utterly preoccupied with counterculture in the late sixties/early seventies.
Peter's life at Tree Frog Farm, though a bit over the top at times, mostly made a great deal of sense to me. I visited him there during the early winter of 1970, just as I was making my first solo album. It was there that Peter took pictures of me with his Leica and Hasselblad. I posed sitting on his threadbare, doggy-stained couch, which he made look inviting with shawls and pillows. It might have been our first professional session together. I think he got paid about $200 from Elektra Records. Peter had inherited our father's cameras and he was learning their scope and range. He regularly drove the four hours to Riverdale, where he had learned the basics of how to make his own prints in the darkroom that Daddy had built, to process his own film. If ever there were a son who took after a father he hardly knew, it was Peter after Richard. The context of their minimal relationship was the darkroom. I remember Peter would sit and measure out chemicals with Daddy. There was magic to watching forms materialize, and Peter, without question, developed not only a love of the process, but also an ease with it. When Peter took pictures of me, I was comfortable. I felt the naturalness of having been photographed so many times before by someone who looked and moved a lot like him.
I loved going to Riverdale with Peter to develop the prints and watch him try new techniques that would have bothered the purist (our father) and others of an earlier generation. Peter like to blur edges (as if the marijuana wasn't blurring enough of them). This was called the "Norman Seel effect," as we had heard of Norman's techniques and had laughs trying to imitate them. One trick was putting Vaseline on the lens to make haze of the actual image, thereby reducing unflattering lines. Fog does much the same thing, but you can't bring fog with you, and you can buy Vaseline quite inexpensively. (Now I need Vaseline all over -- not only for photos but my face itself. Some people think it is their eyes, but no. It is my Vaseline.) I have tried to interest Peter in using special lighting effects in his portraits. But he is more interested in showing the real person. It was only in those early Tree Frog years that were was experimentation with lubricants on lenses.
Which reminds me -- at Tree Frog Farm there was free love in its many manifestations, which my brother took the opportunity to photograph: muddy children in the shower, long-haired, acid-tripping boys and girls dancing Rockette-style on the lawn, and bisexual farmers reading Rimbaud to their cows. Peter Simon was an industry at the center of the group of characters and made a madly inventive book about it, Decent Exposures.
Although he had moved out of the house in Riverdale, as we all had, he was a good son to our mother and, what is more impressive, a loving one. He came back, prodigally or not, to see our mum, who was always crazy to see him. Years before he met and married Ronni he brought home many girls. Some had Indian names bestowed upon them by traveling gurus and visionaries. These girlfriends adored him; he fell in love quite easily. Hearts were not meant to be broken in this atmosphere for free love. You were supposed to be generous and lend your girlfriend out for the night. But I believe that hearts and egos got far more injured than people could cop to. It wasn't "cool" to be possessive, and pot dimmed the immediate, primal urge to strike the welcomed interloper with a big frying pan. I witnessed Peter being heartsick as a direct result of his expansive instinct: sharing his lady loves with his best friends. I so often wanted to tell him something -- to give him the advice of an older sister, a sage of love. But no, I knew and know nothing. We're supposed to know things, if only to be role models, but at least it's better to know you don't know. It's good to watch. I still think the Vaseline trick holds promise as a philosophy of life: throw some haze around the shore, and then continue to proceed as a newcomer.
I should leave off at this stage in the Peter Simon story for others to take over. He has many admirers, and here they should have the floor. It is hard to pick out the various and rich ways our lives have intersected. But this is his book. Even as we, his nearest and dearest, add our two cents' worth, it is for him to tell his distinctive and exotic story.