"Freedom?": Richard Brautigan's first wife, VIRGINIA ASTE, speaks in a new interview

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Virginia Aste, Black Rock Cafe, Pahoa, Hawaii, Mother’s Day, 2008. Photo by Susan Kay Anderson

“Freedom?”: Richard Brautigan’s first wife, VIRGINIA ASTE, speaks in a new interview

Interview by Susan Kay Anderson

Edited with Introduction by Mike Daily, with biographical information contributed by John F. Barber, Richard Brautigan scholar

Less-than-revered by his Beat peers (Ginsberg gave him the ungainly nickname “Bunthorne,” Burroughs once observed him—drunk—crawling along the floor of a hotel after a reading event, Ferlinghetti said he “was all the novelist the hippies needed” because “[i]t was a nonliterate age”), Richard Brautigan became internationally famous in the late ’60s for writing simple-yet-surreal poems, short stories and novels that made readers marvel and burst out laughing. Brautigan’s personal life, however, was no laughing matter. Severe alcoholism—drinking a bottle of brandy and two fifths of whiskey a day during binges, according to friend Don Carpenter—and depression over declining book sales led to Brautigan’s suicide in September 1984. He was 49.

Brautigan began writing Trout Fishing in America in 1961 on a camping trip he took with his first wife, maiden name Virginia Alder, and their one-year-old daughter, Ianthe. Married in 1957 and separated in 1962, they officially divorced in 1970. Before the separation, Virginia Alder had become involved with one of Brautigan’s drinking buddies, Tony Aste, with whom she later had three children (the first in 1965, the second in 1968, the third in 1969). There is no known record that she and Tony Aste ever wed, though she took his last name. Virginia Aste eventually moved to Hawaii in 1975, without Tony, who remained, living in Bodega Bay, California, and then San Francisco, where he died in 1996.

Today, 75-year-old Virginia Aste is a political activist working as a substitute teacher in one of the most violent school districts in Hawaii. Susan Kay Anderson, a fellow educator at the school, recently met Virginia Aste and interviewed her about her early life and travels with Brautigan.

“Virginia Aste is not a ‘little old lady type,'” Anderson reports. “She is almost six feet tall and wears glasses, well-fitting outfits and interesting jewelry. Her gaze never wavers. She laughs easily and speaks in a measured, self-paced, quiet tone. She is quite funny and self-effacing, able to laugh at herself.”

“Much of Brautigan’s past has remained shrouded in mystery for so long as to become mythology,” says John F. Barber, curator of the comprehensive, multi-media online resource Brautigan Bibliography and Archive. “Virginia’s comments and insights [in this new interview] are important because they help us better understand the stories behind Brautigan, his life and his writings.”

Like a Waterfall

Arthur: What were the ’60s like?

Virginia Aste: The ’60s were a lot like the ’50s, a continuation of [the ’50s], except for ‘68 and ‘69. Then, everything changed. For example, I took Lamaze [childbirth classes] for Ianthe’s birth. They didn’t know what I was talking about in the hospital. They gave me some pillows and helped me lie on my side. That was that.

The change came with the music. There were concerts every day—really, really good concerts every two weeks or so. Groups from New York came. The concerts were in Golden Gate Park.

At that time there was the Cow Palace, a big stadium—George Wallace was to speak. All I remember was the atmosphere of hostility and women there. This [Cow Palace] was a place where women burned their bras; where riots happened. It was a feeling of a mob and impeding violence and we just had to leave. We had gotten Ianthe a new raincoat from her dad. Ianthe’s raincoat pocket caught on a car as we were leaving and she started to cry. It was no real riot that time, but it felt like it could’ve been. What we were witnessing was a lot of yelling and Wallace was yelling back. He was ranting. It was an awful ending to an awful day.

For a year, there were free concerts every other week. It was wild. Of course, there were precursors to this, pre-’60s. I purchased a Rudi Gernreich bra—it was see-through—and took off my shirt during a party. We saw how many people could crowd into a phone booth at a time.

In one house where we lived, there was something wrong with the plumbing so the water ran and ran. It was like a waterfall. We turned it stronger and then back again or we just got water.

We moved out of North Beach and out of Haight-Ashbury. There was a lot of alcohol and pot use. There was the Ice Cream Store where bikers and bus drivers took pills—early speed, the chicken egg-producing drug, methedrine, cheaper than heroin. It was the time of the Alphonse Mucha art style on concert posters: big bicycle wheels on bikes, elongated figures riding, and the skulls and roses of the Grateful Dead.

Richard admired the Diggers. Our whole thing was a proletarian idea that you take care of everybody. I remember baking bread in coffee cans. I did. We had everything available to us at the free store. We never had any money. I don’t remember paying for anything for a while. This was the last half of the ’60s.

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A conversation with Ralf Hutter of KRAFTWERK (May, 2005)

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Above: Folk musicians touring the European countryside by bicycle. Photograph Roger-Viollet /Rex Features

The following was originally published in the LAWeekly on June 2, 2005…

Man-Machines of Loving Grace
by Jay Babcock

I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

—from “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace” by Richard Brautigan

Next Tuesday, German electronic-music pioneers Kraftwerk will perform in Los Angeles for the first time since their now-legendary show at the Hollywood Palladium in 1996. That concert drew an appreciative, astoundingly diverse cross-genre audience: indie-rock nerds and art-school casualties, computer-programming geeks and hip-hop heads, synth freaks and industrial goths, every laptop musician west of the Colorado and — oh yes! — breakdancers. Machines, it seems, had succeeded in uniting humans.

It’s impossible to overstate Kraftwerk’s influence on pop music and culture over the last 30 years, from new wave to hip-hop, electronica to (yawn) Coldplay (who use the riff from “Computer Love” on their new song, “Talk”). We all know Kraftwerk songs — odes to transportation like “Autobahn” and “Trans-Europe Express,” future/now manifestoes like “Man/Machine” and “The Robots” — but it’s in the live context, where the songs are joined to specially designed graphics, that Kraftwerk achieves a purity of all-encompassing vision that secular music rarely touches. It’s all about rapture, and an interaction with — or longing for — a relationship with something other than human.

On the telephone, Ralf Hutter — co-founder of Kraftwerk with Florian Schneider, and now approaching 60 years of age — is helpful and deliberate, like a professor pleased to have a visitor who’s interested in his research on an obscure subject.

Q: There’s a bumper sticker that says “Drum machines have no soul.” Do you think that is true?

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The Diggers Papers No. 18: another BEDROCK ONE event flyer/poster

Arthur is proud to present scans of essential documents produced by and about the San Francisco Diggers, who were in many ways the epicentral actors in the Haight-Ashbury during the epic, wildly imaginative period from late ’66 through ’67. The Diggers’ ideas and activities are essential counter-cultural history, sure, but they are also especially relevant to the current era, for reasons that should be obvious to the gentle Arthur reader.

Most of the documents that we are presenting are broadsides originally published on a Gestetner machine owned and operated in the Haight by the novelist/poet Chester Anderson and his protege/sidekick Claude Hayward, who used the name “Communication Company,” or more commonly, “Com/Co.” According to Claude, these broadsides were then “handed out on the street, page by page, super hot media, because the reader trusted the source, which was another freaky looking hippie who had handed it to him/her.”

This particular Com/Co document is a flyer/poster/broadside by an unknown artist advertising BEDROCK ONE, a March 5, 1967 event organized by Anderson himself. (See Robert Crumb’s flyer for the same event here.)

Check out that lineup, a real who’s who of the contemporary Haight-Ashbury arts/life scene: the Steve Miller Band, the Orkustra (the band led by guitarist Bobby Beausoleil, who would later be associated with both Kenneth Anger and Charles Manson), poet Richard Brautigan, the infamous street agitators San Francisco Mime Troupe, the San Francisco League for Sexual Freedom, the Lysergic Power & Light Company, and more.

More on Bedrock One in coming days…

Click on the image to see at a larger size…

Diggers19

The Diggers Papers No. 17: BEDROCK ONE event flyer/poster by R. Crumb (late Feb '67)

Arthur is proud to present scans of essential documents produced by and about the San Francisco Diggers, who were in many ways the epicentral actors in the Haight-Ashbury during the epic, wildly imaginative period from late ’66 through ’67. The Diggers’ ideas and activities are essential counter-cultural history, sure, but they are also especially relevant to the current era, for reasons that should be obvious to the gentle Arthur reader.

Most of the documents that we are presenting are broadsides originally published on a Gestetner machine owned and operated in the Haight by the novelist/poet Chester Anderson and his protege/sidekick Claude Hayward, who used the name “Communication Company,” or more commonly, “Com/Co.” According to Claude, these broadsides were then “handed out on the street, page by page, super hot media, because the reader trusted the source, which was another freaky looking hippie who had handed it to him/her.”

This particular Com/Co document is a flyer/poster/broadside by a pre-fame Robert Crumb advertising BEDROCK ONE, a March 5, 1967 event organized by Anderson himself. Check out that lineup, a real who’s who of the contemporary Haight-Ashbury arts/life scene: the Steve Miller Band, the Orkustra (the band led by guitarist Bobby Beausoleil, who would later be associated with both Kenneth Anger and Charles Manson), poet Richard Brautigan, the infamous street agitators San Francisco Mime Troupe, the San Francisco League for Sexual Freedom, the Lysergic Power & Light Company, and more.

More on Bedrock One in coming days…

Click on the image to see at a larger size…

Diggers18a