It has been said that ‘if you can remember the Sixties then you probably weren’t there’ but the contrary is true for Roger Steffens, the 77-year-old photographer, poet, actor, and pot-smoking, LSD- aficionado that can instantly recall anecdotes of his vast and varied life just as quickly as he can recite lines from his favorite Shakespearean sonnets. Steffens is also a Vietnam War veteran and proprietor of the world’s largest collection of reggae memorabilia. With a camera always in hand, Steffens has spent the last five decades snapping moments of his psychedelic and surreal life; a hobby that has produced a staggering number of photographs that capture America during a critical time when the country began to change and rethink its trust for the government and long-held social institutions. Hundreds of these images will be featured in his forthcoming book that to be released this September, titled The Family Acid: California.
With guest appearances by Keith Richards, Bob Marley, Sean Flynn, Marianne Faithfull, Tim Page, Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary; Steffens’ outsize life would be almost unimaginable, had he not memorialized it so copiously on film.
Over the last 50 years, Steffens has shot more than 500,000 frames, dropped acid ‘at least’ 100 times, published ten books, acted in 24 films, narrated 500 documentaries, hosted 2,200 hours of radio programming, and spent 26 months in an Army psychological operations unit during the Vietnam War. He’s been married twice, divorced once and fathered two children who endearingly call their unconventional household, ‘The Family Acid’ – a namesake derived from the fact that Steffens met his current wife Mary, 44 years ago, while tripping on acid in Mendocino County, California.
Sunbathing with poet Mark McCloskey, Berkeley, CA 1972. Steffens was born in Brooklyn and raised in a strict Catholic household before he was drafted to the Vietnam War and began experimenting with LSD. ‘People knew me as a Goldwater conservative before I went to ‘Nam,’ he said
February 1968, twin brothers in the military stand on the roof of Steffens’ barracks in Saigon, it was the first day of the Tet Offensive, and the Vietnamese Naval Headquarters (seen in the background) was burned to the ground. Steffens was drafted to the army’s Psychological Operations Unit at age 25 in 1967, he was reassigned a position that gave him the freedom to do ‘any project he saw worthwhile’ after the colonel was impressed by his work with local refugees affected by the Tet Offensive. ’There were 52 families living in sewer pipes. And I’d get up in the morning and you know, literally I have to step over dead bodies in the middle of the sidewalk’ he said
Keith Richards visits Roger Steffens’ massive archive of reggae memorabilia that takes up seven rooms in his Los Angeles home. Steffens assisted Richards in the making of his 2010 compilation record of Rastafarian spiritual songs
Steffens (right) is pictured next to Sean Flynn (son of the legendary Hollywood actor, Errol Flynn) on his very first visit to the Island of the Coconut Monk, a place ‘where you ‘prayed for peace to Christ, Buddha, Muhammad, Laozi, Confucius, Sun Yat-Sen, Victor Hugo and Winston Churchill.’ Sean Flynn was captured by Viet Cong soldiers in 1970 and never seen again
April 1970, Roger Steffens is pictured in Wisconsin, a few months after returning from Vietnam. On experimenting with LSD, Steffens said ’It was a wake-up call. It made me change the way I thought about everything’
Traffic on the way to see The Rolling Stones at Altamont on December 6, 1969. Just days after Steffens finished his 26-month long tour in Vietnam, he and a few Army buddies drove to the legendary concert, only to get stuck on the highway nearby instead. As seen here, people abandoned their vehicles and hiked to the festival instead
Steffens is a man who does nothing by halves, he is insatiable for knowledge and compulsively curious. It is for this very reason that the breadth of his work is so expansive. He was first introduced to reggae music in 1973 after reading a story in Rolling Stone magazine that piqued his interest. By 1979, he had his own radio show on National Public Radio and Bob Marley was his first guest. ‘He was a once in a lifetime artist,’ said Steffens who is regarded as the world’s leading expert on Bob Marley and the Wailers. In fact, it was Steffens who steered Paul Simon to African music, an introduction that resulted in the culturally important album, Graceland. It was also Steffens, who assisted Keith Richards in his 2010 album of Rastafarian spiritual songs. Remembering Richards’ visit to his home, Steffens said, ‘He had a rider of things that had to be in the house when he came, a bottle of Stoli, a six pack, a pack of Marlboro’s, some rolling papers and an ashtray.’
His passion for reggae music has manifested itself into the world’s largest archive of memorabilia outside of Jamaica, one that fills seven rooms in his Echo Park, Los Angeles home. The veritable shrine to reggae music includes 300,000 recordings, 30,000 fliers from around the world, 2,000 pieces of art, 3,000 concert buttons and every issue of Rolling Stone magazine from its 52-year run. ‘I bought the first issue on my way to Vietnam in 1967 and subscribed immediately,’ said Steffens, who also goes by ‘Ras Rojah.’ The moniker was given to him by Bob Marley when he joined him on tour in 1979.
‘LSD changed my life in 1966. I did LSD almost two years before I ever smoked my first joint, which was in Saigon,’ said Steffens to DailyMail.com. ‘You needed something in Saigon to break the tension.’ Like many in his generation, the politically polarized war changed Steffens. ‘People knew me as a Goldwater conservative before I went to ‘Nam,’ he explained. Born to an Irish-Catholic family in Brooklyn, Steffens’ father worked for Remington Rand typewriters while his mother was a homemaker. ‘I was a conservative after 15 years of Catholic brainwashing, the American Legion State Oratory champion, I had worked for William F. Buckley in New York in ’65.’ – all of that right-wing sh*t,’ said Steffens.
Steffens snapped this photo of Bob Marley while en route to his show at the San Diego Sports Arena in November 1979. Steffens began hosting his own reggae radio show in 1979, after only six weeks on air, Marley’s record label called and asked if he wanted to join them on tour for two weeks
The Albion Peoples Fair in May 26, 1975. This was the same day that Steffens met his second wife Mary ‘under a total eclipse of the moon’ while on an acid trip in Mendocino County. They married ten days later, had two kids and celebrated their 44th anniversary last month
While stationed in Vietnam, Steffens wrote a few letters to local newspapers back home asking to send aid packages for local families displaced by the war: ‘Three weeks later, two five-ton trucks pulled into the compound with my mail. 10,000 pounds of little packages pouring out of these huge steel Conex containers.’ Eventually, he raised over 100 tons of food and clothing for Vietnamese refugees
Roger Steffens’ wife, Mary pictured in Jamaica in June 1976. For years, the Family Acid (Roger, his wife Mary and two kids Kate and Devon) would take trips to Jamaica as Steffens would MC the reggae music festival Sunsplash
Photo taken from the back of a military jeep in Saigon, November 1969. Steffens didn’t smoke his first joint until he got to Vietnam: ‘You needed something in Saigon to break the tension,’ he said to DailyMail.com
Actress Lise Hilboldt sunbathing in Racine, Wisconsin. August 1969. Steffens studied acting at the prestigious Carnegie Mellon School of Drama and was performing his one-man poetry show in schools throughout the Midwest when he was drafted
Nevertheless, some of his most evocative images hail from his time serving in the Vietnam War. After attending the prestigious Carnegie Mellon School of Drama, Steffens then 25-years-old, was working as an actor when he received his draft card in 1967. He took bad advice from a local recruiting officer; and was given the option to avoid combat by serving in the Army’s Radio and Television Division under the provision that he enlist for an additional year. He was told that Vietnam didn’t have any radio stations at the time; ‘but what he didn’t tell me is that they were building nine,’ said Steffens to DailyMail.com.
Instead, Steffens was sent to the JFK Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg for intense training in psychological operations (PSYOPS) and propaganda warfare where he said they trained him with Nazi films. He was shipped out to Vietnam in October 1967 and given his marching orders that required him to carry 80- pound speakers through dangerous Viet Cong territory, calling for their immediate surrender.
‘I bought a camera as soon as I got to Saigon, because I realized I was in the midst of something historic,’ he told DailyMail.com. But upon arriving in Vietnam, Steffens caught a lucky break; the Colonel noticed his IQ and offered him an air-conditioned office job as a typist. ‘Three months later the Tet Offensive struck and the city went up in flames around us…That’s when I started working with refugees.’
‘There were 52 families living in sewer pipes. And I’d get up in the morning and you know, literally I have to step over dead bodies in the middle of the sidewalk,’ said Steffens to DailyMail.com. He wrote a few letters to local newspapers back home asking to send aid packages and his plea was well received: ‘Three weeks later, two five-ton trucks pulled into the compound with my mail. 10,000 pounds of little packages pouring out of these huge steel Conex containers.’ Steffens was instantly promoted to corporal, assigned a division of men and given the freedom to go anywhere in the country between the DMZ and the Mekong Delta with the ability to work on any project he saw worthwhile under one stipulation: he had to photograph everything.
GIs on the road in Pleiki, Vietnam, March 1969. Steffens told DailyMail.com: ‘I bought a camera as soon as I got to Saigon, because I realized I was in the midst of something historic’
Bob Marley backstage at the San Diego Sports Arena in 1979. Speaking of Marley to DailyMail.com Steffens said: ‘He was a once in a lifetime artist. He was without question, the most important musical artist of the 20th century. One whose work is going to last longer and have more profound influence on the entire world than anybody else’
Allen Ginsberg at a private party of poets in Milwaukee, February 1967. His reading at Marquette University had just been canceled because the week before he had taken his clothes off while performing at Columbia. ‘So Marquette hired me instead to do the poetry show and of course I read some Ginsburg!’ he told DailyMail.com
Cynthia, (Roger’s first-wife) at Stonehenge, October 3, 1971. Steffens met Cynthia on the Island of the Coconut Monk in Vietnam while she was working as a war correspondent. After he finished his tour in Vietnam, the couple traveled throughout Europe before they landed in Marrakesh
Bob Marley (right) and a touring member of The Wailers at the San Diego Sports Arena in 1979. Steffens was first introduced to reggae music by Rolling Stone magazine in 1973 - by 1979, he was touring with Bob Marley and had his own radio show. Today he is known as the world’s leading expert on all things reggae
During his 26-month long deployment, Steffens shot more than 20,000 frames; it was the fruitful beginning of a life-long relationship with his camera. He documented his adventures among a group of soldiers and civilians that became famous for their work in Vietnam. Among them were: Sean Flynn (photographer and son of the legendary Hollywood movie star- Errol), John Steinbeck IV (Vietnam journalist and son of the Nobel Prize winning American author), Tim Page (celebrated war-time photojournalist and inspiration for the character played by Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now) and Ron Kovic, the paralyzed, anti-war activist whose memoir Born on the Fourth of July was encouraged by Steffens after Kovic nearly gave up writing. Steffens told DailyMail.com, ‘He was ready to toss it into the fire!
‘I spent an awful lot of time in 1969 on the island of the Coconut Monk. It is, to this day, the most incredible place I’ve ever seen in my life,’ said Steffens. The mile-long sandbar, known as ‘Phoenix Island,’ that sits in the middle of the Mekong River was a neutral sanctuary for 6,000 North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese soldiers that dropped out of the war. It was also the place where Steffens met his first wife, Cynthia, a California native who was working as a war correspondent at the time.
Indeed, the Coconut Monk and his peaceful retreat has remained one of Vietnam’s most eccentric legacies. Decorated in brightly colored sculptures that felt more ‘pop art’ than religious, the candy-colored refuge was founded by a 4.5 foot tall hunchback monk who studied chemistry in France before he took a vow of monastic silence to create a new religion; one that melded Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Christianity and undying worship for the coconut. ‘It was a fascinating experiment,’ said Steffens who also described it to DailyMail.com as a ‘religious Disneyland,’ where you ‘prayed for peace to Christ, Buddha, Muhammad, Laozi, Confucius, Sun Yat-Sen, Victor Hugo and Winston Churchill.’
Eventually the Coconut Monk was arrested by Communist forces and died under house arrest in 1991. While many have long disregarded his coconut religion that preached pacifism on Phoenix Island as a cult; he was at one time considered to be politically powerful and ran for president in Vietnam in 1971.
Bob Dylan and the band at the Oakland Coliseum, February 11, 1974
Faith Petric’s Folk Music Club in San Francisco was a must-stop venue for visiting folkies in San Francisco, March 1974
Tower of Power album billboard in San Francisco, March 1974
A photo of Steffens’ wife, Mary while tripping on acid in the Mojave Desert, March 1976. The Steffens family endearingly calls themselves the ‘The Family Acid’ – a namesake derived from the fact that Roger and Mary while tripping on acid in Mendocino County in 1975
Roger Steffens’ friend Richie Silverman sunbathing in West Hollywood, California, 1979
Roger Steffens (left) poses next to his life-long friend Tim Page while tripping on acid in Little River, CA, 1975. The two lived with each other in Berkeley after the war and maintained a friendship for the last 50 years. Page, a world renown photojournalist contributed a 10-page essay to the forthcoming California Book
Poet Jerry Burns on Mount Tamalpais outside San Francisco in December, 1968. Burns took Steffens and his army buddies to the top of this mountain on their last night in America before they were shipped off to war. ‘I said, if I make it through the war alive, I’m going to come back here to live,’ said Steffens to DailyMail.com. This photo was taken one year after that evening while Steffens was on leave from the war and it’s one of his favorite pictures from the forthcoming California Book. ‘That photo has a lot of emotional resonance for me,’ he said
Upon completing his enlistment, Steffens roamed about Europe and Morocco with his first wife, Cynthia. ‘I was so ashamed of being an American and Nixon and his henchmen doing terrible things. I wanted to go to some place that was warm and where I could learn to speak French.’ They ended up Marrakesh, just as the city began to bloom under the bohemian influence of The Rolling Stones, Talitha Getty and Yves Saint Laurent. He was hired by the legendary interior decorator, Bill Willis, to take pictures of the rooms he had designed for Saint Laurent’s famous Villa Oasis.
Roger Steffens quotes Timothy Leary in the epigraph of his new book: ‘L.A. is where the migrants and the mutants and the future people come. The end point of terrestrial migration’
It was during this time that Steffens would become an ancillary witness to one of rock and roll’s most widely disputed chain of events: the death of Jim Morrison. Steffens had become friendly with the Countess Madeleine de Breteuil, a ‘grand-dame’ who acted as a gatekeeper to the inner circles of Marrakesh. Her son, 21-year-old Count Jean de Breteuil was an infamous drug-dealing playboy that was dating Marianne Faithfull at the time when Steffens found himself in their company on Monday, July 5, 1971. Jim Morrison had died in the evening of July 3, but news of his death had not been reported yet, ‘I was with the count and Marianne Faithfull on Monday night as they were telling this incredible story about how he broke down a door to find Jim dead in the bathtub, which wasn’t quite true- it was probably heroin that the young French count gave Jim that killed him,’ said Steffens to DailyMail.com.
Steffens was skeptical at first, ‘There was nothing in the International Herald Tribune days after he allegedly died. So I began to think that they were making this whole thing up.’ It wasn’t until Thursday the following week that news of Morrison’s death broke around the world that Steffens’ realized he was told the truth.
Years later, Marianne Faithfull corroborated this story in her 1994 memoir; she writes about fleeing Paris in a frenzy with de Breteuil in the early morning hours after he discovered Jim Morrison dead. ‘He was scared for his life; Jim Morrison had OD’d and he had provided the smack.’
Home from the war and travels abroad, Steffens eventually settled in Berkley, California where he roomed with his Vietnam buddy, Tim Page. During this time, he traveled around the country with his very successful one-man poetry show called, Poetry for People Who Hate Poetry. Both men were recently divorced and enjoying various altered states of consciousness when Steffens met his second wife in 1975. ‘I met my wife Mary under a total eclipse of the moon on a mass-acid trip with about a dozen people out in the pygmy forest in Mendocino County.’ The couple got married ten days later, moved to Los Angeles and have been married ever since.
Steffens poses next to the Coconut Monk on Phoenix Island in Vietnam, 1969. The Coconut Monk created a new religion that blended Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, and Christian beliefs while lording over a mile-long sandbar that rested in the middle of the Mekong River. It served as neutral territory during the war and a sanctuary for North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese soldier dropouts. Many people have since disregarded Phoenix Island as a cult; but Steffens said it was a ‘religious Disneyland’
Camping at the Sound Storm Festival, Wisconsin’s first outdoor rock fest, featuring The Grateful Dead, Baby Huey and Rotary Connection in April 1970
Roger Steffens (far right) and his first-wife, Cynthia (second from the right) pose with friends in front of a statue at Oxford University while Steffens was living in England to perform his one-man poetry show that was sponsored by the National Theater in London
Roger’s daughter Kate (who now runs TheFamilyAcid Instagram account) is pictured as a baby in her father’s arms in 1980. She wrote: ‘I was ‘baptized’ with weed smoke by Ras Michael. Although, when you grow up with parents like mine, the baptism never ends’
Steffens’ first wife Cynthia (right) with friends hangs out at a campground in Marrakesh, Morocco, April 1971. Steffens was in Marrakesh with Marianne Faithful and her boyfriend, (who allegedly dealt the deadly dose of heroin that killed Jim Morrison) just days after Morrison’s death in Paris
Carlos Santana visits Steffens at his colossal reggae archive that is one of the largest collections of reggae ephemera in the world outside of Jamaica. It contains 300,000 recordings, 30,000 fliers from around the world, 2,000 posters, statues and paintings and 3,000 concert buttons. His favorite item is a poster he had signed by Bob Marley when they first met backstage in 1978, over time, Steffens filled the front and back of the poster with 41 signatures from Marley’s family and associated band members
Three friends share a kiss in Little River, Mendocino in August, 1975
Steffens is given to the art of performance, at any moment he can break into dramatic verse, deliver lines from his favorite poems or sing the refrain from of a Negro Spiritual. His ability for recollection is also remarkable; at the drop of a dime, Steffens can recite sentences from a Rolling Stone story that he read in 1973. Or for comic relief, he’ll mimic a tony British accent to recite the absurdly-long address of the English cottage he lived in nearly 50 years ago. With his baritone voice, measured cadence and knack for telling engaging stories, it’s no surprise that Steffens found instant and steady success upon arriving in Los Angeles. His radio show on NPR called, Reggae Beat was syndicated internationally to 130 stations. He has acted in a handful of movies, narrated over 500 documentaries, including a few Oscar and Emmy winners, and most recently read Bill Gate’s book on tape.
He is also very candid about his experience taking LSD in his early adulthood. He attributes his discerning eye for unique photos to the psychedelic drug, ‘LSD taught me to see things in a totally new and different way. It affected the way I saw, which affected the kind of photographs I’ve taken over all these years,’ he explained. ‘It was a wake-up call. It made me change the way I thought about everything.’
In the hundred- plus times he dropped acid, Steffens insists that he ‘never had anything even remotely approaching a bad trip’ while using the Timothy Leary guidelines, ‘You have to worry about set and setting. You have to be in the right frame of mind and have the right people around you.’ With the exception of his 71st birthday, it has been decades since he last meddled with the drug; stopping sometime in the mid-seventies because he said the alternate state began to feel repetitive. ‘I’m not really a druggie. I smoke but I don’t do anything else.’
A conversation with Roger ‘Ras Rojah’ Steffens instantly reveals his inexhaustible interest in the world around him. ‘I just don’t understand people who are bored. I just cannot fathom how anybody could be bored living in this world,’ he said. In fact one might argue, that his penchant for performance, collection of mementos and impulse to photograph everything, is his way of immortalizing a life he loves. It makes sense of the inconceivable arc his life has taken, from poet to performer cum photographer and just about everything in between.
Joan Baez speaking to a plaza-filling crowd at UC Berkeley in 1973
Ann Bryan Mariano (right) sharing a toke with some friends from Oakland while on leave from Vietnam, where she edited a GI-oriented newspaper called the Overseas Weekly, February 1972
An unidentified man looks out over the San Francisco Bay in June, 1974. Speaking about the photos in his California Book, Steffens said, ‘It’s the sequoias, it’s Mendocino and hippie fairs. It’s San Diego. It’s seascapes, its forests, deserts. It’s all the great things about California. All the things I love.’
Despite his five-decade long relationship with the camera, Roger Steffens admits that his success in photography was a fluke. ‘I had been taking pictures all those years, but I was doing it for fun,’ he explained. ‘I wasn’t doing it as a serious photographer.’ It wasn’t until 2013 when his children set up an Instagram account showcasing their father’s work that Steffens’ life-long hobby turned into an unintentional career. Success on the social media platform led to multiple book publishing deals and it was only then, that he began to take himself more seriously.
Steffens’ heart is in California- it is his home, it’s where he built a career for himself, met his wife and raised two children. He has memories from around the globe but his forthcoming book will serve as a love-letter to the Golden State. It will showcase hundreds of images taken between 1968-2007 of San Francisco, Los Angeles, the Sequoias, Mendocino County, San Diego, hippie fairs, seascapes, forests and deserts. ‘It’s all the great things about California. All the things I love.’ he said. But perhaps it’s in the minutiae: images of graffiti, gritty streets, temporary murals, sidewalk stencils, billboards and bus benches, that serve as his greatest testament of love. By meticulously documenting the parts of a city that change, he has created a photographic time capsule of a bygone era for us to enjoy. ‘These are the things that make living in Los Angeles such an exciting place because so many things that are in a constant state of flux.’
After 50 years, it seems that Roger Steffens is finally comfortable with giving himself the label he always deserved: photographer. He said, ’This is my attempt to go up against Suburbia and Robert Frank and Vivian Maier – the big names in street photography. This is my attempt to break into their ranks. I want it to serve as my major photographic statement.’
The sunset looking west toward Hollywood during fire season in March, 1976
Venice Beach, 1977. Steffens said a lot of the photos included in his forthcoming California book are pictures of what he calls ‘trivia’: old street corners, graffiti, sidewalk stencils, billboards and bus benches. ’What makes Los Angeles such an exciting place to be is because there’s so many things that are in a constant state of flux,’ said Steffens
A psychedelic double exposure of Steffens’ wife Mary over the mountains of Bishop, California in 1988. Double exposures became Steffens’ signature style after he mistakenly used a roll of exposed film shot by his legendary anti-war activist friend Ron Kovic, for fresh film. He said that double exposures are the best representation of the way he sees the world on psychedelics
An image of the 4.5 foot tall Coconut Monk who hadn’t laid down in 20 years. The monk studied chemistry in France before he took a vow of silence to create his new religion that Steffens said was ‘a fascinating experiment.’ John Steinbeck IV, a friend of Steffens’ while in Vietnam, took the vows of a Buddhist monk while living on Phoenix Island under the apprenticeship of the Coconut Monk who adopted Steinbeck as a spiritual son
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