On Saturday afternoon, three prominent figures with an insider’s view of Aspen’s colorful past spoke about the 1970s and the personalities that shaped Aspen during that decade.
Tom Egan, of Aspen Public Radio, hosted a roundtable chat with Michael Cleverly, Jay Cowan and Bob Braudis. The trio shared some fascinating and often spicy tales of their counterculture experiences in Aspen.
Cleverly, who now lives in Paonia, is a former columnist for The Aspen Times and co-authored “The Kitchen Readings: Untold Stories of Hunter S. Thompson.” Cowan grew up in Aspen and is the editor-at-large of the Aspen Sojourner. He’s also the author of “Hunter S. Thompson: An Insider’s View of Deranged, Depraved, Drugged Out Brilliance.”
Braudis served as Pitkin County sheriff from 1986 to 2011. Pitkin County voters abolished term limits for the position so he could stay in office.
With the conversation geared toward the ’70s in Aspen, Thompson’s influence was often a topic, as was drug use, music and the local politics that led to Aspen’s reputation for “dirt, dope and dogs.”
Thompson ran for sheriff of Pitkin County in 1970. Egan asked if that’s when the county shifted from a rural, rancher-oriented, conservative area to a more liberal attitude.
“Hunter was another voice for that way of thinking,” Cleverly said. “He was the first to express the righteous indignation loud and clear. He clearly spoke to one part of Aspen.”
“The ’70s was the blue-collar decade,” Egan said. “The ’70s were when the dirty work happened for all these ’60s ideas. Here in Aspen, the counterculture was well-entrenched.”
When former Aspen police magistrate and restaurant owner Guido Meyer’s name was brought up, Braudis couldn’t help but share a story concerning the ultraconservative Meyer. Meyer carried a reputation as being anti-beatnik and anti-hippie.
“In 1970, I went with some friends into Guido’s bar,” Braudis said. “Back then, my hair was down to my shoulders. Guido had his back to us and asked what we wanted to drink. When he turned around, he said, ‘You long-haired hippies, ... get the f--- out!’ and threw us out. Seven years later, I’m a deputy here, and I get a call about a hit-and-run at the airport. I chased the driver down, and it’s Guido. Guido is s----faced. I pop him for a hit-and-run and a DUI, took him to the jail, where he refused to be bonded out. After he urinated himself, I asked him if he remembered me. He said no, but I remembered him. It was payback.”
Braudis then shifted the conversation toward former Aspen Sheriff Dick Kienast, who was elected sheriff in 1976 after, according to Braudis, former Sheriff Carroll Whitmire was caught stealing public money.
“(Whitmire) was told he could either leave town or be prosecuted,” Braudis said.
Kienast wanted to hire Braudis as a deputy in 1977 and had him take a pre-employment polygraph test in Vail.
“I was driving through Glenwood Canyon on my way to Vail smoking a joint,” Braudis said. “I get to Vail, and the guy wires me up with sensors. The first question he asked me was, ‘When was the last time you used drugs?’ which I told him was about an hour ago. I thought, ‘I really screwed this up.’ So I got back to Aspen, and Kienast didn’t have any questions about that. He said he was looking for non-deceptive personalities and told me I was pretty honest. He gradually hired a whole bunch of other freaks like me. Dick Kienast is my personal hero and my mentor from the mid-’70s on.”
Egan then turned the conversation toward the ’70s music scene in Aspen with people like John Denver, the Eagles and Starwood.
“Those people were good citizens and very generous with their time,” Cleverly said. “The Deaf Camp picnics back then were awesome with John Denver and Jimmy Buffett. It was a different time back then. Those stars didn’t send out press releases when they were coming to visit. They were here for the quality of life, much like us.”
Braudis then asked if he could shift the conversation to something that went along with the music, which was drugs.
“We’ll keep the sex part out of that,” Egan said.
“Cocaine was very prevalent,” Braudis said. “There was a guy named Harry Swets, who we called Hooks because he lost both arms when he hang-glided onto some high-tension wires and had his arms burned off. They replaced his arms with two hooks. He couldn’t really find any employment, so he sold drugs. One night, an old lady on the West End called the police because she was witnessing a bunch of guys kicking the s--- out of each other. The (Drug Enforcement Administration) had made a deal with Hooks to buy drugs, and when they flashed their badges, he started swinging. Guys pulled out guns that were dressed in undercover clothing, so when the uniformed on-duty guys showed up, they didn’t know who to shoot.
“Kienast called the DEA and said they needed to tell him when they were doing undercover work in Aspen because it was a public-safety issue. Immediately, they cut us off from any communications. From that day on, every deputy in Pitkin County had a target on their back. In the ’70s, a grand jury subpoenaed 200 people in Aspen trying to crucify Kienast. That incident put a wedge between the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and local police for 25 more years. I’m getting that off my chest. Up until last year, the DEA has had a hard-on for Pitkin County and Aspen.”
The trio talked about sports that were popular in Aspen in the ’70s, like skiing, biking and rugby. They talked about the Grewal family and Alexi Grewal being the first American man to win a road-cycling gold medal at the 1984 Olympics.
Cleverly brought up Bob Beattie, the ski coach who guided the U.S. Ski Team in 1964 to its first medals ever in men’s Olympic skiing. Beattie lived in Woody Creek during ’70s when he founded the World Pro Ski Tour.
“He was the man who invented how to make a dime skiing,” Cleverly said.
Egan then asked why, with the music, the skiing, the talented artists and the zoning laws that saved the look of the area, all this happened in Aspen and not somewhere else.
“It was a snowball effect,” Cleverly said. “It didn’t happen all at once. Having Hunter (Thompson) come here brought a lot of attention. Aspen offered a cosmopolitan experience in the middle of the Rocky Mountains.”
“I think for a lot of us, the good old days started when you got here,” Cowan said. “I think the people are the key to it. I came here to ski, and the skiing world is a very small world. Aspen had the skiing and spread that way, kind of like Ebola.”
When asked if coming to Aspen was a form of escapism from the political uprisings in America at that time, all three speakers said it was more the opposite. In Aspen, they found many political allies.
“The same stuff was going on here like in the rest of the country,” Cleverly said. “You didn’t check that stuff at the door. It was all going on here.”
“If you came here to escape,” Cowan said, “that was a mistake. I came from a staunchly Republican family in Wyoming. This town radicalized me within a year. The first three times I left this town I got arrested: once for smoking weed in Oklahoma, once for protesting in Washington and then for being in the wrong place at the wrong time in Paris. I left Aspen with my political ideals. It wasn’t like I came here to abandon them. I can remember protesting to stop underground nuclear blasts to free oil and gas near Rifle.”
The trio finished the roundtable discussion by taking questions from the audience.
The chat took place at the Aspen Historical Society in front of about 75 people as part of Chautauqua Aspen.
Chautauqua was an adult education movement that was popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Named after Chautauqua Lake, New York, where the first meeting was held, Chautauqua assemblies brought entertainment and culture to communities with speakers, teachers, musicians, entertainers, preachers and specialists of the day.