Review: ‘Lost Sheep’ offers unique glimpse into Aspen’s heyday
The Aspen Times
ASPEN – Most recollections of the ’70s in Aspen come with a caveat: If the person doing the recollecting were truly a part of what was going on in the Aspen of the ’70s, he should have been too stoned, or at least too astonished by what was going on around him, for the memories to be reliable.
But in Kurt Brown, author of the new memoir “Lost Sheep: Aspen’s Counterculture in the 1970s,” we have an apparently trustworthy take on the period. Brown, to be sure, was much like the rest of the flock that ascended to Aspen in time for the ’70s: young, idealistic, looking for a place to hide out from a Vietnam-era America that had become too corporate and too corrupt. In Aspen, he partook of all that the place had to offer, the pot and cocaine, the easy sex, an existence oriented toward pleasure rather than the mundane pursuit of job, family and religion.
But Brown early on positions himself as something of a sober-minded outsider among the wilder wave of Aspen newcomers. “I didn’t consider myself a hippie,” he writes in chapter one, “Prelude to a Journey,” and he continues to describe a middle-class upbringing that left him unimpressed, and distinct from the more radical elements that had transformed San Francisco in the ’60s.
In Aspen, Brown straddles two worlds. He eventually gets a job as a bartender at Jake’s Abbey, a shabby downstairs bar that was home to a fairly legendary open-mike scene. It is the ultimate insider’s view on the music, the characters, the drugs and the loose morals that had abruptly turned Aspen from a broken-down mining town into a haven for youthful partiers and seekers.
But Brown had set out early on to be a writer, and “Lost Sheep” is written from that particular perspective, which practically by definition is an outsider’s view, an observer’s perspective. Brown embraces all things literary; among the first encounters detailed in the book is one with Lorenzo Semple, Jr., an Aspenite who had written several film scripts, and whom Brown finds upstairs in the Elks Building. It seems an odd episode to include so prominently and early, but it sets a template. Brown documents the writer’s life of contemplation and observation, and this acts as almost a counterbalance to the 24-hour party that was going on. As much as he had the nightclubs, Brown had a borrowed house (borrowed from Bruce Berger, a writer) in a quiet corner of town, with its sublime valley views. When he writes that Aspen wasn’t about pure hedonism, but about a mindful pursuit that included an appreciation of art and an awareness of communal values, he’s probably speaking of himself as much as anyone. “We were ethical insurgents,” he writes of the ’60s counter-cultural in general.
Brown became an editor of the literary magazine the Aspen Anthology and later founded the Aspen Writers’ Conference (forerunner to today’s Aspen Writers’ Foundation). A good portion of “Lost Sheep” takes place in the rooms where Brown and his cohorts did their writing and editing, strategizing and scrambling. Brown is especially good at describing these shabby, back-corner quarters (particularly the office in the basement of the pre-renovation Wheeler Opera House) as well as the bars he frequented, the rooms he rented, the tipis he visited. Brown might be the lone Aspen writer to focus more on the indoors than the outdoors, but of course – he was a writer, and spent more time at a desk than on the mountain.
The writer’s angle provides a comfortable gateway for bringing Hunter S. Thompson into the picture (of course, Thompson and his run for sheriff would have gotten in there anyway). Brown might have been overly self-focused in devoting chapters to the birth and life of the Writers’ Conference, but it does offer insight into the quixotic nature of such ventures.
“Lost Sheep” conveys with reasonable clarity the essential point that Aspen in the ’70s was something special to have lived through. And that you didn’t need to be at the center of the party to recognize that this was a place and time apart. “Any normal American visiting Aspen at the time would have noticed the difference,” Brown writes.
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