The Farm Band (Revisited)
The Press Democrat 8/02/14
Just before Walter Rabideau packed up his belongings, turned over all his money and followed a spiritual leader to live on a commune in Tennessee, he gave away his guitar.
“I gave up playing music,” he said. “I gave the guitar to someone and said, ‘Here, I’m not gonna need this where I’m going.’”
But Rabideau, 67, of Petaluma, would soon mix the two at the commune, now world-renowned, known as The Farm. Founded by enigmatic guru Stephen Gaskin, The Farm swiftly rose to wide-spread fame in the early 1970s for its back-to-the-land philosophy, pioneering midwifery services, marijuana cultivation and bottomless consumption of tofu.
Sure, many people at the time dismissed them as a bunch of wild hippies. But defying the narrative of growing up and selling out, the members of The Farm held on to their ideals. Wrote Jim Windolf in a 2007 Vanity Fair profile: “The Farm isn’t where you go to dream your life away in a 1960s-besotted haze. The place is active, fully engaged with the world. And it has a strong backbone in the form of 10 nonprofit companies and 20 private businesses.”
After Gaskin decreed that a rock band would attract more converts, it also became known for The Farm Band.
With Rabideau on lead guitar, The Farm Band released four albums and toured the U.S. and Europe to spread the commune’s message of peace, love and communion. (It achieved enough notoriety that a record label in Italy recently reissued most of its output.)
Now living in Petaluma, Rabideau finds it easy to reminisce about the idealistic commune that hosted The Farm Band, which will reunite for its first performance in decades on Aug. 16 in Sebastopol.
“It was real natural for electric rock ‘n’ roll music to be at the center of our trip,” said Rabideau.
The band’s manager, Paul Mandelstein, 68, of Half Moon Bay, estimates that more than 200 ex-Farm residents now live in Sonoma County, and their ranks have been abuzz with the news of Gaskin’s death last month at age 79.
The Farm was born from Gaskin’s weekly “Monday Night Class” near Ocean Beach in San Francisco, where often over a thousand attendees would listen to his lectures and receive guidance on the psychedelic experience.
“He was able to explain what was happening to us in really clear, educated terms,” said Farm Band bassist Michael Sullens, 67, of Vallejo. “And Stephen was very accessible.”
When Gaskin decided the group needed land of its own, a caravan of buses left Ocean Beach and eventually settled in Tennessee, where a large plot outside of Nashville was purchased for $70 an acre.
Army tents were bought from a surplus store nearby, kerosene lamps and stoves were brought in, and The Farm began in all its early, rural optimism.
“It was getting a bit revolutionary and violent with the various things that were going on in Berkeley,” said Farm Band drummer David Chalmers, 66, who now lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“So when they said, ‘We’re going to go back to the country,’ I said, ‘Okay, I’ll take up farming.’”
In fact, the band members comprised The Farm’s painting crew, driving off-site for jobs and then giving all the money to the “central bank,” as it was known.
Other groups worked construction, did plumbing, or participated in the midwifery services spearheaded by Gaskin’s wife, Ina May. (Throughout the 1970s, a steady stream of expectant mothers traveled to The Farm for natural birth, and Ina May Gaskin is now known by virtually every midwife across the country.)
Under a strict policy of never playing for money, The Farm Band also never shared the stage with any other bands, or anybody but Gaskin, who would deliver his sermons between sets.
Though the group performed in front of 8,000 people in Golden Gate Park, “we weren’t commercially hooked in,” Rabideau said, “so I don’t know how seriously people took us.”
In Europe, the group played in communes and “stayed with socialists,” according to Sullens. Traveling in a double-decker London transit bus, the group packed grain and produce from The Farm into the cargo bays and made soybean tortillas in the bus kitchen while playing from Denmark to Germany and everywhere in between.
In the late 1970s, the group morphed into a band called Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which released an anti-nuclear album in the immediate aftermath of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant disaster.
The group performed on the Nickelodeon TV network, played at the Washington Monument in D.C. with Blood, Sweat & Tears, was joined by Bonnie Raitt at a “No Nukes” festival in South Dakota and even rocked the huge Glastonbury Festival in England.
It was a level of fame that the original Farm Band never achieved.
“We would come out with gas masks and rat suits,” said Rabideau, “and the schtick caught on enough that we got interviewed in Rolling Stone (magazine).” (The Farm Band will also reunite with singer Bobbie Bonnickson, who flies in from Portland, Oregon for a set by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission this Saturday.)
But eventually, The Farm stopped bringing in enough money to support its growing population, and by 1983, the commune was restructured as a cooperative.
An exodus of families left, many of whom found their way to Sonoma County.
Petaluma’s Linda Speel, 72, organizer of the August 16 event in Ives Park, keeps The Farm’s ideals alive with the PeaceRoots Alliance, which runs programs opposing nuclear waste and promoting education and farming. Speel likens leaving The Farm to a divorce.
“We were grieving the loss of our ideals,” she said. “We were really committed and put 12 years into it. So it was hard.”
Nowadays, residents on the original Farm in Tennessee — still in operation — number around 175.
But far more who share long histories at the commune are expected at the festival on Saturday in Ives Park, where plenty of stories will be told from those heady young days while The Farm Band resurrects songs about changing the world.
“It was a grand adventure,” said Rabideau, before picking up his guitar to rehearse. “It really was. I have absolutely no regrets.”