There are few people in the world who can say they’ve done acid with a group of hippie clergymen from Milwaukee, but Roger Steffens is one of them.
At the 75-year-old’s home in Echo Park on a Sunday afternoon, surrounded by Jamaican ephemera, a plate of freshly ground weed and a Pan-African room color scheme, the reggae archivist, actor and counterculture icon began to re-enact what it was like to watch “Brother Lawrence” on his first acid trip in 1966. Roger slumped in the dining room chair, rolled his eyes back into his head and began moaning in ecstasy while his daughter Kate and I sat in suspense. This moment-by-moment recollection of a holy man tripping balls bore a certain resemblance to the When Harry Met Sally diner scene. Finally he let out a huge laugh, remembering that Brother Lawrence said, “I’m rolling balls of air! And in each one of them is the Madonna.”
Steffens' fondness for theatrics goes way back to his teen years as a Shakespearean-trained actor and Goldwater conservative, who attended Catholic school for 14 years. A Brooklyn-born kid with a squeaky-clean image, his life changed drastically when he was drafted to Vietnam in 1968 and subsequently became radicalized. This counterculture-infused radicalization was buttressed by a multitude of vivid acid trips in places from Saigon to Marrakesh to Big Sur. Throughout the span of his colorful, idiosyncratic life, the multihyphenate has amassed more than 40,000 photographs, which have been digitized by Kate and her brother, Devon, and displayed on Instagram. Add their sweet, spirit-guide mother, Mary, into the mix and you have: @TheFamilyAcid.
After two years working in psychological operations, aka propaganda warfare, in Vietnam and a short stint in Marrakesh (following his vehement desire to dissociate with all things American), Roger settled into life with his wife, Mary, whom he met while tripping on acid in a pygmy forest in Mendocino, and a crew of beatnik writers, poets and counterculture war veterans, from photographer Tim Page to writer Ron Kovic.
Kate was used to seeing her father’s trippy double-exposure pictures during family slideshow hour as a kid but never thought of showing them publicly until 2013, when Devon spent an entire year digitizing approximately 40,000 Kodachrome slides. As for why it’s taken so many years to share these incredible photographs in any medium at all is more a testament to Roger’s zeal for emphatically living life than anything else. Kate says, “I think he’s so in the moment that he files the pictures away and goes on to the next moment. It’s more like record keeping.” Roger’s fastidious “record keeping” and Kate’s eye for curating has led to a 50-year-plus Instagram account of slide photography with 42,600 followers along with two photography books, The Family Acid and The Family Acid: Jamaica, which was released in March. And that's not to mention the exhibits at New York City’s Benrubi Gallery, Art Basel and Paris Photo L.A.
By the early ’70s, the hippie generation was going through some growing pains — and music was one of the earliest indicators of that shift. “By the early ’70s, rock had been co-opted by the major corporations who bought all the independent labels. And it became disco and glam-rock. I was looking for something that would have the great harmonies, like the doo-wop groups I grew up with,” Steffens says. His defining reggae zealot moment crystallized in 1973 when Roger read a Rolling Stone article with a line by gonzo journalist Michael Thomas. “[It said], 'Reggae music crawls into your bloodstream like some vast vampire amoeba from the psychic rapids of upper Niger consciousness.’ And I thought, I don’t know what that means, but boy I have to find that out,” he tells me. Roger ran down to a bookstore on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley and found a used copy of Catch a Fire, Marley’s first release on Island Records. “It was $2.25, I figured I could take a chance, and from the first notes I was captured. The poetic concision of what he was writing about and the moral value was astounding. And then that irresistible beat. The beat of reggae is the beat of the healthy human heart at rest. From then on, I wanted the whole world to know about him.”
The Family Acid: Jamaica chronicles Steffens' more than 40 trips to the island. On his first jaunt to Kingston in 1976, Roger and Mary went specifically to buy records — unknowingly during a national state of emergency — and ended up taking refuge at Jimmy Cliff’s house. Three years later, Steffens co-launched KCRW's The Reggae Beat, L.A.’s first weekly reggae program. Bob Marley was the first guest (Steffens spent two weeks on the road with Marley in 1979 on the original Survival tour). That friendship extended to other close relationships with guests including Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer and Freddy McGregor. That show led him to start the bimonthly magazine Reggae Beat and an internationally traveling multimedia presentation featured at the Grammy Museum, “The Life of Bob Marley.” Even with Steffens' steadfast dedication to Jamaica and Rastafarian culture, it took decades for islanders to accept some white dude seemingly appropriating Reggae music. But, as Steffens explains, “When Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh call you a close friend, things start to shift.”
There's a reason the Jamaica Observer designated Steffens as one of “the Top 10 Most Influential People in Reggae.”
During my visit, he walked me down the stairs of his home into a labyrinthian basement that leads to secret rooms — built by the house's former residents to house refugee family members in the 1980s — crammed with reggae memorabilia. The infamous archives have been visited by rock royalty, from Keith Richards (who owns a home in Jamaica) to Carlos Santana and the whole Marley clan. Photos of Kate and Timothy Leary, Steffens and Pete Tosh, and other remarkable memories preserved for the ages line the walls. Stacks of hundred-dollar Marley T-shirts are folded neatly in a pile. Reggae pins, which initially seem meretricious, are suddenly given meaning when Steffens explains their significance. He led me through each room with such enthusiasm, you'd think it were his first time giving the tour.
Kate visited Jamaica six times before third grade and now finds herself her dad’s “tech support.” She is also putting her millennial's digital prowess to good use and has become something of an Instagram patron saint for her parents’ counterculture friends. As for her hopes for the Family Acid brand? “An openness toward alternative living,” she says. “I hope that it opens up people's eyes to my family and the way that they’ve chosen to live. We've welcomed many different cultures and unconventional ways of living with different types of personalities.” She continues, “Your feed can be full of Kardashians and selfies and girls showing off their new clothes, or you can have it be full of 1970s tree planters and my dad and his weirdo friends.”