In his lifetime, Roger Steffens has been a decorated Vietnam vet, a radio and TV host, a journalist, a writer, a Shakespearean actor, and a highly regarded reggae scholar. He’s been a part of counterculture movements for almost 50 years, enjoying a psychedelic cruise that’s taken him to Saigon and Marrakech, Berkeley and Big Sur, Jamaica and Los Angeles. All the while, he’s brought a camera with him, photographing the places and people he has seen. And now he’s found a new audience for his visions through The Family Acid, an Instagram account curated by his children. It provides a view into an adventurous, often eccentric, iconoclastic, and rebellious life. Starting this Friday at the Benrubi Gallery in New York will bring the opening of the first gallery exhibition of his photography.
Steffens currently lives in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles with his massive reggae archives divided into a serpentine, seven-room arrangement in the basement. Born into an Irish family in Brooklyn, Steffens was raised in a predominantly rightwing community in Northern New Jersey, which included one of the only counties in America that overwhelmingly voted for Barry Goldwater in 1964 presidential election. He also attended Catholic school for 15 years and was an American Legion state oratory champion in 1960.
But Steffens eventually distanced himself from this worldview. He got into radio broadcasting in New York in ’61, where he had hang sessions with legendary rock & roll disc jockey Alan Freed. He met young television star Betty White and journalist Mike Wallace, who would go on to be a reporter for 60 Minutes. Steffens first on-air interview was with Babatunde Olatunji, the Nigerian drummer. Steffens’ affinity for music from outside the United States would later influence recording artists and people within his circle. He says he was one of the people primarily responsible for turning Paul Simon into African music, which eventually resulted in the singer working with Ladysmith Black Mambazo on the Grammy-winning Graceland album.
Steffens began getting into photography shortly after he was drafted into the army, ending up in the Psychological Operations unit in Vietnam. When Steffens was drafted in 1975, he enlisted for an extra year because he was guaranteed a job in the Radio and TV Corps. Instead he was assigned to PsyOps, the propaganda warfare division, and sent to Vietnam to carry 80 pounds of loudspeaker backpacks into frontline combat operations.
When the Tet Offensive broke out in the beginning of 1968, 52 families took shelter and began living in sewer pipes outside of Steffens’s barracks. Steffens wrote to friends in the States—particularly in Racine, Wisconsin, where he had read poetry for years in the schools—asking for assistance. This was the start of a campaign that raised on 100 tons of food and clothing over the next two years. As a result, he was given his own section for civic action projects and was told to photograph his projects. He eventually was awarded a Bronze Star for his work.
During his deployment, Steffens rolled with a motley crew, befriending characters like John Steinbeck IV, son of the Grapes of Wrath writer, and Sean Flynn, son of the actor Errol, both of whom reported from Vietnam as war correspondents. During his 26-month tour, Steffens shot over 20,000 frames, which he still calls “happy accidents.”
“I didn’t have time to write a journal because I was so busy living, and I was surrounded by so many larger than life characters that I thought I should at least have a picture of them.”
After he returned to the United States, Steffens spent most of 1970 lecturing against the war. “I knew I could talk to a lot of people who would have never willingly listen to an anti-war speaker, but all of these places I had worked at in the Midwest before I went to Vietnam knew me as this conservative,” he explains.
Everywhere he went, people wanted to hear his story about Vietnam. “Because I had taken so many pictures, I was able to do slideshows and explain how I came to feel the way I did,” he says. “My first wife Cynthia [Copple], who was a war correspondent, had come back from Vietnam early for a book speaking tour through the spring of ’70. By the end of April, when the Cambodian invasion took place, all schools went on strike. I was no longer the college convocation speaker, I was the strike committee speaker. It was a very fraught time and by the end of ‘70, I just didn’t want to be in America anymore. I was disgusted with Kissinger and Nixon and the lies they were telling, and the bombing of Hanoi.”
Steffens wanted to go somewhere where he could live inexpensively, enjoy the warm weather, and learn to speak French fluently, so he and Copple traveled to Marrakech and found a place to live in the Medina. After enjoying the freewheeling, expat lifestyle, Steffens transplanted himself back to the Bay Area and got a place in Berkeley. There he photographed musicians, artists, writers, and other eccentric individuals who would come to embrace, shape, and revolutionize a generation’s idea of freedom. “I didn’t have time to write a journal because I was so busy living, and I was surrounded by so many larger than life characters that I thought I should at least have a picture of them,” Steffens says.
In the summer of ’73, Steffens met Tim Page, the war correspondent and inspiration for Dennis Hopper’s character in Apocalypse Now. The two were supposed to link up in Saigon in ’69, but the day they were scheduled to get together, the right third of Page’s brain was blown away when someone stepped on a landmine in front of him. “This was the fourth time he had been wounded,” Steffens says. Early on, Page had worked for Jann Wenner, co-founder and continued overseer of Rolling Stone. Wenner connected Page with a young writer he had just hired to do some stories, Hunter S. Thompson. “After two gigs together, Thompson went to Jann and said, ‘I can’t work with this guy Page, he is too crazy,’” says Steffens. “Page and I became good friends. We both got divorced at the same time. He ended up moving in with me for two years.” (To this date, Steffens has every issue of Rolling Stone from the last 48 years. He happened to subscribe the day before he left to Vietnam.)
While Page taught Steffens some photography techniques, it was Ron Kovic, the anti-war activist and writer, who turned him onto double exposures. Steffens had experimented with light streaks and time exposures, but how he came to embrace this new form happened by accident. “I was working with Kovic as he was writing Born on the Fourth of July,” says Steffens. “He was traveling in the Midwest with me for my annual poetry tour, but he and [photojournalist] Richard Boyle wanted to go to the fall of Saigon,” says Steffens. “So Kovic and Boyle, in the midst of a haze, took a cab to the border, to Parrot’s Peak [in Cambodia], and then to Phnom Penh to see the fall of Cambodia. (Talk about war tourism.) Kovic shot a roll of film in Vietnam and Cambodia while there.” When Kovic returned, he joined Steffens in Ohio and accidently left the unwound roll in Steffens’ camera bag. “I thought it was a fresh roll of film, so I put it in my camera and I shot at an antebellum mansion in Cincinnati,” Steffens says.
The resulting juxtapositions were startling to Steffens. There was one picture he took of stained glass windows in the shape of a pair of oval eyes. Within those eyes was now the image of a Cambodian refugee woman holding her baby in her arms. “I thought this is so incredible, if only I could do this on purpose instead of an accident,” says Steffens. “So from that point forward, I set out very deliberately to conceive things in my mind and recreate them photographically. I didn’t have a grid on my camera or any way of memorizing what the first image was, so I would try to get things to match parts of it on the second image.”
Some of these beautiful happenings would come to include colorful caftan memories at Stonehenge, euphoric lights projected into the Redwoods, sunflowers cast in decorative textures over a wooden cottage in Corralitos, and the beach and sky interweaving in Santa Cruz. These pictures, like all the others, were tucked away and for decades would come to be overshadowed by Steffens’ vast musical library and cultural ephemera collection.
Steffens was turned on to reggae in ’73 because of an article by Michael Thomas in Rolling Stone that said, “Reggae crawls into your bloodstream like some vampire amoeba from the psychic rapids of an Upper Niger consciousness.” He didn’t know what that meant, but he had to find out. “I bought [Bob Marley’s] Catch a Fire that night, and saw Harder They Come and bought the soundtrack. It changed my life forever,” Steffens says.
Steffens had just moved to Los Angeles, but there was no reggae radio show in the city. He had also just met collector Hank Holmes, who had about 8,000 rare reggae records. With Holmes’s archives and Steffens’ radio background, they started a show in ’78 on KCRW, one of LA’s National Public Radio affiliates. Reggae Beat ran on Sunday afternoons for 10 years and was syndicated on over 130 stations. Steffens also added an African music show on Tuesday mornings.
Reggae Beat led to a television show, Offbeat, which led to a magazine, The Beat, which rolled into Steffens lecturing internationally with his multimedia show, “My Life with Bob Marley” and, eventually, six published books. As Steffens describes it, it all developed naturally and wasn’t anything he could predict or consciously set out to do. “I just had to be open and alert to possibilities,” he says.
Steffens’s basement reggae archive is divided into rooms with titles like Reggae Reception Center, Reggae Cave, and Reggae Decompression Chamber. The space is filled to the brim with roughly 30,000 fliers, 4,000 buttons, 3,000 business cards, 2,000 posters (most of them signed by the original artists), 2,000 hours of video footage, 1,500 T-shirts, and 13 drawers of alphabetized Bob Marley clippings, plus many autographed setlists and demos.
Fittingly, at the center of Steffens’s vast collection is Bob Marley. Steffens first met the icon in ’78 in Santa Cruz when he was asked to come backstage after a concert. The following year, Holmes and Steffens got invited to go with Marley on the road for two weeks, sleeping on the floor of the bus.
Steffens has amassed soundboard tapes from the One Love Peace concert, the announcement of the assassination attempt on Marley, and the Wonder Dreams Concert with Stevie Wonder in ‘75 (the last time the original three Wailers performed together). Steffens has unreleased audio, interviews, outtakes, and rehearsals that were recorded on the road with Marley as well. In his archives there is a photograph of Bob Marley’s biggest concert, held in Milan with 110,000 people in the stadium, plus audio recordings of the last five shows of his life, the announcement of his passing, the funeral, and tribute shows. There is a framed poster signed by Bob Marley and 39 of his relatives, friends and band members. “I always saved this corner for Peter Tosh, but Peter said he would “Never sign no blood clot Bob Marley poster,’” Steffens says with a laugh. When he loaned it to the Grammy Museum a couple of years ago, they insured it for $75,000.
The Reggae Vault contains the objects Steffens describes as “precious.” There’s an envelope signed by Haile Selassie postmarked at the United Nations on the day the Ethiopian leader made the “War” speech, which Marley later set to music on the Rastaman Vibration album. Steffens also holds the original pressing of The Harder They Come soundtrack, signed by director Perry Henzell, Jimmy Cliff, Chris Blackwell, and Desmond Dekker.
“Acid was the game changer for everybody. We saw behind the veil, we saw god in the atmosphere.”
Walking among Steffens’s relics, he encounters each piece with a story, recounting moments with careful detail and lasting intrigue. One of his greatest musical memories dates back to another trip on the road with Marley. “I was with him for his soundcheck for his final show in LA. It was at the Roxy Theater in November ’79,” he says. “It was a three-hour soundcheck where he played all the instruments himself. The first hour he kept singing something over and over again about redemption, and that was, of course, ‘Redemption Song.’”
Steffens and his wife, Mary, would visit Jamaica often. The two actually met during an acid trip in a pygmy forest in Mendocino under a total eclipse of the moon on Memorial Day in ’75. “I had acid two years before I even smoked herb,” Steffens says. “If you have a bomb, why do you need a firecracker? But in Vietnam I needed something to cut the tension and I didn’t want to drink. Acid was the game changer for everybody. We saw behind the veil, we saw god in the atmosphere. We knew there were other dimensions with possibilities and that’s where the poets and the mystics had drawn their inspiration from, and it was available in an instant.”
These parallel dimensions found their way into every aspect of his life, creating an alternative way of seeing the world. “It all comes back to acid,” says Steffens. “That’s what I was trying to do with double exposure. I tried expose the pattern beneath the pattern, the underpinnings, the superstructure.”
Now, at the age of 74, Steffens has added another layer of his life. In 2013, his daughter Kate began posting his pictures on Instagram, under the handle The Family Acid. They chose the name because Kate’s childhood friends would tell her that her family was, “like the Waltons on Acid.” His children grew up engulfed in the mystic and brilliant counterculture lifestyle, exposed early on to musicians like Fela Kuti and the pioneer of transhumanism, Timothy Leary.
But all this time, the images dating between ’67 and ’93, as well as prints from ’93 to ’07, were shown only in their living room as slideshows. There were roughly 100,000 pictures that no one outside the family had ever seen—a closet full of slides that his son Devon Marley spent two years digitizing. Kate put together a deal with Los Angeles-based art book publisher, SUN Editions, leading to the release of their first photo book, The Family Acid. “My daughter, having studied photography in high school and college, is truly my curator. She was digging things up I had never seen,” says Steffens. “I am constantly surprised when I wake up in the morning and look at the site. My children gave me a new life and direction.”
Photos by Eilea Jimenez and courtesy of Family Acid