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If you've ever strolled through downtown Laguna Beach between 6:30 and 8 on a Thursday or Saturday night and heard the softly amplified strains of "Strawberry Fields Forever" echoing down the lane, then you can thank Warren Allen for keeping the town's hippie vibe alive.
Allen arrived here from a far-away place: Bennington, Vermont. After graduating from nearby St. Michael's College in 1971, he headed west to San Francisco, looking for whatever was left over from the Summer of Love, only to find it long gone. He didn't regret the trip, though. "I got a taste of the West Coast that stayed in the back of my mind forever," Allen explains. After a few more years in Bennington, he happened upon a book with an intriguing title, In Search of the Miraculous by P.D. Ouspensky, a pupil of the Armenian esoteric George Gurdjieff, whose teachings posit that humans live in a state of waking sleep and that only his method, based on ancient religious knowledge, can awaken them.
Inspired by the writings, Allen spent most of the mid-1970s in Europe and the Middle East, then half a year in Tehran, Iran, teaching English at an international school and studying, among other things, Sufism. "That was an eye-opening experience," says Allen. "A big part of my ambition was to crack out of my insular upbringing in Bennington."
In 1989, a budding career as a computer programmer brought Allen to Irvine and Toshiba, where he met Jim Rohrer, who worked in the cubicle to his right. Years later, the soft-spoken computer programmer and his fellow strummer Rohrer began playing open-mic nights at Santa Ana's Gypsy Den. After two years, they graduated to playing sets at various Borders cafés before the bookstore chain shut down, leaving the duo with nowhere to go but the streets.
"It dawned on us it would be fun to try Disneyland or someplace, but we finally hit on Laguna Beach," Allen recalls. "We'd seen people busking there before. We started in early 2010, sitting on a bench on the beach and playing in an alcove next to the Fingerhut Gallery until [the staff] couldn't stand it anymore and called the cops. We play all sorts of stuff, but a signature set of tunes for us starts with 'Strawberry Fields Forever' and winds up with 'Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds.' Those are difficult but very satisfying songs to play."
Allen's interest in Laguna Beach was amplified by his discovery of its outlaw past when he read a book by yours truly, Orange Sunshine: How the Brotherhood of Eternal Love Spread Peace, Love and Acid to the World, about a group of hippies and surfers who lured Timothy Leary to Southern California, ate lots of acid and smuggled hash from Afghanistan. He was so interested, in fact, that he set up a secret Facebook group, open only to former members and associates of the Brotherhood, called the Church of the Sleeping Angel, which is what they almost called themselves. Allen also tried his hand at editing the Brotherhood's Wikipedia page, but because he based his updates on conversations with actual members of the group, the website's self-appointed administrators locked the entry and banned Allen from the page.
Allen and Rohrer now usually play at the corner of Forest Avenue and PCH, the epicenter of Laguna's street scene. But because they have small amplifiers, they remain outlaws who always have to stay one step ahead of the code enforcers. "We've always been technically illegal," Allen says, with only a trace of mischievous pride.