From a distance, the hippie era oscillates between two images. The first was lighthearted, easy-going, colorful, playful. The teenage girl with a painted face sticking a cut flower in the barrel of a young soldier’s rifle. The game of Frisbee on an afternoon in spring, with a few dogs thrown for the frolic. The circle around a candle, chanting OM in the presence of their flowing robe guru. The mugging for the camera while flashing the two-fingered V-for-Victory peace sign – the same one, in fact, that Richard M. Nixon used from the other side.
The other image was the wave of antiwar protests. “Everyone took part in them, didn’t they?” my elder daughter asks. Well, yes and no. And they weren’t just about the Vietnam draft.
You could almost see it as a game of hopscotch, landing on squares marked Summer of Love, Woodstock, or camping out in the college dean’s office. Hopscotch, as a game – a girls’ game, at that. Ditto, for jumping rope. The hippie experience as a kind of dance down the sidewalk or driveway and back. I think of Howard McCord’s admonition, in the poem “Longjaunes His Periplus,” “go along the coast as far as / you can without getting killed … And come back.” Alive, that is. The truth is, not everyone did. And for others, something essential died along the way.
The hippie symbol, of course, remains the ubiquitous Peace Emblem – the circle with the three paths uniting into one. The trinket you can buy to wear on a chain. The T-shirt. The earring. It’s difficult to realize this badge is, like the Beatles, an import from England. Who today could name its creator, the graphic designer Gerald Holton, who set it forth in 1958 with the superimposed semaphore letters N and D, for Nuclear Disarmament. How this design made the leap from, say, Dr. Strangelove and missile silos in North Dakota to Flower Power and opposition to the Vietnam war is remarkable. So is its lingering popularity, long divorced from the fact that Third World countries now hold their own stockpiles of nuclear weapons.
Those who see the hippie era as one big wild party are remiss in acknowledging its reaction to the Cold War abroad and the oppressive social climate manifested in the Red Scare at home – elements that would come to a head in the Vietnam fungus. The fact that peace – as in peace and love – would become such a watchword for the movement is telling, because the hippie era was anything but peaceful. Even within its own ranks, the effectiveness of Gandhian nonviolent means was questioned and sometimes rejected. These were fearful times, despite the party image.
For starters, the movement had deep roots in the civil-rights drives in the South, the Students for a Democratic Society on university campuses, and the idealistic folk music scene, all voicing their hope in the early ‘60s for a more equitable American society. But they were all taking place far from suburban neighborhoods. And you wouldn’t yet call anyone a hippie.
When did it start, then, this hippie outbreak? Or, for that matter, when did it fade from sight? My conclusion is that the hippie movement blossomed and flourished during the Nixon Administration, 1968-74, making it more a phenomenon of the 1970s than its usual label, the Sixties. At least as far as the shear number of participants goes.
To lay out a set of dates, like successive squares on the hopscotch line, demonstrates how much adversity underlies the period. It was, in fact, punctuated by assassinations:
- John F. Kennedy, November 22, 1963.
- Malcolm X, February 21, 1965.
- Martin Luther King, April 4, 1968.
- Robert F. Kennedy, June 5, 1968.
- George Wallace, May 15, 1972 (he survived, but was incapacitated).
- John Lennon, December 8, 1980.
All but one of these had political implications. While the murder of an incumbent president initially cast a pall of suspicion over Lyndon Baines Johnson (shades of Macbeth), five of the six shootings ultimately benefited the political aspirations of one person – Richard M. Nixon. The slaying of Malcolm X discredited a strand of the civil rights movement while removing a powerful emerging voice, one challenging the measured pace that Martin Luther King endorsed, while King’s death – as Nixon was making his first successful run for the White House – eliminated the most prominent civil rights leader altogether. More pointedly, Robert Kennedy’s death two months later did away with the most threatening of the Democratic rivals. With the left divided, Nixon had reason to fear the electoral damage George Wallace posed in the next election – the year of the Watergate burglaries. Yes, all worked suspiciously to the benefit of the spook lurking in the background. (Strange how one-sided these murders are; no Republicans go down, do they? No National Rifle Association members, arguing that handguns are rifles, either.)
John Lennon is included because he and his wife, Yoko Ono, remained major figureheads of hippie experience through the 1970s. “Say You Want a Revolution,” the Lennon/McCartney song of 1968, continued to insist on nonviolent, spiritual transformation, and shone as a beacon of hope amid reactionary and military gloom. Through the ‘70s, Lennon stayed the course while others drifted away. His murder came just a month after the election of Ronald Reagan, ending the all-too-brief interlude of the prayerful peanut farmer from Georgia.
If the chronology were only that direct. Instead, we must add more dates.
For instance, the March on Washington, March 18, 1963, with 200,000 orderly marchers and Martin Luther King’s immortal “I Have a Dream” proclamation. As a breakthrough in dissident power in America, its large numbers and disciplined organization came as a wake-up call to Congress, the president, and the nation. The civil rights movement was no longer an isolated Southern phenomenon, but one that would soon be addressing Northern cities as well, much to the bewilderment of previously smug residents. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that within the next six months, the nation would suffer both the notorious Birmingham church bombings and the assassination of its president – markers of the turmoil of the times, indeed.
The next year brought the release of Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are a’Changin’ LP, not that it drew that much attention by today’s measures. Still, it set loose the generation’s anthem and challenge, “your sons and your daughters are beyond your command … get out of the way if you can’t lend a hand,” which rang out like a Declaration of Independence. It wouldn’t take long to define the generation, either, as “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.”
Even during the campaigns leading to LBJ’s landslide victory that year, some from the left were warning that your vote would help either nominee nuke Vietnam – although the common argument was that Barry Goldwater was the armed aggressor. In retrospect, it seems that had Goldwater won the presidency, the critics would have been much more vigilant and vocal from the outset, and the United States might have wound up pursuing a more isolationist, less militaristic course. (An interesting question follows: if there had been no army buildup, and no draft afflicting the generation, would the hippie movement have surfaced?) Instead, we have what turned out to be a national disaster. LBJ announced the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on August 7, 1964, in response to a questionable or even bogus attack on U.S. ships, and the number of American troops in Vietnam soared the next year, from 120,000 to 400,000.
All the same, something else was hovering, gathering, waiting. The next step, I think, has everything to do with the feminine presence. Women have long been considered the upholders of religious faith and moral conscience in America. Of artistic sensibility, as well. Some who were drawn, from a conscientious response to injustice, to civil rights work and other social protest soon were startled to find themselves in a second-class citizenship within organizations fighting second-class citizenship. As one male leader boldly retorted, “The only place for chicks in this organization is prone.” There was no reason to tolerate such misogynist leadership, especially as an unprecedented sexuality freedom was evolving, thanks to the Pill. Already, many Americans were shocked by photographs showing the police brutality directed against women protesters in civil rights protests – against men may have been one thing, but this was another. The Southern gentleman’s code of honor was unmasked, no matter who was claiming it. Then, when the protests turned toward Vietnam and the draft, women stood free of any assumption of being self-serving in their opposition to either the war or being called into its military ranks. Their protests, moreover, encouraged men to do likewise. Pacifism here was not universally been seen as cowardly, but rather as heroic in a set of tragic circumstance. The instructional be-ins and theatrical “happenings” set forth to raise consciousness about politics, especially, but that was merely the tip of the amassing energy – just when the first wave of the baby boom generation was coming of age.
It’s easy to forget how often there’s a gap between an event itself and its full impact. The importance of the March on Washington, for example, became evident only after major civil rights legislation was passed and signed into law, tested in the courts in successive cases, and finally worked its way into the workplace and neighborhoods.
But major events can also come about from the opposite process, being drawn out into the open from many smaller activities. When Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters drove their bus Further across the country in 1964, they were already touching on many ongoing counterculture developments, including the new hallucinogenic drug, lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD. – the electric Kool-Aid acid.
In January 1967 came the great Be-In in San Francisco, billed as a Gathering of the Tribes, drawing participants from communal households around the Bay area as well as New York, London, Amsterdam. Gary Snyder describes in wonderfully, and its fuller context, in “Passage to More Than India” and then “Why Tribe” in Earth House Hold (1969). “The number of people who use marijuana regularly and have used LSD is (considering it’s all illegal) staggering. The impact of all this on the cultural and imaginative life of the nation – even the politics – is enormous.” And then, when the Mamas and the Papas invited people to wear some flowers in their hair and come on out to San Francisco, the Summer of Love erupted in the city’s Haight-Ashbury district in 1967. Flower Power was in the news. What exactly happened as an estimated 70,000 participants came to hang out and freeload in the Golden Gate city? The girls, especially, had simply let loose and taken off; thousands of them, enticing and free. To be joined by the boys, of course. Photographed as dirty, hungry, being fed by Diggers, but still somehow celebrating, just what? How much revolved around the music at the Fillmore? How much around the availability of drugs? Where did they come from? How were they able to simply drop everything for this? (Much less take it off!) How many had indeed dropped out, and how many would be returning to campus? It was after all, summer vacation … of a new kind. It definitely wasn’t spring break at Daytona for the fraternity/sorority crowd. Still, at the time, the news from Haight-Ashbury felt as faraway and unreal as the Land of Oz or Katmandu. I remember being perplexed by the wire service reports and photos, wondering why all the attention. Some crucial details were missing.
Slowly, though, the impact filtered back across the continent. Through the fall and winter, and then the spring and summer. By the following autumn, for instance, in my own dormitory, a former ROTC cadet of the year began wearing long moccasins with fringes, and a leather coat to match; soon he was drawing strange designs on the wall of his room, contrary to regulations. Maybe he was the first to do so in Indiana or Iowa. Who knows about Kansas or West Virginia? Turns out he had passed through San Francisco on his way back from Hawaii, and now received frequent shipments of motorcycle parts from the islands. This wasn’t your parents’ or girlfriend’s CARE package. This was golden, and shared. Maybe there was another neighbor, who came back with a case of the clap. Or maybe that was someone else’s neighbor; the stories blur now. What was becoming evident was a STYLE, an identity, and a collection of catchwords and phrases – easy to ridicule or caricature now, but at the time? It was liberating and refreshing. To say nothing of the drugs. All accompanied by, or even fueled by, the rising American involvement in Vietnam. After all, you could be taken into the army, but you couldn’t vote. We’d had enough of the repeatedly broken promise of “one more year,” and its ever bigger investment, to win the military engagement; we’d had no satisfactory explanation for our presence in Indochina, either – at least not one sufficient for the sacrifice of our lives’ time and blood. Maybe fighting the Klan in Mississippi would have been more compelling. As it was, many transformations were occurring in dorm rooms and off-campus apartments across America.
Amid all of the growing disillusionment with the hardball politics of the oil-tongued LBJ and his Pentagon, the emergence of peace candidate Eugene McCarthy in the spring of ’68 as a White House contender gave support to those who argued that events could be turned by working through the System. What elation followed when LBJ announced later that spring he would not run for reelection. Maybe we couldn’t vote, but we could shape the agenda and get out the vote, right? A free concert in the meadow with Phil Ochs, Tom Lehrer, and Peter, Paul, and Mary performing raised awareness and energy but little money for the cause. There was even reason for optimism on the Republican side, where Nelson Rockefeller was a progress-minded contestant. Maybe we should have paid more attention to the shots that felled Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy that spring. Or the Tet Offensive. It’s hard to believe, looking back, how straight those days were. That summer, in the office of my first internship, my supervisors wore striped dress shirts as a badge of liberation, demonstrating how our bosses were more with-it than the competitors downstairs, where the starched plain white shirts were still de rigueur. And the only hippies in sight were those hanging out at the corner of Third and Main, the runaways, dropouts, and thrown-outs looking for a handout or, well, the rest of it remained mysterious – as if they had a clue, either. Our biggest fear that summer had to do with ghetto riots and a mob charging over the Memorial Bridge to the other side of the river.
Still, we weren’t prepared for the betrayals that followed. The nomination of Hubert H. Humphrey at Democratic National Convention, August 26 through 29, 1968, in Chicago, stained as it was with violent police attacks and followed by the trial of the Chicago Seven, 1969-70. HHH, to our eyes, was LBJ redux. And then, as the final blow to reason, Nixon’s election amid rapid Vietnam escalation. A feeling of futility was inevitable. Our hopes, dashed, dashed, dashed. Who could not turn fatalistic, nihilistic? Why not let go, numb yourself, escape this insanity? (If this was hopscotch, this was a stretch for stomping … and screaming.) The time for discussion was over; nobody in office was listening, anyway, from the college president’s office to the White House. The time for confrontation and underground tactics had arrived. Not that anything advanced quite that orderly.
Looking back, I find it difficult to put events in proper sequence. To think, for instance, that the crucial trip to visit a friend at a neighboring campus, leading to the crucial trip that opened my eyes to much that was already happening in my own dorm, took place the October before Woodstock, not after. What kind of Halloween, really, considering all the spooky stuff in the air anyway. Here I was, essentially uptight and virginal, no matter. By the end of the year, with Nixon set to take office, the number of U.S. troops in ‘Nam had reached 540,000.
Trying to figure out how the civil rights movement impacted all of this is equally confusing. That effort certainly inspired and motivated much of the antiwar activity. But many blacks (we had already gone through the discussions of whether to continue using “Negro”) had let whites know they were unwelcome or at least not fully trusted in organizations advancing racial equality. One of the more vocal and articulate groups, founded in 1966 in Oakland, California, and a response to the slaying of Malcolm X, was now coming to the fore – the one founded by Huey P. Newton as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Now, in September 1968, Newton found himself convicted of voluntary manslaughter in the death of an Oakland police officer. “Free Huey” became a rallying cry, feeding into a growing perception of police as “pigs” – the ones who conducted drug raids and attacked protesters. The ones who wore uniforms. We had to listen to the Panther spokesmen – Eldridge Cleaver and Angela Davis (who would herself be arrested in 1970), even though the civil rights movement was never actually part of the hippie movement; blacks simply had a different agenda and different goals.
The next summer an internship took me to the East Coast for the first time. In the news, in the span of a single month, were three amazing events, each one extraordinary in its own right. But all the more so when used to triangulate the other two.
First came the first moon walk, in black and white, that July. Neil Armstrong’s historic words from the moon, July 20, 1969, televised live around the world. Literally, around the world. Maybe everyone did go gaga; maybe it was more a shrug and a “can you believe that” reaction, too. Whole villages in India, watching a single television set? A single image, from a single camera? A man on the moon? This was so surreal, in its own way – so very far out! Here, too, was American supremacy in the face of a Communist challenge – a victory, at last, over Sputnik. As if it would somehow translate into the jungles and delta of Vietnam. From a certain perspective, the moon walk had as much to do with everyday life as a good acid trip, except that everybody was in on it – and those guys did bring some rocks back. (In another year or two, you could go to the library and see a few displayed, like a piece of Georgia or Arizona. Take their word for it.) Still, this was science; who knew what America’s real designs on the moon were. A military base? Suppose all that money had been spent instead on eliminating poverty at home and abroad? On building peace somewhere? Listen to the voices down in the ghetto. Warning of mysterious black holes in space that could devour everything and compress them into oblivion. Maybe some were floating around America, too.
Yet, decades later, standing beside some of the scarred relics, and feeling the awe well up within me: “Men flew in that?” – the tiny, cramped vessels. Tiny, cramped capsules, more like pharmaceutical pills, actually. “They returned alive? From the heavens?” As if they were angels, rather than commissioned officers – or missionaries or monastics from a dark-night desert. As if these were eggs or rocks plunging from the sky, trailing flames.
Oh, the hippie stars being drawn everywhere! All the moon symbols! And the sunbursts! You could try to be cynical, yet no matter what, something cosmic was happening. And if man could land on the moon, he could do anything. Definitely.
Yet just two weeks later came reports of how far people could fall. The dispatches began with the brutal slayings of pregnant actress Sharon Tate and three friends the night of August 9 and quickly led to a crazed “hippie guru” and his followers, who had hoped to ignite a racial Armageddon, claiming the Beatles’ song “Helter Skelter” as their inspiration. The attack on the rich and glamorous (no matter their politics) was also so seemingly bizarre and so incredibly arbitrary, except that it had been so intricately planned and executed. The story of Charles Manson and his followers, the self-styled Manson Family, was every parent’s worst nightmare. The fact that someone born as “no name Maddox” to a sixteen-year-old unwed mother in Cincinnati could come to have such control over his own circle of “Charlie’s Girls” was incredible enough; the fact that they would all have sex with him and do whatever he wanted – kill, in fact – was mind-blowing. Susan Adkins, Leslie Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkel, Linda Kasabian, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme were the collective male fantasy turned to nightmare. (Fromme would even take shots at President Gerald Ford on September 5, 1975 – yet another surreal turn of events.) Tate was so beautiful, and they were so pliable, what was going on here? It had to be an aberration, didn’t it? What made Manson a hippie, anyway, other than the long hair, drugs, and a commune called the Spahn Ranch? What about the peace and love, man? At least the peace? Maybe, in fact, he did have it all, except for the peace – or maybe his concept of it was simply, well, skewed. Or skewered. Or maybe he embodied a dangerous underside of the movement itself, one that rose up in bad acid trips or fatal overdoses. Maybe we would have paid more attention, then, if it weren’t for the developments of the following weekend.
And yet, the following weekend, came the event that most rattled the imagination – the Aquarian Exposition in Max Yasgur’s pasture in the Catskill Mountains of New York state. At least, it was the one that came closest to home: Woodstock. I’ve touched the tickets, talked to people who went there. Here I was, working on my second internship, when the hippie in the office offered me a ticket to what was being billed as a rural festival. Living in a boardinghouse, with a bicycle as my only means of transportation, I thought about pedaling the eighty miles or so and back, but then realized I’d never manage to be back in time for work. (“You fool”, I say to myself, looking back. “You never would have made it on that clunker, much less back. The furthest you ever got on those mountain roads was twenty miles, and you were exhausted.”) As the news reports piled in, we could see that what had been billed as a quiet event in the country, with plenty of opportunities to go strolling through woods wired for sound, was now generating the biggest traffic jam ever (what would I have ever done with that bicycle, anyway?) and the hoped for attendance of 50,000 maximum was swelling to 450,000. They were out from New Jersey and Long Island for those concerts the weekend of August 15 through 18, 1969. Out from the suburbs of Philadelphia and Washington to the Biblical-sounding village of Bethel. Leaving their cars on the highway and trekking in the last few miles. When the rain came, out for their first experience of anything like camping, without any of the usual preparations. Out naked, in the open air, to wash up. Out, in the open, the sense of sheer numbers, nobody expecting to find so many others – just where had they been hiding? Why, suddenly, we could be free! The air, no doubt, redolent with marijuana smoke. Out in the open! Again, though, the real impact would come slowly, later, in the aftershocks. “You were there? So was I!” exchanges. The mutual grins. The souvenir ticket that had never been collected in the rush.
It would take me another decade to get to San Francisco. I’ve never been to Los Angeles, much less the Tate massacre tour. And I know I’ll never get to the moon in this lifetime. But Woodstock? I have the album, filled with rock. OK, I have seen some moon rock, too, which still requires a geologist’s translation.
To think, in the span of a month: moonwalk, Manson, Woodstock. (With Vietnam raging in the background.) All interlaced, intertwined, tangled. Like a jungle. All before we skipped back to campus. All of these streams, simmering. You could add the Maharishi Yogi, Hare Krishnas, and Swami Satchitananda, too. A poetry reading by Leroi Jones, as he was still known then. The local head shop. Or the news reports, coming to light that November, of the massacre of hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians, most of them women and children, at My Lai the previous March. Maybe it was a frustration arising from being shut out of the political decision-making that was feeding the war, or maybe the difficulties of dealing with the bureaucracies that ran many of our universities were more to blame, but that fall and winter also saw pointed questions demanding to know exactly where U.S. military subsidies were going in our campus budgets. Not just the Pentagon, it turned out, but Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation money, too. (On our campus, we would learn later that the FBI financed a hate-mongers campaign for student body president; instead, the Black Panther won.) Still, across the country, college deans and presidents stonewalled, or in some cases outright lied. If it had only been “one more year” five years ago or three or even two, your draft physical wouldn’t be coming up next month. Why feed into any more falsehood? There was, after all, that fundamental American concept that the citizens have a contract with their government. And some of us were feeling violated. The final straw was the Cambodian incursion, April 29, 1970. The protests against the obstructions escalated into student strikes. Shut down the university, if necessary. Faculty, fed up with their own complaints against school administrations, backed the students. This was unprecedented. From Flower Power and Black Power to Student Power, America was shaking. Suddenly, out of it, the Kent State University shootings, May 4, 1970, in Ohio, followed by the Jackson State College shootings, May 14-15, in Mississippi. As if the war had turned on Americans themselves, the rawness of National Guard troops firing at will. Go on, murder unarmed girls. The hippie chicks, blame them and rape the nation. This was democracy? Mississippi had a history of white violence; but Ohio? The good guys and the bad guys had switched hats, in the public perception. Besides, there were now hippies everywhere. Maybe they weren’t so bad, at least not all of them. Maybe they were right, it was the government and its goons you had to watch out for.
The struggle wasn’t over, not by a long shot. But what I do know is that from the summer of 1970 and lasting through the next several years, you could stick your thumb out along the highway and have a good chance of landing a ride within minutes – a ride, rather than a beating. Flowered shirts, on the guys, and miniskirts were everywhere. You could land as a stranger in Salt Lake City and get an offer of a floor to crash on for the night; come home, and find the hospitality already returned. The high school kids were picking up on hippie style. It was ubiquitous.
Coming back down the line. Left foot, right foot, two feet, clap your hands.
You could add the boxes as well for the ghetto riots. The burning and looting, the white fear. The senselessness of it all. The haunting suspicion that maybe they were right, it was hopeless.
- New York, 1964 and ’68.
- Los Angeles Watts, beginning August 11, 1965.
- Detroit and Newark, 1967.
- San Francisco, 1966.
- Baltimore, 1967 and ’68.
- Washington, Chicago, and Cleveland, 1968.
Or you could draw boxes for the white academic enclaves of hippie activity, and connect them to their big city wellsprings. The kinds of cities where you might find diversity:
- Berkeley, out from San Francisco.
- Greenwich Village (New York University and the New School) or Columbia, in Manhattan.
- Harvard Square, across the Charles River from Boston.
- Ann Arbor, neighboring Detroit.
- Madison, Wisconsin, at the heart of a triangle formed by Chicago, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis.
- Boulder, with Denver.
- Yellow Springs and Oberlin, in Ohio.
Later spreading to more isolated liberal arts centers such as Eugene, Oregon, Albuquerque, New Mexico, or Bloomington, Indiana. And then, spreading everywhere – except, it seems, the Deep South. Well, until you look even closer.
Considering peace, as a manifestation of happiness. Or maybe even fun. Unlike the war. Unlike the racists.
Ditto, jump rope.