Intrigued by my hippie posts and new novel, some of my younger friends have asked for a nutshell clarification on who the hippies were. They are aware that a kind of cultural revolution was taking place in the late 1960s, but remain a little vague on it. Here’s my one-page summary.
Let’s start with the Vietnam war, which probably more than anything drove the urgency of the hippie movement. Teenagers were being sent involuntary (through the draft) and in droves to fight, die, and get maimed and scarred, for no clear reason they could see other than to save the pride of some old white guys in stuffed shirts and suits in Washington. And it was ubiquitous – everyone in every neighborhood knew kids who went to Vietnam: hence, widespread anti-war rallies and public (and illegal) burning of draft cards.
The anti-war movement brought anti-Establishment thinking, which already had some threads in rock and roll and beatnik culture, in recent memories of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and Gandhi’s pacifism, to a new level of cohesiveness and to a whole new set of ideals. It was no longer just, “Fuck the Man, I’m going to celebrate my own eccentricities”; now it was, “There’s a whole generation of us fed up with the Establishment, and we’re bonding together in the public sphere – we can do this, we can effect a cultural paradigm shift and move out of the era of materialism, the era of the crushing corporate state, into a new age of peace and harmony, with a newfound respect for nature and simplicity.” So you had this fairly coherent anti-Establishment movement, absorbing the anti-war movement, civil rights and feminist movements, old beatniks like Allen Ginsberg, nascent environmentalism, a mushrooming interest in Eastern religions and philosophies as a possible alternative to the dead-end Establishment of the West. You had all of these groups together on the anti-Establishment wagon, and then you had the emerging phenomenon of the outdoor rock festival, a moveable public venue for the expression of mass solidarity. In 1962, Elvis Presley’s “Return to Sender” was the biggest hit of the year; by 1967, it was Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers – an enormous change in the sonic contours of the culture in a very short span of time. It did look like it might be a millennial paradigm shift, a tidal wave ready to sweep all away before it. At least it scared the hell out of my grandma and Richard Nixon.
By the early 1970s, the hippie scene was faltering, a victim of both inner contradictions and external forces. The Vietnam war resistance, psychedelic drugs, sexual openness, the freedom of the commune – it seemed that everything about the 1960s could be incredibly liberating or wildly destructive. The hippies were perhaps not savvy enough to counter the destructive forces within and without and bring their beautiful ideals to full flower. But the cultural ground they broke was broken for good, and their legacy continues threading its way through subsequent cultural formations (from music to the fight for gender and racial and sexual orientation equality to organic foods and yoga centers). One could argue that the hippie dream of rewriting culture from the ground up around the ideals of peace, love, and flowers, not war, money, and machines, is not dead but running in multiple channels underground. The next time the Establishment gives us a catalyst with the same level of urgency as the Vietnam war, hippies might return in a more mature aspect, and “the world might wake up and burst into a beautiful flower” (Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums). Is this just a pipe-dream like Shangri-la or Atlantis? Maybe, but could it not also be that such visions in the collective unconscious only await a strong enough call from the next generation? Might I refer you to flower-child hippie, Donovan Leitch, as he invokes messianic forces from those submerged regions in the 1968 “Atlantis”?
And as the elders of our time choose to remain blind
Let us rejoice and let us sing and dance and ring in the new
(YouTube h/t: Carlos Lara)
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