Who were the hippies?

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 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
Hail Atlantis!

(YouTube h/t: Carlos Lara)

The HIPPIES are coming(click to view)

. . .

My new HIPPIES Facebook page

Led Zeppelin and Dr Freud

If one were to apply the Freudian schema of id, ego, and superego to the rock spectrum of the late 60s and 70s, Led Zeppelin would be an obvious candidate for the id. From the ominous chord progressions of Kashmir to the haunting Robert Plant vocals, Zeppelin’s sonic universe expresses in every nuance the power of the dark drives that animate the human psyche. By contrast, the Beatles symbolize the superego, crystallizing in song after song the ideals and aspirations of their generation. If one had to pick an exemplar of the ego in this schema, offering tales of everyday grit and grind where the rubber meets the road, Bob Dylan would cast fine in that role.

Led Zeppelin lacks both the street cynicism of Dylan and the idealism of the Beatles, but that vacuum is more than filled with the powerful rhythms of the id. Even when Zeppelin ventures into the zone of idealism, the zone of the superego, it is engulfed by the dominant passion of the id. “Going to California,” for example, presumably a paean to that icon of hippie ideals and author of the song “Woodstock,” Joni Mitchell, starts out with Jimmy Page’s gentle guitar notes, with Plant’s contemplative tone and lyrical “aching” for the ideal. But Plant cannot survive in these waters, and the vocals pitch from pensive to agonizing quite abruptly in the second stanza, like some irresistible return of the repressed. Plant is self-possessed enough to know he has crafted a song that takes him out of his element, and he cries out to anyone who can hear: “I think I might be sinking … throw me a line.” Zeppelin knows that if they wander too far from the land of the id into the land of sentiment, they will drown. And from that knowledge comes their musical power.

An even more pointed example of the resilience of the id as Zeppelin’s home key is the tortured love song, “Babe I’m Going to Leave You,” from their 1969 debut album. In the sonic universe of some other band, “I’m never, never, never gonna leave you” would be a sweet and soothing line, a meme of unconditional love. In “Babe I’m Going to Leave You” it launches perhaps the most chilling scream in Plant’s ample canon of chilling screams. If this is love, it is love manifest as a tormented addiction. The song ends with a vision of the two lovers walking in the park, but this park seems landscaped and maintained by the Recreation Department of Hell itself. Even Zeppelin’s less conflicted “Whole Lotta Love” remains impossibly distant from the tender love of Lennon/McCartney’s “Here, There, and Everywhere.”

The Beatles, in fact, work the opposite way, starting with a vast array of songs that partly capture and partly create the hippie zeitgeist, with “All You Need Is Love” and “Revolution” as perhaps twin pillars of this thematic layer. When they venture into the subject matter of the id, say via the amoral meaningless violence of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” the sonic universe keeps us in the idealized realm. Despite the lyrics, it remains playful, bouncy, rich in sheer aesthetic pleasure. We’re as upbeat about Maxwell’s murderous rampage as we are terrified by Led Zeppelin’s love song. The Beatles weave every dark thread into the visionary tapestry of the superego, and Zeppelin pulls everything back to the id.

A final conclusion of this schema is that the Beatles are the only real “hippie” band of the three. Bob Dylan is pure Beat Generation, as epitomized by the cynical, street-bound, gritty realism of “Tangled Up in Blue.” I suspect he was a little distrustful of hippie idealism, and would be more at home among the black-leathered coffee shop poets of North Beach. Donovan might take the same folk meters and acoustic-harmonica instrumentation as Dylan and transmute it into something like “Catch the Wind,” a beautiful, dreamy soundtrack for the motley-colored flower children of Golden Gate Park. (And Donovan brings a Jungian dimension to our schema, with songs like “Hurdy-Gurdy Man” and “Atlantis” rummaging through the collective unconscious for Messianic forces to usher in the Age of Aquarius.) One can even picture solid Beat icons like Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg roaming freely among those bell-bottomed waifs of Golden Gate Park. But not Dylan. He remains a creature of the ego. “When the Levee Breaks” for Led Zeppelin, on the other hand, all hell breaks loose from the depths of the id. “In the Evening,” one of the last songs before John Bonham’s death, echoes the hypnotic quality of Kashmir, dragging the listener into the rhythm of the band’s own compulsions, as the main riff continues to pound in the mind after the song is over. Even in the famous excesses of their touring lifestyle, Led Zeppelin was always something other than hippie, other than Beat, something dark and primal, something to which, for better or for worse, we can all relate.

Songs Cited

Led Zeppelin

Kashmir
YouTube
MP3
Going to California
YouTube
MP3
Babe I’m Gonna Leave You
YouTube
MP3
Whole Lotta Love
YouTube
MP3
When the Levee Breaks
YouTube
MP3
In the Evening
YouTube
MP3

Beatles

Here, There, and Everywhere
MP3
All You Need Is Love
MP3
Revolution
MP3
Maxwell’s Silver Hammer
MP3

Bob Dylan

Tangled Up in Blue
YouTube
MP3

Joni Mitchell, performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

Woodstock
YouTube
MP3

Donovan

Catch the Wind
YouTube
MP3
Hurdy-Gurdy Man
YouTube
MP3
Atlantis
YouTube
MP3