Saturday, 8 January 2011

Hippies, Hair and the Baby Boomers

On one of those lovely lazy replete evenings over the Christmas holidays my daughters and I decided to watch a DVD. Going through a pile of films I’ve amassed over the past years I dug out an old classic treasure and we spent nearly two hours enjoying Hair (one of my four favourite musicals, along with West Side Story, Jesus Christ Superstar and The Rocky Horror Picture Show). Watching the antics of Berger (played by Treat Williams) and his group of merry pranksters I started thinking about that magnificent, confused, creative period known as the sixties and, in particular, the phenomenon known as the hippies.

As a teenager I had a deep feeling of being cheated by destiny. Born in 1960 I was too young to have experienced the most wonderful phase history had ever thrown up, the late 60s. Marooned in the hungover aftermath of the 70s, a world suffering under Nixon, the oil crisis, recession, the break-up of the Beatles and musical excrescences like the Osmonds and the Bay City Rollers, I was convinced that the best had already happened and I had missed it. This sense of cosmic deprivation and unfairness was reinforced by a reading of The Drifters by James Michener at the age of around fifteen – a friend of mine told me once that her grandfather, a rather old-fashioned gentleman, had warned her mother that she should on no account allow her daughter to read it; it would be her ruin (it was!).

If, in the summer of 1967, I had been seventeen rather than seven, I was certain that I knew to where I would have been underway; with flowers in my hair (which would be hanging down to my arse) and my guitar strapped to my back, straight to San Francisco – to Haight-Ashbury, there to tune in, turn on and drop out, feeding my head and practicing thoughts of love and peace to the tones of The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. It was a time when a real change in the world seemed almost possible; the Age of Aquarius was dawning and the old tired world of the establishment, the world of those perpetually blighted by World War II, the sorry inhibited world of those with short hair and suits, who believed in self-defence through the bomb and resisting Communism in Vietnam and looking neat and clean, the world of the Man, would be swept away. It was a Golden Age, destined to last only a short time, weakened and finally killed by series of events starting in 1968 with the killings of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, going on through the Chicago Democratic Convention of 1968 and the beginning of the Troubles in Northern Ireland and receiving the final nails in its coffin with the rampage of the Manson Family, the killings at the Altamont Speedway concert and the Kent State killings. And in the middle of it all, surrounding and encompassing it, the gentle people, the flower people … the hippies.

Gentle people with flowers in their hair
All across the nation, such a strange vibration
People in motion
There's a whole generation with a new explanation
People in motion, people in motion 

So Scott McKenzie sang it in his May 1967 hit (written by John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas).

It was, of course, a far too simple – even simplistic – dream, one not even completely true while it was happening. But the story fits so well into familiar patterns; A group of young people liberating themselves from the staid, dusty, tired, cynical realities preached by older generations, committing themselves to a new expression of age-old ideas of freedom and simplicity, love and peace begins to live out these values, gaining acceptance but also provoking counter-reaction until it becomes a millennial struggle between the generations for the soul of the world and, particularly, America as its cultural motor, leader and avatar. And, of course, the story ended as such stories usually end, with the defeat of the unrealistic idealists, beaten down by the older realists who had learned the primacy of power and its practical applications and the loss of faith by many of those espousing the counter-culture, worn down by time, inevitable disillusionment and the practical need (beyond all idealism) to simply make a living. Man does not live on bread alone but without bread, man, it’s difficult to survive at all. Defeat, yet not total defeat, for many of the ideals of the hippies lived on, working through the cultures of the increasingly globalised societies to become, forty years later, part of the mainstream – ideals like a plurality of individual modes of self-expression and lifestyles, much more tolerance in issues of sexuality, openness to diverse spiritual philosophies beyond the traditional Christian ones of the west, a growing realisation of the importance of ecological balance, to name a few.

Of course this is only one interpretation. There is another, less flattering one. After 1945, a generation tempered and traumatised by youthful experience of depression and war set out to build a better world for their children – and succeeded. For the first time in history a generation of millions of children in Western Europe and the USA grew up in relative prosperity and security. Their parents had had a glimpse of hell and were determined that the same should not happen to their offspring. These grew up in “homes fit for heroes,” well fed, well educated and, thanks to radio, cinema and rapidly spreading television, entertained as never a generation of children had been before them, a generation of children now known as the baby boomers.

A generation of children who were spoiled rotten. A generation of children who started to come into young adulthood in the early 60s who had never experienced anything but the fulfilment of their wishes. A generation who had never learned anything other than the supremacy of the realisation of their own desires, a generation more self-absorbed than any before them. And a generation who, with the unthinking callousness of youth, thought nothing of throwing the values of their parents whose efforts had attained the prosperity and security they had enjoyed all their lives back in their faces. Refusing to grow up and accept the responsibilities of adulthood, they elected to remain in a childhood Peter Pan Never-never Land – but one made even more exciting by the sexual liberation made possible by the development of the pill and the instant, artificial, often deadly dangerous thrill provided by drugs like pot, peyote, acid and heroin.

Well could they afford to drop out, since even while they were “doing their own thing” and living for the moment, this life-style was only possible through a parasitic dependence on the society whose values they rejected – and often through the continuing financial support of those they ridiculed as hopelessly “square.” They rejected the scientific world-view, preferring to accept the ‘truths’ postulated by astrologers and all sorts of manipulative peddlings by Oriental charlatans, while simultaneously having no problem enjoying electric music produced on instruments and amplifiers which were a product of  electrical engineering and finding artificial enlightenment in lysergic acid diethylamide, which Owsley Stanley would never have been able to produce had it not been for detailed research and knowledge in organic chemistry.

It’s easy to knock the hippies as na├»ve, self-indulgent, layabout, stoned dreamers. It’s easy to admire them as gentle idealists, cutting through the cynical sophisticated established bullshit with a simple message of love and peace. The reality encompasses both these interpretation and goes beyond them for, as Oscar Wilde once said (in a phrase I will never grow tired of repeating), “the truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

Watching Milos Forman’s filming of Hair, I was struck this time, above all, by a sense of confusion, a confusion created by the dichotomy between ideals and reality, a confusion fuelled by the many contradictions implicit in all the positions shown in the film; from Sheila’s conservative, rich bourgeois family to Hud, the black hippie who doesn’t want to have to worry about supporting his young family. And, from the retrospect afforded by the distant heights of 2011, I see this confusion as one of the major motifs behind any attempt to understand “the sixties.” Confusion … but also exuberance, vitality and creativity. I mean, like, if you can dig it, a description which suits the hippies as well. I mean … far out, baby … truly awesome …like, righteous, man …just … cool.

Peace, baby …

So much music I could have chosen to illustrate this one. I considered Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco”, “I will follow” from the Byrds, “Truckin’” by the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” before deciding for the conclusion to Hair. The version here has Spanish subtitles because Sony won’t let me access any others from Germany (the record companies have been becoming increasingly fascist towards YouTube in Germany in recent months). I mean, man, that’s a serious bummer … like, very uncool …

(Note: If you’re interested in reading more on this subject, over at internation musing, Hans also wrote a number of quite humorous spots about the hippies recently which are well worth reading!


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