By CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS
Published: December 19, 2004
In the summer of 1989 I was a speaker at a memorial for Abbie Hoffman. This was a rolling and unstructured all-day event, but at the closing moment the stage held the simultaneous presence of Bobby Seale, Norman Mailer, Amiri Baraka, William Kunstler, Terry Southern, Allen Ginsberg and one or two others whose names collectively spelled ”sixties.” Camera lights popped and there were many independent filmmakers squinting through lenses. I later wanted a photograph of myself in this lineup, but was told after exhaustive inquiries that none of the organizers or participants could lay hands on even one. Thus I rediscovered the metaphysical truth that if you claim to recall the decade you were not really there. (Also, if you lay any claim to have been commemorating the high points of the 60’s after a lapse of two further decades there is no proof that you were there, either.)
Yet photographs (plus a certain pungent reek that some people, such as myself, never actually inhaled) are the best mnemonic prompting. To turn the shiny pages of ”Hippie” is to breathe deeply. My copy fell open at a manifesto by Frank Zappa, in which he admitted that ”A freak is not a freak if ALL are freaks,” and went on to assert that ”Looking and acting eccentric IS NOT ENOUGH.” How true. And yet, what a long time it took to find that out. Here they all are: Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Brian Jones — this book includes a good deal of the British scene — Bob Dylan and Timothy Leary. (The latter, the last time I saw him in the early 90’s, was planning to have himself cryogenically frozen but was ”not to be reanimated during a Republican administration.”) Occasionally, there is a picture that jars. What exactly is Martin Luther King Jr. doing in a book with a title like this? He is standing on a road outside Selma under a billowing Stars and Stripes. He’s wearing a suit and tie. He’s not even trying to look or act eccentric, let alone freakish.
The marketing of the 60’s has come to necessitate the blending of quite discrepant images: the dogs of Selma and the bearded Puritans of the Cuban revolution, along with the moon-faced narcissists and dropouts of Haight-Ashbury and the groupie-draped avatars of rock. (Francis Ford Coppola later managed this subliminal association even better, synthesizing the music of The Doors with the near-psychedelic bloom of napalm in the verdant foliage.) This would be another way of saying that the days of love and peace had their sordid and nasty side, too. The Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco was idyllic for about five minutes before the following famous flier was distributed:
”Pretty little 16-year-old middle-class chick comes to the Haight to see what it’s all about & gets picked up by a 17-year-old street dealer who spends all day shooting her full of speed again & again, then feeds her 3,000 mikes & raffles off her temporarily unemployed body for the biggest Haight Street gang bang since the night before last. The politics & ethics of ecstasy.”
The ”3,000 mikes” there are micrograms of LSD (”Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” in the Sergeant Pepper ecstatic version) and represent 12 times the ”normal” dose. I still know people who undertook such voyages of the imagination, or had them inflicted upon themselves, and who never quite came back.
It is conventional to say that ”the 60’s” of the herbivorous — in both senses — Woodstock ended with the homicidal events of the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont (where Hell’s Angels beat and stabbed a man to death in front of the stage) and with the sadistic fiesta of Charles Manson on Cielo Drive in Beverly Hills. Why is it conventional to say this? Largely because it is true. The Christlike beard of John Lennon mutates into the Judas-like visage of ”Charlie,” whose disciples were robotic and spaced-out sadists. It was an open secret even at the time that some of the supposed ”communes” were places of twisted, paranoid cultism — the pseudo-Satanic ”Process” group was one such warning — and in retrospect the subsequent events of Jonestown seem easy to predict.
Yet Frank Zappa and John Lennon were icons on the wall of Vaclav Havel, who had always considered himself a ”60’s person” and, two decades later, helped bring down an unsmiling authoritarianism without a shot being fired — and to the accompaniment of a joyous effusion of rock music, jazz, improvised theater and blue jeans. To the extent that the decade had a moral seriousness that could be transmitted forward, this inhered in the partly spontaneous opposition to an unjust war in Indochina, and to the coincidence of this movement with the battle for civil rights. To this day, there are people who are convinced that they took part in these struggles just by being young and alive at the time, and who have the beads and the Dylan albums to prove it. A great merit of ”What’s Going On?” is that it recreates, more in words than pictures — though there are some arresting photographs — the especially tough way in which this was all fought out in the nation’s most various and politicized state (if I may say that without offending New York readers). It was in the San Francisco Bay Area, especially, that the convergence of campus rebels, black militants and antiwar activists was most vividly on show. Many of the activists were short-haired and white-shirted Marxists of one stripe or another, who leafleted factories and served in the field with indentured farmworkers while trying to ”shut down” the bases and induction centers that serviced the hideous war on the other side of the Pacific. Easy as it is to mock the atmosphere of Berkeley — ”Berserkely” — in those days, there was a thread that connected the free speech movement to the freedom riders and to the exposure of depraved statecraft overseas, and this volume restores that connection with exemplary force. A rather telling chapter, toward the end of the book, recounts the long battle to build a Vietnam memorial in Orange County, Calif., this time to honor the many thousands of Vietnamese who fought against Ho Chi Minh and whose refugee families constitute one of the largest minorities in the state. It’s brave of the editors to have included what many people think of as an irony of history — an irony that is at their own expense.
The friends I just mentioned, who took LSD and never quite returned from the trip, are in a different category from the friends who left town and seemingly disappeared altogether. Every now and then, one would hear people talk in mysterious tones about log cabins or geodesic domes on virgin land in Vermont or Montana, and the growing of organic vegetables. John Denver’s song ”Country Roads” made West Virginia a favored destination. Then there would be a brisk exit from the blighted city, with a car towing an assortment of furniture, tools, pets and sometimes children. The pull of nature and authenticity, so imbricated in the original material of the American Dream, had overcome the easy temptations of materialism. For me, there are only two really memorable scenes in ”Easy Rider.” The first is when Jack Nicholson edges in from the side of the screen and we know at once that something has happened to American acting. The second is when Fonda and Hopper pull up at a remote rural commune where, among other things, bearded boys and full-skirted girls are broadcasting seeds into furrows from improvised sacks. (”You can tell just by looking,” said a comrade of mine at the time, ”that nothing’s gonna grow in those furrows except footprints.”) There was always a slight embarrassment to be experienced when these would-be Amish came sidling back to town, to resume work in brokerages and banks and universities. To this day, that especially vile reminder of the epoch — the graying and greasy ponytail trailing off the balding pate — is their living memorial.
Eleanor Agnew’s lovely memoir of this movement of primal innocence is at once honest and hilarious. She recaptures the period with unerring skill: a period when the Apollo mission had shown us our fragile, blue planetary home from outer space, thus promoting (first) ”The Whole Earth Catalog” and (second) a mentality that despised the science and innovation necessary for the taking of that photograph in the first place.
Countless educated young Americans went off the map, in pursuit of Walden or some other version of bucolic utopia. They learned to chop wood and sometimes to grow crops, and they got hypothermia and piles.
Irving Howe, when attacked for being a sellout by some young master of certitude at Columbia University, turned on his tormentor and hissed: ”You know what you’re going to be? You’re going to end up as a dentist.” This was meant, in the context, as an impressive put-down of bourgeois aspirations. Yet here is John Armstrong, from a family of dentists in Michigan, who is introduced to us by Agnew with the perfect pitch she brings to quotations. Armstrong ”started a premed program in college but ‘quickly discovered that medicine wasn’t my bag, which shouldn’t be misconstrued to mean that I had the slightest clue as to what my bag might be.’ ” With his new wife Darma — a name that just might be coincidental — he embarked on homesteading in the Upper Peninsula of his home state and found it very snowy indeed.
It was probably just as well that neither he nor Darma needed the services of a dentist — surely one of civilization’s great boons — during the time when they were frozen in. Agnew is at her driest and wittiest when she describes the reaction of her sodbusting ”sisters,” in particular, to the hygienic arrangements and then to the knotty question of natural childbirth. More than one agreed to have a baby on a kitchen table before getting pregnant again and heading as fast as possible back to town for ”serious numbing drugs.”
If you look back to the founding document of the 60’s left, which was the Port Huron statement (also promulgated in Michigan), you will easily see that it was in essence a conservative manifesto. It spoke in vaguely Marxist terms of alienation, true, but it was reacting to bigness and anonymity and urbanization, and it betrayed a yearning for a lost agrarian simplicity. It forgot what Marx had said, about the dynamism of capitalism and ”the idiocy of rural life.” Earlier 18th- and 19th-century American communards had often been fleeing or preparing for a coming Apocalypse, and their emulators in the 1960’s and 1970’s followed this trope as well, believing everything they read about the impending crash, or the exhaustion of the world’s resources. The crazy lean-to of the Unabomber began to take dim shape at that period, even if many of the new pioneers were more affected by the work of the pacific Tolstoy or of C. Wright Mills (who used to recommend, if memory serves, that people should build their own cars as well as their own houses).
Is there a moral to point out here? Of course there is. Maybe more than one. The first is that, as Agnew deftly notes, more of her friends ought to have read about the Joad family before setting out. The second is that not all was wasted or futile. Everybody in society now has a better idea of our relationship with the natural order and our kinship with animals, and we are no longer so casual about what once seemed the endless bounty of our environment. In some ways, we have the ”love generation” to thank for this. Meanwhile, though, the anti-globalization movement has started to reject modernity altogether, to set its sights on laboratories and on the idea of the division of labor, and to adopt symbols from Fallujah as the emblems of its resistance. Conservatism cannot and does not, despite itself, remain static. It mutates into something far more reactionary than anything from which the hippies were ever fleeing.
Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and a visiting professor at New School University. His collection of essays, ”Love, Poverty and War,” has just been published.