The pivotal era of the 1960's left indelible marks on my father and my lives. Yet we couldn't have experienced that time more differently. He lived them as a full-fledged member of the "establishment" - a friend and chronicler of the Kennedys and of the times themselves in The Glory and the Dream.
I was an enthusiastic member of the Counterculture. Since embracing it I've developed -perhaps as a legacy of my father -an historian's curiosity about those elusive times. What happened? Why?
As I've looked for answers I've been repeatedly frustrated. Everybody seems to get it wrong:
Ads with their lazy shorthand suggesting that all we did was grin daffily in tie-dye shirts and wave our arms around. I didn't even see tie-dye until the 70s. Right wing scolds suggesting that we caused the downfall of America, if not Western Civilization. But they weren't even born at the time of Woodstock, can't have possibly ever met a real Hippie. Charles Manson's long shadow continuing to frighten some into beleiving that when we weren't grinning and waving our arms about we wielded butcher knives. Tom Brokaw in his mild-mannered way trying to explain the 60s. Whether he knows it or not, his mild-manner is a product of our movement. But he's no less clueless than Harry Reasoner -whom we called "Harry Reasonable" -in his famous piece where he stands on Haight Street, doing his best to explain us away, stuff us in a little box, chalk it all up to "misguided youth."
Joni Mitchell as I saw her at Wesleyan University, April 27, 1969.
I write about that concert here.
Here's my short list of stuff that gets it more right than wrong.
First, the music. Music was the medium that best expressed -and still expresses - that Yes! that was the heart of our message to ourselves and the world. Yes to new experience, yes to social change. Yes to life. And yes - of course - to sex, drugs and rock and roll.
Festival Express (movie). I was a minor participant. I like the performances better than those in Woodstock or Monterey Pop. But what's priceless are the party scenes on the train with Janis, Jerry and members of The Band.
Acid Dreams by Martin Lee and Bruce Shlain. From Hofmann's first trip on a bike, through US Army and CIA tests on unsuspecting civilians, to Owsley and Leary and Kesey, this book tells the whole story of a drug whose profound effects on society linger long after the time of flower power: Steve Jobs credited it as a major influence.
Drop City by T. C. Boyle. Despite its sometimes condescending tone and lousy ending, this novel about a hippie commune accurately evokes a lot of up close detail from the time.
Berkeley in the Sixties (movie). Except for a brief period around the time of Kent State, I rarely participated in the political side of the Counterculture. And I was on the East Coast. This movie shows how much edgier things got on the West Coast, and shows it well
The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe. Tom was never remotely one of us. To this day he's still a Southern Republican gentlemen. But his account of Kesey' Merry Pranksters preserves priceless shards of the spirit of the times. Then again, his book also helped create those times -within months of reading this classic we were painting our faces with Day-Glo paint and riding the country in a robin's egg blue bus.
Head Comix by Robert Crumb. Though LSD more often than not turned the people who dropped it into fools and worse, in Crumb it became the catalyst for a creative explosion. He evoked the psychedelic experience with frightening accuracy. More important, he tore the masks off the faces of straights and freaks alike, sparing no one in his quest to reveal the id such as no artist has done before or since.
Searching for the Sound: My Life with the Grateful Dead by Phil Lesh. A heartfelt yet balanced account of a band that became a long-lasting symbol of the Counterculture long after the media declared it dead.
Like a Rolling Stone by Greil Marcus. Thanks to a lot of creative meandering around, this fine writer succeeds in creating a book about a single song. The essential part is where he details the two-day process of trial and error - more than fifty takes - where by luck? fate? they stumbled on the one we all know. The way he tells it it feels like a metaphor for the best of the wild end of the 60s.
The Family by Ed Sanders. Manson is still in the news - having been denied parole for perhaps the last time. What makes this book rock is Sanders' take as a hippie reporter edging closer and closer to the abyss of the dark side of flower power.
Don't Look Back (movie). Dylan comes across as one mean jerk. But this peek at the energy swirling through those British hotel rooms makes me feel like I can look back and feel some of what it was like then. Then again, it could just be that they were all stoked on amphetamines.
The Whole Earth Catalogue by Stewart Brand (one of Kesey's Merry Pranksters.) Though I was too busy playing guitar to do more than browse it, I must acknowledge that this is the essential text for everyone wanting to build their own house, build a new world, and save this one.
Be Here Now by Ram Dass. This was the bible for those - like Ram Dass - who looked beyond psychedelic drugs to spiritual practice.
ADDITIONS, 5/4/12 -
A Hard Day's Night (movie) Aside from the Beatles' music, you don't get much more 60s YES! than this.
Mad Men This TV series captures the look and feel of the 60s better than anything. Though it mostly views the era through the eys of the establishment, its depictions of racisim, anti-semitism, alchoholism, and especially sexism make potent arguments for why we insisted that society must change.
I welcome your suggestions for additions to this list, or anything else. But please, no personal attacks.