10 Sixties Counterculture: The Hippies and Beyond
When people in the early 2000s think about the 1960s, they might think first about the "hippies." Along with the civil rights movement, antiwar protests, and the Beatles, hippies were one of the most distinctive features of a very colorful decade. Hippies certainly attracted the attention of the media. Their distinctive appearance (bell-bottomed pants, brightly colored shirts, and long loose hair on both men and women), their drug use, and their psychedelic music provided powerful reminders of their rejection of the style and values of their parents. Yet the hippies were important for more than just their lifestyle and fashion choices. As members of a thriving and diverse counterculture, they expressed the deep dissatisfaction many other people felt with American culture in the 1960s. This chapter explores the meaning of the hippies' peculiar brand of cultural dissent.
Streams of cultural dissent
The hippies made up the most colorful, eye-catching, and nonpolitical subgroup of a larger group known as the Page 152 | Top of Article counterculture. Although some histories use the term counterculture to refer only to the hippies, the counterculture included several distinct groups that criticized developments in American society and advocated for social change in the late 1950s and through the 1960s. One group, called the New Left, consisted of people who were convinced that the American government did not consider the needs of common people and who urged widespread political action by young people, African Americans, and poor people to force the government to address their concerns. The New Left was active in the formation of such groups as the Students for a Democratic Society and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Later in the 1960s, members of the New Left dedicated themselves almost solely to the anti-Vietnam War movement. (See Chapter 6 for a complete discussion of the New Left.) Another broad group called for the extension of equal rights and the end to discrimination based on race, ethnicity, and gender. The most visible expression of this group's dissent was the civil rights movement (covered at length in Chapter 8), which called for federal legislation to define and enforce improved conditions for African Americans. There were also significant pressures for full civil rights from Hispanic and Native American groups, and later in the decade a women's rights movement gained strength. Both of these broad groups of dissenters used political means—protests, calls for legislation, and other forms of direct action—to express their dissatisfaction with American culture.
The hippies were the third broad group of dissenters to mainstream American values, though they were also sometimes called the "underground." Like the New Left and the rights-based dissenters, hippies were deeply critical of the society that their parents accepted. The hippies sympathized with the political positions of their fellow dissenters yet rarely used politics as a means of expressing their rejection mainstream values. Politics, they claimed, was the game played by conventional adults, and they wanted no part of elections, lobbying, protests, and other common ways to bring about social change. In fact, they wanted no part of what they called "establishment" culture at all, believing that permanent legal and civil organizations were too concerned with material goods, too competitive, and too dominated by anxiety and corruption. Hippies wanted a new society based Page 153 | Top of Article on peace, love, and pleasure. Members of the hippie counter-culture expressed their dissent through personal expression—they dressed differently, wore their hair differently, listened to different music, talked differently, and used different drugs than their parents. Some hippies formed small groups and lived together in various kinds of small, self-supporting communities called communes.
Before there were hippies…
Some members of the previous generation had a lifestyle that anticipated the 1960s' hippie counterculture. In fact, the members of the Beat Generation of the 1950s—also called simply Beats or Beatniks—made some of the same claims as others made in the 1960s' counterculture. In novels and poems, writers such as Jack Kerouac (1922–1969), Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997), and William Burroughs (1914–1997) announced their generation's dissatisfaction with old-fashioned society. The Beats dropped out of regular society, dressed in jeans and black leather, smoked marijuana though it was illegal, and listened to jazz. In fact, it was the Beats who popularized the word "hip" as a description for something interestingly different, new, and "cool." The Beats themselves adopted many of their traits from the black jazz subculture. Rejected from mainstream society because of their race, black musicians had for years been dressing differently and rejecting white culture. Beatniks and black jazz musicians were thus seen as cultural rebels by young people coming of age in the early 1960s.
It is not uncommon for young people in the United States, or elsewhere, to question and criticize the values of their parents. In fact, rejection of parents' values is widely understood to be an ordinary developmental stage in maturing toward adulthood. But the 1960s countercultural rejection of adult values went well beyond the norm. It was not just the clothing and music of their parents that young people rejected; it was the entire system of values and institutions, which young people called the "establishment." Members of the counterculture criticized schools and colleges that forced students to work for rewards handed down by teachers; an economy that produced and advertised consumer Page 154 | Top of Article goods as if they could bring happiness and fulfillment; a music industry that cranked out sappy pop songs; a government that sent thousands of young people off to fight a distant war and did not really reflect the interests of the people; and so on. They called this older generation "square," "straight," "uptight," and a variety of other critical names.
In addition to their shared rejection of most mainstream values, many hippies shared a similar social background. Most people who joined the counterculture came from families who had money; the hippies were not members of minority groups who suffered from discrimination. In fact, they were the children of privilege, members of the white middle and upper-middle class. For many, their first stop on the road to the counterculture was college, still a luxury of the well-to-do. Their rejection of mainstream values was surprising because they were the very people who were in position to gain the most—in jobs, political access, and money—from the existing system. That these young people chose to drop out from lives in which they had clear advantages was a sign to many that perhaps something really was wrong with the system.
Haight-Ashbury: Birthplace of the hippies
The countercultural movement and the hippies gradually increased their visibility to the mainstream. The civil rights movement was attracting national attention by the mid-1950s, and the New Left became a factor in American politics in 1962 following the release of its "Port Huron Statement," a stirring announcement of youthful political idealism. But the hippies did not become a recognizable social group until after 1965, the year in which they were named "hippies" in the San Francisco Chronicle according to John C. McWilliams, author of The 1960s Cultural Revolution. Hippies as a group are hard to define exactly; there were no membership lists and anyone could claim to be a hippie. But once news reports started coming about the cultural revolution going on in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco, California, most Americans began to understand what a hippie was.
The first real signs of an emerging hippie culture came in 1963, when a young writer named Ken Kesey (1935–2001) took the profits earned from the sales of his first book One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) and bought a log house in the rural town of La Honda, on the outskirts of San Francisco. In the late 1950s, Kesey and his friends, many of them college students at nearby Stanford University, had taken part in experiments at a local hospital that treated Page 156 | Top of Article mental illness. They regularly took hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, and peyote, which caused hallucinations or vivid mental images unconnected to reality. At Kesey's house in La Honda, the friends gathered to experiment with drugs on their own.
Soon more and more people visited the Kesey ranch, "turning on" to, or taking in, the inexpensive drugs and the loud music, then "dropping out," or leaving their jobs, schools, or family, to join the party. Kesey and some of the more adventurous members of the group called themselves the Merry Pranksters. They bought a 1939 school bus, painted it with bright colors, and began driving into San Francisco to organize concerts, street theater, and events they called "Acid Tests." "Acid" is a slang abbreviation for the drug lysergic acid diethylamide, called by its initials for short, LSD. "Acid test," an expression that normally refers to any serious test that proves something definitely, was their name for these events. The hippies' events involved gathering people together to take LSD, smoke marijuana, and listen to rock music. The favorite band at the Acid Tests was the Grateful Dead, led by guitarist Jerry Garcia (1942–1995).
The Pranksters and their increasingly popular Acid Test music and drug festivals found friendly territory in the neighborhood of Haight-Ashbury, near Golden Gate Park and San Francisco State University. Haight-Ashbury was becoming a magnet for college dropouts and thrill seekers looking for cheap drugs and a relaxed lifestyle. It was the perfect place to stage the Merry Pranksters' biggest festival yet, the Trips Festival.
Held in late January of 1966, the Trips Festival was held in several parks and concert halls in the Haight-Ashbury area. According to McWilliams, author of The 1960s Cultural Revolution, "there was plenty of LSD, and the festival was a wide-open three-day party drawing 20,000 people who wore Victorian dresses, Civil War uniforms, four-inch heels, Indian headbands, and clown regalia." Kesey and his Pranksters dressed in outrageous costumes—one as a gorilla, another in a spacesuit—and operated a lightshow. Hundreds and hundreds of young people "tripped" or used LSD and puffed on marijuana cigarettes, called joints. Participants slept in the streets and flashed each other a new greeting, a peace sign
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made by forming the first two fingers into a "V." Police, who had feared the worst from this event, were amazed at the lack of violence and disruption. This three-day event caused many people to recognize that a new culture was being created: a hippie culture.
Word soon got out about the strange events happening in San Francisco. Among college students and other young people, the hippie scene in Haight-Ashbury became Page 158 | Top of Article something to explore or "check out" The population of the neighborhood seemed to swell almost overnight; by the summer of 1966, some 15,000 hippies had moved in, many of them "crashing," that is, sleeping together in shared apartments, and some simply living on the street or in local parks. Stores opened to serve hippie needs. McWilliams writes: "The Print Mint sold psychedelic posters, the Weed Patch dispensed drug paraphernalia, and the Blushing Peony had an inventory of 'non-establishment' clothes.… Because hippies preferred marijuana and LSD to alcohol, the Haight had few bars." There were hippie newspapers and even an LSD Rescue Service to help people having bad experiences with drugs. As people flocked to Haight-Ashbury, the neighborhood also came to the attention of the media, both print and television. Soon, the entire United States was learning about these strange people called hippies.
Haight-Ashbury became the colorful, outrageous symbol for a growing hippie movement. It was undoubtedly the national center of psychedelic activity, but there were outposts of hippie culture thriving elsewhere in the country, in New York's East Village neighborhood, in big northern cities like Chicago, Boston, and Detroit, and on college campuses across the nation.
Hippies: Good or bad?
In 1967, historian Arnold Toynbee called hippies "a red warning light for the American way of life," as quoted in Newsweek. There were ways in which hippies could be considered a real threat to the social order. The most radical of the hippies called for the end of the American political order and for the introduction of anarchy, the absence of government. In its place they offered vague promises of "peace" and "love." If taken seriously, such goals were far more revolutionary than the changes being sought by antiwar activists or civil rights demonstrators. Few, however, took the hippies that seriously, including the hippies themselves. Even their most openly political actions—such as nominating a pig for president in 1968, a stunt performed by the Yippies, a loosely organized hippie political party—were meant more as Page 159 | Top of Article jokes than as serious political statements. The humor was lost on those who were not sympathetic.
To many others, the hippies were primarily a nuisance. People living near hippies resented their carefree ways, for hip-pies were notorious for not taking good care of their homes or apartments. Mayors of cities ordered police to chase off those hippies who slept or begged for money on the streets. As one resident of Haight-Ashbury told America magazine columnist William W. MacDonald, "If some hippies moved next door to Page 160 | Top of Article me I would move out, because I couldn't tolerate the filth." California governor Ronald Reagan captured this perception of hippies when he claimed that a hippie was someone who "dresses like Tarzan, has hair like Jane, and smells like Cheetah," as quoted in Turbulent Years: The 1960s.
To the hippies themselves, of course, their lifestyle was quite meaningful—at least for a time. It allowed them to experiment with new ways of living. Some important parts of their lifestyle were drug use, a new form of spirituality, and unconventional music.
Drug use: LSD
The drug use common among hippies was a controversial part of their lifestyle. Many hippies insisted that it was an essential part of their rejection of the "establishment" and no worse, in any case, than the widespread use of tobacco, alcohol, and prescription drugs among mainstream adults. Ironically, the drug so much a part of hippie culture, lysergic acid diethylamide or LSD, was available legally until 1966 in California and until 1967 in the rest of the United States. Invented in 1938 by a Swiss scientist, it was thought to have potential as a treatment for mental illness, and both the federal government and many universities conducted studies with the drug in the 1950s. Participants in these experiments reported on the powerful hallucinations they experienced while on the drug. Others were willing to experiment with a drug that was said to expand a person's consciousness. Consciousness includes mental awareness including thoughts, feelings, and emotions, in addition to awareness of physical sensations.
One of the biggest promoters of the drug was Dr. Timothy Leary (1920–1996), who as a professor of psychology at Harvard University introduced the drug to many of his students and later popularized its use. Interviewed by Playboy Page 161 | Top of Article magazine in 1966, Leary described the experience of taking LSD as involving an "incredible acceleration and intensification of all sense and of all mental processes.… Around a thousand million signals fire off in your brain every second; … you find yourself tuned in on thousands of these messages that ordinarily you don't register consciously." People who took the drug, or "tripped," which is the slang term for being under its influence, described music taking physical shape and color, and physical touch playing like music in their heads. Some claimed that they saw God. Many users claimed that once a person takes LSD, the person can never go back to seeing the world like a drug-free person or "straight" person sees it.
LSD users said that the drug "blew their mind," and many wanted to constantly return to the altered state that it offered. In Leary's memorable phrase for his Playboy interview, they wanted to "turn on, tune in, drop out." Leary and others promoted this "dropping out," or leaving one's job, school, or family, as a positive thing, pointing to the great creativity and happiness of those who took hallucinogenic drugs regularly. LSD use, said Leary, "produced not only a new rhythm in modern music but a new décor for our discotheques, a new form of film making, a new kinetic visual art, a new literature, and has begun to revise our philosophic and psychological thinking." When Leary was forced to leave his academic position (as other academics grew increasingly wary of LSD use), he moved to California, where he became a kind of guru or leader to those wanting to use LSD to form a new society.
Many others, including the lawmakers who made the drug illegal, worried about the negative effects of LSD. The best-known negative effect of the drug for the user was the "bad trip." In a "bad trip," the drug user experiences intense and irrational fear and frightening sensory perceptions, sometimes to the point that the user considers committing suicide to escape. Another danger is the LSD flashback, in which a person re-experiences part of an LSD trip some days or weeks after taking the drug. But in the 1960s it was the way LSD encouraged people to disconnect or "drop out" that scared non-users the most. Parents worried that a young adult taking the drug would immediately "drop out" and join his or her hippie friends living on the street; politicians Page 162 | Top of Article feared that if too many people dropped out and joined the hippies, they could not maintain social order.
Once LSD was made illegal nationwide in 1967, use of the drug declined dramatically. No longer could hippies take the drug and "trip" in public parks or on city streets. By the end of the 1960s, many thought the risk of being arrested and put in prison, as some hippies were, outweighed the thrill of using the illegal drug.
The counterculture movement was not expressly religious, at least not in conventional terms, but for many of its participants, life as a hippie was in some ways like belonging to a religion. Many people became hippies after having an experience, often under the influence of LSD, that converted them to a new set of beliefs or philosophy of life. Abandoning "straight" society, the hippie joined others who believed in peace, love, and togetherness. Unlike organized religions, there was no central rulemaking body and no book of religious teachings, but many hippies claimed that nature was their church and all the world their holy book.
In the words of Timothy Miller, author of The Hippies and American Values, hippies rejected established religions and churches as "self-righteous centers of hypocrisy, stations for the blessing of the Establishment, wealthy organizations mainly interested in preserving themselves, havens for the narrow-minded, [and] anachronisms utterly irrelevant to modern life." An anachronism is anything that is outdated and not suited to or useful in the present. Like many other spiritual seekers during the 1960s, members of the counterculture explored Eastern religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, and were intrigued by the teachings of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (1911–), who in the mid-1960s brought a technique for concentration and reflection, called Transcendental Meditation, to the United States. Other people joined together and lived in communes, self-supporting rural communities that sometimes had spiritual components. Still others—especially those who were more easily persuaded—joined religious or seemingly religious cults, such as the Hare Krishnas and the Moonies (also called the Unification Church), and a few Page 163 | Top of Article decided to follow Charles Manson (see sidebar). A cult is a group of people who believe in a religion or set of beliefs that appears to be very different from established religions. Like young people everywhere, hippies sought spiritual answers. Not surprisingly, hippies did so outside the conventional channels of family life and mainstream religions.
Music of the hippies: Psychedelic rock
The hippie movement, unlike the Beat movement, produced no great literature or art. The works of literature that emerged from the hippie subculture were disjointed, rambling, and sometimes incoherent, mirroring the hallucinations that fueled the writing; the art tended to emphasize flowers or bright patterns but showed no groundbreaking talent. By far the greatest creative expression of the hippie movement was its music, which best depicted the rapid shifts of thought and heightened intensity associated with LSD use.
From the beginning of the "Acid Tests" held at the Kesey ranch and in Haight-Ashbury, hippies had been looking for and inventing music that fit their unique approach to life. They were helped by legendary LSD dealer Augustus Owsley Stanley III (1935–). When he bought some musical instruments and gave them to Jerry Garcia and members of his band, known as the Grateful Dead, new music began to emerge. The Dead, as they were known, combined rock, folk, and jazz in long, rambling "jams" that contained wandering instrumental solos and references to drug use. The new style of music that these musicians invented came to be known as psychedelic or acid rock.
The Dead played at parties and festivals throughout San Francisco beginning in 1965, and they became the favorite band of the hippies living in Haight-Ashbury. Soon, however, the musical style called psychedelic rock began to expand. Straight rock'n' roll relied on fairly short songs—three or four minutes—with a verse-chorus-verse structure played by two guitars and a drum set. But psychedelic rock was far more complicated: songs stretched on for ten or twelve minutes; verses might not be repeated at all and became far more poetic and obscure; and bands added all variety of instruments, from fiddles and banjos to Indian sitars, a
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long-necked, stringed instrument. American bands and performers including Jefferson Airplane, The Doors, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix emerged as favorites of hippies, and British bands such as the Yardbirds and the Byrds emerged from England's drug scene with their own distinctive psychedelic music. Caught up in the counterculture enthusiasm for LSD, established bands—notably the Beatles and the Rolling Stones—also began to create psychedelic music. Taken together,
the work of these bands constitutes a new chapter in the history of rock'n' roll.
Psychedelic rock music was the first element of hippie culture to be mass marketed to the rest of the United States and then to the world. Thanks perhaps to the influence of the Beatles and their enormous fan base, rock music radio stations played psychedelic music and fans loved it. The music could be played on the radio because the references to drug use were always coded in obscure language. When the Beatles, for example, sang about "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," the innocent could enjoy the lovely image while drug users knew that the initials of the song title stood for LSD. Similarly, Jefferson Airplane's song "White Rabbit"—with its lyric "one pill makes you larger, one pill makes you small"—could be an interpretation of the children's story Alice in Wonderland or a description of a drug trip. References to drug use were frequent in rock lyrics of the late 1960s and early 1970s, but as long as they were not too direct, radio stations would play the songs.
The "summer of love"
To the extent that a shapeless, unorganized movement like the hippies could be said to have reached a peak, many people think it did so in 1967, in what became known as "the summer of love." Hippies thronged the streets of Haight-Ash-bury, psychedelic music poured from radios, LSD was still readily available, and the cops of San Francisco were still willing to turn a blind eye on the whole scene as long as there was no violence. One of the defining moments of the year was the "Human Be-In," a strange festival of the hippie experience.
The "Human Be-In" began on January 14, 1967, a date that signaled the beginning of what a hippie astrologer called the "Age of Aquarius." An announcement of the event, quoted in Jane and Michael Stern's Sixties People, read: "Berkeley [California] activists and the love generation of the Haight-Ashbury will join together with members of the new nation who will be coming from every state in the nation, every tribe of the young (the emerging soul of the nation) to powwow, celebrate, and prophesy the epoch of liberation, love, peace, compassion, and unity of mankind." And they Page 167 | Top of Article did. For several days, hippies wandered the streets of the city, taking LSD, wearing flowers in their hair, loving each other, and cleaning up the whole scene afterward.
The mood of the event carried through the summer, through a series of festivals and peaceful demonstrations attended by hippies with long flowing hair and joyous smiles. In June, 50,000 people gathered at the Monterey International Pop Festival, south of San Francisco, to groove to the sounds of psychedelic rock. It was Monterey that launched the careers of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. The festival, like so many of the events of that summer, was peaceful and problem-free, seeming to demonstrate to the world that the hippies' message of love and peace was real. Finally, in October of 1967 hippies led by Abbie Hoffman placed flowers in the gun barrels of soldiers guarding the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. This gesture was a powerful symbolic act that seemed to symbolize the victory of love over war.
The end of the dream
No sooner had the hippie movement reached its peak than it began to show signs of collapse and disintegration. The media spotlight that shone on Haight-Ashbury in the spring of 1967 turned the neighborhood into a tourist attraction, with a variety of ill effects. First, the neighborhood began to attract people who were not interested in the hippie lifestyle, with its commitment to peace and love, but only open drug use. Some were just "day hippies," who came to "drop acid," which means to take a dose of LSD, and then return home; others were hard-core drug addicts who turned to crime to support their drug habit. Second, Haight-Ashbury became a stop on passing tours, sandwiched between the Golden Gate Bridge and Fisherman's Wharf. Bus tours cruised through, tourists pressed their noses to the tinted glass while listening to a guide explain: "You are passing through the Bearded Curtain.… Among the favorite pastimes of the hippies, besides taking drugs, are parading and demonstrating; … malingering; plus the ever present preoccupation with the soul, reality, and self-expression, such as strumming guitars, piping flutes, and banging on bongoes," as quoted in Sixties People.
By 1968, however, the political climate in the United States began to turn against the counterculture in general.
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Once peaceful antiwar protests had grown increasingly violent in the past year, and race riots in some of the nation's major cities in 1967 and 1968 showed the violent side of the civil rights movement. In late 1969, a hippie cult leader named Charles Manson (1934–), who lured hippies to his ranch with promises of free love and drugs, masterminded a string of murders in the foothills of Los Angeles. Mainstream Americans who had once looked on these countercultural Page 169 | Top of Article movements as fairly benign began to see in them a real threat to the social order.
In 1968 Americans elected for president Republican Richard Nixon (1913–1994), who as a candidate had promised a return to law and order. Across the country, police forces that had once tolerated hippie communities began to make arrests for drug use and vagrancy. According to McWilliams, anti-hippie billboards appeared in New York that stated "Keep America Clean: Take a Bath" and "Keep America Clean: Get a Haircut," and the governor of Tennessee declared: "We want every long-hair in jail or out of the state." Hippies were forced to retreat to rural communes or private homes, thus disrupting the communities that they had built in urban settings. Many simply returned to "straight" life, taking jobs and entering the mainstream. The age of the hippie was in decline.
Hippies live on
In the fall of 1967, some hippies in Haight-Ashbury had celebrated the demise of their culture in a "Death of Hip" ceremony, complete with a coffin bearing the symbolic corpse of the "summer of love." In fact, their predictions of the death of the hippie movement were premature, for major expressions of hippie culture continued to appear in American culture. In fact, the biggest music festival of the decade—the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, held in upstate New York in August of 1969—was noteworthy not just for the stellar lineup of bands but also for the peacefulness with which nearly half a million people conducted themselves for three days of sun, rain, and drug use. Slowly but surely, however, hippie communities disbanded, and hippie musicians turned to new styles, or they died. (Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison of The Doors all died within a year of each other in 1970 and 1971, all from drug overdoses.)
As the hippie movement came to an end, its images were assimilated or became part of ordinary life. Hippie music filled the airwaves, and the symbols of hippie pride—flowers and paisley patterns, for example—were plastered over all manner of products, from lunch baskets to children's clothing to fabric that could be used to make curtains. The hippie dress Page 170 | Top of Article style became popular: mainstream males began to wear bell-bottomed pants and blousy shirts, and females began to wear long, flowing gypsy-style dresses. Ordinary people flashed the peace sign. Popular television shows such as Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour used hippie dress and hippie words as a source of humor, thus reducing their revolutionary significance. In these ways, and many more, the powerful engine of American commercialism cashed in on the once-radical hippie style.
Remnants of hippie culture have echoed through American culture ever since the 1960s ended. For example, bell-bottom pants and long hair on men have gone in and out of style over the years. The hippie belief that if enough people join hands and sing about love, perhaps they can change the world, entered history as a quaint expression of a strangely frivolous, difficult to define, and yet in some ways appealing social movement.
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