It has been said that history is written by the winners, but one massive exception to that rule is the hagiography associated with the hippie movement of the 1960s. And I do not say that lightly — as someone who followed the Grateful Dead in the 80s and 90s and believes in social justice and equality — the idea that peaceniks were a failure is not a conclusion I come to lightly or happily, but in reading Danny Goldberg’s In Search of The Lost Chord a gauzy, Pollyanna-ish remembering of the 1967 Summer of Love, much of the falsity of what we have come to think of and know about that time in our country’s history is exposed as more pipe dream than reality.
The saying “If you remember the 60s, you probably weren’t there,” is a ha-ha shorthand for an era of peace, love, and lots of drugs, but the goals of the movement - ending the Vietnam War while striving for social, racial, and gender equality - have a shaky track record. Goldberg has his rose-colored glasses firmly in place and as a 101-level survey of the time when our country metaphorically went from black and white to technicolor, when the Beatles went from lovable mop tops to auteurs who created Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, and the promise of JFK dissolved in the rice fields of Southeast Asia, the reader is well-served.
Goldberg has all kinds of interesting little nuggets about the musicians, intellectuals, and scenes spread throughout the country and across the pond into London that formed the backbone of the hippie aesthetic. The people and their mission were both loosely affiliated and at times at odds with one another (the battle between San Francisco bands who eyed L.A.-based producers of the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival with antipathy is nicely sketched) and the push and pull between them is palpable. There is struggle for authenticity, of leadership (or if there should even be leadership), and defining goals and objectives that help explain why “the hippie idea” quickly became a spent force.
Even as the embryonic stage of the movement was gathering force, its limitations were already being exposed. In early 1967, hippie leaders convened in San Francisco, debating, among other things, what it meant to “tune in, turn on, and drop out.” The author of that quote, Timothy Leary, was challenged by the beat poet and nascent hippie icon Allen Ginsburg, who asked: “what can I drop out of?” Leary retorted, “Your teaching at Cal (the University of California-Berkeley).” Ginsburg demurred, stating simply, “But I need the money.” And while Leary was wildly off base when he predicted deer would graze in New York City within 40 years, he was unintentionally spot on when he observed that “If Pepsi-Cola can be marketed around the world, so can hippie ideas.” The only thing he was missing was the fact that it would be used by Coca-Cola and not Pepsi-Cola in service of selling the soda not the ideas.
Ultimately, many of the broad societal goals the hippies sought to achieve were unrealized. The massive rallies against the Vietnam War failed to end it; indeed, the war escalated and expanded into other countries after the protest movement gained speed. Far from being repudiated, Nixon tapped into the “silent majority” of Americans to win the Presidency in 1968 and one of the largest landslide reelections four years later.
In the inner cities, from Watts in 1965 to Newark in 1967 and other cities in between and beyond, rioting exacerbated white flight to the suburbs, resulting in de facto segregation that would last for decades. Indeed, comments Goldberg discusses from a report issued by the Kerner Commission (a group commissioned by LBJ to study the underlying causes of these urban riots) in 1968 could have just as easily been written today. Goldberg notes, “the main conclusion was that the riots resulted from black frustration at the lack of economic opportunity” and recommended things like “more diversity on police forces, stronger employment programs, and the creation of housing opportunities in the suburbs . . .” Sound familiar?
Gender equality would make important advances with the passage of Title IX and a dawning awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace, but the Equal Rights Amendment ran aground in the late 1970s while equal pay and fiery debates between women who opt for careers over home making have stoked many a book, thought piece, and online battle five decades after seminal works by Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem reached a mass audience.
But Goldberg has little time to consider the shortcomings of the movement, he is too busy ruminating on his own experiences and that is understandable. An era that coined the term “free love” and had reporters avoiding drinks offered to them for fear they were dosed with LSD was surely a good time, but the lament that the “chord” was lost is overwrought. As Joan Didion is quoted as saying at the time, “we were seeing the desperate attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a vacuum.”
What we are left with is a Madison Avenue-invented nostalgia that attempts to short hand the hippie movement via tie-dye t-shirts and VW buses, fossilized classic rock acts and advertisements that take what were once clarion calls for rebellion that are now used in service of selling investment accounts and Cadillacs. Of course, this should not be surprising, the ideals that animated Baby Boomers in the late 1960s transformed into a “greed is good” ethos by the time they hit their 30s and 40s. Indeed, once in power, what defines the Baby Boomer generation is a massive redistribution of wealth upward at the same time massive borrowing has taken place to finance it. Having railed against the establishment, Boomers not only became the establishment, but looted the bank and will leave the rest of us to pay the bill.
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