Clouds appear puffy and white with shades of gray the way they do in the paintings of Turner and Constable above the stack of three-level Victorians at the corner of Cowcross and St. John. To sit at a table under an awning at a café here in London is basically to resign oneself to inhalation of secondhand smoke. I see little evidence of Glastonbury and Windsor and the other acid-fueled free festivals of the 1970s remaining here in England’s cultural DNA. The same goes for Madchester and late-80s / early-90s rave culture. The neoliberal counter-reformation has wiped clear near about every last trace of these consciousness-expanding influences, allowing Her Majesty’s loyal subjects to throw themselves whole-hog again into their old habit of killing one another with cigarettes and drink.
Street art adorns every available surface along London’s Brick Lane — tags, murals, stickers, posters, the works. Uniformed schoolchildren file past, their tour guide pointing out to them where the master weavers used to live. Rounding the corner onto Sclater Street, I stroll over to a bar and grab a seat under an awning on the sidewalk. A courier rides by on a bicycle as I sip my lager. What am I to do with these interests of mine? Marxist philosophers, Decadent poets, psychonauts, occultists, members of the New Weird Britain: do any of these figures matter anymore, or has the hour of the counterculture’s final passing come round at last? The success of Strange Attractor Press suggests that there’s still a readership for this material. Let us persist, then, in our faith that these forces can reactivate and work their magic in the years ahead.
I roll down the passenger-side window and sit in my wife’s parked car beside a prickly bush, bothered by my historical moment but trying to breathe, trying to find joy and cheer despite the gridded, hyper-branded environment. A kiss and I feel much better. Roses, rainbow umbrellas, Moses Boyd’s “Rye Lane Shuffle.” Or better still: Yussef Kamaal’s “Black Focus.”
The relationship to capitalism is one forced upon me, my consent squeezed out of me every time I share space with others, i.e. every moment of every hour. How do I shed the anger I carry about, so as not to be troubled by headlines, flags, courts, markets, affairs of state — the recklessness and hostility of the American present? One way is to discover a secret history of underground resistance, like the one featuring Michael Aldrich, author of “Marijuana Myths & Folklore,” the first Ph.D dissertation on cannabis in the US, completed at SUNY Buffalo in 1970. Aldrich founded the first college chapter of LEMAR in 1967 and was co-founder of Amorphia (1969-1973), the organization that sponsored the first California Marijuana Initiative in 1972. Download issues of old counterculture newspapers like Oz, Gandalf’s Garden, the Ann Arbor Sun, and The Marijuana Review. Allow magical meanings to reveal themselves day by day. By that, I suppose I mean synchronicities and sermons heard in birdsong. Leary associate Art Kleps seems to have preferred something more than that. For him, “ideas of reference” are where it’s at, as he claims in The Boo Hoo Bible (161). But mine is the path of Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, Aparigraha, and Brahmacarya: the five principles of Yama.
Charles Perry’s history of the Haight-Ashbury, published by Rolling Stone Press in 1984, is definitely a product of its time, hopes dashed and tone soured by the experience of Reaganism. But it’s the best, most comprehensive, research-intensive book of its kind. If you wanna know what happened in the Haight, the epicenter of 1960s psychedelic utopianism, this and Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test are where to begin. After which point I suggest walking, sitting in a park. Imagine wind patterns, encounters with butterflies. A squirrel sits on a branch. A motorcyclist buzzes past. And on the bench beside us, a lovely ladybug. She crawls across my finger, my leg, my wrist-band. She hitches a ride, climbs aboard as I walk home to order a copy of Alexandra Jacopetti’s Native Funk & Flash.
“Hack the code.” That seems to have been the final utterance of the counterculture before dispersing out onto what cyberpunk Bruce Sterling called “islands in the net.” But who among us cave-dwellers possesses the capacity to hack? How do we who are landless debtors hack back into the biosphere and become communally self-sufficient? How do we rewire and reboot world operating systems? For me, it’s by reading Thom Gunn’s wonderful poem written under the influence of acid, “At the Center.” Formally composed into three numbered sections, each containing two six-line rhymed stanzas of iambic pentameter, the poem is nevertheless heady and psychedelic. Filled with wonder. The one commons we do possess as heads, I suppose, is language. Poets like Gunn remind me that that, too, is a code we could hack, though “hacking” as a metaphor for practice seems far too intrusive and masterful, too contra naturam, for the work that lies ahead.
A rich new vein of countercultural history sees light of day thanks to the 2015 documentary Here Come The Videofreex. The archival footage used in the film is chaotic and messy, capturing with all of the power and potential of new media the revolutionary movements of the early 1970s. Watching the film today, I can’t resist wishing for a chance to restage the Revolution, the first attempt’s energy and conviction guided now by the lessons learned from half a century of culture war. Let the forces of magic and of miracle triumph where before we succumbed to our frustrations and our desire for vengeance.
The hippie counterculture was a kind of renaissance, a remembering of primal unity, a casting aside of rancor and division in the name of Love — yet how quickly this spirit foundered when met with violence.