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.
The problems hippie modernists proposed to address through their prophetic interpretation of the future have not gone away at all. The violence of capitalism is still all around us. We’re living amidst crisis. We’re living together amid these challenges. Utopia has already been modeled for us; those who modeled it waved to us from the past and asked us to come join them. What are we waiting for? Let’s do it. Each of us struggle for Utopia. It’s the same story for every individual life. Let us imagine the hippie modernist vision as our collective future. The members of the 1960s and 1970s counterculture have prepared us for what is to come. These are the two levels of historical and religious allegory. They’re shouting, “Join us! Join us!” with great joy in their hearts, like the crowd surrounding the police car at the dawn of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, remembered via Berkeley in the Sixties. The image reminds me of Bosch’s famous work, The Garden of Earthly Delights. Bosch’s triptych is the global-cosmic totality unfolding all at once. Think of it as the map of an ongoing, universally participatory Oculus-style MMORPG. It contains within its ambivalent central panel reality’s mysterious core. As audience members, we get to choose our own adventure. Is the air of perfect liberty an intoxicant or a solution to the riddle? In all of Bosch’s triptychs, one can read the work allegorically by viewing it — exercising perception — either sequentially, left to right, each life played out between Eden and Last Judgment, or in toto, viewed abstractly, like the Whole Earth from space. Atlantis is another era’s name for the West Coast. Time is a mere alteration undergone and endured by consciousness. Sun Ra saw this, broadcasting his music from “after the end of the world.” Let each of us create within ourselves a world-picture of like nature, and interesting things start to happen. Contain all elements within a magical-circular perspective and one has a world-picture, a cognitive map, functional on a level similar to ancient devices of such nature like the Tarot and the I Ching. All are devices allowing us to toggle consciousness from local, timely perception to perception of a kind able to observe constellations of meaning, one’s inner spinnings aligned with the timeless, universal spinning of the cosmos. Let us all find our places amid the stars even as now we race apart.
Hippie modernism reimagined progress as a great social loosening, a relaxation of former tensions and animosities in favor of joyful, wondrous being. An allowance for work to coincide with play. In consequence, when studying hippie modernist literature, one is immediately drawn to make comparison with the present. How do work and play relate in our lives today? What do we think we know about the hippies? What, if anything, do the terms “hippie” and “modernism” already signify in popular consciousness? Hippies are in some quarters remembered wistfully, in other quarters disdained. Suffice to say, stereotypes abound. Yet we can come to know ourselves better — our potentials, our hopes, our fears — through study of this as-yet poorly understood chapter in our recent collective memory. Let’s consult the evidence, and see what we learn from it. What was Chester Anderson’s conception of the situation in “Hippies in Haight-Ashbury,” a memo he distributed throughout the San Francisco neighborhood with his Diggers-affiliated group the Communication Company, or “com/co” for short? He interprets hippies as individuals exercising their right, held up as a basic principle of American society, to think and act in any manner they choose, so long as they don’t interfere with the rights of others. Anderson requests aid from members of the community: free housing as opposed to violent mass arrests. He ends with the prophecy, “This is an extremely serious responsibility. These students are in the process of shaping attitudes toward society, police and our governmental system. They are bound to be deeply impressed by what they SEE here, good or bad. They are watching the world today; they will be running the world tomorrow.” Anderson’s broadside hints at a Close Encounters of the Third Kind scenario: the teenage head as homo superior, led westward by Chariots of the Gods, Ghost Riders in the Sky. Look for resonances, associations, correspondences.
The etymology of “gonzo” unlocks a new level in my understanding of countercultural history. To celebrate, I sing along to the “Moratorium” chorus from John Ylvisaker and David Blakeley’s Recorded at a Housewarming for Fritzie, a rare private-press christian psych-folk LP released in 1972 on Soular Module.
Ylvisaker’s obituary refers to him as the “Bob Dylan of Lutheranism.” Reawakened by its use as slang among beats and hippies and entered into print to name Hunter S. Thompson’s drug-fueled brand of New Journalism, “gonzo” probably derives from the Italian figure of the simpleton or fool, the great lightener of moods who speaks cheerfully of the miracle of reconciliation. Also a play on “gone,” as in “out there,” wild and crazy, mind unfurling in the midst of a great trip. My courses are basically guided tours of elaborate, personally crafted memory palaces, demonstrations of compatibility among multiple systems of gnosis, literary, philosophical, cultural, and political texts woven into a vast assemblage, my eyes like those of the Muppet conveying moment by moment a “zany, bombastic appreciation for life.”