Ishmael Reed may have been present at the founding of the East Village Other — indeed, he seems to have been the one who gave the paper its name! — but many of his poems of the 1960s, the ones gathered in Conjure: Selected Poems, 1963-1970, are quite scornful in their assessment of the counterculture. In his “Neo-HooDoo Manifesto,” for instance, Reed calls out Theodore Roszak, noting that in the latter’s famous book The Making of a Counter Culture, “there is barely any mention of the Black influence on this culture even though its members dress like Blacks talk like Blacks walk like Blacks, gesture like Blacks wear Afros and indulge in Black music and dance” (20-21). Speaking of neglected black influences upon the counterculture, why am I only just now learning that the acid trip sequence in Easy Rider was shot at or near Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau’s tomb in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1? Hopper and Fonda filmed the sequence guerrilla-style, without permission … while tripping on acid. Reed’s collection also includes a poem called “catechism of d neoamerican hoodoo church” — a self-conscious response of sorts, I imagine, to Millbrook resident Art Kleps’s Boo Hoo Bible: The Neo-American Church Catechism and Handbook. Several of Reed’s associates were participants in the psychedelic revolution — including East Village Other co-founder and publisher Walter Bowart. Bowart’s second wife was Peggy Hitchcock, the director of Leary and Alpert’s International Federation for Internal Freedom (IFIF). Peggy’s brother Billy is the one who arranged for the Leary crew to live on the Hitchcock Estate in Millbrook. Bowart went on to publish an important book on MK-Ultra in 1978 called Operation Mind Control.
Listening closely, entertaining a variety of interpretations as possibilities running simultaneously beside one another, I wander, first among the hallways of David Bowie’s “Memory of a Free Festival,” already a bit distant and nostalgic, the gathering recalled in past tense: “It was…It was…It was.”
Bowie’s lyrical persona sings from Milton territory — trying to reconstitute hope amid summer’s end, paradise lost. By song’s end, distant festival-goers join voices in a chorus of reconciliation, animated by the sentiment, “The Sun Machine is Coming Down, and We’re Gonna Have a Party.” Afterwards, I re-watch Easy Rider, noting the semantic riches of the film’s opening shot of a trompe l’oeil mural of pre-Conquest Mexico on the side of a pit-stop called La Contenta Bar in Taos, New Mexico. The scene depicts US-Mexican relations in terms of the black-market capitalist exchange-relation of the drug deal. The Captain and Billy are just small-timers, their counterculture a mere cargo cult, the film notes in the next scene, where the two men crouch defensively as the planes of the global techno-capitalist superpower fly overhead. Look at Peter Fonda loading his bike’s American flag embroidered fuel tank with rolls of dollars as Steppenwolf sings “The Pusher.” He and Hopper walk like natives of the space age among desert farmhouse ruins. They seem as alien to these landscapes as their motorbikes — products of a different stage of development. The bikes make the horses of white settler-colonialist ranchers skittish. The Captain pays respect by complimenting the ranchers on their “spread.” “You do your own thing on your own time: you should be proud.” Hippies appear here as mere nouveau riche speculators eyeing potential property on the frontier. The montage sequence that accompanies “The Weight” is an ode to the magic of the deserts of the American Southwest. Passing a joint back and forth with a paisley-bandana’d hitchhiker, Captain and Billy learn of the disrespectful nature of their colonial heritage. After soaking it in, the Captain asks the others if they’ve ever wished they were someone else. The same theme reemerges later in the film. After smoking his first joint around a campfire on the way to Mardi Gras, Jack Nicholson’s character George Hanson comes alive with far-out tales of aliens from a more advanced civilization living among Americans since 1946. Both he and the Bowie of “Memory of a Free Festival” refer to these figures as “Venusians.” By the end of the film, though, I’m left wondering: Are Captain and Billy victims of a Faustian bargain, as J.D. Markel argues, following the path of Dante’s Inferno?
Take the load off the self and place it on The Band (or, due to licensing issues, a band called Smith). The Easy Rider soundtrack remains for me a peak moment in 60s psychedelia. Despite decades having passed since its release, it still managed to turn me on to revolution and liberation when I first encountered it while rifling through my parents’ LP collection as a teenager in the 1990s. I picture every time while hearing it beautiful, peaceful people relaxing in nature. Let’s lie barefoot in the grass passing a joint. Fuck the system. Simply turn from it and walk away. Such has been my conception of Utopia ever since. Angel-headed hipsters singing, banging tambourines, harmonizing under umbrellas in a rainstorm, committing themselves eternally to growth and becoming. Tom Wolfe calls this ideal “Edge City” in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test: a place where “it was scary, but people were whole people” (50). Theaters there play movies like Hellzapoppin featuring American midcentury comedy duo Ole Olsen & Chic Johnson. (Wolfe died, by the way, this past May. In a final interview with Rolling Stone in 2017, he insisted he never tried LSD.)
Do I sometimes feel like a spy or an alien in a foreign land, and do I sometimes behave so? Indeed, I do. Joy is contraband for members of my class. Debtors are expected to work constantly to prove their right to live. And yet, once we deprogram ourselves, joy is easy to come by, easily ours. As easy as raising our arms to accept the light of the sun — a gesture I learn from the branches of bushes beside my office window on an uncharacteristically breezy 77° August afternoon. Self-actualizers, as Maslow says, “sometimes find emotions bubbling up from within them that are so pleasant or even ecstatic that it seems almost sacrilegious to suppress them” (Motivation and Personality, p. 158). With appropriate tools, one can expand into a sense of self empathetically absorbed into the nonhuman environment. Trying to place the brand of “techno-thriller” to which Ingo Swann’s Star Fire belongs, my mind lights upon the early works of Michael Crichton. Seeking info about the latter, I discover Dealing: or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues, a 1970 novel Crichton co-wrote with his younger brother Douglas under the pen name “Michael Douglas.” The book was adapted into a movie in 1972 featuring Barbara Hershey and John Lithgow in his screen debut as a campus drug dealer. Imagine Easy Rider set among the Boston and Berkeley freak left.