An ant explores the surface of a sunlit outdoor table. I sit across from it observing and writing on my in-laws’ back patio. A neighbor waters a garden next door as I read Erik Davis’s review of the “Hippie Modernism” exhibition for Frieze magazine, written two years ago, when the show was up at BAMPFA. This is the show that inspired the course I taught this past spring. There’s an elegance to the review’s list of the show’s achievements. My eyes dwell for a time on an image included in the review, a digital reproduction of a 1965 painting by Isaac Abrams called Hello Dali.
I see echoes of the painting as I look over at flowers in my in-laws’ garden. I let this work motivate me to complete my project. I watch videos, like the radical Italian design group Superstudio’s “Supersurface: An Alternative Model for Life on the Earth,” a film of theirs from 1972.
Balm applied, the goad to work kicks in. I note down books I need to order, like Art Boericke and Barry Shapiro’s Handmade Houses: A Guide to the Woodbutcher’s Art. After a breakfast of homemade waffles and orange juice, I burrow away and watch Davis’s recent talk, “A Brief History of Queer Psychedelia,” where I learn about Gerald Heard’s involvement with the Mattachine Society, one of the earliest gay rights organizations in the United States.
Isocrates was the pseudonym that Heard used for the articles he published in the society’s magazine, the Mattachine Review. He also wrote articles for ONE, another early gay publication, under the pseudonym D.B. Vest. Davis also unveils a weird book of Heard’s written in the late 1960s called AE: The Open Persuader published under the pseudonym Auctor Ignotus (or maybe W Dorr Legg). Tartarus Press published a collection called Dromenon: The Best Weird Stories of Gerald Heard in the early 2000s. That, too, is a book worth tracking down. By midafternoon, elements have clustered together to cause me to wonder at the overlapping histories of psychedelics and ritual magic. The famous LSD chemist Augustus Owsley Stanley III noted that his early experiences with acid coincided, for instance, with his reading of The Kybalion. Most of the first-generation Western psychedelic crowd took up at points with Eastern tantric currents. Some folks also explored Western pagan and esoteric traditions. This outburst of spiritual yearning and experimentation remains for me in its utter mysteriousness a source of fascination. In my state of unknowing about it, the topic seems rich with narrative potential, like there’s a story there waiting to be told. Like the fate of Pedro Salvadores in the Borges story of that name, it strikes me as a symbol of something I am about to understand, but never quite do.
The revolution grows micro, happens everywhere. Except everybody knows that everywhere is as a good as nowhere. As we float in our plastic domes. Is neoliberalism birthed in the summer of ’69? What did Woodstock and the Moon Walk do to us? Did they remake us all as cybernetic astronauts, tethered as if by umbilical cord to an AI similar to the one that awakens and talks to us at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey? What accounts for the recurrence of “space” in so many of the texts of Hippie Modernism? Why, too, is this the moment of LSD and “Spacewar”? Did neoliberalism shoot us all into space? Where does acid figure in relation to this transformation? What effect did it have on the collective imaginary? Abbie Hoffman had his helment smashed, he says, (and by “helmet,” he meant his “subjective experience”), during a bad acid trip at Woodstock. (The book to consult for an account of Abbie’s trip is Ellen Sander’s Trips: Rock Life in the Sixties.) Even as he imagines the festival as a prefiguration of a new WOODSTOCK NATION, he also describes it as the first time in history that we successfully landed a man on the Earth. “Calling Planet Earth,” echoes June Tyson at the end of “Space is the Place.” Perhaps what we saw is that we’re all one thing, one brain, the General Intellect, a new infant floating out in space. What do we do with ourselves? Stewart Brand assumes that this condition makes us as gods, and that we might as well get good at it. But he does so while involved in a counterculturally-conducted investigation of communal living. The neoliberal cognitive map clicked into place in multiple minds at once there in the late 60s and early 70s. We’re all right there in that “Earthrise” photograph, our collective self-portrait. My hunch, however, is that this map is the veil that we need to pierce if we’re ever to get free.
I resolve to become more knowledgeable and fill the world with flower punks and psychedelic bands. For heads already in the know, thoughts may turn to the cynicism of the Zappa / Mothers of Invention song of that name.
But we needn’t be cynical today. Listen instead to Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground,” listen to the 1979 version of “Space is the Place.” Shine on, sister. Gotta reach that highest ground. After reading poems from Thom Gunn’s Moly, the Port of San Francisco flashes like a voice in a dream. Dr. Robert is there with me, as is Homer — consciousness leaping between multiple domains.
The communes of the 1960s were utopian experiments — attempts to develop better ways of living. Science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany’s short memoir Heavenly Breakfast provides participant observation and reflection from within one of these experiments. The communes were like irradiated psychedelic seeds thrown to the winds, each free radical allowed to evolve its own local variety, its own distinct mutations, each one searching for alternatives that might survive and thrive. Most communes failed: some because of fundamental errors, others due to an unlucky set of contingencies. Yet here and there, some survived. This process needs to continue. Broad, grassroots social experimentation will have to begin again, picking up where Hippie Modernism left off. And those of you who wish to be cutthroat capitalists — you must allow radicals the space, resources, and freedom from violence to do so if the species is to adapt to the new planetary environment.
I want my Age of Aquarius! “Grab passion,” sings the radio. “Make it happen.” Next thing I know, I’m listening to “Ride My See-Saw” by The Moody Blues and digging it, entering through doorways new states of mind.
Thinking truly is the best way to travel. Floating like a kite and then grounded again, eyes open, the world brighter, sharper, and superimposed atop it a corridor of integral concepts. That album of theirs, In Search of the Lost Chord, allows for quite an experience. I follow it with Moby Grape’s Grape Jam — a relaxing listen, though a bit sloppy and indulgent. But that’s what’s so wonderful about it: “This music happened,” as the group says on the back cover of the LP, “when we could escape for awhile the intimidations of the virtuosity and perfections demanded by posterity. Relaxed, free, unselfconscious — Just laying down some music when the mood struck.” Bellbottomed legs leap and spin among a tribe of hippie whirling dervishes in Milos Forman’s Hair, which I watch afterwards while I practice breathing.
I wish I could convince others to enjoy birds whistling, the tap of a woodpecker, dogs barking. But students prefer Ozzy Osborne’s angsty theatrics, several of them requesting we listen to “War Pigs / Luke’s Wall.” I can hold off, soak in some rays of sunlight, wait until the time is right. Sit beside trees and practice breathing. Expand consciousness into new modes of sensitivity and sensibility. One way I do so is by listening closely to “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Berkeley-born John Fogerty sings from the standpoint of a critical working-class subject suffering persecution at the hands of hawkish militaristic elites. He calls the latter out, naming them for what they are: hypocrites / phony “patriots” who wave the flag but send others off to fight in their stead. (The rich were able to exercise influence to receive deferment from the draft, while working-class males had no choice but to fight or flee the country. One thinks here, for example, of former US president George W. Bush and other warmongers who themselves never served.) Drums and guitar notes shimmering with reverb, the song kicks into action. It starts marching at you, picket sign aloft, hips swaggering. On the album cover for the band’s fourth studio album Willy and the Poor Boys (1969), they’re seen performing like an old-time jug band on a sidewalk before an audience of African-American children. When Fogerty says, “I ain’t no senator’s son, son,” he’s damning benefactors of nepotism, he’s damning multi-generational elites, he’s damning the entire American anti-democratic system of inherited privilege.
The light tapping of a pick across the muted strings of the guitar on Dylan’s “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” reminds us as listeners that a clock is ticking. Dylan’s lyrics are in part about remaining cool despite the pain of mortality, the pain of accepting one’s wounds in order to live. What about those initial verses, though: they reference the possibility of nuclear apocalypse, don’t they? Doesn’t the Cold War form the song’s political horizon, “eclipsing both sun and moon”? I worry, though, that the song is also somehow an indictment of me, the teacher who teaches that “knowledge waits” — one who “must obey authority,” one who does not respect it “in any degree,” one who despises his job and his destiny and “speak[s] jealously of them that are free.” The same figure Nietzsche condemned, in other words, for being moved by a politics of ressentiment. But is Dylan singing as the voice of a student who can’t please me, or am I the one who can’t please them? “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” comes up a few tracks earlier on Bringing It All Back Home, and it’s a riotous, rowdy picaresque — the story of a poor sailor who dodges his way through the nightmarish slapstick of my country ’tis of thee.