M.C. Richards writes of her debt to certain techniques and strategies of high and late modernism toward the end of Centering. (It’s perhaps more than a mere coincidence, I think to myself as I write this, that Jimi Hendrix’s song “Voodoo Child” shares initials with the US military’s enemy at the time the song was released in October 1968, the Viet Cong.) “I have lived my life close to certain impulses in contemporary art,” writes Richards. “The music of the single sound, the composition of silence, and proliferating galaxies. The poetics of Western Imagism — ‘no ideas but in things.’ Garbage art: sculpture out of mashed automobiles; paintings out of old Coke bottles, soiled shirts, window blinds, coat hangers; paintings made out of dirt meant to look like dirt, to consecrate the dirt; an art which consecrates the discard. Cellar doors, walls, sidewalks, street surfaces: as well as all the minutiae of nature. A choreography of making breakfast. Summoning attention, drawing the gaze in, into. And into the wonder comes a kind of high mirth. A release of joy in the form” (Centering, p. 144). Writing becomes for Richards a transcription of her thoughts as she attends to the conditions by which she thinks.
After a nap in a park under a sunny blue January sky, Parliament helps me loosen up and release stress I’ve been carrying in my shoulders, neck, and upper back. Time to blow the cobwebs from my mind with the Mothership Connection. That is where I’m at and it feels good.
P-Funk had its own mythology. George Clinton performed at times as his messianic alien alter-ego, Star Child. My first encounters with “Mothership Connection” came by way of Dr. Dre’s sample of it on “Let Me Ride” from his debut solo album The Chronic, released the year of my fourteenth birthday. Robin D.G. Kelley discusses artists like Parliament-Funkadelic and Sun Ra’s Afrofuturist brand of hippie modernism in his book Freedom Dreams. These were artists who “looked backward to look forward, finding the cosmos by way of ancient Egypt.” I love the idea of a revolution you join by putting “a glide in your stride and a dip in your hip,” projecting one’s body here and now into a 3-D realtime utopian Afrofuturist “world within the world” known as the Mothership. The P-Funk song’s reference to the famous spiritual “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” used by members of the Underground Railroad as a coded form of communication to help people escape, reminds me of the Trystero group’s use of the posthorn symbol in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. Other P-Funk tracks are also worthy of analysis and comment. The early Funkadelic song “Can You Get To That,” for instance, alludes to Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Dream” speech with its metaphor of the bounded check.
“America has given the negro people a bad check,” King intoned, “a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.” This stuff definitely ought to find its way into my course this semester — as should the work of jazz poet Ted Joans and illustrator Pedro Bell. The latter created the liner art for several key P-Funk releases. As George Clinton notes on his official website, “What Pedro Bell had done was invert psychdelia through the ghetto. Like an urban Hieronymus Bosch, he cross-sected the sublime and the hideous to jarring effect. Insect pimps, distorted minxes, alien gladiators, sexual perversions. It was a thrill, it was disturbing. Like a florid virus, his markered mutations spilled around the inside and outside covers in sordid details that had to be breaking at least seven state laws. […]. He single-handedly defined the P-Funk collective as sci-fi superheroes fighting the ills of the heart, society and the cosmos.”
Hippie modernism was an attempt to eroticize or more broadly sensualize Western modernity. It was a project launched from within the West that drew inspiration from the cultures of native and non-Western people. Within a sensualized landscape replanted and rewilded with minimal reliance on technology, people could relax and admire the barking of dogs, the music of birds. A neighbor operating a chainsaw is all it takes, though, to disrupt the peace of this reverie. I’m reminded of Amiri Baraka’s 1964 poem “A Contract. (For the Destruction and Rebuilding of Paterson,” which begins, “Flesh, and cars, tar, dug holes beneath stone / a rude hierarchy of money, band saws cross out / music, feeling. Even speech, corrodes.” Baraka’s poem reminds us that Paterson’s modernity (like that of the rest of the country) never extended to many of its black residents. To help bear his burden — to absorb the anger forced upon him by the racism of our society — I undergo a cleansing ritual. I absorb, I reprocess, I release.
Taut on the road, palms pressed, wheeling frankly. Where I grew up, it’s all boardwalks and water parks. Like our baby nephews, we dip! we dip! Just so long as there’s some lime and vodka to counteract the sounds and ideas of the cranberries. Let pawtips be pawtips, trusting the divinity and compassion of the whole person. Understanding goes without saying, beyond words, daily life reverberating with metaphor enough to crowd out the voice that says, “Fix it.” Education leads me to minding after Rudolph Steiner and curricula informed by the Waldorf method. M.C. Richards describes this method in her book Centering as one where “The teacher works in a certain state of mind, with certain knowledge and aims, primarily listening to what the child is telling him through its body and its behavior and its fantasies and its play and speech. He does not try to apply to a situation a form conceived in advance” (101). I take note of some of Richards’s suggestions, in hopes that her book will help me connect the dots for my course on Hippie Modernism. “Certain tendencies we should try to cure, others to strengthen,” she writes. “We should not neglect the child’s relation to hero worship and ceremony and ritual. He lives naturally in a world of myth and poetry and invisible beings. He loves sound and movement and color and drama. He loves to laugh and to cry. […]. As he grows older and learns to think abstractly, he will do so as a person in whose organism is rooted the wisdom of fairy tales, and saints’ legends, and cultural mythology” (Centering, p. 103). Hippie modernism produced what was and remains a revolutionary literature. It evokes, it exhorts, it grants permission to imagine radical creative transformation of social reality, beginning with exercises of individual freedom, particularly at the level of speech and intercourse with citizens in a loving global community. Authorly life coincides with experiments in communication and lived practice amid networks of revolutionary literary-artistic peers. No need to venture so far, though. We don’t want to write the introduction before having read the books. Why do I feel like I’m plotting a prison-break? Is it wrong to want to teach hope and possibility? It’s no naive hope; Charles Olson contemplates both ruin and survival as pertinent facts of our condition in his poem “The Kingfishers.” But into history’s mixed message, Olson introduces a message of hope, a factor to induce a change of state, only to then announce to his readers, “This very thing you are.”
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.
With college basketball coverage silenced temporarily on my in-laws’ massive television, I settle in and watch The Muppet Christmas Carol. Gonzo the Great stars as the work’s author Charles Dickens. Christmas is a time of gift-exchange, the film reminds us. It ought to be a time of global Jubilee. In Leviticus, Jubilee is a time when slaves and prisoners are freed and debts are forgiven. But darkness is cheap, and the Scrooges of the world like it. Time for their minds to encounter chain-rattling dancing Marleys. Come, all ye Scrooges — there is much to see. I’m often deeply divided in my resolve regarding education and discipline. How does one make time for these meditations while parenting? It’s a matter to which mind is applied, I suppose, a gift of attention. Do it: wash some cookie trays and settle atop a bed in a pile of pillows and read hippie modernist poet and potter Mary Caroline Richards’s Centering: In Pottery, Poetry, and the Person (1964), a book Richards published more than a decade after her departure from Black Mountain College. Through this book, Richards instructs us in how to materialize “as force in the world the unifying energy of our perceptions” (3). Discipline is something the book struggles “with, toward” (5). This is what allows it to express and convey a “whole person” — or as Richards translates, “mankind as many-membered being” (5). Richards asks us to contemplate a moral question: “How do we perform the CRAFT of life? How do we love our enemies?” (5-6). This craft requires discipline — though not a kind involving toughness, not a “tough love,” in the words of conservatives, so much as a “firm, tender, sensitive pressure which yields as much as it asserts” (9). I look forward to sharing Richards’s book in my course this spring and discussing her ideas with others.
Anthony Reed contributes to an understanding of hippie modernism in his essay “After the End of the World: Sun Ra and the Grammar of Utopia.” He causes us to ask ourselves: By what means did hippie modernists intervene in reproduction of the hierarchies and contradictions of the dominant society, the oppressor, the Empire as it manifested in their moment? Intervention of some sort is necessary if there is to be positive social change, for it is by way of its hierarchies and contradictions that the Empire produces the shocked consciousness, the defensive ego formation that buries consciousness within labyrinths of ideology, so as to postpone recognition of the War in Heaven, the fundamental class conflict. Through deliberate pursuit of consciousness-raising, however, hippie modernists relaxed habitual thought and behavior mechanisms, and thus gained sight of and came to embody in certain of their lived actions, aspects of the world-to-come. But is this world-to-come merely a mythic future, an alternative to a more “authentic” world-picture, where all are enslaved to a tragic destiny? Or is the future always-already mythic, a metaphor used to enable choice of hopeful ways of being? “Outer space” was Sun Ra’s metaphor for this hopeful future elsewhere, though he fused it with recovery of a glorious Egyptian past, thus allowing release of it from any point of access within the established harmonic framework, no matter one’s time or place. I see the future not just in Sun Ra’s work, but in all who attempted to leave the game. See, for instance, the Dutch Provos and their “white bicycles” program. In the early 1960s, the Provos teamed up with a Dutch designer named Luud Schimmelpennink to create a system of sustainable transportation. They covered several hundred bicycles in all-white paint and distributed them around Amsterdam. The system is similar to today’s Bird scooters, but without any fee. “My White Bicycle” was also a song by UK psychedelic band Tomorrow.
Members of the band claim the song was inspired by the program in the Netherlands. Nazareth released a successful cover of the song in 1975. John Lennon and Yoko Ono can be seen posing with a Provo white bicycle during their Bed-In for Peace in Amsterdam in March 1969.