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 Whole Earth Catalog appears like a new thing again when viewed in light of psychedelics. Jim Fadiman peers out at me, as does Chester Anderson. I find myself wanting to hear Bubbha Thomas & The Lightmen’s Energy Control Center, spiritual jazz self-released in 1972, and a new tape of field recordings out on Alien Garage called Two Portraits by Kyle Landstra.
The more I study hippie modernism, the more I sense a path opening, reality acquiring arrows and post-horns as in The Crying of Lot 49. Lines of communication radically reorganize, and with them change the worlds they represent. The whole thing swings into focus as if it always existed that way, even though it’s been remembered and refashioned anew. “Shake the snow globe,” as Robin Carhart-Harris says, and “more salubrious patterns and narratives have an opportunity to coalesce as the snow slowly resettles” (as quoted in Pollan 320).
Tune in to White Noise’s hippie modernist masterpiece, An Electric Storm, an album of utterly distinctive and sometimes deeply creepy recordings from 1969.
Pitchfork refers to the album’s “widescale psychedelic mayhem,” and that sounds about right. An Electric Storm originated from a unit of composers and engineers at BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop (best known for the theme music to Doctor Who). Julian Cope’s review of the record is so frightening, I never even made it to side two. Busied myself instead with Cope’s website Head Heritage, part of which he describes as “a Gnostic Odyssey through lost and forgotten freakouts.” The Roman emperor Julian, remember, was raised as a Christian, but after studying Neoplatonism apostatized and attempted to revive paganism. He wrote a polemic in Greek titled Against the Galileans, but the text was anathematized by subsequent rulers and lost to history, its arguments known only second-hand through work that sought to refute it. Perhaps Cope is some sort of rock ‘n’ roll re-embodiment of the Julian Ur-spirit dredged from the collective Id.
I return from my journey, sun and moon ever-present sources of light overhead, ship stocked with hippie-modernist treasure. “Pleasure from the Buddha Group,” as reads the insert to Jefferson Airplane’s third album, After Bathing at Baxter’s, released in late November 1967 during what Samuel “Chip” Delany called “the Winter of Love.”
Ron Cobb’s cover art captures well the band’s demeanor of even-keeled pleasure-sailing, a ship of color and festivity sprinkling confetti from on high, refusing to allow the black-and-white American trash-heap to harsh its vibe. Cobb is a fascinating figure, by the way, his illustrations and political cartoons deserving of a major retrospective and revival. This first day after feels relaxed and subdued, a day to bake and reflect and give thanks. Stretch, work out the kinks. Midori Tadaka’s Through the Looking Glass calms me midafternoon, as do a pair of squirrels spied while meditating. I sit with houseplants and cacti, patterned pillows, cassettes, back issues of Evergreen Review — and all is well.
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.)
In a first attempt to name what I find exciting and distinctive in the work of Will Alexander, I land on describing the latter’s “A Cannibal Explains Himself to Himself” as a venture into pan-Africanist poetic cosmology. How do I arrange into the structure of my course on “Hippie Modernism,” I wonder, a sampling of that constellation of black radical art and politics leading from Sun Ra and Alice Coltrane to Will Alexander? Surely this has something to do with the Nguzo Saba and Ron Karenga’s substitution of “Trippin” in place of “jazz.” (“Trippin,” he writes, “is our word for what white boys and others call jazz. In line with our obsession with self-determination which demands new definitions and nomenclature, we reject the word jazz, for jazz is taken from the white word, jazzy, i.e., sexy, because that is what he thought our music was. We call it Trippin because that is what we do when we play it or listen to it.”) Trinidad’s steelbands, exploding forth from speakers one hundred panmen strong, awaken in me a desire to read Michael Denning’s Noise Uprising: The Audiopolitics of a World Musical Revolution. Listening to calypso recordings contributes to what Denning would call a project of “cultural decolonization” — a transmission from beyond the English-speaking auto-encyclopedic veil. The National Geographic text that supplements the recording teaches that Africans recorded their history in the arts, including song, dance, and culture, not in writing. Social conditions and injustices find expression in calypso music’s informative and militant song form. From calypso, I leap to the East Village of John Coltrane’s “Africa,” and then call it a day.