The Swinging Sixties: The Beauty, The Destruction and The Myth - Part II
" To learn how to use your head, you have to go out of your mind "
- Timothy Leary
Yes, the Sixties were marvelous – parties wanted for nothing, and like many of the trends that came out of what is now remembered as the hippy decade, pleasure seeking dominated youth ideology, encouraging free sex and limitless indulgence in hallucinogenic drugs. It was called ‘freedom,’ a term that resounded so well in the minds of the younger generation, so willing to throw out anything and everything associated with the old establishment, to tear down for the sake of what was perceived at the time as a jump towards the future, only to reach an extreme that, when examined in depth, fails to stand to reason. But that is the nature of idealized notions such as the ones that permeated the Sixties, it is easy to get caught up in the romance of it all, only waking up when its run its course to the extreme; the fullest, the most destructive extent of its logic.
As I mentioned in Part I, for the Sixties this translated into a haze induced mass separation of values and moral responsibility from personal action, allowing for hedonism to become synonymous with progress, and for a worldwide spike in advertising to invade lives in line with the democratization of fashion and culture, proposing perpetual aspirational identity consumption based on lifestyle preferences rather than substantial political affiliation or beliefs, completely in line with idealized youth counterculture take overs. The effect? Waves after waves of mindless, free flowing consumerism.
One only has to look at how fast pop idols stripped their mod look beginnings to embrace psychadelia when it became 'in,' symbolizing perhaps the frivolity with which people began to jump on and off the trend bandwagon. With a youth with way more disposable income on their hands than ever before, the market began to not only weigh in their favor, but also to fuel their whims with an aesthetic that centered on cheap, accessible, mix and match clothing which eventually surpassed the importance of quality (and exclusivity) of traditional couture houses.
This is the era when those photographed and got photographed would become famous simply for style, irrespective of talent. Perhaps the culmination of Sixties fashion ideology was the paper dress: cheap, colorful, revealing and disposable.
Of course, such a level of consumption has its upside: post war prosperity inevitably fueled an economic boom. In the U.S. huge tax cuts only propelled this further – together with well to do, sky high promising socialist programs such as Johnson’s ‘Great Society.' An unfathomable expansion of the role of the federal government into domestic affairs ensued (as well as the reversing of JFK's decision NSAM 263 to withdraw from the Vietnam war the day after his funeral), increasing government power and control in every living institution and the lives of its citizens through a level of spending ($22 trillion) which largely contributed to the gargantuan national debt, exploded the misery index (combined inflation and unemployment rates), exacerbated widespread poverty and partly initiated the slow disintegration of the fundamental unit of society: the family. (A little investigation into his Great Society will concede, if anything, an incredible amount of funds diverted to lining interested parties' pockets, but I leave the digging to you).
Revealing two things: one, the double-edged sword of capitalism, our readily available scapegoat. It allowed for the notion of property and accumulation of private wealth, and in turn, the rise of the middle class; yet, it appears to have put us on a questionable path to moral decay. Two: that perhaps what we consume is more of the point than simply the fact of consuming at all – capitalism may well be a tool like any other, it is how it is used, the infamous fork in the road, that determines what it is: putting the responsibility squarely on self regulated individual action (the opposite of Sixties ideology).
And three (I lied): just like Johnson’s welfare programs, just because something sounds good, doesn’t mean that it is – because a utopian ideal is far more complex to put into practice, with many possible alternative paths, all of which extremely human (read: largely imperfect).
It was clearly a time of social engineering, one with big slogans and big promises, that, riding the wave of the exceptional few actually principled pioneers out to change society for the better (Martin Luther King), brought in banners for unity while simultaneously creating divisions that spurred growing conflicts and violence.
We always seem to forget that the real fighters of establishment, the ones that do it right and don’t plaster on fake counterintuitive ideals (aka. fighting for freedom by limiting freedoms with law or confusing it with anarchy) ended badly: in jail, in an asylum or assassinated. Yet again, we seem to be faced with a reality full of subtleties and double-edged swords.
What’s interesting is that it is precisely because of the utopian aspirational quality of Sixties ideology that, much like the devil’s proposition, an entire generation was irresistibly seduced to a paradise in hell. High on the idea of liberal ideals, countercultures dominated from mid decade onwards, brewing rebelliously as the post Jack Kerouac poetry loving beatnik generation was undergoing a beaded, flower power transformation into hippies.
But not only – compared to previous decades, counter cultures multiplied, segregating identities based on purely idealized lifestyle preferences, yet all ganging together to fight the old establishment in the name of freedom – an aspirational kind of freedom, the kind that was sold in boutiques and corner shops and practiced through widespread consumption of the material, as each one commanded their very own style of clothing, festivals, foods, music and hobbies. All that was needed was for a product to be presented with the same identifiable stylistic codes, and boom – the ordinary became groovy. Needless to say, entrepreneurship flourished, especially to those ready to put the label of ‘peace and love’ over their revenue stream planning (hippy festivals anyone?). Like I said, lots of money to be made.
Take Woodstock for example. Going down in history as one of the most venerated gatherings of all time for its wholesome ode to world peace, love and selflessness, we like to forget it was in fact simply a commercial festival like any other, inspired by numerous more genuine underground predecessors, and organized by two wealthy venture capitalists and a hippy concert promoter looking to make big bucks over the latest wave: Woodstock is yet another ironical indication of humanity’s ability to paint a nostalgic, rosy picture on just about anything that disrupts our fanciful ideals.
Decidedly anti-hippy, tickets were priced high ($24 had the same buying power then as $197.09 today), everyone involved with the project was lied to regarding the expected number of concert goers to cut costs on organizational logistics and health and safety regulations (which were left as a minor afterthought), food supplies ended on the first day with reinforcements getting raided whilst on the way in (by “peaceful” hippies) and performers refused to get involved with the project unless they were properly paid and the rest of the line up was ‘hip’, refusing to set foot on stage unless they were paid upfront, with Hendrix demanding at least double vis a vis the others.
I’m all for talent getting paid – but this wasn’t supposed to be just another gig. Instead of coming together in peaceful volunteer work to protest the Vietnam War, another beautiful sentiment became an ordinary money making project.
Between reality and the one created by a world with exceptional PR skills to accommodate our need for escapism, which one do you think people prefer to live? Years later, Woodstock’s legacy continues in a string of re-hashed concerts, the latest one in 1999 perhaps truly reflecting the values with which it was organized, chockfull of merchandising, MTV pay per view, commemorative Woodstock credit cards and a crowd which turned to looting and pyromania.
Ditto for that glorified and falsely portrayed Summer of Love in 1967, given its name when the party was heading to its close in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, perhaps as a media attempted guise to disguise the realities of dropping out: a highly publicized spectacle featuring disease and hygiene disasters, drug addicted teens begging for spare change, crime, rampant drug dealers selling heroin, homelessness, and a free love that degenerated into rape. Groovy.
That gleaming utopian dream that love could win all came to an abrupt halt, forcing many to finally ‘tune in’ and get a job, because in the end, just what good did their emulation bring them?
Looking back, just what did these young adults really expect would come out of a movement whose beatnik origins had as its great leaders a man like life long addict William S. Burroughs, glorifying obscenity, pedophilia and violent drug abuse in warped high minded literary works such as the widely acclaimed ‘The Naked Lunch’? He did do fantastic work with the cut up technique - but like many figures of the time, his persona superseded his works, and, piling obscenity upon mind blowing mysoginy, was thus pinned as a free minded genius - after of course 'accidentally' shooting his wife in the head in a game of William Tell. Clearly, role models degenerated.
“[h]e’s got a prolapsed asshole and when he wants to get screwed he’ll pass you his ass on three feet of in-tes-tine”- Excerpt from The Naked Lunch deemed 'literary genius'
The Sixties, a decade of great change, and inevitably, great tensions, painted as the door way to the future, hid many a grim reality check for the many for which freedom and liberalization translated into a romanticized notion of rebellion to everything for the sake of it, no consequences, and perpetual youth. Appealing as it is to teens and young adults, breaking boundaries isn’t as fun as it is always drawn to be.
When we look at the feminist movement and the arrival of the pill, we essentially think of women taking back control for women – a good thing, allowing many to live the sort of emancipated lives they had always wanted. The flip side of this of course, especially in its nascent period, is that many young girls fell into the trap of thinking that ‘freer’ meant ‘more available’. Liberation went from the idea of pursuing careers and attaining any objectives men could to the idea of having sex with any and all men that wanted to have sex with you. It was cool. It was empowering.
The lines between sex and love blurred, and hyper sexuality was mistaken for an enlightened, progressist attitude. Well, at least the men were happy. Now they could push for sexual satisfaction based on the emancipatory freedom tenet alone, and to hell with the art of seduction – you were a big girl now.
The kind of misleading freedom touted by the Sixties is recounted in Timothy Leary’s ‘consciousness expansion’. Prized for inciting the new generation to think for themselves and “question any and all authority” by becoming a fully fledged individual deprived of affiliation to any group whatsoever, be it religious, political or social, Leary prompted masses of youth to revolve their lives around LSD and to concern themselves only with the narrow ring of self satisfaction - and to become part of his cult following of course.
Perhaps his followers failed to take into account that extended drug abuse should be handled with care, and that extracting yourself from society to buy into cheap enlightenment for three bucks a hit only produces the sort of fragmented, flaky individual incapable of self restraint or the kind of high mindedness that comes with a certain moral ground.
The kind of hallucinogenics-for-spirituality use used by the ancients were characterized by an incredible level of self control and maturity – clearly they had no place in the hands of an irresponsible Harvard professor X cult leader that routinely blurred the lines of research and recreation (read: lots of nakedness at his house, the "research facility"), cloaking his excessive hedonistic rebellions in a false wisdom fed to masses of young disciples.
I firmly believe in thinking for yourself and to question authority – just not like this. Life and its issues are complex, and cannot be tackled by a raving junkie going through a midlife crisis after a life characterized by the sort of rule breaking you find in high school: his rebellion in the military was confined to wanting to routinely get drunk, his forced open marriage and breaking of his own non-romance rule with an assistant led his depressive wife to suicide and he was known for bullying his students into taking LSD by putting into question the achievement of their PhD in clinical psychology. Oh - and he ratted out the whole team who helped him escape from prison in exchange for freedom after he was caught again on foreign land. Very spiritual indeed.
In the end,his flagrant and self righteous self promotion only showed how much he was part of the selfish, dishonest system he so loudly protested: a man of zero integrity and false idealism.
That's not to say it was all terrible - a lot of things we take for granted now came from the struggle between worlds that were the Sixties, and the bohemian in me can't help but quiver at the idea of escaping even for a few days into the illusion that, for better of for worse, was still a damn good party. In fact, even retail stores began then to become what they are now: experiences. Moreover, the brighter side of the democratization of fashion allowed for individual styles to flourish and get experimental, something I absolutely love to do. There's no denying though - if there was ever a way to boil down the Sixties into one person, showing it for what it truly is, it would be Timothy Leary.
Jimi Hendirx, Via catacra livre
Fashion Star Wardrobe case packaging
Great Society Economic Analysis: http://www.independent.org/issues/article.asp?id=3157