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60s

My sweetie for Christmas gave me a book: Hippie Food: How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat. She got it for me because it hit right in the intersections of several of my interests, so she thought I would like it.

She was right. It’s a splendid book, covering the alternative food trends of the Sixties: macrobiotics, organic food, co-ops. Kaufmann puts them in historical context, shows how they arose out of an American tradition of alterna-food, how how took that tradition to new places.

Then serendipitously (hippies loved serendipity) I found in a used-book store the memoirs of Stephen Gaskin, freak guru and one of the founders of the Farm, a figure profiled in the book. Most of his memories are devoted to details of acid trips, of supernatural experience of human connection mediated through the holy sacrament of LSD.

I have a longstanding interest in the 1960s. I wrote a whole blog about it once. Reading Hippie Food reminded me of the hope of the era, the feeling of being on the brink of a cosmic leap.

Lately the Baby Boomer generation has been getting it from all sides. The alt-right are gloating about the fall of the Boomers, which they identify with creeping progressiveism. Then the phrase “OK Boomer” erupted from the left, dismissing the disgruntled old folks supposedly to blame for Donald Trump.

I’m sorry: I have to say I like Baby Boomers. They had flaws. They have flaws. But they had a moment, a golden moment, and they left legends.

Now this is all bullshit, from a certain point of view. No generation is a monolith. A minority of Boomers were ever hippies or progressives or even particularly liberal. The rest were the quiet ones who continued on through the Sixties much as was expected of them. On the other hand there were the radical Boomers who never became respectable, who let their freak flag fly even now. It’s that mixture that allows the current Left and Right likewise to attack them. Both segments are equally nominal for the whole.

The end result is everybody pissing on the Boomers. On what they lived through.

This bugs me because I think we could use some of the Boomer hope right now.
We need some hippies. All over the world, in every land, we could use folks dedicated to the ideals of peace, love, color and spontaneity. We could benefit from a drug that made things like that make sense. Yet not naive. No movement that included Ken Kesey and Jerry Garcia could have ranked high for naivete. The Sixties countercultures were the opposite of naive—they saw their innovations as the only possible course for a world that had endured horrors untold and seemed headed for more.

There’s a song, a song from 1967, and it goes like this:

In this generation (in this generation)
In this lovin’ time (in this lovin’ time)
In this generation (in this generation)
We will make the world shine

We were born to love one another
This is something we all need
We were born to love one another
We must be what we’re goin’ to be
And what we have to be is free

That song is “For Pete’s Sake,” and it’s from the Monkees. Which immediately negates it. The Monkees were an industrial media creation from Word One. Anything they made is Product, and anything they made which calls for any higher ideal is horseshit wrapped in clingfoil, septicemia on a grocery story shelf.

Yet American society, in its hurry to point out that hypocrisy and make it clear that those who practiced it were bad people, managed to deflate the entire idea of hope. The hope we need. The vision which might carry us to a new place.

I wish we could rediscover the moment the Boomers had.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas,” Nat King Cole crooned out of the car radio.

Bob Smith angrily snapped it off. Snow was falling on the Long Island Expressway, traffic was thick, and he was distracted enough. He had received a phone call at the office from his wife.

Dear, I want to warn you-“she had said.

“About what? Did Mark’s bus get in all right?”

“Yes, dear, that’s what I’m calling about. He…he looks a lot different than he did at the beginning of the semester. And I don’t think you’re going to like it, and I think you need to prepare yourself for a little surprise.”

“Oh, for pity’s sake, Mary, I’m a grown man. I can handle it.”

“Bob, remember your blood pressure. That’s all I ask.”

He remembered it now, and unclenched his fingers from the steering wheel. What had his idiot son done? He knew he should have forced the boy to get a haircut at Thanksgiving.

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I think the most eloquent words ever on the subject of the Manson Family were from Winifred Chapman, the Polanskis’s housekeeper, on the morning of August 9th, 1969: “Murder! Death! Bodies! Blood!

Everything else is just commentary.

Libraries have been written about the Family, the victims, the murders, the context. The Manson phenomenon links into so many things—Hollywood, the counterculture, the Sixties, the media, the myth of the West, the myth of Los Angeles. So many links that it seems this must mean something, but what? It’s like reading a book in a dream, when you can’t get the words to focus and you peer & squint, but they never resolve.

Charlie may have never killed anybody himself. There’s a school of Manson thought which holds that Charlie got railroaded. This is not entirely inaccurate, but I don’t care. I think the world was a better place for having Charles Manson in jail. He was the living embodiment of a bad influence.

We still don’t know why, exactly, the murders took place. Some plausible rationalizations have been given for Cielo Dive, but no one really has any firm clue why the LaBiancas were killed. The one thing nobody with any real knowledge of the case buys is the “Helter Skelter” theory, the idea that Manson was hoping to start an apocalyptic race war. This was, naturally, the basis for the convictions.

I believe Charlie’s statement that he didn’t really like the Beatles. To the extent that he admired them & wanted to be them, he wasn’t envying their musical accomplishments. He wanted their power. He wanted the same worship they received.

I can listen to “Helter Skelter” every so often. It’s an interesting forerunner of heavy metal. But I’ve only listened to “Revolution #9” once. Charlie was right about that track; it does sound like the Tribulation. It’s got a real bad vibe.

I’ve also no doubt that people were listening to the White Album at the Spahn and Barker ranches, and that Charlie declaimed on it. Bugliosi took the chatter, the injokes and common delusions, and systematized them. He made the Family seem much more coherent than it was. We should remember that when we look at history, at our tendency to read order into disorganized things.

The idea of Helter Skelter was at least more interesting than the truth, the facts about a bunch of stupid, gullible kids trying to impress the psychopathic hard case who’d beguiled them. We want things to be more interesting. If we did know the truth of why the victims were lost, it’d probably be as idiotic as “trying to get Bobby out of jail.”

Bugliosi introduced me to the case, as he did so many. I can’t remember when I first saw the book Helter Skelter, but I must have been age 11 or so. I first finished it when I was about 15, staying up until 2AM reading. I was too terrified to turn out the light, so I read further, growing yet more terrified.

Charlie’s problem—in terms of his musical career, anyway—was that singer/songwriters weren’t big in ’68. If he’d just managed to hang on until James Taylor blew up, he might have made it. Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, Don McLean, and Charles Manson.

Music. If we’re not going to let Mrs. Chapman’s be the last words, maybe the better resort is music.

When I was a kid, I heard a song on the radio, an instrumental with a strong, sad harmonica rift. The memory of that song stuck with me for the next three decades, even though I never heard it again. Sometimes I wondered if I had imagined it.

In the summer of 2009, around the 40th anniversary of the murders, I did a Youtube search for “tate/labianca”–and found it. The song turned out to be the theme to “Midnight Cowboy” by the Percy Faith Orchestra. Someone put together a montage of clippings & photos from the time and set it to this tune. I rediscovered my long-lost song only to find it connected to The Family.

I resented that for a while. I didn’t want my fond childhood memory tainted by blood. But eventually I gave in, because it’s the right song. It’s appropriate. It’s mournful and lonely. It fits.

Murder. Death. Bodies. Blood. The sound of a lonesome harmonica. After half a century, there’s nothing else left to say.

Fifty years ago right about now the sun was sinking into the black, black ocean. Sharon and her friends went to El Coyote. At Spahn Ranch, things were tense. Mary and Sandy had gotten themselves arrested. Gary was already dead.

G’night, Sharon. G’night, Jay. G’night, Wojciech. G’night, Abby. G’night, Steve.

(Anybody wanna buy a clock radio?)

A car left the ranch. It drove onto the freeway and headed for the hills.

I’m going to tell you about a moment. A matter of several minutes in my life.

This moment occurred in the late June of one of my high school years, either 1989 or 1990. School was not a comfortable place for me. I was a definite nerd. While I had my small group of friends, the larger student body had no use for me. My grades were decent, but I didn’t particularly enjoy academics, preferring my own intellectual pursuits. But school was out. I was savoring the liberation of summer, and it was June: the plenty of summer—not the nervous waning days of August, but the fat of summer, the overflowing cup of summer.

This moment occurred at our family cottage in New Hampshire, on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee. That locale has always been where I have felt happiest, since my first visit at the age of three weeks. My family had just arrived. It was night—the trip took a while. It was warm. We had put away our luggage. Mom was making up the beds.

The moment began when someone—I’m not sure who—snapped on the old GE portable radio kept at the cottage so we could listen to broadcast of Red Sox games. There was no Red Sox game. The radio played Tommy James and the Shondells’ “Crystal Blue Persuasion.”

Time changed for me.

I knew the song. VH1 had a show, hosted by Peter Noone, “My Generation,” on which I had seen a video. Not one of the emblematic songs of the Sixties, but I knew it anyway. Even at that age, I had a seeking interest in the Sixties. Heck, I once wrote an entire blog about it. The question of the Sixties grabbed me from an early age, for reasons I still don’t entirely understand.

With the opening notes of the song, time changed. I was still in the main room of the cottage, but it wasn’t the Eighties or Nineties anymore. Which isn’t to say it was the Sixties, either. I was overwhelmed with the sense that the room in which I was sitting had been there, much the same, twenty years before. Time was one. There was no distinction between that year and my own. “Crystal Blue Persuasion” is a trancey, languid song. That had something to do with it. All I knew was that as long as it played, the moment, that unified moment, continued. I was free and safe and connected. It was a variant of ecstatic experience.

Then the song ended. The sensation ended with it. I returned to the present. The rest of my family didn’t even know anything had happened.

Over a quarter-century later, I still remember the moment. A moment in most ways wholly unremarkable, yet one of the most intense moments ever given me in my entire life. Did I live in the Sixties? No, but I got to touch them for about four minutes once.

The Thirties & Forties had to lead to the Fifties. The Fifties to the Sixties. The Sixties to the Seventies.

In the depths of each phase, the forces defining that phase seem permanent. But already has been stamped their expiration date, and the next cycle cued up to overtake.