There were contradictory values of freedom of individual expression, being unique, looking unique and doing your own thing, and being part of a tribe, taking part in a collective mindset to think for the good of a group, to live communally and to share whatever you had. Within nonconformity to the society as a whole was the urge towards conformity within the counterculture. People dressed in similar threads, wore their hair similarly long and adopted language that was common to the group. It reinforced the mentality of us versus them, hippies versus the Establishment. Linda Bacon, record librarian for KMPX and KSAN expressed the mindset. “At that time, I thought everyone was hip and cool and together and thought everyone else was square and ‘other.’ Other people were straight and over there.”
To some, individuality outside of a social context didn’t exist. A common saying was “the personal is political.” Singer Barbara Dane was of this opinion. She told me, “The societies I admire and would like to be near, or emulate, place the good of the society above the individual. That’s where real joy comes, when you can be part of a collective enterprise of any sort. Being alone has its charms, but being a loner is only exciting and fruitful when it’s in the context of the society you are pulling yourself apart from. If you don’t have anything to resist, what’s the point of being a loner—you are just floating in space.
“I’ve been known as a singer standing on a stage alone with my guitar a lot, but in that sense I’ve never felt more collective. Because in that sense, I’m taking in everything I can know and feel about the people around me and raising it up. It’s not me standing there, it’s me pushing my part of the cart. On the other hand, I worked with a jazz band, and I loved that, because on stage I could feel around me a sense of collectivity. A jazz band is a perfect model for society. We start out with an opening chorus that everyone plays on, then each one does a solo while everyone else supports them. Then everybody ends with a chorus together. That’s why I love working with jazz bands; they are my perfect model for society.”
There was an amorphous, negative value judgement about having “an ego.” It was was labeled as a defensive block to personal development and to the good of society as a whole. It was also a hindrance to personal freedom. People struggled to let go of their attachments to personal property, to monogamous relationships, to not wanting to have sex with anyone who asked for it, in order to be “free.” Being uncool, uptight, square and straight resulted in failure in human evolution. Personal boundaries were bad things that had to be smashed.
Another value judgement in the cool/uncool, straight/hip, uptight/cool world of black-and-white thinking was the concept of plastic. The straight world was made up of clean, sanitized, cookie cutter cut-out, synthetic plastic. Anything hip was the opposite: authentic and real. By 1968, the year of The Graduate, millions of young people shared Dustin Hoffman’s disgust when advised to consider plastics as a career. You could insult anything and anybody and set yourself apart by calling it/them plastic. Steve Miller sang, “We’re living in a plastic land” in the song “Living in America.”
Part of the tribal experience was group mind, wherein a large group of people thought and moved together in synchrony, particularly at a happening or rock concert. Group mind became a prominent feature of Grateful Dead concerts. Phil Lesh wrote in Searching for the Sound, “When a large crowd is present, as at the Fillmore or the Trips Festival, the experience of the group mind becomes much more intense, and much larger-scale; see how the entire wildly dancing audience behaves like waves in the ocean: whole groups of dancers rising and falling, lifting their arms or spinning rapidly in synchronized movement, darting swiftly through the crowd or languidly ululating in place—manifesting the same spontaneous consensus seen in flocks of birds, schools of fish, or clusters of galaxies.”
Dennis McNally wrote about the Grateful Dead in A Long Strange Trip, “after improvisation, the single largest element in the Dead’s weltanschauung was their pursuit of group mind under the influence of LSD, which in its celebration of the moment, of be-here-nowness, confirmed improvisation as a life- as well as musical performance-guiding choice.”
There were even unique ideas about how to regulate mobs through the use of group mind. A new way for police to disperse crowds on Haight Street was proposed at a press conference by Police Chief Cahill. Ron Thelin, co-owner of the Psychedelic Shop on Haight Street broached an idea suggested to him by Allen Ginsberg: that the police be equipped with an ancient mantra from India used to disperse crowds.
Magically Stopping Rain at Rock Concerts
Being together for music in large groups could work miracles. Edward Bear, former announcer for the underground radio station KSAN remembers, “I emceed a concert at the Frost Ampitheater at Stanford, for which my payment was an old Chevy. The headliners were the Chambers Brothers. The Quicksilver Messenger Service was the next biggest act. Creedence Clearwater and Santana played, but they had not yet been recorded and were the warm-up acts.
“In the middle of Santana’s set a light rain began to fall. No one wanted the concert to end and Santana didn’t want to stop playing. I said, ‘I’m going to go out and try something.’ I told the crowd, ‘It’s starting to rain. Let’s push the rain back up!’ I waved my arms as if to push back the rain. No one followed suit. I said, ‘C’mon. What do you have to lose? You want to hear the concert, don’t you?’ They all screamed ‘YEAH!’ The musicians started to make that pushing motion. Pretty soon, the audience of 10,000 people started doing it too—all of us pushing the rain back. The rain stopped! It stayed dry until the Chambers Brothers played ‘Wade in the Water’ or some other song about water. It started raining again, a little more heavily. Everyone held up their hands. The musicians pushed back the rain with one hand and holding up the other. The rain stopped again. The minute the concert ended and they rolled the equipment off the stage, the rain came pouring down.”
Donovan described in his autobiography preparing for a 1967 concert at the Hollywood Bowl, when rain had been predicted for the evening. “I made a circle of semi-precious stones and laid my wand in such a way as to point it skyward. I would ask the spirits and fairy beings of the Native Americans to bless my concert and keep the rain from falling.” He then ordered enough white and blue irises to blanket the Bowl’s enormous stage, cleaning out every florist in Los Angeles, and arranged for even more to be flown in from Hawaii. Durring the concert, Donovan performed from the center of a mandala of flowers. Still, rain began to fall. He then requested that the 18,000 audience members clap their hands once, all together. They did, and the rain ceased falling.
Levon Helm of the Band wrote about a concert in Watkins Glen, New York, in July, 1973, with 600,000 in the audience. It started to rain. “We were starting to get bummed out because it looked like Watkins Glen was gonna be another Woodstock-style mudbath. So we’re waiting, and Garth has a couple of sociable pulls on this whiskey his homeboy has, and all of a sudden the roadies are shouting and scrambling, and Garth [Hundson] climbs into his organ seat and starts to play by himself. It was extra-classic Hudsonia: hymnody, shape-note singing, gospel, J.S. Bach, Art Tatum, Slim Gaillard. Cool stuff. The immense throng of kids loved this, and then . . .the rain petered out. Just like that. It seemed clear to me that master dowser Garth had stopped the rain. We went back, synched up with Garth, and launched into “Chest Fever.” When they heard the drums, half a million kids started to dance.”
Adventures in Communal Activities
Between 1965 and 1970 it is estimated that people were living in 3,500 communes in the United States alone. Hitchhiking and driving VW vans and refurbished buses were ways of communal travel. The City of San Francisco Oracle proclaimed, “The return to the land is happening. Organic farms & individual pioneer shots, country ashrams for meditation, farms for hot hard work growing the new crops, have begun, and more are coming.. . . . We need now, under Western skies, the growing space for the healthy, organic, harmonious evolution of the Tribe.”
Wavy Gravy described to me the Hog Farm Commune’s unique projects and bus trips. The communards were well known for feeding the masses at Woodstock. He talked with me partly in his Berkeley home, and partly as we sat at an outdoor Brazilian restaurant. The interview was constantly interrupted, first in his home by people phoning him. He answered each call, saying,“Spill it.” Later, people readily approached him at the restaurant. He warmly conversed with all of them. I was listening to a true man of the people.
“We were in Yanno, New Mexico. I re-evaluated my back-to-the-land concept and did something of a split-away from a lot of the family. I put together funds to buy a fast bus that could travel across America in three days. We purchased a ’48 Greyhound bus from a Catholic high school basketball team. It was a very straight-looking bus which we made into a revolutionary tool. It had double beds that closed up into benches, and footlockers and could crew twelve to sixteen people. The only reason the police would bother us was if they were wondering what hippies were doing getting out of a straight- looking bus. The Grateful Dead’s lawyer purchased a sound system for the bus. It had an ASP license plate, so we called it the “Impossible Asp,” after the boat in Mount Analogue by Rene Daumal, who died three-quarters of the way through writing the book in the middle of a sentence.
“We had that bus in Washington, D.C. for the first “Marijuana Smoke-In” on the steps of the Department of Agriculture on the July Fourth weekend. The Smithsonian Institution was putting on a folk concert on the Delaware River and wanted to make a liaison with the demonstrators. They were afraid the hippies were going to trash their scene. So our newly created sound system was christened by the likes of Pete Seeger and Bukka White. When the government started tear gassing demonstrators at the Smoke-In, the wind blew the gas so that they ended up gassing the patrons of their own concert at the Washington Monument.
“Our last major bus ride was from London to the Himalayas. We had a deal with Warner Brothers to be in their film, Medicine Ball Caravan, if they fixed all the buses for us to do it. If we had to go to any peace rally it was all right to leave the caravan and go to it. The last rally was in New York City. Then we flew to London and did a show with Pink Floyd in Canterbury. Some London promoters wanted us to go around Europe and spread good vibes, and they had a benefit for the Hog Farm in London. They bought us a bus.
“There was a play about Gandhi that was showing in London. That was at the time of the Pakistani flood. Gandhi said, if God was to appear to starving people, God would not dare to appear in any form but food. So we thought, after feeding all those people at Woodstock, we would go feed people in Pakistan and embarrass the government into giving more food if hippies were doing it. We bought another bus in Germany, we called it “Heinrich’s All-Night Watermelon Repair.” The other bus was “Sterling Hog.” The buses had skylights so we could get up on the roof. Ken Kesey maintained that the roof was the Riviera of the bus. (My wife and I crossed the Rockies on the Merry Prankster’s bus, Furthur.) So we outfitted the roof. I crossed the Khyber Pass on the roof.
“We had thirty-two people from seventeen countries. We attempted to go to Pakistan. The Indo-Pakistani war broke out, so we turned left and we distributed food and medical supplies on the way to Kathmandu through India and Nepal. We fixed the roofs of people’s shelters. The Karmapa, a spiritual leader of the Tibetans, held an audience for the Hog Farm when we got back in honor of what we did. I gave him a kazoo and someone gave him dental floss, which he liked.”
The First Renaissance Pleasure Faires and the
Society for Creative Anachronism: Forward into the Past
There was one hippie tribe in the Bay Area that particularly set themselves apart with a distinct culture of their own. One of the earliest Renaissance Faires was held in a wooded grove in Marin County. Every participant came in costume, spoke in fake Elizabethan accents (what’s a century here or there?) dotted with thee’s, ye’s and thou’s, and generally acted in a psychedelic-retro manner. The theme music was the stuff of mandolins, minstrels and madrigals. The festivals also featured belly dancers. Perhaps they gained admittance under the “lusty wench” category of Renaissance personae.
My cousin, Gil Gilbert, was a leather craftsman with a workshop in Berkeley. He brought me along to the Renaissance Faire to work in his booth, from which we sold his beautifully made belts, guitar straps and purses. I sewed a long, flowing, high-waisted dress out of purple synthetic bathrobe material to suit the appropriate century. As we unloaded the merchandise around six A.M., our activity woke a couple at the neighboring booth. The sun was just rising, the air was cool and an ethereal mist hung over the California oaks. They had spent the night under the stars amidst their handmade jewelry. A woman with a shock of thick, curly black hair emerged from a colorful pile of Indian blankets and handwoven shawls. She proceeded to greet the dawn by strumming on an autoharp and gazing soulfully out at the trees. This concert continued for about a half hour before she and her man slowly got their wheels turning and readied themselves for a long day of Renaissance jewelry-hawking. Meanwhile, throughout the day, the ever-mysterious girl from Berkeley High who told me about the Trips Festival, Laura Allan, performed on a tightrope stretched between two trees in front of the booths.
Some people at Berkeley High adopted their Renaissance Faire personae full time as members of the newly formed Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA). Ron Schaeffer told me, “The founders of SCA lived in Berkeley. There were two houses, Toad Hall and Rivendale, where SCA people lived communally. They were decorated in Renaissance style, you would leave your armor at the door and go in and participate in SCA events and hang out.
“We made our armor and the girls’ belly dancing outfits in art metal shop class at Berkeley High School. We made the coin decorations for the belly dancing costumes by putting coins on the railroad tracks next to West campus and letting the trains flatten them. The swords were made of rattan. They had the same flexibility of metal sabers, but they didn’t do the damage. The high school girls in SCA were into belly dancing.”
Girls came to school in long velvet gowns and boys in doublets and tights. They assembled in Provo Park during lunch hour to play lutes, recorders and mandolins. The girls sang in tremulous soprano voices while some of the boys practiced jousting and fencing with improvised swords and spears. Those knights and knaves had to stash their weapons in the bushes between breaks because no one was allowed to pack heat, even of the fifteenth-century toy variety, on campus.
Tribal Code Language
Usually, the larger tribe of the hip across the country were able to shut out parents and other Establishment types with our own secret language. As with bohemians and beatniks past, there was a code, a secret lingual handshake between those living in the alternative universe.
Epithets hip, cool and man made a lover’s leap from beatnik to hippie. Man was the ubiquitous all-purpose first or last word in any given sentence, as in “Man, that chick is cool” or “That chick is cool, man.”
Far out! was a response to hearing about anything good, and on occasions calling for special emphasis, far fuckin’ out. When something was way out it was out of the ordinary in an off-center way.
Out of sight, or outtasight had its own special charm, and kept straights suitably locked out. When the Loading Zone’s lead singer quit, their manager recalled to me, “we didn’t know how to get a singer. So we ran an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle: ‘We want a chick singer who is out of sight.’ An older woman called and asked, ‘By out of sight do you mean that I have to sing from behind a curtain?’”
Outtasight was joined by groovy. The word probably evolved from earlier jazz musicians’ use of in the groove, and groovin’, which applied to music. Jack Kerouac told his last editor, Ellis Amburn, that one of the many New York publishing houses that wouldn’t touch early his novels requested that he pen a “Guide to Being Groovy.”
Oh, wow! pronounced, “oh WOOOWWW!” with a stoned inflection, was an all-purpose response, appropriate for any occasion. “You’re going to Mendocino this weekend? Oh wow!” On the other hand, Can you dig it? was an all-purpose rhetorical question. “I’m going to Menocino this weekend. Can you dig it?” Anything with any degree of significance, positive or negative, was heavy, as in “You’re into Hermann Hesse? Heavy, man.”
Someone who was together was aware, cool and had a life that was working for them. “He’s really together” morphed into what became common usage as having your act together or having your shit together — or if you were disorganized or out of sorts you could be exhorted to, “get it together!”
Then there were those profoundly philosophical admonitions to do your own thing, or just plain do your thing. They represented your inalienable right to freely express yourself, to march to your own inner drummer or, as Ken Kesey once mumbled, to “star in your own movie.” Just about any action was justifiable if you were just doing your thing, man. I was at the Fillmore one evening when a large crowd was sitting on the floor so that everyone could see the band onstage. Two teenybopper chicks stood up and started to dance in place, blocking the view of the many fans sitting behind them. When people started shouting at them to sit down, the one with the bleached blonde hair turned around and yelled back, “I’m just doing my thing, man!” Like, who were we, half the audience, to suppress the spontaneity of any individual?
A value judgement in the straight/hippie, cool/uncool, uptight/groovy world of black-and-white thinking was the concept of plastic. The straight world was characterized as being made up of clean, sanitized, cookie cutter cut-out, synthetic plastic. Straight people were called “plastic.” In the 1968 film, The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman’s disenfranchised character was advised to consider plastics as a career. That seemed to sum up a collective disgust with conventional society.
Drug-speak was a major part of this language. Many of its code words and phrases were later adapted into common, drug-free figures of speech. “I’d love to turn you on” started its life meaning “I want to get you high.” It quickly morphed into an all-encompassing phrase meaning to introduce you to, well anything, as in “Man, I’d like to turn you on to a really groovy macrobiotic restaurant.” A turn-on spawned its evil twin, a turn-off.
You scored some dope, which slid down the slippery slope into the mainstream lingua franca until you could score some tickets to see 2001: Space Odyssey, or a pair of bellbottoms, or a freakin’ Lawrence Welk album, for that matter. Marijuana was never marijuana; it was pot, grass, weed, Mary Jane or just plain dope, sometimes also called reefer in satiric reference to its name from the 1940s. You rolled it up in cigarette papers to smoke a joint or a J,. The logo of Zig-Zag brand cigarette rolling papers, an exotic-looking, bearded man smoking a hand-rolled cigarette, was a universal symbol of pot-smoking. He graced T-shirts, concert posters and just about anything onto which you could silkscreen that sucker.
You toked on a joint until all you had left was a roach, which supposedly contained the essence of the entire former joint and had the most intense effect. You then could use a handy little spring clamp called a roach clip to keep from burning your fingers as you smoked it. Rolling Stone, the brand new, ultra-hip music magazine based in San Francisco, offered a free roach clip featuring a hand-lathed wooden handle to anyone who bought a subscription. The “device,”as it was called, was intended “to enhance your pleasure of reading the magazine.”
After taking drugs you were stoned, ripped, wasted, bombed, blown away, smashed—violent words for such a gentle state. When you dropped acid you went on a trip, or went tripping. The seemingly clean Beach Boys even had a song, “Let’s Go Tripping!” Also, your trip became your thing, your bag, your philosophy in general, subject to the multi-tasking value judgements of Good trip vs. bad trip, as in,“Spiro Agnew, bad trip, man.” Your trip was strictly your own business and nothing to force on anyone else, as in, “Spiro Agnew is trying to lay his trip on us,” because “he’s on a power trip.”
Since LSD created flashbacks, moments when you re-lived an acid trip, to remember anything was to flash on it, as in, “I flashed on that time I was tokin’ on a J at the Avalon and the Dead played that trippy song, man.” Tripping on acid made you blow your mind, but soon you could also blow your mind on the heavy trip the draft board just laid on you. What was once a totally psychedelic phrase, mind-blowing, eventually became a mainstream, drug-free adjective for anything astonishing, co-opted by the likes of Time Magazine and the Wall Street Journal. You could freak out on a bad trip, but pretty soon, anything with bad vibes could freak you out, as in, “Man, the whole Vietnam War thing really freaks me out.” However, a freak was also a hippie, which was a good thing to be.
Being straight was the times you were off drugs, if only for an hour. It had no meaning involving sexual orientation. Straight also described anything conventional: short hair, preppy clothing, a nine-to-five job, being a registered Republican, whatever. That is, if being straight was your thing, man.
If you spoke drug language you could crack the code of any of dozens of songs and their stoned-out subtexts. This set you apart from straight people who had no idea what they were really hearing. You knew that Big Brother and the Holding Company was a pun on the fact that holding meant that you were carrying drugs. You could smirk about a song that briefly got Top Forty radio airplay before somebody in management got clued in that “Acapulco Gold” was about a type of marijuana, not about an elderly couple seeking a second honeymoon in sunny climes.
You knew that the Byrds were not singing about an airplane flight in “Eight Miles High” and that Sly and the Family Stone repeating over and over, “I Want to Take You Higher” weren’t inviting you to climb Mt. Everest. In fact, you assumed that any song containing the word “high,” or “stone,” or “trip,” or “freak,” or “grass” was in code. There were also the really overt lyrics, such as a short-lived song by the Fraternity of Man on Top Forty radio that was later immortalized on the Easy Rider soundtrack, “Don’t Bogart That Joint, “
Bob Dylan opined, “Everybody Must Get Stoned” with the sounds of a raucous party in the background. Ray Charles’s R & B invitation to share some gin, “Let’s Go Get Stoned” was resurrected as a drug anthem, and Grace Slick was preaching to the choir in the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit:”
On the other hand, it was easy to fall down the rabbit hole of some urban myths making dope-fiend claims for innocent songs. But if you believed them, not even the songs’ authors could change your stoned-out mind. There was a persistent belief that Peter Paul and Mary’s song, “Puff the Magic Dragon” was about smoking pot. Donovan’s “Mellow Yellow” revealed to some desperate folks who had already fried a few too many brain cells out of existence that you could get high by smoking banana skins. Many believed that the initials of the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” LSD, were a code. John Lennon insisted that acid had nothing to do with it; that it was a cute phrase his young son had uttered one day. Freaks knew better.
In 1967, Gordon B. McLendon, radio station mogul who played a role in structuring the Top Forty radio format, launched an industry-wide campaign to “clean up or ban” suggestive or objectionable lyrics, including references to drugs. He solicited support from the American Mothers National Committee, telling them, “We’ve had all we can stand of the record industry’s glorifying marijuana, LSD, and sexual activity,” he said. “The newest Beatle record, out next week, has a line about ’40,000 purple hearts in one arm.’ Is that what you want your children to listen to?” The American Mothers gave him an award.
Notwithstanding those obtuse Beatles lyrics, which really could mean anything, code words held power and threatened the straight world. Speech was yet another dividing line between hippie and the Establishment, and oh, how it enraged them and sent their imaginations flying as to its corrupting effects.