Jul 14, 2023, 05:57AM

Instant Karma Revolution 

Attempts to rationalize the swinging Sixties.

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Art: Michael Gentile

Let the future vanish. Does anyone recall diving into the 1950s when beatniks ruled the world? They eventually split and went separate ways. The Pepsi Generation took over and developed a whole new batch of American characteristics. I think I’m going weird by taking an approach that’s becoming increasingly commonplace: a paint-by-numbers flashback. The events that occurred in the years 1968–1969 impacted vast numbers of people. John Lennon, hair and nudity are just a few of the topics that hold a key to understanding how American culture and ideology operates today.

Restless moments against insurmountable odds in 1968, at times it felt like a future without hope, a total wipeout. Crisis after crisis escalated social conflicts. First, the April 4th assassination of Martin Luther King, then Bobby Kennedy’s murder on June 5th. By late-August, political protests tore up the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Young people rejected conformity and consumerism.

Some deemed the rat race unlivable. Freedom and consciousness expansion became popular. There were activists, nomads, shamans, mystics, heathens, grifters, the sky people and interpretive dancers who sought various sources of enlightenment. Somewhere along the timeline: revolutionary idealism spoiled like milk in the noonday sun, the metaphor works as a sort of symbolism; a curdled insult to the decades’ noble thinkers. Health-conscious New-Age lifestyles would recast themselves and become a worldwide multi-billion-dollar business models.

Listen to the counterculture’s distant cries echoed in an Ann Arbor, Michigan underground newspaper The Sun proclaiming, “We are not afraid anymore! Many of us are fighting in the city’s courts and the streets of Detroit to change the laws that supposedly control marijuana and other holy chemicals, that supposedly control and choke off freedom of speech, of religion, of expression in any human form. We love America the country and want to make it free as it was before the white robbers got here and stole it from our heroes the American native red tribes and confederations.”

Nudity is a fun word to say, tows me out to sea every time. One late-November day on a parochial school playground, a group of Baltimore Catholic eighth graders formed a circle. A wrangle erupted over opening a brown A&P grocery store bag. Smoking in the corner of the parking lot, a few delinquents overheard the commotion. The contraband in question: an older brother’s copy of the recently-released Two Virgins album by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Finishing a Tareyton, I rushed over and wedged myself between, just like the candy bar, five-foot tall Peter and six-foot tall Paul for a peek. Walking away had me wondering, this must be high concept.

Lennon and Yoko were nude; photographed naked and unashamed about it. For some Beatles fans, the album was met with gasps and groans. Lennon had a knack for letting the public eat chocolate cake out of his hands. The couple staged a Montreal bed-in for worldwide peace earlier in May.

Besides the nudity issue, the Apple label recording featured the couple’s instrument and vocal experiments. If you’re familiar with the creative “process over final product” mindset or the organized sound theories of Edgard Varèse, John Cage and Fluxus, then you’ve witnessed how avant-garde improvisation and impulse served as a model for “Revolution #9” on the White Album. It’s easy to write off Two Virgins; which is just as vexing today as it was in 1968, making the argument, some in the mainstream are fearful of freeform no matter what.

Hair was important. On Broadway in the Age of Aquarius, the musical Hair proved “One” wasn’t the loneliest number. The play was a commercial success with lots of hits. The Cowsills’ version “Flow it, show it. Long as God can grow it” made “Hair” a number one song on the Top 100. At the end of the play’s Act 1, the cast celebrated hippie nakedness live on stage.

Traversing into next year, “Well it's 1969, okay,” more skin is exposed when Iggy Pop took off his shirt with The Stooges. The drama Midnight Cowboy then an X-rated film, won an Academy Award. In a country where guns are widely available, minds that hate will eventually show their ugly heads. The decade’s foreboding tone is set in a film that changed the landscape of independent filmmaking; Easy Rider’s last scene with Roger McGuinn singing “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” is one of those defining moments. Billy, the rambunctious drug dealer played by director Dennis Hopper gives a couple of rednecks the finger. The end was near. Long hair on men would eventually fall out of favor; soon to be associated with musicians, social outcasts and bikers.

On July 3rd, Brian Jones’ girlfriend found the ex-Rolling Stone at the bottom of a pool. On  July 5th, Mick Jagger struts out wearing white and the Stones pull off a memorial show for Brian in London’s Hyde Park. The Stones weren’t so lucky with a show in December. On July 11-12th, an often-forgotten music festival took place in Maryland, sowing the seeds for Woodstock. The Laurel Pop Festival at the Laurel Racecourse featured Led Zeppelin, 10 Years After, Jethro Tull and The Mothers of Invention. At the end of the last night, the crowd began burning wooden chairs to stay warm.

The NASA moon landing caused cheers. A nation paused for “That's one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind.” On July 20th, 1969, Neil Armstrong’s announcement temporarily provided repose in the chaotic American subconscious. But we do get fooled again. The average American had no idea, except for a few Cassandras, about the looming undercurrent of dark social change about to take place in California. The first “Zodiac Killer” letters appear on August 1st, 1969. On August 9th in Benedict Canyon, the brain-washed, LSD-soaked Manson Family murders terrorized Los Angeles and horrified the world. Things were getting heavy, the cult-like killings flamed hippie paranoia, fear exploded.

Our mothers warned us, “If you go to that, don’t bother coming home.”

Woodstock hosted three days of harmony and music from August 15-18 for the “if you remember, you weren’t there.” experience. Packed into Volkswagen bus vans were young people feeling pretty from all over. The opportunity to ride a magic carpet through the mud was eagerly sought after. Wet tie-dyed t-shirts drying on trees began to disintegrate after trippy skinny-dipping adventures.

Rock music hardened its sound, that was obvious by October with a new Led Zeppelin album. Down in my friend Jimmy’s parents’ club basement “Whole Lotta Love” played repeatedly at top volume on a three-speed portable record player. Often someone upstairs would yell “Turn it down! You better not be smoking pot down there.” The cellar door flew open, smoke billowed outside.

California hosted the final concert of the Rolling Stones’ North American tour on December 6. The Altamont Speedway free concert was a disaster. As “Under My Thumb” faded, Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death by Hell’s Angels. All is not well. Political fury and the Vietnam War raged on.

By the 1970s, America on the dark side of the moon underwent further upheaval. Modern technology created new opportunities that spread across the world. Music, fashion, art, and literature all experienced significant creative advances. A “trash culture” began to emerge. Divine starred in Pink Flamingos on midnight cinema screens. John Lennon claimed that Yoko had an impact on the B-52s. The mullet appears, a terrific hairstyle for guys who perform “The Hustle” in discos. On the verge of the Jimmy Carter years, a punk look appears sporting safety pins and haircuts that were cropped, dyed and spiked-out. We all shine on. 

  • Kinda amazing how youth fashion quickly shifted from tie-dyed psychedelia to work boots and work shirts. It seemed to happen almost overnight in the late winter of 1970. Altamont fallout? Paraquat?

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