By John Anthony Moretta

McFarland & Co. 430 pages. £47.50. ISBN 978-0-7864-9949-6

Reviewed by Jim Burns

It all seems so long ago now, and I suppose it is. It’s fifty years since the so-called “Summer of Love”, when people were advised to wear some flowers in their hair if they were going to San Francisco. I can recall talking in a pub in London with a young American who had left his country to avoid being drafted. Someone slid a coin into the jukebox and Scott Mckenzie’s voice came out of the loudspeakers. The young man smiled wryly and said that a steel helmet might be a better choice as   protection against the police batons that were being freely applied to heads, especially those with long hair. on the streets of San Francisco.

There is, perhaps, a surge of nostalgia for the 1960s, even if those feeling it weren’t actually around then, or at least were too young to be fully aware of what was happening. San Francisco in 1967, Paris in 1968. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/But to be young was very heaven!”. Viewed from today’s perspective, with uncertainty, unemployment, and the seeming unshakeable domination of international capitalism, the 1960s might well appear to have been a decade that offered the opportunity for radical change.

John Anthony Moretta seems to think so, though to be fair his exhaustive account of the rise and fall of the hippies does point to the many pitfalls they encountered along the way. And he’s sharply critical of the self-indulgences that, as much as anything, held back the possibility of altering situations. A revolution based on drugs and rock music was never going to be more than a pipe dream.

Moretta takes the conventional route when he says that the Beats laid the foundations of the hippie rebellion, providing “the template and inspiration for the most important countercultural phenomenon in post-World War 2 America, the hippies”. The snag with this argument is that the Beats were essentially a literary movement, and perhaps the last movement of an old-style bohemia of little magazines and small-press publishers, whereas the hippies produced nothing of value in terms of novels, poems, or any other form of written expression. It may well be true that most of the original hippies had read Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, but the later hordes invading Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco probably read very little. Some of them may have clutched a copy of Howl or On the Road, but I wonder if they ever got beyond the surface of what the writing represented?

It was the 1950s, with its combination of increasing affluence (for some) and corresponding increasing conformity that caused the rise of the hippies. That’s a simple way of putting it, of course, but it may well sum up Moretta’s argument, which he admittedly develops with a fair amount of evidence. Things did get better for many people, and for those who had lived through the hard times of the 1930s, and the dangers and austerities of the 1940s, the fact of being able to work at a steady, decently-paid job, and afford to take out a mortgage on one of the new, mass-produced houses that sprang up, was no mean factor in how they felt about life in general and in the United States in particular.

Moretta quotes an ex-G.I. who had “been living in a one-room apartment with his wife and a relative before he moved to Levittown”, and who said that his new home and its surroundings were wonderful in comparison. Intellectuals might have been bothered by the seeming uniformity of life in the suburbs (read Galbraith or Marcuse) and folk singers like Pete Seeger may have sneered that the houses and the people “all looked just the same”, but not everybody felt that way. Moretta has the good sense to say, “Suburbia was far from utopia, but it was not the social disaster some claimed”.

By the time the 1960s got under way, probably around 1963 in terms of beginning to take on a definite form that distinguished it from the previous decade, teenagers who had grown up discontented with life in the suburbs were ripe for being influenced by the hype that both the media, and the proponents of pop culture, were beginning to peddle. Most of those who headed for San Francisco were the children of middle-class parents. Very few working-class teenagers left home to let their hair grow long and smoke marijuana. When they did leave home it was more often than not to look for work, escape from an overcrowded environment, or enlist in the armed forces, willingly or otherwise. The same was true of blacks. There were few black hippies. Or Indian hippies. When counter-cultural ambassadors, hooked on romantic notions of “tribes”, approached tribal leaders among the Indians, they were promptly brushed off.

For San Francisco the influx of thousands of young people with nowhere to live, and little idea of how to survive on the streets, led to major problems. Drug use was rife, sexual promiscuity widespread, and crime on the increase. Malnutrition, hepatitis, venereal diseases, and much more, were almost out-of-control. While the “underground” papers that began to publish in the 1960s referred to “love” as a guiding light, women were just as much exploited in the hippie communities as they were anywhere else. There may have been some genuine concerns to develop new ideas about living among hippies with a settled commitment to an “alternative” society, but they were over-ridden by the desires of the many who simply wanted to take drugs, have sex, and get by without working or doing anything of value for themselves or the “alternative” community.

Some genuine seekers after fresh ways of outwitting the capitalist system set up communes, and Moretta has interesting things to say about them. Not many of the communes survived very long, and they differed in their policies, but certain common problems often afflicted them. Not all of the people who participated in commune living were suited to it. They were idealistic, but hadn’t allowed for the lack of basic amenities, nor had they realised how much hard work would be required to construct buildings, when necessary, and grow enough food to sustain themselves.

Although a commune might appear to be based on an idea of shared responsibility and requirements, a dominant personality might soon emerge and take control. Sexual exploitation of women could be a cause of dissent. And communes often attracted misfits of various kinds who were unwilling to contribute in productive ways to what was needed to keep the place going. A knowledge of the nineteenth-century communes in America might have alerted the well-meaning to the likely problems they would experience.

Even among the dedicated members of a commune there were differences of opinion and personality clashes. It was a mistake to assume that people would necessarily like each other. Moretta looks at a commune in Pennington, Minnesota, that petered out after two years as those involved bickered about minor matters. He also suggests that, without financial support from middle-class parents, plus Government “largesse” (“welfare, unemployment compensation, government surplus foods, and food stamps”), many communes would have quickly collapsed. The kind of discipline found in older, established communities like the Shakers didn’t exist among the hippies.

It’s a personal recollection, and based on a British experience, but I can remember visiting in the 1960s what was a kind of commune set up in a large house in the country, and supported financially by an idealistic local businessman and politician. The middle-class people living there were, among other things, supposed to be studying the causes of friction and the lack of co-operation between nations, organisations, and individuals. I sat in on their weekly meeting and listened to them fall out about whose turn it was to sweep the stairs and clean the windows.  As someone who came from a working-class home where six people lived in a small house without electric lighting, hot water, indoor toilet, etc., and who had spent three years in the army to get away from it, I might have been forgiven for being less than impressed by what I heard.

The supposed idealism, what there was of it, of the 1960s soon degenerated. And there were moves towards a more-confrontational approach to and from the authorities. Having a slight personal involvement, I was intrigued by Moretta’s account of John Sinclair’s experiences in Detroit. He ran the Artists’ Workshop, and Trans Love Energies, and published a magazine called Work. I still have my copies of the second issue, dated Fall, 1965, and the fifth, dated 1968, in which I had poems published. Tucked inside the latter is a notice from Trans Love Energies which apologises for the late-arrival of the magazine, and refers to “much police hassel, fire bombings” as among the problems Sinclair had been faced with. I recall also that, at some point, he returned one of the envelopes from letters I’d sent to him to let me know that my mail was being opened by the U.S. Postal Service on the grounds that it might contain subversive material. I was amused.

John Sinclair was additionally involved in the music scene in Detroit. Moretta largely looks at his promotion of the band, MC5, but there was a magazine called Change which I think was mostly devoted to jazz and especially the free-form music of the 1960s. I have a memory of contributing some material to it, probably relating to what was happening in Britain on that front, but I no longer have the magazines so can’t check.

Later in the 1960s a number of events occurred that might be said to have brought the hippie dream to an end. The chaotic scenes in San Francisco could have forecast it, anyway, but the 1968 Chicago “police riot” (against the yippies, but not many policemen or politicians were inclined to distinguish between them and hippies), the killing by Hell’s Angels of a black spectator at a Rolling Stones concert at Altamont, and the murders committed by Charles Manson’s devotees, when taken together, seemed to suggest that “the times they are a-changing”. The tide had turned against the hippies, and the winding down of the Vietnam War, and a slowing down of the economy as the 1970s started, saw them disappearing, at least from the point of view of mass turnouts of long-haired young people. There was a brief revival at Woodstock in 1969, but it was just that, brief, and though now legendary from a music point of view, it didn’t lead to much else. Everyone just went home in the end.

It’s only fair to ask if the hippie rebellion (was it even that?) added up to anything significant? Moretta thinks it did In terms of helping to end American involvement in Vietnam. But others, such as the New Left, the Old Left, and student activists, equally contributed to that. Likewise with Civil Rights, which was a cause largely fought by blacks with support from white liberals and left-wingers. Hippie attitudes towards women and homosexuals were hardly open-minded. So they can take little credit for improvements there. It can perhaps be argued that personal attitudes were changed in terms of the way people dress, etc., though that might not be thought a great achievement. A pot-smoking, jeans-wearing capitalist is still a capitalist. Immediate self-gratification is not likely to lead to changes in the power structure.

Christopher Lasch wrote a book called The Culture of Narcissism which could describe what developed from the 1960s, though he traced it back much further and developed a complex discussion around his theories. A simpler way of summing up what the 1960s may have led to is to refer to the “me-ism” that pop culture and technology have combined to encourage. And even the briefest consideration of how society functions will show that little has altered when it comes to who controls what. In fact, a strong case can be made for saying that things are even worse now.

The other point is the one made earlier, that the Hippies achieved little or nothing when it came to the arts, unless one takes rock music into consideration. That might be the only success they can claim. But did the music arise from the Hippie experience, such as it was? There had been rock’n’roll in the 1950s and, some might argue, it was a less-pretentious music. Musicians and singers weren’t looked on as if they had the answer to the world’s difficulties. But I’ll let that pass.

With regard to the visual arts, there was little, apart from the psychedelic posters, underground newspaper illustrations, etc., which were colourful and imaginative, though sometimes stereotyped.

And literature? I can’t think of a novelist or poet who can be said to have come from the hippies. A  writer like Richard Brautigan might be considered, in that his winsome stories and poems seemed to be tied in with the drug culture. Moretta refers to Lenore Kandel, largely because her sexually explicit Love Book caused something of a scandal, but she was more-related to the Beats. Poets like Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and Michael McClure, who sometimes appeared at hippie events, were likewise directly linked to the Beats. They were writers, even if they did like to sound off about how society should be organised.

I have to admit, too, that sometimes reading their pronouncements in the underground newspapers and elsewhere in the 1960s, I began to wonder just how much they related to the wider society they lived in and preferred to pontificate for the benefit of an audience who, they imagined, thought like themselves. Moretta says that “Snyder wanted to turn Chicago into a centre for cybernetic technology and the rest of the country into buffalo pasture”. Perhaps he had his tongue firmly in his cheek, but I doubt it. After all, he talked enthusiastically about “living simply but beautifully and wholesomely off the land”, which may have been fine for a small number of dedicated people, but was never going to be practical for most, and especially not for the kind  who were making a mess in Haight-Ashbury.

John Anthony Moretta has written a very thorough study of the hippie phenomenon, and on the whole manages to be fair-minded in his descriptions and judgements of personalities and events. He doesn’t attempt to hide the misdemeanours and mistakes made by many hippies, nor does he fight shy of all the problems resulting from their excesses. The prevalence of drugs was a sure way for something to end in disaster. The fact of a few writers and intellectuals experimenting with various narcotics and, in some cases, turning their experiences into literature, doesn’t mean that every spaced-out teenager is ever going to be imaginative or creative.

I did spot a few misprints in the text, and a couple of factual errors that were noticeable to an old veteran of the bebop into Beat experience. Moretta refers to Gregory Corso as a “San Francisco poet”, which he certainly wasn’t. Born in Greenwich Village, though not of bohemian parents, Corso was usually firmly based in New York. His book, Gasoline, was published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Press in San Francisco, and he did spend time in the city. Corso, as befits his bad boy image, later became notorious for stealing books from City Lights Bookshop and even allegedly once burgling it. Corso could be an entertaining poet, but he wasn’t a pleasant person.

As for bebop, Moretta places Lester Young and John Coltrane among the originators of bebop, along with Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker. I suspect that Moretta, like a lot of younger (than me) enthusiasts for rock music, doesn’t know much about jazz. And old beboppers like myself are sticklers for accuracy. Young was an influence on some young musicians, especially  saxophone players, and was respected by Parker and Gillespie. But he didn’t play bop. Coltrane was influenced by what Gillespie and Parker were creating in the 1940s, but didn’t have anything to do with the development of bebop. His own major contributions to jazz came a decade or so later. Yes, I know, I’m being pedantic, but subjects like bebop and the Beats are close to my heart.