THE HIPPIES: A 1960s HISTORY
By John Anthony Moretta
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
John Sinclair was additionally involved in the music scene in
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
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
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
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 “
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.