WE THOUGHT WE’D CHANGE THE WORLD!
—Alexandra Jacopetti Hart
Has the ‘60s–‘70s Counterculture changed the world? If so, how? I’m finding the influences are broader than could have been imagined in 1960 or 1964 or what the world saw as the flowering of the Bay Area Counterculture, the year the runaways became Flower Children, the now-named Summer of Love, 1967.
James Baldwin wrote that 1960 was the “Break-out of Freedom” moment. He was tracking Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, which was intricately intertwined with the anti-Vietnam War actions, the Peace Movement (MAKE LOVE NOT WAR), and the beginnings of the Counterculture as I experienced it. Another thread was the Beat Generation, out of which the hippies slowly emerged. Slow, that is, until it all started oozing out from behind the closed doors of small enclaves of people who didn’t know each other existed for some time. The marker for that was the Trips Festival in San Francisco in January of 1966. I was there—helped create it.
Earlier, gatherings to demonstrate against the war, peace groups, people going to the south to join MLK and the Civil Rights activities, some of them being murdered, etc., were public, but which of these can signal the beginning? Why not go with just saying the Sixties?
For me, in spite of joining the political side by demonstrating, my real beginning was when I first encountered pot and then LSD. The public word was that marijuana was dangerous, illegal, and would lead to stronger stuff. But no, turned out we were being lied to. Having just come out of the constricting, boring 1950s, and having had parents who taught me about “straight and crooked thinking,” I recognized the crooked thinking that lying reveals. What else were the establishment folks concealing, even from themselves, I asked myself. That sentiment later expressed itself as “Don’t trust anyone over 30” — one of our youthful errors.
Pot helped my cohort discover how exciting and creative it was to color outside the lines. The creativity was intoxicating! Pot helped to drop the veils the 1950s culture maintained and freed up our minds in every direction we looked. Steve Bannon is said to have maintained in the 1970s that the Counterculture was the most dangerous threat to the status quo, the power structure of the Right.
And then there was LSD. My first encounter with it was late in 1962 or ‘63. And what that did to my inner life was miraculous! The veils really dropped on any question taken into an LSD journey where one was careful of “set and setting” as Alpert and Leary suggested. I found it very simple to cull the mainstream cultural download from what I believed in my core being. And that was revolutionary. It sparkled like diamonds and was more precious. What one received did depend on what you brought to it. Jonas Salk, that brilliant medical scientist, for instance, was rumored to have received the key to the polio vaccine while showering after an LSD experience!
Later on, maybe a decade later, I found that the usefulness of LSD had paled, mainly because my primary questions about existence had been satisfactorily answered. I never used it for purposes other than inner discovery, and with a sense of the sacred. For years it was difficult to have meaningful conversations with people who hadn’t experienced the insights we shared. It helped to formulate many of the directions that the Bay Area Counterculture took and shared with people across the planet. (The shadow side of the psychedelic drug discoveries was, of course, the use of drugs that provided an escape and diminution of pain rather than illumination, resulting in the world-wide problem with addictive opiates and related substances.)
Spiritual encounters, seeking, and practices also delivered people to the door to one’s deeper being. There was something electric in the air, and it touched everything. Consider the music: folk music, especially Joan Baez and protest songs that soon emerged; Bob Dylan, whose first songs were then more folk music than any other genre, inspired by Woody Guthrie; popular music, especially the Beatles popping onto the scene; Rock ‘n Roll itself with its irrepressible beat and mind-blowing lyrics. These sounds and ideas permeated the consciousness of the nation—and the planet. How could it not change!
Consider the popular slogans of the times:
Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out (Ram Dass)
While “Turn On” did mean marijuana to many people, it really meant to find your passion — to get involved with life, not to be passive.
“Tune in” meant to get connected to what was going on around you: cooperate with others.
“Drop Out” did often mean dropping out of school or the corporate world or
whatever wasn’t serving you, but it really meant leaving pre-programmed ideas behind and thinking for yourself, finding your own truth.
“Question Authority” meant the same thing: to discover what the deeper meaning and deeper truth was, to find the spirit, truth and justice in any given path or action.
Many of the early Counterculture folks, like Richard Alpert (now Ram Dass) were serious thinkers with desires to improve life through whatever their particular medium was. In small towns like Bolinas or Sonoma’s West County very bright people were looking at the potential problems of and fixes for climate change, pesticide use, resource diminution, war, over-consumption, environmental degradation, and seeing the need for recycling, social reforms, alternative energy, green building, new approaches to human relations and alternative healthcare, just to name a few.
Independence, creativity, sharing and caring, loving and natural processes were primary values. General areas where real progress was made were:
Various freedom-based movements like the Civil Rights movement and the peace and anti-Vietnam War efforts; the Free Speech movement, especially on college campuses, along with student revolutionaries and student rights; the next iteration of women’s rights leading to the first effort to pass the ERA in 1971, women’s consciousness-raising groups and continuing to Feminist thought.
Recognition of the needs and humanity of the people of the world emerged in the guise of the farmworkers’ rights movement lead by Cesár Chavez and Dolores Huerta; the Gray Panthers and Black Panthers; efforts toward gender and gay rights; an appreciation of cultural differences and “work of the hands”—arts and crafts from around the world; recognition of the importance of First Peoples’ values and culture.
The Sexual Revolution was probably instigated by the advent of oral contraceptives in 1960, then was folded into women’s and gay rights movements that eventually included bisexual, transgender and now intersexed and fluid gender rights. Of course there is often a shadow side such as the free love backfire of the spread of the AIDS epidemic.
Concerns for the Planet showed up in a myriad of ways. Sustainability was a big marker. Ecology was a word we learned the meaning of; we became enmeshed in the many environmental movements, including a deep concern for clean air and water and organic farming and gardening practices. Back-to-the-land folks created on- and off-the-grid communes and cooperative communities that experimented in a variety of lifestyles, often including self-sufficiency and voluntary simplicity. Many of these still exist and new improvements are being explored today. Hardworking, dedicated folks put recycle/reduce/reuse ideas firmly in place. This had a parallel incentive to reduce our country’s heavy materialistice consumerism, now still a major social issue. Alternative energy was and continues to be deeply explored as a way toward planetary energy sustainability. Alternative technologies for green building and architecture got a great start with Lloyd Kahn’s book “Shelter.”
Self-expression, Creativity, and Spiritual Exploration burgeoned as respect for everyone’s talent and right to personal beliefs rose again into strong values. This was evidenced by a fascination with Eastern thought, religions and travel. Indian gurus were made popular through the Beatles’ sojourn with Maharishi and others who financed their travel by bringing back handwrought goods from foreign climes. Eastern philosophies and meditation, yoga, and martial arts came from the East. The exploration of “inner space” was aided by such people as Alan Watts and the Dalai Lama and the advent of the Human Potential Movement.
Alternative Health and Medical practices like acupuncture and Chinese herbology as well as home-grown herbal medicine and herbalist practitioners heralded a wide variety of bodywork, psychological and sociological modes which continue to evolve today. Midwives regained an important role in helping to birth babies in a time-honored “women’s way.” Today midwives are held in regard in hospital settings, providing many women with a natural, simpler, and easier birthing experience while also having the safety of modern medicine as backup in difficult situations. Psychologists, not just psychiatrists, hung out their shingles to aid ordinary people with their psychological integration.
Artistry and Self-expression has had its boundaries enlarged significantly. Using a variety of materials, not just paint and canvas or metal and sculpture, now qualifies as “fine art.” My book “Native Funk & Flash” introduced the notion that anyone could be an artist simply by creatively repairing favorite clothes by embroidering, patching or painting them creatively. This could not only make them beautiful and meaningful to you or as gifts of love and affection, but often served as an introduction to others, displaying who you were and identifying you as “tribe.” And it served the anti-consumerism impulse. This clothing easily morphed into the Art Wearables world we still celebrate today, not to mention the odd style that has persisted of pre-stressed, torn and worn-through denim products.
Rock ‘n Roll, World music, folk and New Age music – all let loose! John Cage squeaked chairs across a stage; Windham Hill artists flinched at the New Age label but loved that there was a place for their new sounds to hold sway; African, Native American, Irish, and other traditional sounds could be heard over the radio; and the Stones, Janis, Jimi Hendrix and the Jefferson Airplane, belted their rock ‘n roll over the airwaves for generations to come. Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell gave new meaning to folk and rock music: we no longer were restricted to hearing only popular, classical, or jazz choices. Creativity was bursting out all over!
This just skims the top of what came out of the Sixties’ explosion from black and white into full color. What would our world be like without all this change?
The Counterculture thrived on collective inspiration. We wanted to turn each other on: to share “trips,” explore new horizons. We shared tools, ideas—together we could go further. Video collectives broke the grip Hollywood had and produced the Indie film industry. We broke the hold Paris fashion edicts had on what we wore, what length skirts had to be. The fashion freedom that people now take for granted was born in the Counterculture.
We effected political change through individual transformation. We moved the culture one person at a time as noted by Elissa Auther in “West of Center: Art and the Counterculture Experiment, 1965–1977.” Information holds real power, as Stewart Brand’s “Whole Earth Catalog” demonstrated. Brand went on to help set up video and computer networks that became the Internet.
We wanted to turn on the world! Find the life at the center. The passion. The good. We were trying to do the hard work of finding a better way to truth, love, and peace.
Yes, we did change the world. Yes, there was and still is opposition; not everyone wanted to leave the 1950’s attitudes behind, but a true cultural shift on a global scale will certainly take many generations. Let us pray that civilization gets to continue long enough to see the creation of gentler, kinder, more loving and caring world-wide cultures based on love over fear.