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Overestimating the counterculture of the 1960s
The 1960s are celebrated—and loathed—as a time of political and cultural liberalization. But the decade’s legacy is ambiguous. / National Archives
Forget the Summer of Love. Forget acid, Ken Kesey, and consciousness expansion. Forget the Grateful Dead and the smell of patchouli oil. Forget everything you know about the hallowed 1960s, everything every greying, former hippie has told you about how amazing and paradigm-shifting the whole psychedelic, turn-on-tune-in-drop-out freak show was.
Forget too the bile of right-wing blowhards such as William Bennett and historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, who seem incapable of blaming America’s perceived ills on anything other than the big, bad Decade of Perdition and the narcissistic navel-gazers it allegedly spawned. Conservative pundits have blamed the ’60s for everything from Bill Clinton’s tryst with Monica Lewinsky to, as Robert Bork wrote in his 1996 book Slouching Toward Gomorrah, a “slide into a modern, high-tech version of the Dark Ages,” a Boschian neo-con delirium worthy of the worst mescaline trip.
George Will, another of those right-wing pundits, did manage, quite accidentally, to stumble upon a kernel of the truth. In a 1991 Newsweek essay excoriating Oliver Stone’s The Doors, Will describes the death of front man Jim Morrison as “a cautionary reminder of the costs of the ’60s stupidity that went by the puffed-up title of ‘counterculture.’”
Puffed up it certainly was, but the proposition that the ’60s served as the cultural turning point of the twentieth century, ten years that changed everything, has largely become an article of faith, a shibboleth for an entire Woodstock Industrial Complex of aging boomers. The decade’s icons and totems persist to this day. For example, no man—save, perhaps, a twenty-something hipster at a Halloween party—would be caught dead in a ’70s-vintage leisure suit. But tie-dyed clothing is everywhere, from the sale booths at a Dave Matthews Band concert to the runways of the Milan fashion shows.
Or try this mental exercise. Ask yourself when you last heard John Lennon’s “Imagine,” one of the world’s most popular engines of ’60s nostalgia, written by the decade’s leading secular saint. Was it last month? Last week? “Imagine” has come to signify everything the decade allegedly stood for—a quest for tolerance, peace, brotherhood, and generosity. Granted, Lennon meant well. But the irony of a man who once owned a major chunk of the Dakota—widely considered New York City’s most exclusive co-op apartment building—singing “imagine no possessions” borders on the breathtaking. To his credit, the irony wasn’t lost on Lennon. When confronted with it by a friend, the former Beatle reportedly remarked, “It’s only a bloody song.”
Perhaps the saddest irony of all is that Lennon was shot and killed by a lunatic, Mark Chapman, who believed the singer had turned his back on ’60s ideals—whatever the voices in Chapman’s head told him those ideals were. But “Imagine” is not “just a bloody song.” It is an anthem, and it celebrates everything that the 1960s failed to achieve.
• • •
The counterculture’s most enduring, most emblematic moment came in August 1969, during a large, three-day rock concert in upstate New York. The promoters stopped collecting tickets, everyone got to listen to some really cool music, and the vibe was so cosmic and peaceful that nobody so much as got into a fist fight. A memorable event, to be sure, but the keepers of the ’60s flame want so much more, from the civil rights movement to the antiwar movement, from consciousness expansion to the sexual revolution.
To credit the ’60s for the civil rights movement is an insult to that movement’s history and the long struggle for equality. Dr. Martin Luther King may have given his “I Have A Dream” speech on the Washington Mall in 1963, but the death of Jim Crow owes as much to the activists of the 1950s, such as Thurgood Marshall, who successfully argued Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court case that began the long drive to integrate America’s schools. Or Claudette Colvin, who, as a fifteen-year-old high school student in Montgomery, Alabama in March of 1955, refused to give up her seat on a public bus to a white man. Colvin was arrested, handcuffed, and forcibly removed from the vehicle. She was followed a few months later by Rosa Parks, who also told the City of Montgomery what it could do with its Jim Crow laws and who was also arrested. Thus was born the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the first shot fired in the modern civil rights movement, which itself followed a legacy of protest dating back to the previous century.
The ’60s wasn’t the era that brought forth the Civil Rights Movement. It was the era when well-meaning white people began to notice it.
And the antiwar movement? True, Vietnam was entirely a ’60s affair. The critics were also quite correct when they called the war a hideous waste of human life and national treasure. Our presence there was predicated on policymakers’ fears that we would somehow “lose” that tiny country to Communism, and with it all of Southeast Asia. As the body count grew and the horrendous fallacies of U.S. foreign policy became all too apparent, America’s youth began to question the wisdom of the country’s leaders. Finally, an angry generation said, “Enough!”—there were protest marches, placards, and slogans, the spectacle each night on the Huntley-Brinkley report of young men and women demanding peace and in return being gassed and beaten by the police.
Seeing this, an entire nation slowly woke up to the delusions and reckless arrogance of its rulers. The antiwar movement lit the fire, and America responded. In 1968, a year that saw more than 16,000 killed in action, voters marched to the polls and sent veteran commie-baiter and cold warrior Richard Nixon to the White House.
Indeed, one could argue that the country’s present conservative movement is the most enduring political legacy of the ’60s. Though civil rights foe Barry Goldwater—Nixon’s predecessor as Republican presidential candidate—was decisively beaten in the 1964 election, his followers refused to let the torch of right-wing extremism burn out. The ’60s saw the founding of groups such as the Young Americans for Freedom and the American Conservative Union. These groups and their devotees were, at the time, mostly considered punch lines, when they were considered at all. But with the help of William F. Buckley, his friends, and their money, these organizations and associated right-wing lobbying and media campaigns laid the groundwork for the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
So, while ’60s activism can’t be discounted, the record is mixed and not quite as advertised. But if the results are largely a wash, then what is left? Alas, less than the Woodstock Nation wants us to believe. Whatever the ’60s might wish to claim as a breakthrough in thought and morality, midwifed by its turned-on, tuned-in avant garde, the whole show had been reduced to a crass, corrupt parody of itself long before the clock struck midnight on December 31, 1969.
Take, for example, consciousness expansion. It all began with such promise. In the early days of 1962, we have highly regarded Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary writing to famed author and mescaline connoisseur Aldous Huxley, extolling the progress Leary was making in bringing hallucinogenic drug research into the mainstream. He tells Huxley about students writing their PhD theses on the effects of psilocybin mushrooms and proudly states that a “visionary experience”—code for an acid trip—had become de rigueur among grad students at the Andover Newton Theological Seminary, which was aiding Leary in his work.
He also tells Huxley about another experiment he is conducting, administering psilocybin to prisoners at the Massachusetts Correctional Institute:
The death-rebirth theme is the center of attention. We are experimenting (collaboratively with the advance joint assistance of the convicts) with more systematic ad hoc rituals in the prisons. Next Monday we are running a last judgment–rebirth sequence for four convicts. The therapeutic force of this approach is astounding.
Leary doesn’t explain in the letter what a “last judgment–rebirth sequence” entails or why it proved so salutary to the participants, but he would later claim reduced recidivism rates among the prisoners in his experiment. However, a follow-up examination of Leary’s work conducted in the late 1990s found no difference in recidivism among the convicts treated with magic mushrooms as compared to Massachusetts ex-prisoners as a whole.
There would be none of Leary’s high-minded vision questing on display a few years later when, in 1967, at the height of the famed Summer of Love, Beatle George Harrison and his wife Pattie Boyd took a stroll through San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. The two had dropped acid themselves that afternoon, and decided to go off with several friends to see the hippies and groove on the expected good vibes. In a television interview, Harrison recalled:
We were expecting Haight-Ashbury to be this brilliant place. I thought it was going to be all these groovy, kind of gypsy kind of people with little shops making works of art and paintings and carvings. But instead it turned out to be just a lot of bums. Many of them were just very young kids who’d come from all over America and dropped acid and gone to this mecca of LSD. . . . It certainly showed me what was really happening in the drug culture. It wasn’t . . . all these groovy people having spiritual awakenings and being artistic. It was like any addiction.
Describing the same incident in her 2007 autobiography, Boyd said the crowd grew hostile after Harrison was offered more drugs and turned them down, prompting the two to beat a hasty retreat to their limo. They left San Francisco later that night, and Harrison said in the interview that he never partook of psychedelics again.
By the 1970s, cocaine was ubiquitous, heroin was finding a larger audience, and the pretense of drugs as a path to a higher spiritual plane was largely gone. The first year of the decade saw the deaths of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, the former overdosing on smack, the latter choking on his own vomit after mixing pills and alcohol. The aforementioned Jim Morrison would die of a heroin overdose in a Paris bathtub the next year.
But what about the sexual revolution? One need only Google “erotic Greek pottery” or “Pompeian wall paintings” to see that free love, open marriage, homosexuality, group sex, sado-masochism, etc. have long been with us. While it is true that reliable oral contraception—the pill—became available by prescription in 1960, reasonably trustworthy methods of birth control, such as condoms, had been available since the first half of the century, the only potential obstacle to their purchase a derisive scowl from the local pharmacist. Ergo, in a brief appearance in the 1981 film Reds, writer Henry Miller, describing his youth in the early 1920s, said, “There was just as much fucking going on then as now.”
Yet many continue to see the ’60s as America’s defining moment of sexual liberation. That the decade had a tremendous advantage simply by coming after the girdled-and-crewcut 1950s, ten years of nation-wide uptightness on a scale unseen since Victorian-era Britain, is seldom noted. More to the point, though, any evidence that the ’60s set us free from the chains of sexual repression and inhibition is murky and anecdotal, at best. The evidence that it did nothing of the sort is considerably stronger.
In 1970, Albert Klassen and his colleagues at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University conducted a nationwide poll, which found that roughly 75 to 90 percent of the nation still felt homosexuality, extra-marital sex, and pre-marital sex involving both teens and adults was always or almost always wrong. Even masturbation took a hit, with just under half of both men and women labeling the practice as wrong or almost always wrong. These results were recently affirmed by the Institute’s Thomas G. Albright, who re-tabulated the data.
For folks born in the 1940s, who would have been entering early adulthood at some point during the 1960s, Klassen put the total number of lifetime sexual partners at roughly six for males, four for females. Only 3 percent of women polled managed more than ten partners. Klassen summarized the findings by noting that, if there had been some kind of sexual revolution during the ’60s, his research had unearthed little evidence of it.
Today the ’60s are associated primarily with counterculture entertainment, but mainstream artists such as Herb Alpert were massively popular at the time. / Public domain photo via Wikimedia Commons
One explanation for this grand misperception may lie with ’60s mainstream entertainment, which helped take the commercialization of sex to an all-time high. Not that sex started selling then—it always had, of course—but modern mass media, particularly television, proved very effective at bringing miniskirts and go-go boots into America’s living rooms.
One nudge-wink example was the popular ABC series The Dating Game. Premiering in 1965, the show hooked up eligible, attractive young single men and women for what was billed as the ultimate blind date. The winning couple was shipped off for a week of implied carnality in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, all expenses paid.
On the show, the main contestant would put questions to three unseen prospects of the opposite sex, hidden from his or her view behind a wall running down the middle of the set. The questions were scripted, mainly to keep the bachelors from asking the bachelorettes the most obvious questions, such as breast size or number of sexual partners. Instead, the show’s writers would devise queries brimming with double entendres and not-so-subtle innuendo.
Q: Bachelorette Number Three, if you were a flavor of ice cream, what flavor would you be?
A: (giggle) Cherry.
The show’s background music was provided by trumpeter Herb Alpert and his band the Tijuana Brass. The tunes were vibrant, fresh and effervescent, in grand symbiosis with the youth on display. Though largely forgotten now, the band was at one point the musical face of the Swingin’ Sixties in the United States, outselling even The Beatles in 1966. The Tijuana Brass also laid claim to a memorable piece of sexploitation of their own, with their fourth album Whipped Cream and Other Delights. Released in 1965, the cover featured a photograph of a voluptuous brunette covered in whipped cream, holding a single red rose and looking into the camera with a classic come-hither gaze. Sultry and seductive, it was an image worthy of a Playboy spread and, for a while, just as likely to be found in any well-appointed bachelor pad as was Hefner’s publication.
But as the Kinsey study found, though sexual references and imagery were exploding on television and album covers, in magazines and movies, those pads were rarely rocking.
• • •
Alpert’s former popularity as a mainstream entertainer—his music eclipsed by the memory of such immortals as The Who, Joplin, and Hendrix—should serve as a reminder of how few Americans actually participated in the counterculture. Max Yasgur’s farm held about 500,000 people, a tiny tribe when compared to Americans at large, most of whom couldn’t tell Jerry Garcia from Bigfoot. For the country’s masses, blended scotch and Pabst Blue Ribbon were the drugs of choice, not pot and psychedelics. Hefner’s Playboy Mansion trumped the outdoor rock festival as the ultimate symbol of sybaritic abandon. Acapulco, not Haight-Ashbury, was the hip, happening destination. The Cadillac and the Ford Mustang ruled the highways of our great nation, running the VW Microbus off the road.
The idea of the ’60s as ground zero for a massive cultural shift also becomes suspect when one considers how anomalous the decade was economically. It was ten years of wondrous material plenty, unlike any the republic had previously seen. America experienced both an exceptionally prolonged period of economic expansion and some of the lowest sustained unemployment numbers in the twentieth century. Though few would want to admit it now, much of what came out of those ten years wasn’t prompted by acid-induced vision quests or transcendental meditation. It was purchased through America’s increased affluence, particularly the affluence of its young, who constituted a new consumer class.
On both the left and the right, however, we continue to believe a fifty year-old press release, minting bespoke memories of the ’60s tailored to whatever ideology we happen to champion. A Pew poll conducted in 1999, trying to gauge whether there is a discernible collective memory of the twentieth century, found that the ’60s had made the strongest impression on the national psyche of any decade before or after. “The collective memory of this important epoch,” the researchers determined, was “American Cultural Revolution.”
A truer, sadder epitaph for the era is provided by John Sebastian, who played a solo set at Woodstock and was lead singer of The Lovin’ Spoonful. In When the Music Mattered (1983), by rock journalist Bruce Pollock, Sebastian says:
I think we are devourers of our own culture and cannibalized a lot of things that could have happened out of Woodstock. A media culture can absorb and regurgitate stuff so fast that it loses meaning almost before it’s out of the pot. Somehow every mood that was created was suddenly turned into a marketable item. I regret that more of the spirit that existed at that point in time could not carry over to the sort of cocaine-and-glitter thing that filled the void once it was gone.
And you, dewy-eyed young person with your tie-dyed T-shirt and iPod full of Grateful Dead MP3s, I fear you will always look upon your own era and somehow find it lacking. A great pity, that.
Just remember to forget that Jerry Rubin, founder of the Yippies, went on to become a shill for snake-oil vendor Werner Erhard and his EST Seminars. Forget that Black Panthers leader Eldridge Cleaver became a conservative Republican and endorsed Ronald Reagan. Forget that Jane Fonda had a boob job. The ’60s will always be whatever we say it is, regardless of what may have actually happened. That is why the song is called “Imagine.”
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