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Thanks for Nothing, Hippies

In the interest of full disclosure, yes, I was a hippie, and yes, I was at Woodstock.

I’ve spent most of the intervening half century pissing off the hippies and making fun of the grandiosely styled “Woodstock Nation,” but I can’t deny harboring a smallish soft spot for them somewhere in my too-often hardened heart.

My thoughts, however, are not so kind.

Yes, the music was good, the majority of it, anyway. It was wonderful that half a million of us could sit in a muddy field for three days without killing and eating each other (if we hadn’t had homes to go back to when it was over, all bets would have been off).

But it was not the dawning of a new age of harmony and understanding that people make it out to be. Either Jerry Rubin or Abbie Hoffman – I always get those guys mixed up – opined that it was more like a funeral than a christening, and I wholeheartedly concur.

A funeral at which a lot of fun was had, granted, but that didn’t leave the corpse of the hippie dream any less deceased. I’m reminded of a biography of the Grateful Dead, which describes the band rolling down Broadway in a chauffeured limousine, smoking cigars, drinking champagne, and hoovering up prodigious amounts of cocaine.

“That’s when we realized the revolution was over,” someone supposedly said. “The revolution was over, and we had won.”

As nouveau-riche small-town boys from California, the Grateful Dead can be forgiven for not noticing that only their costumes and choice of background music distinguished them from a limo-load of young Wall Street bankers out for their own night on the town. Likewise, the Woodstock Generation went forth into the world convinced, as the Doors had sung: “They’ve got the guns, but we’ve got the numbers, gonna win, yeah, we’re taking over!”

Anybody notice how that’s been working out?

The baby boomers were a generation of superlatives: the biggest, richest, most drug-addled, and, perhaps, the most delusional in history. Yet they were also meant to be the most idealistic, most political, most committed to human rights and preservation of the environment.

Half a century later, the lights are going out around the world. The United States, ground zero for the hippie love and peace movement, is controlled by a coalition of far-right extremists and theocratic cultists that would have been unimaginable in 1969 (the then much-reviled Richard Nixon would be a left-of-center Democrat by today’s standards).

Kind of fitting, isn’t it, that Peter Fonda, who died on the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, uttered the pivotal line of Easy Rider: “We blew it.”

Yes, baby boomer bashing is a bit overdone these days, thanks in no small part to a right-wing/libertarian campaign to make Gen Xers and millennials so mad at the old people that they’ll punish them by voting their own Social Security and Medicare out of existence.

And it’s not as if my generation hasn’t been a party anything worthwhile. Women, African-Americans, and homosexuals are now considered almost full-fledged people, definitely not the case at the beginning of the 1960s. Until Republican baby boomers seized control of Congress, the White House, and the Supreme Court, democracy was starting to make inroads into parts of America where it had seldom if ever been seen before.

But considering what we were promising compared to what’s actually been delivered, I wouldn’t blame anyone for reporting the entire Woodstock Nation to the Better Business Bureau and/or the district attorney for wholesale, systematic fraud.

You could start a good, long-winded argument – though maybe not so much as in the past, as quite a few of us suffer from shortness of breath, or lack it altogether – among my fellow old-timers by posing the question, “Where did it all go wrong?”

Disregarding the starry-eyed zealots who will insist that the revolution is still in progress or will arrive shortly, you might get some consensus around the idea that the dream expired when the bands started breaking up and their members launched solo careers. Not that music was the sole benchmark of the movement, but for what it typified: the abandonment of collective action in favor of what became known as the Me Decade.

The wretched excess of the 1970s also embodied the (similarly self-centered) woo-woo spirituality misrepresenting itself as the “New Age.” There was nothing remotely new about it; imputing mystical powers to rocks, feathers, face paints, or chanted nonsense dated back to the dawn of time. Hand in hand with this flight into magical “thinking” came the steady disparagement if not the gleeful abandonment of anything resembling logic or reason.

There were other factors – the energy crisis and subsequent recession of the 1970s, new technology that changed the nature of work and undercut the power of the unions and the labor movement, for example – but what tripped up the baby boomers more than anything else, at least in my opinion, was this replacement of rational analysis, planning, and organization with emotions and symbology.

Today’s identity politics, the lumping together of people into groups based on gender, ethnicity, or social inclinations, the insistence that one is either “for us or against us,” “racist” or “anti-racist,” “progressive” or “reactionary,” with nary a scintilla of ambiguity of or nuance, almost certainly had its origins in the drug-drenched 60s protest movement, in which feelings inevitably wound up trumping facts.

I wouldn’t be so quick to make that charge if I hadn’t seen and experienced it myself. Though not old enough to join sit-ins against Jim Crow laws or journey south to register black voters in the early 60s, I knew exactly how vital this dangerous, sometimes life-threatening work was. But by the late 60s, my efforts, and those of my peers, revolved around getting high with the local SDS chapter (Student Dope Smokers, as more than one wag dubbed us) and hatching grandiose plots to overthrow the government.

Most of us couldn’t organize our way out of our living rooms, while a few went so far off the deep end as to blow themselves or others to smithereens with homemade bombs. We lived in a post- (or pre-?) intellectual fantasy world, where results counted for nothing as long as the “vibes” were right, where imagining something was as good as, if not better than making it actually happen.

“War is over if you want it,” proclaimed that fatuous multimillionaire hippie duo, the same ones who wanted you to “imagine no possessions” despite needing two massively expensive apartments to hold just some of theirs. “I wanted it, and it’s still not over,” retorted some Facebook smartass 50 years later.

Speaking of fatuous, I spent a half hour – ok, more than that, honestly – carefully perusing Woodstock crowd photos hoping I might be in one of them. It’s not that I need to prove to myself or anyone else that I was there, but owing to the chaotic state of my life at the time, I don’t have a single photo of myself from around 1967 to 1971, and wouldn’t mind seeing what I looked like during that era.

No luck, however, though I did spot someone resembling my younger brother, who was also there that weekend. But the crowd scenes evoked memories of watching the Who play the finale to Tommy as dawn brought the houselights up on the masses splayed across the mountain.

“Right behind you, I see the millions, on you, I see the glory,” they sang, and even without the drugs, it wasn’t hard to understand what they were talking about. Half a million bedraggled hippies – though you didn’t have to squint too hard to turn them into millions more – lay amid their wreckage like Washington’s army at Valley Forge or the last refugees from the apocalypse. Everything would be different from now on, that much seemed blindingly obvious on that translucent pastel morning.

It would be, too, though in few of the ways we imagined. Today a third, maybe closer to half the young people in that crowd are dead or soon will be. Many more checked out long ago, mentally if not physically, while others have gone over to the dark side of full-throated Trumpism or worse.

Those of us who remain with mind and body relatively intact owe it to ourselves and even more to posterity to avoid wallowing in cheap sentiment and false nostalgia, but also not to succumb to cynicism or despair. We’ve been given our chances and spurned far too many of them, but the right choice, the right action can, in an instant, transform a lifetime of mediocrity and futility into something scarcely short of miraculous.

Even if going out in a not necessarily pleasant blaze of glory is not our particular cup of tea, we can at least refrain from doing any further harm. The final report card for our generation is not yet in, but for this interim, getting-near-the-end marking period, the verdict remains crystal clear: “Must do better.”


  1. Billy Casomorphin August 21, 2019

    Very cohesive, almost linear… Thanks for your thoughts…

    Every time I think about the 60’s and 70’s, I mostly remember how primitive everything was, including the ideas of the socially “progressive”. I almost always end up considering how pissed I was, most of my life, that marijuana was illegal 50 years longer than it should have been, and that most of the smokers back then, are now dead, or, they joined some church and stopped using drugs long ago.
    My point is this: It’s a new dawn, and we are fucking old, so, you paid your dues, get out of the way and let evolution run it’s course. Have some fun today, and remember what a massive mess Woodstock created. It sounded like a cool idea, but the application was probably just amazingly poor.
    Living in Mendo/Humboldt sometimes feels like the old days, but the hippies sold out and joined the establishment long ago. Have a nice eternity, and maybe we will all get another chance, in another universe, another space-time…

    Remember, there is no purpose, it all has no point, and it is a goddamn miracle that any of us are here at all! Have a swell day!

  2. Bruce McEwen August 21, 2019

    “In the interest of full disclosure…” perhaps our editorialist would care to develop some of his conclusions in your penultimate paragraph:

    1. By what process did “we” entail the debt to “ourselves and posterity [supposing there’s a difference between the two] to avoid wallowing in cheap sentiment and false nostalgia … cynicism or despair”?

    2. What chances were “we” given and spurned?

    3. What is this transformative “right choice, the right action”?

    I didn’t go to Woodstock, I went to boot camp instead. And not all of those at Woodstock had homes to go back to, as you so inclusively insist. In fact, your use of the first-person plural takes on a grandiosity I found a wee bit too overweening, possessive, even proprietorial. Maybe you could explain that, since you suppose yourself such a thoroughgoing authority on the subject?

  3. Bruce McEwen August 21, 2019

    To try and elevate your personal failures, your copout, your sellout, your running home to Mommy & Daddy’s Money after slumming with the hipsters, after a stint of diving the dumpsters, and donning homely costumes from the second-hand charity shops, perchance playing at characters from the movie Reds, to turn from all that (not to mention your cute little getaway on Spyrock), I say, to turn from all that with repugnance and change into a nice pair of Dockers, Polo shirt and penny loafers in order to produce the hugely remunerative mediocrity Green Day, then leave your home (yet again, but who’s counting, you’ll always be welcome back) to run off to the other side of the world where you can live in the cosseted luxury your family and connections have always afforded you, on the carefully calculated interest of your modest fortune, and to snipe from there – Singapore or Shanghai, I forget which, but in any case at a safe distance — and, basically, thumb your nose and repudiate those of us who have followed through with our youthful ideals, as best we could without your lavish (by my standards) resources, Larry, old boy is really kind of a chickenshit thing to do.
    Sure, there were others every bit as cowardly and ambitious as you – please don’t tire me with the statistics, my good man – but to see just how desperate you, personally, are to collectivize your private guilt (apparently the Sleep Number Bed and Ambient prescription isn’t helping, nor yet the clean and sober lifestyle you’re so sanctimonious about) but, as I was saying, to gain a little insight into the extent of your guilty denial, from the perspective of detachment, all you have to do is go through your editorial and change all the instances of first-person plural to first-person singular. Try it.

  4. Larry Livermore August 22, 2019

    Bruce McEwen: I attended Woodstock with a group of people, all of whom either authorized me to speak on their behalf or are dead, so the “we” stays.

    At the time of Woodstock, my cosseted, privileged existence was sustained by sweeping floors, emptying garbage, and cleaning 160 toilets per night, having recently left my similarly exalted (and slightly better paying) position toiling in the shadow of the blast furnaces on Zug Island. My dad spent his entire post-WWII career working at the Post Office, so our family fortune was, not to put too fine a point on it, limited.

    “Spy Rock” is two words, not one, even if the newbies and gentrifiers are trying to restyle it. As someone who has always admired your reporting skills, and considers you the best crime writer in business today, I hope you’ll pay more careful attention to these seemingly trivial but (at least to some of us) vital details.

    • Bruce McEwen August 23, 2019

      Last night after reading your response to my critique on your editorial, I was about to dismiss you as a lost cause when my colleague Ms. Davin sent along her weekly column for the Rossmore News (which is generally reprinted at the Mighty AVA) for a proof-read – she’s a pro and knows the value of a critical eye – and I responded in much the same way I did to your piece, that the use of the first-person plural was irritatingly presumptuous to those like me, who may interpret it as being dragged along as a party to something they were actually excluded from, and I complained, as I did to you, that “we” weren’t all so very fortunate to have a breadwinner with such a reliable income as a job at the U.S. Postal Service , with all the attendant bennies – or, in her case, a father with a law practice.

      She took my advice – although it must have stung her pride to read my brusque critique (for I wasn’t any nicer to her than I was to you); but she got over it, “stepped way back” (her own words), and rewrote it with the happy outcome that she’s now much more proud of the piece, which is called The Progressive Perspective, her weekly column in the Rossmoore News, Walnut Creek, CA. You, to the contrary, wouldn’t take a warning, let alone advice, and stubbornly stuck by your proprietary we-this and we-that, a kind of smug complacency that has always hindered your ability to improve and pretty much marred your style.

      Best of luck to you, however, in your up-coming book-reading and guitar-playing itinerary (my bartender, drummer in the punk rocker band Grimetime will be thrilled to see you again), and I’m grateful for the tip on the spelling of Spy Rock; and while I don’t consider such a cavil quite so “vital” as you do, I never deplore, deprecate or dismiss any chance, any chance at all, to improve my own prose style, no matter the source.

  5. Marilyn Davin August 23, 2019

    Almost all true, Bruce, though the AVA does not reprint any of the columns I submit to my local paper in the East Bay. In my view any news reporter who does not take advantage of the viewpoints of trusted colleagues, especially those who possess more institutional knowledge of a given topic, is not interested in continuously improving his or her craft – it’s professional, not personal.

  6. ron August 25, 2019

    Thanks for reminding us that some people who called themselves hippies were really just assholes with long hair.

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