The Sixties Victory Lap in an Empty Arena
By John Kendall Hawkins
“The only reason I have is that I want to learn about it, just to know. But I assure you, don Juan, my intentions are not bad.”
“I believe you. I’ve smoked you.”
“I beg your pardon!”
– The Teachings of Don Juan, Carlos Castenada
“‘Tis strange — but true; for truth is always strange; Stranger than fiction.”
– Don Juan, Lord Byron
I was having a reverie about angels. Dylan’s Three Angels? No, German angels, speaking Wim Wenders English. Something was burning. The Reichstag? Nein. They were in Paris, carrying on with the gargoyles from Notre Dame, playing high stakes poker with Tarot cards, Gauloises cumulus clouds, talk of Hegel’s master-slave, Being and Nothingness, the occasional chuckle festival as tourists below caught their eye, like a scene from Annie Hall. Someone startled my sleeping ears to hear it said, What have you been smoking? On CNN a cathedral burns. “The Truth, man,” you reply, “about the Sixties.”
I always thought the Sixties would remain a sacred place as years passed — the Stonehenge of my life’s most sacrosanctimoniuos experiences that I would never get tired of circling, counterclockwise. A place I could look back on for the sustenance of levity and the earnestness of a collective naivete. Some of us — many of us, at times — really thought we could change the world, flowers in muzzles, free love (free everything), ego-altering drugs, daily rallies, a press beginning to care. Fifty years later, I thought I’d be partying like it was 1969. Instead, I feel like the Last Guy turning off the lights at the event horizon, not slamming the door behind me, trying not to wake the emptiness behind me.
There have been months of golden anniversary events — the moon-landing, Woodstock, Bowie’s Space Oddity, the Beatles last studio album, memories of my first rock concert, the Legacy of Leary and LSD. But also the rise of Nixon and the imperial presidency. The brutality of Chicago. Vietnam. The Kennedys and MLK. But nothing starts me up; my Love Bug is syphilitic and old, like Nietzsche’s asylum brain, preserved in a kind of Cuckoo’s Nest, his sister Elizabeth, a Nurse Ratchett playing Die Meistersinger von Nuremberg while she dispensed the blues. Still in search of perspective. What did it all mean?
That’s why I was so looking forward to Tarrantino’s Hollywood. But his was a stale, dead Sixties. Why no Abbie and Jerry, two men walking and talking, wondering aloud what they call revolution-for-the-hell-of-it in Paris? The Manson stuff, ostensibly the Tarrantino Ending people were anticipating, totally lacked the helter-skelter we were fed growing up. (And maybe a story all wrong.) Why no further Pulanski, Rosemary’s Baby released the year before setting the stage? It was like discovering that Jimmy Jones induced mass suicide, not by kool-aid, but by forcing his captive audience to listen to him read from the Saturday Evening Post. (Making it a Post apocalypse.) Why no Beatles White Album songs? Black Bird? Happiness Is a Warm Gun? Still relevant topics.
The Beatles have been in the news, anyway, because it was time to remember Abbey Road, their final album (sorta). I still struggle with the legacy of the Beatles. Were they really deep, or was I very shallow? Everyone agrees they wrote shit until they were turned on by Bobby Dylan and Ravi Shankar. Golden boys. Hell, even when those Alabama kids got enraged by a Lennon comment about Jesus and built a bonfire to his vanity with Beatles LPs, it was good news because it meant the little brats had to go to replenish their stock as soon as the rage burned out twenty minutes later. Now? I still wonder what Lennon meant in “Penny Lane,” when he sang, “And though she feels as if she’s in a play / She is anyway.”
Now all that’s left of the Abbey Road ‘mystique,’ are mainstream media shots of sets of clowns my age treading across the famous crosswalk like the Fab Four, with about as much frisson as elevator muzak. You can feel the whogivesafuckedness of it all, as you zoom in, descend, on a live Google feed, like a memory god or gargoyle, to confront a keychain culture (remember the Berlin Wall?), where, like Dylan once observed, “Not much is really sacred.” Farewell, Abbey Road. These days I’m haunted by their ghostly, psychedelic voices on “Blue Jay Way.”
And now we need to care about Bowie again. The Moon Landing, 2001: A Space Odyssey (some say they’re related, wink), and Walter Tevis’ The Man Who Fell to Earth, resulting in the birth of a persona 50 years ago, Space Oddity, that Bowie would groom with great care over a long career. Biographer Simon Critchley, addressing Bowie’s aesthetic sensibility, writes, “Bowie’s world is like a dystopian version of The Truman Show, the sick place of the world that is forcefully expressed in the ruined, violent cityscapes of “Aladdin Sane” and “Diamond Dogs”…”
Thomas Newton, the alien of Tevis’ novel, who has journeyed from Anthea, his own self-immolated planet, which is virtually out of water (and thus life) to find salvation from Earth, is sidetracked by the American Way — women, jazz, capitalism, and the CIA — until it’s too late to help Anthea. Seeing a repeat of its demise on Earth, Newton seems indifferent to helping his terrestrial hosts:
“I want you to save the world Mr. Newton.”
Newton’s smile did not change, and his reply was immediate. “Is it worth saving, Nathan?”
A half-century later, Planet Earth is still blue and there’s less and less we can do.
I tried to draw inspiration from looking and hearing back to my first rock concert — Led Zeppelin at the sold-out Boston Garden in October 1969, with the MC5 and Johnny Winter. Crazy loud. Incredible drums. Everybody (it seemed) smoking doobies, while Robert Plant, according to one account, went “bouncing around like [Rudolf] Nureyev.” Cops looked on grim, Hells Angels looked grimmer, a fight broke out, eventually it all fizzled. But today, the guitar work from “Stairway to Heaven” loops in my head like torture chords I can’t stop and I find myself hating the song almost as much as I hate the riffs from “Hotel California,” riffs which can never ever leave FM radio. Driving, it could cause an accident.
And Woodstock 50. Just another joke like the first one. Except this time they didn’t bother holding it all, so there was no food shortage or rain deluges to worry about. Ciley Mirus was said to be interested in twerking out in the cowfields, but she ain’t Jimi and her butt can’t twang the Spangled. Can anyone even recall Woodstock anymore? CCR? Janis? Does anyone even remember Dylan’s signature performance?
Well, too much of nothing can bring a man down; there can be no doubt about that. I lean toward a Timothy Leary revival these days, now that cathedrals are spontaneously combusting and the center cannot hold, and the falcon cannot hear the falconer, on account of the talon-less shit is wearing earphones and flying clockwise backwards. The Tibetan Book of thr Dead as a trip. Yeah.
I’ve been listening to The Psychedelic Experience by Leary, and in the introduction he’s quoted as saying, “We’re all schizophrenics now, and we’re in our own institution.” It sure does seem that way — disconnected, the sweet green icing of MacArthur’s Park melting all around us, even Silicon Valley execs looking to weasel out of the Apocalypse, just waiting for the AI robots to drop El Cid, discover consciousness, and bring us home to the promised El Dorado.
What does it all mean? Did the Sixties even happen? And as the angels play with their cards all day, does anyone even care?
By John Kendall Hawkins
I had intentions of watching Quentin Tarantino’s new film, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, and then writing a review, keened up, like most of his aficionados, with the anticipation it might be his last film, and eager to see how QT handled the Sixties, with limited retrospection, given that he was only six years old at the time of the events depicted. But I was disappointed by his “take” on the era, and I don’t quite know why. Afterall, he hadn’t even been born when the events of Inglorious Basterds were set, and that turned out just fine — the edgy Hester Prynne engravings and the gorgeous, ravenous flame-licking fires. I never had so much fun watching Evil perish. We all did. But this was different.
I could say it was the ending, how I was tired of a certain trademark same-same (I’ll leave it at that), but that’s not it. It wasn’t the dialogue, or that Charlie Manson only made a strumming cameo, or that there were no signature pocket watch scenes. The acting was fine; I liked the story; and the frisson of the zeitgeist was well-achieved. But I started to get bummed out at the Dumpster scene, how Tarantino handled it — a throw-away scene gratuitously inserted like the black cat in Zero Dark Thirty. There was a whole counterculture Tarantino left behind in that Dumpster. And I started to worry about what he might do to the beloved Star Trek movie he’s rumored to be directing next.
The Dumpster scene reminded me of Abbie Hoffman and Steal This Book, his handbook that lists the myriad freebies available if you need (or want) to survive on the street — “free” food, housing, and transportation are featured, as well as handy tips for living the revolution-for-the-hell-of-it lifestyle. Nostalgia kicked in. The rambunctious war years, of course, but also the Chicago 8 that became the Chicago 7 after a gagged and bound Bobby Seale (he was Black, you see) was taken away for a separate (but equal) trial. Another fun, connect-the-dots fact that came up was the coincidence of Abbie having the same name as Albert Hofman, inventor of LSD, and Julius Hoffman, his trial judge. It came together quite cosmically, if you were tripping.
Everybody knows now that it was an era of Free-Lovin.’ And great music, too, with Jimi and Janis (RIP) for starters, and no need for Madonna’s ironical virginity or Cyley Mirus’ leather-tight twerks. We suspected we had the Deep State on the run, with our love, but our criminal naivete was then just a misdemeanor. We were sure we could break free of our psychic bonds and and and self-actualize. Communes filled with Marxist banter, primal screams (Imagine that), and an environment of Infinite Love that made you feel like you were, together, taking back the night from Das Kapital.
Then bad acid, man, began hitting the freedom streets I recall, and a hard, hard rain began to fall, and I mean fall. I seem to remember race riots, Jane Fonda in a tank top, someone crying out ‘You don’t need to be a Weatherman to blow yourself up.’ And Abbie’s DNC riots seemed to get Dick Nixon elected. And the war went on and on. And the Yippies had a falling out with The Man and with each other. The Beatles called it quits, Dylan was in hiding. Bummer days.
And conspiracy rumors were already orbiting that Stanley Kubrick had been hired by the US government to stage the whole moon-landing (which I watched live at a Catholic kumbaya summer camp, drinking ‘bug juice’ and eating cookies, in a kind of junior transubstantiation). And every Lefty agreed that Woodstock was a disaster (and still is) — if for no other reason than that Jimi’s rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, an otherwise horrible song, wasn’t made the song’s national exclusive version.
Next thing we knew we were in the Seventies, Kent State, Patty Hearst. Watergate, and we were beginning to ask ourselves if our precious, exceptional Democracy was in danger. After Nixon dicked out of town, a mood shift developed; Carter came in, people wanted peace — even the Middle-easters — and few people wanted to continue the struggles requisite of a healthy democracy. They wanted love, but not a free love; it now had the tinge of sadness and weary resignation and military build-up. Halliburton got busy with Marshall plans of the future. Never boring, always surprising. People began to get mowed down by gun violence Left and Right, and even when Senators got mowed down, they were afraid of getting eaten alive by the gun lobby and ran from the issue.
We are a long way from the heady days of muckraking journalism — sure-sounding pilots Alexander Cockburn (Beat the Devil), Sy Hersh (still at it) , Hunter S (Gonzo has left the building)., Jack Anderson (enemy of the state), etc, navigating the always-muddy, ever-changing river — and have settled into a stenographic, profit-driven MSM that fails to inform us properly, resulting in an often-laughable media today that Donald Trump sadly and sometimes-rightly refers to as “fake news.” The hypothesized media influence of the Russians in the 2016 presidential perhaps made ‘plausible’ by the Fourth Estate’s dereliction of duty in the World’s Premiere Democracy™.
It’s easy to be discouraged today, given the state of the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches, moving rightward and surely fascist — or far worse. Another round of Trump from 20/20 should bring us the epiphanal vision we need. It’s easy to feel with Leonard Cohen, “It’s over, it ain’t going / Any further.” In the post-post-modern near future, with a new Cold War coming ironically as the Ice caps melt, it’s easy to feel our species has gone too far, catastrophic victims of a pandemic leached into our collective consciousness — just in time for the AI revolution.
Well, maybe what Lebowski told Lebowski was true: the Bums lost, the revolution for-the-hell-of-it is over. Time, as Bobby Dylan says, to Ring Them Bells for all of us who are Left. Head for the hall of the Big Sleep, exhausted, like Edward G. near the end of Soylent Green, time to exit to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Oddly and inconveniently thinking of something Timothy Leary once said in Steal This Dream of Abraham Maslow: “[He] was a very influential transitional person between medical psychiatry and humanist inner-potential, do-it-yourself psychiatry. The paradox was, as everybody knows, that Abe himself was a very depressed person. Abe told me once he never had a peak experience.” Ain’t that a kick in the head. Time to let it go once last time, guided by the better angels of my nature. You almost had to drop acid to be there. And not there.
John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia. He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times. His blog: https://tantricdispositionmatrix.net/.