It is funny how, even when I was young, the hippy was already an icon, a tribal totem of some kind, a stereotype and a joke, an aspiration and a fashion, a conquering new autochthon, and a gentle presence in the hard-edged 80s.
I’m quite certain that the hippies won the Cold War. And it’s not so much the hippies, but the rambunctious cultures of youth that the baby boom produced…and that freedom of speech produced. And I’m willing to allow that in some way or another the stolid men with the bombs kept totalitarians with imperial dreams at bay and provided space for that freedom of speech. But those stolid men needed something to defend, something that was other than totalitarian. They needed to defend their children. Moreover, they needed their children, they needed the radicals, they needed artists etc, to keep them from falling into the totalizing imaginary of conflict.
I’m realizing this is kind of a lame argument, an argument I’ve made before in experimental writing 20 years ago, a romantic, even nostalgic argument many have made. It was sparked, again, by listening to some old records while squeezing key limes for pie. I love the loose-limbed sound of recordings from the late 1960s through the mid-1970s, sound that sounds REALLY GOOD on the system I currently have, it sounds so alive. By the 1980s a smooth over produced sound came to dominate, and bore its own aesthetic. I was thinking, after listening to Joni Mitchell and the Stones how Sinead O’connor’s first record might have sounded like if recorded in Keth Richards’ makeshift studio in the south of France. Her howling intensity and sharp guitar fed through those echoey tube amps capturing a jangly resonance rather than proto-electronica precision. She sounds better, from a mere production standpoint, on her second record, with some of the quiet solo work, Three Babies and Black Boys on Mopeds. On her first we have the accidental sense of drama as her unchained voice crashes through the wall of sound (an update of Phil Spector’s old gambit).
Now, I also understand that by 1980 people were well fed up with the tired boozy act that all of what we know of 70s rock became in the wake of the Stones. The neurotic and claustrophobic synthesizers of Gary Numan and that whole New Wave thing were a long needed rebellion.
God, here I go again, my writing taking on the bland tones of intelligentsianilia. Its so awful and inescapable. I guess I need to write more when it is hardest, in the midst of emotional breakdowns and depressions, and the measured middle-aged ecstasies of LPs on a nice system…Brian Jones gorilla beats on Happy Jack echoing out to the sidewalk. I need to write during moments of passion because real passion is so rare these days. Now it is Sunday afternoon, and as normal, I have wasted most of it (and most of yesterday) picking out just the right new video camera for another hare-brainned scheme…in this case to produce an alternative Lubbock news YouTube channel with someone I met recently. (I decided that the future will be in 4k and I might as well get on board early, and at least be prepared to do so. I found a Sony AX33 open box item at Best Buy).
I spend most every afternoon wasting time like this these days. When people ask me how I’m doing, I say I’m not very focused, which seems much more flattering than telling them that I’m wasting tax-payer dollars by sitting around doing nothing most everyday. I’m keeping up with my regular work, just barely. What really is going on is that I’m having a mid-life crisis. I divorced my wife for no good reason this past year. This has been long in coming, but is foolish and cruel no matter how you slice it, and even though we took the leap, the chances that my conscience will allow me to stay divorced is almost nil. So I’m in a state of total moral paralysis, and have been for years. There is no good choice here, and so I’m committing gradual suicide by making no choice, which is itself destructive…to me and many others. But it seems like every time I make a choice it is a bad one, so it feels easier to make no choice. So I spend my time making choices about camping equipment, cars, and cameras. Consumer choice is the refuge of those afraid of the freedom of choice.
I suppose this is what the hippies were rejecting, as they so ostentatiously rejected consumerism (and inadvertently rejuvenated it, with new demands for pop music, camping equipment, fuel efficient cars, organic foods, the nerdy liberation represented by the fetishisms of electronica, which could only, in the end, turn into consumerism.
Consumption is our culture. We consume culture; we consume the world. Political debates about manufacturing are really debates about who should benefit from our consumption, and who and how should be enslaved for our consumption. Yet opiates and all, this gluttony was the neutron bomb that destroyed the Soviet Union while leaving the buildings standing. Driven by the prospect of virtuous production, the ideal, such as it was, became a sterile monasticism, jealous and hurt while watching our hormonal adolescents (of all ages) consume each other with such relish…documented and published in a gutenbergian orgy of self-love. It is really hard to compete for attention with children.
In the midst of all of this, enabled by all of this, we could find moments of transcendence. Jimi Hendrix and his modern art piece Star Spangled Banner, etc. Joni Mitchell’s cactus tree also says that freedom ain’t free like the jingoistic country song of our sublime-ophobic current age. Before going on, as at the beginnning, I’m willing to acknowledge that there is something to be said for those who protected and defended the hippies. Maybe they did maybe they didn’t, police and soldiers and politicians. I’d have to think it through more, but there is such a thing as defending a way of life. But whatever the cost, there is always the threat that the defense becomes in fact a service to those against whom they fight, as the soldier and the society, in the intimate embrace of war, absorbs something essential of the enemy. The obsessions of love and war are similar in their all-consuming totality.
Back to Joni Mitchell. She sings of a woman ignoring all well-meaning suitors, and their petty obsessions and desires to consume her. She’s afraid one might ask her for eternity. So, she’s out, much too busy being free. That bittersweet phrase sums up a lot. The cost of freedom, is community. It takes a community to create freedom. We can only be free within a community that grants us that space to safely explore, experiment, exude, extract, exposit. We can only be free by knowing something of what it means to be bound, otherwise we can never even recognize our own bonds. And, then the quest for freedom, the breaking of those bonds, comes at the cost of the community that applied them to our wrists and ankles and brains. To exist in community, we bind ourselves to people in norms of behavior, relations of production, rights of consumption. The bonds always rub raw wounds and bind some closer than others. They restrict and suffocate, but they make life together possible. They make cooperation possible, production and new forms of consumption. They make armies possible. They make sacrifice possible.
The hippies loosened our bonds, and loosened our communities, but did so by lustily pursuing new communities, flowery new norms, shiny new bonds that we buy with our imperial earnings, a famously soft neo-liberal empire, both cushioned and enforced by the consumptive enthusiasms the hippies made possible in their endearing quest to free themselves from, of all things, consumption.
I’m looking for such a release from my own private little cold war. And I sure could use some love, in the hippiest sense.