An Autumnal Flashback to the Summer of Love
Every writer lives in parallel worlds: the outer world of daily events and the inner world of whatever he or she happens to be working on at the moment. Consequently, I've had one foot in the 1960s since deciding to write about "Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era," which the Whitney Museum has been hyping like a revival of "Hair", with the DayGlo-swirled profile of a pretty flower child emblazoning the entire sides of city buses and the slogan "a mind altering, must see-exhibition" making it sound like a drug.
Take that sweltering day awhile back when the electricity suddenly went out all over the Upper East Side. Determined not to grope around in the dark, as I had to during the last blackout a couple of summers ago, I waited on line for fifteen minutes outside a darkened hardware store on Second Avenue.
By a gratuitous act of fortune, the gent guarding the door had suddenly become the proprietor of a very exclusive establishment. He sized up eager customers like the doorman of the old Studio 54, before waving them in one at a time. Inside, it was like some claustrophobic, candle-lit den of thieves, the eyes of the clerks fairly glittering with greed. The guy behind the counter even appeared to crane his neck and peer right into my wallet, as I took out two twenties and a five. I knew I was being robbed with my eyes wide open, as he handed me the bag containing two cheap plastic flashlights and two packs of batteries. But I couldn't have been happier with my purchase--even after the lights came back on while I was still in the store, and the hardware guys suddenly looked more shamefaced than sinister.
For while I had not ingested anything stronger than English Breakfast tea in quite a few years, I had reverted to thinking like Horse Badorties, the ecstatically paranoid protagonist of "The Fan Man," William Kotzwinkle's hilarious hippie-parody novel. So there was no way I was going to surrender my flashlights and accept a refund. Not with the alarming incompetence of the Powers That Be, the bad karma of Con Ed, and the primordial darkness gathering to descend again at any second.
Money, after all, is just paper; easy come, easy go. But light--light is illumination, man!
* * *
I was still under the sway of the Sixties a few days later, in a combination florist and gift shop on Staten Island. The kitten curled up in a little straw basket on a glass display-table looked too cute to be real. Then my wife noticed that it was breathing, the fur above its ribs rising and falling in regular rhythms.
"Isn't that the most adorable thing?" said the nice lady behind the counter. "The fella we order them from made the first one for his mother, because they were putting her in a nursing home and she was heartbroken that she couldn't bring her darling little cat. Did you see the puppy on the other table over there?" (It, too, was breathing.) "They're so popular we can hardly keep them in stock."
While one person's adorable may be another person's nightmarish, I couldn't help thinking that the guy who came up with these things had to be some kind of diabolical genius, like whoever invented those glowing plastic Jesus heads with eyes that follow you around the room.
"Just imagine how much comfort it must give his mother to watch it lie there and breathe," I said to Jeannie, "even if it doesn't wake up when she says, 'Here, kitty kitty.'"
It occurred to me then that the world may be even more surreal now than it was forty years ago, when we were all hallucinating.
* * *
"Now I want to smoke some dope," a sedately dressed matron of a certain age said wistfully to no one in particular, stepping out of the Joshua Light Show installation at the Whitney, where "Summer of Love" (which originated at Tate Liverpool, in England) continues through September 16.
It was the first thing you saw when you got off the elevator: a darkened room with a screen flashing those wiggy amoeba patterns that looked eerie without jamming musicians and gyrating fans to bounce off of. The ghostly drone of The Doors, the decibels down way too low, only made the effect more spooky, like one of Ed Kienholz's time-capsule tableaux.
In order to flesh out the flashback, you had to conjure up vintage memories of the Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, or The Jimi Hendrix Experience, aided by a nearby wall swarming with psychedelic concert posters, most commissioned for Bill Graham's bicoastal Fillmore Auditoriums, where the Joshua Light Show technicians once worked their trippy magic with slides, pans of colored liquids, and projectors.
Although posters had long been replaced by more modern media by the 1960s, they turned out to be an ideal means for reaching the flaky foot traffic in Haight Ashbury and the East Village, where local freaks and runaways mainly hung out on the streets, eager for news of the next concert, Be-in, or orgy. The result was a graphic flowering reminiscent of the Golden Age of the poster in fin de siecle Paris, when Toulouse-Lautrec and Alphonse Mucha were producing their best work.
Mucha, especially, with his willowy femme fatales swathed in ornate Art Nouveau arabesques, had a big impact on San Francisco graphic artists like Wes Wilson, Stanley Mouse, Victor Moscosco. They, in turn, influenced their counterparts in the "Swinging London" scene, where Michael McInnerney, Martin Sharp, and Michael English were still reeling from the big Aubrey Beardsley exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1966.
Along with the underground comics of Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, and others, also centered in San Francisco, the poster movement produced the most authentic visual manifestations of a counterculture in which rock music was the driving force. Although they also borrowed a few retinal tricks, such as wiggling lines and pulsing colors, from Op Art (the short-lived movement that degenerated into fabric and wallpaper design fifteen minutes after being featured in "The Responsive Eye" exhibition at MoMA in 1965), psychedelic posters were the very antithesis of art world taste in an era dominated by Minimalism. Rather than galleries and museums, their natural habitat was the "head shops" that also offered bongs, rolling papers, incense, lava lamps, patchouli oil, and other accouterments of the stoned lifestyle.
In most cases, the gulf between psychedelic art and gallery art was as pronounced as the one between so-called outsider art and mainstream painting today. For while many younger artists were experimenting with drugs in the 1960s, only those who made a point of calling themselves psychedelic artists made their drug experiences the ostensible subject of their work. While that work attempted to explore limitless horizons of expanded consciousness, its focus was often as narrow, narcissistic, and repetitiously obsessive as that of the isolates and mental patients now being lionized in the outsider scene, where a curriculum vitae of frequent flipouts and hospitalizations is considered proof of "authenticity." Indeed, the boundary between actual insanity and the effects that drugs induce can sometimes appear as fine as the lines in a particularly intricate psychedelic poster or some outsider idiot savant's horror vacui fantasy.
* * *
For this reason, in the late sixties, when I was still primarily a visual artist, I was initially reluctant when asked to participate in one of the first big New York psychedelic exhibitions, at the East Hampton Gallery in midtown, even though my drawings, as described by Chauncey Howell--a prose stylist after my own heart!-- in a 1966 review in Women's Wear Daily, displayed all the earmarks of chemical derangement:
"McCormack's deftly drawn creatures are automaton businessmen; slum goddesses with dead faces, quivering buttocks and erect breasts, flaunting their weary pudenda in see-through vinyl; jaded D.O.M. (dirty old men) surfeited and rendered indifferent by the plenitude of prey; feral, egocentric city dogs whose greatest joy is doing their cynical duty where human feet are most wont to tread; and monster automobiles, crowded with clothing dummy passengers, baring their fantastic chromium fangs at each other."
As much as I hated having the term "psychedelic" (which, back then, invariably brought to mind the pointless paisley swirls that acid casualties scrawled in their "trip books") applied to my drawings, the chance to show in a credible uptown gallery and possibly make some sales finally won out over my misgivings about possibly being perceived as a mere drug doodler. But I still balked at sharing the walls with the likes of Isaac Abrams, who struck me then as one of the most blatantly kitschy of the paisley painters.
All these years later, however, in the context of the Whitney show, Abrams' oil on canvas "All Things Are One Thing, 1966," which I once dismissed as hippie dreck, now strikes my more forgiving eye as a hopped up descendant of Charles Burchfield's visionary nature compositions, and might be charitably compared to the attempts of certain nineteenth century abstract pioneers to find a visual vocabulary for their then drug-free spiritual epiphanies. One of the few of his ilk to gear his work to galleries rather than the poster movement (as well as the only fine artist of my acquaintance who was willing to admit that he "was turned on to painting by LSD"), Abrams at least makes an earnest effort to apply the conventions of abstract painting to the type of florid visions that only seem to materialize when one is zonked out of one's skull, so to speak. And like Abdul Mati Klarwein (whose busy mandala-like compositions juxtaposing hordes of big-busted Playmate nudes with exotic symbols in apocalyptic Dali-esque dreamscapes, were previously best known as album covers for Santana and Miles Davis), Abrams is not only enjoying a belated museum moment but being featured more prominently in the promotional materials for "Summer of Love" than most of the better known artists who appear to have been included solely to add unwarranted weightiness to an exhibition conceived primarily as a popular entertainment.
Although she is represented here by a 1996 work called "Infinity Mirrored Room Love Forever," perhaps a case could be made for Yayoi Kusama as a representative wild card of the period, whose events involving public nudity oozed out of the gallery world to become countercultural guerrilla happenings. But the only possible justification for the inclusion of a latex floor sculpture by Lynda Benglis, comprised of flowing rivulets of marbleized primary hues, is that it could suggest the spilled contents of a lava lamp. And while the translucent forms in a poured painting by Paul Jenkins could seem superficially related to the liquid blobs of the Joshua Light Show, they actually address the more sober concerns of second-generation Abstract Expressionism, just as a print by Robert Rauschenberg seems an equally gratuitous inclusion, despite period sight-bites of Vietnam war protesters and Martin Luther King in his coffin.
Given the overall mood of the show, such artless artifacts as a collaborative effort at abstraction jointly autographed by the Beatles and documented with photos of The Fab Four playing with brushes like kindergarten moptops at the same painting table; or a slapdash watercolor called "Flower Demon, 1966" by Jimi Hendrix; or Janis Joplin's elaborately painted Porsche (parked in the courtyard outside the museum cafeteria) seem much more to the point.
* * *
"Summer of Love" has been criticized for slighting the tumultuous, often violent, struggle for social change that took place in the Sixties, in favor of Flower Power politics and tie-die trivia. Granted, there are no attack dogs or tear gas canisters anywhere to be seen on those groovy bus ads, and the few references to the civil rights marches, the Vietnam War Protests, the Kent State massacres, and other dead-serious events all but get lost amid the trippy feelgood imagery that dominates the exhibition.
That said, it should be stressed that the overwhelming majority of us were shamefully hedonistic and politically passive. Much as we admired our intrepid peers who took to the streets to stop the war or win equal rights for everyone, and got gassed, got attacked by dogs, got thrown in jail, or got their heads busted by riot police, we were too busy smoking dope, getting mellow, and getting laid to join them at the barricades. As someone who once smoked, swallowed, and snorted everything short of his father's ashes and never participated in a demonstration, yet still considered himself to be on the side of the angels, I rationalized my own political passivity with the then-prevalent cliche that the real revolution was in our own heads anyway. (And, as I was reminded recently, while watching a documentary on the Weather Underground, my own relationship to the so-called Movement was further complicated by a natural workingclass wariness of rich "revolutionaries" without an ounce of streetsmarts who slummed where I grew up.)
I may not have been as oblivious as one clique of freaks I knew, who, when Newark went up in flames in July of '67, took off in a DayGlo van to "go dig the riots, man!" But I was still woefully out of touch with some of the everyday realities that should have made the phrase "Summer of Love" sound ironic.
Of course, it was easy enough to dismiss the activism of media clowns like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, who were still trying to revive their dog and pony show two decades later, in the mid-eighties, when I tagged along on their "Yippie vs. Yuppie" debates on various college campuses. (At the podium, Abbie would tear into Jerry for being "sellout" and "about as relevant as Nancy Reagan." Jerry would counter by calling Abbie a "professional protester who needs poor people and wars to stay in business." But in the chauffeured Lincoln town car back to the city, the two friendly enemies would ask after old movement comrades and reminisce amiably about all the hell they used to raise. It reminded me of professional wrestling.)
Nor did anyone I knew take Dr. Timothy Leary seriously when he made his first New York appearance in 1966 and had the chutzpah to bill himself on the marquee of a former Yiddish theater yet!-- as the "Reincarnation of Jesus Christ." But Leary's "turn on, tune in, drop out" mantra was obviously profoundly seductive to others of our generation, who were eager to join what Dave Hickey, in one of the exhibition's catalog essays, refers to as "the republic of freakdom."
Maybe one had to be naive enough to see a freaked-out old fraud of a defrocked Harvard professor as some kind of avatar in order to experience the sixties properly. But unlike those who'd been recruited by the Beatles and the media blitz, those of us who'd been turned on earlier by the alienated stance of the Beat Generation (all, apart from future guru Ginsberg, cranky existentialists), would always find the communal aspects of the hippie scene hard to swallow. They smelled too much of conformity, the dirtiest word in the Beat vocabulary.
Indiscriminately embracing every mindblown freak as a brother just because he had long hair and did the same drugs as oneself, or wallowing in the mud at Woodstock with hordes of semi-comatose freaks, muttering "Groovy" and "Far Out" as indiscriminately as yuppie kids today say "Omigod" or "Whatever," held little appeal for prototypical urban hipsters weaned on the intellectual exclusivity of the Village in the late fifties and very early sixties. Bob Dylan, who paid his dues on Bleecker Street long before the holy mantle of hip could be purchased for a song at the nearest head shop or unisex boutique, delighted in disappointing the communal expectations of his fans. (When they tried to make him a leader, he told them to follow parking meters.)
"Whatever the counterculture was, I'd seen enough of it," Dylan declares in the first volume of "Chronicles," his characteristically curmudgeonly autobiography. "I was sick of the way my lyrics had been extrapolated, their meanings subverted into polemics, and that I had been anointed as the Big Bubba of Rebellion, High Priest of Protest, the Czar of Dissent, the Duke of Disobedience, Leader of the Freeloaders, Kaiser of Apostasy, Archbishop of Anarchy, the Big Cheese. What the hell are we talking about?"
Spoken like a true beatnik!
* * *
For a more indigenous, minute-to-minute account of the Summer of Love than either Dylan or the show at the Whitney can provide, the reader is referred to "Moving Through Here," a collection of articles by the late Don McNeill that originally appeared in the Village Voice.
While others of his generation (myself included) blissed out, McNeill was doing his job. In a piece called "The Be-in Was the Beginning," he takes us to Central Park, where "As the dawn sun gleamed off a backdrop of molded metal skyscrapers on Easter Sunday, a medieval pageant began in the middle of Manhattan." In "3rd Street Scrub" he describes the surreal day when hundreds of people with mops and pails of soapy water (but no permit) assembled to clean an especially funky street in the East Village, showing how freak humor could often diffuse a confrontational situation: "A cop walked up. A hippie began to scrub his badge. The cop had to smile."
But as the summer progresses, McNeill also shows how the smiles fade, as the drugs get heavier and the vibe turns ugly. From "Amphetamine Apple in Eden": "The energy obviously becomes hard to direct. Weeks of stale garbage and moldy dishes combined with human amphetamine decay, a frenzied decay, can bring visions of Marat/Sade." From "Limits of Flower Power": "As the parade ended and the demonstrators began to move back to the park, two hostile youths forced their way through the crowd and began swinging. A dozen police lunged toward the brawl."
McNeill's dispatches from within the subculture ended abruptly in 1968, when he drowned in an upstate lake, making the title of his posthumous magnum opus poignantly apropos.
A photograph on the book's cover shows the youthful reporter with his press pass clearly displayed on his leather jacket and blood streaming down his face. A cop had pushed McNeill's head through a plate glass window at a demonstration in Grand Central Station that turned into a police riot. He looks dazed, but his notebook is still in his hand.
* * *
"Can I go in?" a young woman asked a guard at the Whitney, peering into Verner Panton's womblike tunnel of foam rubber, "Phantasy Landscape Visiona II."
"You can," he said, "if you take off your shoes."
But once inside, nestled barefoot in its soft, sensual curves, she looked as bored as a child on a stalled merry-go-round.
Almost any of the older folk hunkering around in the gallery could have told her that a tab of acid or mescaline would have made all the difference in the world.
And old they were, for the most part, like the two surviving Beatles, Dylan, and everyone else who once thought a song called "When I'm Sixty-Four" had a fantastic ring to it. Even more than an attraction for the inquisitive young eager to see what they had missed, this show was a magnet for the improbably elderly.
On the way into the Whitney, I nudged my wife as a woman exited who used to haunt our favorite bar, Max's Kansas City, photographing all the slumming rock stars and glittering welfare drag queens. Back then she strutted around in hot pants; now she walked with a cane and wore the forlorn expression we would see on the faces of so many of our contemporaries as we toured the exhibition.
People not of my generation the first generation in history to constitute a media-certified youth culture; the generation whose slogan was "Don't trust anyone over thirty"; I'll say it again: the Peter Pan generation that was never supposed to grow up, much less grow old-- couldn't be expected to understand what it was like to see underground publications such as The East Village Other, The Oracle, The Fifth Estate, and Oz lined up in vitrines right alongside cheap exploitation paperbacks like "The Hippie Scene," "The Hippy's [sic] Handbook," "Hippie Sex," and "Psychedelic Sex Rebellion." Suddenly the sacred screeds of the underground seemed almost as campily dated as the sleazy commercial rip-offs.
Nor could solace be found in USCO's "Strobe Room," with its flashing lights, shiny reflective mylar, and tie-dye floor; or Abdul Mati Klarwein's "Aleph Sanctuary," a structure like a neon-lit mausoleum, its walls crawling with exotic imagery that now looked more corny than mystical. Such tacky sensoriums only reflected the dull desolation of seeing one's youthful illusions (even those outgrown and abandoned decades ago) entombed under glass. The abundance of ephemera and the film footage of euphoric, quasi-orgiastic events such as the Human Be-ins hardly produced nostalgia. They simply served as a reminder that, as even Abbie Hoffman had to admit in the melancholy aftermath of one of his hokey debates with Jerry Rubin, "the sixties were a fluke."
This was already clear in 1987, during the first flurry of media attention attending the twentieth anniversary of the "Summer of Love," when I published an article that resulted in offers to write a screenplay of that title. Emilio Estevez was supposedly interested in the project, but after innumerable meetings with people who referred to meetings as something one "took," like a pill, I was so turned off by the sheer, vulgar duplicity of the indie hipsters courting me that I took back my treatment and told them to fuck off.
If I needed further convincing that the spirit of the sixties was dead, it came shortly after, when a representative for Peter Max contacted me to write a book about his work. Once the most blatantly commercial of the sixties poster artists (tellingly, the sole example of his work in the Whitney show is a poster for a chic uptown clothing boutique) Max was trying to reinvent himself as a fine art painter.
This time it took only one meeting to sink the project, when, In lieu of proper payment, the millionaire designer proposed that I accept original artwork. Max appeared wounded when I turned down his offer, as though it constituted a critique of his worth as a painter (which perhaps it did).
I was not surprised when a book on Max eventually came out with the exact same title as a prize-winning video documentary that I had written years earlier about another artist.
* * *
Strangely enough, people still flash me the peace sign on the street. They seem to see me--even at the advanced age the Beatles sang about so blithely, back when none of us believed it could ever happen to us--as some sort of hippie stereotype, a throwback to a supposedly halcyon era many of them never knew.
If they asked, I'd probably claim that this isn't really hippie hair, it's maestro hair, Einsteinian genius hair--anything to avoid being perceived as a dinosaur who won't give up the ghost of grooviness gone.
Yet I am undeniably, inexorably, a child of the Sixties. Even now, rather than thinking of myself as over the hill, I prefer to say that I am only as old as The Rolling Stones.
* * *
- Ed McCormack