As painstakingly detailed in this new book from author Ron Jacobs, the collective sunshine daydream of the earlier decade’s hippies, activists and provocateurs rarely turned out the way they expected—and even when it did, those sweet dreams were often short-lived. Pictured above, clockwise from top left: the Black Panthers, the iconic photo of a dead Kent State war protester, women’s liberation activists marching, Patti Smith, students and Yippies at a rally, and Occidental College students protesting via sit-in last week.
BY FRED MILLS
Quick, take this little test: (A) Which of these books have you read: If They Come in the Morning (Angela Davis, 1972), Ringolevio (Emmett Grogan, 1972), Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson (George Jackson, 1994), Subculture: The Meaning of Style (Dick Hebdidge, 1979), Uncovering the Sixties: The Life and Times of the Underground Press (Abe Peck, 1985) and Punk: The Best of Punk Magazine (John Holstrom & Bridget Hurd, 2012); (B) Or these magazines: Crawdaddy!, High Times, Oz, Ramparts, Berkeley Barb, and Yipster Times; (C) Or seen these films: Easy Rider, The Harder They Come, Woodstock, Sunshine Daydream, and Joe; (D) Or owned these albums: Live At Fillmore East 1971, There’s A Riot Going On, Red Headed Stranger, Horses, Déjà Vu, London Calling, My Aim Is True, and In God We Trust, Inc.
If you checked off even half of those listed, then Daydream Sunset: The 60s Counterculture in the 70s is definitely for you. You may not immediately recognize the name of the author, Vermont-based Ron Jacobs (several novels, plus The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground), although you probably have heard of his book’s publisher, California’s CounterPunch Books, which offers a range of politically-tilting books dealing with everything from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (Imperial Crusades) and Israel-related matters (The Case Against Israel; The Politics of Anti-Semitism) to the fundamentals of black politics (Waiting For Lightning to Strike) and the so-called “politics of illusion” that have undercut the promise once posed by President Obama (Hopeless). All this helps provide preliminary context as the reader opens up Daydream Sunset while pondering its subtitle.
Indeed, this relatively slim (148pp) but intellectually nourishing volume sets out to examine how the ideals, politics and events we generally assume defined the ‘60s—from the hippies of Haight-Ashbury to the Yippies of the Lower East Side, from the Black Panthers to the women’s liberation movement, from Woodstock to Altamont, and of course the Grateful Dead—informed the ‘70s. It’s crucial to keep in mind how common wisdom has the earlier decade spawning a peace ‘n’ love Aquarian utopia of sorts, and that the hirsute, bell-bottomed denizens of the Woodstock Nation became stewards of the (whole) Earth who helped guide the nation from a Nixonian form of mass cultural insanity to a kinder, gentler, post-Watergate consciousness. But as Jacobs points out over and over again, that stereotypical reimagining of popular culture (hello, K-tel/Time-Life nation!) conveniently ignores how slowly the currents of civilization can actually flow—to say nothing of the inconvenient truth that what appears to be a victory for the good, righteous and true citizenry of today can yield a far-different result once you actually reach the near or not so distant future. And if you don’t believe that, then I have a fading “Mission Accomplished” banner once displayed on a U.S. naval vessel to sell you.
As Jacobs points out, in some instances those ‘60s ideals would certainly be elaborated upon and refined; the ecological and anti-nuclear movements of the ‘70s come to mind as examples of idealism transformed into positive action that resonate to this day. Other times, though, they were thankfully discredited and discarded: nowadays, in our gun-violence-drenched society, even the staunchest of former radicals would probably be loath to endorse the ethic of armed resistance originally espoused by both the Black and the White Panthers. (Hold that thought: in their infinite wisdom, survivalists and NRA-ers continue to resist any form of gun control whatsoever in the United States, even if it means that would-be terrorists will be able to get their hands on weapons as easily as weekend hunters. Maybe we need the Panthers as a kind of ad hoc militia to help hunt down those terrorists, hmm?)
And still others yielded improbable yet ultimately logical aesthetic and cultural alliances. Daydream Sunset discusses one such example which pretty much anyone reading BLURT will agree upon: Patti Smith, who came of age in the ‘60s and was deeply influenced by many of that era’s key artists, such as Dylan, the Dead and the Stones (along with, let us not forget, the Beats of the ‘50s), yet went on to become the acknowledged Godmother Of Punk. The existential tension between punks and hippies is well known, but Smith refused to genuflect exclusively before either camp, because the instinctively divined the very same cultural connections and through-lines that Jacobs now traces in his book’s narrative.
Daydream Sunset, then, is partly about the death of the hippie dream, sure, but it’s not residual sadness over or nostalgia for it that fuels Jacobs’ inquiry. Instead, he takes uses a host of ‘60s phenomena as jumping off points and follows their subsequent arcs and evolutions. The first chapter (“Them Changes”) succinctly summarizes the period bookended by the Jimi Hendrix/Band of Gypsys concert at the Fillmore East that opened the ‘70s and the punk and disco scenes that closed the decade. From there the book proceeds to look at sundry watershed moments and movements that arguably characterized the ‘70s as vividly as said hippie dream characterized the ‘60s. In “Test Me Test Me, Why Don’t You Arrest Me?” we learn about the rise and fall of the Black Panthers, George Jackson and Angela Davis, along with fellow combatants in arms the Symbionese Liberation Army and Patty Hearst, plus the radicalization of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the anti-Vietnam war protesters in the cities and on the campuses. Elsewhere, the “Celebrating Independence?” chapter outlines how drugs and drug culture played a key part in the radical politics of the times, including the authorities’ strategy of using drug busts as a pretext for jailing radicals, Timothy Leary’s descent into irrelevance during his Algerian exile with the similarly-exiled Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver, and the rise of High Times magazine and its efforts to help mainstream marijuana use.
Two of the best chapters are “Where All the Pigs Have Tails” and “Womyn Break the Bonds.” The former discusses the back-to-the-country movement among the counterculture and the prevalence of communes in rural areas of the country, and how those mini-societies adapted to some of the changes going on in the larger society; while the latter details the women’s movement in America during the ‘70s and how it paralleled as well as diverged from other such “rights” movements, rightly identifying the inherent sexism found not just in the broader culture but within the countercultural and music scenes as well. And, per my previous note about Patti Smith, the chapter “Punks and Glams” cites precedents for and overlapping aspects of the decade’s music scenes, additionally suggesting how punk’s sonic dissonance was inherently at odds with folk/psych’s mellower structures even though both the punks and the hippies had, ironically, similar roots in their respective spirits of opposition to the mainstream. (The segment on Jello Biafra and his disdain for hippie capitalists is also a lot of fun. Worth additional note: Jacobs names the Clash’s London Calling as the best album of the ‘70s—no argument there.)
Here and there the author injects personal anecdotes, but never in a self-aggrandizing or man-it-was-so-much-more-fun-back-then sense. Instead, those recollections help bring home some of his broader thesis points by putting a human face on them, like the times he attended political protests, or when he pitched in on a production line of freaks all rolling joints to distribute for free at an upcoming concert. There’s also the chapter titled “Crossing the Atlantic” in which he summarizes what was happening concurrently the ‘70s in the European counterculture; at one point he found himself attending a huge concert in Germany during which a small riot broke out between gate-crashers and the police. It’s a scene that was mirrored in the UK as well as America during this period, something I myself witnessed at an outdoor festival around 1973 or 74 when a large contingent of late arrivals decided that the event was “for the people” and therefore should be free, nevermind that the promoter who’d be left holding the bag was probably a long-haired, pot-smoking freak just like them.
One statement Jacobs makes towards the end of the book stands out in my mind. “It’s not my nature—not is it particularly wise—to make grand generalizations about history,” he writes, “especially when the history being considered is relatively recent… Nonetheless, it is possible to see the 1970s as a time when the cultural revolution of the 1960s retreated in the face of a vicious and overwhelming attack from the institutions of the dominant culture.”
To that I’d add the subtle forces of co-optation and how they can airbrush the “revolutionary” elements in the process of making them palatable for a broader audience. Numerous historians have looked at this over the years, although rather than it being a pessimist’s viewpoint it’s that of a realist who understands that for all our rallying cries of “change is in the air!” when we hit crisis points, “change” can rarely be viewed in the here and now, only in retrospect, after the aforementioned dominant culture has had its say.
It’s a notion today’s activists and college students beating the drums for immediate and wholesale changes should be mindful of: just like the revolutionary overthrow of a corrupt system turned out to be a ‘60s pipedream, with actual change occurring in gradients or undercurrents, in 2015, battling institutional racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, etc. is going to require a degree of patience, a willingness to compromise, and ability to take the long view, and—most important—a deep understanding of history.
Not that a good ol’ fashioned campus or street protest won’t draw attention to a contemporary issue and get people thinking, however. As a great philosopher once noted, from small things, big things someday come.
To briefly circle back to that list of books, magazines, films and records I listed at the beginning: those were a small selection taken from the bibliography/discography/filmography comprising the book’s main appendix. What struck me in going over Jacob’s full list (which he notes is in no way complete, but rather “a useful beginning”) is how I was personally familiar with at least 95% of the titles, having read most of the print materials, seen all the films, and still own every single one of the albums. This may or may not mean that Jacobs and I are soul brothers of some fashion or another—full disclosure: I originally met him a few years ago when he was working at the Asheville, NC, library where I would frequently take my young son after school, and I immediately liked him—but it’s clear that we share more than a few cultural milestones, since I was a kid in the ‘60s and therefore during my subsequent coming-of-age teen years during the ‘70s I couldn’t help but be shaped, as Jacobs himself was, by the events of that decade.
As a kind of postscript, let me tell you a little story. I remember Woodstock quite vividly, especially the moment when the scene in front of my eyes suddenly split into multiple scenes, and… wait. Sorry. That’s the movie I’m remembering, when the filmmakers used this gimmicky-but-groovy split-screen effect. I actually was too young to go to Woodstock, But in the summer of 1970 when my family was vacationing at the beach, I noticed that the Woodstock film, which had recently opened nationally, was playing—inexplicably, as this was definitely a family-oriented beach—at the tiny local movie theater. Due to the rating, which prevented anyone under 17 or so from attending without a parent or guardian, I begged my dad to take me.
So the next afternoon we drove over to the movie house (against my mom’s wishes, apparently), purchased our tickets, and went inside, me promptly bolting down near the front while my dad settled in somewhere in the rear seats. After about 5 or 10 minutes I felt a tap on my shoulder, but rather than it being an usher wanting to find out who this kid was sitting by himself down front in his theater, it was my dad. “I’ll be back in two hours,” he said quietly. “Don’t tell your mother I left you here.”
That’s how my ‘70s began: with a much-coveted, long-overdue (in my mind, at least) immersion in the lingering counterculture of the earlier decade. Thanks, Dad, I owe ya one. And thanks as well, Ron Jacobs, for bringing it all back home again for me.
Above, author Jacobs. You can find Jacobs at his Facebook page and, elsewhere, read his quite entertaining blog, Ron Is Still Home. We particularly like his August 27, 2015 entry If Daydream Sunset:60s Counterculture in the ’70s had a playlist, this would be it, reproduced below for you, the discriminating BLURT readership. Start clickin’, fellow freaks ‘n’ punks. And do the Watusi.
“I’m Free”—-The Who from Tommy
“Good Times, Bad Times”—-Led Zeppelin
“The Israelites”—Desmond Dekker and the Aces
“Gimme Shelter”—-Rolling Stones from Let It Bleed
“Okie From Muskogee”—Merle Haggard
“New Speedway Boogie”—Grateful Dead from Workingman’s Dead
“Luv & Haight”—Sly and the Family Stone from There’s a Riot Goin’ On
“For Everyman”—Jackson Browne from For Everyman
“I Threw It All Away”—Bob Dylan from Nashville Skyline
“God”—John Lennon from John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band
“Them Changes”—Jimi Hendrix from Band of Gypsys
“Ohio”—Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
“Out of Gas”—Prairie Fire
“Here’s to the State of Richard Nixon”—Phil Ochs
“H₂0 Gate Blues”—-Gil Scott Heron/Brian Jackson from Winter in America
“Hurricane”—Bob Dylan and Rolling Thunder Revue from Live 1975
“Break It Up”—Patti Smith Group from Horses
“Before the Deluge”—Jackson Browne from Late For the Sky
“Rebel, Rebel”—David Bowie from Diamond Dogs
“Backstreets”—-Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band from Born to Run
“Simple Man”—Lynyrd Skynyrd from (Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd)
“Red Headed Stranger”—Willie Nelson from Red Headed Stranger
“Sitting In Limbo”—Jimmy Cliff from The Harder They Come
“White Riot”—The Clash
“Rebel Music”—Bob Marley and the Wailers from Natty Dread
“Long Hot Summer”—Tom Robinson Band from Power in the Darkness
“God Save the Queen”—The Sex Pistols
“Less Than Zero”—Elvis Costello and the Attractions from My Aim is True
“What About Me?”—Quicksilver Messenger Service from What About Me?
“Estimated Prophet”—Grateful Dead from Dick’s Picks Volume 15/Live Englishtown, NJ 9/3/1977
“Respectable”—Rolling Stones from Some Girls
“Vicious”—Lou Reed from Transformer
“The Pretender”—Jackson Browne from The Pretender
“Factory”—Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band from Darkness On the Edge of Town
“Jimmy Jazz”—The Clash from London Calling
“California Über Alles”—Dead Kennedys
“You Gotta’ Serve Somebody”—Bob Dylan from Slow Train Coming
“Comfortably Numb”—Pink Floyd from The Wall
“US Blues”—Grateful Dead live 1/15/1980 Cambodian Refugees Benefit, Oakland, CA.