A reflection on Daydream Sunset: The Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies by Ron Jacobs: Counterpunch Press 2015
“Look what’s happening out in the streets
Got a revolution! Got to revolution!
Hey I’m dancing down the streets
Got a revolution! Got to revolution!”
The lyrics to the Jefferson Airplane’s “Volunteers” boomed out of the oversized speakers set in the 2nd floor window of the 6th Sense Boutique in College Park, Maryland. Below were rows of grim faced police in riot gear facing thousands of University of Maryland students occupying Route 1, the main road through College Park.
It was May 1970 and blocking Route 1 into Washington DC was becoming a favorite tactic to protest the cruel barbarism of the USA’s Southeast Asia War.
Soon the lyrics of this popular song calling for revolution were drowned out by cries of both pain and defiance as a fog of tear gas rolled in, not on the little cat’s feet of the Sandburg poem, but with loud explosions and the tramping sound of heavy boots hitting pavement as the police charged, swinging their riot clubs with obvious enthusiasm. The resulting battle raged far into the night. I know this because I was there. Similar scenes were happening across the nation as the forces of repression tried to crush the largest anti-war student strike in US history.
Welcome to the 1970s.
Reading Daydream Sunset: The Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies by Ron Jacobs reminded me of the growing disquiet I felt during the period he describes in the book. Something important and beautiful was slipping away. Written and organized in a casual episodic style, the book integrates the personal experiences of the author with a social analysis of the times.
Author Ron Jacobs entered the University of Maryland in 1974, just 4 years after the historic student strike and came to know a number of the participants. He experienced that period when the dreams of the 1960s were being battered by heavy handed repression, while the dreamers themselves were beset by their own confusion and missteps. As the sun set on the 1970s, the darkness of the Reagan years lay ahead, itself a reaction to the USA’s radical social movements.
Capitalism was in a period of transition from the social democratic New Deal-Great Society version to the beginnings of the neo-liberal austerity we endure today.
Jacobs views this transitional period through the lens of the counterculture. The counterculture was that largely white phenomenon that rebelled in schools, communities and workplaces against the soul crushing conformity and social alienation of the 1950s. Labeled hippies, freaks and later punks, they tried to build community even as they strived for individuality, a dialectic that produced a wide variety of perplexing social contradictions.
Jefferson Airplane described the counterculture in 1969 with the song “We Can Be Together”:
We are all outlaws in the eyes of America
In order to survive we steal cheat lie forge fuck hide and deal
We are obscene lawless hideous dangerous dirty violent and young
But we should be together
Come on all you people standing around
Our life’s too fine to let it die and
We can be together…
…We are forces of chaos and anarchy
Everything they say we are we are
And we are very
Proud of ourselves
Up against the wall
Up against the wall motherfucker
Tear down the walls
Tear down the walls…
Jefferson Airplane had been closely identified with Haight-Ashbury and the 1967 Summer of Love with its image of gentle flower children. But by 1969 when the Volunteers album was released, the group had changed their tune. Seemingly endless war abroad combined with mounting racism and repression at home created a sense of desperation among many who identified with the counterculture.
Jacobs places the origins of the counterculture in the white middle class though it spread rapidly into the white working class as anyone who worked in the blue collar world of the time can attest. At a warehouse where I labored in the early 1970s, the older workers would retreat to the coffee machine area during breaks, while the younger white workers were on the roof passing joints and talking about the latest rock concert to hit town — as well as the horrors of the Southeast Asia War and the sordid revelations of the Watergate investigation.
Much of the book concerns the music of the counterculture. Jacobs explains why:
This is because the culture it is discussing identified itself largely through the music it performed, danced and listened to, referred to and consumed.
The music of the 60’s counterculture covered the spectrum from bleak pessimism to bouncy optimism. Barry McGuire’s 1965 hit “Eve of Destruction” was a terrifying view of a world gripped by war, hate and racial violence “…where even the Jordan River has bodies floatin.’”
Other musical artists expressed the uncertainty that many in the 60s counterculture felt. Jesse Colin Young in his peace song “Get Together” sang the words, “Everybody get together, TRY to love one another right now.” According to John Lennon, all he and Yoko were saying was, “Give peace a CHANCE.” These artists knew there was no guarantee of success.
Ron Jacobs was able to experience the counterculture both in the USA and in Europe as his dad was in the military. He often attended rock festivals on both continents where the music could be a collective experience of liberation for some, a bad trip for others and a successful financial investment for a few.
These festivals although capitalist enterprises desiring to make a profit often became what would be known by the 1990s as temporary autonomous zones. The sheer presence of so many people bent on enjoying the music and each other’s company suspended traditional societal restrictions enforced by police, family and church.
Besides the music there was a lot of sex and an abundance of recreational drugs in those temporary communities. But not everyone came with good intentions. There were bad trips, rapes and at the Altamont festival, a killing. By the mid 1970’s the authorities succeeded in ending the short-lived rock festival tradition. Jacobs thinks the main motivation was crushing the freedom the festivals represented rather than concern over the bad behavior of the few.
Communes and cooperatives were another way that the counterculture sought community, as well as an escape from the excesses of rampant capitalism and social alienation. There were urban communes centered on radical media, political organizing, anti-war protest and direct social services. These declined in number as radicalism retreated and neighborhoods became gentrified.
The counterculture also moved to the countryside setting up rural communes based on farming and related support services. Jacobs writes extensively about 1970s Vermont where communes and co-ops became an important political force, along with businesses that espoused varying degrees of social responsibility. I recall one of my Vermont aunts speaking approvingly of the nice people moving into the valley. As a native Vermonter with left wing views, she saw the “hippies” as reinforcements.
Vermont’s harsh climate and a changing economy took a toll on these efforts, but a young man named Bernie Sanders was among the urban refugees who exchanged the hi-rise canyons of the big city for the green hills of Vermont.
Food co-ops were among the most enduring of the counterculture institutions. Jacobs, as a former student at the University of Maryland at College Park, explains how its food co-op grew out of a movement spearheaded by an alliance of radical and counterculture students.
Fed up with the grim looking and nutritionally suspect food delivered by the Marriott Corporation, students began selling sandwiches in front of the student union. The administration sent the cops to confiscate the sandwiches and harass their sellers. As protest grew on campus, the administration backed off and a food co-op was established supported by student funds. It still exists.
All through the period there was a complex and often contradictory relationship between the counterculture and radical left. Within the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) the largest student radical group of the 1960s, members from Communist Party and Progressive Labor Party backgrounds favored clothing and hairstyles that were quite conservative while the hippie types favored cast-off military fatigues, colorful psychedelia and lots of hair.
When SDS shattered into political fragments in 1969, some of the pieces became self-described Marxist-Leninist “vanguard” formations who joined the blue collar working class to organize for revolution. They urged their members to give up the “hippie look” to fit in. Ironically this came at a time when many working class youth were adopting not only the countercultural “look” but its spirit of social rebellion as well.
But the confusion over fashion statements was only one of the dilemmas facing the counterculture. Acid trips, peace signs, musical innovation, appeals to love one another and organic farms could not stop the depredations of US imperialism nor could they end racial, class and gender oppression here at home.
The term “revolution” was often tossed in the headiest days of the counterculture, though there was little agreement on what the word meant. Did it mean a spiritual revolution of human values in a new Age of Aquarius? Or a socio-political revolution resulting in a humane democratic socialism, one very unlike the repressive conformity demanded by the Soviet Union.
But whatever the definition of the term, those who participate in any revolution carry within them deep imprints of the society that they are rebelling against, limiting their ability to build new liberating institutions. They also are restricted by the socio-economics of the time as utopia crashes up against actually existing material conditions.
The counterculture proved to be no exception.
The counterculture did rebel against the puritanical sexual restrictions of US society, but often in ways that reinforced patriarchy and homophobia. Jacobs quotes extensively from Robin Morgan’s “Good Bye to All That”, a 1970 piece she wrote for the countercultural NYC publication The RAT after the women briefly took over the publication:
Goodbye to Hip culture and the so-called Sexual Revolution, which has functioned toward women’s freedom as did the Reconstruction toward former slaves — reinstituting oppression by another name. Goodbye to the assumption that Hugh Romney is safe in his cultural revolution, safe enough to refer to our women, who make all our clothes without somebody not forgiving that…Goodbye to the idea that Hugh Hefner is groovy ‘cause he lets Conspirators come to parties at the Playboy Mansion — goodbye to Hefner’s dream of a ripe old age. Goodbye to Tuli and the Fugs and all the boys in the front room — who always knew they hated the women they loved. Goodbye to the notion that good ol’ Abbie is any different from any other up-and-coming movie star who ditches the first wife and kids, good enough for the old days but awkward once you’re Making It. Goodbye to his hypocritical double standard that reeks through the tattered charm.
Jacobs also discusses how the counterculture was plagued by racism. One example was the reaction Neil Young got for his song “Southern Man” which criticized slavery and racism. Neil Young was answered by southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd.who basically told Young to mind his own business with their song “Sweet Home Alabama.” Lynyrd Skynyrd was famous not only for its music but for the large Confederate flags that appeared at their concerts.
Jacobs also writes about Eric Clapton who began his career as a guitar virtuoso through an intensive study of American Black music, but started making statements supporting British racist leader Enoch Powell, triggering a mass British movement calling itself Rock and Against Racism. Headed up by bands like The Clash and Steel Pulse, it inspired a smaller Rock Against Racism movement here in the USA. Racism within counterculture music was a bitter irony. Rock music would not have existed without decades of African American blues and R&B.
In fact, without the Black freedom movement it is doubtful the counterculture could even have existed. Joel Geier of the International Socialist Organization, and a participant in the Berkeley Free Speech movement among many struggles, once told me that it was the sit-ins and the freedom rides of the civil rights movement that really shattered McCarthyism. As the toxic effects of the Red Scare receded so did the mind-numbing fear and conformity of the 1950s. And while the counterculture may have popularized the ideal of “peace and love”, Dr. Martin Luther King was there first.
By the early 1970s, counterculture adherents were only one group in the USA where rebellion, much of it inspired by the Black freedom movement, seemed to be rising up everywhere: Gays, women, Latinos, American Indians, Asian-Americans, prison inmates and others. The first Earth Day was held on April 22 1970. There were working class revolts in auto plants, coal mines, lettuce fields and public service institutions.
The ruling class responded with a massive propaganda campaign often based on racism and sexism, that was aimed at “the silent majority,” those who either feared or misunderstood the revolts taking place. This was accompanied by a ferocious repression including mass arrests, beatings, imprisonment, assassination and the infamous COINTELPRO program.
While the repression fell most heavily on people of color, the counterculture was not exempt. After the killings at Kent State I heard a Black Panther say, “My god, now they’re killing their own children.” Jacobs writes about the largest mass arrest in US history during May 1971 when 12,000 anti-war demonstrators were swept up when they attempted to shut down the government in DC through civil disobedience. I witnessed lot of pot and cheap wine consumed by the May Day protesters as they assembled at their encampment on the Mall before the action. The scene could have passed for Woodstock but without the rain.
Along with the repression came genuine internal disagreements and strategy differences within social movements especially as hopes for any kind of revolution faded. It was not at all clear what to do next and despairing people often turned on each other in ugly ways. When the Temptations sang that our world was a “Ball of Confusion,” they weren’t kidding.
Once again, the counterculture was not exempt. Some of the hippies who set up small counterculture businesses were starting to make real money in the 1970s. Jacobs quotes from Jello Biafra of the punk band Dead Kennedys about the results:
In many ways, I have no idea what would have become of me if punk hadn’t happened, because the ’70s turned out to be so stale, and so boring, and so backward compared to what had come just before. We were too young to have fully experienced the ’60s and the fervor of the anti-war movement. And some of the people who had caused so much trouble for what used to be called the establishment were opening overpriced hanging plant stores on the downtown mall and becoming the early versions of hippie capitalists.
Other early counterculture capitalists include a couple of guys named Steve who started something called Apple Computer and John Mackey and Renee Lawson Hardy who were largely responsible for Whole Foods.
In 1969 Jefferson Airplane sang that, “All your private property is target for your enemy. And your enemy is we.” But as the high tide of the social movements receded, the “we” grew smaller and smaller and the “me” got bigger and bigger. Individualism was kicking the ass of community. Jacobs links this to the stagnation that hit US capitalism and the worsening of the economy:
The age of prosperity was over for the regular folks in the US of A. With the minimum wage barely increasing at all over the decade, the prospects for the unskilled young were not good and becoming worse. Furthermore, the corporate transfer of better paid, usually union, jobs to non-union countries was underway. The counterculture dream of a meaningful yet idyllic life was further away for the young working class Americans than at any time since the early 1960s. The streets were back to being places one hung out after work or if they couldn’t find a job. Unlike the not-so-long-ago streets of their hippie predecessors, they were no longer places young adults went to live in out of choice while trying to create a new world.
In his conclusions Jacobs states that it is not in his nature, “… to make grand generalizations about history, especially when the history being considered is relatively recent.” Nevertheless he does draw the conclusion that a society based on peace, love and a decent material standard of living runs counter to the brutal economics of capitalism.
As it turned out the counterculture was no match for either the repression that worked to crush it or the corporatization that worked to absorb it. Yet not every hippie freak turned into a bitter cynic or a Wall Street stockbroker. You can see the gray thinning hair of those who didn’t at any decent-size protest today.
In 1968 during the French student-worker revolt someone coined the phrase, “Be realistic. Demand the impossible.” The counterculture did not bring about a revolution as it grappled with creating a balance between individualism and collectivity. But who knows what is truly possible during any period of social revolt? And what may prove be impossible at the moment, could become a reality for the unwritten future, as the spirit of revolution is passed down to new generations.
This reflection was first published in Red Wedge magazine