Picture the scene: it is the middle of 1969 and famous Beatle John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono are staging one of their many ‘bed-in’s’ for peace from a hotel room somewhere in Montreal, or Holland. Lennon, becoming ever more outlandish in his peace protests since the release of Revolution the year before, is apparently leading a generation of angry, young, idealistic voices against the culmination of wars in the first half of the twentieth century, currently Vietnam.
Emotive, drastic, forceful words are flying in the face of the media from a man who has at this point been one of the most famous people in the world for the last 7 years (featuring many quotes which will survive the natural weathering of time far longer than one might’ve thought), but one shall stick out: ‘if everyone demanded peace instead of another television set, then there’d be peace’. Less than ten years later, Lennon and Ono are of course living in their million dollar luxury flats in uptown New York where he easily managed to ignore the issue of his personal wealth and laugh off Orwellian socialism whilst continuing to oscillate his mantra of peace and love – the same scene where the Beatle met his pointless, untimely demise. But these acts confirmed Lennon as a member of the 60’s peace movements along with his rock star colleagues.
The mentality of free love culminated in Woodstock some months after John and Yoko’s protest, highlighted by the cynical spectacle of Jimi Hendrix performing ‘Star Spangled Banner’ to an audience of mostly young draft-dodgers rather than any serious candidates for political protest (this can more or less be confirmed by reading audience accounts online at the dedicated Woodstock website). This was a spectacle which actually ended in a dirty field full of plastic bags, polluted water and all other imaginable by-products of hippies going without adequate cleaning facilities, toilets, food and free space for a week. As they all retreated home, it somehow signified the end of the 60’s counterculture movement.
It is an interesting question to pose, whether there is any long-standing significant impact of the sexual revolution and free love propaganda of the 1960’s. Politically, it was certainly a revolutionary period – from JFK to Malcolm X, communism in Cuba and Prague, the war in Vietnam, the Parisian student revolts (the latter group subsequently becoming famous as the Soixante-Huitard’s, the sixty-eighter’s who encapsulated the defying spirit of their political ambition). The free love zeitgeist may have helped move a generation of baby-boomers closer to their libertarian ideal in a few ways, but perhaps shouldn’t have been the primary catalyst.
The sexual revolution of the time basically coincided with new forms of birth control, empowerment of women through feminism, the gay movement and in Britain, at least, the introduction of the abortion act in 1967. It is tactful to suggest that sexual and hormonal energy which would have otherwise been discharged in a furore of violence or more destructive impulses at the issues of the 1950’s and 60’s – unequal society, the Cold War an development of nuclear technology, superficial politics etc. – was instead spent on flower power, pretty music and lots of lovemaking. Introducing drugs to the scene helps one see further the unhelpful distractions and the blaringly obvious dichotomy between preach and practice which permeated the lives of pseudo-revolutionaries. What was the real revolution?
Happily to us, it seems that the so-called ‘protest’ music of the 1960’s (Dylan, Joan Baez, The Beatles) also coincided with the defining issues of the day, but noticeably all American fodder; the civil rights movement and Dr. King, Vietnam, Haight- Ashbury, etc. There are for example, no Jimi Hendrix tunes about the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The plight of Guevara only became world-widely celebrated decades after his work, somewhat ironically through the form of his imprinted face on t-shirts, posters and all other items of cheap consumerism. The 2003 film The Dreamers documenting the May 1968 student riots in Paris makes use of such rock and roll music for precisely what it was: a pleasing soundtrack. Allusions to The Stones and all bands portraying the hippy ideal were characteristically unpopular a decade later, best shown in The Clash’s 1977:
No Elvis, Beatles or The Rolling Stones,
Punk in America and Britain was the perfect antithesis of flower power in the late 70’s which only showed how much the music current despised the failed utopian dream. One wonders how the veterans of the era and the more politically minded took to their futile occupations of lying on lawns with tea and hash ten years previously… with stale nostalgia at best?
The culmination of events in the world that decade, mainly political, gave birth to the largest united shift of consciousness since the War and this means something. One therefore wonders what became of the free love legacy. The deaths of Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy only signified that extremism still existed. The Nixon years in the White House in the 1970’s and the neglect of the Labour Party in Britain showed that politics was game as ever, with the Vietnam ending on its own accord – such events becoming illuminated through those rose-tinted spectacles of hindsight and past reflection. This is not to diminish the excitement of the time for say, a young journalist learning the trade of politics in real time in Israel writing on the Holy Land dispute, or the authoritarian regime in Portugal, or the rallying powers of Castro in Cuba; things which culminated long after the fads of the counterculture had worn off. A brilliant account of this time and these activities is available in the rousing memoir of Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22. Taking in such events and pushing for a sense of moral duty on the streets must be the defining spirit of the late 1960’s.
So this is the legacy those of the time rightfully will remember. Having started with Mr. Lennon, we can certainly finish up with him. In 1970 Lennon released John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band amidst a haze of prog-rock nonsense and the premature deaths of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. The final line of the most poignant song on the record summed up the feeling of the time, at least only for the hundreds of thousands of crying hippies at the disbanding of the Beatles: the dream is over. I wonder if there could have been a better timing.