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Turn on, Tune in, Drop Out

For all their excesses, hippies made the world a better place.

By and

  • Courtesy illustration

Essay and collage art By Stewart Rogers | Local Commentary by ken Sanders

On Aug. 15, 1969, a half-million, long-haired, freaky people gathered in the mud for the Woodstock music festival in upstate New York. For some, the event symbolized the worst of American youth: dirty, drug-crazed dropouts listening to the devil's music, obsessed with free love, unwilling to take personal responsibility, spitting in the faces of hardworking law-abiding citizens who made this country great.

And yet, if you look beyond the psychedelic veneer, if you listen to the motifs and lyrics of the day, if you consider what these idealistic young folks and millions like them actually did to further world peace and dismantle discrimination, you would see something differentsomething in short supply today: hope.

Who could believe preposterous ideas like "all you need is love," "everyday people," "make love not war," "open the doors of perception" and "we got to get ourselves back to the garden"? Who could be naïve enough to believe that flower power could overcome tanks and bombers? And that brotherly love was more important than money? Who was idealistic enough to believe in Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream that a person's character was more important than their skin color? And that nonviolence could overcome racism?

Today, both Left and the Right seem convinced that America is dying. The signs are everywhere: the racist police, the Deep State, the richest 1 percent, godless socialism, the Dissident Right and, of course, the deadly (or hoax) coronavirus. But compared to the 1960s and early '70s, today's problems don't seem so bad.

Climb Aboard the Hippie Bus
War, hatred, injustice, poverty, riots, assassinations—we had it all in the 1960s and early '70s.

Fifty-eight thousand American GIs died in a senseless and immoral war in Vietnam. Millions of antiwar protesters filled the streets across the country.

Racial segregation ruled the land, and those who challenged it were beaten, jailed and some even murdered.

Birth control was considered immoral, abortion was illegal, and women were denied equal opportunity in education, employment and finance. Homosexuality was illegal—gay marriage, an impossible dream.

The Russians put missiles in Cuba and threatened to nuke the U.S., so school kids practiced drills hiding under their desks to duck the A-bomb! To top it off, maniacs killed our president and his brother.

And yet, for the 400,000 celebrating at Woodstock on that rainy August weekend, it was a joyous time to live. They believed then, as many still do today, that a new age was dawning, the Aquarian Age, one of "mystic crystal revelation and the mind's true liberation," an unprecedented epoch in which "peace will guide the planets and love will steer the stars."

Personally, I missed Woodstock—but I got the message. When I saw my peers celebrating life and challenging the moral evils of the day, I wanted to belong. I wanted to be part of something honest and true, something spiritually fulfilling. Like those at the festival, I wanted to be a pioneer of a new world built on love and understanding, a world where the generous outnumbered the greedy, where opportunities belonged to all and people resolved their differences without killing each other. Folks who felt that way were called "hippies." I got on the hippie bus in 1970 and never got off.

Of course, no one really knows what being a "hippie" means. It's not a label that we called ourselves but one that "straighter" folks commonly called us as an insult.

No one's sure where the word originated. My favorite story is that Malcolm X invented the term to describe white dudes trying to act "hip" but never quite making it.

There's no hippie bible; no pledge to recite; no membership card to sign. You don't have to dress, talk or act in any particular way. That's the beauty of it. It is what you think it is. You're in when you say you are.

And yet, in my opinion, the hippies were—and still are—united by a set of common values. We believe that love is the most powerful force in the universe, that peace is our highest purpose, that freedom of thought and action belongs to all, and that the accumulation of money is a dead end.

Looking back, perhaps the hippies knew something worth remembering, that humanity was getting better, not worse. Since those days, worldwide, people are healthier, wealthier and better educated than ever before.

In America, women have entered all professions, narrowed the pay gap, become half of all law and medical students and attained positions of corporate and political leadership. People of color endure less discrimination today than they did decades ago, and some have been elected to our highest offices. Same-sex marriage is legal, and the LGBTQ community is freer, safer and more accepted than any time in history.

Have we achieved that nirvana that hippies envisioned years ago? Obviously not, but we're heading in the right direction. Aquarius is not a place but rather stars that guide our journey. Hope is the fuel that sustains us. Call me naïve. Call me delusional—in John Lennon's words, "You may say I'm a dreamer." But the hippie in me believes that the Age of Aquarius is unfolding as we speak and that the power of love is slowly and inextricably transforming the world into the happy family we were meant to be.

Power to the People
"President Kennedy was killed today," a grave voice announced over the school intercom. I was sitting in my seventh-grade chorus class on the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963, when the principal's surreal message exploded in the room. No one spoke. We were gasping for breath. I felt sick on my stomach. Some girls cried. I didn't say it, but I was afraid. The Russians wanted to nuke us. Some deranged soul had killed the president. What was coming next?

Five years later, Dr. King was killed by another assassin. Two months after that, the president's brother, Robert (Bobby) Kennedy, was murdered by a third. For many of us, losing these larger-than-life leaders marked the end of our optimism about the future. Without their force for good, we felt lost and more afraid than ever. Perhaps we've been looking, unsuccessfully, for new heroes ever since.

The 2020 presidential election was no exception. Both sides argued that the survival of our country depended on who sits in the Oval Office. Joe Biden called it a battle for "America's soul." While I'm relieved, to say the least, that Biden prevailed, I don't think my soul, or that of America, was ever in danger. In fact, I believe the fate of humankind depends not on authority figures but on how we treat each other every day.

When our heroes were murdered in the 1960s and early '70s, those of us "hippies" stopped hoping for top-down answers and began looking inside instead. We realized that leaders don't change the world. Individuals do. We saw that changing laws didn't change hearts. Love—acts of service and compassion—does. We discovered that the path to peace and happiness lies within, not without.

Angela Davis. Black power activist and educator, put it this way: "We have to talk about liberating minds as well as liberating society."

"Politics," said Jerry Rubin, co-founder of the Yippie Party, "is how you live your life, not whom you vote for."

"The world is ready for a mystic revolution, a discovery of the god in each of us," said the Beatles' George Harrison.

"The task is to transform society; only the people can do that, not heroes, not celebrities, not stars," said Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party.

Be the Change
Much has been said about hippies being selfish and self-absorbed. In reality, we were following Gandhi's admonition to be the change that we want to see in the world. That journey naturally began with self-discovery. We stopped trying to change the Constitution, and as the Beatles challenged us to do in "Revolution," changed our minds instead. We read books like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, On the Road, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. We meditated with Ram Dass and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. We learned from each other at be-ins, love-ins and rock concerts.

As yes, we got high. We found that Bob Marley was right: "When you smoke herb, it reveals you to yourself." We opened The Doors of Perception with psychedelics that Aldous Huxley wrote about, discovering that tripping was never the end game. It was only the beginning, an open window revealing a view of the universe previously unimaginable. For most of us, getting high expanded our minds, not scrambled them.

With this new understanding, we became leaders of ourselves, no longer expecting some larger-than-life hero to save us. Instead of aligning ourselves into a structured organization with officers, bylaws and membership cards, we hippies forged our own paths as individuals and in small groups. In our own quiet imperfect ways, we reinvented family, work, sex and our connection to Mother Earth. We got off the treadmill of money, power and fame and found peace in our own ways.

"Power to the people" was a frequent chant back in the day, based on the premise that oppressed people had to wrestle power away from those in authority. Historically, that's always been true. Voting for good people and demanding change in public ways will always be important. But perhaps in our struggle against the "Establishment," we've overlooked the obvious, that each of us has the power to change the world. How we treat our family, our friends, our neighbors and strangers we encounter every day has a more profound and immediate effect on the behavior of these people—and those around them, and those around them—than any government, corporation or religion can ever have.

As Trumpism fades from center stage, and we reassess our relationship with government, perhaps the hippie approach is worthy of reconsideration. Maybe we don't need leaders to make us happy. Maybe small acts of kindness are more powerful than historic legislation or well-intended executive orders. Maybe we're more powerful than we think.

Summer of Love
They called it the "Summer of Love," those three months in 1967 when thousands of freedom-loving countercultural pioneers, aka hippies, gathered in the Haight-Ashbury community of San Francisco to connect, party and, yes, have sex. As Peter Coyote (a member of an anarchist troop called The Diggers at the time, better known as a mainstream actor today) put it: "I was interested in two things: overthrowing the government and f—cking. They went together seamlessly."

To hear some folks tell it, hippies invented "free love," a term actually coined by a Christian socialist in the mid-1800s and a concept as old as humanity. Perhaps more than any other factor, the Summer of Love created the myth that hippies personified lots of sex all the time. As a long-haired countercultural convert living 2,000 miles away at the time, I liked the fantasy, but I missed the love boat. I was lucky to have sex at all.

While hippies get the credit (and the blame) for liberating sex, free love was quietly seeping into millions of traditional bedrooms long before the sex-fest in Haight-Asbury.

Introduced in 1960, "the pill" made sex freer than ever. For the first time, women could enjoy sex without the fear of unwanted pregnancy, giving them unprecedented power over their bodies, their families and their incomes. Given that birth control was illegal in 30 states during the 1950s, this step toward sexual freedom was particularly important. It took a Supreme Court decision in 1965 and another in 1972 to make birth control legal for both married and unmarried women in every state. Roe vs. Wade in 1973 legalized abortion.

But the pill was only the first step in the sexual revolution of the 1960s and early '70s. At the dawn of the '60s, consenting adults couldn't legally engage in same-sex sex, sex with persons of a different race, oral sex or anal sex. Though not outlawed, sex before marriage, sex for pleasure, non-missionary sex, masturbation and multiple sex partners were widely considered immoral.

Hippies opposed all of that. We simply believed that consenting adults should be able to have sex with anyone they wanted in any way they wanted without fear, guilt or regulation. To us, free love had nothing to do with the quantity of sex but with the freedom of its expression, the freedom to explore and enjoy all kinds of erotic acts and, more importantly, to accept our naked bodies without shame.

The fulfillment of this ideal has been slow in coming. Oral and anal sex were still illegal in 14 states until a 2003 Supreme Court ruling. In 2005, the court struck down a Virginia law making sex between unmarried people a crime. Laws prohibiting sex (and marriage) between persons of different races were legal until 1967. Despite these rulings, 15 states still have laws regulating consensual adult sex on their books.

Free love has historically been more of a moral dilemma than a legal one. Premarital sex, for example, remains a cultural and religious taboo in many countries. In America, sex and sin have been linked since the Pilgrims. Intercourse for procreation is good—doing it for pleasure, bad. Homosexually is an unholy aberration to be cured or punished; oral and anal sex, something dirty and perverted. Females with multiple sex partners are slutty—males, just sowing wild oats.

In my mind, the hippie attitude about sex was simple: Sex should be free of fear, free of moralistic laws, free of religious doctrine, free of gender expectations, free of emotional coercion, free of physical abuse.

We believed that sex and love belong together, not necessarily in the traditional sense of long-term commitment, but in the expression of kindness and joy between two human beings during life's most intimate connection.

Next week: America: Love It or Leave It, Reefer Madness, and The Doors of Perception.

Stewart Rogers is the co-author/editor of What Happened to the Hippies? published by McFarland Press. He can be reached at Stewart@WhatHappenedtotheHippies.com.

Ken Sanders owns Ken Sanders Rare Books, which for decades has kept the dream alive, providing books, poetry readings, music events, film showings, book release celebrations, art exhibits and behind-the-scenes support of cultural events in Utah.

A fundraiser to help Sanders relocate his bookstore will be held Friday, June 25, from 8-11 p.m. at The Garage on Beck (1199 Beck St. Salt Lake City), featuring Kate MacLeod, Morgan Snow, Anke Summerhill and Ken Sanders. There will be a $10 entry fee at the door.


Salt Lake's Terrace ballroom was home to '60S rock bands
"The Terrace Ballroom was Salt Lake's Avalon and Fillmore—along with the Dirt Palace (aka the Fairgrounds Coliseum). Built as Freed Motors in the 1920s (by the same family that owned Lagoon), the Terrace became The Coconut Grove in the 1930s, then The Rainbow Randevu and finally The Terrace Ballroom.

"Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Donovan, Arlo Guthrie, Country Joe and the Fish, Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention—almost all of the Bay area bands played there because it was a day's drive from the West Coast.

"You entered through a long spiraling ramp that led up to the ballroom, which used to be where the cars were displayed. Didn't matter if you knew the band or not, you went for the music and the light shows by Maynard & Associates, Five Fingers on My Hands and later Rainbow Jam. The marijuana smoke filled the air, and the light shows were superb.

"Afterward, local musicians would jam with the touring bands at the Abyssie downstairs on 200 South—just east of the Capitol Theatre. ... Rumor had it that the SLC musicians could blow their California counterparts away.

"Frank Zappa closed the Terrace in 1980. Earl Holding tore it down, and it remains a parking lot to this day."—Ken Sanders


The Debut of Janis Joplin
"My favorite memory is going to hear a band called Big Brother and the Holding Company. They played a set and then this diminutive hippie chick came out on stage swilling from a bottle of Southern Comfort and started wailing into the microphone. Who was that hippie chick? By the time the band got to the East Coast, it was Janis Joplin With Big Brother and the Holding Company, and everybody knew her name."

—Ken Sanders


Local House Bands
"Holden Caulfield was possibly the best-known '60s band. James Warburton was the most annoying. He would often pretend to be the opening act at the Terrace Ballroom; he would simply get up on stage and begin performing until security got wise to him. Dave Orgill's band, The Bossmen, was a frequent opening act at Lagoon. They opened for the likes of Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix."

—Ken Sanders


The inimitable "Charlie Brown"
"The most memorable SLC '60s character was Charlie 'Brown' Artman. The cops impounded his VW bus. Didn't faze him. He broke into the impound lot every night and slept in it. The cops gave it back. He was known for riding his bicycle round town with his long hair and American flag both flowing freely. He was at the first psychedelic happening in SLC in 1967, sponsored by Cosmic Aeroplane."

—Ken Sanders