I am a tail-end Baby Boomer, a late but card-carrying member of the club, with a consciousness that I assure you was fully formed when Revolver was on KHJ. I rocked to Motown, The Beatles, The Doors, Sly, Hendrix, and Janis. I’m the youngest kid brother of The Beatles touching down for The Ed Sullivan Show, Sandy Koufax’s perfect game in September 1965, of the Miranda decision passing in The Supreme Court, and while vacationing in Honolulu, April of 1968, receiving the traumatizing news of a shot that rang out in Memphis air.
It can be argued that 1960’s America was and always will be the paradigm and the very definition of counterculture: Freedom Riders, Civil Rights, The Watts Riots of 1965, Timothy Leary, bra burning and first wave feminism, across-the-board anti-establishment sentiment sticking its middle finger to the man, the fight for union and labor rights for farm workers led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, protests against The Vietnam War with burning draft cards directed at the government’s predilection for constantly amending the Selective Service System (SSS), love-ins, sit-ins, be-ins, the Summer of Love, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), The Black Panthers, LSD, Hair, the 1968 Democratic Convention and its nightsticks of shame, Woodstock, and a partially clad generation taking the Bohemians’ and Beatniks’ poetry one step further by turning on and tuning out.
(They say if you remember, you weren’t there. Hey, brain cells do grow back; though thanks to Iron Butterfly, severe hearing loss may be our undoing.)
Every decade comes with its own tributaries; steer your paddle to one side of the boulder and drop into a roiling rush of Class 5 rapids; choose the other side and peacefully drift into an emerald swimming hole.
So, what about the 1970s? Was this post-Altamont version of American culture, with its emphasis on the singer-songwriter-oriented vision of introspection (read: navel gazing), a legitimate enough reason to pronounce the decade as being misunderstood? Or, with the vast latitude of disparate music, media, entertainment, literature, human potential movements, political upheaval, and “Afternoon Delight” being a # 1 hit song – perhaps we could settle on mystifying? Or lastly, like bouncers at the Roxy, should we ink-stamp the years with the disingenuous term – the Me Decade? (Read: chakras and Punk, est and cocaine, Pong and Disco, CB radios and A Course in Miracles, telephone answering machines and Scientology and, well, that’s enough.) The early years of the decade were no coleslaw, corn on the cob, pickles and barbequed meats. To this day, Ohio’s governor ordering the National Guard to slaughter defenseless young people at Kent State remains inexplicable. Then, more incredulity, this time, a two-bit break-in at a certain hotel, slathering on more mustard, ketchup and malaise. Stir in an unwinnable war half-way around the world with its incessant droning planes returning home with boys in boxes draped by Old Glory. Serve it up with a presidential resignation – the first in our history – grab some lemonade and find a shady tree.
Okay, so, 1960s, you may always hold ultimate counterculture bragging rights, but my tail-enders around the country had these, albeit some packed over from your neck of the woods . . .
Dr. Demento was the on-air promoter of all things bizarre, vile, gross, and tongue-in-cheek-critical of American culture; the dude was just basically flat-out demented. And those of us who were old enough were glued to the radio late Sunday evenings to listen to him and an endless litany of raunchy novelty songs. Hailing from Minnesota, Barret Eugene “Barry” Hansen, aka Dr. Demento, soon found himself as a young man living in Topanga Canyon in L.A. He was a roadie for the band Spirit, and soon after for Canned Heat. Eventually, he landed a gig with Specialty Records, submitted articles to Rolling Stone Magazine and others (as Barry Hansen), and eventually landed his job at the infamous (now defunct) 94.7 KMET. His trajectory of absurdity begins in the early ‘70s and skyrockets when it becomes a weekly syndicated show distributed by Westwood One in 1974. Although years later changes in radio and the music industry forced the show off Westwood One, to this day Dr. Demento can be heard through the wonder of internet streaming audio. You can try but you just can’t hide from dead puppies, Kinko the Clown, huskies in the yellow snow, grandma getting run over by a reindeer, shaving cream, Star Trekkin’ and moose turd pie. Don’t serve that one up, please.
Young man, now give me that knife….
Richard “Cheech” Marin and Tommy Chong had the audacity of including a giant rolling paper in their LP Big Bambu (1972). That kind of set the tone, or lit a match under their career, as it were. When that knife goes slinging through the air and penetrates the classroom wall, need I say more? It was nominated for a Grammy but lost out to George Carlin – no shame there. (I’d include George in this group – however, he deserves a post all to his own!) “Basketball Jones,” a parody of the song “Love Jones” (Brighter Side of Darkness, 1973), unabashedly insulted urban culture with tongues firmly in cheek. Among those sitting in on the recording were George Harrison, Carole King, Michelle Phillips, Billy Preston and Tom Scott, all helping it peak at # 15 on the charts in 1973. Up in Smoke (1978) was the duo’s first of many outrageous films and was directed by none other than Carole King’s (and many others’) producer, Lou Adler. The plot is convoluted and largely required that the audience be stoned out of their minds. Normal brain functioning would unlikely get any of the humor. The cast also included Stacy Keach, Tom Skerritt and a small part for Ellen Barkin. At the box office, it grossed (out) well, as the fifteenth-highest earning film of the year, even doing well in Canada, however, South Africa banned it from its theaters, fearing the corruption of its youth. Though Cheech and Tommy had some bumps along the way as friends – even falling out at one point – occasionally as a duo, they continue to record, take TV roles, make films, and entertain us. Perhaps in their older years, they are a little less counterculture; however, back then they really knew how to use the corn in there for texture. I’ll pass on that one too.
Bernard “Hap” Kliban (1935-1990) was a noted artist whose cartoons featured highly unusual characters and were just plain wicked, weird, and quite often took tongue-in-cheek potshots at contemporary American culture. He lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, for much of his life here in Marin County (Fairfax). Early on, his cartoons were featured in Playboy and soon his infamous Cat had a book of his/its own (1975). Marketing the ubiquitous feline like crazy, he/it could be seen on t-shirts, mugs, calendars, aprons, and more. In the mid-1970s, Kliban’s collection began to grow with annual publications, all of which I’ve read hundreds of times and still find to be hilarious: Never Eat Anything Larger Than Your Head and Other Drawings (1976), Whack Your Porcupine and Other Drawings (1977), Tiny Footprints (1978) and Two Guys Fooling Around with the Moon (1982).
When The Rocky Horror Picture Show was released in 1975 in the UK and in the USA, theaters were hardly packed. However, the film followed the footsteps of midnight screening hit films Pink Flamingos (1972) and the very twisted Reefer Madness (1936) and soon it became a novelty smash especially on or near college campuses. Within a few years, the “monster” of a show was playing midnight screenings at over fifty theaters nationwide with fans dressing up as characters, singing along, getting up in front of the screen and reciting the entire script. And yes, even I got “dragged” into this way back then in San Diego c. 1978. And for the record, I did not dress up as Frank N. Furter! Sadly, if you didn’t dress up, you sure got a lot of grief from the die hard lunatics! What’s most impressive is that the film is considered the longest-running release in film history. And let’s not forget that the incredibly unique and inspired music & lyrics were written by Riff Raff aka Richard O’Brien, who is often overlooked as so many memorable careers were launched from this counterculture gem, including those of Tim Curry, Meatloaf and Susan Sarandon. Richard was an original cast member of the London stage production of Jesus Christ Superstar and it was a treat to see him years later as the evil Pierre Le Pieu (great name) in one of my favorite films Ever After (1998) starring Drew Barrymore.
Even though Robert Crumb’s iconic Zap Comix originated in 1968, it had a phenomenal cultural impact on the 1970s. His trademark character, Mr. Natural, was groovy in a Zen meditation way. Next, his “rambunctious and self-seeking” Fritz the Cat. In all, Crumb’s Keep on Truckin’ imagery was proudly displayed on t-shirts and decals, stacks of Fritz the Cat issues could be found in most acne-covered teenagers’ bedrooms (under the bed, of course), and in an era of Archie, Richie Rich and Peanuts, and even Mad and Cracked, Crumb raised his middle finger to all of it, considering himself as “one of the world’s last great medieval thinkers.” This caused intense terror in parents across the suburban expanse of America.
Like George Carlin, this man requires so much more than a paragraph. However, I had to conclude this piece with him due to his transitional cultural impact from his early days in Laurel Canyon to the excruciatingly painful moment known as a Valley Girl. Frank Zappa (1940-1993) stands alone as the ultimate counterculture musician and artist. Zappa recorded and produced over sixty albums, solo and with the incredibly talented Mothers of Invention. He earned a posthumous induction to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1995 and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997. Only three of his songs bubbled under the Top 100 Chart (“Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow,” # 86 in 1974, “Dancin’ Fool,” # 45 in 1979, “Valley Girl,” # 32 in 1982), and he would have likely said that “lack of chart success” made him happy.
Iconoclasts remind us not to become too comfortable with how things are and even who we are. Without them, we’re punching the clock, playing out the string, setting aside dreams, playing by the rules. Iconoclasts dare us to rewrite those rules. Cultural change is fluid and does not strictly adhere to decades, eras, centuries, or in the most spiritual sense – a moment in time. It just happens.
Food for counterculture thought. And just a friendly reminder, watch out where the huskies go.
Regarding the featured image, for more information about Sal Veder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph, “Burst of Joy,” click here.