Last month’s entry discussed a sympathetic insider’s account of the Haight-Ashbury and how it informed the Dead’s early work; this month’s entry discusses a book that represents largely the opposite. Like James N. Doukas’s Electric Tibet, Burton H. Wolfe’s The Hippies is a contemporary account, and it, too, is based on substantial first-person reporting, by a trained professional - - though Wolfe is strictly a journalist, whereas Doukas had training in sociology as well. Yet Electric Tibet started from a vantage that respected the music being created in San Francisco and an understanding of how the broader scene informed that music - - and even though Doukas’s time in the Haight was after its heyday, he managed to find the seriousness that still propelled the hippie experiment, seeing the music and musicians as worthy of thoughtful analysis. Wolfe’s The Hippies finds no such merit. Although he is sympathetic to the critique of mainstream society that the Haight represented, he depicts it as drowned out by self-destructive indolence and vacuity. Indeed, despite the book’s continued prominence, and its author’s ongoing public defense of his patently outdated perspective, The Hippies primarily stands as an example of mainstream condemnation of the Haight-Ashbury. For readers interested in the Dead’s milieu, Wolfe’s book is more than just an account by a professional journalist bent on sensationalistic denigration and dismissal: it is an indication of how, in the public’s mind, the Dead’s project became so entangled with the worst excesses of Haight-Ashbury and the counterculture in general. For fans interested in understanding the band’s media image, The Hippies is a vital text, albeit a sad bellwether of how mainstream antipathy took root.
Published in 1968, The Hippies appeared under New American Library’s Signet imprint, a paperback that joined Signet’s other sensationalistic fare such as The Night Action, a novel set in “the sordid night world of San Francisco … that taps the pulse of today’s frenzied youth, endlessly trying to fill a void within themselves”, and The Sweet Ride, which depicted “a rootless, restless new breed of youth who want nothing more than a ‘sweet ride’ on alcohol, on drugs, in bed …” Still, as Electric Tibet showed, a sympathetic, well-researched account could appear alongside shoddy hackwork issued by the same publisher - - that kind of bookshelf contradiction was common in the paperback trade in the late 1960s. Signet also published Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, for example, giving it equally sensationalistic billing. In the fog of the culture wars of the 1960s, discerning critical voices were far too rare - - perhaps especially in editorial boardrooms. Sensationalism sells, though, and that explains the publication of Wolfe’s book.
The Hippies is a series of essays, fourteen chapters and a glossary of “hippie” terms. Wolfe is forthright about his perspective: as he announces, “I’m one of the uptight people” (54). When he spends time with a group of Haight-Ashbury hippies that he labels a commune (named The Merry Vermin), he explains, “that was the difficult part about life with the Vermin. They were on drugs, and I was straight” (79). He makes plain his agenda in the first chapter, when he describes hippies in the Haight gathered “in communal apartments, smoking marijuana cigarettes, listening to rock and roll records, stroking each others’ genitals, taking trips into other realities through their magic elixir of love: LSD …” (10). That backdrop colors everything Wolfe portrays, including the music.
Although most of the city’s major rock bands make brief appearances in the book, the Dead are particularly prominent, introduced in the first chapter and singled out in the third chapter. Discussing “The Golden Road,” for example, Wolfe credits it for providing “the delineation of the hippie life style” through its lyrics, which he helpfully transcribes:
See that girl, barefoot (doeeyoumoo)
Whistlin’ and a singing’
She’s a-carryin’ on
Laughin’ in her eyes, dancin’ in her feet
She’s a (neonwhirrwhirrmoo)
And she can live on the street. (37)
Given that the hippie lifestyle he depicts is confused, at best, his deciphering of the lyrics (which he states were transcribed “with my ear smack against the phonograph speaker”) is consistent. After dismissing the Dead as “all high school and college drop-outs” he then describes their music, calling it “primarily an imitation of Negro blues. The style of singing is guttural, down, and dirty; and the diction is that of Negro slang: ‘Ah luhv you, babuh.’ That, plus the fact that the music drowns out the words, is why middle-class white people have such a difficult time understanding what the Dead are singing. You have to be a hippie, Negro, or drug addict” (38). He grudgingly admits that “sometimes Jerry Garcia’s rapid runs on the guitar can be interesting as music”, but more telling is how he summarizes Garcia and Kesey: “Both are scholarly men who have deliberately adopted the loose Negro style of life and slang. Both have taken their minds apart with drugs” (38).
No wonder later historians such as David Farber would note that the counterculture was “deeply threatening” - - Wolfe’s book shows why. Yet the broader point is that Wolfe’s outrage and salaciousness are his own, and his choice. He announces that in the second chapter, when he calls the Beats “a sight … to unsettle the minds and offend the viscera of all red-white-and-blue Americans … the kind [of sight] that arouses the deepest passions of human society when there is something about it that is out of line with its rules for accepted behavior, the most widely known unwritten, unpublished book in the world” (15). And Wolfe defends that status quo, justifying it by seeing in the Haight only squalor and misery, fecklessness and failure, futility and folly.
Nor was that necessary. Wolfe could have focused on the elements that made the Haight a thriving artists’ bohemia. He could have recognized the undeniable appeal and vibrancy of its music, poster art, poetry, and street theater. He could have ferreted out a very real political dimension to the Diggers’ social work. There was a darker side of the Haight, to be sure - - and there was much that was conflicted, contested, and confused. His book does not clarify that confusion, however; it merely wallows in it. He had his pulpit, and he knew his audience, and he catered - - some would say pandered - - to his readers, most especially to their fears and prejudices. The Hippies helps to explain why those fears and prejudices malingered, and continue to cloud our understanding of the Haight, the counterculture, the sixties - - and the Dead. As the reefer madness craze of the late 1930s and ’40s showed (and shows), media distortions cast long shadows, and those shadows can leave all too real impressions, long after the clear light of reality should have banished them. Wolfe provides the best, though inadvertent, critique of the book at the end of one chapter: “At first, I had thought I had come across a writer’s dream, a tribe of characters who would produce a chapter, maybe several chapters, of amusing, bizarre stories that would titillate Californians and pop the eyes of Kansans. It all seemed so perfect: the funny names tied in with the hippie guru Tolkien; the diet; the romping naked; the pranking. And yet, their lives turned out to be rather dull and the story a depressing one. I was sorry about that.” (88)
What Wolfe saw and how he saw it can be gleaned from his background. He came to the project with a perspective shaped by his service in the Korean War. Drafted following his graduation from George Washington University with a degree in journalism, he acquitted his service by working on the army newspaper Stars and Stripes. He worked as a newspaper reporter in Vermont and migrated to the Bay Area, where he wrote The Hippies, the first of several books. His writing did not support him, and he worked a number of jobs, from cab driving to copy-editing, as well as stints with alternative press publications. A self-styled muckraker, he portrays himself in various online forums as “the Father of the Alternative Press” and claims that he is “often referred to as ‘the foremost investigative journalist on the West Coast.’” He has lambasted politicians and pundits on the Left and the Right, from Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to Ann Coulter. What emerges from his eclectic resume is a core of conservatism that has not wavered: in a 2007 online article, he calls The Hippies “the definitive book on the subject” and reiterates his thesis that “the ‘movement’ … quickly deteriorated into drugs, not only sexual promiscuity but also mindless promiscuity, filth, disease, madness, and crime.” He does temper his criticism of Kesey there, but suggests that his portrayal of Kesey in The Hippies was somehow accurate and sympathetic, a reading impossible to derive from the book. (His final chapter is devoted to Kesey, whom he interviewed while Kesey was serving his sentence for marijuana possession; Wolfe admires One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest but marvels why Kesey would “throw away this gift, a gift that millions of men would like to have” - - especially Wolfe, who writes of his own tries at fiction, “I throw my stuff away in despair” (198).)
Bad books on the 1960s and the counterculture abound. Some continue to be reprinted, replete with errors in fact and interpretation intact. So why does The Hippies merit an entry in the literary underground of the Grateful Dead? Measuring the direct influence of pulp publications like Wolfe’s book is difficult, but they do provide a useful barometer of contemporary mainstream perception, and in that, what he writes about the Dead and their early years is significant: when Wolfe dismisses the Dead’s music and chooses only to see Garcia as worthy of attention - - and then only grudgingly - - he distorts their work and mischaracterizes their project. Echoes of those distortions and inaccuracies continued throughout the band’s career, and not just in the journalism that defined their media presence. Scholars unfamiliar with the highly charged and nuanced literature on the band can be easily misled, as more than one recent publication has shown. Deadheads are fortunate that the preponderance of scholarship on the band and phenomenon now tilts toward the good, but that consensus remains in flux, buffeted and conditioned by America’s lingering culture war over the nature, meaning and legacy of the 1960s. Books like The Hippies not only provide a glimpse into the origins of those debates, they also remind us what the stakes are, and why they still matter.
Doukas, James N. Electric Tibet: The Chronicles and Sociology of the San Francisco Rock Musicians. North Hollywood, CA: Dominion Publishing Company, 1969.
Farber, David. The Age of Great Dreams: America in the 1960s. New York: Hill and Wang, 1994.
Wolfe, Burton H. The Hippies. New York: New American Library/Signet Books, 1968.