The Sixties: Still Crazy After All These Years
March 25, 2018
I was a little slow in catching on. In the spring of 1964 Peter, Paul, and Mary did a concert on the Marshall University campus where I was a freshman. Before they sang Blowin’ in the Wind, Peter Yarrow stepped to the mike and said, “This song is written by one of the more outstanding young poets and songwriters of our day, Bob Dylan.” About half of the audience applauded; the other half, which included me, sat there wondering, “Who’s Bob Dylan?”
That same spring I walked into my freshman dorm on a Sunday evening and saw a whole bunch of people clustered around the black and white television in the lounge. When I got close enough to see what the excitement was about, I witnessed The Beatles making their first United States appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. I wondered what it was with the long hair and went up to my room.
The Sixties, that is to say, got underway without me. But I managed to play catch-up ball soon enough, through my college years, through theological school, and into my early years in the ministry, to know I was living in, and forming my world-view against, the backdrop of an amazing, and crazy, time.
Knowing my current age, and knowing that most of my ministerial colleagues are a generation or two younger than I am (one of whom you’ll very likely be calling soon as your next minister), if you want to hear from a minister whose life and ministry were at least partially shaped by that 60’s era, then I am your last shot. And since I’m down to my last batch of sermons with you, I figured I work this one in.
Culturally and politically speaking, what is generally referred to as “The Sixties” ran from, I’d say, late 1963 with the Martin Luther King March on Washington and the Kennedy assassination, and ended in the mid-70s with the end of the Vietnam War and the whole Watergate episode.
However you frame it, it was a very tumultuous time in our nation’s history; and its legacy and meaning continue to be debated.
Before I get into some of the impact of those days on my life and ministry I want to talk about a documentary film that was released 7 or 8 years ago. It’s called Magic Trip. Some of us watched here last Friday evening. It’s about a cross-country trip author Ken Kesey, and a bunch of folks he gathered about himself in La Honda, California called “The Merry Pranksters,” took across the United States, in the summer of 1964, in a psychedelic painted school bus. What intrigued me about this film, besides its content, was the attention it garnered nearly 50 years after the events it shows. It was one more indication that some eras never completely die.
By 1964 Ken Kesey, who grew up in rural Oregon before coming to the San Francisco Bay Area to attend Stanford University, was a 29 year old author with two best sellers to his name: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion. While at Stanford he volunteered to be a subject for some experiments the Defense Department was doing with a drug that they thought might be used on enemies for various purposes. The drug was LSD, and Kesey was, well, quite taken with it. He thought some of his friends might like it, too. And it was, at that time, a legal substance.
In the summer of 1963 Cuckoos Nest opened as a play on Broadway with Kirk Douglas in the lead role. Kesey was there for the opening. He learned that the following summer New York City would be hosting a World’s Fair. He decided that, come the summer of ’64, he and a few friends would drive across America in a station wagon and go to the Fair.
He went back to La Honda and talked up the idea with the “tribe” of Pranksters he had there. By the following summer what was going to be a station wagon ride with a few friends had morphed into something quite different. It became a bunch of very bright and rather crazy people, with “alternate” names like Zonker, Generally Famished, Stark Naked, and Speed Limit, piling into a vividly painted school bus with a bunch of film equipment—that few of them even knew how to properly use—and setting out.
Driving the bus was Neal Cassady, who had been the prototype for Jack Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty in On the Road. The footage shot on that trip ended up on Kesey’s farm in Oregon until he died in 2001. Then with Kesey’s son’s permission, the raw tape was edited and shaped, and resulted in Magic Trip.
I cannot even begin to reconstruct the whole film here. If you’ve read Tom Wolfe’s book The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test then you know what it was about. Recalling where my life was in the summer of 1964, there’s no way I would have been on that bus even if the opportunity had been there. I was still a good Baptist kid out of a small West Virginia town. A few years later I might have been up for maybe just a short ride. Given my penchant, however, for seeking out metaphors, I now see that bus working its way across America and back in the summer of ’64 as an apt metaphor for an encapsulated counter culture swimming through the mainstream culture of its time—a straw in the wind.
There are some simultaneously funny and not-so-funny episodes in this film. At one point the Pranksters pull into the suburban Houston home of author Larry McMurtry. He and Kesey had known each other from a writing seminar at Stanford years earlier. McMurtry would later become one of America’s most prolific novelists with The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment, and the whole Lonesome Dove narratives to name only a very few. But in 1964 McMurtry was a young, nerdy looking English teacher living in suburbia with a wife and a kid. And he gets descended upon by a bunch of lunatics. Nice enough lunatics, to be sure, but still kinda scary to the neighbors. During their stay with McMurtry, though, one of the Pranksters has drug-induced psychotic break, gets taken to a mental ward, and goes back to San Francisco.
Then there’s the stop at Lake Pontchartrain outside of New Orleans where The Pranksters decide to go swimming at a beach. It’s not until they’re all in the water that they realize they’re the only white people there. None of them had ever been in the Deep South; and in 1964, in that locale, blacks and whites could not swim in the same place. They were not exactly asked to leave, but they knew it was probably best that they did; so it was back on the bus and off again. After a few more stops they do make it to New York, and briefly take in the World’s Fair. It’s something of an anticlimax after the trip itself.
The scene that stays with me the most came during the New York part. Neal Cassady goes out to Long Island to bring his old buddy, Jack Kerouac, to a Madison Avenue apartment where the Pranksters are partying—thanks to a friend of Kesey’s who gave them the use of the place. Kerouac, at that time, was living with his mother in Northport on Long Island. The Pranksters regarded Jack Kerouac as their spiritual godfather, On the Road was their Bible, and Neal Cassady, Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty, was now driving them across the USA. But what you get at that party scene is a sad sight, with a bewildered Kerouac–who never fully let go of his Lowell and Roman Catholic roots–wondering what on earth he’d given rise to. The look on his face says, “You mean I’m responsible for all this? Are you kidding me?”
That’s all I’ll do with the film for now. I’ll return to it later. For all of its nuttiness, and its occasional down sides, it has a kind of joyful innocence about it. The Pranksters were doing just that—being “prank-full”. They were playful revolutionaries. They weren’t trying to overthrow the established order so much as they were making fun of it and refusing to play by its rules or take it seriously. They questioned authority by largely ignoring it. And up to a point they got away with it.
They were also a part of a larger mosaic of music and artistic expression that was shaking the cultural foundations of their society. And those cultural shake-ups went hand in hand with some of the political upheavals of the time, including the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the ecological Earth-Day movement, and the opposition to the Vietnam War.
As for me, I was preparing for the ministry while all this was going on. I wasn’t on Kesey’s bus, but I had my own bus—so to speak—to ride. My personal foundations came in for their share of being shaken, and what had been sources of personal authority for me came to be questioned. This is hardly an unusual process for a lot of young people as they move into adulthood, it just all happened for me at an unusual time.
The shake-up–as I’ve related in other sermons–was my religious world view. A few college classes in the philosophy of religion, and some that took an academic approach to Biblical studies, completely uprooted the near fundamentalism in which I’d been raised. Some good, liberal minded campus ministers helped me through my struggles of the spirit, and my struggles with belief. I ended up attending a very liberal Christian seminar and prepared to be a university campus minister.
I also came to see how religion could be a force for justice and peace in the world. One of my more vivid memories of that era was in the spring of 1969 when I spent an evening, with some other seminarians, at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York with Father Daniel Berrigan shortly before he went to jail for some of his civil disobedience activities in protest of the Vietnam War. He told of how he connected his Jesuit teachings with his anti-war actions. Here again I came to understand that questioning authority is not about nihilism or anarchy, but rather about choosing the highest principles and values, you are going to live by; and then striving to live by them.
Beyond religion classes, and philosophical debates, and political conversations it was listening to the music that had as much of a transforming effect on me as anything. From Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side” (I figured out soon enough who he was), to Phil Ochs’ “Tear Down the Walls” and “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” to John Lennon’s “Imagine”, to the discovery of Woody Guthrie by the generation of singers who came of age as he was dying. All of this raised my consciousness at least as much as eight years of college and seminary.
The first Earth Day celebration I took part in took place in the spring of 1970 when I was, as a seminarian, doing a one-year internship on the campus ministry staff at Penn State University. That was a wild and crazy year in many ways, which included the Kent State shootings. But I remember how we observed Earth Day, because it represented yet another of the positive currents that came out of that era—the whole ecological, environmental movement.
By the time I entered the ministry in the fall of 1971, Woodstock–which I did not make– was already two years in the rearview mirror. My spiritual journey continued to be one of probing, exploring, and questioning. These explorations eventually took me to the Unitarian Universalist ministry.
I want to revisit Magic Trip for a moment now, and the note on which it ends. I preface it thus: In most any culture a time comes when it goes through certain upheavals, when its assumptions and values and mores and its supposedly fixed foundations become challenged and thrown up for grabs. If this didn’t happened from time to time in the life of a culture it would become static and atrophy.
Those who become the foundation shakers don’t always completely know what they’re doing; they’re just driven, it seems, to act in ways counter to the norms. The Pranksters played that counter-cultural role of being out there on the edge. Some of ways in which they took on that role were healthy and fun; other ways, not so much. Kesey would later refer to them, and himself, as “divine losers.” I love that phrase; it means you do what you feel you’re inspired to do, and “winning” or “losing” doesn’t matter all that much.
Here’s another piece. Even as a culture has its times of upheaval, at some point it has to coalesce again. The same goes for individual lives. We have our times of upheaval and then we need to coalesce and move along with our lives. I went through a lot of religious and spiritual upheaval during the late 60s and early 70s, and then coalesced around the UU ministry. With respect to this process, the fates of two of the Pranksters are cases in point.
A few years after the Magic Trip, and after having to deal with various legal issues related to his drug use, which included some jail time, Kesey decided it was time for him to move on. He staged, in the Bay Area, what he called an Acid Test Graduation, at which time he declared that LSD was no longer necessary for gaining spiritual revelations. He moved back to Oregon, reconstructed his marriage with the woman, Faye, to whom he been married since college, and set about raising his family. He went on to teach a graduate writing seminar at the University of Oregon. He got off the bus and went back to the farm.
In time, Kesey had to put a chain across the entrance to his farm and a sign with the single word “NO.” It was his message to the itinerant hippies who were seeking him out and thinking it would be “way cool, man, to go hang with Ken Kesey.” He died in 2001 at age 67, after surgery for a form of lung cancer. Ten years later, Kesey’s widow, Faye, married the aforementioned Larry McMurtry. Life seems to have a way of coming round.
Neal Cassady fared quite differently. At the age of 42 while walking along a stretch railroad tracks near San Miguel De Allende Mexico he collapsed and died of exhaustion, augmented by whatever drugs happened to be in his system at the time. Even his well-constructed body could only take so much continuous, and often narcotic fueled, movement.
When I first saw Magic Trip at a premier screening in Santa Cruz, California, I was the guest of two of Neal Cassady’s kids, a son and a daughter slightly younger than I am, who have become good friends of mine. They’ve long known how their father died, and we’ve talked about it. It was poignant to sit with them in a theater as their father’s demise was shown on the screen. I make no value judgment with any of this; only an observation: We choose the lives we live, and we live with the outcome of our choices.
So, it was a crazy time, a chaotic time, a scary time, a joyful time—and an amazing time to come of age. And for all of the craziness and excessiveness that took place, it was a truly transformative time for our society and culture.
We continue to live out the legacies of the civil rights and black empowerment movements, the drive for women’s rights which led to a re-definition of female identity, the move for greater ecological awareness, and the move for gay, lesbian, bisexual, the transgender rights and identity—which were just taking root as that era wound down. Racism, as keeps being tragically demonstrated, continues to bedevil us.
I struggle, quite frankly, to assess the impact of that era now in light of our current political climate, especially as we’ve seen it over the past 15 months or so. The core base of support that the current United States President continues to have largely consists of persons who either were not yet born or were in their infancy during the time we’ve been looking at. I’ve long known that there was an undercurrent of reaction and resistance to what I regard—and to which I’ve just spoken—as the positive and ongoing outcomes of the 60’s era. There has long been a reactionary, pushing-back, stream against much of what was set in motion, both politically and culturally, by that era.
What I saw happening in our last Presidential election, among other things, is that that undercurrent of reaction found a voice and came to the surface. I find it significant that the person who was defeated in that race was a child of the era we’ve been looking at today.
Among the things that sustain me, and keeps me hopeful at this time, are some of what I take from that time. As crazy as it occasionally got, and acknowledging its comparatively few destructive excesses, what I take from the era we call “The Sixties”, a time that largely shaped my own moral consciousness, is that there are certain principles and values and hopes and visions that continue to be worth standing for, however discouraging it may look at times. I’m grateful that I still carry that part of my life with me; and believe it is still well worth the effort to strive for the day when “earth shall be fair and all her people one.”
So, for all of the lines that have been used in attempting to sum it all up I like the one from Abby Hoffman best. That’s why I put in our Order of Service for today: “We were young, we were restless, we were arrogant, we were scared, we were silly, we were headstrong, and we were right.”
March 25, 2018
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