Don't bother looking for them at the waxing salon.
By Bob Wire
In a liberal oasis like Missoula, the question "What is a hippie?"
should be as easy to answer as "Got yer elk yet?" Missoula's always
been known, especially to other, more conservative parts of the
state, i.e., everywhere else, as Montana's hippie enclave, a granola
gathering ground for unemployed longhairs and sandal-clad stoners who
reek of patchouli and bong water.
But it's not so easy, especially viewed through the lens of history
and socio-political significance, to come up with a pat answer. "What
Is a Hippie?" was the title of an entertaining, free-wheeling panel
discussion on the U of M campus last night, where 40 people gathered
to see if they could put a definitive classification on that
not-so-elusive critter, groovius microbus.
I sat in on the discussion but feared that it was doomed when the
panel was introduced. Of the sixty queries that were sent out to UM
faculty, asking for professors to participate, only a handful were
returned. Most of those said "Oh, HELL no. I got my tenure to think
about. Hippie." Thus, only three brave, intrepid faculty members
showed up. The oldest one was born in 1967, the Summer of Love. (In
1967 I was more concerned with eating endless bowls of Kaboom! cereal
while watching Jonny Quest, wondering where I was going to come up
with the money to buy my next Matchbox car.)
So I resigned myself to the prospect of discussing not the real
hippies, who began as direct descendants of the beatniks, but of
neo-hippies, like Widespread Panic fans and earth mamas who wear
cornstarch underwear and don't shave their pits. But, lo and behold,
the panelists displayed a grasp on the concept of the Real Thing.
Panelist Brent (I have changed their names to prevent a lawsuit and
possible ass kicking) had gone to college as a football jock, but was
soon meandering down the groovy path, morphing into a Phish head and
following that band for about 60 shows. His run-ins with violent and
drugged-out Phish fans, though, turned him off to the whole idea of
hippies. Then he moved to Eugene, and the deal was sealed. Everyone
dressed like a hippie, he said, and then went out panhandling all
day. It's enough to make you vote for Ron Paul.
The other two panelists described their first exposure to the hippie
culture, and "Tim" even went so far as to say he considers himself a
hippie. With this short hair, scruffy goatee and hipster skinny
glasses, he looked more like a high school civics teacher than a free
love revolutionary, but it's the hippie ideal that burns within, he
said. I was heartened and impressed that he was able to suss out the
truth beneath the fashion.
I looked around the room, and there were no love beads, no brightly
colored sarongs, no patchwork bell bottoms, no Guatemalan ponchos,
not even a decent Bob Marley knit dreadlock hammock. You can't walk
down the sidewalk in Missoula without bumping into a hippie, ("Hey,
man. Wanna buy a bracelet?") but none were in evidence here.
Then, after 45 minutes of talk from the panelists, someone in the
audience spoke up. From directly behind me, a sonorous voice filled
the room with the admonition that no one had spoken the two most
important words: "love" and "peace." These were the ideals, he said,
that drove the early hippies into gathering and creating a movement
in the first place. The speaker went on for a good fifteen minutes,
providing a fascinating, detailed history of the movement and its
implications. He was there at Haight-Ashbury. He knew about the Human
Be-In at Golden Gate Park. He knew about the Beats, he knew about the
Revolutionaries, he knew about the Brown Berets. He knew about the
CIA introducing hard drugs into the scene, cutting the legs out from
under them before the hippies could hit their stride.
The mainstream media, he said, had pounced early and created a
mass-marketed image of what a "hippie" is, which ultimately gave the
term a negative connotation. (Hmm. Same thing that happened to
phrases like "liberal" and "tea bagger.")
He spoke with such eloquence, with such authority, that everyone in
the room took him at his word. I turned to look, and saw that he
didn't have a ponytail, a headband, John Lennon granny glasses, a
peace sign medallion or a tie-died shirt. His short, salt and pepper
hair was swept back on his head, and he sported a closely trimmed
beard. He wore casual but stylish business attire, and his demeanor
was that of a man who is used to speaking to a group without being
interrupted. A professor? Perhaps. He had that air. Maybe he was just
a guy in the audience. But he also had the gravitas, the articulation
and the self-possession that weighted everything he said with The Truth.
At one point Brent lamented that he'd become a sellout, even though
he still believed in the hippie principles. His kids eat organic
foods, he said, and they don't watch TV. But he also wanted to keep
them away from drugs. That comment caused Audience Guy to pipe up and
caution the panelist from making blanket statements. "That's a
statement that discounts the value of the periodic use of
psychotropic drugs in a spiritually guided quest, to help transform
the mind." I was liking this guy more and more.
I spoke up also, saying that nowadays you couldn't be a bona fide
hippie any more than you could be a real leprechaun. Hippies were a
product of the times, and those times are long gone.
Modern hippies are a horse of a different day-glo color. Original
hippies were natural and necessary descendants of the beatniks. Like
the Beats, they spurned the square conventions of American culture,
but where the Beats turned their focus inward, the Hippies were a
holistic phenomenon, mobilizing a generation to foment societal
change. They would end the war. They would eradicate racism. They
rallied under the twin flags of peace and love to end social
injustice. Nowadays being a hippie seems to be more about where you
buy your eggs, or how many festivals you go to. It's nothing more
than assuming one of dozens of ready-made social identities we can
adopt, like Angry Punk Rawker or Intolerant Christian Grandma or Meth
Lab Biker With a Glass Eye.
We tried to explore the idea of the Empty Poncho in the discussion
last night, and someone made the point that here, on Montana's most
liberal college campus, you never see protests. In places like
Berkeley, say, people get up in the morning, scarf a whole grain
bagel, march in a demonstration, and snag a mocha at Starbuck's on
their way to class. It's a way of life, but today it's more of a
tradition than a change agent. Besides, in our fragmented, shallow,
celebrity-obsessed society, it's damn near impossible to rally the
troops and get a movement underway. People might have to turn off
their cell phones or miss an episode of TMZ.
As last night's discussion was winding down, Brent, the
self-proclaimed sellout, was addressed by a woman in the crowd who
managed to wrap up the entire evening with her polite but passionate
assertion that he hadn't sold out at all. She was there, she said.
She survived the turbulent sixties, and carried the hippie ethic into
her adult life, into parenthood and a middle class existence. She
spoke of her two adult children, and her delight that they also
promoted the hippie creed of peace, love, and the sharing of wisdom.
"My daughter is the most real hippie I've ever met," she said
proudly. As long as Brent still believed in the hippie credo, she
said, he was effecting change from within the system. They're still
hippies at heart, only now they have the money to back it up.
The hippie ideal, born in the Summer of Love and carried forth only
to be trampled and savaged by the Vietnam war, the Charles Manson
murders, and the anti-hippie policies of Richard Nixon, is an
enduring lodestar that continues to provide hope for our society, our
culture, and hell, for the very survival of our species. Ain't
nothing wrong with that.
So what is a hippie? Sorry, brother, you'll have to rephrase the
question to "what WAS a hippie." Because, although the ideology of
peace and love lives on, the hippie is dead.