Another excerpt in the serialization of Parts One and Two of the memoir Remembering Tomorrow by Michael Albert, this time chapter 4, distributed in this 40th year since the New Left and May 68.
For my part I would as soon be descended from a baboon...as from a savage who delights to torture his enemies...treats his wives like slaves...and is haunted by the grossest superstitions.
During my years at MIT, military disobedience became a central part of the antiwar movement. To get out of going to
A young man ignorant of the world and spurred on by recruiters, friends, and parents could easily feel that joining the war effort was a patriotic, mature, and wise choice. People would celebrate a son becoming a GI. While you might think there was a major element of bravery in agreeing to serve despite the palpable risk of death or debilitation, recruitment and induction hid those worrisome aspects and promoted the idea that going to war was doing one’s duty. Young men going off to war felt not so much fear plus courage as pride plus responsibility. To succumb to the pressure to become a GI was natural. It happened fluidly, nearly inevitably, without angst. On the other hand, to resist war often meant defying not only history and social expectations but family and friends. When a draft resister fled to
Other people became soldiers and rejected the war only after seeing
Resisting the draft was warranted, because the war was unwarranted. But surely a draft system was more equitable than people being able to buy their way out of service. Sometimes coffee-shop socializing yielded a GI who wanted to desert the army. There was an underground railroad to help these deserters escape the country. Other soldiers wanted to go AWOL, or “absent without leave,” to defy the war and help organize against it. The movement created public sanctuaries for these GIs. A soldier would leave his base and be surreptitiously driven to the venue where he (there were at that time few women soldiers) would publicly announce his resistance and actively await arrest. Supporters would join the AWOL GI to ensure that his arrest educated others.
I went to three of these sanctuaries. The first was at
The fellow at Brandeis was a black man, unconnected to the student organizers, but attending as a photojournalist, hoping to place his work in radical outlets. I am about five-foot nine, and he was a bit shorter than I, but he was stocky and very self-confident. Based on his Southern civil rights experiences, he told me the best ways to deal with police busts. He also told me that, being small, he learned early that in confrontations where you were willing to fight, nothing was more important than the appearance of absolute confidence. Bravado tipped the odds. If you weren’t willing to fight, then you should appear insane. On the streets, if you were afraid some thugs were going to molest you, you should appear utterly demented and out of control, talking to yourself, exhibiting odd movements. Very few people, he reported, liked to mess with someone who has no sense of proportion, whether it’s from confidence or craziness. Abbie Hoffman, just weeks later when he was visiting MIT, told me the same thing. Confidence is everything. Exuding the aura that you are oblivious to any pain that you might have to endure and that you are intent on doling out pain that others would certainly not want to endure, conveyed, they said, a tremendous advantage in conflicts.
At the Brandeis sanctuary, the exchange I most remember was about the photojournalist’s camera. We were sitting and talking, and he was holding it close. The camera was a large, expensive, professional one of a sort that I had never seen. So I asked him how he could afford it since it was clear that he was not rolling in money. He told me the camera was a Leica and that it cost a couple of thousand dollars, which was then a whole lot of money. He also told me that if you are going to undertake any kind of project one thing you need to understand is that you should not save pennies on the tools of your trade. In the long run, penny-pinching would cost way more than it would save. Somehow that advice stuck with me, and I noticed over the years endless instances of people squandering money over and over on numerous small items and on endless little outlays and then saying that they couldn’t afford more expensive but also far more critical one-time items.
Of course, this pattern is most debilitating if the expensive items are, as the photojournalist pointed out, part and parcel of your work. And, indeed, later, I was always intent that in publishing we should not spite ourselves regarding the tools of our trade. But even in other realms, I have found that the advice makes sense.
For example, most leftists think that large consumer expenditures reveal either greed or having been tricked by media and what they call consumerism. Of course, both can be true, but why always assume the worst? This photographer made me realize the opposite might be true too.
Indeed, my life partner Lydia Sargent and I have a very large TV and live quite comfortably, nowadays. This wasn’t always so. In college and for about ten years afterward I lived in deadbeat apartments, sometimes without heat, owning nothing. Cheerios were a staple. I remember ice inside windows and even on the floors of one Somerville apartment, sleeping through winter under multiple blankets and piles of clothing. Even in the early days of the publishing house we helped to found, South End Press, beginning in 1979, Lydia and I and all other employees received only room and board and contributed endless work. Over time, however, some clever machinations centering on buying and selling homes and living and working in the same place enabled Lydia and me to steadily improve our living conditions.
When Lydia and I finally left Boston, moving to Woods Hole in Cape Cod, at age fifty-one and forty-five, respectively, we finessed purchasing a house on a pond that was in turn connected under a drawbridge to the ocean. I had to hassle about twenty banks to elicit a mortgage, and even then we had to have three cosigners beyond the two of us, but, after all that, we had a new home. Until then we never owned anything and rarely had disposable income at all, much less savings. Suddenly, having finessed a house, it was good-bye discomfort, hello American capitalist logic: not much saving, but way more comfort.
Once we had the house, credit was no problem. More, the resale value climbed as if the house were on steroids. Exploiting the house’s escalating value, we have periodically refinanced the place, each time winding up with the same monthly payments but with considerable cash in hand, which has in turn helped us to live far more comfortably than we ever had in the past, including building an addition to the house fit for handling grandchildren and other guests, which of course further escalated the house’s already escalating value, allowing the house to become our ace in the hole asset should our political projects ever need a last-ditch bailout. In fact, the plot of land and home we own have earned more in fifteen years than Lydia and I combined, working like maniacs, have together earned in thirty years. So I learned from the photographer not only that it was economical to spend large sums for fine tools of one’s trade, but at times for items to enjoy.
Getting back on track, my second sanctuary was at Boston University. It was held in a large chapel, called Morse Hall. There was a similar pattern of GI arrival, AWOL celebrations, and closing arrest. Boston University was home to Howard Zinn, an inspiring figure. He had a kind of calm about him, and a friendliness, that together uplifted virtually everyone in his vicinity. Howard’s People’s History of the United States has not only analytical brilliance, evidentiary originality, and stylistic eloquence, but a human touch. I came to know Howard, never as a close friend but enough to be confident that his appearance isn’t false. Howard was and is special. Howard has good karma.
But what I most remember of the BU sanctuary was more personal. I was in the chapel with lots of other students, and suddenly, out of nowhere, walking toward me across the floor, was my father. We went outside and he told me that he and my mother had seen a news report about antiwar conflict at BU on TV and were convinced that they had seen me in the image. They got worried. What was I doing away from MIT at BU at an illegal event? My father, remember, was a lawyer, and abhorred lawbreaking, not to mention that he was very protective of me.
Dad and my mom had certainly already gotten the message that I was not going to be the prominent senator, big-time lawyer, or Nobel Prize scientist they’d hoped. But even with that realism, they hadn’t contemplated that I might wind up in jail. Like other parents, they heard what I said but they projected their own pasts onto my present, deducing that my words were youthful bravado. The possibility of imminent arrest shocked them, and so here was dad, having flown up on a moment’s notice to extricate me from the muddy waters I was apparently sinking in. We talked, and to Dad’s credit, while he thought my risking a legal blot on my record for a GI I didn’t know was lunacy, he left Boston saying that whatever happened of course he and Mom would support me. I knew his word was good, and, indeed, I knew my parents were never deeply hostile to my views, as right-wing parents or even middle-of-the-road parents might have been.
Mom and Dad generally agreed with the broad critical substance, though not the details or deeper commitments of my beliefs, fearing the implications. It was ironic and prescient, I suppose, that amid all the chaos then and with quite a bit more to come, to assuage one of their prime worries, I told my parents that I was no martyr. I had no inclination to suffer purely for the sake of suffering. I might spend time in jail, I told them, but if I did, it would not mean I wanted to suffer out of guilt or out of a desire to celebrate being jailed. But there was more to it. When my generation rebelled, we meant to escape the whole damn existence around us. We grew our hair. We changed our wardrobes. We moved our mattresses to the floors. We did drugs. We spoke a new language. And this was all a gigantic break from anything anyone was remotely familiar with. We did all this, plus we developed new political awareness and views. To our parents, it was as if we had transformed into aliens. But they were far more outraged by our lifestyle choices than our political ones. When they saw mattresses on the floor they went ballistic. When they saw a copy of Marx or Mao on someone’s desk, it was no big deal. Changes in lifestyle, in sexual openness, and even in musical tastes tore them up. Intellectual experiments didn’t bother them nearly as much. I think this was because our parents were reacting based on their own pasts. They knew young people dabbled in dissident ideas because they had done the same thing. They expected as much from us and anticipated that it would last a few years and would then disappear, as it had for them. But they feared our lifestyle changes more, on two counts. First, our lifestyle choices called into question what they valued and were struggling to give us, and even their identities. They slaved to buy us a life we now dismissed. Second, our lifestyle choices had an aura of possible permanence about them, if not intentionally, then by default. If we lived in groups of like-minded folks practicing a whole new way of being, our deviance might persist too long to later be thrown off for the American dream. Our parents were pretty smart, I think, worrying more about long hair and mattresses than about the manifestos we read or wrote. The famous sixties musical was named Hair, not Manifesto, for a reason.
Nowadays I suspect things have reversed. Dabbling in dissident culture is now familiar. Lifestyle experiments are expected and seen as transitory. Today body piercing, for example, is more extreme than long hair was in the Sixties, but not as socially disruptive. It is students carrying around the wrong books, I suspect, that might make today’s parents nervous.
At any rate, the third sanctuary I was involved with was one of the most successful political actions I ever encountered. Due to draft resistance connections, MIT was in the line of march for GI dissent. So when another GI decided he wanted to make a statement, MIT became his sanctuary.
Mike O’Connor arrived at MIT surreptitiously in November 1968 and we set him up in a room in our student center. In one day the event was big. In two days it was huge. In a week it was gargantuan. It isn’t clear why the MIT sanctuary escalated so greatly. In the planning stages, only Noam Chomsky and I—he was teaching at MIT at the time—had felt that perhaps MIT wasn’t ready for this kind of action. To do a successful sanctuary we would have to attract a large number of folks ready to devote full attention to the event. I worried, as did Chomsky—more about him soon—that there wouldn’t be enough MIT support to sustain a sanctuary. We were outvoted in our efforts to hold off the project and we wholeheartedly joined the effort. Instead of our fears coming true, interest and support exceeded anyone’s expectations. The sanctuary had to move from a modest room to the main hall of the student center, and then take over the entire building with spillover crowds clogging numerous other campus sites. Friendly faculty would come to give their classes either in the student center sanctuary or outdoors in the vicinity. There was constant music, talks, and open microphones. Dialogs would flourish late into the night. There were suddenly two MITs: the drab one and ours. Each night hundreds of people would bring sleeping bags to stay with our AWOL GI. At the height of the event I guess as many as six hundred people stayed late or overnight, with thousands in and out during the day, including people from Cambridge, Boston, and beyond.
To call the sanctuary a culture shock for MIT would immensely understate its impact. People came from near and far to experience the unfolding event. The culture was Woodstockish, but with radical politics, innovative courses, teach-ins, music, theater, constant consciousness raising, and debate. Dialogs were about the war, economy, society, and MIT’s campus life and courses. People argued both for and against turning everything upside down. “Mr. Jones” met the “White Rabbit.”
It was ten days that shook my campus that made me a full-time social activist. The sanctuary ended with a negotiated arrest. Mike O’Conner was taken to a military stockade. He could choose two visitors outside his immediate family. One was a woman he had met during the sanctuary and had a relationship with; the other was me. Visiting Mike each week in the stockade during his incarceration was my first serious experience with jail. Mike handled his stockade time well, later emerging and joining the area’s antiwar movement. I rolled along too. Antiwar work by GIs yielded Vietnam Veterans Against the War. I remember one testimony by an ex-GI, a Native American. He told how we would fight against the powers of war until the rivers stopped flowing and grass stopped growing. I wept at his commitment. I desired to win well before his deadline.
One cannot in the nature of things expect a little tree that has been turned into a club to put forth leaves.
O ne evening I was chairing from the sanctuary stage, handling the throng’s choices, which bounced between entertainment and politics. We were in a big hall, called the Sala de Puerto Rico. The hour was getting late. Hundreds of people were there. Most wanted to sleep but some were still eager to talk or hear music. Should we have a speech? Should we listen to the Jefferson Airplane (for the youth) or Beethoven (for the older folks)? Finally I had to calm the room into a willingness to drift off quietly for the night. Somehow, in doing so, I learned to relate effectively to large audiences.
Many years later at a Socialist Scholars Conference in NYC, I similarly calmed a fractious and large setting, Steve Shalom, a close friend from MIT, tells me. A major hall was crammed to capacity for a debate among Noam Chomsky, Paul Berman, and Ellen Willis about anti-Semitism and the Left. I was moderating. The speakers presented, but then an issue arose. Some audience members wanted the panelists to respond to each other. Others wanted to ask questions. The two groups started yelling at each other, and dissolution loomed. As Steve reminded me, at that time I said, “Hold on. I’m going to call on people from the floor. If you want to ask a question, ask a question. If you want panelist A to reply to something panelist B said, ask that.” The audience sat in stunned amazement at this solution, or at least Steve did, and we continued the session without further rancor.
At a national antiwar meeting debating when to hold demonstrations in the upcoming season, I was again chairing, which is why I particularly remember what followed. There was a hot debate, but clearly leaning toward a majority viewpoint. I knew some of the movement leaders had a different desire than the agenda that was gaining ground, but it seemed the rank and file was going to opt for its own preference. I didn’t think much was at stake, but regardless, whatever the assemblage decided, so be it. I was there to facilitate, not to channel.
Suddenly, Rennie Davis, a major and very charismatic antiwar organizer, with prior history in the civil rights and local organizing realms, barged into the hall from the rear, shouting that he needed to be heard immediately. He spoke on behalf of the minority position and in just a few minutes he won the day. Why did he get the floor? How did he swing everyone? He did it by yelling out that he had just gotten off the phone with the Vietnamese chief negotiator, Madame Binh, who had personally asked him to argue on behalf of the minority’s preferred dates for the events, not the popularly preferred dates. People urged that he be permitted to speak immediately. How convenient. To this day, I think Rennie made it all up. U.S. radicals at various moments went to Cuba on what were called Venceremous Brigades to participate in sugarcane cutting and learn about the revolution. I remember hearing of one meeting in particular in Havana. There were Vietnamese officials, the U.S. delegation, and various Cubans. A film was shown of the Vietnam War that had a scene of Vietnamese shooting down an American plane seemingly with a hand weapon. The U.S. delegation cheered. At the end of the film the Vietnamese representative spoke, shocked, emotional, asking how these young militants possibly dreamed they could organize change in the United States if they could cheer the deaths of their fellow citizens. I never forgot that story. The Vietnamese built movements intending to win massive, overwhelming, undying popular support. What were we building?
Rennie Davis was at times the most inspirational speaker I ever heard. He used to talk on behalf of going to a demonstration by combining long but incredibly vivid and provocative descriptions of Vietnamese resilience in struggle with powerful, stunning condemnations of the war. Rennie’s talks, or at least the couple that I remember hearing, were theatrical events, yet also totally natural. He moved crowds, and me too, the couple of times I heard him. Maybe it was the context. Maybe it was him. Probably both. Rennie had won a 4H chicken-judging contest at age sixteen in 1956. Ironically, he won it in Chicago, where he would later be tried as one of the Chicago Eight. Graduating from Oberlin, getting a masters at the University of Illinois, joining early SDS and then the antiwar movement, Rennie later became an insurance salesman, a venture capitalist, and a meditation lecturer. It was sad that someone lucky enough to have had many radical experiences and lessons, and to have thereby amassed considerable political insights and wisdom, cast it all aside to become what he had previously fought against.
Sacred cows make the tastiest hamburger.
I met Abbie Hoffman at the MIT sanctuary. Like many other people, he had come to see what was going on. I remember standing with Hoffman on a second-floor balcony overlooking the large quadrangle outside the student center hall where the sanctuary was held. Abbie suddenly went down the stairs and started marching around the public area, with students passing by in the sun. Abbie had a make-believe rifle over his shoulder. The rifle was the cross that marked the MIT chapel. Abbie Hoffman was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, on November 30, 1936. He graduated from Brandeis in 1959. He earned a master’s degree at Berkeley. In the early 1960s, he worked as a psychologist in a state hospital in Worcester. He joined SNCC in the South, but gained much wider notoriety when he turned on to drugs and began the loosely organized Yippies with Jerry Rubin.
After the Chicago Conspiracy trial in 1974 and up until 1980, Abbie lived underground, avoiding arrest for, ironically, an unrelated drug charge. Incredibly, while hiding from the law, he became the local organizer Barry Freed in upstate New York. He was often involved in demonstrations and events, all while wanted by the police. Abbie later turned himself in and did a work-release program in 1981–82, resuming political activism thereafter. He was brilliant, outrageous, courageous, and provocative. Few have ever had as much moxie as Abbie.
At a 1988 reunion of the Chicago Eight, Abbie described himself as “an American dissident. I don’t think my goals have changed since I was four and I fought schoolyard bullies.” Hoffman was found dead at his home in New Hope, Pennsylvania, April 12, 1989. The death was ruled suicide. It was a very sad loss.
The whole hippie phenomenon, which Abbie was central to, has often been horribly misunderstood. Usually countercultures operate on the fringe, oppose their surroundings, and are somewhat cultish because their small size divorces them from wider realities beyond and causes them to become insular and defensive. The whole hippie phenomenon was huge, however, and penetrated not just elite campuses or urban avant-garde centers, but all campuses, and pretty nearly all cities and towns too. Hippies, and to this extent I was one too, weren’t saying no to injustice, poverty, or pain so much as rejecting the wealth and status that injustices convey to social winners. Hippies said no to success. They said no to comfort and wealth. They rejected the upside, not the downside, of contemporary life. Hippies didn’t want to be on top. It wasn't just wrong, it was boring and lifeless. Hippies said no to education, careers, and the accouterments of success in dress, housing, and even dialect. And hippies began to replace all that with communes, shared possessions, being on the road, and being alive now rather than only in some distant envisioned life. There was a whole lot to admire in the hippie movements and also a whole lot of excess and confusion. Sexism was intense. Returning to the land was ignorant. Rejecting success lost its allure when families were at stake. But all that said, the driving personal desires of hippie life were far healthier than the driving personal desires routinely inculcated by law schools, medical schools, or management programs. And the cultural commitments of hippies were a powerful defining and solidifying aspect of sixties activism.
All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.
T he Living Theatre with Julian Beck and Judith Malina also came to Cambridge for the MIT Sanctuary. They were given the stage at MIT’s main theater, called Kresge Auditorium, which was a rather remarkable freestanding building able to house a few thousand people, a large stage, a big backstage area, a basement, some utility rooms, and a smaller gathering area. The Living Theatre not only performed at Kresge, but also trooped around campus making a visual statement with their dress and behavior.
The sanctuary scene was beyond hip, but even amidst its outrageousness, the members of the Living Theatre cast an indelible aura. I do not remember the play they performed, though I do remember that to me it seemed excessively affected though others were greatly moved by the performance. The period of resistance to the war in Indochina may have been the high point of the Living Theatre’s near-lifetime of theatrical activism that took them all over the globe, from large to small venues.
Interestingly, much later, Lydia Sargent, my life partner, created a local theater group in Boston and Cambridge called The Living Newspaper. The name came from an earlier New Deal program, not from the Beck/Malina experience, but it always reminded me of the more famous project. The irony was that for me, Lydia’s group—which was entirely amateur and which did its short plays and vignettes almost spontaneously based on the news of the day, often on the street, at a strike, at a demonstration, or in the basement of a local left bookstore called the Red Book—said more and was also more engaging and moving than the seriously financed productions of the more famous troop.
Lydia herself would most likely have been a professional actress in a better world. Even in this world, Lydia has through the years created and maintained theater groups for which she has repeatedly acted in starring roles, and directed as well as written plays. She does it all brilliantly. I remember the first play of Lydia’s that my father went to see in a little but amazingly central theater space for her then-current group called the Newbury Street Theater, in Boston. My dad was astounded by the performance and particularly, but not solely, by Lydia’s acting.
The play was a kind of montage of vignettes drawn from Studs Terkel’s book Working and it made a big impression on my father, not least because of his inclination, like many people’s, to doubt that volunteers could sometimes be better than people getting paid. In truth, in the case of Lydia’s group, they did vastly better than professional shows in content and often did comparably in staging and acting, their political motivations being powerful enough to elicit the hard work involved. What the Living Newspaper lacked was the historic times the Living Theater enjoyed.
We are what we repeatedly do.
G iven that Abbie Hoffman and the Living Theatre were strong advocates of its use, this is a good place to mention marijuana. There is no denying that for many people, marijuana was liberating. Smoking grass was rebellious and could change one’s pace of life and foster perceptions leading to different attitudes. I first encountered marijuana one night in an apartment I shared in Cambridge with Robin Hahnel and a friend named Andy Pearlman. This was my sophomore year, ditto for Andy, and it was Robin’s junior year. Robin was not new to marijuana, but nor was he a well-traveled tutor. We had a joint. It was late. We sat together in the living room and puffed it to extinction. Nothing happened for me or Andy, though Robin claimed to be pleasantly high. We all retired.
The place had two bedrooms and I was sleeping in its living room where there was a stereo turned on to nod off to. After a bit, I realized that I was high. I not only had not previously had a joint, I also didn’t drink other than an occasional beer. The clue to my doped state was the music. It was sharper, clearer, and more exact than normal. Each note was so special that a whole song was hard to notice. The notes drew my attention from the song, as if I was looking at individual trees so intently that I didn’t notice they were part of a huge forest. I stayed awake for quite a while, coming to grips with heightened perception.
I used marijuana many times thereafter, for many years, maybe two or three times a week, diminishing as the years wore on. I lessened my use not so much because I lost a taste for being high but because it became more difficult to safely procure marijuana. I was and am more susceptible to getting high than most people. A contact high, which is when someone else smokes and you get high from what is floating in the air, was easy for me. Like a cheap drunk, I got high with less.
I could never understand people smoking a joint and driving a car, reading a book, taking a test, or even just having a conversation. But many people certainly did all this, and more, without any discernible variation from typical behavior. Robin could do much of it, for example. And I later had a friend named Skip Asheim, a Go playing partner, who could play stoned, talk stoned, write stoned, drive stoned, do anything at all stoned, and you wouldn’t know he was stoned. Stomach cancer got him, though.
I have known potheads—a person who smokes so much or is so susceptible that it alters his or her personality and capacities. I have also known people affected by other imbibed materials. Media portrayals of potheads are pretty accurate, if exaggerated. It wasn’t just the volume smoked that did it, however. Skip, for example, smoked as much or more than most potheads, and certainly wasn’t one. I suspect if I smoked even a fifth as much as Skip did, I might have wound up other than who I am. But pothead or not, I don’t think I ever knew anyone who was addicted to marijuana. I never saw anyone suffer withdrawal symptoms, even when heavy users were denied access.
My one experience driving stoned was on the West Side Drive leaving New York City. I had earlier had only a few puffs and I thought I wasn’t high by the time I took the wheel. I was fine for a bit, and then, off to the left, out over the Hudson River, there loomed the George Washington Bridge. How pretty it was, how entrancing. It was a miracle that I didn’t drive off into nothingness. I managed to get off the road and survive. It is interesting to think that if I had crashed into a car I would probably have gone to jail for a long time for vehicular homicide. Am I less guilty for having been lucky enough to not crash? If not, then should I go to jail for a long spell for what I did?
Another time I went bike riding stoned. I wanted to see what it would be like. I rode for what seemed a huge distance without my hands touching the steering wheel, feeling the road flowing under me, even cornering by the weight of my torso and pressure of my legs. Then there was a moment of entrancement with something that caught my eye. Suffering flying-over-the-handlebar bruises, I didn’t try riding stoned again. Marijuana was intense and enjoyable. But I don’t think it had much to do with who I am.
My generation, at least the relevant, roused, sixties part of it, all had at least some politics. We all also smoked at least some dope. When the politics were dominant the drugs were nice, but peripheral, or in some cases, even rejected outright. When the drugs were dominant, the politics were nice, but peripheral, or in some cases, even rejected outright. Sex and rock and roll were prominent on both sides of this divide.
One of the more notable and recurrent features of being stoned is that being high changes your sense of time. You can listen to a three-minute song for what seems like eternity. You can kiss for a millennium in a minute. The clock on the mantle is still ticking as usual, even if it feels like an hour for each jump of the minute hand. I suspect that when stoned we perceive a long period passing even in brief spans because our perceptions accrue more inputs per minute. If we weren’t stoned, accumulating so much sensory input would have required much longer, and that’s precisely how much more time seems to us to have passed. We cram more sense data into less time, and we feel like it is, therefore, more time.
That was my guess about doped time thirty-five years ago, at any rate, and it rings true to me as I recall it now too, so I suspect it is probably at least part of the story. But now I know as you get older, time seems to pass faster. I suspect this is because a week or a month or a year is a smaller percentage of what you have lived so far. At any rate, it seems like you are speeding up your life trajectory even as you are slowing down your actions within it and even as there is less of it left. The upshot about marijuana is that I wouldn’t pressure anyone to get stoned. I don’t think getting stoned is mandatory for being a full person, accruing diverse experiences, or attaining wisdom. But I would recommend marijuana. Of course, I had the white suburban elite university privilege of knowing I wasn’t likely to be jailed and that the person I bought my stuff from wasn’t likely to be armed and dangerous.
Stoned Cold Picnic
It’s all right letting yourself go as long as you can let yourself back.
M y personal experience with drugs was overwhelmingly confined to marijuana. Out in the youth culture, however, LSD also had a prime place. Infinitely more powerful, LSD really did take many users to different worlds, contributing to the ideas and lifestyles of the time, and blasting many people into psychic oblivion as well. My one experience with LSD occurred one day in Somerville, Massachusetts. It was a Saturday and I went to visit Robin Hahnel and Ivy Leichman, who at the time lived together there, doing community organizing. They had another local friend or two visiting, and also Ivy’s brother, Larry, and his wife, Gail. I was without a partner for the day, the rest were coupled up. This occurred a couple of years, maybe three, after MIT, but since drugs were part of my generation’s college experience, the story fits nicely here.
Like many important events in many people’s lives, my LSD experience wasn’t planned. The day’s agenda, which I heard only upon arrival, was to go to a local park, picnic for the day, and return home. On the trip by car to the park, we all took LSD tabs. This was my first time, while the rest had tripped before. We ate the tabs, a little spot of LSD on paper, timed, according to the experts, so that we would drive to the area and walk the half mile or so to the idyllic picnic spot before we started to feel the effects.
We got there. We parked. We began walking to the picnic spot, feeling the effects a bit early. Robin gets energized even by marijuana. This stuff made him incredibly hyper, to the point that he was literally swinging from tree branches. Gail and I dragged to the rear of the procession, the rest of the group moving faster and I guess not realizing that we were separated and slower. Before long, I was struggling mightily just to stay on the path. It was like trying to run a race while exhausted and disoriented, except I wasn’t exhausted, I was mildly dissociated, or whatever one calls it. Proceeding to the picnic spot was a giant challenge and burden. How to move at all? How to not wander off into the woods? Why not just sit? Which direction was forward? I had to concentrate for what seemed forever on only the path and my feet and the distance of one step, and then another, and another, with each foot, each time, landing on the path in front of the other foot, while aggressively avoiding noticing anything else. To step off would be disaster, was my only thought.
We got to the picnic site to much relief from others that Gail and I had finally arrived. Everyone assumed we had simply been enjoying the trees and flowers. That’s when my situation nosedived. I am not a painter, a dramatist, a novelist, or a wordsmith. I fear I can’t compellingly convey passing through the doors of perception into the wilds of delusion. I quickly went from way more out of it than dope ever remotely induced to completely psychotic. In between there were hallucinations of the pond being a swirling ocean, of a nearby hill being a live mountain, of massive animals all around, and of tumultuous earth bubbling. But that was only transitional. For that stuff, I was still there, even if amidst a lot of swirling, roiling, sometimes magnificent, other times unpleasant hallucination.
After that point, however, I was no longer there. There was no self to me. No mind inhabited my body. The boundary between me and not me was gone. My hand was no more me than was a plant I would stare at, and my hand and the plant were each also no less me than the surrounding trees. There was no me staring, or if there was a me staring, then I was staring out and staring back too. Others questioning me weren’t questioning a sentient entity that could reply.
I think maybe I could have taken LSD less traumatically. Maybe I could even have taken it and gone nearly as far as I did and enjoyed or even been enriched by the experience, though that is a bit less plausible. But to go as far as I did with no forethought, and to that point no aid, was skirting disaster. I might not have returned from wherever I had gone, though this wasn’t a thought I could have had at the time, because at that point, there was no I having thoughts.
Others took note. All but one, I later found out, thought I was joking with them. Larry, Ivy’s brother, was a doctor. So was Gail, though she was in no shape to worry about me. Larry found nothing to be concerned about. Robin, however, I was told later, decided my behavior was no joke. I suspect this was because he knew that I wouldn’t joke in this manner and that I couldn’t act so convincingly, in any case. For hours, I am told, Robin, while high on acid himself, and restraining all the wild energy it induced in him, settled me and talked with me and tried to entertain me, calmly, to take my mind off being mindless and to prevent hysteria or catatonia or whatever.
One trick he used after considerable time had passed and I was somewhat better was to pull out a chess set and induce me to play. I was still incoherent and unable to speak, but we apparently played many games. I remember a little of it, toward when the therapy was bringing me back through those doors of perception. I saw the pieces animate. I saw my moves as patterns of plans. I saw others walking over, laughing at Robin and me sitting there playing chess, denying what was occurring. I suspect Robin has never really understood that he may well have saved the life I have lived that day. No memoir without Robin the drug escort.
Well, I did return to normal existence, and but for a few nightmares in subsequent weeks, and the occasional flashback to the bucking mountain hills and tumultuous ocean pond, there was no harm done. Did I take a lesson? It all made me of two minds about drugs. On the one hand, in one mood, it seemed clear to me that consciousness-altering drugs transformed us from who we were into someone else, and that disturbed me. On the other hand, I saw another sense in which all that was ridiculous. Whoever drugs made us, after all, that’s who we were. Why were drugs different than air, water, food, or anything else we imbibed? But abstract similarity or not, I realized after LSD that I wouldn’t have arsenic as a snack to experience its effects. I wouldn’t eat arsenic to have a richer and more diverse arsenal of personal memories. Comparing arsenic to a chocolate bar in that both are imbibed and both impact our chemistry, and asserting that on basis we are who we are whichever we eat, wouldn’t convince me to take arsenic. After LSD, the same held for some drugs, or at least for some drugs in some circumstances. I had LSD only once and wouldn’t recommend even a single try to anyone else.
Musical Interlude and Some Films Too
I don’t know anything about music. In my line you don’t have to.
D rugs arose from and fed into the musical tides of the sixties. Unlike the drugs, rock and roll was, for me, a very powerful influence. I remember seeing the Rolling Stones at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium on Long Island as a senior in high school. What had me pondering that event for days wasn’t their lyrics, though those weren’t to be lightly dismissed, nor was it the Stone’s beat and style, which certainly got under my skin even if Mick Jagger was actually London School of Economics-bred and not street smart like, ironically, the clean-cut Beatles. What got me thinking that day, instead, were Mick’s fans in the stands. As the Stones entered and later left the stadium by helicopter, I remember the girls in the stands, literally standing on their seats, reaching out their hands toward the craft as if to hang on for dear life, exhibiting a sort of passionate desire I had not seen before. I was deeply unsettled. I loved the Stones, but this was psychotic. There was so much of it, however, that it had to reflect society’s character and not just personal idiosyncrasies. I didn’t know what it meant until much later, when the women’s movement discovered and reported the ubiquitous depths of female oppression and male macho.
Along with the Rolling Stones event, some others stand out. I didn’t get to see the Beatles in Shea Stadium. Nancy Shapiro and I missed that, my having bollixed the tickets, whereas Larry Seidman and his lady friend Jane Schur and some other friends went. Nancy and I listened on the radio, in her den. In person the event was a cacophony of adulation. To hear the Beatles it was better to use a stereo. To feel the passion and be part of the tribe, you had to go, and we didn’t.
I was, however, at Dylan’s famous concert at Forest Hills. This was the second of the three famous concerts in which Dylan first unveiled his electric rock future. Amazingly, I also saw Dylan at Newport, the first of those three. At Newport I didn’t understand what was going on. Why the booing? The first half of his longer show at Forest Hills was familiar Dylan, with guitar, harmonica, and otherworldly lyrics. The second half of the show, he was backed by an electric band. This brought out taunts, catcalls, and even serious hatred. How could Dylan deface his own material, even the whole folk canon? purists bellowed. How could the purists not hear what was in the wind? I wondered. And Bob played on, not entirely oblivious, but certainly not bending. No puppet strings for Bob. If you can listen to “I ride on a mail train baby, can’t buy a thrill,” and not resonate to the sound, you aren’t busy dying, you are already dead.
Still, I didn’t appreciate Dylan right out of the gate. At first I heard only irritating noise. Larry Seidman made me listen again, and then again, and it still wasn’t coming through. The Byrds rendition of “Mr. Tambourine Man” opened the door to my appreciating Dylan’s voice. Thereafter, I heard his words in my gut and soul as much as in my ears and mind. Dylan pulled out of the times tones that conveyed its mood and meaning better, by far, than others. This was true not only when Dylan was speaking in the tongues of dissent, but also when he was extricating himself from militant movement identification. In a short time he went from activist anger “Masters of War”:
And I hope that you die
And your death’ll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I’ll stand o’er your grave
Til I’m sure that you’re dead
to disengaged pathos as revealed in “Farewell Angelina,” which to me was Dylan saying good-bye to the Left via a song to Joan Baez:
The machine guns are roaring
The puppets heave rocks
The fiends nail time bombs
To the hands of the clocks
Call me any name you like
I will never deny it
The sky is erupting
I must go where it’s quiet.
It is hard to convey how much rock and roll meant to me and my peers. It opened our hearts, eyes, and minds. From “Satisfaction” to “Help” to “California Dreaming” to “Hey Joe” to “Saturday Afternoon” to “The Gates of Eden,” popular music was our literature. Dylan was an emotional and intellectual jungle gym. I was a kid, climbing.
The best concerts I ever saw were one by The Band, due to the shock of watching them shuffle their instruments from member to member as well as the rave-up joy of a long medley of rock and roll screamers they did; one by the Chambers Brothers in Harvard Stadium, shaking the place with a very long rendition of “Time Has Come Today;” and more than one by Bruce Springsteen, of which the most soul-shaking was the first, in Harvard Square, which Jon Landau saw and said, afterward, “I have seen the future of rock and roll and his name is Bruce Springsteen.” I was at that historic performance with Lydia Sargent. We went to it, Lydia tells me, based on my hearing Bruce’s first album and wanting to see him in person. Like everyone else, Lydia and I were flabbergasted by his energy, spirit, talent, and plain old joyousness.
Springsteen is the only performer I have heard since the sixties who got under the popular skin and into the popular mind the way a whole panoply of fifties and sixties rockers did, but uniquely Bruce spoke seriously and with substance to the white male working class and in turn was passionately heard by them. This fact, so evident at Bruce’s concerts, made me realize that no one else did that for white working class guys in a liberating way that spoke to and from their experiences.
Maybe if John Lennon had lived and delved further into his own roots as he began to do on “Working Class Hero” it might have happened, but, bang bang, some wrong drumming, and John died. Then there was Woodstock. As a concert and as music from stage, Woodstock had its great moments. Most particularly, I remember waking up to the Jefferson Airplane, with the sun rising and a few hundred thousand fists waving. The Who had been the closing act the night before. Pete Townshend had whacked Abbie Hoffman of New Left hippie/yippie notoriety (and, implicitly, whacked revolution itself) over the head for trying to get up on stage during The Who’s set. Abbie wanted to inject politics. Pete wanted to bash and burn his guitar. The two are not the same thing. It had to be 3 in the morning when that happened, or thereabouts. And then the next morning, probably about 7 or maybe 8, we’re all singing along with the Jefferson Airplane:
Look what’s happening out in the streets
Got a revolution got to revolution
Hey I’m dancing down the streets
Got a revolution got to revolution.
At Yasgur’s farm, we were all “Volunteers of America” and Woodstock wasn’t really a concert. Yes, it was a weekend of nonstop music, but it was mainly a generational gathering. It was not a politics pinnacle—there was little overt politics present—but it was a youth-culture pinnacle. We came from far and wide and spent a few days camped in proximity, sharing vibes. Woodstock was sex, drugs, and rock and roll, but it was mainly solidarity.
Did Woodstock have vendors trying to make a buck? Did it have cruisers trying to make a score? Did it have posers trying to make reputations? It had all that, of course, and it had worse, too—can you imagine bad LSD, given my description of the good stuff?—but mostly it was just honest people briefly celebrating outside society’s pliers, in the sunny rain. The problem with Woodstock wasn’t that it was too big or that it went on too long. The problem with Woodstock was that it was too small and it didn’t last long enough.
I am not a literary guy. I haven’t been educated in the length and breadth of human artistry. Whether innately or by contingent personal history, my eyes are not artistic. In Florence, Italy, seeing the paintings and statues was nice but not profoundly memorable. In Egypt, Greece, London, and New York, seeing statues and hangings and all manner of artistic miracles has barely moved me. I have enjoyed a small share of great literature, but great literature hasn’t contoured my life. Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, Melville’s Moby Dick, and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment mattered to me, but if I hadn’t read them I would still be who I am. Likewise, if I never saw the Mona Lisa I’d still be me. But without Buddy Holly, I wonder. And without the British Invasion, the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Motown, and the “Dock of the Bay,” and certainly without the Beatles, Stones, Dylan, and long hair and joints, forget about it. Without all that, I would simply not be me. Woodstock was a moment in our lives, a big and important moment, no more, and no less. But what Woodstock stood for, that was much more.
I remember trying to explain my musical ties to Eric, Andrew, and Andrea, Lydia’s children. I have been a friend to them, and vice versa, for thirty years. I was no doubt paternalistic and they had justifiably little patience for my pleading, just as I had had little patience for my father telling me about Al Jolson, or about some song about not having bananas, or some singer crooning about a Depression and a Great War. When I told Lydia’s kids that it was too bad their joy in music couldn’t give them for the rest of their lives what my joy in music gave me over the course of my life, I am sure my words fell on deaf ears.
Was I repeating my father’s error in thinking that my generation was special in this regard? As much as reason says that’s probably the case, my experience makes me feel it is unlikely that later generations will remember the words and melodies they danced to in high school and college five or seven decades later the way that my generation remembers the original musical scores of our youth. I suspect the music of Eric, Andrea, and Andrew’s youth will not be for them a time machine that goes both forward and backward during all their days, as the music of my youth is for me.
Andrew is an accomplished drummer. As time passes, he seems to grow steadily more attached to the Beatles and less to performers of his own times. One of his children, Owen, has taken up the bass. He seems most attached to Cream, Led Zeppelin, and Jimi Hendrix, all sixties rockers. Regardless of its affect on others, the music that I loved and learned from will always have awesome impact on me. It was entirely integrated with who we were and it remains soul deep for at least a good number of us. And, of course, it wasn’t just genius or muse that tied rock and roll to my generation’s souls. It was how the songs, the beat, and the melodies meshed with the times. A tumultuous world propelled sixties songs into our personalities and cemented their lyrics and sound into our consciousness. All day and all of the night, those times rocked. My generation’s signature was, at least in part, rock and roll that never forgets.
Likewise, there is a sense in which many people in my generation are still eighteen or twenty. That’s part music, part politics. For us, for me, some kind of rite of aging didn’t happen as it usually does, even if biology proceeded as always. We, or I, identify more as peers with people much younger than with people my age. Put in a room with people who could be my kids, I feel like I am in among my own kind. Put in a room with people my own age, I feel like I am a youngster caught in an old folks home. And this will be true at sixty-four, too.
In that vein, one of the rudest awakenings of my life came when around 1995 I realized that it had been as many years since the Vietnam War as it had been years from World War II to the mid-sixties. I remembered that when I was in high school and even in college, when I heard tales of World War II, the stories seemed to me to be from a time out of mind. World War II was before the past; it was prehistoric. World War II was, for me, irrelevant. It was other people’s glory days. And suddenly I saw that for young people around me, a past that for me was in many respects closer than last week was not just the old days, but was never. Vietnam was, for them, prehistoric. I was getting old.
I should perhaps say that my interface with rock and roll wasn't always pure delight. At one point I met The Grateful Dead who were in Boston for a show. Some of us went to their hotel to ask them to do a concert for the antiwar movement. The Dead heard our appeal for a few seconds and then verbally berated us, almost assaulted us, and had us thrown out of their hotel room. Who the hell did we think we were? It was a rude awakening.
I understood stars feeling bombarded by fans. It was no fun for Jerry Garcia to never know if someone seeking him out was a starfucker or sincere. It was no fun to not know whether someone cared about you or cared only about benefits they could cajole from you. It was no fun to have no privacy. But being tongue-lashed by Jerry was not much fun either. Thinking through this, I decided that stars are famous not just by dint of talent, but also by lucky circumstance. The excessive and often obscene wealth that stars garner has no legitimate moral sanction. Applause for The Grateful Dead was appropriate. Massive payments to The Grateful Dead were not. The wealth of stars like The Dead, I realized, ought to have found its way back, at least in considerable degree, into social good. That’s why we asked them to help.
I didn’t much care for the early Grateful Dead and cared only somewhat more when they got more melodic. I preferred the Jefferson Airplane, The Doors, Janis Joplin, Hendrix, and The Beatles, Stones, Band, and Dylan. I mention the exchange with The Dead because it was emblematic of the barely civil relations between serious activists and entertainment stars. There were exceptions, such as Leonard Bernstein relating to the Black Panthers, Jane Fonda relating to GIs dissenters, and Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne relating to the antiwar movement, or later Bruce Springsteen relating to the No Nukes movement and GI organizations.
Rock and roll isn’t easy. Little Feat was incredible. Lowell George died. The Clash was incomparable. Joe Strummer died. So did Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix, and John Lennon. Rock and roll was dangerous.
While I am at it, there were a bunch of films that mattered greatly too, to the sixties. In 1962, there was Birdman of Alcatraz. I remember being powerfully moved by Burt Lancaster’s highly fictional portrayal of Robert Stroud’s time in prison. In 1963, there was Lord of the Flies and The Great Escape. Steve McQueen was us, and the collective project of the escape had a loud resonance. In 1964, there was Dr. Strangelove, A Hard Day’s Night, The Pawnbroker. and Zorba the Greek. Dance beneath the diamond skies. In 1965, there was the Battle of Algiers—movie as education—Help, and A Thousand Clowns. Jason Robards affected me greatly. Clowns didn’t birth the hippie explosion but it definitely contributed to it. In 1966, there was Blow Up and Fahrenheit 451. In 1967, there was Bonnie and Clyde, Cool Hand Luke, Don’t Look Back, and The Graduate. These films all said you couldn’t win but somehow we ignored that, censored it, reworked it. We came away raring to fight. In 1968, there was nothing. The world sufficed. And in 1969, there was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy, They Shoot Horses Don’t They, and, of course, Z. Finally, 1970 gave the world my favorite political movie, Burn. Whether it was films or sounds, sixties culture had a way about it.