Wednesday, May 27, 2009

And Finally: A Bit About The Decline of The Hippie Subculture

 There is no one event or reason one can point to for the decline of the hippie movement. What's more, there is no one date one can point to for when the movement official "died". To be sure, some would claim that the movement is still alive and well today! This post will aim to  venture into some explanations of how when and why the hippie culture began its decay.

In a quite ironic sort of way, many historians and cultural theorists point to the 1967 "summer of love", a time when the subculture was at the height of its popularity, as the beginning of its downfall. Like a roller coaster that has reached its peak, many theorize that the hippie movement began its long descent  just as it hit its apex. In a recent journal essay, Anthony Ashbolt agrees with other experts that it was the 1967 summer of love that sparked the decline of the counterculture. In the summer of 1967, hundreds of thousands of teenagers abandoned their mediocre suburban lives in search for deeper meaning, and plural acceptance. Their journeys landed  them in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, a region that was already famous all over the nation for its alternative, beatnik culture, and liberalized ideology. Though the summer of love has been represented  in sort of Utopian and euphoric terms by most in the mainstream media, Ashbolt points out that the summer was highlighted more by misery than by free loving happiness.  The main problems stemming from the summer had to do with the fact that the Haight-Ashbury district simply could not physically handle the amount of kids that invaded the region in 1967. Many hippies were relegated to living in small quarters with tens of others, while some were forced to the streets. Such overcrowding caused widespread illness as hippies living in such confined and unsanitary  spaces easily transmitted diseases to one another. In addition to overcrowding, the widespread use of drugs brought with it the problems of overdosing and crime. A 1968 Journal of Nursing report finds that over 10% of the medical problems reported to the free medical clinic in Haight-Ashbury in July 1967 were, "drug related." Overuse of drugs, speed and alcohol in particular, caused an increase in both petty crime(i.e. thefts) and more violent crimes. To be sure, drug-induced rapes and gang-bangs were not uncommon during this time period. By the fall of 1967, Haight-Ashbury was nearly abandoned, trashed, and laden with drugs and homeless people. Most of the kids that descended upon the Haight with such hope and optimism in June returned home sick and out of money by September. Yes, the subculture still carried on in the sense that psychedelic rock bands were still making music, drugs like LSD were still popularly used for recreation and many still maintained the hippie ideology of liberation and plurality; but most would agree that the movement was never the same after the destructive summer of love. 

At the most obvious level, the summer of love contributed to the death of the counterculture because it ransacked and ravaged the culture's capital city, Haight-Ashbury. With the Haight in ruins and most of its residents gone, it was simply unable to operate as the hippie hub for music, poetry, art and drugs. This is the most common, and transparent, explanation given for the summer of 1967's role in the decline of the hippie movement. I think there is more to it than this simple explanation, however. To be sure, the decadence stemming from the summer of love shook the very core of the hippie culture's ideological foundations. As established in previous posts, the hippie movement was established on the ideals of optimism, liberalism and pluralism; it was founded by beatniks that simply desired to experiment with new things in their search for life's meaning. In the early years, drugs were used as a means to an end, whether that end be greater artistic craft or deeper emotional feeling. There was an innocence and an idealism about the hippie movement in its early years. The summer of love, with its crime, sickness and moral vacuity, shattered this innocence; it showed idealistic hippies across the globe that utopia was impossible. In short, the summer of love was where the reality of everyday life crashed into and badly damaged  the idealism of hippie life. In the years that followed,  other hippie-related "tragedies"  would further damage the potency of the hippie subculture. For example, the Altamont Music Festival of 1970, promoted as the Woodstock of the west, was violently cut short as the concert's security staff, The Hell's Angels, wantonly killed a young  teen as The Rolling Stones performed on stage.  The early 1970's also saw a series of violent clashes between US National Guard and "hippie" student activists, ending with the death of 17 students in colleges across the nation. These events were sobering reminders to those in the counterculture that the idealism and pluralism preached by the hippies was unattainable, even in towns dominated y hippies(as per Haight Ashbury 1967).

This is not to say that the hippie movement didn't continue to "flower" in some respects. To be sure, the Woodstock festival, essentially a celebration of  hippie music, was a success, and psychedelic bands like Crosby Still Nash and Young and The Band continued to pump out great music through the 1970's. Yet the summer of love stole away the movement's innocence, and further, it proved that hippie idea was one that may work at an individual level, but certainly not on a grander scale. 

Hope this post wasn't too long. If there's one thing you can take away from this blog, it may be that this subculture, and virtually every other music subculture, is pretty involved!

                          Works Cited

Ashbolt, Anthony. “ ‘Go Ask Alice’: Remembering the Summer of Love Forty Years

On.” Australasian Journal of American Studies 26(2007): 35-45.

Sankot, Margaret and Smith, David. "Drugs Problems in the Haight-Ashbury." The

 AmericanJournal of Nursing 68(1968): 1686-1689. 

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