Lunatics Taking Over the Asylum:
Cultural Chaos in 1960s America
All You Need Is Hate
If life in the 1960s was
a collective journey to
the Underworld, then it
is terrifying to notice
how many of us have
failed to come back. (Marshall Berman, The Sixties)
The 1960s formed one of the most culturally complex periods in America‘s history, and the analysis of this era is just as problematic. During this time, American society experienced an outpouring of filmic, literary and musical texts that challenged traditional institutions such as the Christian church, the government and the family unit. It would be naïve to argue that this period witnessed the first or the last instance of subversive propaganda targeted at young people, for the many dissenting voices herein did not emerge by random chance. The formulation of a more politically aware youth culture in America and, to a lesser but still important extent, Great Britain, was a gradual process that had been taking hold for considerable time, not one that exploded into being when Bob Dylan or John Lennon began writing protest songs. However, while it remains a matter of some contention where exactly these anti-authoritarian sentiments originated, it is my opinion that this discontentment gained real momentum during the 1950s and 1960s.
Firstly, the group of friends and writers most commonly known as the Beats evolved dramatically in focal points such as Greenwich Village and Columbia University, and subsequently spread their political and cultural views to a wider audience. The three Beat figureheads William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac each perceived an agenda within American society to clamp down on those who were in some way different from the accepted ‗norm‘, and in response deliberately flirted
with the un-American practices of Buddhism, drug use, homosexuality and the avant-garde. Ginsberg courted danger by lending a voice to the homosexual subculture that had been marginalised by repressive social traditions and cultural patterns within the United States. Homosexuality remained illegal in most parts of America until the 1960s, but Ginsberg refused to equate his Gay identity with criminality. He wrote about his homosexuality in almost every poem that he wrote, most specifically in
‗Many Loves‘ (1956) and ‗Please Master‘ (1968), his paeans to his errant lover Neal Cassady. Ginsberg‘s poems are full of explicit sexual detail and scatological humour, but the inclusion of such details should not be interpreted as a childish attempt to incense the prudish and the square. Ginsberg‘s repeated call for personal freedom contested the way in which the populace perceived deviance and normality, which in turn paved the way for the different forms of sexual expression and ‗free love‘ that emerged during the subsequent decade. In the final lines of ‗America‘ (1956), Ginsberg makes it clear that he will not be silenced:
It‘s true I don‘t want to join the Army or turn lathes in precision
factories, I‘m nearsighted and psychopathic anyway.
America I‘m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel. (88–
Mikal Gilmore argues that Ginsberg‘s contribution to the development of the counterculture during this period was vital:
Allen Ginsberg not only made history — by writing poems that
jarred America‘s consciousness and by insuring that the 1950s
Beat movement would be remembered as a considerable
literary force — but he also lived through and embodied some
of the most remarkable cultural mutations of the last century.
The Beats not only contributed some of the most exciting literature of the previous century, but also began to contest ingrained social taboos that would be broken down further by the likes of the Hippies during the 1960s.
Oliver Harris posits that Burroughs should be praised for his wilful deconstruction of the literary medium, as exemplified by the ‗Cut-up‘
experiments on which he collaborated with British artist Brion Gysin (p.xxvi). However, Burroughs is arguably most popularly known for texts such as Junky (1953) and The Naked Lunch (1959), in which he
unashamedly recounts the impact of drug use on his life. Like Ginsberg, Burroughs used his personal experiences as a critique of the American institutions that he perceived to be corrupt and unjust. Just as Ginsberg defended the homosexual, so Burroughs did the same by humanising the drug addict, a social group that is to this day regarded by many as inhuman. To quote a key passage from Junky:
As a habit takes hold, other interests lose importance to the user.
Life telescopes down to junk, one fix and looking forward to
the next, ―stashes‖ and ―scripts‖, ―spikes‖ and ―droppers‖. The
addict himself often feels as if he is leading a normal life and
that junk is incidental. He does not realise that he is just going
through the motions in his non-junk activities. It is not until his
supply is cut off that he realises what junk means to him.
However, the Beats have often been misinterpreted, for they were not defined solely by their radicalism and their distrust of modes of authority. If the likes of Ginsberg and Kerouac are mentioned, their names are inevitably placed alongside words such as ‗rebellious‘ and ‗iconoclastic‘. In the words of Richard Ruland and Malcolm Bradbury:
The Beat writers did define themselves through their opposition
to the reigning literary orthodoxies of the 1940s and 1950s, the
overseas Modernism of Eliot and Pound institutionalised in the
nation‘s universities by Ransom, Tate, Brooks and Warren and
the other New Critics. (p.291)
It is correct that the Beats questioned the abjection of specific social groups, but their work is more emotionally affecting and well wrought than most modes of knee-jerk reactionism. While Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac disagreed with regards to issues of spiritualism and revolutionary politics, the unifying characteristic of all Beat texts is their sombre mood, their deep sense of profound sadness and loss. Beat biographers such as Graham Caveney and Barry Miles allocate much discussion to the observation that the Beats were each weighted by a great emotional burden, for the notion of a spiritual vacuum within the United States was a constant concern for this group. Music historian Ian MacDonald comments that the Beats were driven by, ‗a sense of being roughed up by life and flung into the wasteland margins of a materialstic civilisation‘ (MacDonald, p. 5). MacDonald echoes the words of John Clellon Holmes, who published the essay ‗This is the Beat Generation‘ in the New York Times Magazine in 1952, just as that movement was beginning to coalesce:
The origins of the word 'Beat' are obscure, but the meaning is
only too clear to most Americans. More than mere weariness, it
implies the feeling of having been used, of being raw. It
involves a sort of nakedness of mind, and, ultimately, of soul; a
feeling of being reduced to the bedrock of consciousness. (cited
Holmes‘ argument that disaffection is a fundamental tenet of the Beat experience is consolidated by the pain and sadness endemic in the entire canon produced by that group. The Beats felt as if they were exiles in a meaningless universe, and used their writing as both catharsis for their internal trauma and as a means of communicating this discontent to a wider audience.
Such vocal protest became more common in America during the following years. The multiple peace marches, rallies and college dormitory ‗sit-ins‘ organised by the Hippies during the 1960s were
testament to the fact that young people were gradually becoming a politically aware force. Harold Evans outlines the phase of prosperity that followed the Second World War, but this economic boom was not welcomed by every quarter of American society (Evans p.388). Propaganda dictated that the war was fought and won in God‘s name, but not all Americans agreed with the conflict, let alone using the Divine to defend its bloodshed. The Second World War was not the first historical event to give birth to rebellious young people, but it certainly created a context within which young people could be rebellious. Their charitable consciences were pricked by the dramatic loss of life necessitated by this wrangling. Of course, any overseas struggle demands a casualty rate of some proportion, but the Second World War was previously unequalled in terms of its operatic trauma, and it is questionable if this confrontation has been equalled since. A second generation of charitable consciences would be pricked in response to the escalating conflict in Vietnam and Cambodia, but by this stage the ideology of peace and love had become more accurately formulated. The political education of the Hippies can be partly attributed to the Beats, who tried to instil pacifist values into the lives of young people during the previous decade. John Tytell observes, ‗One of the anomalies of the quiescent 50s was the vociferous presence of the Beats as they fashioned a worldview that opposed the dominant values of our time‘ (p.57). Kerouac later made enemies by openly supporting the Vietnam War, but one of the ways in which the other Beats challenged dominant values of their time was by contending that advancements in science and technology did not necessarily mean progress, especially when they resulted in the Atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Ginsberg parodies the excuse that the twin massacres in Japan were the most effective means of winning the war in the poem ‗Hum Bom!‘ (1971):
We bomb you!
We bomb you!
We bomb you!
We bomb you! (9-16)
The childish repetition of the same phrase becomes a mantra, though one that pleads for destruction rather than peace. Thanks to radiation poisoning, the catastrophes in Hiroshima and Nagasaki would harm future generations as much as it did those who suffered the initial blast. For Ginsberg, the obliteration of the two cities had little to do
with diplomacy and democracy. In ‗Hum Bom!‘, he portrays American politicians as monosyllabic Neanderthals who are eager to wage war at any opportunity.
Of course, the Hippies were not the only group to organise public protests during the 1960s, for this period witnessed the rallies organised by Black Rights campaigners such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, but in popular myth the 1960s will always be associated with Hippie slogans such as ‗Flower Power‘, ‗Free Love‘ and ‗Make Love Not War‘. However, by the end of that decade, love, or the quest for love, had been usurped by a more destructive rhythm of social chaos. By the end of this decade, violent events had become more frequent within American society. In 1967, R. D. Laing argued in the essay ‗Transcendental Experience‘:
We are living in an age in which the ground is shifting and the
foundations are shaking. I cannot answer for other times and
places. Perhaps it has always been so. We know it is true today.
In these circumstances, we have every reason to be insecure.
When the ultimate basis of our world is in question, we run to
different holes in the ground, we scurry into roles, statuses,
identities, interpersonal relations. We attempt to live in castles
that can only be in the air because there is no firm ground in the
social cosmos on which to build. We are all witnesses to this
state of affairs. (Howard, p.255)
During the 1950s and 1960s, the Beats and the Hippies preached that progress could be achieved by questioning tropes of authority, but it is hard to imagine that this manifesto entailed the act of murder. In the words of Lee Hill:
1968 exploded in violence with the Tet Offensive, the
assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King,
rioting in American ghettos and university campuses, the street
fighting and protests that shattered the Chicago Democratic
Convention, and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. (Hill,
Against the backdrop of the power struggle in Vietnam, these tragic events forced countercultural groups in America to face up to the fact that they would never be able to transform their country into the Utopia they had envisioned. Anarchist Hippie groups such as the Weathermen and the Yippies took more extreme measures to make their voice heard. In 1969, Charles Manson and his ‗Family‘, a commune of Hippies who could perhaps be more accurately described as a cult, carried out a series of ritualistic murders at the Los Angeles mansion belonging to film actress Sharon Tate and her director husband Roman Polanski. Barney Hoskyns writes that:
By early 1969, America‘s Hippie culture spiralled out of
control. The Manson killings in Los Angeles signalled that
apparently gentle longhairs who talked of peace and love might
actually be psychopathic — that ―dropout‖ culture had attracted
all manner of inadequates along the way. (pp.205-206)
Manson‘s ‗children‘ wrote Beatles lyrics in blood on the walls of the crime scene, though none of these cryptic messages were lifted from the song ‗All You Need is
Love‘ (1967). Manson proclaimed the songs ‗Helter Skelter‘ and ‗Piggies‘ (1968) to be calls for Armageddon, thereby inverting the image of the Beatles as disciples of peace and love.
During his arrest, trial and subsequent incarceration, Manson claimed to be both Christ and Satan simultaneously, an appropriate metaphor for this era (Witness, Channel 4, 30August 1995). Though the 1960s began
optimistically, they ended in the opposite camp, with events such as the murder of coloured youth Meredith Hunter at the Rolling Stones music festival at San Francisco‘s Altamont Speedway and the shootings at Kent State University in 1970. The era of the Love Generation was over almost as soon as it had begun. Hoskyns continues:
The experiment failed, of course, and its failure casts a dark
shadow across the subsequent history of pop culture. Why did
the Love Generation, of all people, not actually learn to love
one another? Why did the Sixties end with Altamont, and
Haight-Ashbury wind up as a squalid parade of junkies and
muggers? Because innocence will always be abused? Or just
because it‘s human nature to fuck up? (p.19)
Arguably, the Beat writers saw this dark shadow before it manifested itself fully, which may explain the melancholic tone of their work. However, one can highlight a dialogue between the Beat writers, due to their close proximity and the blatantly autobiographical nature of their writing, but it is questionable to argue that these same artists knowingly communicated with the likes of Hunter S. Thompson. That said, it is my contention that the reader can observe a dialogue of call and response across the 1950s and 1960s, especially in relation to the development of the counterculture and its ideologies. Paradoxically, this dialogue became more intense and recursive as the counterculture began to fragment towards the end of the 1960s.
End of the Road
Sweet alchemy was
thicker in the air than
radio waves then, and
it seemed especially
thick around Trudy and
pearl is never handed to them. A poster advertising the cinematic release of Easy Rider bore the tagline, ‗A man went looking for the heart of America, but couldn‘t find it anywhere‘ (‗When Hippies Ruled The World‘, BBC 1, 12 April 2002) America had become an exhausted country, and the 1960s had become an equally directionless decade. If the heart of America could be found, then it was at best diseased and at worst dead.
During one of Easy Rider‘s many melancholic scenes, George Hanson,
the character played with atypical subtlety by Jack Nicholson, speaks in an affecting soliloquy, ‗America used to be a hell of a good country. I
can‘t understand what‘s gone wrong with it.‘ This disappointment was shared by many others by the tail-end of the 1960s. On October 21, 1969, Kerouac died at his home in St Petersburg, Florida, after many years of alcohol abuse. Angry and embittered that he was never taken seriously by the critics, Kerouac went as far as to dismiss the notion that the Beats could be described as a movement of any consequence, if indeed they could be described as a movement at all. Michael White recalls Kerouac saying:
As for the Beat Generation, it‘s not important, it‘s a fad. You
see, this is silly it has nothing to do with the serious artists who
started the whole thing by, you know, writing a poem, writing.
It‘s a fad. (p.37)
Kerouac‘s emotional detachment from the movement that he helped to create is
indicative of the period whose countercultural groups realised that their dreams were far removed from reality. In the words of Lee Hill:
The makers of Easy Rider seemed to have known instinctively
that the notion of the 60s as a decade of idealism, progress and
hope for the future was as fragile and delicate as a strip of
celluloid. Billy and Wyatt discover that the decade‘s optimism
is akin to a brief, promising mirage like oil shimmering on the
road‘s horizon. (Hill, p.33)
For Billy and Wyatt, and the rest of the counterculture, that mirage remains fixed on the horizon, and the horizon remains fixed in the distance, tantalising but out of reach. Easy Rider‘s abrupt, violent denouement is an appropriate distillation of the times.
Shortly after George Hanson is clubbed to death by the local sheriff and a band of hicks, Billy and Wyatt are shot and killed by a redneck truck driver. Their motorcycles burst into flames, and the hidden stash of money burns. The sad demise of Billy and Wyatt functions not only as a shocking narrative twist, but also as an allegory for the murders and social disorder that bloodstained the late 1960s, not to mention the scores of young soldiers who gave their lives during the war in Vietnam.
The Dead Walk
As far as the tone of
the piece [Night of the
Living Dead], I think it
just came from the
anger of the times. It
was 1968 and nobody
was in a very gleeful
mood about the way
the world was going
and so it just seemed
appropriate to put
those themes into the
film as well. (George A. Romero ―Homepage of the dead‖)
A year before Easy Rider permeated mainstream cinema, George A. Romero unleashed Night of the Living Dead, the first instalment in a trilogy of Horror Movies that have exerted a formative influence on that genre. Over the course of these films, America and the wider world is invaded by a plague of flesh-eating zombies, or ‗ghouls‘, to use Romero‘s preferred term (‗Forbidden‘, BBC2, 2 February 1997.). A recurrent motif in Horror Cinema is the penetration and fragmentation of the human body, but in Night of the Living Dead it is the American landscape that is also
diseased and dying. By the third film in the series, the United States is reduced from polite civilisation to an apocalyptic no-man‘s-land where the living are far
outnumbered by hordes of the living dead, and what little is left of the dwindling human race is holed up in an underground nuclear bunker. The paranoid fear of deviance and the ‗other‘ is a thread that runs right through America‘s history, from slavery and segregation to McCarthyist persecution of supposed Communists hiding out within respectable neighbourhoods. The ghouls in Romero‘s slow and silent apocalypse have been interpreted as symbols for each of these marginalised social groups, but the film‘s connection to Hopper‘s Easy Rider, other than the timeframe, is
not so obvious. However, closer inspection reveals that Hopper and Romero share the same bleak perception of the 1960s as a decade that fell far short of the glimmering mirage on the horizon. Both Easy Rider and Night of the Living Dead contain
numerous moments of outré violence, but the most disturbing aspect in these works is the shared message of pessimism and lack of faith in humanity.
In Night of the Living Dead, social disease manifests itself in
crumbling physical form, as swelling members of the undead overrun a Pennsylvanian town, forcing a small band of survivors to seek refuge in a deserted farmhouse. This classic Horror template afforded Romero the opportunity to rework the paranoid cinema that was so popular in American drive-ins during the 1950s, but also to craft a work that encapsulated the dark mood of 1960s society spinning out of control. Firstly, Romero frequently alludes to the failure of the Christian church to communicate adequately with the counterculture during this period. In 1966, David Galloway reflected that:
The decay of traditional Christianity as a unifying force in the
life of Western man, whether it be mourned, celebrated, or
merely acquiesced to, cannot be ignored. Since the death of the
Genteel Tradition the theme of the exiled individual in a
meaningless universe — a universe in which precepts of
religious orthodoxy seem increasingly less relevant — has
challenged the imagination of American writers with an almost
overwhelming urgency. Despite the persistence of institutional
as measured by church construction and Christianity —
attendance — modern man seems continually less able to find
order and meaning in his life. (Galloway, p.5)
Romero mourns the decay of Christianity as a by-product of the widening schism within American society. Firstly, R. W. H. Dillard writes of Night of the Living
Dead‘s opening sequence:
The season, with its overtones of dying away and approaching
winter cold, is symbolically significant, as is the Sunday, which
emphasises the failure of religion in a secular age. Johnny, the
first victim of the living dead in the film, admits to his sister,
Barbara, that ―there‘s not much sense in my going to church,‖
and the film offers no evidence to contradict him. (Waller, p.29) This argument is amplified by the thirtieth anniversary release of Night of the Living
Dead (1999), for which new sequences were filmed and then edited into the existent print. In one updated scene, a southern Baptist preacher chastises a zombie with words of hellfire and brimstone, but his proselytising is cut short by a severe bite on the cheek. This grotesque pastiche of the Biblical moment of Judas betraying Jesus enhances the notion that during the 1960s organised religion struggled to understand the American counterculture. This theme is continued in the opening sequence of Dawn of the Dead (1978), the second film in the series, in which a priest administers the last rites to a roomful of dying ghouls.
A second facet of the 1960s is the disintegration or replacement of the family unit. Manson was not the only character in this period to offer a different take on the traditional parent. The Beats, for example, often described themselves as a close brotherhood who depended on each other for comfort, affirmation and unconditional love. Romero stretches this rift to its logical but gruesome extreme during key sequences in Night of the
Living Dead. The ghoul formerly known as Johnny comes back from the dead to attack his sister Barbara, and in one of the film‘s most harrowing scenes, a zombified child stabs her mother to death with a gardening trowel. This is one of the most shocking moments in the film, not only because of its inherent cruelty, but also because it accurately pinpoints how, to quote Romero, humanity is driven by a ‗complete lack of