A regrettable turning point in counterculture evolution

In reading others’ fiction about the late ’60s and early ’70s, my awareness of the span of hippie identity has only intensified. Each one seems to focus on a different identity. As I’ve long argued, hippies came in all varieties and styles, and still do. But these also show how little overlap there often was.

So much so that I no longer find the label useful. Period. It fails to convey the extent to which we differed within the rainbow.

As one friend insists, “I was never a hippie. I was a freak!”

To the straight world, of course, there was no difference.

For many, political activism was a central component, though not for all. And I’m thinking the evolution of that activism needs more exploration. It’s where we really failed the most.

For starters, too many saw protests as the route to pursue, rather than undertaking the hard work of holding office or attending meetings.

For another, we failed to clearly articulate our vision, other than tending to be left, as in what we called radical, rather than liberal, which seemed to support the Vietnam quagmire. We were reactionary, actually, at least against the military-industrial-financial-racist complex. The ’68 Democratic national convention in Chicago didn’t help anything, either.

Looking back, it seems that too much of our political expression was being domineered by the egotistical theatrics of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin and the like. (Correct me if I’m wrong.)

Woodstock seemed to shift everything. Yes, we had the Jackson State and Kent State shootings the following spring, along with the shutdown of college campuses and some big marches. But who were our avatars?

Or, put another way, why is the experience remembered more by the music than by the speeches?

~*~

Back to Woodstock.

Seems Hoffman wanted to be part of it, naturally, and demanded – get this – $10,000, 200 free tickets, tables for distributing literature, and the right to leaflet the audience. The event’s organizer, Michael Lang, initially refused but later relented.

But that wasn’t enough. High on acid, Hoffman took to the stage and started ranting. Never mind that it was in the wee hours of Sunday morning. After 20 minutes or so, he knocked over Peter Townshend’s microphone as The Who was coming onstage, and a miffed Townshend responded by whacking Hoffman with his guitar and shouting obscenities about getting “off of my fucking stage.”

That part’s well known.

The message, intentional or not, was that politics were not to interrupt the sanctity of art.

I sense the rift only grew after that.

The protest music I remember was by folksingers-songwriters, not rockers.

Well, maybe John Lennon proved the exception.

Help me, please.

Ten things to look forward to in ‘normal’

To put the U.S. coronavirus crisis in perspective, consider that its toll has surpassed the 58,220 deaths of American servicemen in the Vietnam war. And to think, it would have been much worse if we hadn’t hunkered down, even as the virus continues to multiply.

Yes, I know it’s premature to expect our social lives to be returning to “normal” anytime soon, but let’s keep the hope alive.

Here are ten things I’ll say we’re missing.

  1. Worship. Gathering together, not just solo meditation. Followed by hugs and handshakes. Even weddings and funerals are on hold. Don’t overlook regional board meetings, annual sessions, community suppers, or big festivals, either.
  2. Live public events. Let’s start with concerts, theater, dancing and dance, sports of all sorts, both as players and fans. Add festivals, graduations, political rallies, public lectures, governmental meetings. The things that bring us together as a community.
  3. Swimming and the gym. For me, this includes the daily banter with fellow swimmers I’ve come to know and the lifeguards, too. It’s like workout partners and trainers at the gym, so I’ve heard. Long walks just aren’t the same.
  4. Eating out and meeting for a drink. Let’s throw in catching up with a friend over a cup of cappuccino or stopping off somewhere while off on that stroll. A phone call is a poor substitute.
  5. Shopping. Yes, we can still go to the grocery (kind of), but many other places are closed. As for yard sales, where we find some of our best stuff without them? I’ll put banking in person here, as in being able to walk into the lobby.
  6. Beaches, parks, playgrounds. I couldn’t even harvest seaweed for garden mulch this year. Seriously.
  7. Health care and grooming. How much can we put on hold? OK, I don’t need a barber these days, but my cardiologist would like some blood work at the lab and our rabbits need their nails trimmed, which has been happening at the high school’s animal sciences center, or was.
  8. Travel and transport. As I posted about not going to Boston recently or noting friends stuck without cars (and we can’t really offer them rides, either). Add to that airlines, not that I was planning on flying. But we really would like to get away from the house for a weekend breather.
  9. Libraries and museums. Special sanctuaries.
  10. Community care. Things like the soup kitchen and fundraisers. And places with public restrooms when I’m out on those long walks.

Schools I’ll set aside as a whole special category.

What are you especially missing these days?

 

Ten more takes from the Met’s nightly free streaming

One bright spot in for me in this Covid-19 self-isolation has been the Metropolitan Opera’s nightly streaming of a Live in HD performance from its archive. As I mentioned in a March 23 posting, these are free and available until 3:30 the next afternoon. Better yet, the series is continuing. I’ve now seen more operas this way than I’ve seen live and in concert combined.

As I mentioned in “Spending nights at the opera on my laptop,” watching these performances is quite different from listening to them on the radio, and some of the things that stand out for me are the extraordinary level of the acting, by not just the principal singers but everyone on stage, leading to the important presence of the chorus in its role as actors and not just voices, and the brilliance of the opera’s dancers, who I’ll argue are highly underappreciated – they even move much of the set around during some productions. Yes, and those sets and costumes are amazing, even with all of the excessive luxury, expense, and unbelievable perfection that the video cameras catch even when those in the audience are oblivious at their distance. This is as close to the ideal, overall, as anyone could ever expect in live theater.

The backstage videos and interviews have also deepened my appreciation. Many kudos.

That said, let me note ten more distinctive things that are jumping out for me as I watch:

  1. The oath. Or, in far fewer instances, a vow. I hadn’t notice this before, but in at least 90 percent of opera, the entire drama revolves around a sworn declaration – often forced upon someone, as in a deathbed scene, but sometimes from youthful outbursts. Watch for this, as I am now. And then, swear not, as Jesus counseled. It always leads to trouble.
  2. The physicality of the singers. Gone are the days of lining up the big voices and the chorus behind them. Nowadays, they’re running and jumping and dancing while singing the most incredibly difficult music, even when they get a break to drop back on their backs. Look, to sing like this you need a LOT of breath (try to follow them as they sing and see where they pause to inhale) and then think about all of the other demands on their air. Got me? It’s amazing.
  3. The swordfights. Remember, this is live, with no room for a retake. And it’s convincing.
  4. Dancing or miming the overture or prelude. The opening music has often seemed like a spacer to establish the mood while latecomers arrive. Something like a mini-symphony, to spotlight the instrumentalists, before we get to the real stuff. Some of the newer productions, however, are raising the curtain by the time the conductor enters the orchestra pit and feature dancing or acting during the introductory music. It’s like showing a movie scene before rolling the credits, and even more impressive. Why haven’t we always done it this way?
  5. Updating the action. Trying to reset the historical setting of the story is always tricky, but when it works, it’s brilliant. Note the Met’s “Rigoletto,” move to gambling Las Vegas, which we’ve not yet viewed. But everything I’ve seen so far along these lines has been brilliant. “Macbeth” as a ‘ 50s rebellion definitely fits, once we take it out of Scotland. As does Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutti” in Coney Island, though I wish they had swapped the couples at the finale – this production had room for that feminist power reintrepretion.
  6. Appreciating the subtitles. I love that these are contemporary translations, unlike the tortured Victorian-era lines I tried to follow way back when. As an exacting editor, I appreciate their high quality (only one or two places I’d object as a grammarian), My sole qualm has been in religious references when these drop into “Biblical” language, the “thee” instead of “you” line of speech, even in Drudic and Hindu instances.
  7. On-stage touches. Everytime I see flames in a scene, I wonder how they got that bit past the fire marshal. Not just cigarettes or cigars (hope they don’t inhale, it’s bad for the voice) to candles and torches and fireplaces and conflagrations that level a village. The use of puppetry is incredibly effective, as we’ve seen especially in “Butterfly.” And then there are the wigs, even for the chorus. (More than 2,000 a season, as we learned in a backstage interview.)
  8. The animals. Yes, dogs, horses, donkeys, and more … on stage!
  9. The collegiality of the cast. The days of the infamous prima donna is largely gone. Singers today are generally professional and respect the work of others, even when they tackle the same roles. It’s apparent in the interviews.
  10. Conducting. It’s not the same as leading a symphony, and I find these maestro’s motions much harder to follow. For one thing, they’re way ahead of the beat. Even so, the Met band is glorious, a far improvement over the rough-edged ensemble before James Levine’s tenure. The audience doesn’t start applauding as soon as a big singer ends an aria, either, but waits for the final orchestral note fades.

Is there anything that’s making this period of shelter-in-place somehow special?

 

I’d love to take a train ride but …

My wife mentioned that she’s seeing a lot of deals from Amtrak, and that had me thinking how overdue I am for a trip on the Downeaster to Boston or the other way up to Portland, Maine, or beyond. As a senior, I even get to ride at half-price.

Of course, Covid-19 came into the picture, and I started flashing through the factors.

If the train’s not crowded, I’d have plenty of social distance. I could also carry hand sanitizer and even wear my colorful homemade mask to reduce risk of exposure.

I’ve been wanting to go to a Boston Symphony concert, finally see their new music director in action, but then I paused, realizing all of those concerts have been cancelled.

My considerations moved on to a visit at Harvard’s famed Fogg art museum, which had reopened after extensive renovations. Well, reopened is the wrong word. For the time being, it’s closed again. Hope the renovations hold.

Ditto, too, for a fine meal, maybe even in the North End’s Little Italy a few blocks from North Station. Forget that during the coronavirus shutdowns.

So it looks like that getaway is off, maybe till autumn? Or sometime next year?

This is getting boring. Or something like that.

Building a lingering legacy

As she asks her aunt Nita for details about the hippie era, she gets an earful. Here’s a passage that was condensed before the final version of my novel, What’s Left:

You know, peace and social activism. Environmental and ecological awareness. Racial and sexual equality. Sustainable economics. The whole spiritual revolution, including yoga and meditation. Education reform. Well, I miss the music – the fact it got lost in time. Don’t forget the health and nutrition angles, either – not just natural food and vegan. Farmers markets? We’ve certainly been participants on that front.

Weren’t there some communes around our Mount Olympus?

They’re hanging on, actually. The survivors turned into cooperative housing, where the members own their own homes but share the land. An interesting concept. Land trusts, too.

Thea Nita, you know how Theos Tito rants from time to time about the Establishment’s interference with the counterculture?

You mean, beginning with the CIA’s role in moving hard drugs into the country to undermine the peace movement? And Big Money’s work to undermine radical economics? Sure.

What do you make of it?

It’s another big book waiting to be written.

So we come back to politics?

Yes, Cassia. The nation’s divided by the fact we won’t look openly and honestly at the experience. Why should we be embarrassed by our hippie identity? Our antiwar righteousness? Our desire for liberty? There’s no real public dialogue, and that’s a disgrace.

~*~

OK, open up: Do you think the hippie generation should be embarrassed?

~*~

A large Queen Anne-style house with a distinctive tower something like this is the headquarters for Cassia’s extended family in my new novel, What’s Left. If only this one were pink, like hers. (Manchester, New Hampshire.)

Spending nights at the opera on my laptop

When I graduated from college 50 years ago, I expected to wind up living and laboring in a major metropolis like New York, Chicago, or Seattle where nights at the opera or symphony would have been part of the package. As you can see, my life took a much different direction. In fact, working weekends and nights along with the bottom-tier professional wages of my profession curtailed much of my attendance where I was, even for the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD showings in local movie theaters.

Surprisingly, now in the midst of our Covid-19 cloistering, I’m relishing in daily free online streaming of past performances from the Met’s series, and what a revelation they are.

Each show gives me a fuller awareness of the stellar productions than I could ever get from listening to the Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts – incidentally, available where I live only by streaming. Well, that’s another rant, though I’ll send out a shout to both Harvard’s student-run FM station and New York’s WQXR for their participation.

The university I attended was acclaimed for its opera department, with a show every Saturday night and, as I recall, seven productions during the regular school year. Each of these was in English, which I found made the experience feel more like going to a Broadway musical rather than an esoteric ceremony. It was pointedly called opera theater, with an emphasis on blending music and showtime, abetted by stage directors like Ross Allen who insisted on historically correct motions for the periods being presented. A woman wouldn’t have shown her ankle while dancing, for instance, or sat in a particular posture, that sort of thing. As for facial expressions or delving into the psyche of a role? That wasn’t widely valued in earlier incarnations of the art form. But today?

Back to the Live in HD.

Imagine a Hollywood movie being filmed straight-through in a few hours like this, rather than gleaning only a minute or two of usable film a day, as is standard in the cinema biz. There’s no room for retakes in a live performance, and yet what I’m viewing is cinematically gripping. The acting is extraordinary, and the stars are visually and vocally convincing – something that wasn’t often the case when I got hooked back in the ’60s. I’m enthralled simply considering the camera work (and planning) behind each of these. (I have a feeling we’re deeply indebted to NFL and MLB technology and practice on this front – think of those crisp facial closeups shot from the other side of the field.) As for the lighting? Wow.

Opera is often discussed as the pinicle of the arts and their muses – vocal, choral, and instrumental music conjoined with drama, dance, poetry, scenery and costumes in the theater itself. It’s a collective enterprise, the way movies are. Well, I often consider it as the movies of the 19th century and, let’s not forget, the distinctively operatic singing style evolved to project into a hall long before electronic amplification existed. The vocal style is not as frilly as you might think but is actually quite flexible and expressive, even if it’s often an acquired taste.

As I was saying about these productions?

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