1970s Counterculture: Misunderstood, Mystifying, or Merely Me?

Some stories on BoomerCafé are about what boomers are doing today. And others? They’re about the past, which so shaped our generation. This one is from the blog of author Gavin Lakin, an author and member of the Historical Novel Society. He gives it this title: “1970s Counterculture: Misunderstood, Mystifying, or Merely Me, Me, Me?”

I’m a tail-end Baby Boomer, a late but card-carrying member of the club, with a consciousness that I assure you was fully formed when Revolver spun on KHJ. I rocked to Motown, The Beatles, The Doors, Hendrix, Janis. I’m the kid brother of The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, Sandy Koufax’s 1965 perfect game, and while vacationing in Honolulu, April of 1968, the traumatizing news of a shot that rang out in Memphis air.

Gavin Lakin

1960’s America was and always will be the paradigm and the very definition of counterculture: Freedom Riders, Civil Rights, The Watts Riots of 1965, Timothy Leary, burning bras and draft cards, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, conscientious objectors, Star Trek, love-ins, sit-ins, be-ins, Malcolm X, the Summer of Love, Jerry Rubin, Students for a Democratic Society, The Black Panthers, LSD, Hair, the 1968 Democratic Convention and its nightsticks of shame, and Woodstock, when a partially clad generation further advanced the poetry of Beatniks by turning on and tuning out.

(They say if you remember, you weren’t there. Brain cells do grow back; though thanks to Iron Butterfly, side effects may include severe hearing loss.)

Cesar Chavez

Decidedly, every decade flows into its own tributaries; one side of the boulder drops into a roiling rush of Class 5 rapids while the other side peacefully drifts into an emerald swimming hole.

So, what then about the 1970s? Was the singer-songwriter emergence a legitimate reason to pronounce the decade as navel-gazing and misunderstood? With wide latitudes of entertainment, literature, human potential movements, political upheaval, and “Afternoon Delight” being a # 1 hit song—could we settle on mystifying? Or like bouncers at the Roxy, should we ink-stamp the decade with the unflattering smudge—the Me Decade? (Chakras and est, cocaine and Disco, CB radios and A Course in Miracles, answering machines and Scientology.)

Fair enough, 1960s. You had the violent uprisings, sole propriety on the term counterculture itself—with full bragging rights; however, we tail-enders raised some ruckus of our own.

They’re coming to take me away.

Carole King

Hailing from Minnesota, Barret Eugene “Barry” Hansen, aka Dr. Demento, was the on- air promoter of all things bizarre, vile, and tongue-in-cheek-critical of America. He’d been a roadie for the bands Spirit and Canned Heat. He got a gig with Specialty Records, eventually landing at the infamous (now defunct) 94.7 KMET. In 1974 as a weekly syndicated show distributed by Westwood One, his absurdity skyrocketed him to fame’s funny farm. A late Sunday evening meant hanging out with dead puppies, Kinko the Clown, huskies in yellow snow, Grandma getting run over by a reindeer, Star Trekkin’ and moose turd pie.

Young man, now give me that knife.

Cheech and Chong

Richard “Cheech” Marin and Tommy Chong inserted a giant rolling paper in their LP Big Bambu (1972). That lit match “ignited” their bombastic, smoke-filled career. For slinging the blade through the air and penetrating Sister Mary Elephant’s classroom wall, well . . . thank you. Nominated for a Grammy, it lost out to some comedian named George Carlin. “Basketball Jones” (1973), a parody of the song, “Love Jones” (Brighter Side of Darkness, 1973), shamelessly insulted urban culture with tongues firmly in cheek. George Harrison, Carole King, Michelle Phillips, Billy Preston and Tom Scott sat in. Up in Smoke (1978) was the duo’s first of many outrageous “films.” The plot was convoluted and in order to be “understood,” it required audiences to be seriously stoned to become sufficiently grossed-out. At the box office, it grossed (out) so well that South Africa banned it from its theaters, fearing corruption of its youth. In the end, Ralph and Herbie knew how to use the corn . . . for texture.

Kliban’s Cat.

Just give Alice some pencils and she will stay busy for hours.

Bernard “Hap” Kliban (1935-1990) was an artist whose cartoons featured unusual characters—weird, whacky, and blatant caricatures of contemporary culture. His early cartoons were featured in Playboy. Enough said. Soon, his infamous Cat had a book of its own (1975). The ubiquitous feline had a purrrr-fect marketing campaign: t-shirts, mugs, calendars, aprons. Kliban’s “literary” collection featured the hilarious: Never Eat Anything Larger Than Your Head and Other Drawings (1976), Whack Your Porcupine and Other Drawings (1977), and Tiny Footprints (1978).

Don’t dream it, be it.

Rocky Horror

When The Rocky Horror Picture Show was released in 1975, response was tepid at best. Eventually, like Pink Flamingos (1972) and the twisted Reefer Madness (1936), the “monster” of a show became a novelty smash, especially on or near college campuses. For midnight shows, fans dressed up, sang and danced, and did the pelvic thrust (eek). I got “dragged” to a San Diego show, c. 1978. For the record, I didn’t dress up. Considered the longest-running release in film history, don’t overlook composer and lyricist, Richard O’Brien (Riff Raff), an original cast member of the London stage production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Careers launched: Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Meatloaf—hold the ketchup.

Keep on Truckin’.

Meatloaf

Robert Crumb’s two iconic characters in Zap Comix had a bizarre and pervasive impact on 1970’s rebels. Mr. (Fred) Natural in his large shoes, groovy in a Zen meditation way, and the “rambunctious and self-seeking” (and anything but Rated-G) Fritz the Cat—were defiantly worn on t-shirts by a teenager near you. Poor Archie and Peanuts; Crumb raised a specific finger to the status quo, considering himself “one of the world’s last great medieval thinkers.” This caused intense terror in parents across the suburban expanse of America.

Joni Mitchell

Iconoclasts remind us not to become too comfortable with how things are and even who we are. Without them, we’re punching the clock, playing out the string, setting aside dreams, playing by the rules. Iconoclasts dare us to rewrite those rules. Cultural change is fluid and doesn’t strictly adhere to decades, eras, centuries, or in the most spiritual sense—a moment in time.

It just happens.

Food for counterculture thought. And just a friendly reminder: Watch out where the huskies go.

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8 Comments

    1. R.S., thank you, bro. Between your late ’60s schisms and my Looking Out for Number One ’70s, I’d say innocence took a definitive hit; quite the turning point in American culture. Thankfully, our heroic iconoclasts had voices and they used them mightily. I would ask those our age, older, and in-between: Do they remember those years fondly? (If they can, in fact, remember.) Do they wish they CAN’T remember them? Or no matter what, is nostalgia and sentimentality a treacle mush and a waste of our limited brain cell activation? Of course, this is subjective depending on one’s events and memories. Me? Yes, me me me me me – I was enriched by the introspection and the search for self-actualization. Funnily enough, when I was teaching, the age of self-esteem in young children followed soon after. Now, all the rage in education is Social Emotional Learning; that is, making sure not only academic goals are reached, but emotional safety as well. One step further, even companies and organizations are more often than ever before infusing empathy into their core values and mission statements. I wonder what Cheech and Chong would make of all that? Gavin, out.

    2. I, too, listened to Dr. Demento on KMET. I mailed him a recipe for “sautéed radish banana casserole” to be mixed “in a Ford Galaxie 500 carburetor.” He sent an autographed 8×10 glossy photo to “My Demented Gourmet.”

  1. i was focalizing the griffith park love-ins at the time when i first heard dr demento on kppc in the fall of 1970…prior to movin g to nyc and becoming the yippie pie thrower

    1. Thank you, Aron. While you were at Love-Ins, I was younger, having birthday parties at Travel Town, climbing around on the trains with friends! Please clue us in on what the “yippie pie thrower” was. Gavin

  2. So many memories. So much happening. The article got me to think back about what I was doing and thinking about in the 1970s.

    1. Many thanks, Jay. That WAS the concept; so much was going down, even a younger kid was clued in. There was no shielding it from innocent little me when I had a wonderful older brother and cousin to look after me! Let’s not forget the Amazing Mets! Gavin

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