Saturday, October 9, 2010
I recently had the privilege of witnessing the phenomenon of Hair! The Musical, playing in London, and I remembered when I first became aware of it, around 1969. I was twelve years old. It was a bold production, surrounded by controversy, with nude bodies on stage at the end, a story of drugs and hippies and the horror of sending young boys to war. I stood around the bonfire in the back yard of our house with my brother and many of his friends, the summer it came to Indianapolis, and listened to Junior, one of the wild ones, regale us with his tales of the performance. I had been deemed too young to attend, and, as with many experiences of the sixties, I was forced to learn of it second hand, from the mouths of those older and wiser than me.
The current cast members of Hair were not even born when the first production hit the stage, yet they were able in some small measure to capture the scent and the feel of those heady times—the sense of freedom and the naive hope that filled the air, the firm belief that we could actually change the way the world worked, that we could operate with a new paradigm, and from that paradigm build a new society based on love and togetherness and mutual respect for the earth and each other. It was a short lived dream, dampened by hard drugs and Charlie Manson and the assassination of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, finished off by the violence at the Rolling Stones concert in Altamont Springs. But, for awhile, it was a glorious ride.
I was only twelve years old at the end of the decade, too young, most would think, to have taken in the flavor of those days. But I was lucky. I was the youngest of four, with older siblings, and my home was, shall we say, a rather open environment, a place that inhabited all the sordid and profane and beautiful elements that belonged to the era. We provided shelter for many houseguests, during those years, some dodging the draft, some hiding from police, some who came to either indulge in or kick their drug addictions. Smoke filled the upstairs bedroom, (the smell of ‘burning rope,’ my mother used to say), drifting down the steps and through the windows into the yard, where bonfires were held, guitar notes picked, folk songs sung in unison. I sat on feather mattresses with people ten years older than me who engaged in deep discussions about communes and rock music and the draft and the war. I grew my hair long and parted it in the middle, like them, made sand candles, learned to macramé. Our coffee table held underground newspapers sold in the street markets of Talbot Village in Indianapolis. I listened to my sister argue with my dad about the Chicago 7 and the Democratic Convention of 1968. Our bedroom, painted white with black curtains, in honor of the “White Room with Black Curtains” song by Cream, held posters blazoned in psychedelic colors and declaring “War is not healthy for children and other living things.” I spent hours with my face in front of the hi-fi, my ears against the speakers, the albums of Jefferson Airplane, the Moody Blues, Janis and Jimi and the Doors, piled all around me.
As a chubby girl from a family with no money, surrounded by kids dressed in crisp trendy clothes whose parents had boats docked on freshwater lakes in the south, I struggled with a sense of isolation and alienation most of my young life. I received Ds in citizenship at Crestview Elementary for my outbursts of temper and endless streams of tears, and I developed a reputation on the school bus for my ability to beat up all the boys. Let’s just say I had issues.
But then I discovered “the sixties,” and I drank it in, all of it, like milk laid out for a starving cat. Suddenly I had found a place I belonged. If I couldn’t afford the latest white fringed go-go boots the girls bought from Ayres Department store downtown, I could tie dye old tee shirts and string love beads to wear around my neck. If I couldn’t shake pom poms and put on a cheerleader outfit, I could wrap a leather band around my forehead and sew patches on my bell bottom jeans.
And “the sixties” gave me another gift: a sense of purpose. No longer did I think only of myself and my own perceived problems and sorrows. I could focus instead on the suffering of others, and try to do something to put an end to it. I could take all the outrage that had been smoldering in my internal cauldron and unleash it on the world. I read all I could about the movements of the day, inhaling the literature of the Black Panthers, the Yippies, (Steal this Book!), the anti war movement, the American Indians. From them I learned that there were other ways to live and be in the world, that there were things more important than shopping and grades and homecoming dances (to which I would never be invited anyway) and proms. From them I found a world outside the tiny, myopic vision of suburban Indianapolis. From them I gained a sense of the new world and my place in it.
That sense of purpose is with me still, though perhaps the anger and passion have waned a bit, having been tempered with loss and sorrow and joy and reflection and age. Today I live in the most ethnically diverse area of London, where I sit on the top deck of my double decker bus and listen to the languages of the world—Farsi, Urdu, Pashto, Dari, Mandarin, Polish, French, Italian, Spanish—being spoken. I tread through government bureaucracy to help young Afghan boys who come from a country at war, who seek shelter and asylum and receive it, here, who are stuffed together behind boxes in trucks lined on ferries and, if they are fortunate enough to escape the watchful eye of the UK Border Patrol, manage to land in a place where they might have a chance to survive and thrive.
The sign outside the production of Hair! The Musical calls it “A Beacon of Hope in a Fallen World.” In spite of all the silliness and impetuousness and ultimate destructiveness of “the sixties,” they still carry the flavor of hope for me. I am so happy that I had a chance to be a part of those wild and heady years. I could not have survived my youth without the gift of their vision.