“We blew it!”
–Wyatt, “Easy Rider”
As pointed out by the ever-astute sync-master Loren Coleman: Peter Fonda, star of the iconic end-of-the-Sixties film Easy Rider, passed away yesterday on the 50th anniversary of Woodstock.
Despite mainstream pop-culture memories of Easy Rider as a free-wheeling celebration of hippie culture, the movie is instead rather somber in places and always carrying around with it a creeping sense of loss. As Fonda’s character Wyatt (a.k.a. Captain America) muses at one point, “We blew it!”
Easy Rider came out in 1969, the same year music festival Woodstock debuted. The same year the Manson killings took place. The year before saw the election of Richard Nixon and the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.
And so: there was a creeping sense of the Apocalypse in those last years of the Sixties, after all the promise of the Summer of Love and, further receding in the distance, JFK’s New Frontier.
We were to have a “new” Woodstock tocelebrate its 50th anniversary…that has been cancelled. Instead, we may very well have an “Alienstock.” As one wag on Twitter put it, “Every generation gets the Woodstock it deserves.”
Recently at my neighborhood free book library I found Joan Didion’s 1968 classic Slouching Towards Bethlehem (I also found Gore Vidal’s Perpetual War For Perpetual Peace, but I think that’s going to be a topic for my Patreon exclusive blog). The title essay from Didion’s book concerns the hippie community in San Francisco, and is as similarly Apocalyptic as Easy Rider.
Of course the activists—not those whose thinking had become rigid, but those whose approach to revolution was imaginatively anarchic—had long ago grasped the reality which still eluded the press: we were seeing something important. We were seeing the desperate attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a social vacuum. Once we had seen these children, we could no longer overlook the vacuum, no longer pretend that the society’s atomization could be reversed. This was not a traditional generational rebellion. At some point between 1945 and 1967 we had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing. Maybe we had stopped believing in the rules ourselves, maybe we were having a failure of nerve about the game. Maybe there were just too few people around to do the telling. These were children who grew up cut loose from the web of cousins and great-aunts and family doctors and lifelong neighbors who had traditionally suggested and enforced the society’s values. They are children who have moved around a lot, San Jose, Chula Vista, here. They are less in rebellion against the society than ignorant of it, able only to feed back certain of its most publicized self-doubts, Vietnam, Saran-Wrap, diet pills, the Bomb.
Rounding out late-Sixties disillusionment, at least for me, is my recent research regarding the work of lauded underground cartoonist Robert Crumb. I have already expounded enough on that topic, but I thought I’d just footnote it again here.
Please do not misunderstand–I think there were many aspects of the hippie movement which were valuable. But those parts that worked, in my opinion, have to be blended with structures that both reach back to the past and are forward-thinking in regards to the future. We have to be smart about this, synthesizing the best aspects of a number of different ideologies and cultural schemas.
But are the masses up for that task?
At any rate: back to Peter Fonda. Him and me share the same birthdate, so I’ve always taken a special interest in the actor (per, perhaps, my gently narcissistic nature). It’s sad to see him go…but he’s left an indelible cinematic legacy. And, in the process, given us a lot to think about.