A Menagerie of Outspoken Opinions on Science, World Politics, and Geek Culture

Thursday, September 30, 2004

Even Dylan Hates Hippies

Mostly via the influence of Frank J., I make my share of “I Hate Hippies” jokes nowadays (What’s black and brown and looks good on a hippie? A rottweiler!). But the truth is that I enjoy quite a lot of hippie culture; I like 60s-era music, I enjoy camping, hiking, and biking, and I think some counter-culture art is pretty cool. I’m socially liberal, too, being a big supporter of free expression, civil rights, and secularism.

Last year an old friend from college took me to the Live Oak Music Festival in northern Florida. It’s a yearly event that presents a dozen or so bands over the weekend, and most attendees camp out, drink a lot, and generally get crazy for the duration. If you enjoy reggae and don’t mind the smell of patchouli oil it’s a good time. But when I was there I noticed something: About half the concert-goers were your typical hippie types, with their hair in cornrows and t-shirts emblazoned with the latest anti-establishment pejoratives (“No Blood for Oil!” and “Bushitler” were popular in 2003). They drove shitty cars, bummed lots of cigarettes and beer, and if they had kids the kids were generally dirty and poorly-behaved. The other half of the people there were more like me: Twenty- or thirty-something professionals, usually single or in couples, who were there because they like the music and / or the camping. We came with coolers stocked with food and beer and arrived in well-maintained vehicles made within the last 10 years. Everyone got along okay – there are surprisingly few fights at such festivals – but the difference between the two breeds of attendees was rather noticeable. I even heard one young nice-looking couple remark “Hey hippie, patchouli ain’t deodorant and beer ain’t mouthwash” as they passed by a particularly scruffy-looking Rasta wannabe. Everyone mostly ignores the differences, but an observant person can’t help notice: Some people are able to manage a productive life and a somewhat unconventional lifestyle, while others can only swallow the counter-culture mythology hook, line, and sinker.

Earlier this week Bob Dylan released his memoirs, and in them he recounts quite a bit of frustration with hippiedom. Here are a few money quotes from an article in Japan Today:

"The world was absurd ... I had very little in common with and knew even less about a generation that I was supposed to be the voice of," Dylan says.

"I was fantasizing about a nine-to-five existence, a house on a tree-lined block with a white picket fence, pink roses in the backyard. Roadmaps to our homestead must have been posted in all 50 states for gangs of dropouts and druggies.”

"I wanted to set fire to these people," Dylan recollects, saying the hordes of fans who turned up at his family home in Woodstock and walked over his roof or tried to break in drove him and his family to seek refuge in New York.

Even though I wasn’t even born until the very end of the man’s heyday, I’ve always liked Dylan; three of his albums are in my truck’s CD case right now. His music is excellent, and to me he always seemed to be saying more and better things than most of his contemporaries. While most of the politically active bands of the era were mindlessly screaming “Fuck the Establishment!”, Dylan’s message was more along the lines of “What is the establishment? How does it affect you? Are you okay with it?”. To some people – the type who show up for a weekend concert without food or beer – the difference might be overly subtle. To me it is hugely and apparently obvious: The former incites revolution only for the sake of revolution, while the latter promotes the legitimate questioning of authority and tolerance for dissent.

There is always a danger in ascribing meaning to an artist’s work, because what we see there might not be what the artist intended us to see. We filter music – as well as all other art forms – through the lenses of sense, opinion, and intellect. That’s how Dylan singing “Tangled Up in Blue” got translated into “come sit on my roof and break into my house”; some folks really think they get it, but they couldn’t, in truth, be further off the mark. I will go out on a limb to say this, however: Bob Dylan’s music is purely American in that it calls for an examination of oneself and the relationship between a free individual and the state. Far from being about revolution, I think his political message - when he had one – was about the responsibility all members of our democracy share to create and participate in a just and accountable government.


PS – Why did I link an article like this in Japan Today, you ask? Well, I’m reading a lot of non-western news sources lately to get a better perspective on how American culture is seen around the world. Thusly, many articles linked here over the next few months will come from online periodicals like Japan Today, Xinhua, and Sify. Worldliness is a virtue and it shall be enforc ... er, promoted here at The Zoo.