Even now, at the head of the page, I find the word most annoying. Though I went to San Francisco in the summer of 1967, though for some months I actually lived at the corner of Haight and Ashbury (in an apartment, though I would not be surprised to meet someone who lived in the actual intersection), though I sport beads and a Paisley vest handmade by my lover in my first passport picture, though I remain profoundly influenced by ideas of “hip,” I cannot stand that diminutive term. (The word passed into common usage after Herb Caen began using it in his column in the San Francisco Chronicle. Caen had also invented the equally obnoxious and derisive “beatnik.”)
Not that “hippie” has no place. In my own memory, before I saw the word in print, I heard it used to describe young teens who aspired to be hip and were just becoming acquainted with the scene, not so different from the sort of person who might have been labeled a “teenybopper” in the context of musical taste. As such the word had a useful niche, but failed to describe the counter-culture in general. Despite my distaste for “hippie,” I had no good alternative. In the sixties “hip” served for some uses, though sounding slightly broad and old-fashioned. I do recall both both “freak” and “head” (referring, naturally, to “pothead”) having some currency, but neither seems really adequate.
Born in 1946, I grew up reading the Beats, attending Paul Carroll’s poetry series at Second City, seeking out Old Leftists, and learning about Dada. In university I participated in the literary magazine and attended performance events and shows staged by friends. In spite of loose talk about “the sixties,” during my senior year at an institution with tens of thousands of students, I felt I knew the local counterculture: far-out intellectuals, dopers, artists, radicals, anarchists, yogis, sandal-makers, and singers. Virtually everything innovative seemed linked to this crowd. Forward-thinking professors and faculty artists made alliances with the hip youth. Just as Kenneth Kenniston’s studies indicated that, for the most part, student protesters were the very same who had been at the top of their high school classes, many of those participating in middle and late 60s youth culture struck me as unusually thoughtful and productive. Why, even LSD trips were assimilated only through hours of analysis based in part on Scientific American articles and anthropology studies seen in the light of esoteric Buddhism. I was taken aback just a few years later when I heard of people dropping acid to go to a concert or party.
Thinking I knew the scene in my major Midwestern university, I was surprised and I believe I recoiled when in the spring of 1967, a crew of slightly younger celebrants tripped across the university quadrangle, blowing soap bubbles in celebration of Buddha’s birthday.
These new folks seemed to be violating canons of cool, while on the national scene, it was obvious that Peter Max was instantly kitsch, Tim Leary at best an entertaining con man, and, late in the day, cooptation seemed fully accomplished when Hair premiered, claiming to be a “tribal, love-rock musical.” Its tunes can now be heard in elevators while the really radical grass-roots theater has vanished to limbo along with underground movies. In 1967 when I made it to the Haight, the kids who liked rock and roll and smoking pot, however genial, had little in common with the people I had known at college who preferred electronic music, Tibetan folksong, or, at any rate, down and dirty blues. Only a few months later the Diggers, who ought to have known, were to proclaim the death of hippie on Haight Street.
Still, it certainly seemed as though the movement, however vaguely defined, had something to say about every area of life: not merely art and politics, but also interpersonal relations, cuisine, and living room design. How many apartments did I enter with a huge cable spool for coffee table, beaded curtains, and Indian bedspreads? I remember a slightly older poet’s reminiscences of San Francisco only a few years before I (and a horde of my cohort) hit town. He described how he and his friends would often get stoned and eat “phony-burgers,” made with supermarket hamburger buns, ketchup, onions, mustard, pickles, everything but the meat. A few years later no one would have dreamed of eating Wonder buns; every kitchen held brown rice and vegetables.
I won’t aim here to define hip beyond a few sketchy outlines. Hip is a form of twentieth century Romanticism, celebrating the unconscious, the natural, the ecstatic while striking a counter-cultural pose with bohemian habits and left politics. Hip participates in the double vision DuBois analyzed in African-Americans, also evident in kitsch, camp, and other modern forms of irony. Susan Sontag located the essence of camp in her 1964 essay as occurring in the gap “between the thing as meaning something, anything, and the thing as pure artifice,” in other words, between signifier and signified.
Authentic hipness requires the pose at least of a vision sharper and more piercing than others’. That’s what makes it so annoyingly elitist. One can always take irony around yet another turn. In contrast to this off-putting and esoteric claim, hippie was accessible to all, its wardrobe available not in military surplus or Salvation Army stores, each individual his own invention, but in standardized sets at Sears.