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One Legendary Party: The Hell’s Angels and the Merry Pranksters Meet at Kesey’s

7 Jul
Hell's Angels Group with Jackets

Guess who’s coming to dinner.
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WARNING: This post contains descriptions of alleged sexual violence. 

For the last six years or so, one party has been haunting me. It wasn’t any soiree I’d attended—this party took place on Saturday August 7, 1965 at Ken Kesey’s LSD-laced ranch in La Honda, California. It was a fete that epitomized the West Coast psychedelic movement’s embrace of drugs, music, and above all, the outlaw lifestyle. What made this party special wasn’t its mix of intellectuals—poet Allen Ginsberg and Harvard psychology professor Richard Alpert (aka Baba Ram Dass) among them—and countercultural icons such as Hunter S. Thompson and Neal Cassady; it was the 15-foot-long, red white and blue sign strung up outside the ranch: THE MERRY PRANKSTERS WELCOME THE HELL’S ANGELS. Continue reading


Authenticity is a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan Defines Hip for a Generation

9 May
1960s Bob Dylan Embodies Cool

“He has a visionary’s eyeball that could x-ray all that was corrupt and phony, and who knows what he sees when he looks at you.” -Dalton
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“He has to have the oldest, most authentic songs. He begins a rabid, quasi-spiritual quest for the obscure, the rare, the core sound.” -David Dalton

“This was the Beat ideal—a community of intellectual outsiders. But it was an ideal that the mass bohemianism of the ‘60s would blow up and wreck because, for one thing, it wasn’t going to be a secret too much longer, and it wasn’t the small elite group of insiders anymore. Two, three, years, it would all be gone. And Bob would be one of the major causes of its demise.” -David Dalton

If anyone embodied authenticity or the ephemeral concept of “IT” in the 1960s, it was Bob Dylan. David Dalton shines a light on Dylan’s hipster persona (among his many others) in Who is that Man? In Search of the Real Bob Dylan. He reveals Dylan as a vehicle for the pop-culturification of the Beat movement (frequently comparing him to Kerouac, both in literary style and lifestyle), and also exposes, yet again, the sheer unsustainability of Beat ideals. Continue reading

Hunter Thompson: “Fear & Loathing in America” After 9/11

23 Apr

Just hours after the terror attacks on 9/11/01, Hunter S. Thompson wrote an article for ESPN entitled “Fear & Loathing in America.” In it, he made some disturbingly accurate predictions, this one by far the most chilling:

“The towers are gone now, reduced to bloody rubble, along with all hopes for Peace in Our Time, in the United States or any other country. Make no mistake about it: We are At War now — with somebody — and we will stay At War with that mysterious Enemy for the rest of our lives. It will be a Religious War, a sort of Christian Jihad, fueled by religious hatred and led by merciless fanatics on both sides. It will be guerilla warfare on a global scale, with no front lines and no identifiable enemy.” Continue reading

Bringing it All Back Home II: Mapping Cultural Waves

13 Apr

This post contains part XII (the final chapter!) of my senior capstone paper, Speed Limits: The Formation, Dissemination, and Dissolution of the Counterculture in American Literature 1951-1972. Click here to view a full list of works cited. Click here to view all sections of the paper.

A protester tries out flower power at an anti-war protest at the Pentagon, 1967. Image from

A protester harnesses flower power at an anti-war protest at the Pentagon, 1967.
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There are lessons to be learned from the ultimate demise of the counterculture, precipitated by its constant push to extremity and its marginalization of moderate voices in favor of calls for radical social change. By constantly pushing boundaries in search of IT, those seeking an authentic, meaningful way of life fell victim to the same material excess they had tried to avoid. Although Kimball characterizes sex, drugs, and rock & roll as the counterculture’s “chief weapons against the obligations of traditional culture,” they were merely a symptom of a middle-class rebellion against its own limited existence (Kimball 7). Even by pushing social boundaries, counterculturalists found that they could not avoid the obligations of traditional culture for very long. When striving for social or political change, it is important to remember the value of diverse (even conflicting) opinions and of freedom tempered by moderation. The counterculture’s failure to achieve many of its political goals illustrates the dangers of polarizing rhetoric and extremity.

The American political climate is often compared to a pendulum, swinging left to right over time. The period after WWII represented a monumental swing to the left—in social attitudes more than the political establishment. The reasons for political failure are obvious; Suri notes the irony of the fact that “the political moderation that supported stability and prosperity came under attack for its very moderation” (Suri 53). As the counterculture movement migrated from Beat coffee shops to massive street demonstrations, violence became an increasingly frequent component of demands for domestic social change and peace abroad (case in point: the Weather Underground). Suri notes that countercultural groups in the early 1970s “treated violence as a means for proving cultural authenticity in an international environment filled with lies” (60). And yet it seems that moderation won out in the end; “countercultural disorder created a perceived ‘emergency’” to the point where citizens were easily galvanized to react against this disorder by any political party promising “law and order” (62). The militarization of the counterculture is an example of what happens when the political pendulum reaches the limits of its leftward shift, precipitating a rightward swing. The attempt at authentic experience that began with speed, grass, and jazz in the 1950s snowballed into overindulgent drug use and violent protests during the 1960s. This contributed to a loss of faith in the movement in the eyes of mainstream America—who had taken much culturally from this movement, only to betray its values ultimately in favor of its own security. Continue reading

Bringing it All Back Home I: Counterculture, Commodified

10 Apr

This post contains part XI of my senior capstone paper, Speed Limits: The Formation, Dissemination, and Dissolution of the Counterculture in American Literature 1951-1972. Click here to view a full list of works cited. Click here to view all sections of the paper.

Vintage Pepsi ad showing the absorption of countercultural symbols within the mainstream Image from

Vintage Pepsi ad showing the absorption of countercultural symbols within the mainstream
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The counterculture of the fifties and sixties was not as revolutionary as it believed itself to be. Though some artists of the counterculture “may wish to imagine themselves exempt from the marketplace,” the success of their literary endeavors is actually the product of market forces (Adams 80). The counterculture had been at least partially commodified all along, operating easily within mainstream capitalist and patriarchal conventions, despite its antiauthoritarian stance. “The international counterculture was [sic] complicit in many of the elements of society it criticized,” claims Suri; despite its revolutionary rhetoric, the essential demands of the counterculture movement dating back to the Beats was “rapid and personal reform within existing social and political structures” (Suri 48, emphasis mine). Because these goals were in some sense achieved as the counterculture entered the mainstream, the counterculture itself “soon became a commodified touchstone of prosperity” (48). While the Beats were “dedicated to the rejection of popular culture,” their movement came to “further [the] development of popular culture” through their mainstream success and influence on sixties youths (Elteren 75, 85).

The success of the counterculture certainly depended on “the very capitalist structures that it often purported to despise,” but it is an oversimplification to blame the degradation of the movement on “corrupting corporations” who fed on “innocent artists” (Gair 2, 6). It is clear that despite the “free love” message of the hippie movement, everyone was in fact trying to sell something—their art, their music, their ideas, their interpretations of authenticity. “Christ, everybody and his brother has a manifesto,” Wolfe writes in Electric Kool-Aid, “Everybody has his own typewriters and mimeograph machines and they’re all cranking away like mad and fuming over each other’s mistranslations of the Message” (Wolfe 377). This image of mass production and consumption of ideas by the counterculture itself runs counter to the rejection of capitalism and consumerism advocated by both the Beats and hippies. While the counterculture was capitalizing on its growing media audience (signing hippie bands to major labels, granting TV interviews, organizing for-profit Acid Tests), major corporations were using psychedelic imagery, language, and music to sell products ranging from blue jeans to soda pop. To quote Herbert Marcuse, “The music of the soul is also the music of salesmanship” (Gair 5). Continue reading

Right on Paradise: The American Dream at the End of the Road

6 Apr

This post contains part X of my senior capstone paper, Speed Limits: The Formation, Dissemination, and Dissolution of the Counterculture in American Literature 1951-1972. Click here to view a full list of works cited. Click here to view all sections of the paper.

Thompson finally locates the American Dream.Image from

Thompson finally locates the American Dream.
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In many respects, Gonzo journalism embodies and embraces the final step in the mainstream absorption (and subsequent commodification) of countercultural beliefs. Gonzo journalism depicts a grotesque web of countercultural immorality; nonetheless, we as readers enjoy vicarious participation in Thompson’s crime sprees, sprees which are actually financed by major media outlets, including Sports Illustrated and Rolling Stone magazine.[18] While sitting poolside at a Beverly Hills hotel, Thompson receives a call from “some total stranger in New York, telling me to go to Las Vegas[,] expenses be damned” and then “another total stranger” hands him “$300 raw cash for no reason at all” (11). Thompson chalks this up to “Free Enterprise. The American Dream. […] Do it now: pure Gonzo journalism” (12).

Kerouac himself attempted to “test the American dream by trying to pin down its promise of unlimited freedom by following the example of Dean Moriarty” (Charters xxi). Kesey strove to “claim whatever he can rightly get by being man enough to take it” because there “is no limit to the American trip” (Wolfe 37, 112). But driving on the outskirts of Las Vegas in 1972, Thompson seems to have finally nailed down the exact location of the American Dream, what the counterculturalists had been looking for all along—“Big black building, right on Paradise: twenty-four-hour-a-day violence, drugs”—yes, unlimited freedom and consumption (Thompson 167). In a seven-page chapter towards the end of Fear and Loathing, Thompson’s narrative reporting breaks down and we are left with an editor’s note introducing us to a “verbatim” tape recording of Thompson and his attorney as they question some locals on the whereabouts of “the American Dream” (161, 165). Through this, they are led to a seedy joint called the “Old Psychiatrist’s Club” that had “burned down about three years ago” (168). This section encapsulates what Thompson believes to be the empty promise of the American Dream, one that is plagued by corruption and sinister greed. Continue reading

No Mercy: Gonzo Journalism on a Failed Revolution

4 Apr

This post contains part IX of my senior capstone paper, Speed Limits: The Formation, Dissemination, and Dissolution of the Counterculture in American Literature 1951-1972. Click here to view a full list of works cited. Click here to view all sections of the paper.

Ralph Steadman's take on Hunter ThompsonImage from

Ralph Steadman’s take on Thompson
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Thompson’s writing exposes the inherent hypocrisies of the counterculture movement and helps explain why, only four years after the hope and rage of 1968, the movement had become a washed-up mockery of itself—and inadvertently paved the way for a conservative revolution. Suri points out that “the counterculture’s mainstream roots raised expectations for extensive political reform, but those expectations were ultimately a victim of the coercive leverage exerted by the figures who dominated the mainstream […] Rapid political change required something much more akin to social revolution than what the international counterculture could offer” (Suri 53). The leaders of the counterculture ended up as corrupt and manipulative as the mainstream political figures they railed against—instead of coercing followers into racist status-quos and unnecessary war, they instead lead them into extreme indulgence and a near-deadly narcissism.

Thompson expresses disappointment with the so-called leaders of the counterculture movement, especially the great Chief himself, Ken Kesey: “Tune in, freak out, get beaten. It’s all in Kesey’s Bible. . . . The Far Side of Reality” (Thompson 89). Throughout Fear and Loathing Thompson provides an echo to the Pranksters’ final refrain—“WE BLEW IT!”—and adds to the mix his own interpretation of the consequences. After the worldwide civil unrest of 1968, government leaders “rebuilt their authority around commitments to restore rationality, reasonableness, and domestic peace” (Suri 63). Needless to say, calls for “law and order” were immensely appealing to the “silent majority” of Nixon voters who lived in dread of the violent chaos that the countercultural movement had come to represent. Thompson writes from a place of disillusionment as he grapples with the fact that the movement he once believed in has been left flailing and leaderless while a conservative climate of fear and loathing had taken hold of America. Continue reading