1967: Smoking, Music, and Hippies
Another history lesson
Cigarettes were cool. When you think about the 1960s, that probably does not occur to you, but it’s true. Early in 1964, the U.S. surgeon general issued a report linking cigarettes with cancer. But the anti-smoking attitude that prevails today was still decades away.
I was a high school freshman in a wealthy St. Louis suburb in 1967. It was a time when college students and some high school students were staging protests and making demands. In my high school, the most intense and successful student activist movement was the one to establish a smoking lounge for students. There, the cool kids could smoke.
I didn’t go into the smoking lounge. Back then, I was like the kid who stands on the fringe of the playground, too shy and scared to try to join the games the other kids are playing. I settled for being a vicarious hippie, eagerly soaking up stories about them in magazines and in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. But I myself never even tried marijuana.
In 1967, hippie culture was a curiosity. It was not obvious at the time that it was going to have a big impact on society as a whole.
Stan Garfield, a friend of mine from high school and a music aficionado, years later compiled on Spotify a playlist of popular records from 1967. It includes close to 400 songs, and I remember at least 90 percent of them.
Stan’s playlist includes psychedelic classics from the Jefferson Airplane, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, and the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album; it includes political/cultural statements (“For What it’s Worth,” “I Feel like I’m Fixin’ to Die,” “San Francisco—Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair,” “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends,” “Society’s Child”); but his 1967 retrospective also includes songs with inane lyrics that were hits among pre-adolescents, like “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” or “Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead.”
The most popular music at school dances was Soul Music—the songs of Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Arthur (“Sweet Soul Music”) Conley, and other black artists. Even an all-white band playing for a predominantly white crowd of teenagers needed to have a Soul sound. Soul music was everybody’s music.
But divides in musical tastes started to emerge. In 1967, St. Louis got its first “underground rock” station, KSHE 95. Underground stations were FM radio stations that played rock that was more experimental than the formulaic AM tunes. On FM, you might hear an album cut that lasted 10 minutes or longer, while the AM radio stations stuck with 2- or 3-minute singles. Those of us who tuned in to underground rock felt that we were edgier and more sophisticated than our peers who stuck with AM.
You can see the divide if you watch a video of the Monterey Pop Festival, held in June. The festival is opened by The Association, an AM mega-hit powerhouse that thinks it has a cool act but who come across as dorks from a bygone era. By the end, the festival will include Pete Townshend of The Who smashing his guitar and Jimi Hendrix setting his own instrument on fire.
Stan and I agree that 1967 was probably the most innovative and varied year in rock music history. There were many musical and cultural cross-currents at work.
I think it is important to realize that there were very few genuine hippies in 1967. Not everyone who ever bought an album by Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix counts as a hippie. Instead, a lot of us were vicarious hippies, wannabe hippies, and pseudo-hippies.
There were also a lot of people who rejected hippie culture altogether. Although Merle Haggard did not pen Okie from Muskogee until 1969, his anti-hippie sentiments would have been shared by many Americans in 1967, perhaps even a majority. After all, Richard Nixon would be elected President in 1968 as a backlash candidate, with even harsher backlash candidate George Wallace also receiving 13 percent of the vote on a third-party ticket.
It is tempting to try to compare and contrast the hippie movement with contemporary “woke” culture. One difference, highlighted by New York University psychology professor Jonathan Haidt, is that the hippies operated in “explore” mode while the woke operate in “defensive” mode. Hippies were on the lookout for new cultural opportunities. The woke take it as their duty to stamp out (“cancel”) cultural threats.
Hippies retreated from politics as American involvement in Vietnam wound down under President Nixon. By the mid-1970s, commentators were writing about “the me generation,” as young people turned to focus on personal concerns. Meanwhile, the larger society borrowed heavily from the hippie lifestyle of casual dress, sprawling hair, rock music, and sexual liberation.
The woke show no signs of becoming apolitical. On the contrary, they seem fanatical in their desire to exercise power. But my sense is that woke culture has little or nothing to offer the broader population.
I'm working on a book set in New York City in 1966. It was the year before the idea of the hippie codified, as it were, and there was a rising sense of excitement about the still-un-labled cultural ferment. The awfulness that was to overwhelm the city in the 1970s, was already taking hold. The infrastructure of the 40s and 50s was breaking down. Crime was going up, and while it was deplored, no one could predict that the crime wave would soon get even worse, and be taken for granted in the 1980s.
And, yes, the Top 40 was incredibly rich in great songs, the tide of excellence cresting, as Kling notes, the next year. Smoking was everywhere - I myself smoked on the bus, in movie theaters, in the office, and on airliners.
The anti-war movement had yet to merge with the new counterculture, and still wore its Old Left garb.
As one of the Jefferson Airplane put in, "For two weeks in 1967, everything was perfect". But when the media discovered hippies, named them, and put them on the cover of Time and Life, it all started to get nasty.
While all this was going on, America went on to elect Richard Nixon in a landslide.
A fascinating period!
Hippies were mostly young people who ultimately grew up. They also challenged many cultural norms from the 40s and 50s most conservatives would now openly admit were wrong. The new "woke" crowd may in some way be their offspring, but they are far less open minded and unlike prior generations of progressives seem more openly hostile to America.