WR 150 I2
April 30, 2009
The Fall of the Counterculture
“Counterculture blooms wherever and whenever a few members of a society choose lifestyles, artistic expression, and ways of thinking and being that wholeheartedly embrace the ancient axiom that the only true constant is change itself”(Goffman ix). In the 1960’s, the illusion of change was the glue that held the countercultural together. The 1960’s counterculture in California consisted of groups like the Hell’s Angels, Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, college students, and hippies that all seemed to be intertwined. By the late 1960’s, it was obvious that these groups did not have the same agenda for change. Hunter S. Thompson saw the 1960's in California as a symbol of hope and freedom, but even as early as the mid-1960’s, Thompson saw that the failure of the counterculture to unite would cause its collapse and lead to fear and loathing in the 1970's.
What is counterculture? It is difficult to define a term that has been applied to diverse social groups for decades. Every day societies are changing; what was considered the counterculture yesterday, today is often just another subculture. According to Ken Goffman there are three defining principles of counterculture:
Counterculture assigns primacy to individuality at the expense of social convention and government constraints.
Countercultures challenge authoritarianism in both obvious and subtle forms.
Counterculture embraces individual and social change. (29)
Both the Hell’s Angels and the Merry Pranksters embody all three of these principles. Judging solely by their attire, it is evident that both groups place great emphasis on individuality. An Angel would usually not shower or shave in weeks, and would wear feces-covered jeans and a leather jacket with patches sown on. An Angel was required to have his club’s patch located on his jacket, as well as other patches that represent his accomplishments or beliefs. The patches range from swastikas, worn for the sole purpose of offending people, to red wings that indicate he has performed cunnilingus on a woman who was having her period (Hell’s Angels 64). The Merry Pranksters also show their individuality through their attire. They are notorious for painting everything in Day-Glo paint. The Pranksters not only paint their bodies, but also their bus in which they tour around the country (Wolfe 30). Their clothing not only shows their individuality, but also challenges socially acceptable behavior. Additionally, by accepting drugs like LSD and marijuana, the Angels and Pranksters challenge authority and embrace social change. Because marijuana is an illegal substance, using the drug is a clear rejection of the law. Because of the illegality of marijuana, the leader of the Merry Pranksters, Ken Kesey, was arrested for possession of the substance and was forced to flee to Mexico. Furthermore, the Angels and the Pranksters would party together at Kesey’s LaHonda, California ranch. At these parties they would smoke marijuana and take LSD. By doing drugs together the two diverse countercultural groups embrace the rejection and change of social conventions.
Timothy Leary believes that “Counterculture is the moving crest of a wave, a zone of uncertainty where culture goes quantum”(Goffman ix). Leary characterizes counterculture as a wave of quantum energy. Quantum energy is an energy that does not follow the natural laws of physics, yet it exists and can be observed in the natural world, much like counterculture. To explain this further, Leary references physicist Ilya Prigogine: “counterculture is the cultural equivalent of the “third thermodynamic state,” the “nonlinear region” where equilibrium and symmetry have given way to a complexity so intense as to appear to the eye as chaos”(Goffman ix).
Like Leary, Thompson also viewed the 1960’s counterculture as a wave; he explains, “We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .”(Fear 68). Thompson feels that he was part of the 1960’s counterculture that had so much potential. Thompson depicts the “wave” as “high” and “beautiful,” portraying the optimism with which he viewed the 1960’s counterculture in California. But by using a wave as a metaphor for the counterculture he foreshadows the counterculture’s fall, because every wave eventually breaks. When defining 1960’s California, Thompson says, “You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. . . .”(Fear 68). Thompson clearly takes a hopeful tone when portraying California in the 1960’s. He believes that he could get anything accomplished anywhere. But by italicizing the word “right” Thompson says that what they were doing was not actually “right,” but wrong, and led to the fall of the counterculture. Again Thompson italicizes “see” when explaining his knowledge of the demise of the counterculture:
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark-that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.(Fear 68)
Because Leary believes the counterculture would appear as chaos to the eye, Thompson italicizes “see” to indicate he cannot literally “see,” but figuratively “see” where and why the counterculture dispersed. Thompson’s transition from optimism in the mid 1960’s to fear and loathing in the 1970’s is cataloged in his novel Hell’s Angels.
During the mid 1960’s Thompson followed an outlaw motorcycle gang known as the Hell’s Angels. By the mid 1960’s, the Angels were receiving a lot of media attention; coupled with the 1950’s movie The Wild One, the Angels were incorrectly linked with the 1960’s counterculture (Wood 337). Due to all of the publicity that characterized them as rebels and led to the false “individual hero” image of the Angels, they stood in high regard among the Berkeley students, who felt a “neutral alliance” with the Angels. Thompson explains: “the Angels had a reputation for defying police, for successfully bucking authority, and to the frustrated student radicals this was a powerful image indeed”(Hell’s 244). The “neutral alliance” and the “individual hero” image of the Angels was shattered when the Angels attacked a Get Out of Vietnam demonstration at the Oakland-Berkley border (Hell’s 244). The attack came as a shock to those who saw the Angels as rebels and heroes, but to anyone who knew them, like Thompson, it was logical (Hell’s 245). Thompson knew that “The difference between the student radicals and the Hell’s Angels is that the students are rebelling against the past, while the Angels are fighting the future. Their only common ground is their disdain for the present, or the status quo”(Hell’s 257). Thompson saw that these two groups, who had the entire country watching, failed to meet on common ground and unite.
The Angels not only severed their ties with the student radicals but also with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. It was at Ken Kesey’s La Honda ranch where the Angels were first introduced to LSD and instead of embracing the mind-opening aspect of the drug, the Angels saw a money-making opportunity in the drug trade (Wood 347). The Angels started to sell LSD, and the Pranksters quickly realized that the Angels were not like-minded hippy sympathizers such as themselves, but in fact looked to exploit them. Soon the Pranksters feared the outlaws who started to frequent the ranch. Thompson saw the Angels not only alienate themselves from the radical student scene, but also the Merry Pranksters and their psychedelic scene. By the mid 1960’s it was clear to Thompson that the countercultural moment sweeping California was doomed.
Like the Angels, the Pranksters also managed to alienate themselves from radical student scene. Ken Kesey, the charismatic and colorful outlaw leader of the Merry Pranksters, was asked to speak at a huge Berkley anti-war rally (Konas 184). In true Prankster fashion, Kesey went up to the podium and, in front of 15,000 anti-war protesters, said, “Just look at it and turn away and say…Fuck it”(EKAT 225). Kesey told the entire audience of student anti-war protesters to not give any attention to the Vietnam War and not to “play their game,” referring to the government (EKAT 222). Furthermore, Kesey staged The Graduation where he manages to alienate himself from the psychedelic scene that he himself created in California. Kesey called for a gathering of the acid-heads in a warehouse in California where he told them to move beyond acid. Kesey and Cassady were trying to build up the ceremony without acid, they had the usual lights and music, but people were just not getting into it. Eventually people started leaving. Like the Hell’s Angels, the Merry Pranksters managed to separate themselves from the radical student scene and destroy the psychedelic scene that they themselves established. Both the Angels and Pranksters failed to unite, not only amongst themselves, but also with other countercultural groups that populated California in the 1960’s. Thompson was a witness to all of this, and it shaped his loathsome view of the 1970’s.
Thompson’s utopian view of the 1960’s transcends into fear and loathing of the 1970’s in his novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. In his novel Thompson expresses his loathing for middle-class Americans, the parents of the dope generation, that infest Las Vegas (Banco 136). Thompson, under the influence of LSD, describes the scene as he first enters the hotel lobby: “We’re right in the middle of a fucking reptile zoo! And somebody’s giving booze to these goddamn things! It won’t be long before the tear us to shreds. Jesus, look at the floor! Have you ever seen so much blood?” (Fear 24). To aid in understanding the drug-induced insanity that occurred in Thompson’s acid filled head, Ralph Steadman, a close friend of Thompson, did the illustrations for Thompson’s novel (Gibney 00:35:00-00:45:00). Steadman, who is also influenced by acid, is able to capture the scene. There is a two-page black and white illustration of human-like reptiles sitting at the bar, drinking, with a floor that is covered in what one assumes to be blood. Since both Steadman and Thompson were under the influence of acid, it is hard to say if images are factual. Terry Gilliam, director of the Fear and Loathing Las Vegas movie, also uses the same elements that are in the illustration to portray Thompson’s hallucinations. It is possible that Thompson did see human reptiles, but I believe, more importantly, that Thompson, Steadman, and Gilliam are making a powerful social commentary on the Las Vegas crowd, which represents the majority of the 1970’s American population.
In the stylized pen-and-ink illustration Steadman intentionally depicts the people as grotesque reptiles. He gives women beaks and bird like characteristics. The men, on the other hand, resemble biped lizards complete with tails, clawed feet and hands. Although both the men and women are elegantly dressed, they look like slobs and have putrid bodies. The illustration is very bizarre; there is a man biting a woman on the neck and blood is flying everywhere. In the center of the illustration a very large and powerful looking man has a devil-like tail as well as reptile scales running down his hands and feet. The floor is obviously covered in blood, but there is also blood around the mouths of every person. Gilliam takes a very literal approach in depicting this bizarre scene. Johnny Depp plays the role of Duke (Hunter S. Thompson’s alter ego) as he nervously wanders over to the bar and starts to hallucinate. All of the tourists in the hotel lobby transform into reptiles. Because of the limitation in computer animation the reptiles do not look very realistic and greatly take away from the scene (Gilliam 00:17:30-00:19:40). These reptiles continue to interact with each other and bathe in the blood that covers the floor. Depp captures the shock and distress of witnessing this grotesque scene.
Both the drawing and movie have a lot of meaning behind them. In the drawing, Steadman specifically makes women bird-like and men beast-like. He makes a social commentary on the people in Las Vegas. Women are like birds, specifically, crows, because, like crows, they are attracted to shiny things that one could assume to be money and wealth. To exemplify this, Steadman drew a well-dressed woman at the bar smoking a cigarette alone looking around, obviously trying to find a wealthy man. The men, on the other hand, all look like beasts, but at the same time appear to have a lot of wealth. An especially grotesque and wealthy looking man is in the center of the illustration smoking a large cigar, and a waiter is bringing him an expensive drink. This man in particular is the only one with a devil tail, metaphorically paralleling wealth and evil. The fact that the figures all have blood around their mouths indicates that everyone has done something bad in order to achieve their “American Dream.” Even though everyone is monstrous, they do not seem to recognize this and interact with each other as if nothing is wrong. Gilliam uses similar techniques in the movie to illustrate the monsters that infest Las Vegas. Instead of drawing a distinction between men and women by making women birds and men beasts, everyone looks like a biped reptile; the women are distinguished from the men by their long hair. Like the illustration, the reptiles are dressed very well. Blood is also present in this scene: there is blood all over the floor that the monsters are bathing in with each other.
In the Electric Koolaid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe, Wolfe describes being on acid as being able to see through people and peer into their souls. This is exactly what Thompson, Steadman, and Gilliam have achieved. Being on acid allowed Thompson to see the Las Vegas crowd for what it is: money hungry monsters that have done terrible things in their quest for the “American Dream.” It is questionable whether one can take what Thompson says on acid as fact, but it is irrelevant because he makes a very powerful social commentary on middle-class America. Thompson’s alter ego Duke loathes the people in Las Vegas, who represent the majority of the 1970’s American population.
To further exemplify the ignorance of the American population, Thompson includes a chapter that is taken verbatim from his tape recorder and is pure dialogue. Duke and his attorney discuss the location of the “American Dream” with employees at a local taco stand. The attorney explains to the waitress that they are on a mission to find the “American Dream.” She takes this information very literally and believes that she knows were it is, and directs them to an old Psychiatrists Club were drug dealers hang out. Although this is very comical, Thompson shows how extinct the “American Dream” has become after his utopian 1960’s counterculture disband. Even the subtitle of the novel – ‘A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream’ – evokes thoughts of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness were he finds corruption and decay within (Banco 137).
In the 1960’s Thompson was a first-hand witness to the failure of two distinct countercultural groups: the Hell’s Angels and the Merry Pranksters. The Hell’s Angels alienated themselves from the entire countercultural community after they attacked a student rally and the Merry Pranksters segregated themselves through their radical views on drugs and politics. Because Thompson was an active observer to the decline of the counterculture, this downturn shaped his cynical views of the 1970’s and the “American Dream.” Thompson sees a direct correlation between the 1960’s counterculture and the “American Dream,” and saw that with the fall of the 1960’s counterculture, the “American Dream” also declined.
Banco, Lindsey Michael. "Trafficking Trips: Drugs and the Anti-Tourist Novels of Hunter S. Thompson and Alex Garland." Studies in Travel Writing 11, no. 2 (September 2007): 127-153. MLA International Bibliography, EBSCOhost (accessed March 26, 2009).
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Dir. Terry Gilliam. Universal Studios, 1998.
Goffman, Ken. Joy Dan. Counterculture Through the Ages From Abraham to Acid House. New York: Villard, 2004.
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. Dir. Alex Gibney. Magnolia Home Entertainment, 2008.
Konas, Gary. "Traveling 'Furthur' with Tom Wolfe's Heroes." Journal of Popular Culture 28, no. 3 (Winter 1994): 177-192. MLA International Bibliography, EBSCOhost (accessed March 26, 2009).
Thompson, Hunter. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas A Savage Journey to the Heart of
the American Dream. New York: Vintage Books, 1998.
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Watson, Steven. The Birth of the Beat Generation. New York: Pantheon Books, 1995.
Wolfe, Tom. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. New York: Picador, 1968.
Wood, John. "Hell's Angels and the Illusion of the Counterculture." Journal of Popular Culture 37, no. 2 (November 2003): 336-351. MLA International Bibliography, EBSCOhost (accessed March 26, 2009)
This is my final paper, were all of my research and work came together. I felt that it was necessary to add my paper into the portfolio to show the end product of all my reaserch.