In 1977, a friend and I were hanging out at the July 4th Smoke-In on the Mall in Washington, DC. I had spent a few hours the week before helping a bunch of yippies roll several pounds of donated Colombian Red pot into joints. The papers we were rolling the joints with were made to look like the US flag. Lots of little red, white and blue reefers. The plan was for a bunch of us to take hundreds of these joints over to Lafayette Park across from the White House during a rally calling for the legalization of marijuana and distribute them. Personally, I thought it was a great plan. That morning I was given several dozen joints and began to smoke and distribute them. By the time the rally had begun, I still had at least one hundred joints and a very good buzz. My friends and I headed over to Lafayette Park and began to light the joints and pass them out.
Meanwhile, several hundred folks listened to the music and taunted the mounted cops surrounding the park. I believe some of them planned on getting busted. I wasn’t one of them, not seeing the wisdom in getting a pot bust on my sheet. (Those would come later.) I don’t recall if the cops obliged the folks wanting to make a statement by sitting in jail high on pot, but I do recall that they chased us all out of the park after a couple hours. They just rode their horses right into the crowd. Taking the cue, most folks headed back over to the Mall and continued listening to the mostly punk rock bands playing there. By nightfall, the citizens wanting to see the fireworks had pushed our Smoke-In crowd to one end of the Mall. The Smoke-In concert stopped around 7 PM and the government celebration took over. It was time for us to get out of town. A couple of buses later we were back in suburbia.
1977 was a period of false serenity. The intensity of the late 1960s and early 1970s had been replaced with a soporific haze that included the Allman Brothers playing the White House and the BeeGees becoming funkless disco stars. There were even dress codes at bars again. Politically, the antiwar movement had no war and, consequently was nonexistent. Anti-racist groups still opposed the presence of apartheid South African sports teams around the nation and the Klan met with resistance wherever it appeared, but there were never large crowds at these events. Marxist groups were lost in the life that being a working person creates–union meetings, paying bills, stress and frustration. The yippies were a shell of their former selves, but they were a loud and disruptive shell. Head shops and food co-ops that flourished only a year or two before were beginning to struggle. Many such institutions in small town America had already closed, meaning that those of us who wanted to buy Zap Comix or rolling papers had to travel to a city or college town nearby to do so.
LSD was getting harder to find, although there was more of it available at some music festivals than there had been a year earlier. When the Grateful Dead played in New Jersey on Labor Day weekend, 150, 000 people showed up and there seemed to be plenty of psychedelics for those interested in consuming them. Yet, the fact remains that the counter part of the counterculture was fading into the memory of a nation, to be revived positively in ad campaigns years later and negatively by rightwing blowhards who were either too uptight to have been involved or too young. Either way, it became a farcical shadow of itself. Perhaps nothing shows this better than the use of Hendrix’s version of “The Star Spangled Banner” in a television commercial. When mainstream America first heard this back in 1969, it was considered sacrilege. It had truly broken what author Frederick Exley called “the American sound barrier” in his 1966 book A Fan’s Notes. Now, it’s just another part of the capitalist package.
I won’t even go into what happened to the US left. Well, maybe just a little. With the exception of a few groups comprised of perhaps a few thousand folks, there is none. The Democratic Party has successfully consumed the majority of those who might call themselves left, substituting a vote for the Democrats and an occasional raised voice at a rally for social change. To their credit, there are many young people who can see the situation much more clearly than their elders. Although many of them seem to prefer the route of cynicism, there are those who organize on their campuses and among their friends against the nonsense foisted upon us all in the name of freedom, progress and democracy. However, I still think it’s going to take a genuine and unmistakable betrayal by Mr. Obama for most Americans to get beyond the two-party deal. His steady, piecemeal yet subdued rejection of everything he campaigned for seems to be lulling folks asleep if it is doing anything at all. In other words, his continuation of many of Bush’s policies is not provoking the same reaction as they did when Bush had his name on them. The politics of personality seem to have strengthened the Empire just like they are designed to do. Is this a great country or what?
I’m listening to Jimi’s performance of “Machine Gun” from a concert he performed in Berkeley in May, 1970 while people rioted in the streets against the US invasion of Cambodia. This song is not only a prayer for peace and love. It is about the massacre of Blacks in the streets and Vietnamese in the jungle. It is also a cry for an end to greed and the wars it causes. It is a condemnation of the masters of war and a cry of defiance. I don’t think it will be appearing in a commercial any time soon. Do you think Obama has this song on his iPod? If he does, would it matter?
RON JACOBS is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. His most recent book, titled Tripping Through the American Night is published as an ebook. He can be reached at: email@example.com