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Hippie heaven: the liberating legacy of those "hideous, spotty little teenagers".

Strolling through Haight-Ashbury in 1967, it was George Harrison--the quiet Beatle, for God's sake, and the one with the sitar!--who delivered one of the most caustic putdowns of hippies ever. "Somehow I expected them all to own their own little shops. I expected them to all be nice and clean and friendly and happy," said the future composer of "Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)," sounding more like Spiro Agnew than Ravi Shankar for a moment. Rather than love children he could, well, love, Harrison encountered what he called "hideous, spotty little teenagers" who "were all terribly dirty and scruffy."

You'll find that anecdote, and many more like it, in Hippie, a spectacularly designed (by Grant Scott) coffee table book from Sterling Publishing that is every bit as captivating, colorful, and self-congratulatory as the social type it describes. "Call them freaks, the underground, the counterculture, flower children or hippies," writes Barry Miles in characteristic prose, they "transformed life in the West as we knew it, introducing a spirit of freedom, of hope, of happiness, of change and of revolution." As a way-late baby boomer (born in 1963) whose affinities run more to the Sex Pistols than to the Summer of Love, I hate to admit that he has a point. Certainly, personal identity was never the same after the flower children blossomed en masse during the '60s.

Miles focuses on the years 1965 to 1971, grokking the immense variety of hippies with an obsessive and encyclopedic attention to detail that has scarcely been seen in American letters since Ishmael's musings on sea creatures in Moby Dick. When's the last time, for instance, you thought about the Chocolate Watch Band, the underappreciated garage group that appeared in the instant anti-hippie 1967 camp classic Riot on Sunset Strip? Or pondered the origins of the phrase "the Love Generation" (a term coined by the San Francisco chief of police, who after listening to young merchants discourse on the benefits of drug use, remarked, "You're sort of the Love Generation, aren't you?")? Or recalled that Valerie Solanas, the leader (and only member) of the Society for Cutting Up Men who became famous for shooting Andy Warhol, was an ardent individualist? (In her SCUM manifesto, she lamented, "Traditionalists say the basic unit of 'society' is the family; 'hippies' say the tribe; no one says the individual.")

The freshest part of the book is the attention paid to European variants. The colorful reprints from the censored English underground mag Oz--co-edited by Felix Dennis, who has gone on to scandalize contemporary puritans by publishing skin-filled "lad mags" such as Maxim--alone are worth the price of Hippie.

To his credit, Miles, best known as a biographer of those proto-hippies, the Beats, never shies away from the dark side of '60s youth culture. The Manson Family, not just the Merry Pranksters, appear in Dayglo detail. "Rape is as common as bullshit on Haight Street," reads one public awareness flyer he reprints. Yet even as Miles documents the misogyny at the heart of much of "freak culture," he convincingly argues that the movement ultimately helped to liberate women, gays, and straights alike by increasing the range of acceptable lifestyles.

From time to time, Miles falls back on cliches, as when he notes with a frown that by the start of the '70s "the revolution was being commodified." Such a pose ignores that "the revolution" was in many ways built around items for sale--ranging from record albums to drugs to psychedelic trousers to acres of pristine communeland. By all means, let your freak flag fly--but remember that you've got to buy the material somewhere.

That said, Miles' larger narrative is right on. There's little doubt that the hippie heyday helped usher in what the anthropologist Grant McCracken has called an age of "plenitude," a "quickening speciation of social groups." We live in a looser, less uptight America thanks to the antics of San Francisco's Diggers, New York's Fugs, and every anonymous longhair in between.

That's a powerful legacy that even the notoriously anti-hippie punks of the '70s--themselves a case study in anxiety-inducing self-fashioning would have to grant their flower-wielding forerunners.

Nick Gillespie (gillespie@reason. com) is editor of reason magazine and the new collection Choice: The Best of Reason (BenBella Books). A shorter version of this appeared in the Washington Post.
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Author:Gillespie, Nick
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 2004
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