Last night I watched a wonderful film called “Pirate Radio”. I had seen it in Greece a few years ago; the European title is “The Boat That Rocked”. It’s the story of a time in England when it was illegal to broadcast rock and roll, and so rock stations were forced to broadcast from ships out in open waters. Millions tuned in to the music, and eventually, of course, the laws were rescinded and rock and roll changed our lives forever. The movie is full of terrific music, a cast of excellent actors, comedy, pathos, and relevance. Relevance? Come off it. This is 2013 after all. We are talking about over forty years ago. What could be relevant about that? Who watches the Woodstock documentary anymore? Who listens to Hendrix, the Doors, the Beatles, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and the Grateful Dead? A lot of people, evidently, judging by the successful tours of septuagenarian rock groups who continue to draw sellout crowds.
Something happened back then. Something happened that made the Sixties and early Seventies a unique era in the history of humankind. I came into adolescence and manhood during that era, but I don’t think it’s just a purely personal observation I am making here. As I look back in recent history, I see a great burst of bright light from that time. It was a light of freedom, of creativity, of exuberance, of tolerance, of hope, of passion, of free love, of optimism, of shifting of perspective.
I was not prepared for this strange kaleidoscopic twisting of traditional culture the first time I encountered it. I had caught glimpses in Seattle in my last years of high school. At the age of fifteen or sixteen I had begun to drink a lot; in fact I had begun to get so drunk at parties that I would black out and not remember what I had done. Then one day some classmates turned me on to marijuana, the killer weed, reefer madness. I was already drunk when I first tried it, and the room spun round me and I lost control and ended up throwing up in the toilet. But I tried again, and again, and finally it became an irregular habit, the imbibing of the weed during weekends or breaks between classes at school. By the time I headed down to California for university any traditional fifties standards and customs absorbed from my parents had been shattered and/or melted and I was evolving into a different sort of creature, a creature of the sixties and seventies. I listened to the latest rock music; I smoked weed and hashish; I began to experiment with LSD and mescaline and psilocybin; I went to Grateful Dead concerts.
All of this turned out not to be a purely positive experience by any means. I wasn’t ready to handle this inner deconstruction, because I had not the maturity nor the materials with which to reconstruct myself. I became confused, paranoid, without initiative or direction, unsure of how to use this new perspective in a positive, life-affirming way. My salvation, it turned out, was writing. Out of that quagmire of confusion in California I wrested the realization of my life’s work, my calling. I realized I had to be a writer, that there was nothing else in this world for me worth doing.
As years and decades have passed, I look back on that time with mixed feelings. On the one hand it was a horror of loneliness, insecurity, fear, and confusion. On the other hand it was when I discovered who I am as a person and what I am here to do. That time, more than any other, I return to again and again in my writing. I wrote about my travels around the world in the mid-seventies as a wandering hitchhiking hippy searching for truth in my memoir “World Without Pain: The Story of a Search”. My first novel, “Love Children”, has young people raised by aliens coming back to Earth in the mid-seventies to search for their parents, and contrasts the drugs and disappointments of the era with the superior moral training of the alien culture. My second novel, “The Misadventures of Mama Kitchen”, is about an idealistic young hippy woman in the late sixties who travels from wilderness commune to Haight/Ashbury in San Francisco to the Woodstock music festival in search of manifestations of the hippy ideal of peace and brotherhood for which she strives. Many of my short stories are also set in the sixties and seventies, including “Mendocino Mellow”, about a special strain of dope which enables a group of hippies to travel back in time and attend Woodstock; “Slice-of-Death”, a horror story drawing on the paranoia of bad psychedelic trips; and “The Illuminations”, about a rock band that travels to the Indian Subcontinent in the wake of the Beatles and in the remote Himalayas discovers a cursed book which affects their lives in very strange and evil ways.
My thoughts return to the Sixties and Seventies again and again. Even my current novel in progress, about which I will speak no more particulars than to say it is sort of a sequel or spinoff to “The Misadventures of Mama Kitchen”, deals with this era. I can’t get it out of my mind. And in my more self-questioning phases, which occur frequently, I wonder if there is something wrong with me, if I have somehow been caught in some sort of time loop which makes it difficult to deal with the world as it now is. So much has changed. There were no personal computers or cell phones back then, let alone the plethora of other gadgets with which we are now obsessed. When I traveled from country to country the only means of communication I had with my relatives was an aerogram, a thin little piece of paper you would write on and then glue together into a sort of envelope. It was lighter and therefore cheaper to send than a regular letter. Long distance phone calls were so expensive as to be out of the question, at least to a wandering vagabond such as I was. Drugs were abundant and easily obtainable, but the consequences of getting caught with them were much more severe. There was a redneck-hippy gap, which caused many people to consider those with long hair or unorthodox clothing to be traitors, communists, criminals, or of uncertain sexual orientation. I had many fleeting relationships with women, and in none of them did I use a condom; in those days most women were on the pill, and though the clap reared its ugly head now and then it was neutralized with a powerful antibiotic fix, and the scourge of AIDS was as yet unknown.
Yes, that era was so important to me that I can’t get it out of my mind. I continue to write about it, and sometimes I wonder if I am just chewing my cud, if anyone is really interested in that era anymore besides me. Certainly the sales (or paucity of sales) of my books would suggest that I am alone in my preoccupation. And yet, I see the popularity of such movies as “Pirate Radio”, and that DVDs of the original Woodstock concert continue to come out in new editions. Those old rock musicians continue to rock. Yesterday I went to see the new film “Star Trek Into Darkness”. There are a lot of “in” jokes and allusions in the film that you won’t get unless you have a thorough familiarity with the original TV series and the early Star Trek films, but I noticed a lot of folks in the audience reacting in the right way at the right time. So it is with the sixties and seventies as well. Plenty of people remember those days. And those who do not remember should learn. It was a bright shining of era of hope and fear, dreams and despair, peace and violence, love and hate. In short, it was an era of contradictions, just like every era is in the history of the human race. But this is the era of my formation, of my coming of age, of my birth as a creative artist. I cannot help but write of it, whether others find it relevant or not. A writer must write about who he is, what he is, where he is, and when he is. Even when writing science fiction and fantasy a writer digs into himself, into his own core, and writes of the truths he finds there.
So are the sixties and seventies relevant? Absolutely. In my mind they are the most relevant of times, even more real in some ways than the time in which I now live. I don’t follow the popular music nowadays, and much of what I hear I find inferior to music from the sixties and seventies. A sincerity and seeking after truth is missing in modern music and literature. Perhaps that is what I am trying to bring back when I write of decades gone by.
I’m a professional writer; I make my living by my words. I’m happy to share these essays with you, but at the same time, financial support makes the words possible. If you’d like to become a patron of the arts and support my work, buy a few of my available books or available stories. Thanks!
I found your site via a comment you left on DWS’s blog (essential reading for writers, I think http://www.deanwesleysmith.com). What you said about your writing, and the affects on you when you do it (positive), and don’t do it (negative), I relate to. I’m the same way, and I suspect many of us writers are, for whom it’s a calling to write.
The 60’s and 70’s were times with great events, the expanding ripples of their influence still being felt today. I like how you put it: “…a great burst of bright light from that time. It was a light of freedom, of creativity, of exuberance, of tolerance, of hope, of passion, of free love, of optimism, of shifting of perspective.”
Indeed. I look forward to reading your books, especially the stories inspired by those decades. I’ve just been checking out the sample of your book “World Without Pain” on Smashwords and I’ve got to say that it’s well done! I’ve laughed out lould twice and found your tales of being on the road compelling. I look forward to reading the whole book.
Keep on truckin’
p.s. Your previous entry “The Pursuit of Elusive Literary Fame and Fortune” was good reading too, eye-opening, and inspiring to hear the tales of other writers.
Thanks, Dave. I realize more and more as time goes on, that no matter what else is going on in my life, no matter what tragedies or triumphs, successes or failures, I can’t not write.