You didn’t have to be on drugs to enjoy late-sixties rock ’n’ roll, as many people have survived to attest; and this is an important fact. For from a mainstream point of view, the music’s drug aura was sim¬ply one aspect of the psychedelic fashion that between 1967 and 1969 swept through popular art (black-light posters), photography (fish-eye lenses), cinema (jump cuts and light shows), clothing (tie- dye), coloring (Day-Glo), and speech (“you turn me on”). Psyche¬delia expressed the counterculture sensibility in its most pop form. It said: spiritual risk-taker, uninhibited, enemy of the System. It ad¬vertised liberation and hipness in the jargon and imagery of the drug experience. And the jargon wasn’t restricted to people under thirty, or to dropouts. In the late sixties, the drug experience became a uni¬versal metaphor for the good life. Commercials for honey encour¬aged you to “get high with honey.” The Ford Motor Company invited you to test-drive a Ford and “blow your mind.” For people who did not use drugs, the music was a plausible imitation drug experience because almost every commodity in the culture was pretending to some kind of imitation drug experience.
Psychedelia, and the sensibility attached to it, was a media- driven phenomenon. In April 1966, Time ran a story on the Carnaby Street, mods and rockers, Beatles and Rolling Stones scene in Lon¬don. In fact, that scene was on its last legs when the article ap¬peared; but many Americans were induced to vacation in Lon¬don, which revived the local economy, and the summer of 1966 became the summer of “Swinging London.” Swinging London was perfect mass-media material—sexy, upbeat, and fantastically photo¬genic. So when twenty thousand people staged a “Fluman Be-In” in Golden Gate Park in January 1967, the media were on hand. Here was a domestic version of the British phenomenon: hippies, Dig¬gers, Hell’s Angels, music, “free love,” and LSD—the stuff of a hun¬dred feature stories and photo essays. The media discovery of the hippies led to the media discovery of the Haight-Ashbury, and the summer of 1967 became the San Francisco “Summer of Love,” that year’s edition of Swinging London. Sgt. Pepper’s was released in June, and the reign of psychedelia was established. The whole episode lasted a little less than three years—about the tenure of the average successful television series.
Once the media discovered it, the counterculture ceased being a youth culture and became a commercial culture for which youth was a principal market—at which point its puritanism (inhibitions are a middle-class superstition) became for many people an excuse for libertinism (inhibitions are a drag). LSD, for instance, was ped¬dled by Leary through magazines like Playboy, where, in a 1966 in¬terview, he explained that “in a carefully prepared, loving LSD session, a woman will inevitably have several hundred orgasms.” This was exactly the sort of news Playboy existed to print, and the interviewer followed up by asking whether this meant that Leary found himself irresistible to women. Lear)’ allowed that it did, but proved reluctant to give all the credit to a drug, merely noting that “any charismatic person who is conscious of his own mythic po-tency awakens this basic hunger in women and pays reverence to it at the level that is harmonious and appropriate at the time.”
Playboy is not a magazine for dropouts, and the idea that coun¬terculture drugs were really aphrodisiacs was an idea that appealed not to teenagers (who do not require hormonal assistance) but to middle-aged men. (“Good sex would have to be awfully good before it was better than on pot,” Norman Mailer mused, presumably for the benefit of his fellow forty-five-year-olds, in The Armies of the Night, in 1968.) It was not teenagers who put Tom Wolfe’s account of Kesey’s LSD quackery, The Electric Kool-AidAcid Test (1968), on the hardcover best-seller list. Hippies did not buy tickets to see Hair on Broadway, where it opened in 1968 and played over seventeen hundred performances, or read Charles Reich’s homage to bell- bottom pants in the New Yorker. People living on communes did not make Laugh-In, Hollywood’s version of the swinging psychedelic style, the highest-rated show on television in the 1968-69 season. And, of course, students did not design, manufacture, distribute, and enjoy the profits from rock ’n’ roll records. Those who attack the counterculture for disrupting what they take to have been the traditional American way of life ought to look to the people who ex¬ploited and disseminated it—good capitalists all—before they look to the young people who were encouraged to consume it.
After the Altamont concert disaster, in December 1969, when a fan was killed a few feet from where the Rolling Stones were perform¬ing, psychedelia lost its middle-class appeal. More unpleasant news followed in 1970—the Kent State and Jackson State shootings, the Manson Family trials, the deaths by overdose of famous rock stars. And even more quickly than it had sprung up, the media fascina¬tion with the counterculture evaporated. But the counterculture, stripped of its idealism and its sexiness, lingered on. If you drove down the main street of any small city in America in the 1970s, you saw clusters of teenagers standing around, wearing long hair and bell-bottom jeans, listening to Led Zeppelin, furtively getting stoned. This was the massive middle of the baby-boom generation, the remnant of the counterculture—a remnant that was much big¬ger than the original, but in which the media had lost interest. These people were not activists or dropouts. They had very few pub¬lic voices. One of them was Hunter Thompson’s.