Counterculture Casualties

Here’s an excerp from SURVIVING ON THE STREETS: How to Go Down Without Going Out:

Chapter Twenty One

Another new development over the last thirty years is the emergence of the counterculture casualty. There are lineages on the street scene that have been around since bums immemorial: the Skid Row Wino lineage, the Hobo/Tramp lineage, the Gypsy lineage, etc.   But since the ‘60s, a relatively new and virulent strain has emerged: the Counterculture-Casualty lineage.

Much of today’s modern street scene spawned out of the ‘60s hippie counterculture, and continued on with the ‘80s punk counterculture. So it might be worth it to take a quick look at some of the values and assumptions that came out of this. As well as some of the pitfalls you might want to avoid stepping into. Because one thing you will definitely have to survive on the street scene is The ‘60s, man!

Kerouac was the forerunner, Kesey and the Merry Pranksters created the prototype, and then the Haight-Ashbury was the explosion. And kids have been dropping out ever since in search of that elusive countercultural dream. Every year I’ll see a new crop of dazed street kids looking for it. The hippie kids looking for Rainbow Hippie Village. Or the punk kids looking for Punk Scene USA. Where is that cool scene they’ve read about in all the cool books and magazines anyway?

Now it’s certainly a reflection of something seriously lacking in the mainstream culture, that so many people seem to be seeking an alternative in the first place. And I certainly don’t have space here to do justice to the whole Counterculture vs. Mainstream Culture debate.

All I’m trying to point out here is what you’ll most likely find, on the street level, when you come looking for the counterculture:

Very, very little.

Let’s face it. This world just doesn’t need any more hemp-jewelry makers, or hardcore punk-rock bass guitarists. So cut your hair and become a yuppie, okay?

(And what exactly is wrong with being a yuppie, anyway? Can anyone explain the universal scorn I keep hearing being heaped on “yuppies” these days? It just means you’re young, you live in the city, and you’ve got a fucking job. That makes more sense to me than this phony “counterculture rebel” pose I see so many kids trying to live out.)

All I’m saying is: If you decide to drop out of straight society, BE PREPARED TO PAY THE CONSEQUENCES. “Living in the moment” might sound nice if you’re nineteen and picking up Zen for the first time, but many of you may be unprepared for the truly tenuous nature of day-to-day existence on the street scene.

Take me for a tragic example. You want to talk drop-out?

I haven’t driven a car in 25 years. I haven’t been to a doctor or a dentist in twenty years. I haven’t had a bank account in fifteen years. I haven’t watched a TV show in ten years. I haven’t lived in anything that would remotely be considered a “home” in six years. (Which reminds me of the old street person joke: “What does the street person do when he gets sick? He dies.” Ha. Ha.)

Now if you want to try and exist without the security of the corporate tit, that’s fine (and it may be an illusion that such a thing as “security” even exists in this ever-changing world of ours). I’m just trying to warn you here about the reality that’s waiting for you, as opposed to the highly romanticized counterculture myth that you’ve been fed by the media.

Now it could be I’m overreacting here with the scorn of a lover betrayed. Because, at one point, I shared most of the values of the counterculture. I was certainly one of those kids who tried to live out the whole countercultural dream. For several years in the early ‘90s my work appeared every month in both High Times (the bible of the hippies) and Maximum Rock’N’Roll (the bible of the punks). An accomplishment I’m still not sure if I should be proud of, or embarrassed by.

Which reminds me of something else. A lot of people seem to think there was a big difference between the hippies and the punks. But what’s the difference between Sid Vicious and Jerry Garcia? That one of the dead junkies was “positive”?Speaking of media myths: It cracks me up when I hear these so-called “’60s-icons” congratulating themselves for the greatness of the ‘60s (and the greatness of themselves for bringing us the ‘60s). This would be all well and good, aside from one niggling detail: Virtually every aspect of American life has gotten worse since the ‘60s. Much worse.

In a radio interview, cartoonist R. Crumb talked about coming to the Haight-Ashbury in ‘67 right before the so-called Summer of Love. He mentioned what a beautiful city San Francisco was then: the streets were clean and safe, the people were friendly, housing was cheap and plentiful, living was easy, etc. And he mentioned an idea that was very much in vogue then amongst the countercultural set: How much more wonderful the city (and the world) would be when the Age of Aquarius set in and all the old farts died off and all the groovy hippies took over.

Well, I’m here to tell you, all the old farts did in fact die off, and all the hippies (including me) did in fact come tramping through the city. And it was hardly improved by our presence. But here’s the funny part. These “’60s icons” seem to think it’s still 1967 and that they should be judged on all the groovy, idealistic things they intended to do, as opposed to the actual effect they’ve had. I think it’s getting a little late in the game for that.

In the ‘50s, Oakland was averaging about twelve murders a year. After the ‘60s it started averaging about 150 murders a year. What would we have done without all the “love” the hippies invented in the ‘60s?

I think we all could benefit from an honest appraisal of what actually went down in the ‘60s. Lord knows we still haven’t sorted it out. Lord knows this society is schizo in its attempts to assimilate the counterculture into the mainstream.

I think of the day Jerry Garcia died. The mayor of San Francisco gave a heartfelt eulogy and lowered the flags at City Hall to half-mast in honor of this Great Man. And then, after shedding a few tears, went back to his Matrix program of busting and throwing into jail any of the street freaks dumb enough to try and emulate the example of this Great Man.

Which reminds me of George Carlin’s great joke about Jerry’s death: “It’s a sign of the great progress we’ve made since the ‘60s that rock stars are no longer in hotel rooms, but they’re now on the way to detox centers.”

My opinion? LSD is garbage, Jerry Garcia was an idiot, and the ‘60s was bullshit. The ‘60s was basically a dead-end we went staggering down. The ‘60s impacted on the modern street scene in several devastating ways:

1. Drugs (need I say more?)

2. The sloppy sexual unions that came out of the so-called “sexual liberation” movements – and the shattered family structures and the generation of orphans (especially in the black community) that resulted from that.

3. The romanticized notion of being against the mainstream society. Number three is probably the most devastating, because usually the street person starts out feeling alienated enough from society to begin with. Then the counterculture ethos feeds him this romanticized notion of the Hip Rebel Outsider, which locks him permanently into this state of alienation. Why try and integrate yourself into society when your alienation is your badge of honor, the very source of your identity.

Criticizing certain aspects of this world is one thing. Hating the world is another. It’s one of the most damaging things for the human psyche to endure. And all too often, the counterculture encourages and justifies this sense of alienation from society. Over and over I’ll hear these Counterculture Casualties give me a big speech about how they’re “against the multinational corporations, man.” That’s fine, except for one thing: the corporations own virtually everything. What world are you planning to live in? Well, the sidewalks, I guess.

What does it actually mean when you say you’ve “dropped out of the corporate system?” Most of the food you eat, the clothes you’re wearing, the beer you’re drinking, 95% of the media you’re consuming, all the electricity you’re using, all the money in your pocket… all these things were produced by big, big corporations. All you’re saying is: you’ll consume, but you won’t produce. Does that somehow make you more noble?

The ‘60s was a noble experiment, perhaps. All I’m saying is, the time has come to clearly assess the results of that experiment. I’m not looking to go back to the ‘50s. Maybe what I’m looking for is a counter-counterculture. In the meantime, beware of the pitfalls of the generation that preceded you.

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