September 22, 2009: Abbie Hoffman, Yippie Emeritus, died 20 years ago. He was master of the culture jam before the term was coined, whacking the establishment with its own wack.
Quoting Wikipedia: “Culture jamming sometimes entails transforming mass media to produce ironic or satirical commentary about itself, using the original medium's communication method.”
Hello, ACORN? Can I come over in clown pimp garb and film you getting down with housing fraud?
In 1980, I interviewed Abbie Hoffmann for the New York Rocker, a publication devoted to Punk Rock. The interview appeared in March,1981. It stuck out like a psychedelic thumb. A member of an almost-famous Punk group accosted me on an East Village street demanding to know why Abbie was in the Rocker. At the time, many Punks viewed the counter-culture of the 60's and early 70's as a repressive dead hand and spat on it in music, prose, and pose. The rebellion didn't last. As Punk segued into deodorized New Wave, it embraced dead hand sentiments quicker than you could scream “destroy”. In its high school heart, Punk was conformist not truly contrarian. Unlike, say, Abbie Hoffman.
I knew Abbie as nodding acquaintance from my radical daze in NYC. In August 1968, I crashed for a time at the Yippie house in Chicago as the Democratic National Convention began its wild ride to the nomination of Hubert Humphrey as presidential candidate. Protesters from all over the country were gathering-- for sober anti-war demonstrations and for the Yippie “Festival of Life”. The latter looked to be the anti establishment blow out of all time. Festival planning sessions “led” by Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and other luminaries at the Yippie House were chaotic and open to the dozens of crashers drifting in and out. Nothing like the war room strategy sessions imagined by fantasists on the right. Besides, the masses of kids who came to Chicago were beyond command by Master Plan. Their motives were their own.
Weird to see, four decades later, fantasists on the left spinning similar conspiracy theories about the masses of Tea Party protesters. Many of whom carry flags sporting rattlesnakes and the slogan “Don't Tread On Me”. An American Revolution classic that was also popular in Chicago circa 1968.
Interviewing Abbie in 1980 had its problems. He was a talented raconteur who was almost always “on”. He had a trunk full of culture jam tales about Yippies throwing money into the New York Stock Exchange pit, levitating the Pentagon, running a pig named Pigasus for president, and the 1969/70 theater-of-the-absurd masterpiece that was the conspiracy trial of the Chicago 7. The problem was getting past the familiar. My interview was taking place soon after Abbie surfaced from the underground; he'd dropped down the rabbit hole in 1973 after being busted with enough cocaine to qualify as dealer weight. Abbie was willing to discuss his underground adventures as “Barry Freed” but probing questions about his drug bust were off the table. For one thing, legal issues still loomed.
Abbie painted the coke bust as a government frame. Some people believed him. I didn't. To argue the subject at length would be off topic. But I will say that while I admired-- and still admire-- Abbie's creative spirit and innovative political style, I never idolized him or any other radicals I knew in real life. (Propaganda images were another story. I had fatuous teenage moments re Che Guevara.) Rads put their pants on one leg at a time, just like Republicans. Speaking of getting dressed--
In my interview Abbie described how as a boy, he'd heard a psychologist on the radio say you could tell what kind of a person someone was by which shoe they put on first in the morning, the left or right. (Yes Virginia, pop psychology was just as dumb in radio days.) Upon hearing this, Abbie resolved to never put his shoes on in the same order again.
I really liked that story. Still do. The image of boy Abbie listening to the radio when radio was king is evocative and touching. His determination to resist categorization appeals to my contrarian sympathies. (Though being a contrarian means having to admit the radio shrink would probably have said striving to put your shoes on randomly is as much a readable pattern as anything else.)
I included Abbie's shoe story in the New York Rocker hard copy of my taped interview, but editor Andy Schwartz cut it. I figured he was disturbed by the idea of random shoe donning or that the radio shrink was his father. But he did leave other good stuff. Including Abbie's answer to my questions as to why The Movement (it was always mentally capitalized) had become repressive and why its focus had narrowed to lifestyle issues such as eating “right”.
Abbie responded to the first question as if I'd asked why pigs had started flying. He conveyed that The Movement was incapable, by its very nature, of being repressive. As for the narrowed focus, he said making a revolution was hard, people get tired.
Somehow, his answers didn't satisfy. It seemed as if Abbie the contrarian was blind in the left eye.
Eventually, I answered the questions myself. The bloody-minded and age old desire to control others via government power overwhelmed the Don't Tread On Me component of the counter-culture. Celebration of free thought gave way to castigation of politically incorrect thought-crime and an attempt to control reality by controlling language. (See Newspeak.) And those who shifted their revolutionary focus to lifestyle issues weren't tired. They just realized it was the best way to get people where they live.
Abbie Hoffman died 20 years ago from a massive drug overdose. Verdict: suicide. As said, I still admire his creative spirit and innovative political style. And it's great to see, four decades after Chicago, that folks still know how to do the anti-establishment culture jam. Even if the establishment they're jamming is chock full of faces and dogmas from my old daze.
Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff
“There are no spokesmen for the Yippies... We are all our own leaders.”
Revolution Towards A Free Society: Yippie! By A. Yippie, 1968
“And something is happening here/but you don't know what it is/do you, Mister Jones?”
Ballad of a Thin Man, Bob Dylan, 1965
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