Hippies were a dying breed in 1972, those peace-loving, longhaired boys and braless, braided-hair girls so in the know, so hip — “hippies” they became known in the early 1960s, a term popularized by San Francisco journalist Michael Fallon in writing about a local coffeehouse called the Blue Unicorn, where “the new generation of beatniks gathered.”
Beatnik in itself was a derisive term, coined in the late 1950s by cynical reporters who took Jack Kerouac’s “Beat Generation” – “beat” not in a jazzy, bongo-playing sense but a generation beaten down, beaten into empty shells by the impersonal world created by corporate America in the 1950s — and combined the “beat” with a “nik,” derived from the USSR satellite Sputnik, which broke its earthly bonds in 1958, the first satellite launched into space. To be an anything-nik in the late 1950s and early 1960s was to be pro-Russia and un-American – peaceniks against the US war effort in Viet Nam were simply labelled communists.
Americans liked to deride the Russians’ early achievements, barely recognizing their firsts while marveling at the gleam of our own space machines. By 1972, however, with the launching of Apollo 14 that year — the last in a triumphant series of lunar expeditions — and President Richard Nixon’s authorization of the development of a space shuttle, America reigned supreme in space. But in the late 1950s, the occurrence of Sputnik secretly shamed a country that believed in the superiority of its science and in the universal possibilities of itself.
Some say that the reporter Fallon was really just condensing novelist Norman Mailer’s favorite term of “hipster” to describe the 60s generation, but others have traced the term back to the jazz musicians of the early 20th century, who played loose and fast not only with notes but words. However, those early appearances were isolated. The term passed out of usage until revived in the 1960s – and particularly after San Francisco’s “Summer of Love” hippie fest in 1967. Thereafter, the term came to mean less about coolness and more about freedom from convention – “If dogs run free, then why can’t we?” Bob Dylan asked in 1970, on his release, “New Morning.”
Yet, in 1972 alone came a series of significant occurrences: the draft ended; the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 years of age; peace negotiations had begun between North Vietnam and the United States; burglars associated with President Nixon’s reelection campaign were caught breaking into the opposition’s offices in the Watergate complex in Washington, DC.
An age of deep cynicism began. Protests proved useless — and what was left to protest? Love conquered nothing. Better to rage — and party — with no expectations of changing the world around you. Better to focus on yourself, and only on the pleasure of the moment.
There was a growing hedonism in the early 1970s. A generation became lost in self-absorption. In 1973, Vince Aletti, writing in Rolling Stone magazine, first reported on the flamboyantly self-centered, sexually explicit scene known as disco; by the next year, New York City’s WPIX-FM premiered the first disco radio show. That same year, in 1974, the Ramones were formed and punk was born, a furiously self-destructive scene spiking heroin addiction in America . Novelist and cultural observer Tom Wolfe, writing in 1976, called it the “me decade.” Hippies were dead, replaced by the unrepentant egotism of disco and punk.
Thank you for writing this piece. It’s a great reflection back and a reminder where we came from. Today is a better day because of it.