It’s Stan Lee’s Universe

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Stan Lee died at the age of 95 on November, 12, 2018. This piece was initially published in early 2016.

People are almost always surprised when I tell them Stan Lee is 93. He doesn’t scan as a young man, exactly, but frozen in time a couple of decades younger than he is, embodying still the larger-than-life image he crafted for himself in the 1970s — silver hair, tinted shades, caterpillar mustache, jubilant grin, bouncing gait, antiquated Noo Yawk brogue. We envision him spreading his arms wide while describing the magic of superhero fiction, or giving a thumbs up while yelling his trademark non sequitur, Excelsior! He’s pop culture’s perpetually energetic 70-something grandpa, popping in for goofy cameos in movies about the Marvel Comics characters he co-created (well, he’s often just said “created,” but we’ll get to that in a minute) in the 1960s. But even then, he was old enough to be his fans’ father — not a teenage boy-genius reimagining the comics world to suit the tastes of his peers but already a middle-aged man, and one who still looked down a bit on the form he was reinventing.

A comic-book Methuselah, Lee is also, to a great degree, the single most significant author of the pop-culture universe in which we all now live. This is a guy who, in a manic burst of imagination a half-century ago, helped bring into being The Amazing Spider-Man, The Avengers, The X-Men, The Incredible Hulk, and the dozens of other Marvel titles he so famously and consequentially penned at Marvel Comics in his axial epoch of 1961 to 1972. That world-shaking run revolutionized entertainment and the then-dying superhero-comics industry by introducing flawed, multidimensional, and relatably human heroes — many of whom have enjoyed cultural staying power beyond anything in contemporary fiction, to rival the most enduring icons of the movies (an industry they’ve since proceeded to almost entirely remake in their own image). And in revitalizing the comics business, Lee also reinvented its language: His rhythmic, vernacular approach to dialogue transformed superhero storytelling from a litany of bland declarations to a sensational symphony of jittery word-jazz — a language that spoke directly and fluidly to comics readers, enfolding them in a common ecstatic idiom that became the bedrock of what we think of now as “fan culture.” Perhaps most important for today’s Hollywood, he crafted the concept of an intricate, interlinked “shared universe,” in which characters from individually important franchises interact with and affect one another to form an immersive fictional tapestry — a blueprint from which Marvel built its cinematic empire, driving nearly every other studio to feverishly do the same. And which enabled comics to ascend from something like cultural bankruptcy to the coarse-sacred status they enjoy now, as American kitsch myth.

All of which should mean there’s never been a better time to be Stan Lee. But watching him over the last year — seeing the way he has to hustle for paid autographs at a convention, watching him announce lackluster new projects, hearing friends and collaborators grudgingly admit his personal failings — it’s hard to avoid the impression that, in what should be his golden period, Lee is actually playing the role of a tragic figure, even a pathetic one. On the one hand, the characters associated with Lee have never been more famous. But as they’ve risen to global prominence, a growing scholarly consensus has concluded that Lee didn’t do everything he said he did. Lee’s biggest creditis the perception that he was the creator of the insanely lucrative Marvel characters that populate your local cineplex every few months, but Lee’s role in their creation is, in reality, profoundly ambiguous. Lee and Marvel demonstrably — and near-unforgivably — diminished the vital contributions of the collaborators who worked with him during Marvel’s creative apogee. That is part of what made Lee a hero in the first place, but he’s lived long enough to see that self-mythologizing turn against him. Over the last few decades, the man who saved comics has become — to some comics lovers, at least — a villain.

And, to certain comics fans, something of a joke. Lee may have personally made possible an expansive comics culture populated by idiosyncratic voices telling morally complex stories about relatable characters, layered over with much more darkness than had ever come before (achievements for which he still enjoys occasional bouts of adoration from the mainstream press and casual fans). But hard-core comics geeks greet news of his new projects with a certain degree of eye-rolling. Lee has always had a penchant for overstatement, but his pronouncements have grown increasingly hollow in the past 15 years. When he says he’s doing story concepts for a new superhero movie called Arch Alien and says it “is gonna be the biggest hit of the next year,” or when he says a comic-book collaboration with Japanese pop artist Yoshiki “is gonna be like nothing you’ve ever seen before,” it’s hard not to cringe a little bit. Where is the buzz about these projects? Is anyone really paying attention? A creative radical who made his most significant contributions while still carrying a healthy bit of disdain for a corny medium, he finds himself now, on the other end of the revolution he engineered, casually disrespected by the comics vanguard for being something like, well, corny.

Still, the greatest salesman the American comics industry ever had, he continues hawking. Lee and the company he helms, POW! Entertainment (he left active duty at Marvel in the late 1990s, though he still collects a reported million-dollar annual paycheck from the superhero giant), announce a dizzying number of new projects every year. The last six months alone have seen Lee doing promotional pushes for his British superhero TV series Lucky Man, Arch Alien, the Yoshiki project, a mobile game called Stan Lee’s Hero Command (which actually came out almost a year ago), a big-screen sci-fi take on Shakespeare called Romeo and Juliet: The War, a children’s book targeted at the Chinese market called Dragons vs. Pandas, a co-written young-adult novel series called The Zodiac Legacy, and a co-written memoir (with comics scribe Peter David)* called Amazing Fantastic Incredible. ButGoogle searches for “stan lee cameo” (he still does plenty) dwarf the searches for “stan lee arch alien” or “stan lee yoshiki,” and you’ll find hardly any mentions of those projects in geek-news sites.

Excerpt from ‘The Avengers’ No. 5. All of these big-name heroes existed in a shared universe, one of Lee’s many innovations. The note in the top left corner accentuates the fact that you had to read all Marvel comics to truly understand any one of them.

To be fair, the memoir and Zodiac have been released, and have produced decent sales so far. But in Lee’s current era of output, they’re the exception. As any longtime Lee-watcher can tell you, it’s anyone’s guess as to how many of his future projects will actually pan out. Ever since Lee took his talents away from Marvel, he’s left behind a trail of unfinished and half-finished work — which has made readers wonder just how much of those talents lie in narrative craft, and how much in showmanship. In 2005, Lee enthusiastically announced he’d partnered with Ringo Starr to make a cartoon where the drummer became a superhero. It never materialized. He was going to make a movie with Disney called Nick Ratchet, and it got as far as hiring writers in 2009, then vanished. A comics series called Stan Lee’s Mighty 7 released three issues in 2012 before abruptly stopping on a cliff-hanger (“The wonderment begins next time, pilgrims!” Lee’s narration read. “Miss it at your own risk! Excelsior!”) and never resuming. The list of mysteriously fizzled efforts goes on and on. And within geekdom, people tend not to talk about the stuff that does come out. Longtime friends and admirers within the comics industry will tell you, with a tone of embarrassment, that they don’t read or watch the stuff Lee produces these days. The style of comics today is so different from the optimistic style that Stan has,” says veteran comics writer and Lee collaborator Marv Wolfman, trying to explain the decline in relevance. “Stan is very, very optimistic, and we’re sadly living in a very pessimistic world.”

The costs of that change are not merely to Lee’s reputation. The most troubling aspect of Lee’s current situation is one entirely absent from the brief, glowing, and nostalgia-tinged pieces of press coverage he gets these days: His company is dying. Its most recent filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission lamented two years of net losses, could only predict the company would survive through January 2016, and declared, “These conditions raise substantial doubt about the Company’s ability to continue as a going concern.” POW!’s stock currently trades at one cent a share.

It’s a mild October day in Southern California, but the regurgitated air inside the Los Angeles Convention Center is freezing. Lee — wearing a white shirt, beige vest, tinted shades, and his trademark grin — seems unfazed by the chill. He nimbly hops into a chair in a makeshift press area set up just a few feet away from the main stage of his annual pop-culture convention, Stan Lee’s Comikaze. At his side is one of his business partners, a media entrepreneur named Terry Dougas. They’re here to announce Dragons vs. Pandas. Dougas, wisely, plays the straight man while Stan does one of the things he does best: charm journalists.

“Stan has always been focused, of course, on helping with literacy, helping children and families,” Dougas says.

“Sure!” Lee shouts in a gravelly voice. “The more kids can read, the more they’ll buy my books!”

Dougas starts describing Dragons vs. Pandas’ complex international rollout plan, featuring a digital release, a printed book, animation, a translation into Mandarin, and more. Lee, perhaps sensing how confusing this all sounds, butts in again.

“We’re gonna do more to create peace in the world between nations than anybody else!” the nonagenarian crows, pointing at a blowup of the book’s cover. “You may not suspect this, but this little panda is a killer! And this dragon is so scared. But you gotta read the story to get it all!”

The biggest laughs come a few minutes later, during the question-and-answer period. I ask him what his and Dougas’s collaboration process is like. “We hate each other!” Lee says. “He does all the talking, the girls love him because he’s good-looking, and he just keeps me around — why do you keep me around? I haven’t figured that out yet. No, he’s great to work with. He does all the work, I take the credit. You couldn’t have a better arrangement.”

That last bit is more than a little remarkable to hear. On the one hand, he’s just doing the typical Stan routine, one he’s been doing for the better part of seven decades: putting an audience at ease via disorienting shifts between self-promotion and self-debasement. But saying he just slaps his name on other people’s work — well, that’s a topic he usually keeps off the table, even for jokes. After all, it’s unwise to draw attention to the things for which you’re most hated, and since at least the late 1960s, Lee has been accused of stealing credit from two of comics’ most legendary creators, two men who had tremendous creative synergy with Lee before they concluded that he was an unforgivable bastard. Those two men were writer-artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko.

When you’re a comics nerd, there comes a time in your life when someone more knowledgeable than you — an older kid at school or summer camp, the checkout guy at your local comics shop, a blogger with a vendetta — lets you in on a secret. You know Stan Lee, right? You love him, right? Well, let me fill you in on some real shit. You learn about how he screwed Kirby and Ditko, about how those two were the real creative forces behind Marvel. You get told Lee is nothing more than a flashy, empty suit. If you want proof, you dig in to chronicles of his life like Jordan Raphael and Tom Spurgeon’s Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book, or Sean Howe’s masterful Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, and you see ample evidence for the case against Lee. You force yourself to question your assumptions. You have to decide what your personal take on this iconic figure is, and how you can weigh his accomplishments against his failings. Your conception of him is never the same again.

Excerpt from ‘The Fantastic Four’ No. 49. Our heroes face an apocalyptic threat. Lee and Kirby served up a thrilling brew of high-concept sci-fi, fallible protagonists, and scintillating copywriting.

“The story of Stan, Jack, and Steve is the stuff legends are made of,” one of Stan’s oldest friends and collaborators, comics writer-editor Roy Thomas, tells me over the phone. “It’s on them, more than any other three people, that the whole Marvel thing is built.” Thomas had an experience any comics fan or historian would kill for: He walked the offices of Marvel in the mid-’60s, when Lee and Ditko were working together on Spider-Man and Doctor Strange stories and Lee and Kirby were working together on nearly everything else, including The Avengers, The X-Men, and The Fantastic Four. Here’s the problem: It’s extremely unclear what “working together” meant.

According to Lee, it meant he came up with the concepts for all the characters, mapped out plots, gave the plots to his artists so they could draw them, and then would take the finished artwork and write his signature snappy verbiage for the characters’ dialogue bubbles. The artists, in Lee’s retelling, were fantastic and visionary, but secondary to his own vision. According to Kirby and Ditko, that’s hogwash. Ditko has retreated into a hermetic existence in midtown Manhattan, where he types up self-promoting mail-order pamphlets claiming Lee had only the most threadbare initial ideas for Spider-Man, and that Ditko is the one who fleshed the iconic character out into what he is today, then came up with most of the plot beats in any given story. Kirby, from the time he left Marvel in 1970 until his death in 1994, swore up and down that Lee was a fraud on an even larger scale: Kirby said he himself was the one who had all the ideas for the Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, and the rest, and that Lee was outright lying about having anything to do with them. What’s more, he said Lee was little more than a copy boy, filling in dialogue bubbles after Kirby had done the lion’s share of the conceptual and writing work for any given issue.

“Stan Lee and I never collaborated on anything,” Kirby told an interviewer in 1989. “It wasn’t possible for a man like Stan Lee to come up with new things — or old things, for that matter. Stan Lee wasn’t a guy that read or that told stories.”

“Stan’s gotten far too much credit,” says veteran comics writer Gerry Conway, who’s known Lee since 1970. “People have said Stan was out for No. 1, and to a very large degree, that’s true. He’s a good guy. He’s just not a great guy.”

“Unfortunately, from day one, Jack was doing part of Stan’s job, and Stan was not doing part of Jack’s job,” says comics historian Mark Evanier, who worked as Kirby’s assistant and has worked on and off with Lee since the 1970s. “When you talk to Stan Lee, when he turns the Stan Lee act off, he’s a very decent human being who is chronically obsessed with himself. He’s very insecure. Those of us who have trouble being angry for some of the things that happened, it’s because we saw the real human being there at times.”

“It’s one of those things where you sit down and you say, ‘You gotta be forgiving of your parents,’” says artist Colleen Doran, who drew Lee’s new memoir. “I don’t know of anyone who knows Stan and doesn’t love him, even if they hate things he’s done.”

To understand the nature of Lee’s bitter blood feuds, you have to take a step back and understand who Lee was before the Marvel phenomenon: a dispirited, middle-aged company stooge working in a dying industry, with no reason to believe anything could change. To understand Stan Lee, you must understand that his is one of the more remarkable second acts in American culture.

He was born Stanley Martin Lieber in Manhattan’s Upper West Side on December 28, 1922, the first child of middle-class Jewish parents. Stanley’s father, Jack, had been a dressmaker but suffered from chronic unemployment during the Depression. “Seeing the demoralizing effect that his unemployment had on his spirit, making him feel that he just wasn’t needed, gave me a feeling I’ve never been able to shake,” Lee wrote in his first memoir, Excelsior!, published in 2002. “It’s a feeling that the most important thing for a man is to have work to do, to be busy, to be needed.”

Poverty drove the family to cheaper rents in the Bronx, where the bookish Stanley attended DeWitt Clinton High School and adopted the nickname Stan Lee. He took to writing around then and snagged a few creative gigs: He wrote advance obituaries for a news service, did publicity material for a hospital, and briefly performed with the New Deal’s WPA Federal Theatre Project. His family couldn’t afford college, but as luck would have it, his cousin was married to a publisher named Martin Goodman, who had leaped into the nascent-but-booming world of comic books, a medium only invented in 1933. Lee got a gig as an editorial gofer at Goodman’s Timely Publications in 1940 and soon started writing scripts for its burgeoning lineup of titles. He usually signed them as “Stan Lee” because — so goes his oft-told anecdote — he wanted to save his real name for when he would someday write the great American novel. He’s earned a paycheck from the company, in its constantly shifting forms and names, ever since.

Upon entering the building, Lee met the most significant man in his life, someone whose partnership and eventual spite will haunt him forever: Jack Kirby, the pen name of a rough-and-tumble Jewish boy from the Lower East Side, Jacob Kurtzberg. He was a writer-artist five years Lee’s senior and already a leading light in the budding comics industry, lauded for co-creating the smash-hit superhero Captain America alongside Timely editor-in-chief Joe Simon just a few weeks prior. From the very beginning, Lee and Kirby were a study in stark contrasts. The younger man was cheerful and animated, prone to leaping around the offices while playing an ocarina; the older pro was quiet and perpetually hunched over his drawing board. Lee was healthy and handsome; Kirby was husky and shrouded in cigar smoke. And while Lee was immediately eager to please the powers that be, Kirby and Simon ran afoul of Goodman and angrily left the company in 1941. Lee, not even 19 years old, was abruptly named editor-in-chief at one of the hottest publishers in comics.

He would hold that position for two decades — a full professional career, really — before Timely transformed into Marvel (two decades characterized by diminishing returns for the business as a whole). Lee had a brief Army stint from 1942 to 1945, serving Stateside as a copywriter (both of his memoirs proudly recall the crafting of a poster reading, “VD? NOT ME!”), and though he returned to his job at Timely afterward, he was never truly satisfied there. With good reason. Goodman was a shameless trend-chaser: When superhero series like National Comics’ Superman and Batman fell out of fashion and Gleason Publications saw success with a cops-and-robbers series called Crime Does Not Pay, Goodman’s company cranked out laughably obvious knockoff versions named Crime Must Lose!, Crime Can’t Win, and Lawbreakers Always Lose. Same went for Westerns and horror when the market shifted toward those genres. Lee dutifully supervised and wrote scripts for these also-rans, drifting through corporate stability and silently seething about the material. “We’re not talking War and Peace here,” he wrote in his first memoir. “In fact, I was probably the ultimate, quintessential hack.”

Then, in the mid-1950s, the industry collapsed under the weight of a moral panic about the medium’s supposed promotion of juvenile delinquency (which prompted infamous,vicious congressional hearings). Goodman was a poor businessman and a worse boss, hemorrhaging cash and forcing the genial Lee to tell staffers they were fired. To make matters worse, death stalked Lee: He and his wife Joan’s second child died three days after birth, then his closest friend at the company, artist Joe Maneely, died after falling in front of a commuter train. As the staff dwindled, Lee was forced to stand alone as the sole writer and editor of virtually everything his boss published. “I was like a human pilot light,” he wrote in 2002, “left burning in the hope that we would reactivate our production at a future date.” Everything was in free-fall; everything was up for grabs. Lee, at age 38, had little to lose.

There are two accounts of what happened next, and they’re impossible to reconcile. According to Jack Kirby — who died in 1994 — the revolution began with uncontrollable weeping. He had returned to Martin Goodman’s company on a freelance basis in 1958, and he recalled a fateful day when the place hit rock bottom. “I came in and they were moving out the furniture, they were taking desks out,” he said in an infamous 1989 interview with The Comics Journal. “Stan Lee is sitting on a chair crying. He didn’t know what to do, he’s sitting in a chair crying — he was just still out of his adolescence. I told him to stop crying. I says, ‘Go in to Martin and tell him to stop moving the furniture out, and I’ll see that the books make money.’” In his telling, he then single-handedly conceived the characters and plot of The Fantastic Four, the quirky, iconoclastic, epoch-defining superhero series that kicked off the resurrection of the company and the industry.

Lee, as you would imagine, absolutely refutes that story and has his own oft-told version of the path to The Fantastic Four. Here’s how he put it in his 1974 book Origins of Marvel Comics: “Martin mentioned that he had noticed one of the titles published by National Comics seemed to be selling better than most. It was a book called The Justice League of America and was composed of a team of superheroes,” Lee wrote. “Well, we didn’t need a house to fall on us. ‘If The Justice League is selling,’ spake he, ‘why don’t we put out a comic book that features a team of superheroes?’” Lee didn’t want to keep churning out trend-following swill, so he said he dreamed up a superteam “such as comicdom had never known,” with characters who were “fallible and feisty, and — most important of all — inside their colorful, costumed booties they’d still have feet of clay.” He then, so the story goes, conceived the idea for The Fantastic Four by himself, typed out a pitch, and selected Kirby to draw it. Kirby, Lee said, had nothing to do with the initial idea.

An excerpt from ‘The Fantastic Four’ No. 1. This kind of infighting was very unusual for a superhero narrative, and just one of the things that made this issue revolutionary.

This is a pattern you run into for nearly every one of the characters that followed: There’s Lee’s charming, witty account of events; there’s Kirby’s dour, workmanlike one; and never the twain shall meet. The men kept few written records from the time, and the debate over how much credit Lee deserves is the single most controversial matter in the history of comics. These matters aren’t just fanboy quibbles either: In 2009, when Marvel began to rake in cash from its film studio, the Kirby family legally declared Jack was co-creator of all those extremely lucrative characters — and that, because work-for-hire standards were so vague in the early ’60s, they were entitled to a share of the copyright on all those properties. The case went on for five years and very nearly made it to the Supreme Court before Marvel settled under terms that are believed to be quite generous. (To be fair, Lee doesn’t hold the copyrights either — he’s just remained employed by the company that does.)

But when The Fantastic Four No. 1 hit stands on August 8, 1961, all anyone outside Goodman’s offices knew was that the 25-page tale was unlike any other comic book in the medium’s 23-year history. Superhero stories were supposed to be about genial people who happily stumble upon superhuman abilities, then go on their merry way toward justice. That mold was forever broken in the four-page sequence where powers are forced onto the titular quartet — forced upon them quite painfully. Scientist Reed Richards takes his friend Ben Grimm, his girlfriend Susan Storm, and Susan’s brother Johnny on an experimental rocket trip, but they’re bombarded by “cosmic rays.” There are six panels of claustrophobic, crimson-shaded agony: “My — my arms are heavy — too heavy — can’t move — too heavy — got to lie down — can’t move” is Ben’s panicked staccato.

They slam back into Earth and immediately find their situation has gotten even worse. Susan starts to turn invisible and screams as she looks at her disappearing flesh. Ben’s skin melts and expands until he resembles a misshapen pile of orange stones; he immediately blames Reed and tries to beat the tar out of him. Johnny calls his friends “monsters” before levitating and bursting into flame. Reed’s limbs stretch away from him like distended rubber, and he howls, “What am I doing? What happened to me? To all of us?” The characters seem trapped in a horror fable. Eventually, they calm down and decide to use their powers to help mankind — but as they do so, Lee’s dialogue has them tossing passive-aggressive taunts, and Kirby’s pencils show them bearing miserable expressions. The whole thing doesn’t feel like a traditional superhero comic; it’s more like a David Cronenberg movie or a booze-soaked fight at a Thanksgiving dinner. This mix of wild sci-fi invention and human drama continued in the ensuing monthly installments: One issue, the Four would save Earth by transmogrifying alien invaders into cows; just a few months later, they’d face eviction from their headquarters because they’d run out of rent money.

It’s hard to appreciate today just how radical a shift in tone the first Fantastic Four was. But there was another revolutionary aspect of the series, one hidden from the reader but unendingly controversial: It was the first superhero series to use the so-called “Marvel method.” To save time while writing a dozen or more comics at once, Lee had recently developed a thrifty alternative to writing out full scripts. He’d merely come up with a rough plot — ”as much as I can write in longhand on the side of one sheet of paper,” as he put it in a 1968 interview — talk that over with the artist, then make the artist go off and create the entire story from scratch. Every emotional beat, character interaction, and action sequence was now the responsibility of the guys drawing them, who until then had been accustomed to just drawing whatever a script told them to draw. Now it was the artists who built the narrative architecture, and the writers who did something more like buffing up: Once Lee got the artwork back, he’d interpret what he saw and cook up dialogue bubbles, narration, and sound effects. “Some artists, such as Jack Kirby, need no plot at all,” Lee said in that 1968 chat. “I mean, I’ll just say to Jack, ‘Let’s let the next villain be Dr. Doom.’ Or I may not even say that. He may tell me. And then he goes home and does it. He’s so good at plots, I’m sure he’s a thousand times better than I.”

The Marvel method gets a bad rap in the comics community these days because it allowed Lee to claim he’d written stories that were actually co-plotted by the artists, but at the time, it was an artistically fertile game-changer. The tyranny of full scripts was over, and artists were free to come up with graphic ideas that worked for them. “I realized that comics from a script was absolutely paralyzing and limiting,” says John Romita Sr., an artist who worked extensively with Lee in the ’60s and has remained a close friend ever since. “When you had the option of deciding how many panels you’d use, where to show everything, how you pace each page out, it’s the best thing in the world. Comics becomes a visual medium!”

“Even before the sales totals were in, we knew we had a major success because of the amount of enthusiastic fan mail,” Lee says in his new memoir, and Marvel feverishly fed this newfound demand. Over the ensuing months, Lee and Kirby cranked out stories about one eccentric superhero after another. Self-loathing scientist the Incredible Hulk, maimed war profiteer Iron Man, literal god Thor, and ostracized freaks the X-Men all appeared in the space of just two years. Lee had writing chores for as many as eight series at a time and was editor of all of them. That was an incredible burden, but also a creative opportunity: When Lee decided to have all these new characters periodically run into each other in their fictional New York City, he was able to keep that new shared universe straight in his head.

It’s difficult to overstate the significance of Lee’s invention of the idea of a comprehensive shared universe. It was a genius way to move product: If you wanted the full story of what was going on with your favorite characters, you had to buy series that starred other characters. But it was also a creative coup: Marvel was suddenly crafting a massive, unified story in which a reader could totally lose themselves. (It’s no wonder today’s movie studios are all rushing to follow the Marvel model and create their own shared universes filled with Jedis or raptors.)

Young people flocked to newsstands to pick up Marvel comics. College groups would write to Lee, begging him to come speak about the nature of comics art. Newspapers and magazines started writing profiles of Marvel — usually with Lee at their center. He did the talk-show circuit. Filmmakers Federico Fellini and Alain Resnais sought audiences with Lee to tell him how highly they regarded his work. Lee wasn’t a radical leftist, but he knew how to tap the Zeitgeist: He and Kirby created a hyperintelligent black hero, the Black Panther; their female characters were often pugilists, not just pinups; and stories would often depict youthful rebellion and protest sympathetically. Lee was a genius at making fans feel cared for, addressing Marvel’s “True Believers” directly in his delightful letters pages and in missives sent to a Lee-created fan club called the Merry Marvel Marching Society. By 1965, Marvel boasted that it was selling an estimated 35,000,000 comics a year — one comic for every five people in the United States. “He saved the comic-book industry,” says Michael Uslan, producer of the Batman films, comics writer, and historian. “He allowed comic books to grow up and find an older audience. And as we grow up, instead of leaving comic books, we stay with them for the rest of our lives. That’s an incredible thing.”

“What Stan did in the ’60s was really to go out there and evangelize, to be a P.T. Barnum or a Sol Hurok, a promoter of the fact that comics weren’t just a children’s medium and certainly not just a stupid children’s medium,” says longtime comics writer, executive, and historian Paul Levitz. “He seized on every bit of evidence that could be developed: the movie director, actor, the singer, the implied endorsement, the opportunity to talk on college campuses. He certainly enjoys the sound of his own voice and enjoys performing, but he’s really, really good at it.”

The version of that voice that made it into print was another game-changer. Prior to the Marvel revolution, the top superhero series were DC Comics’ tales of characters like Superman, Batman, and the Justice League — and the characters never talked like human beings. (“Green Lantern, the power ring — it’s glowing!” “That means somebody has stolen one of the objects I marked with an invisible aura! Let’s go!”) Lee’s characters used slang, told jokes, and sounded distinct from one another. His narration often broke the fourth wall. And in the comics’ letters pages, Lee spoke to readers like a close friend, directly stoking their enthusiasm and giving them a personal relationship with him. To pick one of hundreds upon hundreds of examples: In Avengers No. 12, there’s a letter from a Steve Lucero of Laramie, Wyoming, who wrote to “compliment you on all your Marvel mags,” say his mom was happy to see him reading so much, and end with a hope that “this letter wasn’t too long and boring.” Lee’s reply: “Aw, you know us, Stevey! No letter is ever boring when it’s flattering us! And be sure to tell your mom ‘hello’ from the guys in the bullpen!”

“This was coming at a time when the baby-boomers were teenagers,” says Lee biographer and comics journalist Tom Spurgeon. “If Stan hadn’t been doing those stories that were for teenagers and not kids, comics would have disappeared. DC was very much doing stories for people under 13, and he was going more for 18.” This is an important distinction, one that helps explain Lee’s significance, as well as his awkward place in current comics geekdom. When you’re a grown-up, you’re going to lump kids’ comics and teen comics in with one another as childish pap. But when you’re a teenager, the difference between the two is massive. In the ’60s, he who controlled the hearts of teens could control the marketplace.

Lee’s most important contribution might also have been his most exemplary case-study:Spider-Man. He swung onto Marvel’s pages in 1962 in a story drawn by a tremendously talented and camera-shy artist named Steve Ditko. In that first adventure, you can see Lee using his unique voice right away with some self-deprecating, fourth-wall-breaking narration: “Like costume heroes?” the first panel asks in thick black ink. “Confidentially, we in the comic mag business refer to them as ‘long underwear characters’! And, as you know, they’re a dime a dozen! But, we think you may find our Spiderman just a bit … different!” He was, indeed. The tale of nebbishy Peter Parker and the spider bite that gave him strength and stickiness is well known now. But it’s like listening to early Beatles singles: They sound dull today because their iconoclasm became a new template.

The story bucked convention in two key ways: The protagonist was a teenager (previously, teens were nearly always sidekicks), and he was prone to being a smart-aleck asshole. After showing off his newfound powers on TV and blowing off a bunch of admirers (“See my agent, boys! I’m busy!”), he blithely lets a criminal run past him and tells an astonished police officer, “Save your breath, buddy! I’ve got things to do!” Of course, the criminal then kills Peter’s uncle, leading him to realize that “with great power there must also come — great responsibility,” perhaps the nine most famous words Lee will ever write. That balance of unconventional humor and emotional agony had never been tried in comics before, and Lee and Ditko deployed it month after month in The Amazing Spider-Man. There was a fundamentally relatable message at the core of the series: No matter how strong you are, you can’t punch your personal flaws.

Excerpt from ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ No. 29. Ditko provided wild action sequences while Lee gave Spidey a constant string of quips and references.

Speaking of which: Lee’s role in Spider-Man’s creation is the most disputed story of all. For decades, Lee took unequivocal full credit for the character concept, variously saying he was inspired by seeing a spider or remembering a ’30s pulp hero called the Spider. Ditko refuses all interviews, but if you mail a $40 check to a friend of his in Washington State, you can get a stack of Ditko-written manifestos saying Lee just came up with the name and that every other aspect was Ditko’s idea. In a 2001 pamphlet, he rails against the idea that Lee was the sole creator: “So for 30-plus years, the ‘one and only creator’ theme continued to pollute various publication outlets. The subjective and intrinsic mentalities continued their unquestioning, unchallenging, and self-blinding support of the non-validated claims.” (Ditko has a penchant for purple prose.) To make matters even more confusing, Kirby claimed he crafted every aspect of Spider-Man on his own before giving the project to Lee and Ditko.

There’s also the issue of how the artists were credited on an issue-by-issue basis — something far more provably damning for Lee. As Marvel’s popularity grew, he wisely chose to engage fans by giving specific credits at the front of each issue, something the fly-by-night comics industry had rarely bothered to do. But when readers saw “RUGGEDLY WRITTEN BY: STAN LEE, ROBUSTLY DRAWN BY: STEVE DITKO” or “SENSATIONAL STORY BY: STAN LEE, ASTONISHING ART BY: JACK KIRBY,” they were being profoundly misled. The mechanics of the Marvel method meant that, by any reasonable definition, his artists were actually authoring the stories with him. Their resentment grew.

So, though Lee gained the world, he lost the partners who helped him seize it. The principled and eccentric Ditko successfully lobbied to get plot credits in The Amazing Spider-Man but still felt underappreciated by Lee. The two stopped speaking and Ditko quit Marvel outright in 1966. That same year, Nat Freedland of the New York Herald Tribune’s magazine section (the predecessor publication to New York) stopped by to report an infamous feature story called “Super Heroes With Super Problems,” which took a hip New Journalism approach to describing the hot company. Hipness recognizes hipness, so Freedland focused almost entirely on Lee, “an ultra–Madison Avenue, rangy look-alike of Rex Harrison” who “dreamed up the ‘Marvel Age of Comics.’” But Freedland was cruel in his descriptions of Kirby, calling him “a middle-aged man with baggy eyes and a baggy Robert Hall–ish suit” and saying, “If you stood next to him on the subway, you would peg him for the assistant foreman in a girdle factory.”

“That article did enormous damage to Jack, personally and professionally,” recalls Evanier, who knew Kirby better than most. “It convinced Jack he couldn’t get the proper recognition there.” Kirby stayed put for a while (he’d later say he wanted to leave but had to earn money to support his family), but abandoned Marvel to work for DC in 1970. Almost right away, he wrote and drew a short story about a thinly veiled Lee analogue named Funky Flashman. Funky is a verbose fraud who orders around a Roy Thomas pastiche named Houseroy and constantly declares his own greatness without ever producing anything. “I know my words drive people into a frenzy of adoration!!” he insists. “Image is the thing, Houseroy!” Kirby’s anger was shared by other people in the industry who disapproved of Lee’s methods: A DC comic called Angel and the Apefeatured a comics editor named Stan Bragg, who asks a creator, “Why are you so ungrateful? When you write good stories and do good artwork, don’t I sign it?” A satirical series called Sick featured a strip in which comics editor Sam Me tells an artist to make some arduous revisions before reminding him, “And don’t forget to sign my name to it!”

Lee felt hurt by this kind of caricaturing, telling Thomas he couldn’t get why Kirby in particular would be so mean to him. But none of the criticisms shook Lee enough to get him to apologize. In fact, he seemed confused as to why his beloved artists departed. “He’d say, ‘I never fully understand why Jack or Steve left,’” Evanier says. “Steve’s reasons were pretty obvious, and so were Jack’s, and I’d explain them to Stan. He would nod. And then three months later he’d say, ‘Can you explain to me what Jack is upset about?’”

Lee remains maddeningly stubborn about Kirby and Ditko to this day. He sings their praises louder than anyone, saying they were the most tremendous collaborators a guy could ask for and that their art was museum-quality. But he refuses to admit he did them wrong, even as, in the past decade or so, he’s started billing himself as “co-creator” of Marvel’s core cast. Take, for example, this exchange with BBC host Jonathan Ross in a 2007 documentary about Steve Ditko:

“Do you, yourself, believe that he co-created it?” Ross asks, referring to Spider-Man.

Lee sighs lightly. A beat. “I’m willing to say so.”

“That’s not what I’m asking you —”

Lee cuts him off. “No, and that’s the best answer I can give you.” He goes on: “I really think the guy who dreams the thing up created it! You dream it up, and then you give it to anybody to draw it! I mean —”

“But if it had been drawn differently, it might not have been successful or a hit,” Ross counters.

“Then I would have created something that didn’t succeed,” Lee replies.

At the back of Comikaze’s main floor in the Los Angeles Convention Center, you find a row of black curtains below a massive sign that reads, “Stan Lee’s Mega Museum.” If Lee is doing an autograph session in there, it’s impossible to enter unless you’ve paid $80 in advance for his signature (for $25 more, you can get a certificate with a holographic sticker saying the signature is official). But when he’s off doing something else, you can walk through the aisles and see an odd array of objects, nearly all of them signed by Lee. One thing you don’t see there is any evidence of the dozens and dozens of superhero characters he’s made since he left Marvel’s daily writing trenches in the early 1970s.

The shift in Lee’s fortunes and reputation began in 1972. In that year, for the first time since he was a teenager, Stan found himself not writing comics every day. Marvel had new owners, and they wanted him to oversee the empire he’d been so instrumental in building. He was made president and publisher of Marvel Comics. He left the president position soon after, but stuck around as publisher and never returned to the writing trenches he’d spent his life toiling in.

He never found a truly comfortable new normal at Marvel. Right from the beginning, he didn’t quite know how an executive is supposed to act. Roy Thomas recalls an incident in which Lee had a minor quibble about the way a writer had done a bit of Thor dialogue, and cornered that writer in the hallway to address it. The writer, understandably, was terrified that one of his employer’s top men was criticizing him — and doing so out in the open, no less. “I said, ‘Stan, you’re the publisher!’” Thomas says. “‘You’re the guy who created this whole thing! You come down like a ton of bricks on him, they’re not gonna think this is just a little correction, they’ll think that it’s all over for them!’ It’s different when you do it as a publisher and people don’t have a lot of day-to-day interface with you.” The C-suite chafed Lee.

He would still occasionally dip his toe in the tide and write a comic or two, but they never garnered the kind of acclaim he’d received when he was cranking out nearly a dozen every month. Part of the problem was that Lee was a victim of his own success. He’d spent a decade lobbying for comics to be seen as more than kids’ stuff, and, as a result, comics became increasingly inappropriate for youngsters. And while the stories he’d turned out in his golden period were darker and weirder than what had come before, a decade later, they seemed timid by comparison — as did Lee himself. Conway wrote a Spider-Man story in which Peter Parker’s girlfriend is thrown off a bridge and dies, and though it was a bold and buzz-creating sensation, Lee broke Marvel ranks and denounced the decision to kill off a beloved and innocent figure. But that was the trend in comics from the mid-’70s, well into the early ’90s: tales in which death stalked at every corner and heroes became antiheroes. Lee put out stories about spacefaring philosopher the Silver Surfer, but the public was more into blood-soaked tales starring characters with names like the Punisher and Son of Satan. What’s more, the so-called “underground comix” scene of R. Crumb and his cohort was proving that the art world could take comics seriously — but only if the comics were about sex, drugs, and rock and roll instead of superheroes. Lee even tried to collaborate with some underground comix artists to make a Marvel comic featuring them, but that was a sales flop and only lasted five issues.

“Stan was pushing the limit of what his voice could do,” says Conway. “Some people, like a Frank Sinatra, can learn to phrase around a song so you don’t have to sing the notes you can’t sing anymore. But for comics, you can’t do that. Comics are a visceral, gut art form. You’re doing it because you absolutely have to do it, and there’s no reason to do it otherwise. And Stan didn’t have to do it.”

He also set his sights far beyond comics. He had Marvel’s owners put out a magazine called Celebrity that largely existed to get him in photos with movie stars. He did advertisements for Personna razors and Hathaway shirts (“When you create super-heros [sic], people expect you to look like one. I wear Hathaway shirts”). He even pitched an erotic comic strip to Playboy, starring characters with names like “High Priestess Clitanna” and “Lord Peckerton.” It was to be drawn by Romita, but the deal fell through: Romita believes he scuttled it when he told Lee, “I don’t wanna do stuff that I’m ashamed to show my grandchildren.”

The letters page from ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ No. 39. Lee wrote these, and was an expert at making readers feel like he was speaking to them personally. Also note the banner ad for the Lee-created fan club the Merry Marvel Marching Society.

Lee then aimed for Hollywood, moving to Los Angeles in 1980 to convince studios that his beloved superheroes could thrive onscreen. It was hard going, and Marvel’s owners at the time didn’t share his confidence about superhero fiction’s chances in live-action. “He was just a lone figure in the wilderness,” Spurgeon, the biographer, says. “He couldn’t take a paper out of his jacket pocket and work out a deal there with anybody. He was a PR and concepts guy.”

In that legendary interview with The Comics Journal, Kirby was even harsher. “I could never see Stan Lee as being creative,” Kirby said, and “I think Stan has a God complex,” and “I’ve never seen Stan Lee write anything,” and so on. Those words became gospel for a generation of cynical fans who had grown out of their childhood awe, and the Journal launched a kind of holy war on Lee, dedicating its October 1995 issue to scathingly critical essays and interviews about him. The irony was bittersweet: Lee had long campaigned to have comics be treated seriously as high art, and the Journal’s high-minded writing was proof that he’d been successful; but the generation of fans who saw comics as a legitimate medium also thought of him as a childish relic.

Lee claims he had a final reconciliation with Kirby at a comics convention shortly before Kirby died in 1994, but Evanier and Spurgeon say the interaction likely never happened.

Then a fork in the road appeared. In 1998, bankruptcy proceedings voided Lee’s contract with Marvel and, after some tense negotiations, he negotiated an extremely lucrative new agreement: an $810,000 annual salary just for being a figurehead, 50 percent of his base salary as an annual pension for his wife, and 10 percent of any profits Marvel would ever make off of movies and TV. He could have used the money to settle into easy elder-statesmanship, even if Marvel never took over Hollywood like we now know it would.

But Lee couldn’t stay out of the game, partly because a persuasive criminal made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Lee had become friends with a genial professional fund-raiser named Peter Paul, and Paul found out Lee had a clause in his new contract that allowed him to make his own entertainment firm. “He said, ‘Hey, Stan, now you’re free! Lemme build a company,’” Lee gleefully recalled at the time. The company was called Stan Lee Media — SLM for short — and it was a complete disaster.

The plan was to put Lee’s creative genius to work on brand-new characters that he would own, and to push those properties out as comics, movies, toys, video games, and the buzzy new medium of animated “webisodes.” What’s more, there would be brand synergy with hot young entertainers like the Backstreet Boys and the Wu-Tang Clan (“Maybe, in our own way, we can turn them away from gangsta-rapping,” Lee said of the Wu). Lee cooked up one superhero after another: Thunderer! Oxblood! Imitatia! The Streak! Paul raised $1 million in seed money and projected annual revenue of $119 million within five years. It was, in other words, a classic example of a dot-com boondoggle.

Early on in the existence of SLM, Paul admitted to Lee that he had a bizarre and checkered past: He’d served time in federal prison after getting busted for cocaine possession and an attempt to defraud the Cuban government. Lee forgave him for this sin, but what he didn’t know was Paul had already embroiled him in another insane scheme: He was using the Stan Lee brand to rob SLM’s investors. Profits were being exaggerated, there were shady stock sales, and the SEC eventually swarmed SLM to bust Paul for fraud in 2001. He escaped to Brazil, only to be extradited and convicted. Lee was cleared of wrongdoing, but he was humiliated and swiftly severed all ties to SLM. Lee’s new comics-format memoir devotes exactly one panel to the SLM affair. “It ended badly,” a sullen-looking drawing of Lee says, “and the less said, the better.”

While SLM was in its death throes, Lee partnered with two of his friends — producer Gill Champion and lawyer Arthur Lieberman — to form a new venture: POW! Entertainment (short for Purveyors of Wonder!, exclamation point mandatory). Lee wasn’t destitute, but he needed money for legal fees: In addition to the SLM fallout, Lee claimed that Marvel had failed to honor the stipulation of his 1998 contract that called for him to receive a percentage of the company’s film and TV profits. The subsequent lawsuit was a surreal spectacle — like Colonel Sanders suing KFC, as one commentator put it at the time. Movies based on Lee’s co-creations had started to take off at the box office, with 2000’s X-Men and 2002’s Spider-Man, and Lee had made onscreen cameos in both. But his relationship with the company he built had become fraught.

According to historian Sean Howe, Marvel’s newly installed and notoriously prickly owner Ike Perlmutter despised Lee, resented paying him a pension, and had demanded that Marvel stop featuring the phrase “Stan Lee Presents” in issues’ credits pages. The legal battle lasted for three years, concluding with a settlement in 2005. Though the details are secret, Marvel appeared to have made a onetime $10 million payment to Lee. But his profit-sharing for film and TV was ended, just a few years before Marvel started to dominate the box office. If Marvel had kept up its end of the percentage deal, Lee would be making tens of millions of dollars for The AvengersGuardians of the Galaxy, and the like. He just barely missed the boat.

While in town for Comikaze, I asked POW!’s publicists repeatedly if I could visit the company’s offices. I was only ever given silence or vague allusions to it being a possibility. Finally, as my trip was nearing its close, I decided to make a last-ditch effort and just show up at the address listed on Google Maps. As I was about to leave my hotel, one of the publicists wrote to inform me that I wouldn’t be allowed inside, but I figured it was worth a little peek. I took a bus to the nondescript Beverly Hills office building where POW! resides, tentatively sneaked up to the floor it’s on, and walked to the suite in question. All I found was a windowless wooden door, adorned only with a printout of the company logo. The printout was torn on one end and listing off at a haphazard angle. It felt like an apt metaphor.

Business has never been Lee’s forte, and his past missteps weigh heavily on him. His representatives declined to give me an interview despite more than a dozen attempts over the course of six months, but I was allowed to send a handful of questions via email. The only interesting response came when I asked him what he’d do differently if he could live his life all over again: “I’d have been a better businessman and attempted to gain a share of ownership of the characters I created.”

With POW!, he would. The problem was the characters. The firm’s first high-profile project was Stripperella, a cartoon with an accompanying comic book, both released in 2003. It was done in partnership with Pamela Anderson and men’s-interest TV network Spike, and it followed the titillating tussles of Erotica Jones, a ludicrously buxom woman who pole-dances by day and fights crime by night. It was a spiritual successor to that failed Playboy pitch, filled with ribald wordplay (episode titles included “You Only Lick Twice” and “The Curse of the WereBeaver”) and a tone that placed its tongue firmly in its cheek. Lee, apparently, wanted to push the envelope pretty far: “Stan wanted nudity,” Anderson tells me. “I didn’t.” It failed to find an audience, and though Anderson says she had a great time doing it and loves Lee, she couldn’t devote too much focus to it. There was never a second season.

For the rest of the decade, the company cranked out a lot of projects on a lot of different platforms, but very few of them managed to make an impact. There was a project released in children’s-book and direct-to-video movie format, Stan Lee’s Superhero Christmas. There was a direct-to-cable movie about a superpowered spy played by Jason Connery called Stan Lee’s Lightspeed. There was a reality show on the History Channel called Stan Lee’s Superhumans, in which Lee sent the show’s host off on adventures to find real people who can do unusual things like push needles through themselves or survive venomous snakebites. There was a truly bizarre partnership with the NHL in which Lee came up with superhero mascots for every team in the league. (They were all a little on-the-nose: The Florida Panthers’ hero was the Panther, the Toronto Maple Leafs got a tree-powered crusader named the Maple Leaf, and so on.) And the underwhelming releases kept rolling out: a mobile game called Stan Lee’s Verticus, a comics/cartoon project targeted at the Indian market called Chakra: The Invincible, and so on.

But there’s a crucial thing you have to know about how Lee approaches these products: He’s not an absentee landlord. He’s always substantially involved in the projects bearing his namein part because he isn’t happy just playing the role of showman — he wants the airtight creative credit thatin recent decades, has come into question, thanks to Ditko and Kirby. So while Lee’s brand is slapped on so many products that you might imagine he’s become like Krusty the Klown or the members of KISS, letting any random product get the Stan Lee seal of approval for the right price, this is very much not the case.

Perhaps the most arresting example comes from veteran superhero-comics writer Mark Waid. He was in charge of managing a line of three comics series based on story and character concepts from Lee and executed by respected industry talent. Waid tells of meeting with Lee to show him a rough draft of an upcoming issue, which Lee read with consternation. “He got to end of it and said, ‘I can’t have my name on this,’ and my heart sank,” he recalls. Luckily, Waid made revisions, and Lee enthusiastically endorsed the finished product — but Waid has never forgotten Lee’s unwillingness to brand something he didn’t like.

Of course, none of this is the most famous stuff Lee has done in the past 16 years. The most famous stuff is the cameos. Going back to the years before Marvel movies took off, he began appearing in Marvel-based TV shows and Saturday-morning cartoons about his co-creations, and he’s remained visible onscreen ever since. In nearly every movie based on a Marvel comic, Lee briefly appears in a zany fashion, playing a mailman, a strip-club owner, a drunk war veteran — that sort of thing. He gets to attend the premieres and do interviews about what he was thinking when he created the characters that have made it to the big screen. He gets executive-producer and co-creator credits on them. Romita says these connections to the Marvel movies are huge for Lee because fame outside the eternally disdained world of comics has always been one of the man’s ultimate goals. “If there were never any successful Marvel movies, Stan would’ve been gone, he would’ve retired,” he says. “It changed everything. It legitimized it. It satisfied him.”

That may be true, but he’s not so satisfied that he’s willing to slow down. “Y’know, most people, when they retire, they say, ‘At last, I’ll have a chance to do what I’ve always wanted to do,’” Lee said in a CNN interview a few years ago. “But I’m doing what I’ve always wanted to do! I’m working with artists, writers, with directors. I’m working on creative things. I’m having fun! I mean, don’t punish me by making me retire.”

Near the end of the Dragons vs. Pandas press conference, Lee abruptly starts talking about the guiding philosophy that drives his work. “When I used to go to bookstores, the only books I would pick out were ones that looked like they were different than anything I normally read,” he says. “We have always tried to come up with things that nobody else is doing. Now, of course, you can do things that nobody else is doing, and the reason nobody is doing it is because they’re stupid ideas.”

Hearing Lee speak at the convention, my mind was cast back to the first and only time we’ve had a one-on-one interaction. It was at the 1998 Wizard World Chicago Comic-Con, when I was 12 years old. I’m honestly not sure when or how I first became aware of Lee — he just seemed omnipresent for anyone who cared about superheroes — but by that age, I was a true believer in his mythology. So I waited in line for nearly an hour to get his signature on a tattered copy of Fantastic Four No. 47. When I finally reached the front of the line, it was like I was in the presence of God. I asked someone to take a photo of the two of us on a disposable camera. The flash went off and he crowed, “You’ve immortalized me!” I could tell it was a joke, but that word, immortal, lingered in my ears. Because that’s just how he’d always seemed to me: somehow above the rest of us, watching with paternal awe at the world he’d made.

Before reporting this article, I’d never had to come up with my own estimation of what Lee means to the world, much less to me, and I had whiplash-inducing changes of heart while reading about him. But his greatest sin was probably overreach: He accomplished so much, but he wanted to claim more; he was a brilliant craftsman in his prime, but he kept creating when he might have been better suited to retirement. Like the superheroes whose stories he wrote, he is a flawed being, capable of pettiness and hubris. But he’s put too much love and joy into the world — into my world — for me to even come close to deriding him.

This puts me in league with the friends and colleagues of his that I interviewed. We understand that he erred, but that only forces us to try harder to understand him and see the man in full. “I think he’ll be remembered as the guy who gave the world the Marvel universe,” says Thomas. “I know various others of us — Jack and Steve — were very important in that. But without Stan Lee, there is no Marvel universe. He’s the one who had the vision.”

In one of his final Comikaze appearances, Lee is onstage having a chat with some younger comics pros, and one of them — Marc Silvestri — tries to rib Lee about being so old that he probably hung out with Moses. Lee seems to take it in stride (or doesn’t hear it, since his hearing isn’t what it used to be), but Silvestri is getting it all wrong. Lee, in a way, is a kind of Moses: a charismatic leader who saved a genre and led his acolytes through the harsh world of mainstream entertainment for decades — only to see his people finally enter the promised land of Hollywood billions without him. So now he stands on the border, smiling and welcoming people in, but always making sure to give them a little tap on the shoulder before saying, Tell ya what, True Believer — if you like this, you’re gonna love the brand-new promised land I’m building just around the corner …

*A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the memoir was ghostwritten.

“Your revolution is over”: A Review of Stuart Henderson’s Making the Scene – ActiveHistory.ca | Kaitlin Wainwright

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the-Riverboat

Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s

Stuart Henderson

University of Toronto Press, 2011

394 pages, Paperback and ebook $29.95, Cloth $70.00

Stuart Henderson’s Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s is an adventure back in time to Yorkville at what many would consider the pinnacle of its cultural history. Fifty years ago, the Yorkville Coffee Mill opened, among the first of many to become a hub for youth exploring counterculture through music and mysticism. Henderson’s book, which stemmed from his doctoral dissertation at Queen’s University, is rich with oral histories and underground press coverage of the day.

Personal experience drew me to Henderson’s work. I grew up in London (Ontario) in the 1990s. My father worked in Toronto for a time and stayed in an apartment on Bay Street near Bloor. Visiting on weekends, my mother and I would wander the “Mink Mile”. By then, Yorkville was a hub of elite consumerism, with couture boutiques and flagship stories. It was cultured, rather than counterculture.

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Making the Scene tells the stories of the Toronto neighbourhood of Yorkville and the hip culture that pervaded the district in the 1960s. Henderson argues that, for roughly a decade, Yorkville served as the site in Canada for youth seeking an alternative to the dominant Canadian culture.  He asserts that being part of a counterculture – defined as a subculture with values and practices that deviate from mainstream culture – involves the performance of identity. “A hippie,” he notes in the introduction, “does not, never can, exist wholly outside his or her cultural process” (5). In short, counterculture is a negotiation of identity, with cultural hegemony in play.

The book is organized chronologically in sections. Within each section is two chapters, one providing a political and cultural history of the period and the other assessing how the cultural identities in Yorkville were performed at the time. The book’s chronological organization makes Henderson’s argument easy to follow. However, there exists a strong historiography on counterculture-as-performance. Henderson does not especially take advantage of this material, and unfortunately relies on his readers to be familiar with the literature. For example, the performativity of “making the scene” requires the crossing of a threshold. Henderson even states that “as a geographic location, Yorkville was … metaphorically cut off,” and that Toronto was a divided cityscape, with Yorkville a zone of local “foreignness” (17)– both a cultural attraction and a destination. As a historian caught up in the meaning of place, this excited me until I realized that Henderson was not going to explore from where these people were being attracted, and how Yorkville was situated in the context of a rapidly expanding Toronto. In particular, it struck me that there were opportunities for the use of historical maps to tell these types of stories and to better illustrate the growth of the Yorkville coffee houses, followed by their retreat.

While Henderson situates Yorkville very well within its chronological context, the book seemed geographically isolated. The relationship between countercultures, identity, and place has been widely explored, so why not make better use of New York’s Greenwich Village or San Fransisco’s Haight-Ashbury to show what made Yorkville unique? Here, again, I think that the general reader may be disappointed that Henderson expects a high level of familiarity with the themes. Early in the work, I found myself asking questions about other countercultures in other cities and about the history of the 1960s counterculture phenomenon more broadly.

Similarly, the act of performing an identity that Henderson claims is part of “making the scene” requires the crossing of a boundary. Henderson states that “as a geographic location, Yorkville was metaphorically cut off” (268). I interpreted this to mean either that it was fully autonomous or that it had to be filled with people coming from elsewhere—by those who needed to cross the threshold from the dominant culture to the counterculture. Bloor Street between Yonge Street and Avenue Road remains, to this day, a cultural border best crossed under the right economic or social circumstances.  I had hoped that Henderson would explore this idea further. Where were the people coming from? How was Yorkville situated in and affected by its geographic context of a rapidly changing and growing Toronto? Most of the images in the book are taken from underground press. There is one map, at the beginning, which shows the streets of Yorkville and their coffeehouses. Indeed, Henderson refers to Yorkville as “tied to a map of meaning which treated it as a circumscribed island of difference within the wider cityscape” (268), but we aren’t shown what exists around the island.

Henderson relies on dialogue from the film The Big Lebowski (1998) to describe the legacy of hip Yorkville:

‘Your revolution is over,’ counsels the conservative figure, as the bemused [Jeff] Bridges turns away. ‘My condolences. The bums lost. My advice is do what your parents did: get a job, sir. The bums will always lose. Do you hear me?’ But he doesn’t. Do we? (273)

The end of a rebellion is nothing new. The 19th century French statesman Francois Guizot has been attributed with the following: “Not to be a republican at 20 is proof of want of heart; to be one at 30 is proof of want of head.” What makes Yorkville and the 1960s counterculture unique, according to Henderson’s conclusion, is that it influenced the mainstream culture that we see today. That may be the case. He also suggests that the struggle for physical space was ultimately insignificant. This statement ignores the post-1970 gentrification of Yorkville that occurred, in part, because of the displacement of youth from this space.

It felt at times like Henderson was writing for those who were there, or who wished they could have been there. There were moments throughout when I felt like I had to have been there to understand why the event or place being described was important. The writing, much of which is done in first-person narration, is at times valourising in its tone. The book’s strength lies in its archival research and oral histories, and from reading it came some interesting debates about the nature of culture and place in the city of Toronto. I would recommend it for readers interested in the history of the Yorkville neighbourhood, Canadian culture in the 1960s, or youth culture in Canada. I will no doubt return to it for projects that reference these subjects. It would be a good supplemental work for those interested in counterculture, the history of Toronto, oral history, and underground media.

Kaitlin Wainwright  is a graduate of Carleton University’s Public History program.  She’s currently the Plaques and Markers Program Coordinator at Heritage Toronto.

Source: “Your revolution is over”: A Review of Stuart Henderson’s Making the Scene – ActiveHistory.ca

Mapping Our Music: The 1960s

The venues, schools, record labels, stores, and other landmarks that have created the sound of our city and shaped its music history.

The 1960s was the decade in which Toronto’s music scene took shape. With twin focal points in Yorkville and along the Yonge Street strip, the city produced highly regarded folk, rock, and R&B-influenced sounds. Though many of the venues from the decade are long gone, acts that developed their reputations in them, such as the Band and Gordon Lightfoot, became known around the globe.

Village Corner (174 Avenue Road, north of Davenport)
Another early folk venue, one where music duo Ian & Sylvia launched their career. As a member of the duo the Two Tones, Gordon Lightfoot recorded his first album here in January 1962.

Rockpile (northwest corner of Yonge and Davenport)
For a time in the late 1960s, the main space of the Masonic Temple (now home to MTV Canada) was a Fillmore-style concert hall. It is usually associated with Led Zeppelin, who played there twice in 1969. Before their August 18 gig, manager Peter Grant noticed the extensive lineup outside and threatened to cancel the show if the band didn’t get more money. The burly former bouncer got his way, but the amount handed over played a role in the venue’s closing soon after.

Penny Farthing (112 Yorkville Avenue)
Far more respectable than its next door neighbour, this spot specialized in blues and jazz. Veteran bluesman Lonnie Johnson played for several weeks in 1965, resulting in an album with one the venue’s regular acts, Stompin’ at the Penny with Jim McHarg’s Metro Stompers, featuring Lonnie Johnson. Johnson enjoyed playing in Toronto and spent the last five years of his life in the city.

Riverboat (134 Yorkville Avenue)
Opened in October 1964 and run by Bernie Fielder for 14 years, the Riverboat was usually considered the top venue in Yorkville thanks to a steady stream of high-level blues and folk acts. Sometimes timing worked in the Riverboat’s favour: in order to book bluesmen Sorry Terry and Brownie McGhee, Fielder was pressured by their agent to also slot in a rising folk duo named Simon & Garfunkel. By the time the pair was to perform in early 1966, their songs were rising up the charts. The duo wanted out of their commitment, but a compromise was reached, and Torontonians had what proved to be a rare opportunity to catch the pair in an intimate setting.

Mynah Bird (114 Yorkville Avenue, at Hazelton)
Named in honour of owner Colin Kerr’s pet, who could be found at this coffeehouse’s entrance, the Mynah Bird loved drawing attention to itself. For a period, it trotted out the latest innovations in topless entertainment, including Wyche, “the world’s first topless folksinger” (though her long hair covered her bosoms). Kerr also managed a rock group named after the venue, fronted by Rick James—after they separated from Kerr, Neil Young was among the musicians who passed through the group’s ranks.

Varsity Stadium (Bloor Street and Bedford Road)
Two major music festivals were held here in 1969. The bill for June’s Toronto Pop Festival ranged from southern soulsters (Carla Thomas) to Quebeçois chansonniers (Robert Charlebois). Local favourite Ronnie Hawkins managed to get a teenager named Jeanne Beker to jump onto the stage. September’s Toronto Rock and Roll Revival went down in history for being the live debut of the Plastic Ono Band featuring John Lennon and the Alice Cooper “chicken incident.”

Bohemian Embassy (7 St. Nicholas Street)
Situated at various places around the city over its history, and not to be confused with the condo bearing the same name, the venue founded by Don Cullen called the Yonge-Wellesley area home from 1960 to 1966. One of the city’s first major coffeehouses, it offered up a mix of folk, jazz, comedy, and literary readings—among those whose careers were boosted by appearances at the Bohemian Embassy were Margaret Atwood and Sylvia Tyson.

RCA Studios (225 Mutual Street)
Once home to CHUM radio, 225 Mutual Street became one of the city’s busiest recording studios. Operated by RCA during the 1960s and 1970s, then McClear Place, the studios saw acts ranging from Rosemary Clooney to Rush use its facilities over half a century of sound recording. The building was demolished in 2010.

Club Blue Note (372A Yonge Street)
A key venue for developing the mix of rock and R&B that came to be known as the “Toronto Sound.” As George Olliver, who sang with the house band The Five Rogues (later Mandala) told the National Post last year, “so many of the hit artists who used to work at the Maple Leaf Gardens came here after hours—people like Stevie Wonder, The Righteous Brothers.”

10 Hawk’s Nest (above Le Coq D’Or, 333 Yonge Street)
Having proven a popular attraction at Le Coq D’Or, Ronnie Hawkins made a deal with its owners: in exchange for free use of the building’s third floor (which ended up housing an office, gym, and after hours parties), he would run an all-ages club on the second floor. The Hawk’s Nest proved a blessing for music fans too young to go into the other venues along the Yonge Street strip.

11 Friar’s Tavern (283 Yonge Street)
Now the Hard Rock Café, the Friar’s Tavern was another stop for bands gigging along the Yonge Street strip. A plaque inside commemorates the morning of September 15, 1965, when Bob Dylan caught a performance by Levon and the Hawks, Ronnie Hawkins’ former backing band. For the next two nights, Dylan and the group that became the Band rehearsed at the Friar’s before going out on Dylan’s first electrified tour.

12 Colonial Tavern (203 Yonge Street)
Situated between two historic banks across from the present-day Eaton Centre, the Colonial Tavern attracted a steady stream of blues, jazz and rock acts during its existence. A parkette currently graces the site.

13 Electric Circus (99 Queen Street East)
Opened in December 1968, the Electric Circus was intended by its backers to bring a New York–style trendy nightclub to Toronto. Partner Jerry Brandt told the Globe and Mail that “we think a person should be free to do what he wants. He can dance, he can watch, he can disappear for a while into an environment room…We have set up the facilities for you to have an experience. It’s not what you do, but how you do it.” After its run as a club/music venue, the site was used as the original studio for Citytv, who later resurrected the name for its dance show.

14 King Edward Hotel (37 King Street East)
Between their afternoon and evening performances at Maple Leaf Gardens on August 17, 1966, the Beatles attended a press conference at the venerable King Eddy. John Lennon refused to apologize for his recent statements that the band was more popular than Jesus. They also admitted that the scariest fans they encountered so far on what proved to be their final tour were found in Cleveland.

15 O’Keefe Centre (Yonge and Front)
This all-purpose concert hall, now known as the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, was one of the most versatile venues of the decade in terms of performers. The pre-Broadway tryout of the musical Camelot, starring Julie Andrews and Richard Burton, opened the O’Keefe in October 1960. Acts that trod its stage during the 1960s ranged from grand opera to the Grateful Dead.

Additional material from Before the Gold Rush by Nicholas Jennings (Toronto: Penguin, 1997) and the December 21, 1968 edition of the Globe and Mail.

Atlanta Studies | Parks are for the People: The Piedmont Park Riot and the Politics of Late 1960s Atlanta

In the summer of 1967, Atlanta Journal reporter Michael Palmer went undercover as a hippie. Hoping to provide his readers with some insight into a movement that had recently made its way into the national consciousness, Palmer put on a “white, ruffled shirt, and old vest, levies [sic] frayed at the cuffs” and stealthily entered the city’s small but noticeable hippie community. In a series of articles that followed this experience, Palmer discussed with a mixture of dismissal and despair what he encountered during his five weeks of undercover research – from watching people take drugs in a “crash pad” to participating in a “love-in” at Piedmont Park. While Palmer ultimately provided little real insight into the countercultural mindset, he did make his readers very aware that something new and different was happening in Midtown Atlanta.1

During the late 1960s and early 1970s the section of the city that straddled Peachtree Street for several blocks, running from roughly Seventeenth Street down to Tenth Street, served as Atlanta’s own version of San Francisco’s famed Haight-Ashbury district. This part of Midtown had acquired several names over the years2 – Tight Squeeze, the 10th Street Business District and the 14th Street Area – but became popularly known as “the Strip” during its countercultural heyday.3 The area had already developed a reputation as a bohemian destination by the early 1960s – one reporter described it as “Atlanta’s own Greenwich Village” – due to its proximity to the Atlanta College of Art and the Atlanta Memorial Arts Center, as well as its abundance of affordable housing for young adults moving to the city.4 By the middle of the decade a small community of hippies found a spiritual home with the opening of the Catacombs coffeehouse on Fourteenth Street. The area’s “hip” population – which included not only “real” hippies but also political radicals, members of motorcycle gangs, left-leaning religious leaders, artists, teenage runaways, drug dealers, sympathetic lawyers, social workers, business owners, and teenage “plastic hippies,” who visited the Strip on the weekends but then returned to their suburban homes on Sunday evenings – grew significantly in 1967 as the counterculture gained national recognition and thousands of curious teenagers and young adults made their way to hippie neighborhoods across the nation during the Summer of Love.

POLICE PERFORMING A NIGHTTIME ANTI-DRUG RAID AGAINST HIPPIES, ATLANTA, GEORGIA, AUGUST 4, 1969. V003-600001-A24, TOM COFFIN PHOTOGRAPHS. SPECIAL COLLECTIONS AND ARCHIVES, GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY. COURTESY GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY.

Several factors, however, thwarted attempts by Strip residents to create a thriving and safe hip community in Atlanta.5 Business owners disliked them, local “straight” residents complained repeatedly to city officials about their presence, and the police engaged in an ongoing campaign of harassment that included arresting hippies for minor infractions. In July, 1968, a group of local business owners attended a meeting of the city’s Aldermanic Police Committee to complain how the hippie presence harmed the value of their businesses and made it “unsafe for residents to walk down the street.” That same month, Police Chief Herbert Jenkins launched a crackdown on the area’s hippie population.6While the city’s recently founded underground newspaper, the Great Speckled Bird, regularly reported on the ill-treatment the hip community suffered at the hands of business owners and the police, the straight press routinely ignored or downplayed these issues.7

INSPECTING THE DAMAGE: “ATLANTIS RISING BOMBING,” ATLANTA, GEORGIA, SEPTEMBER 11, 1969. V003-690911-A28, TOM COFFIN PHOTOGRAPHS. SPECIAL COLLECTIONS AND ARCHIVES, GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY. COURTESY GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY.

These issues worsened considerably during the first six months of 1969. The Great Speckled Bird speculated that a recent wave of suspicious fires in the area was an attempt to scare away hippies.8 In addition, the number of sexual assaults against hip women in the Strip increased, as did the number of physical confrontations between Strip residents and straight locals, some of which included the exchange of gunfire.9 In August, a near riot erupted in the Strip when hippies and political radicals clashed with local police and agents from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation during yet another in a series of drug raids in the neighborhood.10 Then, in early September, a firebomb destroyed Atlantis Rising, a combination artist collective and recreation center that served Strip residents and acted as a meeting space for radical political groups.11 Finally, this pattern of confrontation and violence culminated on September 21 when attendees and police clashed during a free concert in Piedmont Park.

The events leading up to and following the Piedmont Park riot illustrate the changing nature of social and political life in Atlanta during the late 1960s. Far from an isolated incident, the riot, and the response to it, reflected the growing frustration of Strip residents as they faced continual police harassment and acts of anonymous violence while trying to create a functional alternative district built on the concepts of cooperation and community. Moreover, the riot revealed connections and shared concerns between white youth and the African American community at a time of significant change in the local political landscape. While the Piedmont Park riot is a lesser known event of civil disobedience in the history of Atlanta, re-examining the riot reveals how far the political and cultural radicalism of the 1960s had made its way into the nation’s most conservative areas, as well as how the presence of a community of radical white youth impacted local political scene, which is usually portrayed by historians of the era as a struggle between conservative whites and African Americans for control of the city during a time of significant demographic change.

OUR PARK

By the late 1960s, Piedmont Park, located just a few blocks east of the Strip, offered a safe haven away from the hassles of life on Peachtree. At a time when hippies were routinely arrested for simply walking down the street, the existence of a place where they could gather freely ensured that the park became integral to community-building efforts by local counterculture and New Left leaders. The Atlanta antiwar movement often chose the park as a gathering point for marches into downtown or as a location for post-march rallies.12 And in July 1968, approximately 800 people gathered around the park’s pavilion for the city’s first “Be-In,” an event copied from the more famous San Francisco Human Be-In held the previous summer.13 The hip community’s use of Piedmont Park increased significantly during the first nine months of 1969. In March, the Great Speckled Bird celebrated its first anniversary with a party in the park. The city’s political activists even took time to enjoy the park’s athletic facilities by forming a “Revolutionary Softball League” that spring.14 And the series of free Sunday concerts which had occurred occasionally during the spring and early summer of 1969 became more regular occurrences following the 1969 Atlanta International Pop Festival. The festival, held over the Fourth of July holiday weekend at an automobile racetrack in Hampton, Georgia, featured Janis Joplin, Joe Cocker, Credence Clearwater Revival, Grand Funk Railroad, and Led Zeppelin.15 Held the day after the festival ended, a free concert in Piedmont Park featured many of the bands that had played at Hampton, including, Delaney and Bonnie, Spirit, the Allman Brothers, and the Grateful Dead.16

While the park served as key place to experience countercultural entertainment, the recent wave of harassment and violence in the Strip also led many hippies and New Leftists alike to see their use of the park in more overtly political terms; it had become an important battleground in their quest for meaningful social change.17 This shared cause between the counterculture and New Left was not unique to Atlanta in the late 1960s. While the middle years of the decade witnessed the rise of two movements that could be identified as uniquely separate, each with its own goals and philosophies, by 1969 the boundaries between the New Left and counterculture had become blurry. The New Left recast itself into an expansive social movement aimed at the creation of a new American culture as it sought more than just political change, while the counterculture rethought its earlier utopianism and now sought to practice its core beliefs within, rather than separate from, American society.18

VIETNAM WAR PROTEST. METRO ATLANTA CHAMBER OF COMMERCE COLLECTION AT KENAN RESEARCH CENTER AT ATLANTA HISTORY CENTER. COURTESY ATLANTA HISTORY CENTER.
HIPPIE DRUM CIRCLE IN PIEDMONT PARK, ATLANTA, GEORGIA, CIRCA 1969. TOM COFFIN PHOTOGRAPHS. SPECIAL COLLECTIONS AND ARCHIVES, GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY. COURTESY GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY.

Echoing countercultural writers around the nation, the Bird had repeatedly expounded on the importance of rock music as a catalyst for social change and on Piedmont Park’s new role as a site for this melding of culture and politics.19 In a piece entitled “Our Park,” “Richard” explained the importance not only of rock music to the creation of a new society, but of a place to experience such music in a revolutionary way, noting that:20

if we are a revolutionary culture then we must . . . refuse festivals and radio and recordings . . . musicians will play, will fill our parks, because they must play, and we will listen because we must and there will be no one in between.

By the summer of 1969, the importance of Piedmont Park to the growth of Atlanta’s hip community led many Strip residents to consider the park, at least on certain days, as their own. Piedmont Park became a place to listen to some good music, get a free meal, commune with likeminded individuals, discuss radical politics, and explore new ways of living together. Or as “Richard” concluded,21

you will come to the park to make it your park and you will listen to music and know that it is your music and it will be freedom.

Following the dramatic firebombing of Atlantis Rising in late August, the park also became a place of spiritual rejuvenation for the Strip community. On the Sunday following the attack, a benefit concert for the store was held in the park that featured several prominent local and regional bands, including the Allman Brothers. As Miller Francis, the community’s preeminent cultural chronicler, noted in an article for The Great Speckled Bird the concert was more than simply a musical event or a rally for Atlantis Rising. For Francis, the park acted not simply as a public recreational space, but as a key focal point for the political struggle to build a viable alternative community.22 Accordingly, as he noted:23

PEOPLE EATING AT A FREE CONCERT SPONSORED BY THE “GREAT SPECKLED BIRD” AT PIEDMONT PARK, ATLANTA, GEORGIA, SEPTEMBER 21, 1969. TOM COFFIN PHOTOGRAPHS. SPECIAL COLLECTIONS AND ARCHIVES, GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY. COURTESY GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY.

The vibes in Piedmont Park on all the Saturdays and Sundays flow out of our fight to replace the power behind the firebomb . . . that gutted Atlantis Rising, and our attempt to design a politics to effect that replacement.

Francis noted the intense sense of positive feelings that the crowd in “our park” generated, as well as the wide array of the city’s population which was in attendance in addition to the usual hippie contingent, including “straight, crewcut, turned-on, tribal, black, working class, mothers and children.”24 However, it would be this very attachment to the park that laid the foundation for the riot that occurred only a week later.

Throughout the nation, public spaces played an important role in bringing politics and culture together. Parks took on particular meaning in the late 1960s, serving as a central site for the expression of a spatial politics that helped reveal the growing intersection of the counterculture and the New Left. Perhaps most famously, in May 1969, violence erupted in Berkeley over an undeveloped piece of land owned by the University of California. Claiming the space as their own, over two hundred hippies, college students, and community activists had turned the former parking lot into a park, which they called “People’s Park.” Then, on May 15, police cleared the park and encircled it with cyclone fencing, a provocation which the local hip community responded to by rioting with the ensuing street battle ending that evening only after twenty policemen had been injured and twenty protestors had been shot, one fatally.25 While the events in Berkeley are well-remembered, the events at Piedmont Park a few months later exemplify that the willingness to defend contested space was not restricted to cities famous for their radical communities.

“GET THE PIGS OUT OF OUR PARK!”

The September 21, 1969, free concert in Piedmont Park boasted an impressive lineup. While the Allman Brothers would not play that Sunday, the show presented some of the best local rock acts, including Radar, the Booger Band, and headliner The Hampton Grease Band. This list of performers, as well as the success of the concert the previous Sunday, and a prominently placed announcement in the Great Speckled Bird, ensured a sizable attendance. And despite a chilly rain, by late afternoon between 1,000 and 1,500 people had arrived in the park.

ONE OF THE BANDS PERFORMING AT A “GREAT SPECKLED BIRD” CONCERT IN PIEDMONT PARK, ATLANTA, GEORGIA, SEPTEMBER 21, 1969. V003-600001-C27, TOM COFFIN PHOTOGRAPHS. SPECIAL COLLECTIONS AND ARCHIVES, GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY. COURTESY GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY.

Several staff members from the Great Speckled Bird circulated through the crowd, collecting affidavits regarding police harassment, which they planned to include as part of the paper’s recently-filed lawsuit against the police department.26 Earlier that month the hip community became involved in a local debate over police brutality. During a speech at the West Hunter Street Baptist Church on September 12, DeWitt Smith, an African American patrolman, publicly accused several white officers of beating three black prisoners without provocation. Notably, during his comments, he also mentioned the mistreatment local hippies routinely endured, stating:27

if your hair is long and you’re wearing bell-bottoms you are in for it. Girls are jerked and pulled into line by their hair . . . and they {officers} seem to delight in grabbing a man by the seat of his pants and lifting him up until the pressure in his groin becomes unbearable.

During the following week, a coalition of local civil rights groups and the Great Speckled Bird filed separate lawsuits against the Atlanta police department, which illustrated an emergent, if problematic, alliance of the New Left, the counterculture, and the local civil rights movement in late 1960s Atlanta.28

But in addition to the Bird staffers, several undercover policemen also moved through the crowd in the park that day. And just as the band Brickwall started its set, word began to circulate that undercover narcotics agents from the Atlanta police were in the audience and looking to make arrests. Concert attendee George Nikas soon found himself in custody after following Detective C. R. Price through the crowd, warning other concertgoers that Price was a policeman. As the young man was led away a crowd gathered around the two and began chanting “show us your badge!” and “let him go!” In the ensuing confrontation, Price ended up pulling his service weapon and brandishing it at the crowd, providing enough of a distraction for Nikas to escape and disappear back into the audience.29

“GREAT SPECKLED BIRD” PHOTOGRAPHER BILL FIBBEN BEING ARRESTED DURING A BOTCHED POLICE OPERATION DURING A CONCERT IN PIEDMONT PARK, ATLANTA, GEORGIA, SEPTEMBER 21, 1969. V003-600001-C35, TOM COFFIN PHOTOGRAPHS. SPECIAL COLLECTIONS AND ARCHIVES, GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY. COURTESY GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY.

As the music, which had stopped during the struggle, resumed, Price and several other policemen moved back into the crowd and quickly found, and again apprehended, Nikas. This time, they also arrested Bill Fibben, a staff photographer for the Bird. But several hundred audience members immediately surrounded the cars containing Nikas and Fibben, shouting “This is our park!” and “get the pigs out of our park!” In response, police called for reinforcements and tear gas canisters. The concert’s promoter attempted to persuade police to let him restore calm but before he could do so, an officer lobbed a tear gas canister into the crowd and what had been merely an angry confrontation between the police and the concertgoers turned into a riot.30

TEAR GAS UNLEASHED ON HIPPIES ATTENDING A FOLK CONCERT IN PIEDMONT PARK, ATLANTA, GEORGIA, SEPTEMBER 22, 1969. PHOTO BY NOEL DAVIS. AJCP211-032A, ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION PHOTOGRAPHIC ARCHIVES. SPECIAL COLLECTIONS AND ARCHIVES, GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY. COPYRIGHT ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION. COURTESY GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY.

As the protestors around the patrol car began to scatter, several paddy wagons and almost the entire evening watch of the Atlanta police force approached the park. For the next thirty minutes a running battle of sorts took place. The police, who had taken up a position not far from the park pavilion, fired tear gas canisters into the crowd while several officers repeatedly charged into the rioters. The crowd responded by throwing some of the tear gas canisters back, along with rocks, cans and glass bottles, quickly dispersing after each volley only to retake its position after the clouds of tear gas dissipated.31 Ultimately, the confrontation ended only after American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Al Horn arrived at the park and talked with Police Superintendent Oscar Jordan.32 Following this conversation, the crowd calmed down and several police officers left the park. As attempts were being made to restart the music, Police Chief Herbert Jenkins and Mayor Ivan Allen finally arrived, too late to make any meaningful contribution although the mayor did spend some time speaking with concertgoers.33

RESPONSES TO THE RIOT

While the Piedmont Park riot resulted in few injuries and only twelve arrests,34 it provoked a variety of responses from the Strip community, civil rights leaders, local politicians, and city officials. The statements issued by these groups reveal the complicated nature of Atlanta politics in the late 1960s as well as divisions within the city’s hip community. Moreover, the cooperation between the hip and civil rights communities in response to the riot revealed how disaffected groups in Atlanta could cross racial lines when they found common cause.

POLICEMEN DRAGGING A YOUNG HIPPIE THROUGH THE GRASS, PIEDMONT PARK, ATLANTA, GEORGIA, SEPTEMBER 22, 1969. PHOTO BY NOEL DAVIS. AJCP211-032B, ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION PHOTOGRAPHIC ARCHIVES. SPECIAL COLLECTIONS AND ARCHIVES, GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY. COPYRIGHT ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION. COURTESY GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY.

With the mayoral election just weeks away, several of the candidates weighed in on the riot. City alderman Everett Millican, who had recently proposed a park curfew, favored drastic action, promising that, if elected, he would “run the hippies out of town.”35 Echoing statements he had made the previous spring, he labeled the city’s countercultural district “a disgrace,” filled with “hippies, homosexual, sex deviates and drug pushers.”36 While admitting that Piedmont Park had deteriorated before the hippies claimed it as their own, he still argued that “it’s gone down a lot more since.”37 Alderman and mayoral candidate Rodney Cook took a less aggressive position, stating that law-abiding citizens should not fear being “hit over the head” by police but that those who broke the law should be punished to the fullest extent possible. Instead of running the hippies out of town, Cook believed that hiring more policemen, raising salaries, providing them with better training, and creating neighborhood patrols would solve the problem.38

HIPPIES TALK TO MAYOR IVAN ALLEN JR. AFTER THE RIOT. FROM: GREAT SPECKLED BIRD 2, NO. 29 (SEPTEMBER 29, 1969), 22. GREAT SPECKLED BIRD COLLECTION. SPECIAL COLLECTIONS AND ARCHIVES, GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY. COURTESY GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY.

Meanwhile, in stark contrast to the interpretation of the riot offered by members of the political establishment, Great Speckled Bird writer Greg Gregory analyzed the riot from a countercultural perspective, arguing for the park’s importance to the development of a new American society and declaring that,39

Sunday’s resistance was not ‘revolutionary antics,’ the work of ‘agitators.’ Sunday was a defense of the kind of life we have chosen to live. This life includes music; it includes dope; but more significantly; and of revolutionary impact, is our self-perception as a people acting in unity.

He continued:40

A park cannot be liberated by permit, cannot be ‘free’ just because freaks come together to dig some fine music . . . Sunday was about what comes down when . . . we transgress the constricted lifestyle that is acceptable to and in this rotten society.

But Gregory also had harsh words for members in the hip community who criticized those who had fought back against the police. Arguing that this criticism attacked the very unity the riot had created, Gregory suggested that “to fall back on a love-and-peace stance which quickly becomes a hate-the-bottle throwers posture is to fragment the solidarity that saw politicos and culture freaks standing side by side.”41 While praising the importance of gentleness to their cultural revolution, he nonetheless argued that cruelty, not gentleness, needed to be the appropriate response when “tribal celebrations” came under attack. As he saw it, solidarity required that musicians, “trippers,” and rock throwers stand together or the new culture they hoped to create would die. Likewise, Jim Gwin asserted that “we must defend our vision as it emerges in concrete form. The communal/music experience in Piedmont Park is that vision.”42

The politicos of the Great Speckled Bird also responded quickly to the riot. Staff members at the Bird office began immediately collecting the statements of approximately one hundred people present in the park during the confrontation, which would be added to the police harassment suit the Bird had filed recently in federal court.43 During a press conference held at the newspaper’s office the day after the riot, the hip community presented three demands: that all charges against those arrested on Sunday be dropped, that all plainclothesmen and other policemen be banned from the park and, finally, to “let us have our music.”44

The riot also generated support from the city’s civil rights community. On Monday, the Atlanta Ad Hoc Committee on Law Enforcement and the Community, which had come together the previous April to investigate police brutality and included members of the Urban League, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Metropolitan Atlanta Summit Leadership Conference, presented four recommendations to Mayor Ivan Allen. The committee called for an end to harassment, suspensions of policemen accused of brutality, improved jail conditions, and the establishment of grievance procedures. The group also noted that the Atlanta police “showed the same brutal force as Chicago” in their efforts to disperse the park crowd, a reference to the previous year’s street riots during the Democratic National Convention.45 While Allen declined to comment on these recommendations, he stated that the city would undertake a “full investigation of police brutality charges” stemming from the riot, and announced that the two officers noted most prominently for their actions in the park, C. R. Price and D. L. Dingee, had been transferred to duty in south Fulton County. Both the mayor and Jenkins stated this might help the situation since the problem had been caused only by a small number of “bad apples” within the police force.46

The committee clearly saw common cause between black Atlantans and the Strip community when it came to law enforcement issues. In its statement to Allen, it claimed that “the city has evaded responsibility and accountability for abuse of its citizens. Brutality occurs not only at the jail, it happens at the time of arrests . . . and we know that the police rioted in Piedmont Park yesterday.”47 Likewise, Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) leader Hosea Williams articulated the connection between oppressed African Americans and hip community members. When speaking to the crowd at Piedmont Park after the riot, he told them that,48

this is the same thing that has been happening to black people for a long time – and partly for the same reason: because they don’t want to conform to the ways of this sick, racist society. The reason they’re brutalizing you is simple: you want to live your own life, your own way.
THE GREAT SPECKLED BIRD 2, NO. 29 (SEPTEMBER 29, 1969), 3. GREAT SPECKLED BIRD COLLECTION. SPECIAL COLLECTIONS AND ARCHIVES, GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY. COURTESY GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY.

The Strip and civil rights communities further strengthened their bonds in the wake of the riot by planning a march to police headquarters at a meeting that included representatives from the Bird and the SCLC alongside numerous hippies and street people, ministers from several local churches, local countercultural shopkeepers, and political radicals. In addition to the three demands formulated immediately after the riot, the group agreed to publicly support the call from civil rights groups for the termination of Police Chief Herbert Jenkins and the demand that African Americans control their own communities. Attendees also demanded the firing of seven police officers involved in the riot, including Price and Dingee, as well as eight other officers that the African American community wanted dismissed.

On Saturday, September 27, a procession of approximately 600 marchers – which would ultimately grow to 1,000 participants – left Piedmont Park headed downtown along the city’s main thoroughfare. Holding banners with the phrases “Fire Jenkins” and “No Armed Police or Narks in Park,” the group included several African American ministers and civil rights leaders, such as the Reverend Douglas Slappey of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Hosea Williams. Once they reached police headquarters the marchers handed over their demands to Superintendent Jordan and the crowd listened to several speeches, before turning around and heading back to the park.49

YOUNG PEOPLE MARCH IN PROTEST AGAINST POLICE TACTICS AFTER A “GREAT SPECKLED BIRD” SPONSORED CONCERT, ATLANTA, GEORGIA, SEPTEMBER 27, 1969. V003-690927-A08, TOM COFFIN PHOTOGRAPHS. SPECIAL COLLECTIONS AND ARCHIVES, GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY. COURTESY GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY.

WHERE DID ALL THE HIPPIES GO?

The riot and the series of confrontations that led up to it would ultimately garner national attention via an October 10 story in Time magazine, entitled “The Great Hippie Hunt,” in which it was suggested that, 50

police and state solicitor general’s agents, with the tacit approval of the city administration and Atlanta’s business community, have waged war against these so-called undesirables, treating them as the greatest threat to the city since General Sherman.

This coverage and the brief flurry of activity following the riot in Piedmont Park ultimately did little to change conditions for the better, either in the Strip or at the park. Indeed, while the Strip had drawn most of the city leaders’ attention up to that point, in the years after the riot, they would increasingly object to the presence of the hip community in Piedmont Park as well, which many Atlantans had given up using after the hip community had adopted it as its own in 1969. Moreover, due to increased police harassment and the passage of a new city loitering ordinance in 1970,51 large numbers of people who had formerly called the Strip home had moved several blocks east to Piedmont Park. Reports in local papers claimed that at least several hundred people now called the park home and in August 1971 the Bird reported: “the Strip is practically deserted and the park is being used more.”52 But the introduction of hard drugs, the growing presence of criminal elements – including violent bikers – and a serious problem regarding teenage runaways changed the nature of the community and provoked a set of responses from the new Mayor Sam Massell that would ultimately end the hips’ occupation of the park and spell the end of Atlanta’s hip community.

After a series of shootings in the summer and fall of 1971, Mayor Massell announced that a “special police detail, a mobile precinct, and a mounted patrol” would soon be on duty in Piedmont Park because, as he described it, “the park is a big place but not big enough to house punks with knives, guns, and needles.”53 These additional policeman soon began patrolling Piedmont Park aggressively and the crackdown had its intended effect – within days, hips had largely abandoned the park. New regulations which were soon adopted also made it harder to organize the kind of events that the hip community had held in Piedmont Park over the past several years, such as rock concerts, political rallies, and antiwar demonstrations.54 Denied the ability to organize events, hips still attempted to congregate informally in the park. Not surprisingly, the police worked diligently to make them unwelcome by selectively enforcing park ordinance 22-38, which made it “unlawful for any person, in any park, to, stand, walk, or ride on the grass,” and by asking for identification from members of any group of six or more hips. As the Bird put it, a “police state” now existed in the park.55

MOUNTED PATROL IN PIEDMONT PARK. BOYD LEWIS COLLECTION AT KENAN RESEARCH CENTER AT THE ATLANTA HISTORY CENTER. COURTESY ATLANTA HISTORY CENTER.

Pushed out of Piedmont Park and the Strip, the hip community saw its demise approaching quickly over the horizon. As its members relocated to other neighborhoods, left town, or moved on to new pursuits and passions, mainstream society’s adoption of many countercultural elements in the first years of the 1970s diminished the need for separate spaces where people could freely practice alternate lifestyles. Smoking marijuana, growing long hair, or just generally letting your freak flag fly no longer seemed so threatening, as witnessed by the newfound presence of “shaggy-haired young business executives in downtown Atlanta.”56  As the hippies disappeared, the developers moved in. Over the next several decades, the coffeehouses, clubs, and crash pads of the Strip were plowed under, replaced by gleaming high-rise office buildings. Piedmont Park, however, remained largely unchanged and stands today as one of the few remaining physical spaces connected to Atlanta’s hip community. This seems appropriate, given the importance of the park to the city’s hippies and political radicals. Although the riot that occurred in September 1969 is perhaps the best remembered event of Atlanta’s freak past, in truth it was one among many that briefly helped turn Piedmont Park into a park for the people.

ATLANTA MAYOR SAM MASSELL INPSECTS AT THE PROPOSED LAYOUT OF COLONY SQUARE, 1971. PHOTO BY ROBERT CONNELL. AJCP103-015A, ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION PHOTOGRAPHIC ARCHIVES. SPECIAL COLLECTIONS AND ARCHIVES, GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY. COPYRIGHT ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION. COURTESY GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY.

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Source: Atlanta Studies | Parks are for the People: The Piedmont Park Riot and the Politics of Late 1960s Atlanta

The Hippies // By Hunter S. Thompson 

The Hippies – By Hunter S. Thompson

The best year to be a hippie was 1965, but then there was not much to write about, because not much was happening in public and most of what was happening in private was illegal. The real year of the hippie was 1966, despite the lack of publicity, which in 1967 gave way to a nationwide avalanche in Look, Life, Time, Newsweek, the Atlantic, the New York Times, the Saturday Evening Post, and even the Aspen Illustrated News, which did a special issue on hippies in August of 1967 and made a record sale of all but 6 copies of a 3,500-copy press run. But 1967 was not really a good year to be a hippie. It was a good year for salesmen and exhibitionists who called themselves hippies and gave colorful interviews for the benefit of the mass media, but serious hippies, with nothing to sell, found that they had little to gain and a lot to lose by becoming public figures. Many were harassed and arrested for no other reason than their sudden identification with a so-called cult of sex and drugs. The publicity rumble, which seemed like a joke at first, turned into a menacing landslide. So quite a few people who might have been called the original hippies in 1965 had dropped out of sight by the time hippies became a national fad in 1967.

Ten years earlier the Beat Generation went the same confusing route. From 1955 to about 1959 there were thousands of young people involved in a thriving bohemian subculture that was only an echo by the time the mass media picked it up in 1960. Jack Kerouac was the novelist of the Beat Generation in the same way that Ernest Hemingway was the novelist of the Lost Generation, and Kerouac’s classic “beat” novel, On the Road, was published in 1957. Yet by the time Kerouac began appearing on television shows to explain the “thrust” of his book, the characters it was based on had already drifted off into limbo, to await their reincarnation as hippies some five years later. (The purest example of this was Neal Cassidy [Cassady], who served as a model for Dean Moriarity in On the Road and also for McMurphy in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.) Publicity follows reality, but only up to the point where a new kind of reality, created by publicity, begins to emerge. So the hippie in 1967 was put in the strange position of being an anti-culture hero at the same time as he was also becoming a hot commercial property. His banner of alienation appeared to be planted in quicksand. The very society he was trying to drop out of began idealizing him. He was famous in a hazy kind of way that was not quite infamy but still colorfully ambivalent and vaguely disturbing.

Despite the mass media publicity, hippies still suffer or perhaps not from a lack of definition. The Random House Dictionary of the English Language was a best seller in 1966, the year of its publication, but it had no definition for “hippie.” The closest it came was a definition of “hippy”: “having big hips; a hippy girl.” Its definition of “hip” was closer to contemporary usage. “Hip” is a slang word, said Random House, meaning “familiar with the latest ideas, styles, developments, etc.; informed, sophisticated, knowledgeable [?].” That question mark is a sneaky but meaningful piece of editorial comment.

Everyone seems to agree that hippies have some kind of widespread appeal, but nobody can say exactly what they stand for. Not even the hippies seem to know, although some can be very articulate when it comes to details.

“I love the whole world,” said a 23-year-old girl in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, the hippies’ world capital. “I am the divine mother, part of Buddha, part of God, part of everything.

“I live from meal to meal. I have no money, no possessions. Money is beautiful only when it’s flowing; when it piles up, it’s a hang-up. We take care of each other. There’s always something to buy beans and rice for the group, and someone always sees that I get ‘grass’ [marijuana] or ‘acid’ [LSD]. I was in a mental hospital once because I tried to conform and play the game. But now I’m free and happy.” She was then asked whether she used drugs often. “Fairly,” she replied. “When I find myself becoming confused I drop out and take a dose of acid. It’s a short cut to reality; it throws you right into it. Everyone should take it, even children. Why shouldn’t they be enlightened early, instead of waiting till they’re old? Human beings need total freedom. That’s where God is at. We need to shed hypocrisy, dishonesty, and phoniness and go back to the purity of our childhood values.”

The next question was “Do you ever pray?” “Oh yes,” she said. “I pray in the morning sun. It nourishes me with its energy so I can spread my love and beauty and nourish others. I never pray for anything; I don’t need anything. Whatever turns me on is a sacrament: LSD, sex, my bells, my colors…. That’s the holy communion, you dig?” That’s about the most definitive comment anybody’s ever going to get from a practicing hippie. Unlike beatniks, many of whom were writing poems and novels with the idea of becoming second-wave Kerouacs or Allen Ginsbergs, the hippie opinion makers have cultivated among their followers a strong distrust of the written word. Journalists are mocked, and writers are called “type freaks.” Because of this stylized ignorance, few hippies are really articulate. They prefer to communicate by dancing, or touching, or extrasensory perception (ESP). They talk, among themselves, about “love waves” and “vibrations” (“vibes”) that come from other people. That leaves a lot of room for subjective interpretation, and therein lies the key to the hippies’ widespread appeal.

This is not to say that hippies are universally loved. From coast to coast, the forces of law and order have confronted the hippies with extreme distaste. Here are some representative comments from a Denver, Colo., police lieutenant. Denver, he said, was becoming a refuge for “long-haired, vagrant, antisocial, psychopathic, dangerous drug users, who refer to themselves as a ‘hippie subculture a group which rebels against society and is bound together by the use and abuse of dangerous drugs and narcotics.” They range in age, he continued, from 13 to the early 20’s, and they pay for their minimal needs by “mooching, begging, and borrowing from each other, their friends, parents, and complete strangers…. It is not uncommon to find as many as 20 hippies living together in one small apartment, in communal fashion, with their garbage and trash piled halfway to the ceiling in some cases.”

One of his co-workers, a Denver detective, explained that hippies are easy prey for arrests, since “it is easy to search and locate their drugs and marijuana because they don’t have any furniture to speak of, except for mattresses lying on the floor. They don’t believe in any form of productivity,” he said, “and in addition to a distaste for work, money, and material wealth, hippies believe in free love, legalized use of marijuana, burning draft cards, mutual love and help, a peaceful planet, and love for love’s sake. They object to war and believe that everything and everybody except the police are beautiful.”

Many so-called hippies shout “love” as a cynical password and use it as a smokescreen to obscure their own greed, hypocrisy, or mental deformities. Many hippies sell drugs, and although the vast majority of such dealers sell only enough to cover their own living expenses, a few net upward of $20,000 a year. A kilogram (2.2 pounds) of marijuana, for instance, costs about $35 in Mexico. Once across the border it sells (as a kilo) for anywhere from $150 to $200. Broken down into 34 ounces, it sells for $15 to $25 an ounce, or $510 to $850 a kilo. The price varies from city to city, campus to campus, and coast to coast. “Grass” is generally cheaper in California than it is in the East. The profit margin becomes mind-boggling regardless of the geography when a $35 Mexican kilogram is broken down into individual “joints,” or marijuana cigarettes, which sell on urban street corners for about a dollar each. The risk naturally increases with the profit potential. It’s one thing to pay for a trip to Mexico by bringing back three kilos and selling two in a circle of friends: The only risk there is the possibility of being searched and seized at the border. But a man who gets arrested for selling hundreds of “joints” to high school students on a St. Louis street corner can expect the worst when his case comes to court.

The British historian Arnold Toynbee, at the age of 78, toured San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district and wrote his impressions for the London Observer. “The leaders of the Establishment,” he said, “will be making the mistake of their lives if they discount and ignore the revolt of the hippies and many of the hippies’ non hippie contemporaries on the grounds that these are either disgraceful wastrels or traitors, or else just silly kids who are sowing their wild oats.”

Toynbee never really endorsed the hippies; he explained his affinity in the longer focus of history. If the human race is to survive, he said, the ethical, moral, and social habits of the world must change: The emphasis must switch from nationalism to mankind. And Toynbee saw in the hippies a hopeful resurgence of the basic humanitarian values that were beginning to seem to him and other long-range thinkers like a tragically lost cause in the war-poisoned atmosphere of the 1960’s. He was not quite sure what the hippies really stood for, but since they were against the same things he was against (war, violence, and dehumanized profiteering), he was naturally on their side, and vice versa.

There is a definite continuity between the beatniks of the 1950’s and the hippies of the 1960’s. Many hippies deny this, but as an active participant in both scenes, I’m sure it’s true. I was living in Greenwich Village in New York City when the beatniks came to fame during 1957 and 1958. I moved to San Francisco in 1959 and then to the Big Sur coast for 1960 and 1961. Then after two years in South America and one in Colorado, I was back in San Francisco, living in the Haight-Ashbury district, during 1964, 1965, and 1966. None of these moves was intentional in terms of time or place; they just seemed to happen. When I moved into the Haight-Ashbury, for instance, I’d never even heard that name. But I’d just been evicted from another place on three days’ notice, and the first cheap apartment I found was on Parnassus Street, a few blocks above Haight.

At that time the bars on what is now called “the street” were predominantly Negro. Nobody had ever heard the word “hippie,” and all the live music was Charlie Parker-type jazz. Several miles away, down by the bay in the relatively posh and expensive Marina district, a new and completely unpublicized nightclub called the Matrix was featuring an equally unpublicized band called the Jefferson Airplane. At about the same time, hippie author Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1962, and Sometimes a Great Notion, 1964) was conducting experiments in light, sound, and drugs at his home at La Honda, in the wooded hills about 50 miles south of San Francisco. As the result of a network of circumstance, casual friendships, and connections in the drug underworld, Kesey’s band of Merry Pranksters was soon playing host to the Jefferson Airplane and then to the Grateful Dead, another wildly electric band that would later become known on both coasts along with the Airplane as the original heroes of the San Francisco acid-rock sound. During 1965, Kesey’s group staged several much-publicized Acid Tests, which featured music by the Grateful Dead and free Kool-Aid spiked with LSD. The same people showed up at the Matrix, the Acid Tests, and Kesey’s home in La Honda. They wore strange, colorful clothes and lived in a world of wild lights and loud music. These were the original hippies.

It was also in 1965 that I began writing a book on the Hell’s Angels, a notorious gang of motorcycle outlaws who had plagued California for years, and the same kind of weird coincidence that jelled the whole hippie phenomenon also made the Hell’s Angels part of the scene. I was having a beer with Kesey one afternoon in a San Francisco tavern when I mentioned that I was on my way out to the headquarters of the Frisco Angels to drop off a Brazilian drum record that one of them wanted to borrow. Kesey said he might as well go along, and when he met the Angels he invited them down to a weekend party in La Honda. The Angels went and thereby met a lot of people who were living in the Haight-Ashbury for the same reason I was (cheap rent for good apartments). People who lived two or three blocks from each other would never realize it until they met at some pre-hippie party. But suddenly everybody was living in the Haight-Ashbury, and this accidental unity took on a style of its own. All that it lacked was a label, and the San Francisco Chronicle quickly came up with one. These people were “hippies,” said the Chronicle, and, lo, the phenomenon was launched. The Airplane and the Grateful Dead began advertising their sparsely attended dances with psychedelic posters, which were given away at first and then sold for $1 each, until finally the poster advertisements became so popular that some of the originals were selling in the best San Francisco art galleries for more than $2,000. By this time both the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead had gold-plated record contracts, and one of the Airplane’s best numbers, “White Rabbit,” was among the best-selling singles in the nation.

By that time, too, the Haight-Ashbury had become such a noisy mecca for freaks, drug peddlers, and curiosity seekers that it was no longer a good place to live. Haight Street was so crowded that municipal buses had to be rerouted because of the traffic jams.

At the same time, the “Hashbury” was becoming a magnet for a whole generation of young dropouts, all those who had canceled their reservations on the great assembly line: the high-rolling, soul-bending competition for status and security in the ever-fattening yet ever-narrowing American economy of the late 1960’s. As the rewards of status grew richer, the competition grew stiffer. A failing grade in math on a high school report card carried far more serious implications than simply a reduced allowance: It could alter a boy’s chances of getting into college and, on the next level, of getting the “right job.” As the economy demanded higher and higher skills, it produced more and more technological dropouts. The main difference between hippies and other dropouts was that most hippies were white and voluntarily poor. Their backgrounds were largely middle class; many had gone to college for a while before opting out for the “natural life”à an easy, unpressured existence on the fringe of the money economy. Their parents, they said, were walking proof of the fallacy of the American notion that says “work and suffer now; live and relax later.”

The hippies reversed that ethic. “Enjoy life now,” they said, “and worry about the future tomorrow.” Most take the question of survival for granted, but in 1967, as their enclaves in New York and San Francisco filled up with penniless pilgrims, it became obvious that there was simply not enough food and lodging.

A partial solution emerged in the form of a group called the Diggers, sometimes referred to as the “worker-priests” of the hippie movement. The Diggers are young and aggressively pragmatic; they set up free lodging centers, free soup kitchens, and free clothing distribution centers. They comb hippie neighborhoods, soliciting donations of everything from money to stale bread and camping equipment. In the Hashbury, Diggers’ signs are posted in local stores, asking for donations of hammers, saws, shovels, shoes, and anything else that vagrant hippies might use to make themselves at least partially self-supporting. The Hashbury Diggers were able, for a while, to serve free meals, however meager, each afternoon in Golden Gate Park, but the demand soon swamped the supply. More and more hungry hippies showed up to eat, and the Diggers were forced to roam far afield to get food.

The concept of mass sharing goes along with the American Indian tribal motif that is basic to the whole hippie movement. The cult of tribalism is regarded by many as the key to survival. Poet Gary Snyder, one of the hippie gurus, or spiritual guides, sees a “back to the land” movement as the answer to the food and lodging problem. He urges hippies to move out of the cities, form tribes, purchase land, and live communally in remote areas. By early 1967 there were already a half dozen functioning hippie settlements in California, Nevada, Colorado, and upstate New York. They were primitive shack-towns, with communal kitchens, half-alive fruit and vegetable gardens, and spectacularly uncertain futures. Back in the cities the vast majority of hippies were still living from day to day. On Haight Street those without gainful employment could easily pick up a few dollars a day by panhandling. The influx of nervous voyeurs and curiosity seekers was a handy money-tree for the legion of psychedelic beggars. Regular visitors to the Hashbury found it convenient to keep a supply of quarters in their pockets so that they wouldn’t have to haggle about change. The panhandlers were usually barefoot, always young, and never apologetic. They would share what they collected anyway, so it seemed entirely reasonable that strangers should share with them. Unlike the beatniks, few hippies are given to strong drink. Booze is superfluous in the drug culture, and food is regarded as a necessity to be acquired at the least possible expense. A “family” of hippies will work for hours over an exotic stew or curry, but the idea of paying three dollars for a meal in a restaurant is out of the question.

Some hippies work, others live on money from home, and many get by with part-time jobs, loans from old friends, or occasional transactions on the drug market. In San Francisco the post office is a major source of hippie income. Jobs like sorting mail don’t require much thought or effort. The sole support of one “clan” (or “family,” or “tribe”) was a middle-aged hippie known as Admiral Love, of the Psychedelic Rangers, who had a regular job delivering special delivery letters at night. There was also a hippie-run employment agency on Haight Street; anyone needing temporary labor or some kind of specialized work could call up and order whatever suitable talents were available at the moment. Significantly, the hippies have attracted more serious criticism from their former compatriots of the New Left than they have from what would seem to be their natural antagonists on the political right. Conservative William Buckley’s National Review, for instance, says, “The hippies are trying to forget about original sin and it may go hard with them hereafter.” The National Review editors completely miss the point that serious hippies have already dismissed the concept of original sin and that the idea of a hereafter strikes them as a foolish, anachronistic joke. The concept of some vengeful God sitting in judgment on sinners is foreign to the whole hippie ethic. Its God is a gentle abstract deity not concerned with sin or forgiveness but manifesting himself in the purest instincts of “his children.”

The New Left brand of criticism has nothing to do with theology. Until 1964, in fact, the hippies were so much a part of the New Left that nobody knew the difference. “New Left,” like “hippie” and “beatnik,” was a term coined by journalists and headline writers, who need quick definitions of any subject they deal with. The term came out of the student rebellion at the University of California’s Berkeley campus in 1964 and 1965. What began as a Free Speech Movement in Berkeley soon spread to other campuses in the East and Midwest and was seen in the national press as an outburst of student activism in politics, a healthy confrontation with the status quo.

On the strength of the free speech publicity, Berkeley became the axis of the New Left. Its leaders were radical, but they were also deeply committed to the society they wanted to change. A prestigious University of California faculty committee said the activists were the vanguard of a “moral revolution among the young,” and many professors approved. Those who were worried about the radicalism of the young rebels at least agreed with the direction they were taking: civil rights, economic justice, and a new morality in politics. The anger and optimism of the New Left seemed without limits. The time had come, they said, to throw off the yoke of a politico-economic establishment that was obviously incapable of dealing with new realities.

The year of the New Left publicity was 1965. About the same time there was mention of something called the pot (marijuana) left. Its members were generally younger than the serious political types, and the press dismissed them as a frivolous gang of “druggies” and sex “kooks” who were only along for the ride.

Yet as early as the spring of 1966, political rallies in Berkeley were beginning to have overtones of music, madness, and absurdity. Dr. Timothy Leary the ex-Harvard professor whose early experiments with LSD made him, by 1966, a sort of high priest, martyr, and public relations man for the drug was replacing Mario Savio, leader of the Free Speech Movement, as the number-one underground hero. Students who were once angry activists began to lie back in their pads and smile at the world through a fog of marijuana smoke or to dress like clowns and Indians and stay “zonked” on LSD for days at a time. The hippies were more interested in dropping out of society than they were in changing it. The break came in late 1966, when Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California by almost a million-vote plurality. In that same November the GOP gained 50 seats in Congress and served a clear warning on the Johnson administration that despite all the headlines about the New Left, most of the electorate was a lot more conservative than the White House antennae had indicated. The lesson was not lost on the hippies, many of whom considered themselves at least part-time political activists. One of the most obvious casualties of the 1966 elections was the New Left’s illusion of its own leverage. The radical-hippie alliance had been counting on the voters to repudiate the “right-wing, warmonger” elements in Congress, but instead it was the “liberal” Democrats who got stomped. The hippies saw the election returns as brutal confirmation of the futility of fighting the Establishment on its own terms. There had to be a whole new scene, they said, and the only way to do it was to make the big move either figuratively or literally from Berkeley to the Haight-Ashbury, from pragmatism to mysticism, from politics to dope, from the involvement of protest to the peaceful disengagement of love, nature, and spontaneity. The mushrooming popularity of the hippie scene was a matter of desperate concern to the young political activists. They saw a whole generation of rebels drifting off to a drugged limbo, ready to accept almost anything as long as it came with enough “soma” (as Aldous Huxley named the psychic escape drug of the future in his science-fiction novel Brave New World, 1932). New Left writers and critics at first commended the hippies for their frankness and originality. But it soon became obvious that few hippies cared at all for the difference between political left and right, much less between the New Left and the Old Left. “Flower Power” (their term for the power of love), they said, was nonpolitical. And the New Left quickly responded with charges that hippies were “intellectually flabby,” that they lacked “energy” and “stability,” that they were actually “nihilists” whose concept of love was “so generalized and impersonal as to be meaningless.”

And it was all true. Most hippies are too drug oriented to feel any sense of urgency beyond the moment. Their slogan is “Now,” and that means instantly. Unlike political activists of any stripe, hippies have no coherent vision of the future which might or might not exist. The hippies are afflicted by an enervating sort of fatalism that is, in fact, deplorable. And the New Left critics are heroic, in their fashion, for railing at it. But the awful possibility exists that the hippies may be right, that the future itself is deplorable and so why not live for Now? Why not reject the whole fabric of American society, with all its obligations, and make a separate peace? The hippies believe they are asking this question for a whole generation and echoing the doubts of an older generation.

Source: The Hippies // By Hunter S. Thompson | +diStRito47+

The 1960s Counterculture in Britain and America – a talk by Kenny Wilson at Secular Hall, Leicester on October 6th 7.00 p.m.

Counterculture Wide

I am doing a talk at The Secular Hall, Humberstone Gate, Leicester on the 6th October 7.00 p.m. Hope you can make it. It should last about an hour including audio and film clips, and there will be an opportunity for questions and comments at the end. Also, in the spirit of the time, it is free.

Counterculture Talkj

Counterculture Talk Leicester October 6th at Secular Hall

The Decline of the 1960s Counterculture and the Rise of Thatcherism

In the past few weeks I have been reading widely about the 1960s Counterculture both here and in America. This interest was inspired by two things. Writing an account of My Life in Music, which included my experience of the Counterculture in Leicester, and visiting an exhibition of sculptures by Francis Upritchard at Nottingham Contemporary and seeing James Riley’s talk about the perceived end of the Counterculture into “bad craziness” in the early 1970s.

My original piece was just based on memory with no reference to any other sources but I was struck by how close my experience was to the sequence of events described by James Riley. I was also intrigued by Francis Upritchard’s description of hippies in New Zealand when she says that “all the things that hippies hoped would happen, or felt might happen, didn’t.” In one sense her exhibition is about the failure of the 1960s and 70s counter-culture that is still celebrated at festivals – and its gaudy, individualistic “alternative” aftermath.

At this point it might be worthwhile to describe what I think the Counterculture is (or was). The Counterculture appeared in the 1960s both in the UK and America and became influential throughout the Western World and also in Eastern Europe. It’s protaganists were mainly young but there were significant influences from older artists and intellectuals. It’s not really clear why or how it came about but it epitomised what became known as the Generation Gap. This could be described as the difference between people who became adults before World War 2 and those who were adults after it.

Jeff Nuttall in his seminal book Bomb Culture(1968)  thinks that alternative attitudes in the UK grew out of the shadow and fear of the H Bomb. As the Cold War developed there was a constant reminder with the proliferation of nuclear weapons that the World could end any minute. This lead to massive demonstrations in the UK organised by CND (The Aldermaston Marches). Although these were attended by many thousands of people it became clear by the early sixties that the government had no intention of disarming or stopping the arms race. This lead to disillusionment and a feeling of alienation. Many young people began to reject the growing Affluent Society and started creating their own culture much to the bewilderment of the older generation who, as Prime Minister Harold Macmillan said at the time, had “never had it so good”. A youth subculture emerged called The Beatniks by the press. They grew their hair, played trad jazz and folk music, frequented coffee bars and hitchhiked around the country, influenced by American beat writers like Jack Kerouac. In the UK this is where the Counterculture had it’s roots. Here is an unintentionally hilarious TV report about Beatniks in Cornwall in 1960:

Of note in this film is the playing and singing of Whiz Jones. You may think he is influenced by Bob Dylan but you’d be wrong. It was two years before Dylan’s first album was released, he hadn’t even arrived in New York by then. The guitar and singing style was undoubtedly learnt from American folk singer Ramblin’ Jack Elliot who was in England at the time and influenced a whole generation of British guitarists including Donovan (he was also a big influence on Bob Dylan!).

The roots of the American Counterculture are slightly different. Although there was the same fear of nuclear annihilation especially with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 when the Soviet Union based nuclear missiles in Cuba within easy reach of the USA. Another factor was the Civil Rights Movement that was working to end racial segregation in the South and also the Vietnam War especially when conscription was accelerated from 1964. Out of this milieu a counterculture was created that eventually became what are known as Hippies. This movement had a profound effect both in America and the rest of the World during the 1960s and it’s legacy has continued until now as I hope to demonstrate.

The UK and American countercultures influenced each other. Initially, the British counterculture imitated the Americans especially in the areas of poetry and the creation of Underground newspapers and magazines. As time progressed the British started influencing the Americans especially in the areas of art, fashion  and music. The Beatles became the most popular and influential group in the World and embraced many countercultural ideas like drugs, mysticism and experimentalism. Paul McCartney was closely linked to the English Underground and was a main financier of the International Times, an important countercultural paper that had a wide distribution. Pink Floyd emerged out of the British Underground with their take on psychedelic rock and, again, eventually became one of the most popular groups in the World.

The name Underground started to be increasingly used for the Counterculture although, really, this was a misnomer. The main players and self styled leaders were media savvy and natural experts in self promotion.  (This was especially true of American Yippies Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. They achieved international fame at the Chicago Conspiracy Trial where the American justice system managed to appear both brutal and ridiculous.  In a rare display of humour a member of the conventional left described their antics as Groucho Marxism!) It never really became underground until the 1970s when the mainstream media and press began to lose interest in it.

The Underground did not have a coherent political agenda. Although there was much talk of Revolution it was not clear what this really meant. This was true both in Britain and America. It definitely did not mean the same thing as what the old left referred to . The Communist states were seen as no better than the Capitalist ones and probably worse. Even Cuba, apart from the love for Che Guevara (who in the spirit of rock n roll died young and left a good looking corpse. He became the poster boy of the Revolution with his long hair and revolutionary beret!) was treated with suspicion. There was no strict ideology but general beliefs in the use of drugs (particularly marijuana and LSD), rejection of alcohol, free love, anti-war, anti-materialism, anti-consumerism, individualism, creativity, opposition to alienating work, rejection of television and advertising, caring for and living with the natural environment etc. The list could get very long and forms a general philosophy which is hard to formally categorise. The Revolution consisted of all these things. Slogans appeared that would have done justice to the best copywriters of Madison Avenue like “make love not war”, “turn on, tune in, drop out” and “do your own thing”.

So, why did the Revolution fail and where did it go wrong? Conventional wisdom would say that three events in 1969 caused a massive shift in attitudes. The infamous Charles Manson murders, The Woodstock Festival and the killing of a member of the audience by Hell’s Angels at Altamont Free Festival. The death of 60s idealism and the lost innocence of rock n roll is the theme of Don McLean’s song American Pie.

Charles Manson and his Family inverted the ideas of a hippy commune and went on a killing spree based on a psychotic interpretation of the Beatles White Album.

Woodstock is widely seen as the epitome and apotheosis of the Love Generation but can also be seen as the start of a megalithic, bloated and commercial music industry involving large scale festivals and stadium gigs. In order to attract popular acts large amounts of money were paid. Jimi Hendrix is reputed to have received $50,000, an incredible amount at the time equivalent to more than half a million now. Joan Baez virtually destroyed her credibility by accepting $10,000 even though she was using much of her own money to support radical causes. The festival made a colossal loss although that was recouped by subsequent sales of the film rights and DVD. A very interesting book about the making of this festival is Barefoot in Babylon by Robert Stephen Fitz. Rather than the music being an expression of the Counterculture a new commercial aristocracy was formed. The divorce between the music and the Counterculture was perhaps most symbolically shown when Pete Townshend of the Who knocked Abbie Hoffman off the stage with his guitar when Hoffman invaded the stage and tried to make an impromptu speech. It affected both people for years afterwards and effectively ended Hoffman’s political career. The clown prince of politics had been made to appear ridiculous and ineffective! Pete Townshend showed he wasn’t too enamoured with peace and love as this audio clip shows.

To deflect criticism of the cost of tickets on their 1969 tour of America the Rolling Stones gave a free concert at Altamont Speedway in California. This remarkably badly organised festival has become immortalised in the film Gimme Shelter (No, the Revolution wasn’t televised but it was often caught on film, which provided a good source of income from “Free” Festivals. The Stones had already done this with the Hyde Park Free Festival). The general air of chaos and violence is palpable with at least three deaths and a murder.

However, I don’t subscribe to conventional wisdom. Nor do I think that the Counterculture ended in 1969. As James Riley has said these events could just be coincidence and don’t signify anything. Personally, I think that after 1972 the Counterculture actually did go Underground. It was no longer really visible and it also became separated from the Music Industry which had become a large and profitable globalised industry. The press and media also lost interest  until it gained notoriety again in the 1980s as the Peace Convoy and the New Age Travellers. This culminated in the savagery and brutality of mainstream culture under Thatcherism at the Battle of the Beanfield. This is an Observer article about this event twenty years later:

* Tony Thompson, crime correspondent
* The Observer, Sunday 12 June 2005

It looked just like a carnival – at first. The weather was sunny and music played as the 140 vehicles set off towards Stonehenge. The 600 or so Travellers were on their way to attend the annual free festival on squatted land beside the ancient stones.

A few hours later the convoy had been ambushed by more than 1,300 police officers; dozens of Travellers were injured, all but a handful were arrested, and every one of their vehicles was destroyed.

This month marks the 20th anniversary of what has become known as the Battle of the Beanfield. Despite four months’ planning, the police operation to stop the convoy was a shambles. Faulty police intelligence suggested the Travellers were armed with chainsaws, hammers, petrol bombs and even firearms. All this information was false.

Plans to stop the convoy near the A303 collapsed when a convoy outrider spotted the roadblock and directed the travellers down a side road, where they encountered a second roadblock. After a first wave of violent assaults by the police, in which windscreens were smashed and the occupants dragged out screaming, most of the vehicles broke into a neighbouring field, derailing the police plan further.

For the next four hours there was a standoff, while Assistant Chief Constable Lionel Grundy, the officer in charge, insisted all Travellers had to be arrested.

The final assault began at 7pm, by which time all the officers had changed into riot gear. Pregnant women were clubbed with truncheons, as were those holding babies. The journalist Nick Davies, then working for The Observer, saw the violence. ‘They were like flies around rotten meat,’ he wrote, ‘and there was no question of trying to make a lawful arrest. They crawled all over, truncheons flailing, hitting anybody they could reach. It was extremely violent and very sickening.’

When some of those remaining tried to get away, driving their vehicles through the beanfield, the police threw anything they could lay their hands on – fire extinguishers, stones, shields and truncheons – at them in order to bring them to a halt. The empty vehicles were then systematically smashed to pieces and several were set on fire. Seven healthy dogs belonging to the Travellers were put down by officers from the RSPCA. In total, 537 people were arrested – the most arrests to take place on any single day since the Second World War.

All those arrested were charged with obstruction of the police and the highway, but most of the charges were dismissed in the courts. The Travellers’ unexpected saviour was the Earl of Cardigan, whose family owned the forest where the convoy had stayed the night before. Cardigan had tagged along out of interest, and his descriptions of the violence prevented what might otherwise have become a major miscarriage of justice.

Cardigan recalled that in many cases ‘the smashing up of the vehicles and the instructions to ‘Get Out! Get Out! Get Out!’ and hand over your keys were given simultaneously and therefore there was no chance to understand what was being shouted at you, and to comply before your vehicle started disintegrating around you with your windscreen broken in and your side panels beaten by truncheons and so on.’

It remains a mystery why the police felt compelled to use such violence. With evidence that radio logs of conversations between officers on the day have been altered, the full story may never be known.

‘The Battle of the Beanfield remains a black day for British justice and civil liberties,’ says Andy Worthington, whose book on the event is published this week. ‘From the anti-Traveller legislation of the 1986 Public Order Act and the 1994 Criminal Justice Act to the current hysteria surrounding Gypsy and traveller settlements, the repercussions are still being felt.‘”

The 1986 Public Order Act caused many New Age Travellers to leave England to more tolerant places like Spain and New Zealand. Interestingly, the hippies that Francis Upritchard came across may have been refugees from this time.

Margaret Thatcher was an enigma. Behind the authoritarian Iron Lady facade she wasn’t even really a Tory. She is considered to be the first of what are called conviction politicians. She appeared motivated by a mission and set of beliefs. Tony Blair and David Cameron have also used this approach and in some ways are seen as her successors. Thatcher’s beliefs had more to do with 19th Century Economic Liberalism than traditional Tory concerns. Her mission was to restore the British nation to it’s former glory and roll back the tide of National Debt, Trade Unions holding the country to ransom and encourage Free Trade and Private Enterprise. She famously hated the sixties and virtually saw that period as the main cause of the country’s woes with it’s strong Trade Unions, Nationalised industries and Social Liberal values.

Margaret Thatcher was ruthlessly effective and she chose her battles well. By defeating the Miner’s Strike and legislating against the Closed Shop she seriously reduced the power of the Trade Unions. At the same time she closed down most of the old heavy industries like steel, ship building and coal mines. By deregulating the banks, Privatising Nationalised businesses like energy and telecommunications and giving council house tenants the Right to Buy she effectively created a new capitalist society which boomed on the back of investments, services and rising house prices. It seemed to work so well that with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the end of the Cold War political economist Francis Fukuyama declared “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such…. That is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”  Mind you, considering events that happened in 2008, this was probably a bit premature!

But, I would still contend that the ideas of the 60s Counterculture permeated this period. As I have already said, Hippie ideals were resurrected with the Peace Convoy which was attracting many people to it, especially the legion of unemployed created by Thatcher’s early policies. But the ideas had also influenced the mainstream. The new bankers and brokers of the “Greed is Good” years were not the conservative bowler hatted bores of yesteryear but cocaine sniffing, champagne swilling hedonists who roared round London in new Porsches. They were into conspicuous consumption and, dare I say, a rock n roll life style. Also, the type of entrepreneurs that Thatcher was trying to encourage already existed in businesses started in the 60s. Although not British, clothing store chain The Gap, started as a “head shop” in San Francisco. Global business Time Out started when Tony Elliot took over the listings page from International Times because no one else could be bothered to do it! It became an immensely profitable business. Perhaps the most well known business with counterculture roots was Richard Branson with his Virgin brand. This started off as a mail order record company in the late 60s. All of these businesses brought a more relaxed, casual style and in the case of Branson a kind of celebrity status that would never have happened in the past. Basically, countercultural ideas had been assimilated by the mainstream.

However, the real Underground continued both in the Peace Convoy, the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp and more recently with the Occupy Movement which has become a global phenomenon. I will say more about this later!