Published 8 May 2021, last modified 10 May 2021
I’ve long been familiar with The 5th Dimension’s 1969 hit single “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In”, but until recently I didn’t really know anything about where the music originally came from. The song is a medley of the opening and closing music from the 1968 Broadway production of Hair.
I’d heard of Hair, but only really knew that it was a musical about hippies. I didn’t realize it premiered as early as 1968. I guess I’m used to Broadway being late to react to social change and assumed any Broadway musical about the counterculture would be a sort of pale and not-quite-authentic retrospective, like Rent was for the LGBTQ community of New York’s Alphabet city in the 1990s. But Hair appears to have been something else entirely, a sort of primary source document expressing a movement that was ongoing at the time of its production and provided its own partisans to participate in the cast.
Hair, then, is a valuable historical document. The pop culture memory of this hippie counterculture is largely aesthetic and shallow, focusing on its apparel and lifestyles over its aims and praxis. The musical makes explicit the why of the counterculture it expresses, explaining, for example, what drew many young activists to shared experimentation with LSD:
my mind is as clear as country air
I feel my flesh
all colors mesh
walking in space we find the the purpose of peace
the beauty of life you can no longer hide
our eyes are open
In his book From Counterculture to Cyberculture, historian Fred Turner argues that the hippies of the counterculture that’s developed in the 1960s United States, though contemporaneously named and now remembered as a more-or-less monolithic movement, really constituted two largely separate movements. One of these was the New Left, which concerned itself with political action against the war and in support of civil rights , reviziitaj justice, and other broadly socialist concerns. According to Turner, it was the other movement, which he calls the New Communalists, whose ideology became the pro-corporate, techno-utopian ethos of the rise of personal computing and the Internet. The New Communalists are distinguished by their self-avowedly apolitical ethos and “back to the land” rural communes inspired by settler-colonial “cowboy” and “pioneer” narratives and a “noble savage” stereotype of indigenous people. These communes tended to have an overwhelmingly white, middle-to-upper-class membership, regressive gender norms, and an interest in blending their chosen agrarian lifestyle with new technology.
If we apply Turner’s counterculture dichotomy to Hair, its subjects fall pretty clearly into the New Left, evidenced by the urban setting of their commune, its racially integrated membership, the challenges it poses to traditional gender relations, its vocal distrust of “electronic data processing”, and its picketing of an Army induction center. Even the musical itself is a sort of failed act of antiwar praxis; co-producer Michael Butler confessed that his involvement had nothing to do with theater per se and everything to do with staging regional productions that would express the antiwar political stance he had adopted. In this way the musical came to be produced simultaneously in cities across the US and even internationally; future disco legend Donna Summer launched her music career with a 1968 German-language production of the musical in Munich. For all its digressions, the main arc of the story in Hair is an explicit and sincere antiwar statement, based both in solidarity and in the self-interest of young Americans subject to conscription by the Army:
ripped open by metal explosions
caught in barbed wire fireball
bullet shock bayonet electricity
shrapnel throbbing meat
electronic data processing
black uniforms bare feet carbines
mail order rifles shoot the muscles
Of course, America’s war in Vietnam didn’t end in response to the seismic cultural movement that arose to oppose it; instead it dragged on until a thorough military defeat by the People’s Army of Vietnam forced the Nixon administration to pursue a retreat under the guise of “Vietnamization” in 1975.
The 5th Dimension’s recording made me think of “Let the Sunshine In” as an upbeat coda to “Aquarius”, the wildly optimistic astrological prophecy heralding a new age of world peace. But in the Broadway production, the entire plot of the musical occurs between these two compositions, and “Let the Sunshine In” represents a much more complicated kind of hope. In the context of the musical, this latter number follows the dire narrative conclusion that occurs in “The Flesh Failures”. Claude, the show’s central character, has succumbed to conscription and ultimately died in the war, prompting a reflection on the profound emptiness and violence of American society:
we starve-look at one another short of breath
walking proudly in our winter coats
wearing smells from laboratories
facing a dying nation
of moving paper fantasy
listening for the new-told lies
with supreme visions of lonely tunes
Then “Let the Sunshine In” comes in almost unexpectedly, representing a hope held not because of but rather in spite of preceding events, more New Orleans jazz funeral than music festival in its energy.
It reminds me of something war correspondent Chris Hedges said in 2018 about why he rejects the perspective on “hope” offered by the contemporary positive-psychology movement. (This is slightly abridged from Hedges’s appearance on the Open Source podcast.)
Coming out of a religious tradition… is to have a tragic view of human nature and human society. And in fact that’s the best protection. It’s not happy thoughts. It’s not positive thinking. That in fact sets you up for despair. And I mean, for twenty years… what was the primary aspect of our job? It was true in El Salvador, it was true in Bosnia. The Serbs would go into a village, they would kill a bunch of people, and then they would close the roads to try and keep the journalists out. And we would have to put our satellite phone in our backpacks and walk in, often many miles, to report on this slaughter. And we knew that we were going to wake up tomorrow and they were doing it somewhere else.… Maybe it was pyrrhic, but that ability to document those crimes and recognize the destruction of those lives was enough. We didn’t think that we were going to stop it.… It becomes in the act of resistance that you find freedom.
So finally I get it. Sunshine isn’t good vibes. Sunshine is accountability, transparency, justice, the best disinfectant.
I was listening to the radio when the jury in the murder trial of Derek Chauvin announced their verdict. Guilty on all counts. I breathed a momentary sigh of relief. It wasn’t the feeling that anything had really come to an end with that verdict, just the feeling that for once there had been an official acknowledgement of the truth. It’s not something that has often happened in these cases.
It doesn’t feel like anything has really changed. During the last days of the trial, police in a suburb of the very same city fatally shot Diane Wright, an unarmed black man, during what was supposed to be a routine traffic stop.
What it feels like is that more people than ever feel the need to rethink police in this country. But are we approaching critical mass? What does it take to end the war in Vietnam?
I cut my hair recently, for the first time in well over a year. Tied a tight ponytail at the back, cut it off with scissors, and has my partner even out the edges a bit. I had come to like my long hair, but the baby was constantly pulling it out and getting it wound tightly around the extremities.
I would say that the long hair is a sort of convenient signifier, when I’m in public, that I might not be a straight man. I might say that about the various pink things I wear, or nail polish, or my lilac-colored shoulder bag, but it’s actually surprisingly difficult to be interpreted as anything other than a straight man. People who don’t know me very well assume I have one partner, that my partner is a woman (which neither of my partners are), that if I’m wearing nail polish it’s because my child made me do it, that if I’m wearing pink headphones it’s surely a mistake or something I was forced to borrow…
I was very emotionally invested in LGBTQ rights as a young adult, very invested in understanding myself as a queer person, but I’ve found that in certain circumstances, if you don’t look just the way people expect LGBTQ people to look, and if you find yourself living out in the suburbs, where rent is cheap, away from any kind of nexus where LGBTQ people gather, and particularly if you have the good fortune to become a parent, it’s hard not to kind of disappear into the background. It’s not categorically bad. It’s not all good, either. But it seems almost inevitable. And it’s not that I changed so much; it’s just that I stopped being seen in the same way.
One thing that strikes me about Hair is that it’s anything but single-minded. As much as antiwar action is its major driving theme, it happily wanders down so many other thematic avenues. There’s the confrontationally humorous expressions of a nascent Black Power movement, a sermon on the importance of encouraging more colorful and unrestricted dress and personal appearance in men, a litany of the air pollutants plaguing New York, and of course an ode to long hair, in any style and regardless of gender.
I see this broad range of subject matter as a great strength in Hair, not a weakness. For me, one of the greatest imperatives of left politics and is to allow everyone to live life fully, to allow everyone to be a whole person, with deeply held convictions, superficial joys, petty grievances, and ill-considered love affairs. And, indeed, that’s something war can take from us.
Tags: personal art music U.S. politics politics
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