THE SIXTIES - AN EASY RIDE?
by Carol Middleton
When I was at university in England from 1964 to 1968, I was only aware of three students who smoked dope - a group of young men in my social circle, mainly from the English department. Then, one day, there were only two. The third had thrown himself off a bridge spanning the campus to prove, said one of the remaining two, that death and life were not so different - you were free to choose death.
Although taken aback by the indifference of his friend, I couldn't help admiring the "suicide"'s ultimate act of authenticity in what he saw as a meaningless world. It was the bleak, terminal world of Waiting For Godot, the world Beckett, Pinter and Camus portrayed in the fifties. It was the Theatre of the Absurd in action.
The fatal jump had been made on an acid trip. It was an extreme act, but it took the philosophies of those years to their natural conclusion. It echoed the dark, godless, existential writings of Camus and Sartre which I had absorbed as part of my studies of French literature. We were floundering in a world where the individual had to make his own moral choices without recourse to religion, social mores or tradition.
It was 1969 before I smoked my first joint and started my own journey away from the safety of the shore into an indifferent sea.....
1969 was the year Easy Rider was made. Yesterday I watched it again, nearly thirty years on. It is the only film I can think of which captures something of those times, those conversations, those people that we were. George the lawyer, played by the young Jack Nicholson, is new to the drug scene and able to articulate the philosophy of freedom that motivates the drop-outs and sets society against them. The old hands, Wyatt and Billy (Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper) are often stuck for words, caught as they are in the search for truth in a meaningless world. These conversations remind me of our own, where we were often unable to find words for new experiences and unwilling to categorise them in terms of the old. Also, we were afraid of being uncool, at a time when "cool" characters, who seemed to have some superior insight, were the leaders, and where a tyranny of cool speech, cool dress and patterns of morality began to rise out of the chaos.
My own self-expression was inhibited by the new social bylaws that took the moral high ground and banned any conventional attachment to family or authority. Like Christ's disciples, we had a higher calling than the biological family, we had a new family of brothers and sisters. The highest authority was the self, although many resorted to gurus of one type or another for guidance. The nearest I came to having a guru was living briefly at the commune-style Scottish home of a poet/playwright, Neil Oram, an eloquent free thinker who exposed all our lingering middle-class attachments in sudden bursts of spontaneous poetry. He was uncompromising in his dismissal of family values, and women who fell into the earth mother role and looked on the place as a home for their growing families were encouraged to leave.
The Pill came under scrutiny. The Pill had been a new source of freedom in the sixties. I had started taking it at university, when I married a fellow student. Now it was suspect, not part of an authentic life. That was hard. If you lived in the city and were a "weekend hippie" as they were called, taking drugs at weekends for recreation or as a more effective way than church to uplift your spirit on Sundays, the Pill was just another compromise. But if you had left the city, like the hitchhiker in Easy Rider, to live close to Nature, with Nature and little else as your guide, it was a cop-out.
It sounds pretentious and humourless, and I suppose it was. It was the moral sobriety that went hand in hand with moral freedom. Looking now at that solemn row of faces of people in the commune in Easy Rider, I am reminded of so many friends...
The sixties are often thought of as a heady time of freedom - of free thought, free love and an explosion of musical ideas. The soundtrack of Easy Rider is a catalogue of that music: Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan in particular. They were both uncompromising in their chosen field of music. I went to one of the first concerts where Dylan brought his electric band on stage, playing through the jeers and hisses of a large part of the acoustic-loving audience. Dylan was one of the most influential figures of our time, a David fighting the Goliath of the corporate world, a sad and lonely figure throughout his life's quest. Hendrix was one of the many bright stars in our firmament that burnt themselves out.
As the film comes to an end and all three easy-riding heroes are dead, the Dylan song which plays over the closing credits fades out, but all the filmgoers of 1969 knew the next line:
It's all right ma, I'm only dying.
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