Friday, June 16, 2006

Out of Their Gourds

I caught a few hours of the vaunted VH-1 series The Drug Years last night, and it left me with the taste of stale bongwater in my mouth.

I was put off by the documentary's self-congratulatory pro-drug message. I'm not a prude or a "social conservative" in the least, but there's something unseemly about the celebration of unchecked hedonism (whether of the dirty hippie variety or the slick Wall St. variety). The program appears to suffer from a sort of cultural amnesia brought on by the handful of burnouts and has-beens who made the narrow roster of raconteurs (one exception is the generally thoughtful commentary from Columbia professor Ann Douglas).

"Celebrities" like Ray Manzarek of the Doors (who actually uses the word "Squaresville" in earnest), actor Peter Coyote (who has apparently forgotten that he was in E.T.) and Country Joe McDonald (sans Fish) wax nostalgic about those great days of yore when everyone who was anyone was wasted and spinning around barefoot in the park and they really changed things, man!

And it's true, they did change things. They brought drug use into the mainstream. Hippie political and social utopianism was a failure, however, and the flower children of yesterday are less concerned with expanding their minds today than they are with maxing out their 401(k) contributions.

The thing I hate most about The Drug Years is that everything that happened in the 60s is seen through a haze of psychedelia and pot smoke. Sure, this is inevitable given the documentary's subject matter, but not everything that happened in the second half of the 60s can be boiled down to drugs. The show gives the impression that everyone under the age of 30 was on drugs—and better off for it. Drugs were what made events like the Monterrey Pop Festival enjoyable and drugs were responsible for all the good music that the stoned kids were grooving to.

It would be naive to say that drugs did not influence the great musicians of the era, but that's not enough to make the case. Tons of people took acid and smoked pot, but there was only one Jimi Hendrix. Drugs colored his life and style, to be sure, but they didn't create the talent (of course, in reality, they killed it). The Drug Years essentializes drug use, making it the sine qua non of the 60s experience. Druggies are hip, and anti-drug people are Jack Webb from Dragnet—the dividing line is that stark. We don't get to hear misgivings about drug use from the hipsters until, predictably, it all goes horribly wrong with Charlie Manson and Altamont. The Summer of Love, as always, is sacrosanct.

Another off-putting aspect of The Drug Years is its cultural and racial narrowness. For all intents and purposes, these are the White, Middle Class Drug Years. Apart from a fleeting reference to jazz in the 50s, black American culture is invisible. This is extremely odd considering that so much of what became "cool" (including that word itself) percolated up to the folkie/hippie set from black culture.

I'll have to reserve final judgment until I see the whole program, but from what I saw, The Drug Years is nothing more than an endorsement of drug use. They rip away the cultural and intellectual core of the 60s youth movements, leaving nothing but slogans, a pile of chemicals and pastel body paint. The only really compelling argument against drugs comes from repeatedly looking into Joe McDonald's creepy, vacant eyes.
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