PRINT Summer 1994


the Summer of '69

“THERE WAS A MELANCHOLY to the end of a century,” Norman Mailer sighed in his paean to the space race, Of a Fire on the Moon. “The French, who were the first to specify a state for every emotion, would speak of the fin de siècle. It was the only name to give his own mood, for Aquarius [as Mailer was calling himself] was in a depression which would not lift for the rest of the summer, a curious depression full of fevers, forebodings, and a general sense that the century was done—it had ended in the summer of 1969.” Yes, with a portrait of Aquarius on the cover of Life magazine.

For those going through the changes that made the ’60s so heady, the decade might well have felt like a century. At any rate, the first summer of Richard Nixon’s presidency—this is that summer’s 25th anniversary—was to be the acme of a particular kozmic consciousness. It was predictable, perhaps, that a million pilgrims would gather along with Aquarius on July 16 in Cocoa Beach, Florida, to witness the launch of Apollo XI, the manned moon rocket that had been promised to the American people by John F. Kennedy back in 1961, a lifetime before. Less so was the other event that defined the summer of ’69, the 350,000 hippies who, exactly one month later, materialized as if by magic in a muddy field in upstate New York for “Three Days of Peace and Music—An Aquarian Exposition”: Woodstock.

On the basis of the moon landing, the editorialists at the New York Times thought that the “last two weeks of July 1969” might be “the most revolutionary and significant fortnight of the entire twentieth century.” Covering the Apollo launch for Life magazine, Mailer referred to the moon landing as “the climax of the greatest week since Christ was born.” For others, Woodstock was even more amazing. In 1989, in a front-page article on Woodstock’s 20th anniversary, the Times would cite a legend that Christ had been born again at Woodstock. (Pace Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, that would place the Second Coming somewhere in the neighborhood of 2001.) Indeed, Mailer’s moon report in the August 29 Life was somewhat upstaged by a ten-page color spread on “The Big Woodstock Rock Trip,” and Abbie Hoffman saw his Woodstock Nation book as a counterreport to Of a Fire on the Moon: “Mailer is off writing his book on the space program for $1,000,000 for Life magazine, while I try to sort out the most remarkable event in our history. . . . Functional anarchy, primitive tribalism, gathering of the tribes. Right on! What did it all mean? Sheet, what can I say brother, it blew my mind out. It blew it in the way I guess Mailer’s mind is now getting blown out in Houston, Texas, while he tries to rationalize the meaning of man walking around on the moon.” Meanwhile Mailer, in the aftermath of Woodstock, made his own mystical connection: “Sometimes [Aquarius] even thought that pot and hash and LSD had opened the way to the moon, for they might have voided the spiritual belts of real protection. Perhaps as the runaway slave came back to the master who kept the beetle on a string, so the drugged odysseys of inner space might have altered the zones of the outer.”

“ALL THE WORLD IN THE MOON’S GRIP,” reported the New York Times on July 21, the day after Neil Armstrong took his fateful, televised step for mankind. But that was scarcely the lone manifestation of “lunacy.” Even as Apollo headed skyward, Teddy Kennedy destroyed himself as a potential president by launching his car off the bridge at Chappaquiddick. With Nixon in the White House, the antiwar movement had grown so alienated it openly identified with the Vietcong, and the land resounded with calls for revolution. The struggle for People’s Park that had preoccupied Berkeley in the spring had marked the first state-sanctioned use of guns against white demonstrators. Now it was the summer of Easy Rider, The Wild Bunch, and the Beatles’ untitled “white album”—a message from counterculture command center as eagerly awaited as any transmission from the moon.

It is the time-frame one imagines for Apocalypse Now!. Truly the Kali Yuga seemed at hand, and, as with the last fin de siècle, there was a revival of occultism. Kenneth Anger completed his film Invocation of My Demon Brother. In Hollywood, actress Sharon Tate and five friends were ritually butchered over the weekend before Woodstock. Along with its moon-landing and Woodstock coverage, the August 29 Life also ran a feature on the return of Tate’s husband, Roman Polanski, to the scene of the crime—the living room of the killings evoked “the dark side of the moon.” In The White Album, 1979, Joan Didion would write that “many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true. The tension broke that day. The paranoia was fulfilled.”

For arch-rationalist Ayn Rand, the summer of 1969 provided the perfect counterpoint of Apollo and Dionysus as explicated by Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy: lofty Apollo the god who makes a religion of the state, embodying social order and national greatness; Dionysus producing ecstasy, orgiastic disorders, and fluid boundaries. (In Uncovering the Sixties, 1985, Abe Peck writes that “covering Woodstock meant submerging in its human ocean.”) For Rand, the moon launch was the triumph of intellect, Woodstock the nadir of primitive instinct. “It is man’s irrational emotions that bring him down to the mud,” she wrote, “it is man’s reason that lifts him to the stars.” (That the moon rocket was named Apollo was for her “a helpful coincidence.”) Yet Nietzsche had asserted that “whenever a group has been deeply touched by Dionysiac emotions, the release from the bonds of individuation results in indifference, or even hostility, towards political instinct.” This was hardly the case of the counterculture. Even in 1969, some held Woodstock to be somewhat less Dionysian than its propagandists proclaimed: with the god’s followers running amok, the Greek Dionysian mysteries had climaxed in madness, murder, and mutilation. It wasn’t the Woodstock crowd but the Mansonoids who, like the ancient maenads, were drenched in blood. “This must be the world famous orgy house,” was Polanski’s remark upon returning home, per Life—as if the real orgy weren’t in Vietnam.

Moonrock and Woodstock, both redolent of innocence, megalomania, and the conquest of a new world, were both epic media events. (“I took a trip to our future,” Hoffman wrote.) If the Aquarian Exposition was created to be filmed, the moon launch was seen in the counterculture as the ultimate in imperial smoke and mirrors. Pop iconographer Peter Max attempted to cash in on the event with a series of Day-Glo commemorative posters, but Peter Collier’s Ramparts column was a more typical expression of dissident cynicism: “The whole expedition could just as easily have been acted out on the back lot of Universal Studios. . . . One could not forget that he was watching television, and that without the medium there would be no message.”

This conception reached its epitome an eternity later with the 1978 thriller Capricorn One, which embellished the idea of the moon launch as made-for-TV spectacle with additional, post-Watergate notions of conspiracy and cover-up. The presence of Elliot Gould and Karen Black as kooky antiestablishment reporters only underscored the premise. By that time, though, such druggy paranoia was totally played out—superseded the year before by the arrival of a new pop-culture dialectic.

In 1977, the counterculture had been successfully neutered and “mass-ified” by a couple of exhippies. As Georges Lucas’ Star Wars rationalized Dionysian mysticism with Apollonian technology, so Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind used love zaps from the sky to transform members of the middle-American silent majority into hippie dropouts. It was Woodstock all over again, only this time on the moon.

J. Hoberman writes on film for The Village Voice, New York, and contributes this column regularly to Artforum. His most recent book is Vulgar Modernism (Temple University Press, 1993).