[Note: As a baby boomer and a survivor of the 1960s, I found this to be one of the most powerful and authentic books I've ever read. Below is my heartfelt review & recommendation. - Mike G.]
"The wall on which the prophets wrote is cracking at the seams..." - from King Crimson's "Epitaph," 1969
The 1960s were a swirling maelstrom of assassinated heroes, civil rights and racial strife, and the draft turning young men too young to vote (or even needing to shave every day) into cannon fodder, compelling them to kill and die in an unpopular war for reasons still unfathomable. The walls on which our prophets wrote cracked and crumbled as we discovered our institutions victimizing us rather than serving us. An entire generation called “bullshit” on the whole thing. Finding ourselves groping along an uncharted path, we tried to figure out what was going on and how we could survive. We got high. We protested and raised hell in the streets, and at our family dinner tables. Our new, over-amplified music blasted our ideals at deafening levels, a unifying force too loud to ignore. We hit the road partying, leaving the draft, the war, and Ward Cleaver’s America in our rear-view mirror. This disaffected population demographic coalesced into a counterculture of alienated youth with long hair, weird clothes, and loud music: the hippie-freaks. It was indeed a long, strange trip. It was also a passionate trip, a trip motivated by a genuine search for justice, freedom, truth, spirit, and personal authenticity.
The stereotyped version of the 1960s promoted by the media is brittle and empty, a nothingburger. The corporate media depicts the 60s through their hollowed-out, soulless caricatures: vacuous, glazed-eye-staring, peace-sign-flashing, buffoon hippies wearing bad wigs. Madison Avenue morphed the truth of the rough-edged counterculture into a convenient fiction, sanitized drivel suitable for a TV sitcom. Ignoring the raging primal-screams in our music, they foisted the likes of The Monkees and Sonny & Cher on us. Tepid, derivative tunesmithing was concealed by exterior hippie packaging. These “Hollywood hippies” aped the real musicians, the artists who raged, innovated, took chances and and pushed the culture forward.
To this day, media depictions of 60s freaks are these two-dimensional cartoonish hippie archetypes often accompanied by misleading information.* What’s been missing (and seemingly impossible to capture) is an accurate rendering of the hippie-freak passion, earnestness and the drive for personal integrity that had its roots organically tangled in the events and failing institutions of the times. That is to say, all that has been missing until this book.
“Flashing Back” is a unique, high-definition telling of one young man’s journey through the American 60s. It takes us from coast to coast, from small towns to big cities, from the Boston Common to the Haight Ashbury. It is the singular quest of an individual. Yet, at the same time, it documents in vivid detail the forces at play in the world and in the hearts of the hundreds of thousands of young people holding common values helping shape his journey. In this sense, it is a universal “everyman’s” trek through the period.
This book should be in every public library, though I don’t envy the librarians who would decide where to locate it. While it is first and foremost a vivid autobiography, it’s also aliberally-footnoted work of cultural and political history, sociology, and philosophy, complete with rare photo-artifacts of long extinct underground publications. Eugene’s crisp descriptions illuminate the path for us as we join him on his adventures and follow him up some blind alleys. At the same time, his unobtrusive footnotes anchor these idiosyncratic personal scenes in the larger context of well-documented and academically-analyzable history.
In short, if you want to know the true nature of the 60s and the freaks who created the counterculture, then this book is required reading.
The price of admission to all this insight is tolerance. This book is a first person narrative in the first-person voice of a young man who is both raging at the prevailing culture and delighting in his discoveries. You’ll find F-bombs, raunchy street expressions, and frequently rude or graphic tales of his experiences. Tolerate these and join him on possibly the most authentic confessional and coming of age story you’ll ever read.
If your parents or grandparents are from the boomer generation, pay particular attention. You’ll find a lot of things here your elders may not have been able (or were possibly too afraid) to articulate. Understanding these things is essential to fully understanding this unique era in the history of the American 20th century.
Finally, this is a life story that is somehow, all at once, engaging, frightening, poignant, triumphant and hopeful. If you haven’t yet read it, I envy you. You’re in for a hell of a ride!
* Footnote added by the book's author re: The History Channel DVD Days of Rage and Wonder: “The Hippies is an example, not so much as their facts are bad, it’s that they have presenters who are manifestly ignorant of/hostile to their subject. It is generally slanted throughout to be socially acceptable. This is the program’s main failure. A large part of the 60s was socially unacceptable. Leave that out and you cannot possibly portray any accurate history of the time. The program about half redeems itself with its chronological history of the events and persons era.”
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