Abbie Hoffman Goes Back to the Bygone ‘60s
One big issue was what to wear. An Indian bedspread, perhaps? Fringe? Bell-bottom blue jeans? Embroidered work shirt? Love beads? Eight-inch-wide psychedelic necktie? Tie-dye? Or maybe that ultimate relic of the Pleistocene 1960s, the Nehru jacket?
All week long, right up until hours before Abbie Hoffman’s “Make Love Not War Great ‘60s Ball” here Thursday night, “that was the biggest question,” Hoffman said. Balding slightly as he edges into his second half-century, Hoffman, the former Yippie leader and one of the Chicago Seven, opted for his trademark flag cape. But as he advised everyone else: “Dress is optional.”
Many of the several thousand people who crowded into the old Fillmore East--now high-tech, and renamed the Saint--seem to have studied some kind of ‘60s dress manual. Mesmerized in front of huge screens flashing film clips of Woodstock, the Vietnam War, J.F.K.'s White House and Dean Rusk’s State Department, they wore headbands (not the kind from Jane Fonda’s Workout), miniskirts, T-shirts, non-designer jeans and Give Peace a Chance buttons. Many wore tie-dyed shirts or pants, a phenomenon remarkable mainly because they had purchased these garments, not whipped them up in the bathtub. On the other hand, many of these nouveau tie-dyed creatures were barely out of diapers when their 1960s ancestors were ruining sinks with packages of neon-hued coloring agents.
Kathy Dobkin, a true survivor of the 1960s, took a long look at the crowd around her. To her friend, fringe-vested John Simon, the 51-year-old general manager of WBAI-FM here, she confided, “I guess we’re all antiques.”
“The ‘80s are robotic, mechanical,” said David Peel, a former associate of John Lennon. “The ‘80s are a stop light. The ‘70s were like a caution light. The ‘60s were a go light.”
In the ‘60s, many people vowed never to trust anyone over 30. Perhaps that is why so many of those ‘60s veterans waffle about their ages now. Peering out from behind John Lennon-style wire-rims, Peel, for instance, would say only that he is in his “late 30s.”
By contrast, real estate broker Dennis Gralla of Bergen County, N.J., was only too eager to reveal that he was 26. Why would he come to a party dedicated to a decade he barely remembers? “Because I love the whole feeling, the atmosphere, the music, what it stands for.” What it stands for, said “Club Dead” T-shirted Gralla, is “peace, togetherness and one happy family.”
Indeed, a “family reunion” was what the Rev. Jesse Jackson likened the evening to. Arriving with all the fanfare and crowd adulation of a celebrated rock star, the former presidential candidate greeted old pal Hoffman with warm embraces and a salute to the virtues of “friendship born out of struggle.” Looking back on that era, “it was a mixture of sweat and blood that made things happen,” Jackson said. Now, he said, “our challenge is to put on this generation an agenda of substance.”
Hoffman, an activist in the anti-war movement of the ‘60s, had an issue of substance he was eager to talk about.
“Hands Across America,” he said. “I’m really angry about it. I’ve been steaming, steaming, just furious.” The nationwide linking of hands, Hoffman charged, was little more than a public relations effort.
Mass demonstrations of the ‘60s, Hoffman said, were centered as much around political action as public attention.
“I want to make a point between drawing attention to an issue and raising awareness,” Hoffman said. “The difference is analysis. That is, if your idea is that poor people are a shame, but there are always going to be poor people, what’s your analysis? How did those poor people get there?
“It’s blinding,” Hoffman said, “because more teen-agers in the United States know the words to ‘We Are the World’ than know the names of countries in Africa. They think that once they learn the words to the song, poverty in Africa goes away.”
“Hands Across America as compared to a national agricultural system,” Jesse Jackson agreed, “would be like a day to give hitchhikers a ride instead of establishing a national transportation policy.”
“I don’t know,” singer Buffy Sainte-Marie said. “It made me feel good. I did an (anti-)apartheid concert, Sport Aid and Hands Across America, all in one day. I felt terrific.”
Moments earlier, a thousand or so people had been gyrating while Sainte-Marie sang in a laser-lit, planetarium-roofed dance area. Country Joe McDonald was preparing to perform, and after that, the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir played “Blowin’ in the Wind” with Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary. The Chambers Brothers had appeared, and Stokely Carmichael--now known as Kwame Ture--was in the audience. Sometime after 1:30 in the morning, Yoko Ono floated in and mingled with the crowd. Did it feel like the ‘60s? Sainte-Marie smiled.
“Better,” she said.
What inspired Hoffman to organize last week’s shindig was not Hands Across America but the availability of the former Fillmore East and the need to raise money for WBAI-FM and Hoffman’s forthcoming series, Radio Free America.
“It’s kind of a ‘Hippie Home Companion,’ ” executive producer Steve Robinson said. In planning the two-hour variety show, Robinson said one of his biggest traumas had been engaging in written correspondence with Hoffman. “I feel so dumb writing him memos, ‘Dear Abbie,’ ” Robinson said.
While labeling nostalgia “a mild form of societal depression, because the present isn’t worth facing,” Hoffman sounded downright paternal as he watched over his “anti-yuppie party” and his $15-a-ticket guests.
“They’re having a good time,” he said. “They’re a very nice crowd.”
Summarized Hoffman: “You’d be hard put to find a better time to be young than the ‘60s.”