Some like to say the '60s ended at Altamont. Others believe it happened Dec. 31, 1969. In any case, you definitely knew they were really over Wednesday night as a crowd of post-counterculture brainiacs took over the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda for the most exclusive computer nerds party of the year. And there in the Nixon museum's main lobby, doing a piece of performance art, was Timothy Leary himself.
"In the '60s, we said power to the people ," Leary ranted in an affected modern-poetry monotone, accompanied by flashing graphics on a bank of TV screens around the flag-filled room. "In the '80s, '90s and 21st Century, it's power to the pupil , the dilated pupil.
"The way to program your brain is to use your eyeballs!" said Leary, his voice rising like Dennis Hopper's in "Apocalypse Now." "Flood your brain with light! It's called illumination! It's called perception! It's called vision!"
It's called totally way serious incongruity.
The Nixon Library's late-night party--dubbed "Nailed: An Evening on the Cultural Frontier"--was a private bash sponsored by Industrial Light & Magic, Lucasfilm's special-effects division, for 1,000 guests from this week's Siggraph '93 conference, which has drawn about 40,000 of the computer graphics intelligentsia into Anaheim to experience the latest in virtual reality and other visual vanguard technologies.
The party publicity promised to "bring together Hollywood, Silicon Valley and rock 'n' roll." And Wednesday's fete (by far the most sought-after ticket of the week) included performances by rock band Fishbone, showings of "Jurassic Park," scantily clad Brazilian dancers leading a conga line, fortunetellers, sword swallowers, Japanese taiko drummers, live computer-generated montages, angry poetry, rave music for dancing and, you can be sure, a good deal of irreverence.
"It's wonderful," enthused Lynn Finch, visiting head of Orlando's Siggraph chapter, clutching a set of presidential spoons in the gift shop, "because I doubt that in any time, place or context, Nixon would've appreciated any of this."
But can she be so sure Nixon wouldn't condone such, uh, multiculturalism? After all, he was the first modern president to overtly court the youth vote through pop culture--going on "Laugh-In" to rhetorically ask the nation, "Sock it to me ?"
In this heady context, it was almost easy to mistake the museum's continuously running video exhibit of Nixon's "Checkers" speech ("Pat doesn't have a mink coat") for just another one of the performance art pieces going on around the property.
Former Nixon musical faves Up With People and the Mike Curb Congregation weren't invited, alas. Instead, the band Bronx Style Bob was thrashing through a hard rock set in the lobby, the dreadlocked singer occasionally offering such platitudes as "If we could all get together, no matter what race or sex or preference or whatever, it would be so cool."
The band stage was directly adjacent to the theater showing "Jurassic Park," though few viewers seemed to object to barely being able to make out the film's soundtrack, since most had already seen the picture several times and were just jealously studying the computer graphics imagery one more time. The only audible reaction was a big laugh for a line that goes over the heads of any other audience: "Oh, UNIX! I know this," says the pre-teen girl, getting on-line late in the film--an inside joke for computer buffs, referring to technology so complex no non-rocket-scientist would be familiar with it. (Ha, ha.)
Over at the gift shop just off the lobby, this may have been the first time Nixon merchandise was ever flying out of the gift shop doors at 1 in the morning. Lynn Finch was one enthusiastic early-morning buyer, picking up a slide of the famous photo of Nixon shaking hands with Elvis Presley in the White House, which she planned to take back to Florida and do untold things with. "I can scan this ," she explained. "I got this to digitally alter it."
Would she feel safe characterizing her computerizing cohorts as a mostly Democratic crowd? "Not Democrats--these are anarchists ," Finch whispered conspiratorially.
But the guests were not necessarily so much what Spiro Agnew once called "nattering nabobs of negativity" as perhaps just nattering nabobs of narcotism--visually speaking, of course--who've traded in tripping for the ultimate trips that virtual reality promises to soon afford.
And though the venue was ostensibly chosen in part because of its proximity to the conference, few doubted that ironic juxtaposition of two forms of '60s residue was the larger reason. It is true that, if not anarchists, a lot of computer researchers and programmers are the headier survivors of the counterculture, turned from Deadheads into chipheads, their lifestyles changed but their politics unbowed.
One inventor who wrangled an extra party pass from a friend said he'd never seen so much security at a party in his life. Not that it stopped him. "I felt deeply, spiritually fulfilled by being able to smoke a joint by the reflecting pool at Richard Nixon's library," he said, adding contentedly: "It's the balancing of opposites over time."
Another unrepentant veteran anti-Republican was Todd Rundgren, the musician-producer who's long been among the vanguard of those mixing music with computer technology and who just released what's billed as the first genuinely interactive pop album. Hanging out in the private party room downstairs, he seemed gleeful about being at the Nixon Library.
"You just want to do every disgusting thing you ever did at home in here," Rundgren said, restraining himself from such infractions as the clock passed 2.
"I can't believe they laid out this big a chunk of real estate for this," he added. "But I think the rest of the world is catching up. I understand they're building an Al Capone museum in Chicago, though I don't know if it'll have the same acreage . . . "
Sock it to me ?