Hair seems to attract a lot of antipathy stemming from the universal and intense hate of Hippies starting in the mid-to-late ’70s (and rightly so, you foul dreamers!), but goddamn if it’s not the greatest rock musical — nay, musical — ever. It is no mere long-haired, groovy celebration of the ’60s counterculture — it is both festival AND real-time criticism! Joan Didion getting a monologue in the middle of Sgt. Peppers. How can people be so cruel? How can they care about the bleeding hearts but not those who need a friend? Where do I go? Should my 5 year-old really be taking LSD? (Yes, says this page of Tolkien, you Beautiful Person!)

There’s the black song, the gay song, the female song, the homeless song, the Vietnam song, the Patriotism song, the dirty words song, the Krishna song, Black boys, White boys, Frank Mills, the Bed… an old fashion melody. Fuck all the White people of 1948. We see Green-Orange, Purple-Pink! Walking in space, oh my god your Skin is soft, I love your face. How dare they try to end this beauty! (Kids, collect call from the future… Yes? They ended it. Bummer, man.) Tell me about it. In the process of sobering up and watching your dreams all crash like that Nazi blimp, you also totally destroyed the efficacy and hope of Liberalism for two or three generations.

Hair and Head — the long hours, days, weeks, years, decades of unfair dismissal end now! Long live 1968. If we’re going to slouch (which we are), let’s at least do it towards Bethlehem and not fucking Orlando. BANG!

W. David MARX (Marxy)
December 12, 2004

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

12 Responses

  1. Momus Says:

    What really interests me about ‘Hair’ is that it’s a great encapsulation of the hippy movement, and yet not really a subcultural product at all. It’s basically an old-fashioned Broadway musical which satirizes hippiedom in an affectionate way. I love the fact that a parody can actually encapsulate (or ‘time capsulate’) something better, in the long run, than the real thing. In a similar way, I think Japanese ‘copies’ of bossa nova etc can be ‘even better than the real thing’. You need to be some distance from things to understand them, perhaps.

  2. marxy Says:

    From what I’ve read about the writers of Hair, they were kind of East Village hippie types who developed the whole thing in a kind of weekly drama group. I think they were certainly people in the counterculture, not typical Broadway writers, but like a lot of the more creative types in the late 60s, they saw the writing on the wall: namely that a lot of the kids becoming hippies were kind of reality-avoiding, drop-out teenagers always looking for a drug handout. They wrote the musical in real-time, but I think its success came later when put onto Broadway and “hippies” had all been commercialized to turn on surburban kids.

    I do think some of it “parodies” the Hippies, but some of the songs really seem to speak as Hippies. I don’t think you could have satirized the entire 60s counterculture that accurately without having at least one foot in the water. Again, they didn’t have the perspective to look back and reflect – they wrote what they knew.

    Also, it’s important to remember that the songs themselves were really rock songs with some musical-esque flourishes, not the other way around. So many of the tracks were covered and charted as singles for other acts like The Fifth Dimension. I think Free Design did “Where do I go?” and I’ve heard a hipster club-jazz version of “Be-In.”

  3. Momus Says:

    I find it terribly un-hippy. Songs like ‘Sodomy’ or ‘My Conviction’ or ‘Frank Mills’ are the opposite of the melt-down druggy celebrations of hippiedom. Whether we’re talking about Hendrix or The Band or even The Incredible String Band, the ‘tribal’ culture of hippiedom (and Hair was billed ‘the American tribal rock opera’) had zero self-irony or self-detachment. It was too tripped out to be cerebral, too holistic to split itself and regard itself with droll irony.

    The songs I mention are more like Tom Lehrer songs, or perhaps Lou Reed’s more showtune numbers (‘New York Conversation’, ‘After Hours’). They sound like the kind of observations an arch, slightly older, but kinda hip college professor would make of his hippy students. Sympathetic to ‘the revolution’ but too smart really to get down and dirty with it, to get truly tribal, to take all the drugs and lose that sardonic detachment which allows you to say stuff like ‘Longer hair and other flamboyant affectations of appearance are nothing more than the male’s emergence from his drab camouflage into the gaudy plumage which is the birthright of his sex’. Come on, what hippy did you ever hear who spoke like that? What hippy played silly games with the names of arty European film directors (‘pretends he’s Fellini and Antonioni and also his countryman Roman Polanski…’). In fact, with all the name-dropping and the archness, Hair reminds you of nothing so much as that guy, whatshisname, oh yeah, Momus.

  4. marxy Says:

    These are all good points, Momus, but I think we tend to look back on the “Hippy/Hippie Movement” as the braindead tribalism it became. I think the Summer of Love began when the elitist rocker/hipster segement started to drop acid and start their own scenes – both in London and San Francisco. Then all the street kids moved in, and it became the mess that we all remember it as. Mike Brake in his book The Sociology of Youth Cultures and Youth Subcultures sees the Hippies of the late 60s as a four-tier structure: (from top to bottom)

    1) The Elite (“Aristopopcracy”)
    2) The Alternative Bourgeoisie (those with specialist or technical knowledge)
    3) Lower Middle-class Dropouts
    4) Lumpen Hippies (the beggars, runaways)

    I think once the Beatles actually went to Haight-Ashbury and saw that those two lower groups made up the bulk of the movment, they all abandoned psych post-haste.

    The other thing to mention is that 1968 radicalized a lot of educated middle-class kids, and certainly the East Village was a mix of “tune out” and “fight the power.” I can imagine a certain set of artsy bohemian kids with their heads on their shoulders taking on the Hippies as a subject for a musical – simultaneously crticizing their weaker points and offering sympathy. The guys who wrote (and performed) Hair were certainly smart counterculture types, and back then, I don’t think the 70s hedonistic tribalism represented the entire movement. Jimi Hendrix was just one of a bunch of psych musicians, but when Classic Rock started in the 70s, he and Janis Joplin and Cream etc. were lionized anew.

  5. marxy Says:

    By the way, this site has a lot of historical info:

    The two songwriters James Rado and Gerome Ragni were out-of-work actors in their mid-30s when they wrote Hair, so it seems to me that they were indeed not hippies themselves but were interested in the culture. I still think it’s too far to call the whole thing a “parody” – more of a thinking-man’s celebration of the Hippies as a phenomenon and political struggle with full acknowlegment of the lumpen’s lamer sides.

  6. Graham Says:

    I had a fun experience with Hair in high school. Some might remember a few years ago Peter Jennings on ABC let loose this ridiculous series of minidocumentaries called “In Search of America.” (Never mind that he’s Canadian.) Apparently one of his producers decided Hair would be a good way to illustrate the generational changes over the years, and they set out looking for a high school producing the show. The people who publish the thing keep track of all the current productions and it just so happened that my high school was doing the only production of any high school in the country, so Boulder, Colorado, a notable hippie town (and beat headquarters probably moreso before that) became the setting for one hour of the series.

    I guess my feeling was that Hair seemed, 30 years later, to embody the way that Boulder’s hippies-gone-yuppies and their children want to remember the sixties. There was this scene in the documentary (here I go dating myself… something usually worried about by don’t-trust-anyone-over-30 types who turned 30 decades ago) that watched the children of the ex-hippies, who were putting on their parents’ fantasy of their passed, sat in a field in my neighborhood discussing this and that and rehearsing their antiwar-themed material. But that was Sept. 11, 2001, when Boulder’s children of hippies saw their worldview shift in the midst of the production.

    From there the attitude of political-correctness (blind leading the blind, but patriotically) made the production, and Jennings’ hour, a lot more “dramatic.” That and when one of the leads fell into the pit in the second dress rehearsal and left on a backboard, only to return the next day complaining only of shoulder pain.

    In the end, Hair seems to me to be a silly essentializing of the narrative the rank and file of U.S. sixties weekend-freaks would like to think their movement was about. It sure doesn’t communicate any nuance or realism, but isn’t the musical format more suited to sweeping essentialism than refined dramatic representations of complex issues?

  7. Chris_B Says:

    I remember seeing Hair performed on stage in NYC as a wee lad. My only memory of it is of being surprised at seeing so many adults nude at the same time.

    I’m just kind of glad that the 80s suburban “hardcore punk” scene never had a hit musical/movie made about it. Its bad enough just remembering it without seeing it from a 3rd person perspective.

  8. Momus Says:

    Might have been nice to see that done with full-frontal nudity for Broadway, though. ‘Hardcore’, yes, punk, well, maybe…

  9. Sean the Sean Says:

    The hardcore musical is just waiting to be written. The story of a teenager torn apart in the scene, does he move towards straightedge, uk82 peacock punk, skate punk, rudeboy, traditional skinhead, bonehead, art school type, krishna core, peace punk, new waver, rockabilly, goth or does he devote his time to “serious anarchism”? So many songs! So many outfits! So many hairstyles!

  10. Chris_B Says:

    Sean the Sean: funny! Now I gotta dig up my copy of Repo Man and watch it again.

  11. marxy Says:

    I think the reason Hair is still tolerable comes from the fact it is not just about a small subculture – the Hippies – but uses the Hippies to tell the story of the entire countercultural rebellion in the 60s. The musical takes on Civil Rights, Environmentalism, Gay Rights, generational dischord, Censorship, Drugs (“Y-O-U, Whyyyyy?”), the CIA and FBI, Vietnam, underground film, Eastern religion, Biker gangs, and the legacy of slavery (“Shit, I’m not dying for no white man.”) As Momus pointed out, the best parts are those that a Hippy would never have thought of. I can’t imagine that the groovy dealers on Haight-Ashbury had any kind of Pres. Lincon-fetish that shows up on Hair.

    Hardcore Punkrock never seemed to speak for an entire youth generation, nor does there seem to be a huge social upheaval associated with its origin. What would the Hardcore Punk equivalent of “Come on and stroke me, Stokely” be?

  12. Chris_B Says:

    My answer would be “nothing”. Besides the DKs and the whole Rock Against Reagan thing, we were largely apolitical and made no claims to speak for anyone else of our generation. We saw that the filthy hippies tried and failed. Why should we be any different? Why even try? Maybe things were different elsewhere, all I can speak of is the Texas 80s punk scene.

    I think Hair lasts because its a good show with good tunes, much for the same reason that Jesus Christ Superstar does, or even pretty much any Gilbert & Sullivan for that matter.