Dawn broke gray and silent on another dreary London day. A cold March rain hit my face and drizzled down my neck as I snuck past my landlady’s apartment and out the door and onto the street where my new Triumph motorcycle waited. I was ready for my escape. I was just nineteen years old and I was ready for adventure. It was 1964.
In the early nineteen sixties, America was the ruler of the world. Compared with the other countries involved in WWII we came out unscathed and ready to rock and roll economically and in every other way. The next generation after the war enjoyed prosperity, solid middle-class status, TVs, washing machines, cheap gasoline and big cars. My two sisters and I were born into all of that and we embraced it.
But the human spirit is always trying to break out. In the midst of all this gray-flannel normalcy and wealth, white shirts and ties, a counter culture began to develop. Jazz, the beat poets, abstract painting, were all part of a spirit breaking out of the mold insisting on its uniqueness, its independence, “total harmony and total diversity,” as Edmond Swedenborg thought of it. The “total diversity” aspect was what interested us and people like us, the “rebels without a cause.”
In 1961, led by our oldest sister, Ann, we started hanging out in Greenwich Village, in New York City, downtown Manhattan, at the Gaslight Café and the Bitter End and the Café Wha. MacDougal Street was a different world teaming with life, clatter, and bang, offbeat, imaginative and dangerous, too, since people there were not following the same rules we knew. We couldn’t get enough of it.
Mary, the next sister, started dating Tom Paxton, the folk singer. I was about sixteen when all this started so I just kept my mouth shut and absorbed it all, the wildness and adventure of it. My focus was on learning how to play the guitar. Beyond the guitar, which I struggled to learn, I absorbed the politics too. The freedom rides to the South to help with voter registration for disenfranchised blacks had begun. Civil rights turned culture upside down, first in the South and then in the North. A classmate of Ann’s was killed down there. He was Mickey Schwerner, one of the first white casualties of the movement.
The war in Vietnam started slowly without anyone’s noticing for a while. Gradually, the draft for the Army became a more serious concern. Phil Ochs sang passionately from the little stage at the Gaslight, “I Ain’t ‘a Marchin’ Any More.” The Scottish poet, Ewan McCall, wrote a song called “The Ballad of a Carpenter” that portrayed Jesus as the leader of a socialist movement. Many forces conspired to bring down the status quo which Henry Miller called the “Air-Conditioned Nightmare.”