A lot is said today about Charlie’s personality, but I think he’s at least as important as a signpost for the era in time he was a part of. An era in which none of the Pitt students enrolled in my “America in the 60s” class were alive. At some point, the professor asked how many in a class of 50 students had seen “Dr. Strangelove”. No hands went up. Earlier, she asked how many were watching “Vietnam”, the groundbreaking documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. One person.
The 60s came and went with a lot of notice at the time but quickly forgotten by Generation Z. But it’s important for little other reason that because Charlie and his girls probably could not have prospered in any other era. A world with no limits. A world of “Easy Rider” and “Groupies”, a universe of unlimited expansion of the individual and rejection of conformity.
A spontaneous pilgrimage of the faithful, Woodstock (August, ’69) symbolized 60s idealism, but it only hinted at the final demise of the decade of love. The Vietnam War continued, the subservient role of women in the counterculture continued, LSD use diminished and most of the illustrious musical groups of the age died or broke up.
The real end came almost simultaneously with Manson and Altamont, both in the fall of 1969. Manson et al “expanding” their consciousness to forge conflict in a country of “peace & Love” based on rock lyrics eventually leaving the “Family” on top. Altamont, a “free concert” where everything possible to go wrong did, including violence and death.
One of the fundamental myths that the sixties articulated was that some benefit accrued from testing the bounds of human capability and expansion of the mind. It was an era in search of the lost chord. Dissonant notes from political, spiritual, chemical, historical and media influences that come together to form a homogenous chord. The object of total freedom was to find Nirvana, but with little guidance, free-living tribes of the late 60s could just as easily evolve to their lowest denominator. “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”.
Perhaps prior lessons learned from the existential philosophers, most of whom went mad or suffered violent deaths, should have been heeded. Jim Morrison searched for his soul by bolting through the “Doors of Perception”, immersing his persona in cathartic rock music masquerading as social profundity. In the end, Jim never found the values of freedom and self-expression his performance stood for, reaching too far for answers unobtainable. Janis Joplin made love to thousands of adoring zealots at the Fillmore, then ultimately died alone and lonely.
The Manson Family remains a vision of the “dark side” of the 60s era, the line no one knew was there till they crossed it. If there is an afterlife, one might rightly think that Charley will meet the same people going down that he met coming up.
David Crippen, MD, FCCM
University of Pittsburgh (Ret)